Temptations Facing the Christian Academic
I have completed a thirty-six-year career as a teacher of philosophy at a secular college. Much of my research and writing has focussed on the philosophy of education and religious schools. I therefore dare to indulge in writing a more experiential analysis of some of the key temptations that we Christian professors face. My boldness in doing so is prompted in part by the fact that I wish someone would have given me a paper with this title at the beginning of my teaching career.
THE TYRANNY OF TEACHING
As college and university teachers we are first of all in danger of abusing our power. Teaching can degenerate into indoctrination. Indoctrination, understood pejoratively, involves the abuse of a teacher’s power. Indeed, teaching can become a form of tyranny.
I wish someone would have given me a paper with this title at the beginning of my teaching career.
Various factors make it easy for teaching to become tyrannical. Teaching involves the exercise of power. It feels good to have a classroom of students who see us as authority figures. We shape the minds of our pupils. Students do become disciples. If there is anything that my study of indoctrination has taught me, it is this—we tend to exaggerate human freedom (see Thiessen 1993). Students are very much subject to the influence of teachers, even at the college and university level.
Another reason why teaching can so easily become a form of tyranny is that there is a universal lust for learning. Children are curious. Even as adults, many of us are always itching to hear more about anything, and therefore we gather around us a great number of teachers, as Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 4:3. That is why education is big business. But, always there lurks the danger of teaching becoming a form of tyranny because of the lust for learning.
Teaching that becomes tyrannical is evil. Jesus clearly condemned all forms of tyranny. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors” (Luke 22:25). Isn’t that an intriguing label for teachers— “Benefactors”? But Jesus condemns lording it over others. Teaching that degenerates into indoctrination by virtue of the abuse of a teacher’s authority displeases God. A central theme of the scriptures is the dignity and freedom of persons. Hence we have the prophetic ideal portrayed in Hebrews 8:10–12—a time when teachers are not needed, because all students will have internalized what they have been taught to such an extent that they no longer need teachers. They are on their own, free, hopefully following the tradition into which they were nurtured, and hopefully also creatively going beyond the insights they have inherited, as they also listen to the call of truth and to the voice of God within them.
I have already begun to address the question of how we can avoid the tyranny of teaching. The aim of every teacher should be to make himself or herself redundant, to have students become their own teachers. This will affect the teacher-student relationship in the classroom. As students progress, the relationship between teacher and students should evolve to one of greater equality. Students should be seen as fellow searchers for truth. Teachers and students are better seen respectively as senior and junior members of a college or a university. As such, students should have the freedom to disagree with their professors.
I am intrigued by another warning of Jesus, against those who loved to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them “Rabbi.” “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. . . . Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8–10). Might this entail that we not allow our students to give us a title such as “Doctor”? This would certainly help to achieve greater equality in the classroom.
In the same Matthew text there is another key to avoiding the tyranny of teaching—the call to servanthood. We are not to lord it over others, Jesus says, but instead, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26–7). Teaching seen as servanthood: that is the picture we need to keep before ourselves constantly if we are to avoid the tyranny of teaching. We don’t call attention to ourselves, but to the God who has called us, and to the truth that has captured our imagination.
Sometimes we teachers try to avoid the danger of tyrannical teaching and indoctrination by trying to be neutral when we teach. I prefer to describe this as the temptation not to teach from and for commitment.
The notion of neutrality is at the heart of our modern secular ideal of liberal education. This ideal of education is based on such Enlightenment values as objectivity, rationality, critical thinking, tolerance, and a suspicion of tradition and authority. Although I don’t want to discount these values completely, I suspect that we as Christian academics have absorbed these values more than we realize, and this has moved us to accept a model of teaching that avoids teaching from and for commitment.
