Contrary to the stereotype that most scientific researchers are atheists, one study found that nearly half are religious. Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University professor and author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think polled 1,700 scientists at elite universities. “Within their scientific communities, religious scientists tend to practice what I call a ‘secret spirituality,’” Ecklund explains. “They are reluctant to talk about religious or spiritual ideas with their colleagues. I spoke with one physicist who said that he thinks universities are not always very accepting environments for scientists of faith. He believes that if he openly said he is religious, others would question the validity of his scientific work; it is his sense of things that at his elite school, he can be a scientist or be religious, but not both.”
In a National Public Radio interview, David French, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, says he sees more cases of faculty suing universities on the basis of religious discrimination, and not just in scientific fields. “The secular public schools are almost becoming, for lack of a better term, quasi-religious in their outlook and devotion to one particular worldview and excluding all those who disagree,” French says.
Peter Moore, associate dean at Southern Methodist University (SMU), says this environment can be problematic, but it also provides unique opportunities. “University campuses are not necessarily hostile, but many of them are just secular. I think most [Christian] faculty feel like exiles, scattered, out of place because their worldview is very different.” That’s why he looks to the biblical books of I Peter and James for wisdom on how to handle life as exiles. “I Peter offers real counsel on how we can live out our calling on college campuses,” he says. “The image of exiles is maybe even more true for professors,” than those in other parts of culture because universities are at the forefront of cultural change.
Uniting Academic “Exiles”
In order to unite these academic “exiles” throughout the country, Moore created the PCA Faculty Network, which convened for the first time in April. He says the vision grew out of conversations between himself and David Woodard, a Clemson University professor who spent a sabbatical semester with Moore at SMU. Woodard says the two of them had such great conversations about their Christian world- and life views, readings, and teachings that they wanted to extend that same experience to others. Woodard says, “It’s so rare to get an administrator like Peter, who is so confident in what he does, who is willing to talk about these issues on the university campus.”
The initial gathering drew about 20 faculty members and pastors — all PCA members. Woodard recounted that one highlight of the conference was hearing about another professor’s scientific research that reinforced God’s perfect harmony in creation. Woodard was encouraged, “To see him talk about how, as a Christian, he believed that [his research] got published on its academic merits, but the drive came from his faith.” Normally isolated and disconnected on various campuses, faculty members drew strength and encouragement from the knowledge and experiences of fellow believers in the academy. “It was a delightful day,” Woodard says, “to hear how their faith motivated them to excellence … pushed them to work and achieve.”
Opportunities to Shape Culture and Relationships
But Moore hopes to extend the faculty network beyond an annual conference. He compares the modern university to the centrality of Jerusalem for the early church. During the diaspora of Jews across the Roman Empire, many would return on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, presenting the early church with a unique opportunity to spread the message of the gospel: “We are at the center of the culture. We have people from all over the world coming here every year. We’d love for them to leave with the Gospel.” He thinks gathering faculty at local conferences and providing an online gathering place will create an environment where PCA faculty can learn from each other and talk about how they can use their influence on campus.
For instance, Moore cites the example of Henry Schaefer, a computational chemist at the University of Georgia. A five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, Schaefer is welcome in places around the world where missionaries would not be invited. Moore says, “Every time he goes to China, he insists that he will only give a talk on chemistry if they will allow him to give a talk on Christianity.” All faculty members may not have the same clout, but hearing stories like Schaefer’s encourages all of them to use whatever influence they have for the sake of the Gospel.
“At research universities, more culture change takes place than at a typical college,” explains Moore. “Having Christians in those places is critical so that we’re part of the discussion. We’re not going to control the table, but it gives us a place at it.” Woodard agrees. “We must be salt and light,” he says. “Few things are more important than the university — it is one of the wellsprings of culture. If we don’t permeate this field, it’s going to keep spewing out the same stuff.”
Moore and Woodard both see their calling on campus as more than their academic disciplines and official job duties — relationships with other faculty and students are central to their work. “Many Christian faculty don’t have a deep academic understanding of their Christian faith,” says Moore. He envisions PCA members who are grounded in deep, consistent theology helping to equip their peers. “Christian faculty are hungry for a deeper understanding of the Word,” he says. “My own experience is, I’m trying to help faculty members who can go back and be better teachers in their own churches.”
Despite the challenges of being a Christian in academia, Woodard says he encourages young Christian students to pursue it. But that recommendation comes with a warning: “You’re going to go to graduate school where no one shares your convictions.” With the growth of the PCA Faculty Network, perhaps the next generation of Christian professors can make that warning obsolete.Christian graduate students often feel as isolated in their faith as their professors. Even more so than undergraduate students, Christian graduate students feel pressure to conform to the worldviews espoused by faculty. “Often people lose their faith in graduate school,” explains Moore. “We need to be nurturing our Christian graduate students because they will be the next leaders of the academy.”
For more information about the PCA Faculty Network, email Peter Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.