What It Means To Be A Christian Academic

Living with tension

Christian academics find themselves in a predicament, existing in no man’s land between the two communities towards which they naturally gravitate. These two communities are the ones indicated by the term ‘Christian academic’. They may find themselves at loggerheads with the Christian community, because they may not fit easily into the expectations and aspirations of many churches and church groups. At the same time they may feel that being academics ties them too closely to the prevailing cultural aspirations of academia or simply with the self-centred aspirations of many academics. I am not suggesting that Christian academics are alone in this predicament, since it may well depict where many Christian professionals find themselves. But it probably takes on some particular slants within academia.

But what do I mean by the term ‘Christian academic’? In my estimation, it does not mean a Christian who happens to be an academic, nor the apparent reverse of this: an academic who happens to be a Christian.

I have considerable concerns with those who undoubtedly are committed Christians, and who, on the side as it were, happen to be academics. Such Christians may be very good academics, but there does not appear to be any indissoluble link between their functioning in academia and their functioning as Christians. Their Christianity does not appear to govern how they function as academic lawyers or academic biochemists. There is no hint that they have low moral standards, or that they are about to commit fraud in their scientific experiments. It is simply that their functioning as academics would be exactly the same if they were good Marxists or good secular materialists.

On the other hand, Christians in this bracket may, just as easily, care little for their work, which does no more than bring in a salary. The main thrust of their life is their church or their Christian activities. Some people like this are invaluable in the Christian community, but there is a gap between this side of their lives and their academic existence. The one fails to influence the other, except in the most general of fashions.

Christians such as I have just described pose few problems for their churches, even when their churches are very conservative in theology and in sociopolitical outlook. This is simply because these Christians mirror the Christian cultural environment in which they operate. There is nothing wrong with this, except that their academic commitments appear to contribute little to what they are as Christians. However, it is this basis that allows certain Christian academics to speak with apparent authority outside their areas of expertise. For instance, it is noteworthy how often Christian academics who oppose biological evolution in any guise are not themselves biologists – they are generally physical scientists, or if they are biologists they do not function in research universities. While certain Christian groups hold them up as examples of faithful Christians, they can only function as they do because they fail to function adequately as well-rounded Christian academics. They speak with apparent authority in areas where they lack expertise; to me, this is an illustration of a lack of academic integrity rather than of exemplary faith.

Over against this position is the supposedly opposite position: the academic who happens to be a Christian. Here the roles are reversed, since it is the academic side of one’s life which is the driving force. Many Christians who fit into this category happen to be extremely good at their work. They may well be driven people in the academic side of their lives, just as there are Christians who are driven doctors or driven loss adjusters. This position suggests that what is required of Christians is simply to be the best scholar one can be, and of course this is fine as far as it goes. It would be totally inappropriate to argue against this. But, once again, there is a problem here, since this stance fails to take seriously the extent to which one’s Christianity influences one’s professional practice. As with the first category, a vast chasm may open up between the two sides of a person’s life.

This category of person may function at a very advanced level in academia, but at a kindergarten level in Christian understanding. While this is far from inevitable, it is eminently possible. If Christianity fails to drive one’s daily activities in academia, there is no necessity for day-to-day existence to be informed by Christian principles or attitudes.

For both these groups of Christians, their academic activities exist in a separate compartment from their Christian activities, and their academic thinking will not be adequately informed by their Christian faith. There is probably little two-way communication between the two. I view this as a tragedy, since the opportunities we have to be ‘salt and light’ in a dark world will be largely lost. What I shall advocate is what George Marsden (1997) has called ‘faith-informed scholarship’; enabling Christians within academia to operate within a faith-informed context, so that everything they do is tinged with their Christian commitment.

Faith-informed scholarship

Using a faith-informed framework for our research, teaching and administrative responsibilities, we can begin to explore what might be meant by the term ‘Christian academic’. For me the base line is that Christianity is to inform one’s academic life, in such a way that it becomes impossible to understand or appreciate one’s academic life apart from one’s Christianity. In this way, Christianity becomes more than another extra-curricular activity, which can be trivialised or marginalised. It is central to what we are as academics and people. But what might this mean in practice?