I have experimented with various approaches to being honest about my own commitments in teaching. Sometimes I make it a point to announce my Christian commitment on the first day when I meet a new class. Sometimes I wait until well into the semester before I indicate the committed perspective from which I teach. The danger of an early announcement is that it may create unnecessary barriers for students strongly opposed to Christianity. But, regardless of which approach I use, I have tried to be a whole person in the classroom, complete with my own commitments, not only about my Christian faith but about whatever subject I am teaching. There is no such a thing as neutrality in teaching. Thankfully, this truth is being increasingly acknowledged in today’s postmodern academic climate. If we Christian educators are faithful in our teaching we will be honest about our Christian commitments.
Not only will we be open about teaching from a committed perspective, we will also teach for commitment. Here again, over time, I have become bolder in what I do in the classroom. One of the courses I enjoy teaching is an introductory course in ethics in which I take it upon myself to prove to the students that there are indeed some ethical absolutes. This is quite an undertaking given that most students today are ethical relativists. On one occasion (it happens quite often actually), I applied the idea of ethical absolutes to the area of sexual behavior. After a few minutes of this, one of the girls spoke up in exasperation, and loudly, so that all in the class could hear: “You’ve just spoiled my weekend.” I am sure I had created some discomfort. Sadly, she never came to class again. Fortunately, that type of experience happened only seldom. This ethics course was, over the years, the most popular philosophy course that I taught. I am sure students were well aware of what they were getting into when they registered for this course, as word gets around at a small college. But they kept coming, though sometimes they were angry with me for daring to teach for commitment.
Permit me here to be so bold as to express a concern. Occasionally some of my students who go on to Christian educational institutions, or who have come from such institutions, report that there is a lot of hesitation to teach from and for commitment in these schools. One student described most of her professors at a Christian college as very neutral in their presentations. Only if she visited them in their offices did they begin to open up about their commitments. This is wrong. It is a betrayal of faithful teaching. If there is one thing that today’s students need, it is teachers who are committed, and who dare to teach for commitment. Of course, we must be careful that we don’t let such teaching degenerate into tyrannical teaching. What is needed is a delicate balance between teaching from and for commitment and teaching with openness.
A unique kind of worldliness is particularly alluring to us as academics. I call it academic worldliness and I believe it is a temptation that Christian academics must guard against. At times I have been successful in resisting it. In my teaching and in my writing, I have tried to be very up-front about the Christian presuppositions that underlie my thinking, my arguments, and my critiques of various positions. But there are times when I am not so bold, when I seek approval and validation via the secular route, when my agenda is driven by the secular world’s academic agenda.
Alvin Plantinga, in an essay entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” has helped me understand and deal with this temptation (1984). He makes three related suggestions: 1. Christian philosophers and Christian intellectuals generally must display more autonomy—more independence from the rest of the philosophical world. 2. Christian philosophers must display more integrity, integral wholeness, or unity. Attempts to graft our own ideas onto non-Christian thought will lead to compromise, distortion, or trivialization of the claims of Christian theism. 3. We also need to display Christian courage, or boldness, or self-confidence. Plantinga is warning against academic worldliness.
Plantinga goes on to argue that part of the task of Christian philosophers is to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own concerns, and its own topics for investigation. Christian philosophers ought not merely to take their inspiration from what’s going on at Princeton, Berkeley, or Harvard.
We also need to heed Plantinga’s plea for the development of a uniquely Christian mind. To fail to do so is again to succumb to academic worldliness. Here Plantinga is merely giving contemporary expression to Paul’s admonition: the Christian is not himself subject to any man’s judgment; we have the mind of Christ; and let’s not be ashamed of it; indeed, let’s boast about it. Why? Because all truth is God’s truth. Because every thought needs to be made captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). That is the kind of Christian self-confidence that we need to display in our teaching and scholarship. Our teaching and scholarship must be transformed by a Christian worldview which in turn is shaped by presuppositions articulated by God’s special revelation. We don’t have to be embarrassed about the truth that is in God. Yes, there is a need for humility. After all, we only know God’s truth in part. But, let’s never forget that God’s truth is utterly reliable, and will endure forever (Ps. 119:89, 91).
