What is the crucial contribution of Christian faculty to the university today? What essential gift does the university long for – even if only in an inchoate way? What unique offering can we make to the life of the academy?
Hope. Only Christians can offer hope.
We live in seemingly hopeless times. We despair over our politics and worry about the temperature of our planet. We wrestle with the persistence of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of pernicious discrimination. To many on campus, the future seems bleak. Time reported in 2017 that 40% of college students felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 20-24 year-olds. In the past year both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed featured articles on faculty mental health and suicide. We’re in the middle of a “hopelessness crisis.” And in this kind of crisis, Christian faculty have unique opportunities and resources to offer.
First, we uniquely have hope in Jesus. In the conclusion to Romans, Paul quotes Isaiah, saying, “…’The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:12-13) Paul pictures hope that is “filling us” and “overflowing” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hope is not mere naïve optimism or wishful thinking. It is given by God, grounded in Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is not a dim point of light in the cosmic darkness. It is the life-giving, world-illuminating radiance of the sun at high noon.
Hope—a deep-seated conviction about God’s on-going transformative activity in the present that will eventuate in God’s all-encompassing renewal of creation in the future—should infuse the agenda of our research and the tone of our scholarship. We study convinced that God’s goodness, beauty, and power are prior to (in both time and priority) humanity’s evil and brokenness. We critique and commend with charity, and we eschew cynicism and sarcasm. We teach, mentor, and sponsor with generosity and grace because we have released anxious jealousies. We are a people with hope.
As you begin this academic year, where or in what do you put your hope? In what areas do you need overflowing hope?
Second, we incarnate hope on campus, as we pursue our vocation as scholars, colleagues, and teachers. We shape the two main products of the university: students and ideas. We are strategically placed on campus to love fellow faculty and students. We are called to bear witness to the hope of Christ within our vocational context.
I recognize than in many places, hostility and antagonism toward Christian faculty grows. Many are ridiculed for their faith. In some disciplines, graduate students say that being identified as a Christian can jeopardize their careers. And yet, I believe when we incarnate hope, we influence the culture of the academy by contributing positively to the university.
This summer, Andrew, a self-identified atheist professor at an R1 university spoke at an InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry staff conference at the invitation of Julian, one of our staff. Andrew sent the staff team his musings about the ensuing conversation the next morning. He wrote,
I found myself wide awake at 3 AM this morning thinking…. As I said last night, we can all admit the need for renewal; we live such shallow lives in so many ways. Certainly we university profs and graduate students in moments of honesty realize that a lot of what we do is pretty trivial, irrelevant, even silly.
I found myself thinking about “incarnational presence” and about how Julian sees his mission. An incarnational presence would be one by which all/most/many people would feel renewed. That, I think, is part of what Julian has done here. We find ourselves saying, “You know, our conversations are often deeper and richer when Julian contributes. Even when he’s just around. And he tries to bring in visiting speakers who will also do that.” And when they do, we have no objection at all to their presence on our campus.
They’re bringing renewal; they’re helping us with a deeper aspect of our own mission. And how could we object to that? You’re here to help us have better conversations or to have conversations about related, but slightly better topics. We feel renewed by honest, probing conversation, by genuine inquiry. We’re academics; we live for that.
Christian faculty incarnate hope on campus.
I am the beneficiary of that kind of incarnational presence of hope. Christian faculty have mentored me and invested in me since my student days. As a student leader in the Harvard InterVarsity chapter, Christian faculty reached out to me. They were a constant bedrock and support for me and for the chapter.
Yum-Tong Siu, a professor of mathematics, invited me to his church and he and his wife, Sau-fong, also faculty, cared for me during my early years on campus. Their family “adopted” me. This was particularly crucial when my parents cut off their relationship with me when I decided to come to staff with InterVarsity. Yum-Tong and Sau-fong loved me, encouraged me, and supported me as surrogate parents – doing for me what my parents felt they could not do at the time. They gave me hope when it would have been easy to despair. They’ve continued to stand with me as prayer partners and donors for over 24 years.
Jim and Vera Shaw (Jim was a long-standing faculty member in the dental school) anchored the Harvard Radcliffe Christian Fellowship as advisers for over 50 years. I remember them at weekly InterVarsity chapter meetings. They gave us hope that our faith could flourish over a lifetime of discipleship. They gave us hope during the ups-and-downs of student ministry. I recall with particular fondness a meal at the Harvard Faculty Club, where Jim and Vera asked me about the health of the fellowship. Over the decades, Jim would often write me handwritten letters to tell me that he was praying for me and for the ministry. I was not alone. They kept in touch with over 800 InterVarsity alumni from those years. They were a witness to hope across generations.