I am not advocating some form of naive spiritual transformationism with its Christian mathematics or physics, as though these disciplines are transformed into something radically different when practised by Christians. The equations are the same; the physical forces are the same, just as the details of ecology or the human nervous system are the same for Christians, as for anyone else. In other words, we do not expect to see or read something different at a purely technical level. This is not where the thrust of being a Christian academic lies.

A different way of expressing the same sentiment is to acknowledge that, in academic circles, there are generally accepted standards of honesty, integrity, logical arguments, and the necessity to follow evidence. These form the basis of public knowledge, on which people in general, no matter what their ideological commitments, can agree. A cell will have the same features when seen through a high powered microscope, whether one is a Christian, Marxist, Buddhist, or agnostic scientist. This is the realm of technique and general academic enquiry, where what is uppermost is the dispassionate search for truth, facts, and data, regardless of one’s religious commitments. In this realm, evidence has to be weighed as judiciously and scrupulously as possible. Not surprisingly, therefore, Christian scholarship at this level does not lead to distinctive outcomes. To expect that it will is to look in the wrong place.
If we accept this, we have to ask the further question of where differences do lie. If we return to the microscope and the structure of the cell, we have to ask

why a scientist has decided to look at this particular cell or this group of cells. Why is this particular study being carried out? What are the driving forces behind it? Is it because there is funding for this type of study, or because it is regarded as a ‘hot’ topic, or because it might lead somewhere useful for society? It may be a mixture of these and many other possibilities. To these questions, there is no right or wrong answer, and certainly no superior answer in Christian terms. The point in asking these questions is to suggest that some of the distinctive features of a Christian contribution lie in the context within which we work and function as Christian academics.

As Christians we function with a particular world-view, a world-view that should provide the context for all our study and academic explorations. It should play an important part in determining what is important in our discipline and where we consider it valuable to pour our efforts and expend our time. George Marsden has commented in these terms:

‘. . . the relative importance that we assign to things, the central questions we ask about them, and the assumptions that lie behind these questions will all vary according to what makes up our larger picture of reality. The differences in the larger picture for the religious person are ultimately theological differences. They are beliefs about God and how God relates to us and the rest of reality.’ (Marsden, 1997, pp 82)

Central to Christian thinking are beliefs about God as creator, about the incarnation of Jesus, and about the priorities manifested by Jesus. These, in turn, lead to quite specific Christian emphases, such as the manner in which God works in the ordinary things of life, the way in which Christ identified with the poor and the destitute, and the importance of viewing people in their wholeness. These emphases underline and determine our priorities, with their emphases on the centrality of justice, the equality of all people and people groups, and the value and dignity of people, especially of the poor and disadvantaged. Beliefs such as these control and dominate all we do, and they are to be rigorously worked out in the areas in which we function as academics. They may direct us in our choice of research topics, as well as in the emphases we place on teaching programs, our approach to students, and the significance we ascribe to personal relationships within departments and research groups.

They should also make us far more aware of what lies beneath the surface. For instance, when we encounter legislation regarding equal employment or educational opportunities, processes regarding the treatment of those with disabilities, or a variety of human resources issues, we should begin to see past the management level to the ethical and theological thrust of these values. In this way, we can begin to infuse them with a Christian character that will influence our own lives and actions and hopefully those of others as well.

The pluralism of universities

All who are part of a modern university operate within a society characterised by naturalism and secularism, rather than by supernaturalism and theism. At best, such an environment is religiously neutral, and very often is actually biased against faith-informed scholarship, with its basis in biblical tenets. On the surface, this may not be evident, and yet there is rarely much room for explicit Christian viewpoints outside clearly defined domains, such as theology departments, and possibly on a narrow range of topics in history and English. In other words, the marketplace of ideas has little room for explicit Christian viewpoints.

