If you’re a Christian in a university department, how many other Christians do you know in your field? Define your field as broadly as you need until you can think of someone! How often do you have a chance to talk to those people (or that person), and how often do those conversations go beyond small talk to issues in your work?
Your answer will depend on a number of things – the size and nature of your field, and your institution; where you live; what other commitments you have; what your personality is like. In some contexts it can be hard to find, let alone meet with, other Christians in academia at all. But allowing for all that, I want to suggest that we can really benefit from intentionally finding and meeting with other Christians who work in the same disciplines.
Of course it can be hugely helpful to get to know Christians who work in very different contexts, and to learn from how they approach their intellectual work and academic lives – or, indeed, to get to know and learn from non-Christians. There’s something special, though, about a conversation where you can be on the same page about both faith and work.
In Oxford we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Christian academic ministries and events, and I’ve been reflecting recently on how much my academic life has been shaped and enriched by many of these – in particular those where I’ve met fellow believers working in English and related humanities subjects. The Developing a Christian Mind conferences each year (especially the March one, which separates out into disciplinary streams) have been crucial in this respect, providing space to think carefully about the ideology and practice of my discipline in conversation with others equally committed to serving God in their work. (I also met my housemate at this conference!) Recently I also had the privilege to present at the conference of the Christian Literary Studies Group, where the theme of ‘prayer’ was a delight to consider from both literary and personal perspectives – a glimpse of the integration of methodology and devotion which I’m always chasing!
So what are some of the benefits of meetings and groups of Christians in the same discipline?
- Encouraging one another. Whether you spend your time in the library or the lab, everyday academic life can be a difficult place to live and think for God, especially if you feel alone. Connecting with other believers in the same context is a great way to speak the truth to one another and encourage one another to persevere.
- Sharing ideas. Each academic field has its own underlying philosophies and norms. If you’re thinking about how to integrate your faith with the ideas underlying your work, hearing how others do this can expand your horizons and be mutually helpful.
- Helping one another respond to important issues. Related to the previous point, there can be areas of real friction between Christian commitments, and the ideas and practices of academia. When you and a colleague are on (enough of) the same page in both discipline and faith commitment, you can help each other respond to these challenges in distinctively Christian ways, and do more good than one of you could alone. This was brought home to me recently in a post-seminar conversation where a theological discussion sprung up between several of my peers, Christian and non-Christian, and the fact that my Christian colleagues and I knew we spoke from roughly similar perspectives really helped us contribute fruitfully.
- A sense of co-working under God. We all know that academia can be an isolating endeavour, especially at the graduate level. Fellowship with other Christians doing the same work can be hugely life-giving and motivating. The very idea of a college, on which Oxford and many other universities are built, centers on this sense of working together in God’s service. While the secular university today often looks very different despite the remaining structures, there are ways to recover something of this ideal.
If it’s at all possible for you, I encourage you to make meeting with other Christians in your field a priority, and to think about how you can encourage one another, and think and work together – whatever that looks like from place to place, and field to field – for the glory of God.