I continue to benefit from the wisdom of Christian faculty who, during my recent tenure as president of InterVarsity, have served on our Board of Trustees. I am grateful for people like Ken Elzinga (professor of economics, UVA), John Inazu (associate professor of law and political science, Wash U), and Dennis O'Neal (dean and professor of engineering and computer science, Baylor), and Brenda Salter McNeil (associate professor of reconciliation studies, Seattle Pacific) who serve us with their wisdom, scholarship, and witness of hope on campus.
How do you incarnate hope to those around you?
Third, we experience hope as we see the Holy Spirit at work on campus. In InterVarsity, we are experiencing significant growth of ministry to and among faculty around the country. So many believe the university campus is hard soil—and that faculty hearts are set like concrete. We repudiate that false news. John Alexander, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who served as InterVarsity’s president in the 70s and 80s, challenged that form of unbelief:
“God is at work on college campuses where he is building a portion of the body of Jesus Christ. Too often Christians write off the campus as hopeless, detached from God’s presence and beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit. We repudiate this defeatist attitude and espouse the belief that even at the most hostile school, the principles in Habakkuk 1:15 apply: ‘Observe and be astounded, and be amazed; for I am doing a work in your day which you would not believe even if it were told you.’ God is the great active agent on these campuses; if he were not thus engaged, there would be little point to our efforts.”
I believe that God is at work, actively seeking out faculty and administrators.
- The number of faculty actively involved with InterVarsity has grown by over 25% over the past 10 years, reaching an all-time high of over 2,000 of your colleagues.
- The number of new believers within Graduate and Faculty Ministries has increased 15% over the past five years.
- There are now over 60 on-campus faculty fellowships across the country.
This news should give all of us great hope. And, at the same time, we feel a holy discontent. Though we work with over 2,000 faculty, there are over 2 million faculty and administrators on campus. Though we work with 60 on-campus faculty fellowships, thousands of departments would benefit from the kind of incarnational presence that Andrew described. Though student ministry flourishes, over 1,300 campuses in the U.S. have no identifiable Christian witness.
We believe these facts must change. After an 18-month process, InterVarsity has prayerfully committed to a new vision: to catalyze faculty prayer groups on 2,500 campuses, to facilitate witnessing communities of faculty on 500 new campuses, and to serve 12,000 faculty by 2030 – all while we attempt to plant 1,000 new student fellowships in that same period.
This goal would feel unreachable if we did not believe God was the great active agent on campus. And this goal would feel burdensome if we did not believe that every campus deserves praying faculty, and every faculty member deserves the invitation to love God, love their campus, love their academic discipline, and love the world.
Would you join us in seeing this vision realized? Would you pray for your campus, help start or sustain a faculty fellowship, and advocate for InterVarsity in your networks? Would you consider investing in planting a new student fellowship or financially partnering with a local staff worker? Would you respond to God’s invitation to join him in the places he is already at work?
I am thankful that momentum for faculty ministry is building. Last year, I participated in a Christian consultation convened by a foundation that addressed the topic, “Is there hope for the Church in 2050?” A diverse group of Christian leaders gathered, few from traditional campus ministries. After a day of deliberation and analysis, the consultation’s highest recommendation was this: increase the number of Christian faculty. We called on the foundation, churches, and ministries to encourage more Christian students to become faculty and to invest in the development and longevity of current Christian faculty. The consultation believed that the incarnational presence of Christian faculty best influences the ideas which influence the church. Christian faculty are conduits of hope.
Because the world is filled with despair, I believe any sign of hope is a potent witness. This summer, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Hebron in the West Bank. It is hard not to feel hopeless when you tour the area. History and hatred, fear and firepower, anger and aggression manifest in the ubiquitous barbed wire, security checkpoints, and machine guns. The conflict seems interminable and intractable. In the middle of the spiritual and physical devastation, I was struck by a single piece of graffiti, the only graffiti allowed to remain in an area scrubbed clean for miles around. I do not know which side created it, but I know both sides needed it. It was brave, it was seemingly foolhardy, and it was essential to everyone in that place. The graffiti was a simple word: “HOPE.”