With God’s help, I believe that I have been able to resist this aspect of the temptation of academic worldliness. Very early in my academic career in philosophy I developed a passion for the cultivation of a truly Christian mind. Here I am indebted to a book I read while still an undergraduate: The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires (1963). Over the years various other books have continued to inspire this passion (Walsh and Middleton, 1984; Wolters, 1985). More recently, there have been the important contributions by George Marsden (1997) and David Naugle (2002). Thankfully, more attention is being paid to worldview thinking and the cultivation of a Christian worldview in our Christian institutions of higher learning. But all too often I meet Christian academics in our secular universities, and even in Christian colleges and universities, who, sadly, have not begun to think of their discipline from a uniquely Christian perspective. I also worry about the contemporary preoccupation and uncritical acceptance of post-modernism on the part of some evangelical scholars (see Thiessen 2007). Such scholars have, I believe, succumbed to the temptation of academic worldliness.
Avoiding the temptation of academic worldliness can lead to an opposite danger, namely, that of Christian isolationism. While we must avoid academic worldliness, we are still called to do our scholarship in the world, addressing the problems of the world, and doing all this in such a way as to speak to our non-Christian colleagues. Christian scholarship (and teaching) is at the same time in the world, but not of the world (John 17). It is hard to walk this tightrope.
As already mentioned, one of my passions has been the development of the Christian mind, and this has led to an ongoing dialogue concerning the distinctiveness of a Christian curriculum and Christian scholarship (see Thiessen 1992; 1999; 2001, ch. 10). I like to stress that the Christian mind must start with distinctively Christian presuppositions which are derived from God’s special revelation. The central problem here is that stressing the distinctiveness of Christian learning and scholarship too much leads to isolationism. Christian scholarship is now viewed as totally different from non-Christian scholarship, and it becomes impossible to understand other scholarship or even to talk to other scholars.
I quite agree that an overemphasis on the uniqueness of the Christian mind can lead to this kind of isolation, to what is sometimes referred to as the problem of incommensurability of belief systems. But as I have argued elsewhere, it is possible to avoid such an overemphasis (1997). It is possible at one and the same time to say that Christian scholarship is unique and that it has something in common with non-Christian scholarship. Christian scholars can and must speak to non-Christian scholars, identifying common truth, while at the same time exposing distortions that arise from separating truth from its ultimate origin in Christ.
For example, in my book Teaching for Commitment (1993) I spend a good deal of time trying to accommodate the secular liberal ideal of autonomy. At the same time I have been very careful to qualify this notion of autonomy by talking instead of “normal autonomy,” to set this notion apart from the secular liberal ideal. I also make it a point to show that this qualified ideal of normal autonomy is compatible with Christian presuppositions, and in fact grows out of them. Of course, there is a risk involved in attempting to transform the secular ideal of autonomy. There is a danger here of succumbing to academic worldliness. But I like to believe that I have avoided this, while at the same time avoiding the danger of Christian isolationism.
There are repeated warnings against arrogance in the scriptures. “I hate pride and arrogance” (Prov. 8:13). “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). I have already mentioned Jesus’ warning against the desire to lord it over others. Instead, we are to be servants as he was. I think we teachers and academics have problems with this. We have difficulty submitting to authority, to administration, or to our supporting constituency. Arrogance is a besetting sin of academics. There is a constant temptation to adopt an attitude that goes counter to the biblical ideal of submission.
I know I have struggled with this in my attitudes towards administration. I know better than they. I have found myself joining in a favorite pastime at mid-morning coffee breaks—criticizing the administration. I forget that my job is to be a teacher, not an administrator. Then there is the widespread tendency among academics to fail to abide by the guidelines and time-limits set for presenting papers at conferences. We think that what we have to say is so important that we should be given all the time in the world. Such behavior is rooted in a refusal to be submissive.
