This post is the next in our series ‘The Whole of (Academic) Life for Christ’, looking at Andrew Billington and Mark Greene’s thought-provoking collection of Bible studies.
The question of purpose is a pressing one in academia. Many who spend their hours working in universities around the world find themselves torn between an ideal (or perhaps a dream or fantasy) and reality. On the one hand, there is the ideal of the academic as someone whose work is both satisfying and meaningful – someone whose thoughtful contributions to the sum of human knowledge help society to flourish. On the other, there’s a reality that is often characterised by frustration, stress or exhaustion. For Christians in this environment, the added desire to make our lives count for God’s kingdom purposes can make this mismatch seem even more overwhelming.
Jeremiah 29, written to the exiles in Babylon in around 600 BC, addresses a group of people whose situation must have seemed far worse. They were hundreds of miles from their homeland, stuck amongst a nation whose cultural and religious practices must have engendered severe culture shock and even revulsion. They would have wanted nothing more than just to go back home; surely God wouldn’t leave them in exile more than a year or two? Surely he couldn’t want them to put down roots here, in this land, to compromise their purity by contributing to the society around them? It’s no surprise that there were so many (false) prophets among them making just this line of argument.
But Jeremiah’s letter says exactly the opposite! This is their home now; they are to settle down here, and to devote their hands and their prayers to the well-being of their adopted city. It’s in this context that we find God’s famous reassurance (probably the most-quoted passage in Jeremiah) that he has ‘plans to prosper and not to harm’ his people (29:11). Far from being a get-out clause from engaging with the world around them, this promise is a reassurance that God knows what he’s doing by leaving them in Babylon for now. It gives them the impetus they need to live in this new place as active citizens, not reluctant captives.
There’s much food for thought here as we reflect on our purpose as Christian academics. I’ll select just two things to chew on:
- God’s plans are not just for Christians. The growth of God’s kingdom is not accomplished through Christian empires or enclaves; instead, he scatters his people like salt across the world, calling them to enrich and add flavour to the communities around them. This means engaging wholeheartedly with our environment. If the exiles had listened to the false prophets, they would have forfeited the opportunity to be God’s ambassadors to the Babylonians – and the book of Daniel shows just how powerfully God used them when they were willing to engage. Serving God in academia isn’t accomplished just by creating Christian universities (although those can of course have value), nor by sticking to theology or theologically ‘safe’ subjects. Sometimes we are called to be God’s witnesses in places we would not necessarily choose for ourselves!
- We are bringers of peace. The exiles are instructed to seek ‘the peace and prosperity’ of Babylon: this translates the single Hebrew word shalom, which encompasses a rich communal and spiritual dimension that the English cannot convey. Even though they’ve been sent to Babylon as punishment, God wants to use them there for blessing. So their contribution is to be spiritual and relational, not just practical – that’s why they are instructed to pray for Babylon, their enemy, a concept which must have seemed repulsive at the time. As for us, we have the wonderful promise that Jesus himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14); however uncomfortable aspects of academic culture might seem to us sometimes, God wants to use us to bring his shalom here.