The Emerging Scholars Network has partnered with the American Scientific Affiliation to host Early Career Tracks at the ASA Annual Meeting going back more than five years. We are grateful for this reflection piece from George Varghese from one of the panel discussions led by Hannah Eagleson.
I attended the Saturday session of the American Scientific Affiliation on July 30th at a serene setting in Point Loma Nazarene overlooking the ocean. While Josh Swamidass gave an inspiring plenary talk and many other sessions were informative and stimulating, I was most struck by a small panel discussion organized by Hannah Eagleson with two professors and two PhD students.
When I walked into the room a little late, a very remarkable PhD student from Michigan State, Veronica Frans, was speaking. She said that she had learned to bring God into her research and to pray about her first paper submissions and for funding. While I have learned to do this from my wife who prays for everything (including her grocery shopping!), I was impressed by how early in her research career Veronica had learned such a good habit. But she said something next which leads to the theme of this musing. Veronica said that she was wondering how to balance ambition to do great things in research with her Christian walk. She mentioned two antidotes: trust in her Heavenly Father (who wanted her in the academy), and humility.
A few minutes later, one of the faculty members, Dave Vosburg, a Chemistry Professor from Harvey Mudd, echoed her diagnosis when he said that there is a strong temptation for university faculty in the US to be overly focused on self-promotion. It is certainly true many times where I work at UCLA, with faculty members being upset if there is no publicity about an award or best paper they have won, however small. Dave also suggested Christian community – either on campus or not – as a helpful antidote for this and other temptations.
In the providence of God, the next day in my morning Bible reading, I turned to John 7: 1-19. This is where Jesus goes to the Feast of Tabernacles after initially disagreeing with his brothers who urge him to go. I will focus on three verses in the NIV: v.4 where his brothers urge him to go, v.18 where Jesus replies to the Jews who wonder about his learning, and v.15 where we see the result of Jesus’s attitude.
Let’s start then with v4, where the brothers urge Jesus to go to the Feast because “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” The brothers seem to encapsulate the goal of self-promotion: if you are good (which the brothers didn’t quite believe), strut your stuff. Give talks, make sure there are stories about you on the College website, make your website snazzy to get hits, do a blog, watch your citation count grow, cultivate influencers in your scholarly coterie, ad nauseam . . . .
Jesus’s answer which we will do well to heed is “Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.” I have been pondering the antidote to self-promotion which Jesus says is God-promotion, seeking God’s glory in contrast to personal glory.
I cringe when I recall some of my attempts at self-promotion (which failed). I wince when I remember how the lack of credit for some research idea still bothers me. Stop whining about neglect and fawning for favors, put that all aside, I think Jesus is saying, and seek God’s glory. An odd implication that never struck me before in a passage I have read many times, is that self-promotion leads to falsehood and God promotion leads to us being people of truth. Why? Perhaps because self-promotion is really a lie that attempts to cover up our desperate bankruptcy and gives no acknowledgement of God’s tremendous grace that took us where we are. Telling the truth about ourselves will lead as Veronica said to humility but also to promoting God and diminishing ourselves.
This certainly does not mean that one does not keep one’s website current or not apply for awards. But it does mean that we don’t take these too seriously compared to the real rewards of Eternity.
But for the serious scholar there are perhaps other rewards on earth as well. Even the Jews who were skeptical about Joseph’s son wondered in v. 16 “how this man got such learning without having been taught”. One translation has a section title called “the scholar from Heaven.” I once met a Christian who said that Christians could never win a Nobel Prize because he felt that Nobel Prize winners had to cheat and self-promote to do so. I disagree. While it’s out of my league, I think Christians can and have done so. The same God who revealed to Daniel mysteries not known to man, could reveal to another scholar from heaven (especially if the person glorifies and promotes God as Daniel did) the mysteries of the Riemann hypothesis or (supposedly) junk DNA.
Back to the panel. The other professor (Matthew Morris, Professor of Biology at Ambrose University) also stressed the need to have boundaries so that academic life and its ambitions still leave space for family and God.
Finally, there was a recent Ph.D in regenerative medicine from Stanford. Esmond Lee, who spoke quietly about the love of God and the assurance that God loves us, that was affirmed even to Jesus during his baptism when God said “This is my son who I love”, even before Jesus started his ministry, did any miracles, or achieved a following. Surely the love of God can cure some of the restless aspiration that leads to self-promotion and the bitterness of being ignored. I marveled again at the godly wisdom of Veronica and Esmond, and rejoiced that the future of academic Christians was bright with young scholars like these two.
About the author:
George Varghese holds the Jonathan B. Postel Chair in Networking in the Computer Science department at UCLA. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2022, to the Internet Hall of Fame in 2021, and to the National Academy of Engineering in 2017. George enjoys being part of faculty ministry at UCLA where he has helped organize some Veritas Forum webinars (e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWAcBlg2hR8 on academic success), but his journey started with IVCF where he came to a saving faith through the ministry of IV's Katie Rawson.