A dear friend of mine emailed me in February. She, herself a retired college professor, was preparing to lead a retreat for a gathering of Christians in graduate school. The question she put to me was this: “What are the intrinsic challenges, opportunities, and temptations of serving God in Academe?”
Putting aside the many opportunities that are present in my job, I wrote about the challenges and temptations I see. (Does this show I am not an optimist by nature? Perhaps I will write about the opportunities in a future post.) What follows is a lightly edited version of my response.
One of the basic challenges in any vocation is the challenge to love. Loving others and loving God are both commands our flesh resists. Those challenges take different shapes in various vocations, however, so I’ll spell out how my flesh resists these commands in my experience as a college professor.
One of the challenges to loving God and others is the temptation and even the encouragement toward pride in academia. We are constantly required to update our CVs and tell everyone what we’ve done and how important it was. Acknowledging what God has done or what God has strengthened us to do is all fine and very good, but of course the tone at secular schools is much different. In grant-writing or even end-of-year activity reports we are told to promote ourselves or not be promoted. But pride is deadly and offensive to our God! God may discipline us in this regard through failure, rejection, being overlooked, or working closely with others that boast in themselves. Pride is sneaky enough that I am tempted to boast in the amount of work I have to do or even the small amount of sleep I’ve gotten; many here wear haggard faces and yawns as badges of honor.
I also struggle with loving students. This is largely because of impatience, wanting students to learn material more quickly than they do. But this touches on pride as well—I was able to learn this quickly, why can’t they? God calls teachers to be kind and sympathetic, and pride can almost short-circuit those fruits of the Spirit.
Finally, the academic community has always been hostile to Christianity, but that hostility appears to be growing. Christianity is increasingly being labelled as a religion for the uneducated and the mindless lemmings. That is both offensive to my pride and untrue. However, it requires patience, care, and love to defend the faith without being defensive, to put forth a winsome argument for the truth of the gospel without turning people away.
That was my response; how about you? If you are a Christian serving in higher education, what challenges, opportunities, and temptations do you face? For those in other vocations, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter too!