Academics Need Grace Too

“Great is God our Lord, great is His power and there is no end to His wisdom. Praise Him you heavens, glorify Him, sun and moon and you planets. For out of Him and through Him, and in Him are all things….. We know, oh, so little. To Him be the praise, the honor and the glory from eternity
to eternity.”

― Johannes Kepler

“God, what does it look like to be an academic for you?”

A few weeks ago, God gave me a a very real, tangible picture of what the Christian academic life could be. Dr. Francis Su, a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd college and president-elect of the Mathematics Association of America, was presented with a distinguished teaching award at one of this nation’s largest mathematical conferences. His acceptance speech, was, as he put it, an attempt ‘to explain the gospel of grace in a language academics could understand’.

He later posted the text of the talk on his blog under a post entitled The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, and shared an audio file of the talk . If you only have time to read one blog post today, I would highly encourage you to read his post. It is truly inspiring. 

I came away from the article refreshed and inspired, filled with great hope in the ability of the gospel to transform the academy. It reminded me of two motivations for my vocation that I had previously theoretically subscribed to, but perhaps dismissed as being unsustainable in the increasingly meritocratic and cutthroat ranks of the academy. They were:

  1. To be an academic for the joy of academia; and
  2. To treat others in the academy with grace because of the immeasurable grace we have been shown.

Much of this blog post will be centered around my reflections on Dr. Francis Su’s speech, and how these principles might play out in my own life.

1. Being an academic for the joy of academia

What does it look like to do research for God? For a long time, I let myself be content with some vague notion of academia as a quest for God’s truth. Academia was that pure and perfect path to a fuller enjoyment of His beautiful creation and to a deeper awe at His unfathomable understanding. The more nebulous and indistinct this picture of academic motivation was, the more I could convince myself that it was the driving force in my academic pursuits.

During the first semester of my Ph.D. there came a point when I finally stopped and admitted that I could almost not remember what it felt like to be God-serving, and not self-serving, in my research. But doing so filled me with a great sense of shame. I became paralyzed by a fear that even seeking God through research was at heart a self-serving act, centered on maximizing my personal experience and enjoyment of God. Everything I did became in protest against the selfishness I saw in myself. I was trying to empty myself of the desires of the flesh without filling myself with the goodness of God. And it was a tiring and futile process.

In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch describes three prototypical Ivy League students. There are the ‘legacy students’, those born into privilege and entitlement. There are the ‘strivers’, those who grit their teeth and climb the rungs of the meritocratic ladder. And then there are the ‘children of grace’, those who intentionally assume a daily posture of gratitude and grace. I have always been a little uncomfortable with this classification, because there was always a little niggling voice in the back of my head, wondering whether I was truly a daughter of grace, or an imposter, a striver, striving to no longer strive.

The Lesson of Grace in Teaching reminded me once more that grace is precisely something that does not need to be earned or striven for. Indeed, Romans 5 says that ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. God’s grace is more than sufficient for all our trespasses and selfish desires. To be fearful of our inability to earn God’s grace, and by extension to implicitly consider it possible to earn God’s grace, is to think too little of it.

But let us go back to the question of whether searching for encounters with God through academic pursuits is ultimately a selfish endeavor. I realized that perhaps I had been approaching the notion of selfishness from the wrong direction. To be selfless is not to be empty of self, but to be filled with someone else. And if I could experience the fullness of God through my research, if I could be consumed by His being and awed at His glory through my academic pursuits, if I could be filled with the joy of the Creator through my intellectual realizations, then what more worthy pursuit could there be for me? As Jesus told Martha when she worried about all the things she needed to do to truly be serving Him, we need only one thing. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he says.

This is not to say that every time I sit down to think about my research problems, I am consciously seeking God and filled with joy and awe and ‘holy’ thoughts. I will be the first to admit that I am probably stuck in a weekly cycle of trying to prove something worthy of being shown to my advisor. I also do not mean to dismiss the reality that the modern day American academy thrives on meritocracy, on the notion that you can only increase your value in the eyes of society by demonstrating either your perseverance and effort, or your innate ability. But I know that even if my version of the academic life is not perfect, an ideal exists, and God in his immeasurable grace is drawing me closer to it every day.

2. Treating others with grace because of the immeasurable grace that we have been shown

One of my issues with the academic profession is how systemically self-serving it is. It is hard not to feel indignant or wronged when someone we view as less deserving or less capable receives the very thing we had been striving to achieve. At bible study the other week, our pastor, Charlie Drew, challenged us to consider whether we were really seeking God and truth through research, or seeking our own glory. How would we feel if someone else proved the theorem we’d been working so hard to prove? How would we feel if someone else gained the academic recognition that we felt we had either earned or deserved?

