Building A Bridge Between Faith And Academia: Three Thoughts

I’ve been in academia for almost a decade now; I’ve been a Christian over twice as long.

To my sadness, there’s a gap – or a perceived gap – between those two worlds that seems to grow by the day. If you watch the news or listen to enough general talk, you’ll hear this: that academics think Christians are fusty, backwards, ignorant folk who are anti-science and anti-education and anti-learning, and that Christians think academics are liberal secularists bent on annihilating Christianity as we know it.

As always, the most popular narrative isn’t always the correct one.  Yes, I’ve met atheists and agnostics and people of others faiths working as professors and scholars.  Some of them embrace and accept Christians and Christianity whether or not they’re Christians themselves; some don’t. But I’ve also met Christian professors in the field, working and living alongside their colleagues.  And though I imagine that there are Christians who wouldn’t set foot in anything but an explicitly Christian institution, I also know learned and thoughtful Christians who embrace ideas, education, and learning, and find that these things enhance – rather than detract from – their faith.

In the interest of building a bridge between these two worlds, then, I’d like to share three thoughts of mine:

1. Neither academics nor Christians are a monolithic group.  Any Christian will tell you that there are a thousand shades of difference between Christians.  Despite having the “big” things in common, many Christians vary in denomination, doctrine, and opinions (and not all of them take kindly to being treated as though they’re the same!).  Similarly, academics do not all share one ideology or political bent.  Both Christians and people in academia come from all kinds of different backgrounds and cultures.  As a result, it’s dangerous to paint someone with a broad brush.  The moment someone says, “Christians think that…” or “Academics think that…” conversation shuts down; all the Christians and academics who don’t fall beneath that broad umbrella no longer have a meaningful place in the conversation.  Nobody likes being generalized, and yet some conversations that take place between Christianity and academia – and some discussions about Christianity and academia – rely on generalizations that are often painfully inaccurate.

2. Be careful not to generalize from your own experiences. I’m sure every Christian has heard some version of the story where an atheist professor targets the one faithful Christian in the class and slowly attempts to demolish his or her faith over the course of a term.  Likewise, a lot of academics have heard the one about the Christian who refused to learn critical thinking skills in class or who refused to use anything but the Bible as an academic source.

Are the stories true? I’m sure some are, on both sides.  At the very least, I’m sure there are Christians who have had bad college experiences with professors who disparaged their faith.  I’m also sure that there are academics who struggled with Christian students unprepared for the rigors of academic research and evidence.  But that doesn’t mean all academics do this or that all Christians are like this.  One bad experience – whether ours or someone else’s – doesn’t necessarily dictate the truth about all Christians, or about all academics either.

3. You’re not supposed to surround yourself with people who are just like you.  I’ve always hated the idea of the Christian “bubble”: that Christians should go to Christian schools, and Christian colleges, and then churches, and then surround themselves with Christian friends.  If you’re a Christian and you’ve never really had a conversation with an unbeliever or someone of another faith, you’re missing out on how Christ lived.  He walked with people who were not like Him; He spent time and talked and ate with people who were not like Him.  And if you talk to an unbeliever or someone of another faith in academia and they don’t immediately convert or fall prostrate before the truth of everything you’ve ever told them about God or Christianity, that’s okay!  Go on being their friend; go on loving them. If they disagree with you or criticize your ideas, you’ll survive.  As I tell my students frequently: if your faith is so shaky that someone’s disagreement with it will shatter it or you, you have much bigger problems to be thinking about.

On the other side of the coin, a common theme in academia is inclusion and acceptance.  As a rule, academics don’t want to marginalize people; they’re interested in hearing lots of different voices in the conversation, in critically evaluating ideas, in listening to narratives and thinking about their significance. However, while this is great in theory, it hasn’t always worked like it should in practice – and I very much wish it would. It’s certainly possible to be in academia and to welcome a Christian perspective into debate – not uncritically, but with respect and kindness.    Open dialogue between two respectful people is an amazing thing that often helps both parties learn about each other, and it should be possible for academics to listen to and respond to people – even those they don’t agree with – without the conversation devolving into a shouting match.  I’ve seen academics work on committees together and manage not to kill each other over disagreements far more bitter – so surely everyone can manage.

Final Musings:

In the end, whatever the status of the relationship between Christians and academics, the onus is on Christians to be kind, to be generous, and to be loving.  If you’re a Christian and you perceive academics as enemies, well, then your job is to love them and to pray for them to fulfill the law of Christ (Matt. 5:44).  Period.  But more than that, the struggle between Christianity and academia just serves to remind me that we will always be in the world with those who don’t believe what we believe.  God does not promise that He will change that; He does not tell us that ought to run from it or be fearful of it.  God also does not promise that everyone within a three-mile radius of us will come to know Him when we wish for them to do so.  Rather, God wishes us to live out love: to practice patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, to refrain from immediate anger, to keep no list of wrongs, hope and trust and persevere (1 Cor. 4-7).

“Do not repay evil for evil,” Scripture encourages. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:17-18).  May we reach out in love, patience, and understanding.  May our actions render the name of Christ a blessing, rather than a curse.

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