The problem of arrogance has its roots in the sinful nature of all human beings. But I believe there is something about being teachers and academics that makes us more prone to this temptation. We are authority figures in the classroom. We like the title of Professor or Doctor. Our attitudes are also shaped by the education we have received. We have been taught to think for ourselves. We have been educated to be autonomous. Most of us have received a liberal education, at the heart of which is the liberal ideal of autonomy which stresses independence and freedom. And hence, we have difficulty submitting to anyone.
But there is something fundamentally wrong about the traditional liberal ideal of autonomy. It fails to do justice to the human need for community. It fails to recognize our dependence on others. It fails to acknowledge the need to submit to tradition and authority. Above all we are to submit to God and to the authority of his Word. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing right about the liberal ideal of autonomy. But it needs to be seriously qualified to be in keeping with biblical presuppositions. Hence the need for my qualified ideal of “normal autonomy.”
Mark Schwehn (vii–viii) tells the story of a group of academics from the University of Chicago sharing what each of them had written down as their “occupation” while filling their last income tax forms. A clear pattern soon emerged as the scholars revealed their “occupation”—sociologist, anthropologist, historian, and psychologist. Meanwhile, Schwehn began to wonder whether or not he had the courage to be honest in the company of his senior colleagues. Though trained as an intellectual historian, he had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on his tax form. When his turn finally came, Schwehn admitted, that he had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading. When he made this disclosure, Schwehn writes, he felt that it was greeted with what might be best described as mild alarm and studied astonishment.
Schwehn uses this story to illustrate a prevalent way of understanding academic vocation in America. The most common complaint among academics is: “I don’t have enough time to do my own work.” This understanding of academic vocation Schwehn traces to what he considers one of the most influential accounts of the academic calling ever written, Max Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The modern university sees the academic vocation primarily in terms of Wissenschaft, the creation of knowledge, or research. Teaching, the transmission of knowledge and skills, is of secondary importance. And Bildung, the formation of character, is not even in the picture.
Schwehn feels it is high time that we restore teaching, and particularly the formation of character, as essential components of the academic vocation. I agree. Schwehn has surely captured what should be obvious for Christian academics. Yes, research is important. But, let us never underestimate the importance of teaching, of passing on the traditions of learning to the next generation. Teaching is a holy calling. And, let us never forget that our objectives in teaching must also include Bildung. There should always be a pastoral dimension to teaching, particularly for those of us who feel called to be academics out of obedience to our Heavenly Father. Hence I have always benefited from reading books on pastoral ministry, even though I am a college teacher. Of course, there may be some of us whom God calls to focus primarily on research. But for the vast majority of Christian academics, teaching can and should be viewed as the most important part of our calling. We need to resist the temptation of misplaced priorities.
DIVORCING TEACHING FROM DISCIPLESHIP
I love teaching, and I love research and writing. But it is all too easy to divorce these from the call to be a disciple of Jesus. Yet, as Soren Kierkegaard reminded us, “Christ did not appoint professors, but followers.” We are also called to love God with our whole being—with heart, soul, strength, and mind. Then there is the call to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). I have struggled with these calls to love and discipleship, and I don’t think I am alone. We academics are not very good lovers of God or lovers of our neighbors. Somehow, the education we have received and the entire educational enterprise seems to militate against love.
Education shaped by Enlightenment ideals has made us value being objective instead of committed; detached instead of loving; rational instead of passionate. We have come to enjoy questions instead of answers. Answers would spoil everything. They might just carry with them a call to be committed. Or, to use Max Weber’s prophetic description of the modern era, we have become specialists without spirit (Max Weber, quoted in Schwehn, 18). We academics seem to have difficulty blending academic excellence with piety, commitment, and love.
Here we need to be reminded that although we may be good orators and give the most brilliant lectures, if we have not love, we are only resounding gongs or clanging cymbals. And even though in our research we uncover new mysteries and discover all knowledge, if we have not love, we are nothing (1 Cor. 13). We also need to remember that teaching and scholarship is not all there is to faithful discipleship. God also wants us to be disciples in all areas of our lives. There is a danger that we academics become too pre-occupied with correct belief. We need to be equally concerned about correct behavior.
