College. University. An essence of community underlies the very words we use for the collection of academic departments, research labs, club activities, art studios, and sports teams that come together under a common name like the University of Cincinnati (where I find myself most days).
However, community is more than part of the name. Graduate students and faculty are often drawn to an academic career because of love for a discipline, but also by a desire for deep community. We want to build collegial relationships with people who have similar interests and can in turn help one another grow in their research and teaching skills. Within such a community there is room for mutual encouragement as well as challenges to continually improve.
At times we find this community. But more often I hear disillusionment through sentiments like:
- I expected to hold long conversations about my research with my advisor and fellow students; however, she listens for five minutes and tells me I’m on the right path, while the other students are caught up in their own research or part-time jobs.
- Students in my classes only want the course credit and couldn’t care less about what I am teaching.
- As I learn more about this place, the meaning and purpose of higher education seems to be fraying.
In these environments, it is easy to become disenchanted and stop trying to be part of this so-called community except for minimal interactions. Eventually people often find two or three others to commiserate with over lunch or after class. These groups become stand-ins for those ideal communities and often transform into cliques, moving people to see colleagues as “the other.”
As Christians, it can be especially easy to break out into these types of groups on campus. We naturally want to be with people who have similar beliefs and concerns. Within these groups we can openly explore what it means to live out our faith in the academy. We can find encouragement when we wonder how our research matters in God’s Kingdom. However, on the flip side, such groups can also make it easier to see ourselves as victims in the world of the secular university. So we build walls around us to protect ourselves from those outside.
Is this what Jesus calls us to? To find our safe community and stay there? Or is there a way to engage with the larger community as we seek to live out his presence with our colleagues?
What might it mean to love God through the communities on campus, not merely by creating groups of Christian faculty, but by living out God’s love throughout campus?
Recently I heard about the idea of incarnational presence from Julian Reese, a campus minister at the University of Tennessee. This is a way of living out faith that derives from a deep understanding of how Jesus calls his followers to live in this world — a way that parallels Jesus’s incarnation itself. This was an intriguing idea but wondered how it looked in practice. Then I saw it in action at the University of Cincinnati. A music theory professor shared how he brought up his involvement in a worship team during some of his classes, and he also recently submitted and had accepted a research paper in which he ends with an analysis of Paul Baroche’s song “Offering.”
On another part of campus, a group of graduate students at the University of Cincinnati asked the question, “What does it mean to love our neighbor?” We held conversations with faculty, local pastors, and others on this topic. In a series of Bible studies we were reminded that as we seek to love others, we must see ourselves as needing and receiving God’s immense mercy (Matthew 18) so that we can fully share love. Furthermore, our work should be undergirded in such love or it is worthless (1 Corinthians 13). Most importantly, we, and all humans, bear God’s image (Genesis 1). This includes those with whom we work and study. One speaker brought it home when he asked “Do you love your students? Do you love your professors?” We could go on — what about our colleagues, especially the ones that irritate us — or that administration team that seems to be adding more busywork to our days?
What if we loved God through loving the communities — all the communities we are involved with on campus?
A picture that comes to mind as I ask this question is that of Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables books by L. M. Montgomery. Though these books aren’t about the academic world, they are about someone who sees the community around her differently. Anne breaks through some trenchant divisions in Avonlea, her small town, because she chooses to see individuals as a better version of themselves than their reputations would suggest. Whether it’s the Cuthberts, the brother and sister who adopt her, or her neighbor Mr. Harrison, who is livid that Anne’s cow has been getting in his oats, she approaches them each with a practical love and all the mess and stress that comes with it. Gradually this different method changes Avonlea relationship by relationship.
Can we follow a similar way? Seeing people, all people, as images of God, we may be drawn to move from our safe gatherings of like-minded individuals and into the larger campus. Though we may see and experience differences in beliefs and practices that tempt us to back away, we also know a more essential truth of what can draw us together. Through this we can work to bridge differences through a God-love of others.
Seeing the university through such eyes is not going to bring groups together in kumbaya moments. It may even cause strife at times and make this academic work harder. Nevertheless, it does point to a fundamental commonality that can start to overcome barriers. From such a position, the early vision of a college or university can be renewed within the departments where we work and that deeper community can start to develop.