In the previous post, I identified the frustration faculty have with university structures even as they serve within such structures, how the InterVarsity Statement of Faith calls its campus ministers to engage with university structures, and the sundry collection of structures easily observed with in the Bible. I concluded by observing that “some structures we already participate within but we have yet to discover how God would incorporate our faithful presence and work in the academy into the new creation.” In other words, serving in the university can hardly promise guaranteed outcomes. The question of what kinds of outcomes should we aim toward is a question of mission, even as we live by faith and not because we can specify in advance what the outcomes will become. Christians found among university faculty have an abundance of biblical and theological resources with which to participate in fulfilling their service responsibilities. What might describe a faithful response by Christian faculty to university structures? Such faithfulness will engage with our identity in ways that received commendation by Scripture.
Trust in God Is More Than Proclamation
In conversations with Christian faculty, they describe their efforts in evangelization, especially with peers and among graduate students. Their message is orthodox. I celebrate these efforts and commend such declarations as practices that other professors can take up. These descriptions, however, gesture toward a Christian identity that only evangelizes. Surely receiving the grace of God is more than verbal proclamation. Of course, we want others to experience the joy and comfort from God through the forgiveness of sin through Jesus, along with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What we read in the New Testament regarding identity involves both the announcement of the Gospel and agency that meets the social world to alleviate suffering, confront injustice, as well as engagement that aims to develop creation according to the good and just intent of God, i.e., the mission of God. Too much is at stake here if the only service of faculty is evangelizing their peers and students.
I would draw attention to an observation Lesslie Newbigin made regarding faithfulness in the Pauline letters, and I develop his thought below:
What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many expectations to faithfulness but no expectations to be active in mission [i.e., cross-cultural witness and service]. 1
So, while evangelization remains a crucial element to the formation of any and all Christian faculty, such practices hardly bound the kind of engagement faculty have with university structures.
Responding to the call of Jesus to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God produces many changes of identity. One of those changes involves servanthood. What I would call out, for the sake of our topic, is that few Christian faculty act out of their identity as servants within their service component of their contract in ways that go beyond their shared responsibility with their unbelieving colleagues. “Going beyond” involves serving in the university that welcomes spiritual refreshment coming from salvation in Christ. “Going beyond” looks and listens for opportunities within the respective university structures to affirm, refresh, and create policies and programs that promote justice and human flourishing. In other words: “Going beyond” perceives one’s lifestyle as one who serves in the name of Jesus — in the context of the university as a faculty member — who participates in the mission of God.
While a longer discussion of the mission of God remains to be developed elsewhere, I would assert here that God aims to hear and renew all of the created order through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ: this assertion, obviously, needs to develop how the agency of Christians serves in such a mission. For faculty, the call from Jesus to servanthood as a way of life extends directly into all aspects of being and becoming a faculty member: a researcher, a teacher, and in service to the university.
Let’s pause for a moment here. In this discussion of servanthood, we need to receive the Holy Spirit. (Jn. 20:22) One might expect that, apart from the Spirit of love and power, servanthood would hardly differ from an activism severed from a vital connection with Jesus. Servants become developed from a connection with the Holy Spirit and a praxis of care for those on the margins of their social location. (Acts 1:8; 2:4; Lk. 10) Such development contributes to exercising our faith in God and to deepening our life in God but does not guarantee specific outcomes.
One professor informed me of deciding to decline an invitation to an elite committee involved in campus restructuring. This invitation was made with an announced conviction of trust that the persons in the committee would create new policies. The work of the committee would satisfy external regulatory boards and other credentialing associations which needed the presence of such an administrative group. Such a group, however, had existed before: And the administration managed to circumvent and ignore policies for collaboration with faculty. For this faculty member, the whole invitation reeked of the hard work of policy development that the administration had no intention of engaging and practicing. Having observed this behavior before, the faculty member perceived such labors to have zero influence and maximal discomfort.
This characterization is the hardest part of engagement. Far too many faculty reading this post know of a quiet, passive resistance to change that would produce justice and freedom within higher education. One can hardly decry decisions to avoid working with people perceived as bad actors: And, if called out, would those with power act on behalf of faculty or to preserve their powers? The kind of inflicted pain and disillusionment, even in milder forms, has contributed to faculty disengaging with university structures.