Let me conclude by sharing a struggle that has perhaps been the most difficult part of my career as a Christian academic. This struggle arises out of an important part of academic life—applying for various kinds of research grants and fellowships. An essential part of this process is to have one’s proposals for such awards vetted by referees. It is a good process and generally leads to helpful comments on one’s work. But at times biases come to the fore as I have experienced on a number of occasions.
In one case a referee described me as “dogmatic, inflexible, and narrow in training and perspective.” He went on: “It is true that in certain ways Thiessen marches to the beat of a different drummer than most of his colleagues in Canadian philosophy of religion and religious studies.” This same referee went on to encourage me “to adhere to a philosophical approach to [my] subject, and to avoid casual excursions into theology and other disciplines.” Another referee expressed concern about my “consuming research interests and studies,” which all seemed to focus on a defence of religion or religious education. And then this: “Could he overcome his own personal religious convictions and concentrate on developing philosophical arguments that could compel and stand against any critical inquiry simply because they represent philosophical thinking at its best.” This very same comment appeared again in a later evaluation of an application for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant. I suspect it came from the same person.
I didn’t get that grant nor the earlier fellowship. While I would be the first to admit that there may be some good academic reasons why I didn’t get them, and while I am also prepared to admit that some of the criticisms made in these reports may have some justification, I do have a problem with their cutting edge. There are anti-Christian biases out there and they hurt. After reading these reports, I had to swallow hard a few times, pray a little, do some introspection, and ask myself the hard question: Was there was some legitimacy to the criticisms? But, in the end I needed to move on, still marching to the beat of a different drummer, and still writing about topics that I felt called to write about.
I also had to remind myself that insofar as these comments represented an anti-Christian bias, I needed to accept them as inevitable consequences of my Christian commitment. After all, Christ has called us to share in his sufferings (1 Pet. 2:21). I find this hard. I am tempted to try to avoid such suffering. But, I am convinced that faithful teaching and faithful scholarship will lead to suffering, to insults, to misrepresentations, and to lost fellowships or research grants. We should not be surprised that this happens. We should not succumb to the temptation of trying to avoid the suffering that is an inevitable part of being a Christian academic.
Versions of this paper were given at a faculty retreat at Canadian Bible College (Whitby, Ontario, 1995), a “With Heart and Mind” conference at Trinity Western University (Langely, BC, 1999), and a meeting of the Graduate Christian Fellowship at the University of Toronto (2000). I am grateful to all participants of these events who gave me valuable feedback.
- Blamires, Harry. 1963. The Christian mind. London: S.P.C.K.
- Marsden, George M. 1997. The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Naugle, David K. 2002. Worldview: The history of a concept. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Plantinga, Alvin. 1984. “Advice to Christian philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1 (July): 253–71.
- Schwehn, Mark R. 1993. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the academic vocation in America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Thiessen, Elmer John. 1992. “In defence of developing a theoretical Christian mind: A response to Oliver R. Barclay.” The Evangelical Quarterly 64 (January): 37–54.
- ———. 1993. Teaching for commitment: Liberal education, indoctrination, and Christian nurture. Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press (co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.).
- ———. 1997. “Curriculum after Babel.” In Agenda for educational change, ed. John Shortt and Trevor Cooling, 165–80. Leicester: Apollos.
- ———. 1999. “Transformative Christian education: A response to Andrew Wright.” Journal of Education and Christian Belief 3 (spring): 23–29.
- ———. 2001. In defence of religious schools and colleges. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- ———. 2007. “Refining the conversation: Some concerns about contemporary trends in thinking about worldviews, Christian scholarship and higher education.” The Evangelical Quarterly 79 (April): 133–52.
- Walsh, Brian J. and J. Richard Middleton. 1984. The transforming vision: Shaping a Christian worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation regained: Biblical basics for a reformational worldview. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.