I heard a talk about “Being a Christian in Academia” recently and wanted to make a response. I had a list of points at which I would have said something different from what the speaker said, and there were probably enough for a 30-min talk.
But as I reflected, there seemed to be just one point that really mattered. One thing could set the general direction for everything else, and perhaps that was all I needed to say. That point was, “What’s the point?” I mean: why be a Christian in academia? And why have universities at all, from a Christian point of view?
Universities might just be one type of organisation in which I can find a job, and get paid for what I enjoy doing… so I can work hard and have disposable income to support good causes. Or universities might be more than this: as educational centres, they help prepare young people for life in the modern world – so I can try and get a lecturer’s job to invest in this. They’re also research centres, where science is done, technology created, culture shaped, as academics, students and staff from around the world encounter each other’s ideas and spark off each other.
This is getting closer to what actually inspires me about academia – but it lacks that key point of direction. What does Jesus think of the university? Is it for him, or against him, or is he probably indifferent?
In the Bible I find a creation story that anticipates cultivation, civilization and development. Genesis 1 entasks the first people with filling and subduing the earth; Genesis 2 puts the man in the Garden to tend and keep it and sets the woman to help in the same work (with a river running suggestively into the unknown). Genesis 3 sends the man away, more somberly, “to till the ground from which he was taken”. But ask what God’s purpose for humans is, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s something about looking after the created order.
Much more comes into view as we go through the Bible, with Israel called as a light to the nations, to proclaim God’s holy name and righteousness. In the Psalms and wisdom literature we’re exhorted to care for the earth and our neighbour in the face of evil powers that now wreak havoc. And does Jesus anul this commission? Surely not, when he stands as Israel’s Messiah and is proclaimed as the one by whom all things are reconciled to God (I love the christology of Colossians!) while “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8).
So I see the university in this perspective. If we’re called to serve Christ in academia, it means seeking the Spirit’s power and wisdom to work in developing the creation and combatting the evil that confounds it. Insofar as that vision guides our research, teaching, etc, I hope we will find our work to bear eternal fruit when Jesus returns to claim his kingdom.