“Engaging the university” – in Mexico with IFES

The International Federation of Evangelical Students (IFES) is a truly cosmopolitan community. When its member organisations meet every four years, delegates come from up to 150 countries. This year’s World Assembly is currently taking place in Mexico, and its highlights include the welcoming into membership of evangelical student groups in Greece, South Sudan and several other countries. Excitement and celebration among the 1000 delegates were palpable as we joined in worship of the God of all nations – whose Son is to receive their glory and honour.

I had the privilege of joining the first few days of this congress near Mexico City to participate in the “Faculty and Research Students” track. Here 75 of us – academics, postgrads and IFES staff – came together to explore the challenge of influencing the university as a whole. Our focus was the research, teaching and administrative activities that together constitute the life of a university.

So the opening talk focused our minds with the strapline: “Changing the conversations that change the world” (acknowledging Princeton University Press!). Given a rich understanding of the Gospel, an evangelical students’ group should surely not be content with seeking to win converts while ignoring the culture-shaping work with which university members are concerned.

But positive responses to this challenge were harder to articulate. Clearly we weren’t simply asking “How can we have conversations about the Gospel with non-Christians?”  Rather, we asked how Christians can engage fully in the “conversations” that constitute research, appreciating God’s common grace in enabling all kinds of people to make valid, good and beautiful contributions to scholarship and its applications. All truth is God’s truth! Let’s avoid isolation and polemics, and take challenging questions as stimuli to broaden and develop our thinking.

A Christian Mind?

A more profound response advocates the development of “a Christian mind” – for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Advice to those who would be Christian scholars“. Surely this suggests much more than being able to harmonise between one’s worldview and mainstream academic thinking. Shouldn’t “a Christian mind” be one that positively enriches scholarship, helping it develop further, faster or even in different directions than it might otherwise have done? Wolterstorff and the speakers in our group seem to think something like this so far as the development and application of social sciences for matters of justice are concerned.  But it was (and is) rarer to hear suggestions that such a contribution is possible elsewhere. “There can’t be a Christian mathematics,” goes the common retort.

I am a natural scientist, and what excites me is the idea of not just Christian minds, but communities of Christian thinkers together enriching and shaping their disciplines in ways that glorify God more than would happen if God’s people were absent from the academy. Can we make contributions to scholarship that become widely appreciated? After all, the very nature of the sciences means that theories are discarded, controversies settled, paradigms overturned – as history documents. Might we not hope and pray that, in faithful communion with the Lord of this cosmos, Christians may be found less often on the wrong side of history, and indeed making a disproportionate contribution to the progress of good scholarship? After all, Christ is the one “in whom all things hold together” (Col 1:17), and “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

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