Why secular academia (and not ‘professional’ ministry)

After reading my post, ‘What Being in Cyprus Does to Me‘, some of you (Nemo, perhaps?) were probably thinking, ‘Why doesn’t this guy bite the bullet and become a minister or missionary? Why does he persist in pursuing a PhD in the academy?’ An important pair of questions.

There are some basic reasons why I want to go into academia regardless of the question of ministry:

  • I enjoy teaching. I very much enjoy teaching Latin and wish also to teach Roman history
  • I enjoy research
  • I like the look of my own writing
  • I am enamoured with the ancient world to such a degree that sometimes I chortle in my glee when visiting archaeological sites and viewing Roman art

These are the sort of normal reasons that have led me to pursue a career in academia. But alongside them, given the pleasure that Christian ministry gives me and my concern for the mission of the Church in post-Christian Europe, there are, inevitably, other reasons. However, I believe that these reasons would not be able to hold me in the Ivory Tower if reasons such as the above were not part of it all as well.

First (in order that things come to me), the academy is as secular a place as you could find in today’s world. The idea of faith commitment impacting research, even in many divinity schools, is regarded as transgressing the sacred secularity of ‘objective’ research. Many academics view belief in God as naive and foolish and, quite frankly, stupid.

Thus, the academics need Jesus. And they need fellow intelligent people there working with them, doing the same job to the same standards to show them Jesus. They need Jesus shown to them not just in proclamation but also in deeds — how one treats fellow colleagues, how one treats family, how one treats students, how one treats spare time. I want to be the clever but odd Christian known for his holy love of faculty and students who prays and takes Sundays off but works hard every day at the uni.

Second, Europe and ‘the West’* are leaving behind the Faith. They appreciate Gothic architecture, but care not a whit for its spirituality (this link, too). There is something to be said for Bach as a musician, but not as a person who actually believed in the events of the St Matthew Passion. If we want to bring a churchless, unchurched generation to the foot of the Cross, we need to bring the Cross to them. This is the what Sts Francis and Dominic did, as well as John Wesley. I don’t recommend open-air preaching outside of Africa and South America, but I do recommend breaking out of the Christian ghetto.

By being in secular academia, I will rub shoulders on a daily basis with the citizens of post-Christendom, whether scholars or students or administrators or cleaners. Although leaving behind the Faith, anti-God academics notwithstanding, some of these people are searching for something spiritual. They aren’t looking in the Church. So I will be the Church in their midst.

Third, students need people who can treat them with respect. Christian students, as well, need people of faith in their midst as they go through the challenges presented by the academic world. So many of our young people leave the Church during university. I think Christian faculty can help stem that flow, even without breaking rules and saying, ‘You know, I actually do agree with the Bible/St Irenaeus/St Anselm.’

Fourth, the academic world is the world of ideas. Some of these people (the ones who write books people actually read) are culture-shapers. If I could influence them for Christ, then they could influence the world for Christ. Alternatively, if I have the chance, I want to write some books for a popular audience, myself. Help them see certain glimmers of gospel in the ancient world.

We live in a different world from that of my father’s generation. My father’s generation — the hash-smoking hippies with tie-dyed shirts and two-tone trousers — helped make this world. But they all grew up in church. They all knew these stories, and a lot them went back to church in middle age. Their children and grandchildren are growing up churchless. They don’t know the stories or the message.

In 1973, my dad went to seminary to help change the world. I think he has. My brother has followed in those footsteps, working in rural parish ministry in southern Saskatchewan. I don’ feel called to that. I feel like the city is where I belong. Cities with their cafés of unchurched or de-churched young people, with their pubs of drunken metaphysicists, with their growing plethora of religious ideologies, where the idea of going to church isn’t on anyone’s radar. Here, as part of the intelligentsia, I may be able to make an impact, to help people rediscover that very old-time religion that they rejected when smoking pot in the ’60s or swallowing Ecstasy last night. Or when they were sexually abused by their priest. Or emotionally abused by their church-going father. Or cheated on by their Jesus-loving wife.

We need new thought-patterns for ministry. And I think non-professional, unpaid people with normal jobs are the secret and the key. Give us a knowledge of God and the Scriptures, give us a bit of training, and root us in the spiritual disciplines, and we can go forth to set this world on fire, whether IFES or the local church is paying us to do it or not.

*This generally means ‘where affluent white people live’, right?

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4 thoughts on “Why secular academia (and not ‘professional’ ministry)

  1. Tim Keller advocates much of what you state here. He strongly pushes for Christians to impact centers of culture= cities. If you have not read it already, I highly recommend his book Center Church.

    • Glad you found it powerful! The idea, if not the wording, of ‘being the church in their midst’ came to me from an arresting, little Catholic novel Mr Blue by Miles Connolly, wherein Mr Blue sets out to be ‘God’s spy’ amongst factory workers in early 20th-century America. This is what I hope to be, all in all. And hopefully others will be interested in taking up this great task as well.

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