For many people, “academia”, “PhD” and “scholarship” suggest intellectual pursuits, far removed from real life. If you want to change the world, don’t go and hide in an ivory tower! And some Christians would readily take Paul’s warnings against “the wisdom of this world” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:19-31) to be dismissive of learning in general, except perhaps for certain kinds of approved theology. So people who feel called to scholarly work – especially at postgraduate level – are sometimes seen as lost from the cause of the Church. The university may be a mission field, but why make your home as an academic in some obscure science, philosophy or sociology department where worldly wisdom is enthroned and conversions to Christianity seem very rare?
One of the talks at the recent Faith-in-Scholarship conference told a very different story. Our speaker left his Pacific island home to be schooled in Australia and then pursued early studies in a seminary in Sydney. Next he took a range of jobs without finding a clear calling. But he was fascinated by justice and the social order, and read widely in his spare time. He found two lines of Christian thought regarding politics: one told him to stay away from it, since it was corrupt and belonged to this “transient” world. The other told him to step up to the challenges of injustice and ask what Jesus would say and do to bring life and healing – and this was the message that rang true in his heart. So he pursued academic studies in sociology, gaining a PhD and eventually becoming a lecturer at an Australian university. His teaching and research on different views of society, the church and its denominations, government and justice proved to be a preparation for what was to happen next.
While working in that sociology department, our friend longs for greater justice in the politics of his homeland. And he has friends there, of course… so when a certain opportunity arises, some friends persuade him to come back and stand as editor of a daily newspaper. And from this platform, our speaker faces tremendous opportunities and responsibilities to speak into his culture at a time of political instability – indeed, a time when history is being made. I had a host of questions and followed the gripping story carefully. What should a newspaper editor do and not do in such fraught circumstances, where every action is likely to make enemies as well as friends? What is the role of the media in that particular culture and situation? What would justice actually look like, and how could newspaper articles and editorials bring it any closer? Supposing the ‘powers that be’ are overwhelming, so that even (dare I say?) a journalist’s ideals cannot be realised, and the newspaper itself is forced to fold, what then? What could have ever prepared our friend for such formidable challenges?
At the conference here in Leeds, far from where these events unfolded, what impressed us was his humility and the steadfast faithfulness he demonstrated in his responses to questions. He made no claim to have done the right thing at every step, notwithstanding what sounded like acts of great courage. What stays in my mind is his commitment to a patient, daily pursuit of such justice as was revealed to him by God, in the midst of considerable tension and ambiguity. Surely it’s not only in Bible study and fellowship, but also in careful reflection and faithful scholarship, that we may effectively rise to the challenges of our times in the sure knowledge that Jesus is the world’s true king (Revelation 11:15).
There may still be some way to go in that faraway island before freedom of the press is fully restored, but surely those sociology degrees have a lot to answer for!