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Special Calling: Christians in the Academy

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14b, ESV)

Esther was a Jewish young woman living in exile under the rule of King Ahasuerus. His expansive empire reached from India to Ethiopia. On account of her extraordinary beauty, and socio-geographic disposition (both matters of divine providence), Esther was chosen to be his queen. When Haman, the king’s right-hand man, cunningly devised a plot to exterminate the Israelites from the empire, Esther was put in a pretty pickle. In order to save her life, and that of her countrymen, she had to risk execution by approaching Ahasuerus without an invitation. Of course, it was not until her guardian, Mordecai, explained the situation that she summoned the courage to accept the perceived risk (I suspect she was really protected by the hand of God the entire time.)

I submit that, like Esther, Christian faculty and students at public universities are specially gifted and placed to do the work of God in ways that other believers are not. A few clarifications of this thesis may help to minimize possible objections and misunderstandings.

First, at this point in U. S. history, the lives of Christians are not at stake in the way Esther’s was. But this observation is irrelevant to the thesis claim. It is foolish to think that God’s only purpose in special calling is to save our mortal bodies when we find ourselves in life threatening circumstances.

Second, Christians at Virginia Tech (VT) should not be laboring to turn it into a Christian school. There are good reasons for a public educational institution in a liberal democratic society to aspire to remain nonsectarian. Living in this tension is supposed to be normal for us. We are instructed to reside in the world – but not to dwell in it.

Third, I am not attempting to demean or marginalize the evangelism and discipleship focus of many wonderful campus ministries. Saving souls and basic biblical discipleship are responsibilities given to all believers – some individuals being especially gifted for this work. The issue at hand is simply a different aspect of our kingdom agency – a different facet of the gospel that makes all things new - namely what it means to be a Christian academically.

Fourth, given that we are members of the body of Christ, we should not expect the special calling of each faculty member and student to be precisely the same. Everyone is uniquely gifted. We are studying different aspects of God’s creation. Moreover, our social and institutional roles vary. Faculty have forms of agency within the campus community that students do not, and vice versa.

Finally, when acting biblically, we will always be doing so in harmonious relation to others. While our individual calling, gifting and roles vary, it is essential to participate in Christian-academic-community if one wishes to optimally understand and execute one’s work within the academy.

Let me tease out this last point by way of example. If you are a scientist, you rely on a community of scientists to validate knowledge claims within your field. If you want to advance science, you do so by first accepting the social boundary conditions of the scientific community. You agree not to falsify the results of your experiments, claim conclusions that outreach your data, or publish work done by others. Within this framework, you then try to demonstrate that some truths held by the community need expansion or revision. The same sort of principles (are supposed to) hold true in all academic disciplines as well as professions like law, medicine, engineering, and architecture. It is the self-policing attribute of such communities that allows them to garner the public trust required to practice. Experts, who are members of such communities, are generally presumed to be credible.

If that observation holds true, do you really think you can be the engineer, scientist, artist, or architect God wants you to be without spending time with other Christians engaged in parallel pursuits? How could you identify the pertinent questions? Who would help you formulate and validate appropriate responses? To whom would you be accountable? Is it merely coincidence that Mordecai is there with Esther, that he has the words of wisdom she needs in the moment, or, that she can approach and influence the king in ways that he cannot?

Over much of the course of my career I’ve been involved in groups that encourage VT faculty and graduate students (professors 2.0) to understand their reason(s) for being on campus in terms that resonant with their Christian faith. To survey the cultural situation in which we live and work, we read Jamie Smith’s book How (Not) to be Secular. To understand how our faith in Christ grounds and shapes the educational enterprise we’ve studied works like Mark Noll’s, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. We’ve explored Nicholas Wolterstorff’s arguments that shalom (peace with God and true human fulfillment) should be our central purposes in teaching. John Sommerville taught us why the secular university is ill-equipped to handle questions about our humanity while George Marsden encouraged us that our faith can make contributions to the pursuit of new knowledge. And, James Davidson Hunter, an expert in cultural studies has helped us to understand the role of faithful presence, as modeled by Esther and other biblical figures, in productively engaging our volatile sociocultural context. But, most importantly, we’ve hung out together, prayed, and had countless face-to-face and media-based discussions of these issues.

Succinctly put, it takes time and effort to reconstitute our understanding of the relationship between Christian faith and sound scholastic practices. Bible study lays an indispensable foundation. Combined with prayer, it enables us to hear and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But, fostering Christian leaders in society (which - in the academy - students are aspiring to become and faculty are supposed to be) requires the formation of communities of such practitioners.

When Christian historian Mark Noll says, “the scandal of the Evangelical mind is that there isn’t one” he is not just being snarky. Based on extensive study, he is observing that Christians have had little that is unique to say about any of the disciplines or professions for nearly a century. George Marsden also tells us that, for differing reasons, both conservative and liberal Protestant Christians abandoned the academy about a century ago. It should come as no surprise that, as we have lived our deeply compartmentalized lives, secularism came to hold center stage in the realm of education. Religious ideas have been largely removed from the classroom and relegated to student centers where – even now – their place of belonging is being challenged. We need to recognize the lack of appropriate Christian-academic-communities of practice lies at the core of the issue. If we insist on a place at the educational table, which we should, we need to have something to contribute to the conversation. Being ‘churchier’ won’t feed the bulldog.

I started writing this with the intention of provoking students to think about their special callings within the academy. I’ll stop here to let them ponder this line of argument for a bit and take up the subject in my next post.


After sleeping on it, it occurred to me that at a school like VT many might be inclined to question my argument for Christian-academic-communities. Do I really mean to say that such communities could teach scientists or engineers something about their fields of study that their respective disciplinary communities could not? After all, aren't physics physics regardless of the worldview of the investigator. My answer is, "in a certain sense yes and in another no." All scientists do study the same world, but all scientists do no use the same lens in doing so. Consider the fact that conservative Christians are, themselves, divided on how science and theology interface. And so we have Christian scholastic sub-communities including Biologos, Reasons to Believe, The Discovery Institute, and the Institute for Creation Research. There is room for someone else to write an entirely new book/blog on Christianity and the Philosophy of Science addressing this topic. It won't be me. For a more thourough introduction to my line of argument, I would simply refer you to Chapter Six "Come and See": A Christological Invitation for Science from Mark Noll's book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

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