This is Part 5 in a five-part essay series.
This essay series has considered what it means to live with faithful Christian presence in the midst of deep pluralism. I pointed out that faithful presence does not lend itself to simplistic solutions, but rather involves a “precarious dance” of learning to hold in tension seemingly contradictory postures. I then examined three such tensions: affirmation and antithesis, engagement and distinctness, and humility and hope.
In this final essay, we turn our attention to the context of higher education. Christian graduate students and faculty face the challenges of deep pluralism in a particularly acute way, as they seek to undertake scholarship from a faithful Christian position in the midst of a system that multiplies perspectives and viewpoints. Even for those who receive their training or go on to teach and conduct research at faith-based institutions, the project of scholarship still draws them into conversation with the ‘multiversity’ through involvement in an academic discipline, a professional society, peer review, and so on. So all Christian scholars, regardless of what institution they call home, must find a way to navigate the pluralistic university with both presence and faithfulness.
The dance steps of faithful presence will necessarily vary, as different career stages, social positionings, and personal spiritual journeys call forth different emphases and actions. For this reason, what follows is not a list of prescriptions but rather a handful of word pictures, examples of my own attempts at living in the tensions.
Of the three tensions, I have found affirmation and antithesis to be most obviously relevant to my research and writing. In fact, I was able to make use of this tension the first time I presented the idea of affirmation and antithesis at a major conference in my field. At that conference, each paper presentation is followed by a formal response from another scholar in the field. At first I felt unsure about how to reply to my paper’s response, but I realized I could affirm what the response had added to my paper, while offering an alternative interpretation where the response had not quite gotten my original point. In this instance, living in this tension was not too different from sound advice that anyone might give to an early career scholar; the concept of affirmation and antithesis merely helped me articulate that advice to myself.
The social and political context of the modern university also calls for Christian academics to assume a posture of affirmation and antithesis. In this regard, Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed is particularly helpful. Although McLaughlin does not focus on higher education specifically, she examines claims and slogans, such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Love is Love,” that undergird many initiatives and causes championed by secular universities. Urging us neither to hammer the secular creed’s signs into our yards nor to hammer them flat, McLaughlin sets out to “disentangle ideas Christians can and must affirm from ideas Christians cannot and must not embrace.” For Christian faculty and graduate students wondering how to respond to diversity and inclusion training, expectations regarding preferred pronouns, controversies regarding speaker events, and more, this little book offers a wonderful first step toward considering how to situate all these matters within faithful Christianity.
I most often find myself living out the tension between engagement and distinctness across different moments of time. From week to week and month to month, days spent directly engaging with my academic colleagues in classes and at conferences alternate with days spent stepping away from my scholarly work to join my Christian brothers and sisters in worship, service, and fellowship. Within each workday, I give a portion of my time to Bible reading and private prayer, and another portion to academic reading and writing. Especially for graduate students and pre-tenure faculty, time can often feel like an all-too-scarce commodity. But that is all the more reason to attend carefully to the choices we make with our time and to intentionally foster rhythms that will cultivate in us the postures of both engagement and distinctness. If all our time is spent either in separate Christian activities (alone or with others) or in engaging our academic field, something is amiss. While I have no desire to prescribe exactly how much of a day, week, or year to devote to each, I do believe that every Christian academic should prioritize weekly, gathered worship with the whole body of Christ (including children, grandparents, stay-at-home moms, and many other non-academics).
Finally, the tension between humility and hope informs all my scholarly activities: in teaching, in research and writing, in networking, I know that God alone can redeem and bring fruit from my feeble and fallen efforts to serve Him. More surprisingly, this tension also directly relates to the content of my scholarship. As a scholar in the interdisciplinary humanities and humanistic social sciences, I am constantly confronted with competing pictures of what it means to be human. Seventeenth-century Christian apologist Blaise Pascal called attention to the intertwined grandeur and wretchedness of human beings. Some of my colleagues tend to emphasize the heights of human capabilities, while others emphasize the depths of human cruelty and oppression. I often find myself pushing back at both sides: as Pascal wrote, “If he exalts himself, I humble him. If he humbles himself, I exalt him. And will go on contradicting him until he comes to understand that he is a monstrous being who passes all comprehension.” My desire is to exhibit in myself a unity of humility and hope that piques my colleagues’ curiosity and draws them to want to know what enables me to live in this tension.
 James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), xiii.
 Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims (Austin, TX: The Gospel Coalition, 2021), 2.
 James M. Houston (ed.), From the Works of Blaise Pascal: Mind on Fire: A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent (Minneapolis, MN: 1997), 88-89.
About the author:
Emily G. Wenneborg is Director of Pascal Study Center and Assistant Professor at Urbana Theological Seminary. She has a PhD. in Philosophy of Education and Religious Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Emily is interested in the possibilities and tensions of formation for Christian faithfulness in the midst of deep pluralism.
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