Sharing One's Faith at University

In a letter to the (now no longer active) Science & Christianity Mailing List, David Stapleton asked,

Does anyone have a strategy to share their faith in the lab? Or does anyone have any success stories to encourage me with?

This is my reply.

I am a Christian since I was 25, which is now (at the time I wrote this) for 17 years. For many years, I felt condemned whenever I read Matth. 10:33, since I was silent about my faith. I didn't know how to share my faith in a way that is natural, and I was afraid of doing it in a way that would make me look like a fool. (One cannot avoid it completely; not even Jesus always managed it, Mark 3:21.) It was a slow process how God prepared me for taking more courage and experiment with small (and later larger) things that involved some risk.

In the mean time, I found out that there are a number of situations where one can take the opportunity to say something if one is prepared, even when it may mean to be looked at a little strangely by a few (surprisingly few!!); it made a big difference for a few people I actually reached that way. At first, every attempt to break the taboo of talking about God in a scientific context was accompanied by nervosity on my part, and sometimes it is so even now, after many years, when I experiment with something new.

For example, in my inaugural speech at the University of Vienna, two years ago, I carefully prepared a mixture of science, wisdom, and affirmation of faith that harmonized with the occasion, but knowing that I was speaking before about 100 science professors and other faculty that would be my potential future partners or adversaries, I trembled within myself. The result of my speech was that I earned cold shoulders from a number of influential people, but the deep respect of some others for whom I set an example of courage. This was quite encouraging for me.

I think it is important that in sharing one's faith with scientists, one must make sure that the form is appropriate for the occasion. This is what requires effort and thought well in advance, because many situations come suddenly and are lost if one is not prepared, and others are effective only when used with care.

While is is almost unavoidable that sharing one's faith comes as a surprise to those who hear it for the first time, and maybe without precedent for some, there should be enough congruence with the social and scientific context so that people can see that you are not acting arbitrarily, but well motivated, aware of the interests of your collegues, and understandable in the light of what was going on before you began.

Study how Jesus used the situations he was in! He managed to say what he wanted to say, in situations we wouldn't even have recognized as opportunities, and his actions fitted the circumstances, even when he had to say very unexpected things. (There are many instances in all gospels. A few of the more daring examples: Luke 14:1-14; John 4:1-26; Luke 4:14-30.)

There are some occasions where it is easy to express your faith naturally, though it involves some willingness to expose yourself.

In the preface of a Ph.D. thesis or Masters thesis, or of a book, there is generally a section with thanks. Why not thank God for his help, in a way understandable to anyone, and conveying something of value? I felt ashamed when I saw a Muslim give public thanks to Allah in this way, doing what I at that time would have been much too afraid to do, and decided to learn from him.

In some research papers, there is the opportunity to add some quote from the literature as a motto; why not use a bible verse? Of course, you need to ensure that the quote fits the spirit of your paper; otherwise you violate the standard of appropriateness. An example is the quote of 1 Thess. 5:21-22 in my professional web pages on global optimization. While reading the bible, keep an open eye on whether some text fits your particular subject, in such a way that your readers will agree, unless they already have an anti-Christian prejudice. (A mathematician well known in my research field responded to a preprint I sent some time ago, ``This is religion, not science! The main result of the third paragraph was that I stopped reading... I just don't think you should mention the 3-letter word G__. To me it is more offensive than all the 4-letter words.'' But the referees had nothing against it, and this was the only negative response I ever got about this paper.)

Why not write (or copy) a paraphrase of some biblical story and distribute it among your peers? For examples, see Deborah and Loren Haarsma's Parables for Modern Academia.

If you give talks on your research at a conference or at another university, you may also be able to use an appropriate story or quote from the bible or another well-known Christian author, if you had been looking for them. Every once in a while, I discover a new one. (Did you know that the well-known song `Amazing grace' contains a mathematically valid description of infinity/eternity? This may be worth a remark for those who give or grade calculus courses...)

In the first or last lecture on many scientific subjects, there is often a more relaxed attitude towards the form in which the material is presented. In the middle of a math course, for example, it would almost certainly be extremely odd to say something about one's faith. (There are rare exceptions. For example, on the day of the outbreak of the war in Kuwait a couple of years ago, I was giving a lecture on optimization. I took the opportunity to say something about the influence of optimization methods on modern warfare, and allowed a discussion of the war, giving me a chance to say something about Christian values.) However, the first lecture of my courses is often an outline of what the course will contain, what the subject matter is useful for, and how it is related to other themes, and this gives me sometimes the occasion to say something personal. In a course where most of the students are new to me, I might also say a few words about myself, and add something like `I believe that the most worthwhile goal in the life of a person is to serve God, the creator and sustainer of everything that exists.'

If you have a home page on the WWW, this is an ideal place to let people know of your faith. (You may wish to look at a few Home Pages of Christians in Science.) I'd recommend not to use big words, but sincere ones, words that strike a human chord even in your agnostic readers.

These were some ways that can be planned and prepared. Then there are other occasions that cannot be prepared but must be recognized when they are present. (How often did I notice only after the event that I missed an opportunity!) Pray for guidance by the Spirit; don't drown your suffering about not being a good witness - without suffering no open eyes!

If you see your peers in personal problems, offer them help to the extent you can do. Share your helplessness and the power of God when you cannot help but experienced God's healing in a related situation of your own. If you do it `with gentleness and respect' (1 Peter 3:15) and not in a way that the other feels like an object of your desire to help, it will be well received. At times, I asked whether I could pray with them, and at the end of my prayer asked whether they wanted to add anything to the prayer - even agnostics have responded positively! Showing real love, and attributing it to God, is probably the most effective way to share your faith with non-Christians.

Does anyone have a strategy to share their faith in the lab?

Beware of strategies, but practise what fits your personal situation. No one wants to be the object of missionary activities, but everyone enjoys to be taken important. James 1:19; Rom. 12:10.

Or does anyone have any success stories to encourage me with?

Yes, there are successes. But they are not for the public. Matth. 6:1-18; Luke 10:17-20. Rather than relying on the successes of others, rely on the guiding hands of our father in heaven. Matth. 10:19-20.

Best wishes for your first steps in being a messenger of Christ in the lab!

Arnold Neumaier

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