How then can Christian academics trade in such a market place, where little room is allowed for their contribution as Christians? Some will argue that, if there is no room for an explicit Christian contribution, this is no place for Christians. They should not be here. Alternatively, Christians may exist in academia by separating their lives into two dissonant compartments, one of which operates by conventional disciplinary technical criteria, with the other rejecting the philosophical stance of the pluralist academic world.

Having rejected the compartmentalised approach, the only way forward from my perspective is to function by the pragmatism of public life. In these terms, it is imperative that we be prepared to argue for our values and demonstrate their relevance in our own academic areas, wherever feasible. Beyond this, we are to express our values in whatever forum is open to us. We do not always have to state where our values come from; very often this is not appropriate.

What is important is that our lives and writings are infused with Christian values, and our contribution as academics is always informed by Christian perspectives. As far as we are able, our contribution is to reflect Christian attitudes, that in turn should shape the tone of our scholarship. This will be far more obvious in some disciplinary areas than in others, and yet if all our relationships (in print and in person) are informed by our Christian commitment, we should be recognisable as people of integrity and scholarly rigour, with an allegiance to a higher authority and a faith that carries us through vicissitudes and disappointments.

The pluralism and biased nature of contemporary academia provide ample opportunity to express our faith intellectually and personally, even if this is frequently in subtle and subterranean ways. As we seek to employ our academic credentials, and think through where we can make our major contribution as Christian academics, what we need is the creativity and initiative that only the Holy Spirit can provide.

Through these challenges and struggles, it is helpful to realise that Christian academics possess an advantage over many others, in that they should have a balanced perspective on what it means to work in academia. On the one hand, it is a privileged position, where we can explore fascinating issues and follow intriguing ideas. As with Christians in all areas of life, we are to do the best job we can, remembering that even modest scholarly tasks are to be carried out in the service of Christ. Over against this, we should have no illusions about our scholarly vision. Like everything else, scholarship has its limitations, an insight that stems from a realisation that we are creaturely finite beings, who are to be humble when confronted by the magnitude of our world.

This realism provides us with a framework for thinking about how Christians can be fully-fledged participants in secular academic institutions, but at the same time be free of illusions about those same institutions. Like all other institutions, academic institutions are neither ultimate, nor are they totally corrupt. We should have a healthy degree of scepticism about them, and we should be prepared to critique them. However, by the same token, we should be prepared to critique other institutions, including Christian ones and the church. And this is where we may get into considerable difficulties with fellow believers.

The challenges of being a Christian academic

One of the major characteristics of academics is that they question, probe, and critique anything and everything. Good academics are extremely restless intellectually, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Christian academics question and critique Christian beliefs and stances just as much as they do other facets of the world around them. But this soon becomes problematic in more conservative Christian circles, where questioning may be equated with a lack of faith. This is why I consider that those who separate their Christian faith from their academic expertise can fit relatively easily into conservative Christian communities; they are not applying an academic approach to the Christian sphere of their lives. And if that is the case, the opposite also applies; their Christian thrust will be blunted when it comes to influencing their academic existence. However, once one attempts to integrate these disparate elements, the influences will be two-way, and this inevitably will have repercussions for one’s Christian stance in certain areas.

In this connection it is illuminating to consider a notion most academics probably accept without too much thought, and this is academic freedom. While this is frequently taken for granted, its influence is pervasive for academics. Definitions of academic freedom generally refer to features such as, the freedom of academic staff and students to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions, as long as they are carried out within the law. If we apply this to Christian circles, we soon realise that in many of the circles in which we move, its potential for conflict is devastating. Without attempting to be obnoxious or awkward, we can stir up numerous hornets’ nests by asking the most innocent of questions, or by quietly challenging notions that have become the hallmarks of orthodoxy on what to us may appear a very precarious base.