Examples of Engagement
The fiction of risk-free faith
An assistant professor on the cusp of submitting his tenure dossier explained why he wasn’t involved with any Christian students or Christian fellowship on campus. He was told by well-intentioned Christians he should just lay low with going public about his faith until he received tenure; announcing he was a Christian in the life sciences would harm his promotion. “After I receive tenure, I can start witnessing and serving.”
It may be the case that more is hidden in that declaration than disclosed. He might be the sole breadwinner of his household and may need to have health insurance or provide for childcare. He may have graduate students relying upon his funding sources and mentoring. And, yet, this tenure-track professor was convinced he needed to keep his faith under wraps. This stands in contrast to the practices of the early church:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens… They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life… As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.” (Letter to Diognetus, ca.130)
It should be declared now: There’s no risk-free faith. This faculty member failed to observe that he was already giving witness to the Gospel: a gospel that was full of fear. In contrast, Jesus appeared to his disciples (John 20:19–23), showing his healed wounds and breathing his Spirit into them: They were sent into the world, into God’s mission, aware that suffering would accompany them, unable to control the outcomes of their lifestyle, their service, and their proclamation. God’s power would accompany the announcement of the Good News.
I have some examples of faculty who have created and engaged the structures of the university, and while these professors are modest, I can promote their agency here. One senior faculty member approached the department chair — asking for money! — to create an annual event at the end of the spring term. Senior students would give a public presentation of their research. Once approved, the whole department was invited. It’s a huge event with food and drink every spring. Having hosted this event for several years, invariably a colleague approaches the senior professor and says, “I love this event. It reminds me of why I got into our discipline in the first place.” This kind of celebration of knowledge production among undergraduates created a salutary and refreshing influence throughout the department.
Another faculty member served as the chair of a search committee for an African American literature professor. He needed to do homework on his colleague who had just retired. He learned how the policies and practices of the department had both helped and hindered the former colleague. He learned all the good, the bad, and the ugly of the retired professor, and how incredibly hard life and work was in the same department that they were in for years together. So, serving on the search committee became more than delegating dossiers and other tasks within the committee. He found himself having hard conversations with the department chair and the dean, collaborating to clear administrative barriers for the new hire. That initiative, outside of the search description for the chair, led to a fruitful hire and produced changed policies.
Lest I write this only citing how senior faculty have exercised influence inside their university structures, I need to reference a small tenure-track cohort of more than ten years ago at a Midwest university. None of these professors were in the same department, but the campus was small enough that they could find each other. After about a year, one of the assistant professors declared that he could not keep his faith down as he awaited his promotion for tenure when there may be a perceived safety risk. He needed to publish how he understood the Christian faith engaged his discipline as well as the campus itself: now. He asked how his cohort was feeling about this, and one of the women present expressed a desire to think it over and to pray and to talk about his proposal again. A few weeks later, she announced to the group that she, too, would be making her faith known to her students and colleagues, inviting their prayers. She realized that, for her, awaiting her tenure promotion was tantamount to placing her faith in the university instead of the risen Lord. Soon, all of the small cohort was taking on similar public projects. Unsurprisingly, they all received tenure in the time to be expected at their university. They were all known for their generous participation within their departments and understood as respectful listeners to others of different faith traditions, even as they published their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Saving the University?” Or Life as One Saved Inside the University?
Anyone reading this might ask the question: “Are you proposing that we serve to save the university structures’?” Given what I’ve written so far, it’s not an outlandish nor a distracting question. Furthermore, I’m aware that some reading this post might conclude I’m hosting a mild case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. (I might still.) I harbor no Pollyanna ambitions. Nor do I presuppose that such a career-long involvement would become generative of reproducing a specific sense of morality or a return to halcyon days of university life. I refuse any notion of what outcomes should materialize, save that the overall goal might produce human flourishing: an important element of God’s mission. 2 With those qualifications in mind, let me take up a few possible objections here to clarify my intention about Christian faculty serving within university structures.
First, this post is about mission, not soteriology. Put another way: Yes, God sent his one and only Son into the world to save the world. (Jn. 3:17) And, if we’re reading “save” as “getting people into heaven after they die,” we might misunderstand the Fourth Gospel or the rest of the New Testament. In saving women and men across history through the crucified and risen Jesus, God’s great reign aimed to work through them in love and with power to heal and renew creation.
