On Being a Christian Professor

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Some of you probably think that I have fallen off the face of the earth, but for some reason, this past year has just been so busy that my ability to keep up the blog was hindered. Hopefully I can get back to it a bit more regularly this coming year.

Recently, I was given notice that I will be promoted to full Professor here at Briercrest College and Seminary. As part of my portfolio for promotion, I included a short essay I wrote entitled, “On Being a Christian Professor.” I append it below and I hope you enjoy it.

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On Being a Christian Professor

The Cornell professor of history, Carl L. Becker, once said, “A professor is somebody who thinks otherwise.” In other words, professors are, amongst other things, marked by a refusal simply to accept and reiterate that which is accepted as common sense or conventional wisdom. Thus, professors, according to Becker, are those persons whose thinking is on the liminal edge of their discipline, leading the way into thoughts which heretofore have not yet been thought.

Such a characterization of a professor as an original thinker, of course, is widely held. But it is precisely this commonly held view which leads us into a kind of intellectual conundrum. For if it is commonly believed that it is a fundamental requirement of professors to “think otherwise,” then there is but a hair’s-breadth between the professor and the madman, both of whom “think otherwise”! Who adjudicates between that which is thought “otherwise” in the mind of the professor and the mind of the madman? One can justifiably understand why the phrase “mad genius” has found its way into everyday parlance!

It is, of course, highly ironic that the idea of a professor as an intellectual contrarian has forgotten that the Latin meaning of professor, professōris (from which the English word is clearly derived) is quite simply “teacher.” And this is not even to mention the more obvious English verb, “to profess,” from which the noun is derived! Had sad it is, then, in modern times the professor has become associated primarily with great feats of cognition rather than with great feats of pedagogy. Undeniably, the professor must think; there are today too many examples of professors who have gained tenure but who have long ceased to contribute anything of worth! But thinking without teaching is akin to inhaling without exhaling!

As I ponder what it means potentially to take up the designation of professor, I am drawn to one of the apostle Paul’s aphorisms as tremendously apropos: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

It is quite likely that the apostle, an educated man himself, understood something of academia. Perhaps he even had some of the Sophists of his day in mind as he penned these words. Sophists, one will recall, were men who travelled itinerantly, teaching (for a fee) on whatever subject was in popular demand. Some sophists prided themselves on being able to win an argument, even against the established “experts” of the day. But to be sure, the end goal of the Sophists was personal profit and public recognition rather than the upbuilding of their pupils.

Whether he had Sophists in mind or not, Paul goes on to indict “the man who thinks he knows something” when he clearly does not: Such a man is one who “does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:2). On the contrary, Paul declares, it is the “man who loves God” who is “known by God” (1 Cor 8:3). That is interesting, isn’t it? Paul shifts the whole equation around, making “being known” as having greater importance than “what one knows.” And in the middle of it all, he inserts—love.

It is perhaps in this vein of thought that Augustine later argued that the primary difference between the city of man and the city of God is not a differing set of ideas, beliefs or knowledge, but the difference between what is loved and cherished. In fact, Augustine defines a “people” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by common agreement as to the objects of their love” (City of God, 19.24). Whether a people of the world or a people of God, they are defined by what (or whom) they love. We become that which we love. Or to paraphrase the Jesus, “Whatever you cherish reveals who you are” (Cf. Matt 6:21).

While it may be that there is a distinct people group within academia bound together by their common love for a particular field of knowledge, in a Pauline-Augustinian perspective, Christian academia—and therefore the professors that supposedly lead the way—must necessarily be defined and driven by God’s love for us, and in proper response, our love for God, the highest and finest object of our love. The common object of our love must be none other than the God who has first loved us (1 John 4:19).

So what does this all have to do with the topic of “being a professor” at Briercrest? Hopefully it is becoming plain: To be a Christian professor is to profess the God who first loved us. Such a profession of this truth cannot be restricted to lofty thoughts thought otherwise, but in the inextricable combination of Christian teaching by word and deed in the name of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. To be a Christian professor, in other words, starts with holy confession and issues in holy love. All disciplinary tasks of researching, publishing, marking, mentoring, meeting, and studying aside, the base line prerequisite of the Christian professor is to point students away from oneself toward the source of all love and life, God himself the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all. The professor’s first words, then, ought to be a prayer, like unto the Baptist who cried out, “He must increase, I must decrease!” (John 3:30).

