Ever since the start of my undergraduate theology and religious studies degree, people have always asked me “Oh, theology? Are you going to be a priest?’. Well, the answer is and always has been “no”. growing up in the Church with my father being a reverend, it looked to be the obvious choice, continuing in my father’s footsteps. People in the church could not see the point of studying theology if it were not pouring back that knowledge for the church. As a Christian, my studying of theology has allowed to both be critical and appreciative of my faith: I translate this into permitting myself to ask questions for myself and not be afraid of the answers that might not fit into my ‘Sunday School’ curriculum. Whilst my knowledge has granted me the ability to re-read the bible, (and some of my favourite narratives) in a way which allows that knowledge to be expounded upon.
In light of this cycle of probing, understanding, and appreciating for the past six years of studying theology, it has been met with some challenges along the way. University in itself is a wonderful outlet of meeting those outside your social circle; couple that with being a Christian, it may be met with the ability to not just be tolerant to those who don’t hold your views, but also embrace them and give yourself the opportunity to grow as an individual.
So, here lies the challenge: how do you sit in seminar if your beliefs and the very things you hold dear are being challenged? You don’t. I found myself many a times, flinching inwardly when a core doctrine was being debated, yet this is the beauty of the whole university experience; you don’t have to be passive about anything. You find out quite quickly that just as other views are being shared across the room, being a Christian does not silence me from also participating and sharing my own views. Here’s the funny thing: the very thing you think people will shun you for is actually what they find most fascinating. I found that with me embracing my status as a Christian studying theology at university it was a touchstone for which I can begin to have not only meaningful conversations actually meaningful friendships with others.
It has been six years, and now undergoing a PhD, my stance has only gotten stronger. Only now other Christians expect you to be a Bible guru and will randomly ask me questions on the meaning of Daniel 12 (I don’t do eschatology!). Nonetheless , I have grown in becoming extremely comfortable about being a Christian in a university environment; it is possible to do so, to be devoted to your faith and not be afraid of opposing views that arise from others. This is about dialogue; don’t be afraid to have dialogue! 1 Peter 3:15 asserts ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (NIV). Some of my most rewarding encounters have been with those who from the outset do not share my beliefs whilst simultaneously giving me the confidence to articulate my beliefs concisely without offending people. To add, there is a state of respect that is formed between two parties, and it can reflect the very best of academia, in that we probe not to attack but to learn.
A few thoughts to conclude with, and these are a few ‘nuggets’ I’ve learned for being a Christian in academia. First, I don’t have to compromise. This took me a while, because compromising is not just an active concept, but also a passive one. To be silent when your views are being questioned is to compromise. So, I joined in with the conversation and allowed myself to be an alternative lens in the discussion. Second, learn to question, critique and embrace your faith. There is nothing wrong with being suspicious; that suspicion leads to a greater knowledge and thirst to truly understanding your faith. And finally, be gracious to everyone, accept that you will meet those who range on the spectrum from being tolerant to hostile, however, remain gracious. I discovered it was not my responsibility to be on a conversion mission. Rather I learned to do my duty, being a fully functioning member of my university, expressing my views when need be, and forging meaningful relationships with everyone without shying away from being a Christian.