Is gentleness something academics should aspire to? If a colleague or a peer described you as gentle, would you be pleased, or a little worried?

I’ve just had a weekend away with my church, and the teaching focused on the character of Christ – specifically the way he perfectly embodies the gifts of the Spirit. Of the four gifts the speaker touched on, gentleness was the one that resonated with me the most.

Jesus is perfectly ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (Matt. 11:29); he gives rest, and does not break those who are bruised and almost gone (Matt. 12:20). We can see it in his healing of the leper through compassionate physical touch (Mark 1:41), and his gentle reinstatement of Peter after his biggest mistake (John 21:15-19). Above all, he chose to come down to our level to save us, humbling himself and practising empathy to the extent of embracing death on our behalf (Phil. 2:5-8). (Credit to Matt Searles for this overview!) 

All this makes gentleness a central Christian virtue. But what does this look like in the world of academia and research? The system often favours those who are skilled at putting themselves and their own views forward: we learn to assert ourselves in argument, whether written or in person, and to find the flaws in others’ ideas and methods. Gentleness is not often a desirable characteristic on job descriptions, or used as a way to describe good research.

How can Christians in academic work practise the counter-cultural virtue of gentleness, while remaining effective and involved in our fields?

A few principles to bear in mind:

  • Gentleness is not synonymous with weakness: in fact, it relies on strength being deliberately held in check for the sake of the other person (see for example Isaiah 40:10-11). If our research is solid and our arguments incisive, a gentle approach to communicating and developing them need not take away from their value, but can in fact highlight it.
  • In an increasingly commercialised academy, the recognition that people are valuable – students, administrative and support staff, young academics – is desperately needed but more and more lacking. Practising gentleness demonstrates our respect for the image of God in each person, and promotes flourishing.
  • Jesus’ gentleness in his life on earth, from his day-to-day interactions to the very character of his sacrificial death, shows us that gentleness is an attribute of God, and so can itself act as a key to aspects of God’s world we would miss or distort if we did not value this quality. It will look different in every field, but an academic approach which centres care and restraint may illuminate new and more beautiful aspects of creation than more combative models do.

Can you think of a time you have seen gentleness at work in an academic context, or perhaps a particular person who embodies this virtue well? How could you build these insights into your own life and practice?

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.