A recent article from Emerging Scholars Network had some helpful links for coping with disruption from Emerging Scholars network. I especially appreciated this article about how grad school had prepared the author for quarantine.
While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).
The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.
The following are some of the challenges that we face:
- Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
- Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
- Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
- One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
- It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
- There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).
The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:
- It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
- Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
- Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
- Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
- It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
- The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.
Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).
This fall the Campus Edge board has been working to understand how we might better respond to the challenges that graduate and professional students experience. Campus Edge students identified the following as the most significant challenges:
- Stress and/or lack of time;
- Work/life balance (and “grad student guilt”);
- Lack of clarity with regard to expectations and progress;
- Mental health issues;
- Difficult (or unhealthy) relationship with adviser and/or department/program;
- Financial (and other socioeconomic) challenges;
- Spiritual questions/challenges;
- Loneliness and lack of support;
- Difficulty in finding a job (after graduating).
A recent article in Inside Higher Education notes that, according to a recent survey of graduate students, “mental health, bullyiing, and career uncertainty” are the top challenges facing graduate students today.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s article with advice to those who would be Christian scholars speaks of the inherent challenge of critiquing the university while also loving and embracing it. He starts by speaking of three postures people have in relation to the university:
1. “Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity.”
2. “Some believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK. . . they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “band wagon approach.”
3. Some “Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.”
Wolterstorff recognizes that each of these positions has a part of the truth but is ultimately lacking. He advocates instead for a different way of looking at what it means to be a Christian school, arguing that “the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.” I encourage you to read his articulation of what this looks like in practice.
Matt Reed, in describing his participation in a college phone-a-thon, highlighted how surprised he’d been by how positive the experience he had been – and how often people thanked him for reaching out to them. He noted that
“It reminded me a little of the feeling, at 18 or 19, of not feeling entirely sure that you belong. An offhand comment, or the tap on the shoulder, can tip the balance in a positive direction. It’s a simple acknowledgement, but some folks don’t get much positive acknowledgement. It matters.”
His thoughts reminded me a bit of the calling of Campus Edge. While the purpose of the acknowledgement is different, as is the technology (we often use email, after all), there is a similar sentiment. Part of being faithful in following Christ as a ministry means reaching out to people and checking in with them, trying to meet them where they’re at, irrelevant of how involved they might be at Campus Edge.
Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.
Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.
Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.
Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.
The Los Angeles times recently published an article by Varun Soni, who is dean of religious life at USC, highlights some of the changes that he’s seen among students during the eleven years he’s been in that role. In the beginning, the conversations he had with students centered on “quests for meaning and purpose. [Students] were striving to translate values into action, cultivate joy and gratitude, live extraordinary lives.”
However, more recently the conversation has shifted more often from “how should I live?” to “why should I live?” As Soni, notes that students today are more likely to “grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus.” He goes on to present the research that has also noticed this shift on campus.
Soni notes that students are often overwhelmed and lonely, and they find it difficult to know how to make friends, a trend that Jean M. Twenge, who has done a significant amount of research on the generation entering college, has also noticed.
Soni further notes that, while we sometimes consider this generation to be coddled,
the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances. They are entering a world in which many of the career paths of their parents’ generation no longer exist or have changed drastically. They face escalating tuition costs with little sense of whether their future opportunities justify the outlay. They have participated in active shooter trainings and campus lockdown drills for most of their lives.”
In this challenging context, Campus Edge and other religious communities strive to provide community and support for people who are struggling, as well as speaking hope into people’s lives. Please pray that we might do that well, as well as praying for all those who are struggling.
While some might understand a campus ministry as being primarily about being God to the university campus, I’m part of a tradition that believes God is already present on campus. The task of campus ministry is then about recognizing and proclaiming how God is at work, and then coming alongside the good that God is already doing.
Paul Verhoef, a fellow Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Calgary, ruminates what this looks like in his context. Most importantly, he “has always worked with the goal of trying to achieve mutual understanding among people, he added, because this is an important part of what it means to love.”
On top of this, Verhoef highlights how important it is that the campus ministry love the university. This includes a calling “to serve, to support, and to live in a mutually supportive relationship with the university,” but it also goes further:
“Can we appreciate its work, its research and teaching focus? Can we sympathetically understand its habits and concerns – and if we at times call it to task, can this be done as someone who supports the university, who is seen by the university as a person who loves it, a person who is part of the university?”
Not only ought we to love the campus, but we also need to recognize that God is already there. As Verhoef has noted, he “has seen how God is always at work — that the Spirit of God is always moving, breathing, creating life, reconciling God’s world back to God, and doing this on the campus in Alberta.” And we, as campus ministers, ought to be looking for how and where “the Spirit of God doing good and beautiful things.” And then, as Verhoef himself notes, we can ask how we might be able to “come alongside of those places and lend support, put my shoulder behind the work being done, and work side-by-side with other staff, faculty, and students to make something beautiful happen.”
The folks at Emerging Scholars Network have put together some resources for new graduate students. If you are a new graduate student, I encourage you to check them out.
Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.
In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:
“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”
She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:
“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”