I am writing this reflection on faith and the academy for two reasons, to recall myself to my vocation when impetus is waning, and also in the hope that it may be helpful to others on the same journey. I wish to begin with my extreme gratitude for the position I have, teaching Old English online – it is not something I expected and is in so many ways an answer to prayer, and I am privileged to have wonderful students who are passionate about learning, the kind of students that English professors’ dreams are made of. Yet alongside this there is always in me the depressive tendency toward despair, the eternal tentativeness and difficulty finishing things that is OCD, and the temptation to envy – there are always more successful scholars and teachers who seem so much better equipped, with few real challenges and an ability to navigate the politics of academia with ease – they seem to have never had their lives shattered. It is easy to envy such people – but it is also a sin, though not an uncommon one. It is something we find in Israel throughout the Old Testament – a tendency to envy the success or at least ostensible success of other nations – and two of the key weapons used against envy are thankfulness and memory: the memory of God’s freeing work in Israel’s history, and Psalmic entrance into the courts of God with thanksgiving. I have expressed thanksgiving above; what I wish to do in what follows is to remember, to trace some of the seasons I have encountered with regard to my faith and academic work. I realize that it may be absurd for someone merely 30+ years old to speak of “seasons” of life; but I shall abide that absurdity and perhaps come back to edit it in 30 more years.
Thus far, I have encountered three such seasons, which I will divide into undergrad work, graduate work, and post-graduate work. Each is a little different from the other, and requires different tools and supports. To begin with undergrad, it was a time of growth, a discovery of “the scandal of the Evangelical mind” (Noll) and the fact that many of the myths cherished by Christians concerning the university simply were not true. Certainly, as a home-schooled student I had been sheltered from much of the rampant anti-intellectualism in both Christian and secular culture, yet one always heard stories – and they are still prevalent enough for Christians to be producing horrible caricatures of the university such as the recent film “God’s Not Dead.” In any case, what I found at university was far different from such caricatures, a place where one could meet supportive Christian friends who were actually open to discussion and thinking about things. And while all the professors believed something and were certainly biased in certain ways (who is not that lives a life worth living and believes in something?), they were far more intolerant of laziness and ignorance than they were of faith. I certainly never encountered the militant atheists looking to convert me through sermonic lectures, and it is indeed rather hard for me to imagine the existence of such creatures – it seems to me a basic tenet of pedagogy that lectures neither are nor should be sermons of any kind, whether atheist or Christian, but rather attempts to probe whatever mysteries lie in the material of the class.
But with regard to personal dealings in matters of faith and the academy, one of the striking things was an assumption of monolithic definitions of both faith and particular fields. It was – or at least seemed – possible to come up with a definition in entirety of a thing called faith and a definition in entirety of a thing called academics (or whatever discipline one was in). Coming from an Evangelical background, faith for me was defined as something quite personal and experiential, but there was less by way of historical content – dealing in matters of faith and academics meant bringing a Christ whom (it seemed) had only been discovered yesterday into dialogue with whatever field one was engaging. And to a certain degree this worked, and in many ways gave an impetus to my work that other students did not have. Whatever else one says about Christian approaches to faith, it certainly lends an impetus and earnestness and worth to one’s endeavours so often lacking in many of the social imaginaries available to those of my generation. And when faith is considered something expansive – the grounds for exploration – rather than constricting, there is little fear of it producing caricatured and shoddy work. To be sure, I probably indulged on occasion in an overly anachronistic mapping of my own faith onto faith in the literature of the past, but all undergrads begin with the encounter between themselves and the texts in any case, and the question is never whether we “bring in” our own perspectives or not – we always do – but whether we are open to using those perspectives as a launchpoint for curiosity, exploration, and a discovery of reality, or whether we are seeking to confine and box in our material (and this latter is not something unique to undergrads, but something even good scholars of both Christian and secular ilk can fall into).
One of the charms of this season is the fact that one can still find books on “Christianity and x,” where “x” is whatever you happen to be doing – one has not (as happens in grad school) become so specialized that the existence of such a book on one’s topic would in most cases mean it was too generic a topic to make good material for graduate dissertations and theses. Which brings us to the second season, graduate work.
The intriguing thing is that it is sometime during grad school that the equation flips in terms of faith and the academy. Whereas in the undergraduate degree it is faith impelling one outward to explore the breadth and depth of all the many fields, it switches roles in the graduate degrees and becomes the thing keeping one sane, human, and balanced – at least to the degree such things are possible in grad school. This is necessary on account of a number of factors. One is the realization of the sheer scope of academics and the academy – one begins knowing in that Socratic way precisely how little one knows, how much more there is left to know, and that one is very unlikely to be at the top of the heap – thinking about it in terms of “tops” and “heaps” indeed comes to seem simplistic. At the same time, one is delving deeper and deeper into a very specific instance in a specific field, and the magnification of that specificity simply increases awareness of a complexity that is beautiful yet felt most often as disconcerting in its slipperiness, particularly when it comes to articulating it and pinning it down.
