Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It’s a hidden reality that is a grief some of my friends carry, and something some of my colleagues and I have been talking about this week. It is the challenge many of our friends who are believing graduate students and faculty face. It is that they are understood neither by their departments in the university nor the people in their churches. Universities often don’t get or actively challenge the “believing” part. And the church often doesn’t know what to do with the “faculty” or “graduate student” part.

The university’s response can be somewhat puzzling given the emphases on “tolerance” and “open inquiry” and “pursuit of truth”. Sadly, there is often an intolerant edge to tolerance, an a priori decision to rule out certain beliefs from discussion, and a reluctance to admit the possibility that if some things are true, others may not be.

While I could do a blog just on this (and may at some point) I want to focus on faculty in the church. Often the sense faculty get in the church is that the university is “the enemy”, and therefore they are a bit suspect. Sometimes the rigorous process of questioning that goes on in every academic discipline arouses suspicion that secretly they are at work undermining the faith of students. Sometimes faculty are thought of as simply these really smart people who do things that are incomprehensible to the average parishioner. Then there are the times that faculty hear discussions of science or technology drawn more from talk radio programs than serious research that they know are based on erroneous notions. This is most difficult when they hear these things from the pulpit.

On this matter of questioning, questioning is at the heart of academic work. The posing of questions is seen not as a means to undermine belief but to pursue greater understanding. On the incomprehensibility of academic work, there is an element of truth in that as you read some academic papers. The truth is that none of us has the technical knowledge to understand everything in the research world. But I’ve been amazed that many of these people are the kind of good teachers who can take complex things and explain them on a level where I can get at least a basic idea of their work if I’m willing to devote the attention. And how interesting it could be if pastors and others consulted with faculty who have expertise in certain areas when those areas arise in sermons, classes, or board discussions.

One of the things to be considered is that believing faculty and graduate students are part of the body of Christ.  When the faculty and grad student part of the body is hurting, it affects the rest of the body. And when the gifts of the faculty part of the body are welcomed and received, including the gifts related to their academic calling, the rest of the body is immeasurably enriched.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is growing in our understanding of what it means to say “all truth is God’s truth”. The difficulty is that we don’t always see how truths in the Bible and truths uncovered in research connect. It seems that part of the problem is how uncomfortable it is when the connections aren’t apparent. Our faculty and grad students can help because many often spend years or entire careers seeking to resolve research questions. In the church, we often seem uncomfortable if we can’t resolve a question in 45 minutes. Yet not all of life’s and the world’s big questions are that easily resolvable.

By the same token, when researchers see something that doesn’t immediately square with their understanding of the Bible, that doesn’t mean the Bible is messed up or wrong. I would propose that we say, “that’s an interesting question, but let’s not jump to conclusions but work on our understanding of how these things connect”

I’d love to hear your experiences of the intersection of church and academia. What’s been hard? And what’s been good?



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