"Not in spite of, but through the very work of the university" is part of the calling graduate students and faculty have in living out God’s kingdom on a college campus. This phrase speaks to a desire we have, but in various ways have been told is not possible.
Many of us functionally live in a world where the sacred and secular, the spiritual and material, are separate entities. For those of us on campus, this divide can be even more entrenched. In our churches, we hear warnings about the ideas that are coming from the academy and the need to protect students from these worldly ways. So, teaching and research may be necessary for a livelihood, but it doesn’t relate to faith. On the other hand, the academy eyes spiritual conversations with concern. Scholarship and teaching should be objective and any hint of religious connection is something to be wiped away.
However, both of these streams of thought ignore reality.
In Colossians 1:15-16, Paul writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” In other words, everything being researched and explored on campuses has been created through Christ — biology, politics, literature, art, history. This doesn’t mean that all the outcomes of scholarship conform to God’s ways, but the building blocks of our research have come from him. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to the work of research and teaching, but also in our interactions with all the people, i.e, images of God, with whom we interact in our departments.
On the academic side, this sacred/secular paradigm ignores the reality that as humans we view the world through a variety of lenses, spirituality often being one. It is valid to use the standpoint of feminism or capitalism in scholarship, within the boundaries of accepted research methods. So, it should be possible to do the same from a religious standpoint. The more we can state our perspectives up front, the more others can analyze it to see how it affects the final results. This is scholarship. Even if religious ideas aren’t directly part of one’s research and teaching, the values derived from deeply held religious beliefs can and should inform how we interact with people and the integrity with which we conduct all our work.
Since these two streams seem destined to continue diverging, is there anything that can start bringing them together? I believe the key is love. Often love of a subject draws people to their field. What else could keep one involved in research for years on end? Love also draws us to God as love flows from God. As these loves inform one another, both flourish.
Furthermore, with God as the driver of our work, the work itself doesn’t have to define us. Instead the Creator of the work does. Now of course, this doesn’t mean that everything will proceed without problems either in research or teaching. But this God perspective provides a structure that is larger than the challenges we will face — whether that’s a never ending experiment, a difficult student, or department politics. As we study all parts of God’s creation, we can do so with an intention of being “rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17) — his love that creates all that we explore in the academy and that remains with us through the writing marathons or endless evenings of rehearsals.
What could this love look like as it undergirds the work of academics? With respect to how we relate to people in our work, the practice of love may seem obvious, though difficult at times. However, what about our research? Alan Jacobs explores what it means to see love as the defining characteristic of literary theory: “We may indeed use books — it is right and proper that we do so — but we must use them in the way that Augustine counsels, which is to say, a way that recognizes their value as parts of God’s world and that therefore loves them in an ordinate manner” (A Theology of Reading, 33). This idea is not relevant only in literature. In all fields we can find ways to value the tools, the ideas, the structures with which we work.
As we start to infuse work on campus with the love of God, we walk in the ways of the preacher in Ecclesiastes: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God's gift to man.” (3:12-13).