In a strange land

Alan Hay provided an overview of the Christian’s role in Our Discipline and Institution during the 2002 C-A-N Conference.

In A Strange Land
(Alan Hay)

‘Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29:7).
‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12).
We are God’s people in exile. We have been placed in a ‘city’ and are called to do good there.
What is the ‘city’ we have been placed in? I propose that there are two, our particular discipline and our own institution.

Our Discipline
Within our discipline, we are part of a world of virtual, national and international common research/teaching interests. Michael Ovey in the Cambridge Papers recently asked, ‘does Athens need Jerusalem?’ How do Christian and secular thinking relate? Does our secular discipline need our Christian input? There are three possible responses to this: we can deny or reject secular thinking because it is too far distant from us; we can embrace secular thinking with an attempt to baptise it; we can respond critically but constructively. The first answer is based on the idea that non-Christian thought is all fallen so we should not just embrace it. But inasmuch as secular thinking is rational, it is based on things that God has placed into creation. In Higher Education we cannot simply deny secular thinking because our disciplines have developed within it and we are committed to working within it. We are so steeped in our discipline that it is difficult to see how we could be independent from its thinking. Rather, the third option is better – to be critical and Christian, yet constructive. ‘All truth is God’s truth’ – wherever it is found, truth is part of God’s world. There are some points to remember here:

  • The Bible contains a moral dimension to ‘knowing’ as well as technical – now we know, what are we going to do with the knowledge?
  • All human claims to truth are un-impartial and incomplete. Even our Christian beliefs are currently incomplete, as we do not yet know all truth.
  • There is a difference between truly understanding and understanding truth. The challenge is to truly understand what a concept is saying before judging it. When we encounter radically anti-Christian thinking we need to, with prayer, study to understand it. This is an important message we can give to Christian students.

As John Griffiths mentioned, we need to learn to praise and affirm good work. The pressures of today mean the temptation is to ‘do down’ other groups’ or other institutions’ work, but we should learn to affirm others if we are to contribute to the welfare of the discipline.

Our Institution
We belong to a discipline. But we also belong to an institution. We are called to look after the welfare of all staff and students in the place we are. ‘Doing good’ there is just like the calling of other Christians in their workplace, whether it’s an office, school or factory.

  • There is a pressure on our time. There is the temptation to focus roles narrowly to protect our time, roles and family life. We try to avoid being dragged sideways, but the notable absence of Christians from university committees and policy groups means we are not contributing to the welfare of the university.
  • ‘Stewardship’ is a surprisingly acceptable term to non-Christians because they recognise that it is a positive thing. Stewardship of your own talents/abilities, resources, staffing and money are all-important. I think that staff development is a very Christian activity.
  • Have integrity: be honest and open. For example, openly say that your bid for funding is exactly what you need, not inflated by 20% to ensure you get the amount you need. Your academic standing is important – there is no point conspiring with others to pretend that things are better than they are. There is no point in telling a student his PhD is great when you know it will only scrape a pass.
  • Service – active helpfulness, common courtesy, being available to listen – is important. Foster talks about ‘not just serving but learning to be a servant’.

What would be the response of other city dwellers to these things? 1 Peter suggests their reaction will be twofold: there will be a welcome for people who act Christianly, because the city needs people who will work for its welfare. But also there will potentially be persecution and rejection – if you have to make a stand on refusing to vote for something you know is wrong, there may be a backlash. Peter says that we will then be going the way of the cross.
‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time’ (1 Peter 5:6).
‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast’ (1 Peter 5:10).