Can A Christian Witness Be Heard in Academia: 1999 Brown Lecture Series | First Presbyterian Church Dallas, TX
Today’s lecture concerns the question - “Can Christians witness in Academia?”
I want to talk about witness to Christ in “the real world.” By that I mean in the extra-sanctuary, outside world. I am going to talk about scientific academia, first because that is where I work and second, because that arena is widely perceived as resistant to religion.
I want to begin with a comment made by William Stringfellow. He was a very perceptive, radical Christian. He never conformed to the environment in which he found himself. He simply witnessed in it by his lawyer skills and his Christianity. I take the following statement from one of his books, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: “Incarnational theology regards this real world, in the fullness of its fallen state, as simultaneously disclosing the ecumenical, militant, triumphant presence of God. The Bible deals with the sanctification of the actual history of human beings, in this world, as it is being lived.” That is what I want to talk about in this lecture.
Jacques Monod, who received the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his discovery of the formation of Messenger RNA seems to speak for those in academia who appear to be resistant to religious interest. He wrote, “The ancient covenant between God and humans lies in pieces. Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance.” Now that is a tough statement, and one probably held by a large number of those in medical science.
What I want to say this morning, as hopefully an encouragement to you, is something about my experience in this scientific social environment. And what I want to say is that to be a member of this environment does not preclude witness being made on behalf of Christ and the Church. There are two reasons that this can be done. First, there is a serious flaw in evolution that is widely recognized by scientists. The evolutionary process is so clear and positive in physical and intellectual life – we adapt and run faster and think clearer. Yet, it is so failed in human behavior. There is this dichotomy which everybody is aware of. Scientists will say, “There is nothing we can’t do” – we will solve cancer, etc. And the second phrase is, “There is nothing we can do” – about crime, about drug use, about greed, about the absence of ethics, about illiteracy. And the second reason is that life events occur, causing serious questions to arise unbidden. And those events strip away the security and uncertainty of this empty and uncaring universe.
I’d like to share some real life examples of opportunities to witness. Because I work in a relatively small social universe (of medical science), it is fairly widely known that I am one of those “odd” people who holds to a religious faith. A couple of anecdotes about how witness works – because I don’t initiate these myself:
During a trip to a medical school in another city, a friend and famous scientist greeted me with, “I have to talk to you.” This scientist’s prominent brother-in-law developed acute leukemia and died within three weeks of diagnosis. The scientist said to me with desperation, “Tell me what this means. Tell me why this happened to him.” This scientist was not religious, but of Jewish heritage. You always try to talk to someone at the level of where that person is. So I did not talk out of the context of New Covenant. I talked out of context of Old Covenant. I began to tell him about God and that this God functions in terms of I and thou and that this God knows personally each of the billions of humans that have ever lived. I went on to say I believed that God knew not only the brother-in-law, but that he knew my friend as well. After my visit, while taking me to the airport my friend asked, “You mean He knows me?” Our dialogue has continued over a number of years. Each time I see him my friend says, “We’ve got to pick up the conversation again.” He tells me that he is now at the point of having felt the tentative movements of God in his own heart and that this would never have occurred without the crisis of this brother-in-law’s death.
Second story – I was visiting another medical school. Another friend informed me upon my arrival that his brother had died the night before. I told him about my beliefs that the soul was immortal and we talked about that. At a banquet that night my friend told me he was a lapsed Presbyterian. He said, “Do you want to know why I am no longer a Christian?” When I told him I did, he said, “Because you believe that the man sitting next to you, when he dies, is going to hell.” The man next to me was my mentor and a Jew. He was one of the kindest, most wonderful people I have ever known. When I asked why he thought I believe that he said, “Because you are a Christian.” I told him that I did not believe that. Then I told him that it was not for me to decide where God’s mercy lies, but my Bible tells me that when the pagans, who do not know the law, do what the law demands, they are counted righteous before God. It is not possible that the billions and billions of people who have lived throughout the ages and never heard the gospel are automatically excluded from the kingdom of God. And then I said what I always say - it is not possible that I, who learned mercy from the God who is love, could be more merciful than He. The conversation between my friend and I went on for several hours and our communication has continued
My point with these examples is, in the context of serious questions, ears become unstopped - if the witness is valid.
Witness is not always around a crisis event. Professors, who have not been religious, have scheduled appointments with me - to talk about faith. Their motivation being that faith had seemed to be helpful in my life and they wanted to know more about it.
What I want to say from this is that there is a universal need of humans to address serious questions about life and death – and high intellect and the absence of formal religious beliefs do not render one exempt from these questions. And I want to say further that you and I as Christians need not be ashamed of the unadorned gospel. We can be terribly ashamed of the way we live it and the awful things that people who have taken the name have done. But we don’t have to be ashamed of the unadorned gospel.
There are several requirements I think are important for witness:
1. We have to be authentically Christian – our lives have to be consistent with our faith.
2. We ought not run around giving answers to questions people have never asked.
(We ought to be living lives that induce questions – the answer to which is Christ.)
3. We must freely acknowledge the mysteries of faith and the unanswerable questions –
including the possibility that we might be wrong. (Although I don’t believe we are.)
4. We do not have to be intellectually gifted to witness – even to intellectually gifted people.
I close with another quotation from Stringfellow:
“In the face of death (all around you), live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate The Word.
Amidst babble, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the
truth and potency and efficacy of the word of God. Know The Word. Teach The Word.
Nurture The Word. Preach The Word. Defend The Word. Incarnate The Word. Do The Word.
Live The Word.”
It has been my experience that, even in a relatively hostile environment, it is possible to bring authentic witness to Him who is the savior of the world.
Daniel Foster, M. D.
Brown Lecture #4 1999 www.openringclass.org/