On 15th October 2021, the Christian Academic Network invited Dr Vinoth Ramachandra, Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students to discuss the question of bringing church and academia together to engage the University. The interview was based around a widely available video presented by Vinoth available at this link. Readers are encouraged to watch this 15 minute video before reading this article where Vinoth presents a ‘Level A’ and ‘Level B’ model of engaging the University.
Where you would you say you were given the inspiration for this model?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, both in school and at university. Although my first loves in school were physics and maths, I had great interest in history, literature and philosophy. I pursued these even as I engaged in undergraduate study in Engineering at the University of London. I became more interested in the philosophical and ethical issues raised by science and technology, which is partly why I left engineering, so I guess I’ve always had an interdisciplinary mindset. As an undergraduate back in the 1970s, the people who really impressed me as role models even though I didn’t know them where Sir Norman Anderson, Professor of Oriental Laws, who was very respected in the academy and a very articulate communicator of the Christian faith and how it related to public issues. I also think of Donald McKay, a physicist who was very knowledgeable in philosophy, theology as well as the history of science and was a mentor to young scholars in the natural sciences. I knew them only though their public speaking and writings. They were the kind of academics I would want to see in all the universities of the world – people who could speak intelligently and relevantly as Christians into the big issues of the day and are not narrowly immersed in their specialisations.
Would you say you have seen the ‘level B’ playing itself out in anywhere in the world from your experience?
It varies a lot from country to country and also within a country. Some IFES movements have a vibrant ministry amongst research students and faculty. But I see very few actually promoting the interdisciplinary aspects: organising seminars or co-teaching courses. I saw this happen in Brazil once where a professor had organised a day conference on the subject of Food, bringing together agriculturalists, political scientists, economists and theologians to talk about food from these different perspectives- where it comes from, who bears the costs, how it is distributed etc. Even if there is no specifically Christian contribution, when Christians organize such events it does say to the university community that we believe in a Uni-versity, that the God we believe in is concerned about all these questions of life and knowledge. Our Christian interests are not confined to theology and religious studies. Thus it’s an implicit witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As Christian students and teachers we should be seen as a learning community, exploring the big questions and promoting the intellectual virtues of mutual listening, rigorous argument and tolerance that are sadly absent in many academies today.
How are the levels A and B related? Do they go with each other?
There are many IFES groups that are focused exclusively on undergraduates. Sometimes because there are no Christian lecturers in the country, but often because they don’t have a vison for the university. They see the latter simply as a place for student evangelism. But in other movements where there is a vigorous ministry among researchers and lecturers, there is usually little co-ordination between that and the work among undergraduates. This fragmentation is unfortunate because there is a mutual benefit in Christian undergrads and their teachers coming together from time to time to discuss not only the various academic disciplines in a Christian way but also to discuss how they can, as a Christian community, address specific forms of idolatry or injustice in their university. Sometimes students have asked Christian academics why they have chosen a particular research specialisation and that can spark serious thinking or re-thinking on the part of the academic. Similarly, academics can share their life-journeys with students and encourage the latter to think Christianly about how they will use their academic training after university to promote the values and concerns of the kingdom of God.
Would you then say it’s about the people involved or the discipline itself?
I’d say it’s not one or the other, but both. I take it for granted that Christian academics are integrating their faith and their academic work, but want to see them go beyond that and have the courage to speak into the big issues in their university. To do this they need to be part of a supportive community and promoting interdisciplinary conversations.
There’s often a very noticeable up front message of student movements of mission and evangelism while there is a need to possibly nurture students in their learning, but is there possibly a need to strike the right balance between these as well as noting the role of the church?
I am uncomfortable with Evangelism as a noun as opposed to a verb, since when made a noun it becomes a special programme or activity that is then detached from the rest of our lives. Where people say “we are going to do evangelism”, I wonder what are they doing with the rest of their lives? I would rather speak of practising Christian discipleship in the context of the University. When the early Christians went around the Roman empire rescuing infants left to die on garbage heaps or caring for prisoners of war or welcoming strangers into their homes, they weren’t engaging in something called “social action” as opposed to “evangelism” – rather, they were simply living out the Gospel. These actions flowed out of their belief in incarnation and OT prophetic faith.
