Dear Mentor: In academia, how open are you about your faith?

Dear Mentor,

Do you, and how do you, speak openly about your faith within academia? What constraints do you run up against? It seems that even for Christians who are passionate about integration of faith and learning, there still remain areas which are “off-limits” for one or the other. How do you deal with these areas, and do you have advice for those of us who struggle (as I do) with attempting to live un-compartmentalized lives?

From Kelly Aukema

As a postdoc, I have the privilege of working very closely with a handful of students which provides a unique opportunity for me to get to know the students very well. In the context of a close relationship, I find it is only natural to talk about the areas of their lives outside of school or lab that are important to them such as family and plans after they finish school. I care about them as people and don’t simply view them as data generators. I try to be as open and honest about my life as possible.

It doesn’t take long before my co-workers realize that I have a regular Sunday morning or weekday evening commitment that involves Christianity. In general I try to take my cues from my co-workers. There have been a few students who have been extremely open to talking about matters of religion and faith, and of course, there are others that are reserved. It is not my personality to force conversation about any topic.

In my “talking” with students, I try to do a lot of listening. I am finding that most students in northern British Columbia have had some experience with Christianity, and for that reason, I want to hear what their experiences have been to see what they know or believe. The students often strike up conversations with each other, too, and when they do, I especially listen for comments like the one I heard yesterday, “I’m headed home for Christmas and my dad was surprised that I want to go to Mass.” If it would be natural for me to join the conversation, then I do.

My advice (for myself too) is to pray for and then keep eyes and ears open for opportunities to talk to co-workers. For me, the answer to this question ties back into our conversation about hospitality. Make space for other people, and the opportunities to share Christ will be there.

From Dorothy Boorse

This one is close to my heart. I am very blessed, because I teach in a Christian school. In the classroom, I can speak my mind, and I am able to meet with others of like mind and have more freedom than I would in a secular environment.

Nonetheless, when I am in my discipline, for example at national conferences, I feel very constrained. For one thing, I am aware that I am not a particularly productive scientist. This is in part because I spend a huge amount of my time explaining my discipline to non–scientists — particularly in the faith community, encouraging underprivileged kids to pursue science, and doing other outreach activities. I feel I am called to be where I am and to do the bulk of the activities I am doing. But sometimes I worry I will be dismissed by others who think, “Well, that’s lovely for you, but look, I’d be more impressed if you actually got more science done.”

Or, sometimes, I have been well received by non-Christians, who have essentially thanked me for pulling my problematic fellow believers into the twenty-first century. That is, they are glad to have me on the team but not really because of my science and they aren’t really interested in hearing about my faith.

I am currently writing part of a textbook for a regular college classroom. I am completely constrained in my ability to say anything about faith there, which is probably appropriate.

But these are the things I feel are really important in this discussion:

First, people in your discipline need to know that there are people of faith in the group. It may make them change their rhetoric. And it may help other (closeted) people of faith.

Second, people in the rest of the world — particularly Christians — need to know there are people of faith in your discipline. I was recently at a gathering of Christians in which I had already laid out why I, as a scientist, believe that global climate change is real. I was told by several people in the group that they considered this controversial and their reasons were that the “vast majority of scientists have a godless world view” and thus cannot be trusted and that “scientists have told us many other things and been wrong.”

I am still in the process of that discussion but the perception that scientists are godless (in spite of the fact that these people know several who are Christians) is definitely harming my Christian friends’ abilities to understand science or get accurate scientific information.

I suspect this would be true of lawyers, business people, and others. That is, whole groups of people who may be speaking the truth, at least about some things, may not be heard because the field is perceived by Christians as “godless.” Christians can be the liaison between their disciplines and the Christian community.

Of course, as an academic you are likely to end up in the secular world, where you are trying to express your belief within a discipline where people may feel it is irrelevant. My best advice is to have a strong Christian group to go to for support and discussion. There may be a group in your professional area, such as Christian medical students. We have a Christians in Ecology group, and you may find others.