This issue is perhaps best encapsulated by the tenure system. Most budding academics have a love-hate relationship with tenure. It promises a lifetime of security and comfort, freedom to live the cushy life and do whatever you want, so to speak. But the road to tenure is long and arduous. You spend five to six years grinding out paper after paper, trying to prove that you are of value to the university, either because you consistently produce good work, or because you are moving towards some great result in the future. But you are not guaranteed to get tenure. There is the very real possibility that after those six years of toil, you will be hovering just on the wrong side of the line, classified as ‘not quite valuable enough’ and dismissed.

In fact, most of higher education is based on the premise that you must earn and be worthy of everything that you get, because there is just not enough recognition to go around for everyone who deserves it. Most people in the higher education system learn this early on, and so spend a lot of time and energy separating their self-worth from their achievements in academic circles. I definitely believed, almost with a perverse pride, that I was able to separate my own identity from my achievements. My mother raised me to believe that my abilities were a gift from God. never praising me for my achievements,or berating me for (what I perceived to be) my failures, but instead always rejoicing with me in God’s continued goodness to me. I was a child of grace. I was grounded in my personal identity as a child of God, given many good gifts in His grace.

But meritocracy was still a fundamental part of my worldview. Although my personal achievements did not heavily influence my self-worth, I started measuring the value of my classmates and peers in terms of what I perceived to be their intelligence and work ethic. That guy who always asked questions during class? They’re usually not very good questions, so he’s probably not the best mathematician in this class. That guy who always makes comments? They’re always insightful and highlight the fundamental structure of the mathematics we’re looking at, so he will probably go far. Almost all of my human interactions in the mathematical sphere reflected these value judgments to some degree.

Contrast this with God’s judgment of our value and worth:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. …

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:11, 26

Reading The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, I realized that I had been so busy learning to accept grace for myself, that I had forgotten to extend it to others. By not giving grace to others, I was helping to perpetuate the view that in the academic system, a person’s value was measured by their academic achievements. I was complicit in enslaving others to the very same measure of self-worth that I fought so hard to free myself from.

The irony is that the world of academia does not need to be self-focused. The university was designed to be a place of collaboration and community, of collective learning and discovery. Professorships have two main components, research and teaching, one of which encourages collaboration within the established academic community, and another which aims to build up the future academic community. But somewhere along the line, man had perverted this system and made it about the self and the individual.

Francis Su demonstrates that we can live out the gospel of grace by treating students as worthy because they are human beings. Students do not need to be the most hard working, the most intelligent, the quickest on the uptake, the most receptive of our material, to be worthy of our time and attention. And for me, maybe I can live out the gospel of grace by treating my classmates and peers as worthy because they are human beings. They do not need to be more hardworking than me, smarter than me, quicker than me, with deeper academic understanding than me, in order to be worthy of my respect and attention.

I am still slowly working through what a gospel of overflowing grace may look like in my day to day life. The Lesson of Grace in Teaching brought home to me that there are many parts of the gospel worldview that I have become good at articulating on an intellectual level, but don’t believe to be fully realizable in our broken world. I hope that you will be able to join with me in further exploring what the gospel looks like in the academic life through this and my future blog posts.

Irene graduated from Princeton in 2013 with an A.B. in mathematics. She is currently in the first year of her Ph.D. in IEOR (equivalent to ORFE) at Columbia University, where she spends her time pondering how to serve God in the academy and pretending that she knows how to be an engineer.  

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3 thoughts on “Academics Need Grace Too”

  1. “Everything I did became in protest against the selfishness I saw in myself. I was trying to empty myself of the desires of the flesh without filling myself with the goodness of God. And it was a tiring and futile process.”

    yesss irene, spot on! funny how stricken by striving we are, even in accepting grace we can’t just accept it, we STRIVE TO ACCEPT it wow…. type A much..

    also loved your later thoughts re: treating people as worthy just because they are humans, not bc of any other value judgment. in pton/academia we judged others all the time based on how intelligent they seemed/what they said in precept etc ha.. at least i did.. in postgrad life i see it more re: categorization by class, gender, ethnicity, etc like, oh you’re a refugee so you’re not human.. or oh you’re poor so you’re not human.. or oh you’re a filipina migrant worker so you’re a less worthy human than this american expat… but it’s the same thing, making value judgments of other human beings. for shame.

    anyway I loved this and related to so many parts of it and am reading Francis Su’s speech now. thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:26ff – God chose the foolish and lowly, the nothings, to shame what the world thinks as wise and as something.

    God has chosen us! What an incomparable privilege. Yet God chose us as lowly, unworthy ones, knowing that this would bring greater glory to himself. How utterly humbling.

    May this constantly humble us when we’re tempted to be proud; and at the same time ennoble and dignify us when we’re tempted to feel worthless. 🙂

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