24 Feb Bridge the Gap
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Abraham Kuyper, one of the most prolific Christian thinkers and the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands is known to have said this in a speech on the occasion of opening the Free University in Amsterdam in 1880. In just a line, Kuyper highlights how all our pursuits and endeavours are subsumed under God’s sovereignty and this includes the pursuits of knowledge and learning in a university. In other words, the often-perceived divide between the secular and the spiritual is a dichotomy that has been created by us. In recent years, the chasm between the two seem to have widened even more as absolutes and religiosity of any kind are often viewed with suspicion in academic spaces defined by post modernism and secular humanism. Kuyper’s definition of what a university should be, sadly, no longer identifies with the ethos of academic institutions in the contemporary world.
Coming closer to home, it is not surprising to see how the divide between the secular and theological spaces are very stark. We have excellent theological students who have very little idea of the secular world and brilliant secular academicians who take no interest in their faith. Religion for most people is just an identity that they are born into and nothing more. Given that God is sovereign over all aspects of our existence—including the secular and the spiritual, there is a need to bridge the gap between the two and reconcile both spheres through integration of faith and academics.
When I joined university ten years ago, the buzz word in the evangelical circles was “integration” of faith and academics. I was located not only in the learning hub of the city in North Delhi but also witnessed strong student evangelical movements flourishing in the campus. The concept was very new and fascinating to me. One of the things that had a profound impact on my life as a research student was this concept where we were constantly encouraged to strive towards making what we believe shape the way we look at academics and our discipline. Much of what I have done as part of my research journey has been defined by what I learnt during my college days.
However, looking back, there is also a realization that it could have gone beyond our little Bible study circles in the corners of the campus and attempting to invite friends to our Bible studies. Most of our Bible studies were confined to what Terence Halliday calls the “pietistic model”. Unfortunately, integration of faith and academics did not give us a vocabulary or empower us to engage with classroom discussions with professors and peers and would be often left stumped when asked difficult questions.
College is the most fertile period of intellectual growth where opinions and worldviews are formed. It is at this phase that Christian students must be equipped to become a medium to connect the secular with the spiritual. Prof. John Wyatt in a podcast on effective reading talks about the importance of reading broadly and widely across various disciplines that encompass both the secular and the theological to strike a wholesome balance. Understanding the foundational tenets of doctrines is as important as decoding the ontological basis of secular philosophies for faith to engage effectively with academics.
I remember a heated debate between a staff worker and a student in one of our Bible study sessions in college on the interpretation of the verse in Matthew 6:33, “Seek ye first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The staff said that we should give priority to our studies without “wasting” too much of our time in our Bible studies because that is what our primary duty and calling are as students in the university. The student debated that studying Scriptures should be given primary importance because that is what the verse seems to be suggesting—to put our godly pursuits above all things. Perhaps it would have been settled quickly if someone intervened and said that it is not a case of either/or but rather should be taken as a whole unit, each equal in its importance. Dr Jay Green, a history professor in an essay on academics and faith writes, “These (academic disciplines and practices) are sophisticated and time-honoured crafts. When they’re practiced wisely, they hold enormous potential for cultivating a deeper love for God and our neighbours.” Such should be the symbiotic relationship that faith and academics share, each enriching the other by uncovering truths previously unknown.
Christian teachers in the university will have to not only play an important role but also take responsibility in engaging faith and academics intently. I have been working as a teacher of English Literature for the last three years and it dawned on me that much of what is being taught about the Christian faith in the classrooms are distorted, incomplete and misappropriated. Humanities courses like English Literature heavily rely on concepts and ethics borrowed from the Bible and regardless of a person’s faith or disbelief in a higher power, one has to engage with the Bible. On the other hand, we have Christian teachers who could not care less. In a recent conversation with a friend who also teaches in the university, she expressed how she finds academic theories much more liberating than her Christian faith because all religion does is oppress. Perhaps this is a cause of alarm and concern and also a call for faithful Christian teachers to join the university in order to reclaim the lost narrative of the Gospel and present it accurately.
To conclude, I would like to bring out four reasons why integration of faith and academics is important. First is for the simple reason that academia needs to be redeemed for the glory of God so that the universities live up to the purpose it exists for. The fallenness of the world extends to all spheres of our being and academia is no different.
The second reason is to bring real solutions to real issues. We often talk about how the Bible holds the answers to everything, to all the problems in this world. It would then make sense only if we are able to unveil the truths of the Scriptures and make them relevant to the issues that plague our contemporary world. The Bible on one hand and the newspaper on the other as the famous 20th century theologian Karl Barth said should be our modus operandi.
Thirdly, to produce not only good but compassionate thinkers. The academic world is flooded with intellectuals who are comfortably seated in their ivory towers completely disconnected from the rest of the world. A colleague of mine quipped that the most well-known economists who often makes policies have no idea about the price of bhindi or aloo in the sabzimandi. As Christians by faith, we are also called to not only be thinkers but be salt and light, to be hands and feet wherever we are placed to serve. A healthy integration of academics and faith would enable us to interpret the societies we live in with more empathy, identity issues and work towards mitigating issues and solving problems.
Last but not the least, to be effective witnesses, we need to be good Christian scholars and intellectuals in every sense of the word. How are we to reach out to students and to faculty members if we do not speak in the language that they do? On the campus where the sceptres of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Zizek and the like looms large, how can we make the Gospel relevant if we do not understand the worldviews that have shaped them?
I would like to end by rephrasing the challenge that Terence Halliday posed— “What would a 21st century vision be for UESI if Christ and Christians are really, actually and to be observably engaging the whole university for Christ?” We must work out the answers ourselves to this question for our universities and institutions of higher learning.
Green, Jay. “Academics and Faith.” https://byfaithonline.com/academics-and-faith/
Halliday, Terence C.. “Engaging the Whole University for Christ.” https://gfm.intervarsity.org/file/3854/download?token=6BVdnojc
Kuyper, Abraham. “Sphere Sovereignty.” reformationaldl.org/2019/07/17/sphere-sovereignty-abraham-kuyper/
Bendangrenla S Longkumer is a PhD research student at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She also teaches English Literature to undergraduate students at the University of Delhi.