Reflections of a ‘retired’ Christian Academic

Although this is a personal account of my own life as an academic I will try to draw out from these experiences some principles which just might encourage those working at present in the rather different and more demanding situations in our Universities and Colleges.

Just before I officially retired from academic life three years ago, I was asked to write an article for a journal of the scientific society with which I had been much involved. The task was to look back over my own research career in the hope that this would help younger academics at the beginning of their own careers in research and teaching. My one sentence summary of my time as an undergraduate in that article was that then, ‘I fell in love and received the gift of faith’; two great life-enhancing events.

Becoming a Christian, at a university mission led by John Stott in 1953, revolutionised my life and has largely determined both where I worked and how I spent my time. First, there was the determination to work overseas in a ‘developing country’ and because of this I said no to the possibility of continuing to work, after completing my PhD, in the same department. The result was my wife and I spent nine happy years in Nigeria where I was on the staff of the medical school in Ibadan. Here there was ample time for research (well equipped, air-conditioned laboratories) and the joy of teaching small classes (around thirty) of highly motivated and academically bright students from all over West Africa. There were also abundant opportunities to become involved in the work of Scripture Union and, most exciting of all, to help in the development of the Christian Union. On campus where we lived was conveniently situated to welcome students into our home (and when this became two small, our garden) for evangelistic and teaching meetings. The story of the quite phenomenal growth of student witness in Nigeria since 1958 has been documented and one of the contributory factors to this growth was the encouraging role of many Christians from Britain in the universities, colleges and secondary schools. It was a deeply humbling experience to see at first hand the work of God’s Spirit and left an indelible mark on both our lives.

If this ‘call’ to work in West Africa was a surprise, and I remember saying Nigeria was the last place I wanted to work in, then the call home to Scotland was even more so. I was offered a job without an interview and, although we expected to move on, we have remained in Glasgow ever since. Strathclyde University was at that time (1967) a new university although its roots go back to 1796 to Anderson’s University, a private institution set up as a ‘place for useful learning’. Among its graduates were David Livingstone and John Logie Baird. The department in which I worked was newly formed and there began what was to become the routine applications for research grants and the organisation of teaching. As in Ibadan there were many Christians on the staff, I think around thirty, from all disciplines, but mainly scientists, who openly supported the fledgling Christian Union and there were many overseas students. We began in our home Christian meetings for overseas students, with the help of staff members, and these continued for ten years. Later, these were taken over by the Glasgow International Friendship Team (GIFT) and later by ISCS. My wife and I still hear from students contacted in those, now far off, days and have had long-distance phone calls from some who attended asking if these home meetings still continued as they would like their children, following their parents tradition of studying in Glasgow, to come along!

In the university the Christian staff meets fortnightly for prayer and Bible study at a Wednesday lunchtime, now made more difficult by incursions into what was once the afternoon free of teaching. These meetings have meant much to me over the years and we have talked over our academic problems from a Christian viewpoint, have prayed for colleagues, for the now strong CU and have generally encouraged one another in the faith.

I have found in my Christian life the Lord opening doors for witness and I can perhaps illustrate this best from my scientific collaborations with laboratories in other countries, particularly in Europe. These began with a letter (remember this is twenty to thirty years ago!) from people working in my field who had read my scientific papers. I have been wonderfully fortunate in my research collaborations specially with groups in Strasbourg and in Szeged in Hungary.

This Hungarian experience is probably unusual for a British academic; most ‘academic traffic’ was, in communist times, westerly but following twenty years of long-distance collaborations and several visits, I decided to accept an invitation in 1988 to spend part of my sabbatical year working in the medical school in Szeged. Szeged is a city in the southern part of Hungary famous as the home of the Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, and of fish soup and paprika. Since then, with the encouragement of my own university, I have worked extensively in Szeged and this continues as a ‘visiting, honorary and permanent’ member of their academic staff. At present this is supported by a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship. In the last days of communism, and for a few years afterwards, people were very open to discuss the Christian faith and there were many such discussions, over cups of strong coffee, when the day’s research had been completed. It was a particular joy when my closest colleague ‘received the gift of faith’ and thus together to have the opportunity of praying about our work and for our colleagues. It is good too to be involved, as in Scotland, albeit in small ways, with the developing Christian work among university students (MEKDSZ, a part of IFES) through speaking and especially of encouraging the travelling staff. Good too to be part of the local (Baptist) evangelical church.

