I am participating this week in a conference on higher education and the role of Christians in exercising a redemptive influence in the academic world. A message this morning told the story of a pre-tenured professor who was respectful of others but forthright in sharing how his faith informed his academic work in public presentations. As anyone who is familiar with the academic world knows, this can be risky business. Tenure depends not only on objective things like publications, funding, service, and teaching, but also on what your colleagues think of you. And no matter how good the former, if the latter is a problem, a way often can be found to deny the candidate tenure.
Truth is, this poses a serious question for any person of faith. For such people, one’s beliefs are not confined to a small segment of life but inform how one thinks about all of life. And yet increasingly, people of faith are asked to keep those beliefs to themselves and not allow it to inform their ethics or their scholarship in the academic workplace, except where that conforms to academic orthodoxy.
Admittedly, there are times for prudence. Not every outrageous remark requires an answer. Not all battles are worth fighting. There are some sleeping dogs it is best to let lie. And there is the issue of recognizing that the university is supposed to be a place where no religious view is privileged. Hopefully what that means is that we can have respectful and civil conversations about differences. It does not mean we get to enforce our faith informed view on any issue unless we can persuade others that it really makes the most sense.
But when is courage called for? That is the harder question because courageous acts always require risk, and prudence often suggests avoiding risk. It seems that one instance is where the “prudent” act would be one that deceives others about oneself and denies the truth of what one believes, perhaps including the God one believes in. Courage seems in many cases to involve simply honesty when the alternative is evasion, deception, or denial.
Courage may also be called for when the welfare of others is endangered and trouble can be avoided by avoiding speaking up. I’m reminded of a faculty member who spoke up for a Christian student group whose status on campus was called into question simply because they required their leaders to be Christian. This person, who was highly respected, was not directly connected to the group and did not need to do so, yet was convinced that the university was wrongly using its power and put his own reputation (and power) on the line to make that point.
Those are a few of my reflections. I’d be curious what others think about this issue of where the line between prudence and courage is drawn?