It may be objected that Christians should act differently within the church from the way they do within the university. After all, within university circles we argue and discuss as equals, whereas within church circles we are subject to the authority of pastors, elders, ministers and bishops. This is an interesting distinction, but I remain unconvinced. Christians are to recognise the legitimate status of those placed in positions of authority within society and the university (prime minister, vice-chancellor, head of department, head of laboratory), just as they should do within the church. Paul was explicit about this (Romans 13:1-6) in a pagan situation comparable to the modern university. However, the mere acknowledgement of this is not meant to convert thinking individuals into compliant robots. It is God who has provided us with sophisticated brains capable of analytical thought and critical assessment, whether we are discussing synapticplasticity in the brain, the performance of a managed investment fund, the contribution of Szymanowski to the renaissance of Polish music, or the leadership role of women in the church.

To expect Christians to leave their brains at the door of the church is to denigrate all we are as creatures made in the image of God. The issue is not whether we use our critical faculties in Christian circles, but how we use our critical faculties in these circles – as well in all other circles for that matter. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 11: 37-52) was devastating, illustrating the very best in academic criticism. His condemnation was of destructive ideas and of professional groups that were misleading their adherents and clients. It was not of individuals as individuals. It is crucial, therefore, that we treat people with whom we disagree with respect and dignity. We are never to trample them underfoot, simply because we can critically analyse their viewpoints and demonstrate the holes in them. All our criticism is to be overarched by a concern for the welfare of those whose ideas we are criticising.
Consequently, we are to use our critical faculties in all aspects of our lives. If we fail to do this, we will be succumbing to the compartmentalisation I complained of earlier, and this will destroy our integrity as Christian academics. When we offer our contribution as Christian academics to the church, we may be rebuffed, but if it is a genuine gift, deriving from a God-given calling, we are to persevere – as unto the Lord. We are members of Christ’s body, providing the contribution we are best able to provide.
Personal illustrations

Up to this juncture, I have written in general terms, although my bias as a scientist will undoubtedly have come through. It is now time to ask how these principles have been worked out in my own academic life.

While I have no liking for controversy, especially within Christian circles, I have had ample experience of this both academically and in the church. It is the latter type of controversy that I tackled in my book Coping with Controversy, where I took as my starting point conflicts over Christian viewpoints rather than over clashes of personality. This is apposite for Christian academics, who generally trade in beliefs and ideas. It has to be asked whether I have brought on these conflicts myself, since I may have opened my mouth when I should have kept it shut, or I may go looking for conflict because I am argumentative. It is for others to determine whether these things are or are not true of me. I hope they are not, and that the problems I have encountered have been simply because I apply my abilities as an academic to my thinking as a Christian.

Christian academics should be the first to claim that there is no virtue in sloppy thinking, even in Christian circles where it is transformed into spiritualised sloppy thinking. It would be encouraging to think that Christian academics were regarded as a gift to the church on account of their abilities in dissecting arguments; unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Returning to the university environment, we should consider our contribution in each of the main realms of the academics’ domain.

1. How does being a Christian affect one’s teaching?

In my own university Christians have a wonderful opportunity, since of the four dimensions seen as important for quality learning in the University’s Teaching and Learning Plan, one relates to the ethical and social implications of learning: ‘Quality learning encourages learners to consider, evaluate and debate ethical and social implications of knowledge, skills and attitudes and to adopt informed positions’.
This very strongly encourages staff, including Christians, to place their teaching within a broad context, that takes account of its human dimensions. In my view, this is an opportunity Christians should eagerly grasp, because, while their contribution will be of a general nature – as opposed to an explicitly Christian one, it should reflect Christian values. What is particularly significant from my angle is that it enables Christian academics to relate their teaching, in part at least, to the interests of the whole person.

