At the University of Louisville, I became an English major for some pretty shallow reasons: I wanted to read and write as much poetry and fiction as I could.
When I came to faith in Christ during my junior year (with InterVarsity playing a central role), Christ gave me purpose: a purpose to my life; but more surprisingly, a purpose to my English major, too. God showed me that he was the creator of language; that language was the means he used to reveal himself; that through language, I could become, as J. R. R. Tolkien put it, a "sub-creator" within God's good-yet-fallen creation.
Getting a Ph.D. in English made perfect sense to me, so I began researching possible schools. Terry Morrison—a former chemistry professor and, at that time, director of InterVarsity Faculty Ministry—put me in touch with three Christian English professors. I contacted them with what I thought was a simple question:
Where can I get a Ph.D. that will bring together my love for Christ with my love for literature?
Naively, I was expecting to end up with a solid list of schools, but that notion was quickly banished. The first English professor wrote back, "I have no idea. Just don't do what I did."
The second professor told me, "I'm really not sure," and he gave me the names of two schools where I might have luck—emphasis on the might.
The third wrote simply, "You can't." But he continued, "However, you can do what I did, and get a degree in theology first. That way, you can do the integrative work yourself."
So that's what I did. Regent College offered an interdisciplinary Christian Studies degree in Christianity and the arts that even allowed me to write poetry for my thesis. It was exactly the right degree for me at that time in my life.
Over time, though, I became more and more troubled by my experience. I now see that I was experiencing the personal effects of a few very large problems.
There are few Christian professors at top universities. Sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons have found that there are many more Christian faculty than one might assume: more than 75% of the faculty in the U.S. call themselves Christian. However, these faculty are concentrated at Christian colleges and lower profile schools.
At the top 50 universities, only 18% of the faculty acknowledge being Christians of any kind, and only 1% admit to being "born again." These universities dominate the intellectual life of the academy and produce a majority of all Ph.D. recipients. Our future professors are being trained at the most secular of secular institutions.
This lack of Christian faculty, however, is only a symptom of two much deeper problems, which infect the church just as much as they do the university.
We don't understand vocation and calling. Growing up in a Baptist church in the Bible Belt, I knew only one person who had a "calling"—our preacher. He spoke frequently about receiving "the call" at a very young age and regularly asked the children and teens in our church (never the adults) if they had received "the call," too.
This reflects a common misunderstanding of calling among Christians. We think that only ministers and missionaries have callings, and that other lines of work are secular. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Os Guinness writes in his classic book The Call:
Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).
Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. But these and other things are always the secondary, never the primary calling. They are "callings" rather than the "calling." They are our personal answer to God's address, our response to God's summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.
Our misunderstanding of calling and vocation is closely related to the third problem.
We push faith to the margins of our public lives. Belief in God is considered a subjective value, while the real world is made up of objective facts. If God is not really real, why should he play a significant role in our major decisions, or our day-to-day lives, for that matter?
This is hardly how the Bible describes God. As Lesslie Newbigin observes in Foolishness to the Greeks: Gospel and Western Culture, God lays claim to both the private and public spheres of life.
Can room really be made for faith in the private world if it is banished from the public world as merely a poor substitute for secure knowledge?
So far, God's call has led me in different directions than a Ph.D., though the journey has given me some surprises. A few years ago, late at night, I was searching InterVarsity’s website for Bible study material. Over the previous six months, I had been praying for God to give me a vision for my life. InterVarsity staff was the last thought on my mind. I had already rejected coming on staff on two prior occasions. For some reason, I decided to check out InterVarsity's job postings. That's when I first learned about the Emerging Scholars Network.
Without knowing it, ESN is what I had been looking for all those years earlier. ESN focuses on encouraging and equipping the next generation of Christian faculty, while calling all Christian students to follow God's primary calling—by him, to him, for him—in whatever vocation they pursue.
ESN takes a simple approach to these complex tasks:
- Providing advice from established Christian scholars like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Kenneth Elzinga, or Carmen Acevedo Butcher.
- Connecting students with Christian faculty through our ESN Mentoring Program.
- Bringing together Christian Ph.D. students, like we did last month at Ohio State, to share their joys and struggles.
These small steps, however, can have major consequences. We have already seen some of the earliest members of ESN become faculty at leading universities and begin mentoring the second generation of ESN.
The situation for Christian faculty is already much better than a few years ago, though we still have far to go. My hope is that, one day, a young English major will ask the same question I once did, and it will be easy to point her to doctoral programs where she can bring together her love for Christ with her love for literature, and no one will think it strange at all.
Micheal Hickerson is associate director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network. ESN is called to identify, encourage, and equip the next generation of Christian scholars who seek to be a redeeming influence within higher education. For more about ESN, go to: www.intervarsity.org/gfm/esn/.