I’ve spent my last couple of posts exploring an important lecture by Vinoth Ramachandra. We’ve already had a brief look at the world of the university. Now, let’s ask what it means to be a Christian within that.
It’s a pretty embarrassing memory, really.
Ten years ago, I was writing a tutorial paper for my undergraduate course on medieval history. Meanwhile, in my student group, I’d been hearing a lot about the nature of true Christianity. The question I posed for my paper was, how Christian were the beliefs of people in medieval Christendom? It’s not a good historical question at all. But my answer was worse. I used my half-baked, rah-rah take on the European Reformations to question all that ‘ritual’ and ‘tradition’, and I wrote off generations of medieval faith as ‘unbiblical’. It was a bizarre, wrongheaded attempt to shoehorn evangelism into an educational exercise. It was Arthur versus the university! After the paper was returned to me, I could see that I hadn’t really been practising history. But could I have known any better?
Let’s accept the academic disciplines as both human traditions and gifts from God.
Ramachandra lays out a wonderful definition: the academic disciplines should be understood as ‘enduring social practices into which students are inducted, and to which some of them may contribute if they stay long enough to do research’. These fields of study are human traditions, but we receive them as divine gifts, expressions of common grace, and so we are able to dedicate ourselves to them in wholehearted pursuit of the truth. And so we have Christians who, as Ramachandra says, are ‘fully part of the life of the university’, immersed in its world, conversant with its issues, connected to its people.
The implication is that Christian students and scholars will not play their faith-life off against their study-life, but will see the two as interdependent. To fully enter into an academic discipline means being shaped by its tradition and practices. At the same time, your Christian formation will guide and complement this. Each feeds the other; each feeds on the other. The idea is to become truly attentive to university culture, resisting its destructive forces while affirming its creative forces. Ramachandra notes that being a Christian scholar has as much to do with how you speak as with what you say — and neither is about upping your ‘Jesus’ word count!
Instead of generalised discipleship, a Christian community in the university will pursue a specific Christian formation which relates Christian thought and practice to academic fields of inquiry. Ramachandra has several suggestions about this, such as:
- Professors, researchers, and students sharing mentoring relationships
- The involvement of practising theologians (who usually tend to speak within their own bubble)
- Discussions in which we test the reigning paradigms of academic disciplines and the university itself (Ramachandra refers to several of these taken-for-granted narratives, along with scholars who have critiqued them)
- Scholars practicing interdisciplinary study and modelling integrative thinking (e.g. by writing introductory textbooks)
As you can see, this all involves more than just students, and if anything, Ramachandra spends more time talking about teachers and research students at this point. I’ve got questions about how this takes shape in practice (stay tuned). But I think the important thing here is the integrative perspective: we see students not as visitors just passing through, but as participants in a wider culture of learning.
We are in dialogue.
What Ramachandra calls dialogic ministry is about taking the university seriously on its own terms. It means we care about more than apologetics. It means we see university ministry as a distinctive thing, not simply an extension of church ministry. It means we join the dots between the university and public life, joining existing conversations and starting some new ones. It means we listen as much as we speak — if not more! It means we celebrate truth wherever it may be found. And it means we believe in and stand up for the university itself — which at its heart is perhaps best understood as a dialogic organism, a place in which we bring our own perspectives to bear on those of others, while also opening and subjecting our own perspectives to critique. (Ramachandra includes some great lines from Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Mathewes at this point.)
Be sure to listen to the whole lecture. Next time, we’ll look at Ramachandra’s vision for university ministry.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.