The Loneliness of the Christian Academic

This blog is a writeup of a C-A-N- share and develop online session. The motivation for the event was touching on a matter that affects all academics in that working in academia is often very solitary. Though we may be part of a team, a lot of the time we have to carry out our substantial workloads independently and develop our own initiatives to deliver our teaching and research as well as develop our scholarship. For the Christian academic this can be particularly lonely if they know nobody else of the same background at their place of work and, at church, may not have the opportunity to openly and honestly share their difficulties and concerns about their workplace or environment.

As this topic has not been much discussed, there is little established expertise and ready-made guidance on it, which this discussion was focused on trying to set direction for.

An opening devotional was given in relation to how loneliness for any academic can lead to severe consequences in relation to their wellbeing and the impact can go quickly unnoticed. The role of being an academic can be at times so unbearable that we, just like any other human being, are in need of God that we would be not led down wrong paths but follow his path. To stand firm in our faith in a University where there is atheism or diverse beliefs around us is challenging.

A useful analogy was given that we are like lamps, spread far apart to be a light in dark places, but then at the same time they need to be connected – and indeed each lamp needs power. In addressing this the question of what causes loneliness was raised and this was seen to be the fact that in the majority of cases, Christian academics are based within a faculty or department, or even a University where they do not know any other Christian academic. If they do know another Christian academic, they may not share the same perspectives on the Christian faith. Another issue was the matter of ‘the sacred secular divide’ as emphasised by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, that other Christian academics may simply want to keep their faith to themselves that it makes little difference to any other Christian academics that they are present.

Two kinds of loneliness were identified from this loneliness as follows:

Intellectual Loneliness – This is a particularly pertinent area in which it can become difficult to be a light when other ‘lights’ are far away and difficult t connect. We may be the only Christian in a department where all our colleagues follow a different line of thinking that is far different to our own. Sometimes there may be ways in which others are supportive of what we do in a secular environment but at the same time there can be hostility. Not knowing how our beliefs might be taken by others, there is a difficulty to be open about them and the ideas that they inspire. There is a need for connection with other Christian academics within the wider discipline area we are involved in such as in social sciences, arts, science technology and mathematics, health etc. which may enable that connection for support in prayer and mentoring. Such connection could be international and may be termed as “Faculty Networks” to preserve the contributions of Christian academics who have existed and do exist in those wider discipline areas. This would then enable the light to shine brighter and bring a Godly influence into the research environment.

‘Wellbeing’ Loneliness – These would encompass our personal needs including those that are spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical. Being part of a church family is very important for any Christian and there is need to regularly fellowship together in worship and feeding on the word of God. Furthermore, the church has a role in reaching out to its community that can be through social action and world mission. Faithfully working in a job does give the means to support a church financially but also through time, gifts and abilities as the Lord leads. There are certainly many opportunities in a church setting to pray for and encourage one another in the work they do. Furthermore, there is great purpose in learning from one another about being a Christian in the workplace on a general level. This is a matter for churches to ensure that the focus of fellowship together is not too ‘spiritual’ and that only focusing on social action or world mission can miss the opportunities that are involved in frontline aspect of being church that may be considered too ‘worldly’ to include. Yet world mission, social action and frontline are all important and they are all possible for a church fellowship to do together. There was some identity that depending on the church one is part of and how the church family works together, it is very difficult to talk about specific aspects of being an academic, notably how to juggle the teaching, research and scholarship as well as handling some of the administrative demands placed upon us. Sometimes more unfortunately, we as academics can be seen as ‘too intellectual’ by our church and that can form an unnecessary disconnect. Therefore, there is a need relating to some of the deep matters for Christian academics to have the opportunity to fellowship in an open and honest environment. Furthermore there was the identification to enable Christians working in a University to connect and to pray for a University. This may involve Christian staff and postgraduate researchers connecting but also, on occasions, students.

A very interesting point in relation to the above to aspects of loneliness is that academics share similar parallels with pastors who feel alone doing a specific role, yet pastors regularly meet with one another to encourage one another. Thus having mechanisms for two or three academics to regularly connect with one another to address both the above aspects of loneliness could be very positive but is that at local, national or international level?

Through discussion and prayer the question arose if there is a need for “A Theology of working as a Christian academic”. This was seen as a point for further thought and development form the discussion to cover matters on the life of the professional group and how to establish the ‘three legged stool’ of research, teaching and scholarship.

3 Comments

  1. thank you for publishing ‘The Loneliness of the Christian Academic’ which unfortunately was unable to attend.
    how I agree, although only at ‘master’s’ level, often find any academic viewpoint, as you say, can be classed as being too academic for the general church population. And yet, the ‘general’ population grapple with so many other issues, including the academic angle e.g. viewpoints from the media, why not an academic viewpoint on Christian issues?
    Often we are afraid to point out a deep viewpoint in a Christian discussion. What Christian academics need is a gentle yet more profound approach so that we take everyone with us as so many do have deeper questions that often they too are afraid to voice.
    thank you again for sharing this understanding paper.
    Jean Yates

  2. One suggestion for C-A-N- members to address ‘intellectual isolation’ within a local church or other Christian friends who can discuss any shared interest. A considerable number of think tanks, practical theology groups, Christian professional networks and the like produce blogposts, workshop summaries, seminar abstracts or similar, written for the general reader who is interested in acting and/or thinking Christianly on that issue. (The C-A-N- Newsletter picks up some of these when of particular interest to academics.) Could we have another section among the C-A-N- resources (website) – in addition to Bibliography, (parallel) Groups, and Contributions – of fixed links to such items, under a title edited to be indicative of the general interest and/or a 1-3-line indicator of why the item is listed under that tab.

  3. In his Bible Reading notes yesterday (EDWJ), Dr Micha Jazz** writes about loneliness in a way in a way that speaks powerfully to me as an academic living alone and having to write solo at times, as well as collaboratively in other projects. The Creator made human beings to be suitable helpers to each other (Genesis 2:18). This C-A-N- Event on the Loneliness of the Christian Academic (another sort of Long-Distance Runner!) focused on difficulties for academic Christians in finding suitable companions in the church or in the university department for unconstrained discussion. Micha points out that there is a positive side to the solitude that can also leads to loneliness.
    “Solitude acts as God’s workshop for human development.”
    “We all require [solitude] to explore … where and why we live as we do and to develop our personal encounter with God. … [T]he silence that accompanies solitude … [is a doorway] to serving God’s grace.”
    As he writes earlier about the verses in Genesis, we are created to represent on earth the eternal community of Father, Son and Spirit. Yet, we can add, the Son had to be isolated from the Father to be the suffering servant Saviour (‘Jesus’) and King (‘Christ’) of all.
    **Dean of Waverley Abbey College who now offer university accredited degree-level modules, as well as day and week training courses, on Spiritual Formation (and in Christian Leadership).

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