Dear Christian Graduate Student,

In my last post, I encouraged you to begin the academic year with a sense of adventure when it comes to the research questions you entertain, formulate, and pursue. We can have freedom to be academically curious because we live in God’s Creation and Jesus calls us to love God (and, by implication, God’s Creation) with our minds (Mark 12:30).

By this point in the semester, though, some related questions may be bothering you. You may be wondering about how much time you’re spending in the laboratory or library and, since you’re a Christian, you might be feeling some internal pressure to tell your lab-mate or peer in the library about Jesus. But how?, you’re asking.

Many Christian students feel this challenge. You sense that in one way you’re supposed to do your best as a student. But you have this other sense simultaneously that as a Christian you’re also to do your best as a witness to the Gospel.

In this setup, academic work and Christian faithfulness are set in tension against each other. The pressure to compartmentalize your life – as a way of responding to this tension – is very common. But I’ve come to a different conclusion about how to think about this entire question. If we frame things differently, I’m convinced that there’s a way to transform this vexing challenge into a joyful opportunity.

Let me explain.

At root, this is a worldview question. A worldview is a symbolic narrative framework that shapes how we view and interact with the world external to our consciousness. A worldview is a story we tell ourselves that answers the fundamental questions of existence (where did I come from, where am I, what’s the problem, what’s the solution?). Christian authors like Brian Walsh and Craig Bartholomew have written about this if you’re not familiar with the concept.

In the Bible we are presented with a distinct worldview, a unique way of viewing and living in the world. A biblical worldview is comprehensive – it addresses every part of life. And a biblical worldview properly orients the human person in the world for life that contributes to flourishing.

Here’s the problem, though: there are cheap worldview knockoffs. Thankfully, there is one key way to identify the fatal flaw in some “biblical” worldviews: dualism. Whereas a truly biblical worldview is comprehensive (in which God is related to all of life), dualistic worldviews slice and dice all of life into two fundamental and opposed compartments.

Examples are numerous: spiritual (soul) is good, material (body) is bad. Or, prayer, Bible study, and worship are more important while politics, economics, and science are less important. And for Christian students, one of the most applicable examples is that evangelism always takes priority over research – that being a Christian is somehow separate from and better than being a student.

The problem with dualistic worldviews is that they artificially create distinctions or gradations or categories that can’t be supported by Scripture. Dualism fractures God’s Creation along lines that are more often a reflection of our contemporary culture than the Bible itself. Dualistic worldviews cannot equip Christians for faithfulness because parts of life are mistakenly labelled “off limits” or “out of bounds” from the start.

[If you’re starting to wonder about how Scripture presents a more comprehensive worldview than our dualistic ideas today, just take a look at Romans 12 where Paul says that “your spiritual worship” involves “bodies” – something he fleshes out in the rest of the chapter (Romans 12:1, ESV).]

Dualistic “knock-off biblical” worldviews can’t recognize the inherent meaningfulness, significance, value, and creational intention of academic study (which equips us to know the world and then more responsibly relate to the world in ways that provost just and compassionate flourishing). They don’t understand the root human vocation outlined in Genesis 1 that God intends for human beings to be his stewards of Creation (Genesis 1:26-28). Dualistic worldviews lead you to assume that only explicitly “religious” activities have value before God.

Anyway, just imagine how your peer is going to respond to your attempts to tell them about Jesus if you’re a sloppy, irresponsible, and uncommitted student. I would encourage you (after you give your worldview some critical reflection) to establish yourself, through your everyday habits of hard, dedicated, responsible, and reliable academic work over time, as someone your peer views as someone who has something worthwhile to listen to. In fact, I would encourage you to see your academic work as the calling God has given you for this time in your life. You are in holy orders, ordained to serve God in the lab and library, your nose religiously in your books and laptop.

At this point in the semester, I would encourage you to reflect deeply on where you and your area of academic study fit into the seamless whole of God’s Creation. You and your academic work have inherent meaning and value; academic work is not a second-class activity in the Kingdom of God. What you’re so occupied with as a Christian student is not a holding pattern before your true Christian faithfulness can kick in. In this sense, it doesn’t matter what you’re studying: it is not a distraction from more important “spiritual” activities – it is your vocation, given to you by God, for this time in your life, and for making your own unique contribution to the flourishing of all God’s Creation.

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​