Archive for November, 2011

Christians in Academia and the Call to Suffer

November 20, 2011

Christians in the academic world necessarily suffer.

Jesus described his followers as cross-bearers.  Suffering is seen as an integral part of Christian experience.  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11).  We are to remember that no servant is greater than his master.  “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also…. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15: 20, 18).

There is a dimension of Christian suffering which we tend to overlook because we think of persecution and suffering primarily in physical terms.  Suffering also includes mental suffering – hate, insults, and false accusations.  Although all Christians experience (or, at least should experience) this kind of mental suffering, there are some of us who are called to endure this kind of suffering in a particular way.  Mental suffering is especially the lot of Christians involved in academic pursuits.  Christian students, teachers, and university scholars are called to serve God especially with their minds.  They seek to affirm Christ as the source of all truth.  They seek to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).

But Christ and the cross are foolishness to the worldly-wise, and thus Christian academics often experience contempt, ridicule and even hatred from their secular colleagues.

Sensitive Christian academics suffer when they read an attack on the Christian faith. They suffer when their secular colleagues reject or even ignore Christian answers to the problems of society. They may also suffer in terms of failure to achieve academic promotions or in getting their work published.

There is another aspect of the suffering of the Christian mind that is most often not seen in this light.  Thinking Christians are peculiarly vulnerable to the problem of doubt.  They hold a minority position and this isn’t easy.  Most of their secular colleagues disagree with many of their cherished beliefs, and often vigorously so.  And thus arises the agony, the anguish, and the mental torture of doubt.

This kind of doubt needs to be interpreted as a kind of suffering, and not as a sin, as is so often done in Christian circles.  The young Christian student experiencing doubt in a hostile university environment should not be condemned, but rather encouraged to endure this kind of suffering for Christ’s sake.

C.S. Lewis, well-known Cambridge literary scholar, and one of the greatest Christian apologists of his time, once described what it had cost him to be a Christian while at Oxford University: “His liberal and rational friends, he explained, did not object to his intellectual interest in Christianity; it was, they agreed, a proper subject for academic argument and debate; but to insist on seriously practicing it – that was going too far.  He did not mind being accused of religious mania, that familiar gibe of the natural man; what he was unprepared for was the intense hostility and animosity of his professional colleagues. Within the academic community, he unexpectedly found himself an object of ostracism and abuse” (in C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher, by Carolyn Keefe, Zondervan, 1979).

Lewis related those hurtful personal memories as part of a sermon he gave, in which he was trying to encourage those who were finding living the Christian life difficult.  In this sermon he also spoke of what Jesus endured on our behalf: misunderstanding, loneliness and finally betrayal and death.

The Easter message can also serve as a source of encouragement to the Christian student and scholar as they endure suffering for Christ’s sake.  We are called to share Christ’s sufferings (I Peter 2:21). Suffering for Christ is a privilege.  We are to rejoice and be glad when we suffer for Christ (Matt. 5:12).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, April 9, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)