Further, whereas undergrad involved the discovery that university does not pose the caricatured dangers to the soul so often feared by Christians, graduate work is the place where one begins to discern what I like to call “the principalities and powers.” These are the political and administrative forces that sway and move the course of the university – often only indirectly and ambiguously influenced by the core staff of the university, the professors – and the amount of articles available online lamenting the state of higher education suggest that it is not even a uniquely Christian perspective allowing us to see this; others are noticing the fruit. Indeed, it seems to me that in many ways C. S. Lewis was uncannily prophetic in much of his third space trilogy novel, That Hideous Strength, in which a collusion of politics and the academy and administration end with a large conglomerate uninterested in the real purposes of the university and headed by a demon. The narrative is of course hyperbolic and parabolic and all those other things, but I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether such a demon or some incarnations of modern university administrative practice are more frightening – or, for that matter, whether the two are distinguishable from each other. This is not to say that one gives up on the modern academy and also not to say we should tar all administrators with the same brush – I have been blessed to know some very good ones, and they need all the support from us they can get. However, it is a discovery that the Christian caricatures of the spiritual dangers of the university are in part correct, if not in the content, then at least in caution – there are perhaps demons after all, but they are elsewhere than the atheist bogeys seeking to convert the innocent Christian – atheists in any case are usually at least half Christian insofar as they believe in the cogency of reason.
All these factors – administrative culture and the potential to become inextricably entangled in both the overwhelming breadth of one’s field and the dizzying specificity of one’s project – mean that one is in danger of getting lost. I think this is something that every graduate student goes through, but it can be intensified for the Christian academic who already feels rather out of place and going against the grain in relation to other students whose belief systems are often more permeable (the spinelessness produced by late capitalist consumer culture) and who “fit in” in the overarching secular liturgy that has shaped them. What this all means is that, in graduate school, the question is not so much an intense obsession with the “academics and faith” question as it is a question of what kind of faith will preserve one as a whole and entire human being throughout the enterprises of dissertations and theses etc. Theses and dissertations written by such whole human beings nurtured in faith will indeed come out in some way as a response to the “academics and faith” question, but not because of an intense obsession over that, but because one’s faith managed to preserve one from the disintegration of self possible in graduate school. Hence it is that I would suggest that, whereas the primary engagement of faith and academics in the undergraduate season is intellectual, the primary spiritual mainstay in graduate work is liturgical, mystical, and mandatory, the thing that calls us from time to time out of the ghettos in which we fear we may be lost to remind us we are part of a whole and healed body, the body of Christ. And then one suddenly finishes one’s degrees.
This is the third season, the one I am in at the moment. This season is the one in which all the “other things” looming on the periphery during one’s prior work come into play – jobs go to those most politically savvy and good at selling themselves, or alternately to those in the right place at the right time – and I do feel that those who have had to reckon with matters of faith throughout their degrees have a bit of a disadvantage, not necessarily because hiring committees are anti-Christian, but because a certain self-consciousness has developed making it difficult for Christian academics to speak and act with the definitiveness that usually gets people jobs. At the end of the day, our faith is the reason we do what we do, and even Christian universities often fail to realize how the complexities of this make straightforward interview questions difficult, how it is in certain ways impossible to know the full relation of our work to our only partially understood selves suspended between now and the Eschaton. And yet it is only, I think, the recognition of such suspended selves that differentiates the professor from the processing machine. We falter because we are in wonder at a world that cannot be reduced to data and that will not fit neatly into a powerpoint slide – but it is the power of powerpoint that gets one jobs, and institutions are being increasingly sanitized and purged of the sting of the scholarly gadfly.
It is at this juncture – when one is in the middle of games of power and comparison and temptation to envy – that I have found it most helpful to revisit my first loves. Somewhere hidden in a deep down part of me is the person who switched from pre-medicine to the study of literature because it was authors – Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, and Tolkien – who could touch my soul. Somewhere is the person who followed Lewis and my supervisor – one of the most remarkable, committed, and caring academics I know – to the study of Milton. Somewhere is the person in whom Tolkien planted vague inklings that would later bloom into a dissertation on Old English and Biblical wisdom. Somewhere in me is still that person, and it is helpful to remember. Beauty and good do not die easily and they run deep, deeper than politics and games of self-justification and the feeling of being reduced to one’s CV. Deeper than fear is life, and it is this that has sustained and will continue to sustain me. I do not know how I will fare as I continue on the rough seas of the current academic job market, nor do I need to know. What I have known is the gentle impression of beauty and truth, gentle and dazzling and complex all at once. And in medias res, it is necessary to remember.