Such ways of living as saved people understands God’s call to eternal life to act in the present as God’s agents of mission. These agents of God’s mission anticipate a future of God that joins the new heaven and new earth in celebration and in work to promote flourishing for all. Given the global importance of the university, Christian faculty have a credible, long-term occasion to participate in mission with Christ in a limited and selective manner. This occasion will require both spiritual disciplines and attentive labor regarding how (and to what end) university structures operate in the institution.3
I realize that no one generates and develops their intellectual powers and labor and, having obtained tenure, wakes up one day and says, “I should become an administrator of a university structure.”4 But finding the kinds of service that contribute to God’s shalom, justice, and human flourishing is surely a matter of prayer and of risk-taking, and long term commitment. Clarity in how the tenure policies/processes work? Developing sustainable practices that contribute to the flourishing of contingent faculty? There are so many possibilities for credible, fruitful service by faculty.
Second, Christian faculty serving in an intentional manner for university reform and renewal is one of many possible biblically-sourced responses. As suggested in one of my examples above, one can land on a variety of readings from the Bible and conclude: “Just make the faith about verbal proclamation. It’s a solid description of our beliefs.” It’s worth observing that none of us within the university should delegate the responsibility of proclamation to our colleagues in the religious studies department or presume that surrounding congregations and campus ministries have evangelism covered. Social and cultural diversity can work against a credible comprehensive dissemination of the Gospel.
This is why people “go,” and the faithful who are “there” both have the graceful occasion by which to faithfully live in ways that announce the Good News. It is important to recall that all structures are populated with persons who also need to hear the Good News. While a dedicated ministry of evangelism is needed, so are committed faculty who serve as agents of God’s mission throughout one’s career to heal and renew university structures. Such agency aims to serve God, the campus, and the world.
Finally, my proposal joins our spiritual disciplines with our ever-developing person within the academy: this is a long-term engagement with the academy, not a one-off event. The kind of person that God dwells within will go about knowing they are beloved by God and know themselves as a child of God (1 Jn. 3:1–3). Consequently, there is an important need to cultivate our lives centered upon Jesus. As Trevor Hudson observed, it’s far too easy for our lives to “get bogged down in dull familiarity, empty routines, and tired clichés.”5 Seeking God is not only welcomed by God, but an enduring invitation. (Jer. 29:13–14; Mt. 6:33) Experiences of seeking not only contribute to our identity as servants within the university, but empower us for bold, compassionate declaration of the Gospel.
Such is the life of faith developed and centered on Jesus: You and I may never know how our presence and labors within our respective campuses may produce the kinds of shalom, justice, and gospel that the Lord desires and takes pleasure in. But we can trust that the same power and love that was exerted in raising Jesus from the dead will be at work in us, conforming us into Christ-like women and men.
So, we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” for our departments, colleges, and universities. We live into those prayers confident that the risen Jesus accompanies us in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We have this great and fearful occasion and opportunity to serve our campus through the university structures. We serve, then, aiming that the fruit of our prayers and labors will produce a more just campus structure, one that contributes to the flourishing of the university, the world, and to God’s mission. We may suffer. There are no promised outcomes that ensure our safety or that our name and effort will receive citation. We are promised that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
- Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Geneva [SZ]: W.B. Eerdmans ; WCC Publications: 119.
- The question on the mission of God (missio Dei) deserves better discussion and engagement with higher education. See the following for a lucid explanation of the missio Dei: Flett, John G. 2014. “A Theology of Missio Dei.” Theology in Scotland 21 (1): 69–78.
- “One lesson of the past would seem to be that Christian and other religiously based higher education is better off when it recognizes, as is easy to do in our postsecular age, that it is a minority enterprise in a richly diverse society. As such, it will not be able to impose its will on others, but, rather, its challenge will be to make itself so attractive in its practices and outlooks that, despite its inevitable imperfection, others will admire it and want to emulate some of its qualities.” Marsden, George M. 2021. The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular. Oxford, UNITED STATES: Oxford University Press, Incorporated: 389. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/fuller/detail.action?docID=6551633.
- Dettmar, Kevin. 2022. “Advice | Administration Can Be a Calling.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 30, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/article/administration-can-be-a-calling.
- Hudson, Trevor. 2022. Seeking God: Finding Another Kind of Life with St.Ignatius and Dallas Willard. S.l.: NavPress Pub Group: .
About the author:
Mike Karim (PhD, Fuller) serves as Senior Campus Staff Member among faculty at the Claremont Colleges and the Inland Empire. Mike has served in various kinds of InterVarsity chapters and he has planted chapters in California and in Texas across 27 years. He is also an inveterate Peets drinker.