Intellectual servanthood

Image: 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' by Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893). Image freely available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_washing_Peter%27s_feet.jpgImage slightly cropped.

Intellectual servanthood

‘Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”’ (Mark 9:35)

‘“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”’ (Luke 16: 7–10)

Today I’ve been reflecting again on Jesus’ call to radical servanthood – a call which he makes to all his disciples, and one whose ultimate demonstration is found in his own life, death and resurrection. The two passages quoted above outline two dimensions of this call: the first strips us of our every pretence to status or achievement since greatness is to be measured by self-sacrifice; the second reminds us that the lifestyle God calls us to is not some kind of favour we are doing him, but the natural outworking of the amazing grace that He has shown us.

This call is as relevant for us as scholars as it is for any other Christian. God calls us to be servants on every level – serving Him; serving one another; serving our wider communities and the people we are engaging with day by day. Sometimes it is easier to see how this calling might work – when our research has clear societal application, for example, or when we are engaged in teaching or communicating our ideas with others who could benefit from them. Sometimes, though, it is harder to see how our daily activities can be acts of service to others, especially when we are engaged in research that seems to take place mostly in isolation, or where the broader ‘impact’ (to use a much-abused academic buzzword!) of what we are studying is harder to gauge. In those times, I think it is helpful to enumerate some of the parties that we are serving through our work, and think through how this might affect the way we approach that work. Here are a few questions that I’ve been using to help me think this through:

  • How does my work serve God? Whatever intellectual gifts we have come ultimately from God (as ‘every good and perfect gift’ does; James 1:17), and as we apply these gifts we can turn them back towards Him in worship. How does this affect my attitude when I sit down in the morning to read, or write, or think?
  • How does my work serve my Christian community? As academics we have an opportunity to help our fellow brothers and sisters make sense of some of the big ideas that are shaping their lives; is this a responsibility I take up willingly? (A few tips for this are found in previous blog posts on this site: one on how postgraduates can contribute to the church, and a second on how the church can support its postgraduates.)
  • How does my work serve my academic community? Those around us in academia need to know Jesus’ love and power; we are placed there to be ambassadors for Jesus, and we have His authority to speak truth into our environments. How does this come through in my working life? And what about my interactions with those I teach or supervise? (As I wrote about a couple of months ago, academics’ interactions with students are not purely transactional exchanges of information; they are likewise chance for us to demonstrate God’s character.)
  • How does my work serve society more broadly? A pretty big question! But we are part of God’s great project of bringing His Kingdom to earth. How does that affect the kinds of research that we choose to do, and the way we tackle it?

No simple answers here – but some questions I’m pondering at the moment. I’d love to hear your own reflections in the comments.

Comments

Thanks, Mark, for this encouragement to think in terms of service instead of just achievement and accolades.  

I wonder whether there's another category of service: serving non-human creatures?  We seem to have at least an instinctive sense of duty to rescue injured or endangered animals, for example, and I think many conservationists have a sense of duty to whole species or even ecosystems.  I don't think this is misplaced, is it?  I've heard it said that the statement in Genesis 2:15 that the man was placed in the Garden "to work it and take care of it" can easily be translated "to listen to and serve it" (I think this point is made by Cal de Witt, and David Hanson makes it too).  That would be a clear mandate to serve some kind of 'agroecosystem', as it might be termed scientifically - a system that we serve by immersing ourselves in it, as one does in a garden.

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