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For participants in the university, what does witness mean?

Last week I said that ‘witness’ is part of why we engage the university. Let’s delve a little further into what that might mean.

First, witness is about more than speaking. As participants in the university, we place a special emphasis on listening in an active, ongoing way.

Now, there is naturally a sense in which we listen in order to gain ourselves a hearing, or at least in hope that others will listen to us in return.

(If we do in fact find an audience, perhaps we will also find ourselves at a ‘persuasive moment’ in which the beauty of what we say might make an impact — although I’m not just talking about ‘opportunities to talk about Jesus’, as an Aussie might put it.)

But good listeners aren’t constantly angling for persuasion. If we are honest and responsible listeners, we aren’t anxious about getting a foot in the door.

And listening is itself an act of love. It is possible that the other party will not reciprocate; it is possible that our expression of love will not be returned in kind. But that is no failure or loss, because, like the father waiting at the gate, we continue to listen: hopeful to find the stirrings of new creation, yes, but not simply as a means to another end. The listening is the goal: it is as we listen that we manifest the heart of the Father. That is our witness, and it is our witness regardless of the response or outcome. We do it in hope, but we do it in joy.

If it is true that our aim in ministry is to be faithful rather than fruitful, as they sometimes say, then the same is true here: it’s up to the Spirit to grow the fruit, but in lovingly listening, we have been faithful — whether or not we are given the chance to say our piece.

However, as Andrew Basden pointed out recently (A Case of Good Christian Scholarship: David Lyon), it’s not enough for ‘witness’ to involve only our conduct, and there is a great deal to be said about how our faith impacts the content of our contributions to academic life and campus life.

For several decades now, participating in the university has been fuelled by the call to love God with our minds, and there are more than a dozen books on ‘the Christian mind’ or ‘the life of the mind’. I wonder if there is a more basic foundation to do with a broader understanding of witness.

‘Engaging the university’ is part and parcel of an expansive view of mission — a view in which, to my mind, all the works of the Body of Christ count for something because of the presence of the Body itself. Let me sketch out what I mean.

Witness is not only an event (e.g. a conversation) but also a kind of person. What sort of university participants are we? We are the Jesus-shaped participants. I don’t mean just our conduct or our content, but our identity. Being ‘the light of the world’ is a description of our identity and being, not simply our activity.

It’s important to note that this is no guarantee of the excellence or appropriateness of our contributions (see John Mulholland’s response to Andrew Basden). A Christian student isn’t automatically a good academic, nor even necessarily a good classmate or friend.

And yet, our identity gives a particular focus to our lives, and our work will take a particular shape because of our identity. If there is a special or inherent quality to our contributions, it is because they come from us, because they are of a piece with our identity and the resources of our tradition. It is in this sense that we are called to see all our work as witness, because it is an outworking of the Body of Christ.

What we’re doing may not be quite as significant as who is doing it.

Image credit: Joshua Earle

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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