A Sacred Journey, Paul Nicholas Wilson. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2021.
Summary: A practical description the journey toward faithful Christian presence in secular institutions.
Many Christians do not enjoy the privilege of working for Christian employers. Working in a secular context, they neither want to ignore the rules and expectations of their workplace, nor leave their faith at the front door. The world of higher education is no exception.
Paul Nicholas Wilson has lived in that world for over 40 years and believes that a kind of “muscular” faithful presence is the proper approach to walking the line between living out a Christian life in the workplace and respecting that workplace. Before taking us on a journey into the practicalities, he offers a narrative of his own journey from his conversion through his academic career at the University of Arizona. He touches on his self-disclosures on the first day of class, his office decor, his association with Christian ministries on campus, his service in classroom and curriculum design, and support of public outreach efforts. He concludes that most important are personal acts of public faithfulness, community with other Christ followers, and a seamless integration between his faith and vocation on campus.
He then uses a travel analogy to offer practical insights on the journey of faithful presence. He discusses the roadway of higher education, both the common grace of God coming through various cultural goods as well as “road hazards” like apatheism, idolatries, tribalism, and the quest for money. He warns of the danger of dualism, the strategy of separating one’s personal faith from one’s work altogether. Sometimes, this is motivated by a misperception that any form of faith expression is illegal. Wilson offers a helpful chart and discussion of what one can, probably should not, and definitely should not, do.
Instead of dualism, Wilson advocates for integration of faith and discipline, marshalling the support of a number of Reformed thinkers. Then, over several chapters, he takes us through a “Gospel Positioning System” for the journey centered on the Triune God and a core of basic beliefs about creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. He then elaborates the journey of faithful presence first by commending the character of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, all of this worked out in our vocations.
He offers trenchant warnings about speech in a setting rife with speech. His honesty about the challenges he faced in dealing with professional gossip was refreshing. He challenges scholars to excellence in their work and in all of life. He offers a simple rubric for evaluating research efforts:
- Why now?
- So what?
- Who cares?
- Done well?
- Well done?
He advocates for collaboration, especially with graduate TA’s, helping them develop their skills as well as enhancing the classroom experience for students. Finally, all this creates a platform in which a faculty member can pursue “public goods and positive externalities”–serving the common good through advising, departmental service, and sharing resources, including funding. All of these offer the context in which respectful personal and public witness can be shared respectfully and forthrightly.
Wilson concludes with a word for churches and seminaries. He contends that these rarely recognize and affirm the sacredness of secular vocations, and center ministry around the congregation itself rather than the work on congregants in the world.
James Davison Hunter’s ideas of “faithful presence” hold a strong attraction for many academics I know. Yet sometimes, I feel this becomes little more than “niceness.” What Wilson does is flesh out faithfulness in character and the specific deeds of professors in teaching, research, and service. He makes a strong appeal that one cannot do this alone but only in community. And he challenges the dualism often unwittingly supported by churches that confines a Christian’s ministry to personal and church contexts rather than affirming workplaces as worship places.
This is a valuable resource that I’d love to see get into the hands of every Christian faculty member, staff person, and administrator on campus. It would make a great book for discussion in groups, offering mutual encouragement to put into practice the precepts found here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.