Christian Humility? In Academia?

Christian Humility? In Academia? April 23, 2014

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  ~Philippians 2:3-4 (NRSV)

Considering others more important than yourself by looking out for their interests manifests Christian humility and demonstrates conformity to the example set by Jesus Christ.  In competitive environments, the cultivation of this sort of Christian concern for others can prove difficult.  And beginning (at the latest) in graduate school, academia is a competitive environment.

Although my own graduate program did a good job cultivating collegiality, I heard horror stories from other graduate students regarding the ultra-competitive nature of their own programs.  In a way, this makes sense.  After all, the students in the department are competing for the same fellowships, graduate assistant positions, and ultimately jobs.  And the job market is tight.  As one anonymous graduate student recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the current competitive job market means that even superior applicants have a better chance of winning The Hunger Games than securing a teaching post.

But for those of us who envision our work in academia as Christian vocation, there is something that presses against those competitive realities as the enduring words of Paul remind us that in order to be like Christ, we must look out for the interests of others: fellows graduate students, colleagues, and hopefully someday, our own students.  Although we must work diligently in order to succeed in our own endeavors, this means that we should consider the success of others in our field–specifically other Christians–important, perhaps even more important than our own.

Although the specific embodiment of this sort of humility must be determined by each of us, the Scripture does not give us the option of ignoring it.  In my own vocational work, I often struggle to merely remember this exhortation, much less exhibit it.  At the same time, there are some specific things I have attempted that seem to press me towards conformity to Christ in this arena.

1. Praying for students.  My vocational situation (a denominational seminary) allows me this freedom.  Yours might as well.  If so, there is nothing more likely to turn your heart towards the needs and “interests” of your students than to ask them how you can pray for them.  You might do this privately, publicly, or simply by having them fill out an index card with a prayer request.

2. Know the research interests of your colleagues.  You might even keep a list.  Then, when you see something that might interest them in print or on the internet, send them an e-note.  It need not be long.  1-2 sentences should suffice.  By doing this, you keep the interests and success of our colleagues in view.  (Note: colleagues may be fellow graduate students or fellow professors; they may be at your own institution or those you have met at conferences.)

3. Think seriously about mentoring the next generation of scholars.  Here at SWBTS-Houston, I often come across students who should consider pursuing academic work.  (Some even want to study American Religious History!)  When I do, I try to recruit those students to grade for me, make myself available to guide them in a directed study, and invite them to attend conferences with me.  Although the first two require time, the latter requires giving up my own preferences regarding travel, lodging, and connecting with colleagues in order to shepherd a student through the conference gauntlet–a daunting task for first time attenders.

What are your suggestions? How do you seek to live out the admonitions of Philippians 2:3-4 in your particular academic context?


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