When you look at a mushroom, what do you see? You might be attracted by its colourful hood, or by its smell. Or you may think of mushrooms in garlic butter. When I look at a mushroom, I see the fruit body of a basidiomycete. This is because mushrooms are currently a research topic for me. And whilst I see the same object as you, I have a slightly different reaction to it.
“Help make better places” is the strap line of my department. It’s fairly good as far as strap lines go, and is reflected in the goals of many of our students. It recognises that the cities and habitats we live in at the moment are far from perfect, but does so without diminishing the hope that we can improve both our situation and those of others.
I heard a talk about “Being a Christian in Academia” recently and wanted to make a response. I had a list of points at which I would have said something different from what the speaker said, and there were probably enough for a 30-min talk.
But as I reflected, there seemed to be just one point that really mattered. One thing could set the general direction for everything else, and perhaps that was all I needed to say. That point was, “What’s the point?” I mean: why be a Christian in academia? And why have universities at all, from a Christian point of view?
Is there a Christian way of thinking about your discipline? I think most of us would answer, ‘Yes,’ but spelling out what that means is usually a difficult task!
The most common reaction I get when I tell people I am an archaeologist is, ‘I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little!’ Since most people have left that dream behind and found more useful things to do, I sometimes find myself pondering why it is worthwhile to engage in archaeology.
Anti-intellectualism in the church has been well documented (Noll 1995) and is still a problem for Christian academics today. It may appear in many guises, but one is what Don Carson calls “blue-collar arrogance”. This is the idea that if you can’t do something practical – so that others can see the direct benefit or fruit of it, your job is fairly pointless. I encountered this recently when I was asked, “don’t you want to become a lawyer, teacher or vicar? In those jobs you can help people, serve the Church financially or serve the Church theologically and pastorally.”
This week, I’m taking a look at another initiative concerned with Christian scholarship.
Grad Resources has a unique model for engaging with the university. Based in the USA, it has a telephone helpline dedicated to PhD students in moments of crisis, or who feel a need for anonymous support. The National Grad Crisis Line (freephone
1.800.GRAD.HLP) receives hundreds of calls a month, apparently helping many postgraduate students avoid despair, self-harm and even suicide.
Recently I took time out of a holiday to finish preparing a conference paper. At the same time I could see a colleague becoming more stressed with the pressure of their work load, and read an article by the Vice Chancellor of a large British university, in which he admitted that university staff could not be expected to absorb any more work.
At one of our postgrads’ discussions, a friend doing a PhD in literature was sharing how difficult it is to attribute special authority to the Bible in the English faculty, where a first principal is that all texts are treated equally. Must we just make a special exception for this book, and take the ridicule on the (other) cheek?