Above all, I am struck by the fact that being open about belief is always a matter of relationship. I know numbers of people very open about their faith who are well received. I remember one negative example, though, when I was in grad school, of a lab tech giving another grad student a tape of praise songs. The recipient was very resentful because she felt that they did not have the level of relationship to support this. She felt that the Christian was just trying to check off having witnessed in some way and did not really care about her in particular.

My best advice is definitely to have a support group and a mentor, and to ask their advice when specific situations arise but to be willing to engage with people about important things including your faith when you have the relationships to support it.

From Sylvia Chen

Though not presently in academia, I would encourage any Christian professors, in whatever way they can, to continually challenge themselves to take career risks in an effort to live less divided lives and encourage their students. At my secular law school, professors were clearly in-the-closet when it came to Christianity though there was at least one for-sure and one suspected Christian among them.

One Christian professor spoke to our Christian Law Students’ group and explained the factors for his being a subtle Christian at work (tenure, mostly). We challenged him a bit but he had already considered most of what we mentioned. He tried to explain that we, as law students, had no idea how the administration worked (referring to tenure and politics/religion/gender).

The professor also explained how he delicately expressed his Christianity in a hostile environment. He told us how he thought long and hard about inserting a biblical reference (“cloud of witnesses”) into a commencement speech. (I heard the speech and did note the biblical reference at the time and wondered if he was a Christian or just a well-read professor.) He said that he worked hard and well because he knew he was working for the Lord and not the university.

This quietly Christian man was a very good professor and well-liked by students. Living in a state of continual conflict between Christianity and career was clearly a difficult issue for him and we had a lot of respect for him. Yet, we were all disappointed he was not more open.

From Kelly Monroe Kullberg

Great questions. I have a few thoughts:

1. Use appropriate context. I’ve found it easy to speak of Christ by first discovering the original contexts for various universities, the roots beneath the surface if you will, and catalyzing fun and hospitable conversations, concerts, tours, events, out of that context. In the case of Harvard (“For Christ’s Glory” 1642, and later “Christo et Ecclessiae” and “Veritas, Christo et Ecclessiae”) it didn’t take much imagination, but only a little hutzpah to “explore true life” in relation to Jesus Christ in the “Harvard Veritas Forum.” (The Veritas Forums are annual or bi-annual events hosted by believers becoming, if only for a few days, a symphonic and united witnessing community.) At a state school like Ohio State University we sometimes contextualize conversations in terms of Ohio’s “With God All Things are Possible” motto.

Many professors have found a voice and podium within this context — and have found the absolute appropriateness of raising and exploring the hardest questions of the world in light of the One for whom many schools and states were envisioned and founded.

2. Recognize real pluralism (not the same as relativism). Jesus belongs in the middle of a pluralistic culture, addressing our questions, slogans (“whatever” isn’t good enough since some things lead to death), and enormous challenges. Why should students know of Derrida, Marx, Freud, and not Jesus? To be educated, shouldn’t they also know of Augustine, Aquinas, and Lewis?

3. Be part of the Body. Do things as small or large groups of believers so no one person feels they will take the hit. At Harvard, I wasn’t on a tenure teaching track, but occasionally taught senior electives in film and C.S. Lewis and was one of the chaplains to grad students. My initiative to speak of Christ allowed others to come out as a community of believers (the book Finding God at Harvard included 40 of us, not just one).

4. Have proper confidence. Given the epistemological weight of the Gospel (we know what we know not because we’re smart or good but because God has spoken his Word: a creation/universe; a Book; a Person unlike any other). Therefore we, above all people, should not assume the constraints of the world, but default to love in action and in this generation be the church.

5. Have fun. Life is short. Play and laugh and reach out in a hurting world. Give the reason for the hope within us. If necessary let’s make some “mistakes,” too, in order to refine artful ways of helping students and faculty find the larger Story to which they belong.

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