So it comes down to: what is the “Gospel” students are exposed to from the time they enter the University? If it’s narrowly understood as “being born again” or “going to heaven”, they will not see how their studies or what they do with their studies in this world have anything at all to do with the Gospel. But if they are presented with the Gospel as God’s reconciling project (the “Kingdom of God”) and what it means for all of life, they don’t ask questions such as “how do we balance?” since they now come to see that it all matters to God. The so called Great Commission is about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. To find out what Jesus has commanded we go back to Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes – hungering and thirsting after justice, being merciful, being peacemakers, sharing our possessions with the poor and needy, loving one’s enemies. And then we read the rest of Matthew, and go on to Mark, Luke and John. Our academic studies are then seen as part of our discipleship – loving God with our minds and hearts, loving our neighbours as ourselves. If we are not eager to learn and obey all that Jesus taught, then we have absolutely no right to be preaching to and inviting others to become disciples.
Christian Union talks on Doctrine, Holiness, Evangelism and various other things very helpful for building up orientation in life. A lot of that has been helpful to many of us in our University days. Looking back, if student life was just about how to face the issues, it may have had consequences of developing a strong and maybe unhealthy view in one direction. But orientation can do a lot to help transcend those issues. Therefore how could the “engagement centred” and “personal pastoral issues” could have a role between them?
We should not be creating mini-churches or mini-seminaries in universities. Rather, we should be teaching students Christian doctrine through the issues/challenges they encounter in a secular university environment. Think of a cross-cultural missionary who goes to another land. They familiarise themselves with the language, politics and culture and learn – often after many years – how to communicate the Gospel in a meaningful way. Often they have to unlearn the Gospel that they have been taught in their home church. So staff workers need to think creatively of how to teach “doctrine” to Christian students through engagement with university life and not just imitate what is done in churches and seminaries. For instance, if Christian students engage in conversations on “human rights” or “transhumanism” with non-Christians, they can go back to their Christian Union Bible studies and explore the way the imago Dei, the incarnation and bodily resurrection of Jesus bear on these topics. They begin to grasp these doctrines not in an abstract way, detached from their lives as students, but in a way that is powerfully relevant. They have been “earthed” in Christian mission/engagement.
I remember asking a woman in Portugal how she came to Christ at university from a totally non-Christian background. She said she saw a meeting arranged by the Christian group in her university on Biodiversity Conservation. This was something she was passionate about, but never met Christians who had shown any interest in it. Her impression of Christians was that they were only interested in “converting” people like her. So she was drawn into the group, because they had a bigger view of discipleship, and eventually she was baptised. So, if we are cross-cultural missionaries in the university world, we have to listen well to the interests, concerns and questions of others and then get into our Bibles and the wider Christian intellectual tradition and discover what resources there are to address these. That is what I mean when I say we are called to a “dialogical engagement” with the university. It is to take evangelization more seriously than just dropping in from outside to “preach” to students or “play church” on campus.
One omission there may be is that an important matter is that for Christian students is how they interface with church and other student staff workers. Do not students need more support from relatively more qualified members of their local church to help them in engaging with their University and can IFES take opportunity to promote that?
I’m not sure how IFES can do that as a global network but when I was working with the IFES movement in Sri Lanka in the 1980s I would often meet church pastors and say to them not to burden students with church activities but to release them for the 3-4 years they were students, regarding them as their ambassadors/ missionaries in their respective universities. Students should belong to local churches and worship with them on Sundays. Hopefully they receive good biblical teaching in their churches which they will apply to their studies and student life as a whole. But they should join with fellow students from other churches in a united witness to the university during the rest of the week; and learning together what it means to live out the Christian faith in the context of the university. Their churches should be praying for them. The same should be the case for Christian researchers and lecturers in their local churches, though in their case they can be more involved in church activities as theirs is not a limited time period on campus.
Often a lot of church leaders are not in tune with the real questions that students are faced with and how they can engage with them. Does a church have a role to meet that?
Students and lecturers should educate their pastors and invite them to pray for them and their universities. Also, it is the role of a staff worker/travelling secretary to link Christian students with particular Christian lecturers, starting in their own universities but also in the city, as well as wider “resources” in the global church (books, Blogs, websites) that can help them develop as Christians in their chosen fields of interest. Therefore, we do need better trained travelling secretaries committed to learning themselves and who can facilitate this “learning culture” amongst students. It is a huge challenge in many of our IFES movements.