The theological implications of this stance, of course, are staggering, such that I almost tremble to recount them. Nevertheless, it is clear that that Christian professor must stands in sharp contrast to the Cartesian professor who asserts, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” On the contrary, the Christian professor is one who confesses, “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” It is my prayer that this would be how I am marked—as one who in all my academic and professional pursuits is more concerned about embodying the love of God than assertion of my own independent existence and significance.

Whatever the case, it is in this construction between love and knowledge that the role of the professor as a teacher may be understood. Two things are briefly observed.

First, knowledge in this biblical framework is relationally defined. To know is to be loved. We are nobody apart from the love of God demonstrated toward us in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 5:8). But in and through the love of God in Christ, we are somebody. It is this knowledge that is fundamental to our identity: We become as we are loved. We do not become and subsequently love; we become because we are loved. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “My egocentric identity has been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer my ego that lives, but Christ lives in and through me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who made me who I am by loving me and giving himself for me” (Cf. Gal 2:20).

It can be a significant source of temptation for a professor to see her or his students as underlings whose identity are not yet shaped and who have come to the professor to gain this identity. Somehow, professors can get caught up in thinking that they have succeeded as a professor when their students end up looking a lot like them. But a Christian professor must, indeed, “think otherwise!” Rather than seeking to make students look like us, we professors must continually remember that pupils do not gain their primary identity students or academics, but as sons and daughters loved by God. As malleable as our students are, and as intellectually and pedagogically influential as we may aspire to be, we violate our students’ primary identity when we forget that they are, first and foremost, loved by God and only secondarily and temporarily “our students.” Good professors remember that the goal is not to make students in our image, but to lead students to discover Who it is that first loved them and therein to discover their true identity. This kind of “theo-pedagogy” in which we lead students to God does, of course, run the risk that students, in the long term, will remember more about God than they do about us. But that, I believe, is a risk worth taking. He must increase, I must decrease.

Second, in the knowledge of God’s love for us, a professor must be constrained to act in accordance with our nature as those whose identity is extra nos—external to ourselves. As those whose identity is founded in the Father’s outwardly focused love toward us in Christ, we ourselves become intrinsically other-focused. “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” In this regard, the professor is marked by sacrificial service to those under our temporary care. It is our service to our students when, above all else, we love them. Of course, the content of that love for the student must be biblically defined. We love them through the display of patience and kindness. We love them as we resist pride, boasting, envy, and anger. Indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians gives abundant insight for the kind of sacrificial love we ought to have toward our students—most plainly because that is the kind of love which God has already shown to us in Christ.

But why love? Can we not teach without love? Clearly we can—if we are content to be remembered as nothing more than a clanging cymbal (Cf. 1 Cor 13:1). But the Christian professor loves, not only as an additional requirement to her or his profession, but as something vitally intrinsic to it. Rather than succumbing to the temptation to separate love and knowledge, we must be adamant that to love is to teach. Indeed, the antithesis to loving our students is to withhold the life-giving, person-defining knowledge of God revealed in Christ! Teaching, therefore, in a biblical sense, is more than the passing on of knowledge and information, but the daily life display of the fullness of life in the Spirit spoken and practiced in a community of learners called to seek first God’s kingdom, whatever the subject matter and whatever academic discipline may occupy our professional time. How tragic it would be for me to have spent my career passing on biblical and theological content, only to have a student detect in me evidence of theological sophistry! How utterly appalling and horrifying that someday I could potentially be judged—not only by my students but by God himself!—to have been a “posing professor” who had the appearance of godliness through proper use of words, phrases, paragraphs and discourses, but who had denied God’s power through a failure to love! (cf. 2 Tim 3:1-5) With God’s help, I pray this will not be me.

 

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