In this regard I have been pleased to contribute with two other academics (both with Christian sympathies) to the text, Medical Ethics, which is currently being prepared for a third edition. While this is a general text, I believe its emphases are in harmony with Christian perceptions. Our aim has been to direct attention to those acts designed to enhance the standing of human beings, including those with psychiatric and other disabilities and those unable to fend for themselves. While none of this is explicitly or uniquely Christian, I have little doubt that it is more akin to Christian aspirations than are some texts produced by those writing from contrary perspectives.

The contribution a book like this can make to medical and other health science students is considerable. Admittedly, it does not advance Christian values as such, but it does stand in the marketplace of competing views, where it can be heard and encountered. This is one important role for Christian academics in a pluralist society.

2. How does being a Christian affect one’s research?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question, since Christian academics exist in so many different realms. But we need to be constantly asking ourselves why we are undertaking the studies we are undertaking. How might they contribute to an understanding of the human condition, or how might they contribute to human welfare?

My neurobiology research over the years has been closer to fundamental research than to obviously applied research. I cannot claim, therefore, that it will ever be used to alleviate human illness in any direct sense. However, there have been studies with malnutrition as their focus, and with its effect on the developing brain. There were studies of the effects of alcohol on the developing brain, with other studies concentrating on devising means of characterising the ageing brain and especially of the manner in which the plasticity of the brain does or does not alter with ageing and dementia. In their various ways, each of these has aimed to relate basic science to the human condition, the selection of applied issues stemming quite specifically from my grounding in the Christian faith.

Another way in which I have attempted to demonstrate explicitly how the Christian faith might inform bioethical thinking is via the books I have written from an acknowledged Christian perspective. The latest in this series is Valuing People. Unfortunately, it is these that land me in the greatest strife within the Christian constituency, since I refuse to adopt what I regard as superficial answers. I do not do this out of obstinacy or because I adopt liberal theological positions (I do not); rather, I feel constrained and can do nothing else if I am to think and write with integrity, honesty and consistency as a Christian academic in a biomedical discipline. I do not ask anyone else to agree with me, and I certainly do not expect anyone else to adopt any of the positions I adopt. What I do ask is that people take me seriously, and are prepared to grapple with the ideas with which I grapple. To me, this is what faith-informed scholarship necessitates.

3. How does being a Christian affect one’s university and community service?

It is at this point that Christians have the opportunity of self-evidently serving others. In a talk I gave at my university as part of a Leadership Development Program, I stated the following:

‘Leadership carries with it the opportunity to provide an environment in which others, both staff and students, can prosper and develop. This will only emerge, though, as we emphasise the significance of the community of scholars and students, the importance of an exciting and stimulating atmosphere, and the centrality of a place where people can develop and work effectively. We need to appreciate the importance of pouring an enormous amount of effort into the careers and performance of other people, rather than into one’s own academic performance’.

This expressed my feelings on leadership to a general audience, feelings that flowed naturally from my Christian base, because it often entails putting the aspirations and good of others ahead of what might be best for one’s own career and hopes. It is for this reason that headship of a department, which tends to be a very unattractive option for many, may well have more attractions for Christians with leadership abilities. This is where an emphasis on community emerges as of such significance, an emphasis that is so congenial to Christians.

I also find it fascinating approaching issues that are central to university life, since I attempt to look at them through Christian eyes. For instance, one of my recent endeavours has been preparing a monograph on: Universities as Critic and Conscience of Society: The Role of Academic Freedom. This is one of those topics that so nicely brings together the academy and Christian aspirations. And this is simply another example of why I find it is so interesting being a Christian academic, no matter what some of its disadvantages may be.

Campbell, Alastair, Max Charlesworth, Grant Gillett, and Gareth Jones, Medical Ethics, second edition, Oxford University Press, Auckland,1997
Jones, Gareth, Coping with Controversy, second edition, Solway (Paternoster Press),Carlisle, 1996
Jones, D. Gareth, Valuing People, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1999
Jones, D. Gareth, ‘The academic enterprise: University values and the changing nature of academic work’, talk given to Leadership Development Program, University of Otago, May1999
Marsden, George M, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997