This strong Hungarian connection led, soon after the fall of communism, to the setting up of a European-wide scientific network, financed by the EU, linking research groups in Poland, the Czech Republic (and later Slovakia) and Hungary with similar groups within the EU. Not only were these collaborations fruitful, and especially helpful to those in the former Eastern Europe, but led to really deep personal friendships. At one such meeting, in Germany, I was invited by our hostess (who was the president of the International Society for Heart Research at that time) to ‘preach’ in her home to some of these friends. I offered, if those friends were in agreement (they were), to share my faith and this led to each of them accepting a copy of John’s Gospel.

With the introduction of early retirement there were discussions with some of my Christian colleagues as to whether we might take the opportunity of leaving academic life and either return overseas (like me some of these colleagues had also worked overseas) or move into other areas of service. Around this time it was suggested to me, by friends in some of the churches I visited as a lay preacher, that I should consider the Christian ministry, as some of those colleagues I had worked with in Ibadan had done. I thus spent three years, part time of course, doing the Cambridge diploma in Religious Studies. After this, whilst pondering the next step, one of my university colleagues in the staff Christian fellowship invited himself to lunch and strongly counselled against such a move. He pointed out, rightly, that my frequent travels and many contacts gave almost unique opportunities for witness not open to a minister. He was right; it was after this that the opportunities in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe opened up. It seems to me looking back as though the Lord was asking me to show I was willing make such a commitment and certainly the experience and study has been beneficial to an on-going ministry.

Many academics travel extensively and the balance between attending meetings overseas and taking on industrial consultancies is particularly delicate, especially if one has a reasonably large department to chair. I became a long-term consultant with various pharmaceutical companies in the US, Japan, the UK and other parts of Europe and one of the advantages of these overseas commitments was to fit in opportunities to visit mission fields in Africa, Asia and the Middle East on behalf of the appropriate UK councils. This was at a time when it was relatively rare for members of UK and church missionary councils to visit the field. I know from similar visits by other academics how helpful these are, not least in giving inside information about the situation in the countries concerned.

As I look back, what lessons can I draw about the opportunities Christian academics have to share their faith in Christ? I am convinced it is a truly Christian calling to serve in academic institutions. This is surely true even now despite the greatly increasing demands of administration, larger student numbers, countless grant applications for financial support for research, the RAE and the incessant requests to attend often unessential meetings. Who was it who said, ‘meetings eat people and eating people is wrong’? Mark’s Gospel chapter six has a great deal to teach us about such people pressures. Despite the fact that as academics we seem to be losing sight of priorities, with valuable individual student contacts and research time being continually eroded, universities and colleges remain important spheres of Christian influence. How, in practical terms, might this be done? Here are some simple, albeit obvious, suggestions:-

  1. Seek out other Christians, and not only academics, in your university or college. Eat your sandwiches together and join regularly in prayer for your institution and encourage one another in God’s Word. Of course, someone has to take the initiative in this. Maybe it should be you.
  2. If there is an evangelical church in the locality, make contact with the leadership. We have found that the services leading up to Easter and Christmas afford opportunities to invite friends and colleagues.
  3. Link with your local ISCS and UCCF staff workers. There is a great deal we can do help and encourage those in the front line of student witness. In my own experience this is really appreciated.
  4. Stand behind the local CU and let them know you are there, without of course interfering. The Strathclyde idea of a joint invitation to freshers from the CU and Christian staff at the beginning of a new session to coffee, or even a meal, worked well for many years.
  5. The home, especially if near or on campus, is a really strategic place for the Lord’s work in all kinds of ways.
  6. We should be open to the possibility of a more overtly evangelistic approach to colleagues and post-graduate students.

I do not think that my own experience of this is in any way unique. A few years ago I was privileged to have working with me a fine Ghanaian Christian post-doctoral fellow. As a result of his witness one of the PhD students in the group also became a Christian and we felt the Lord was opening the door for us to invite people to an evangelical Bible study group. After one meeting in our home we moved to my office because of two of the PhD students, who came from a country where it was somewhat sensitive to spend time in the home of a member of the university staff. This study group lasted a year and then, the next year, became a discipleship group. It was, of course, held well after normal university hours! Looking back I feel that we missed opportunities here but the experience was still valuable and there may be situations and places where such an approach is tenable. But certainly in all these the prayer support of family, church and colleagues was of fundamental importance.

Professor Emeritus Jim Parratt was for many years Professor of Cardiovascular Pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and also chaired the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. His current interests, with his colleagues in Szeged, is in the way the heart is protected by exercise, cardiac pacing and brief periods of ischaemic stress. He has two higher doctorates, one in medicine, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1986. He is an honorary graduate of the Medical University in Szeged and has been honoured by Academies and medical societies in a number of Eastern European countries.