Christian professors at top universities pursue the great commandmentWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
The world’s first universities were created by Christians in medieval Europe to discover, preserve and share knowledge across a variety of disciplines. Because these Christian scholars believed in a God who is rational and free, they also believed that exploring his created order was possible and worthwhile.
More than that, it was a duty and a delight, a way to fulfill God’s great commandment to love him with all of their mind.
Of course, things have changed over the past few centuries. The philosophy of secularism has pushed the Christian faith to the remote edges of academia, if not quite out through the gates. The modern secular university is no country for Christian scholars.
At least that’s the common belief. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of Christianity on campus have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, there are many top-notch professors at the world’s leading universities who are also men and women of faith, engaged in cutting-edge research for the glory of God.
An unexpected discovery
Rebecca McLaughlin is a Christian academic who holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University. During her studies at Cambridge, she made a startling discovery. Contrary to popular assumptions, she found more than a few leading scholars at the world’s top universities who were also followers of Jesus. Many of these scholars are world-class experts in their fields. Some are in fact pioneers in their respective branches of study.
After earning her PhD, McLaughlin relocated to the United States and spent nearly a decade with the Veritas Forum. One of her roles was to connect with Christian professors at leading universities and equip them to speak about their faith in relation to their work.
Since leaving Veritas, she has continued to provide exposure to Christian academics via interviews and biographies. These scholars represent some of the world’s most prestigious schools: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, MIT, Duke, Stanford, Berkeley. They work in a broad range of disciplines: philosophy, mathematics, engineering, physics, medicine, aeronautics, education, psychology, economics, law, biology, computer science, social science, genomics, public policy, epidemiology, chemistry.
The stories of their work and faith offer a potent antidote to the myth that Christianity and academia don’t mix.
Top professors who follow Jesus
What follows is a brief sampling of biographies and interviews McLaughlin has conducted with some of these leading Christian professors who are working at world-class universities. In each case, there are links to the full biography and interview for further reading.
Lara Buchak is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy from Harvard College and a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. The centre of her research is also the centre of her life, both inside and outside the academic world: the exercise of faith. In particular, she is engaged in exploring the relationship between faith and reason, and the basis for ethics grounded in the Gospel.
“Faith doesn't require believing more strongly than the evidence suggests. What faith requires is being willing to act on the basis of the evidence you have.”
Cullen Buie is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he is working on therapies in which a patient’s own immune cells are modified to find and fight off their cancer. Many of his students are surprised by his faith, and more so that he has thoughtful reasons for it. This gives him the opportunity to break down stereotypes and reach people who aren’t expecting to hear about the Gospel from someone like him.
“Jesus is compelling to me because I find the need to rehearse the Gospel message every single day. Each morning, I’m reminded that I’m not perfect and fall short of my own expectations, much less God’s; but at the same time, I’m loved more than I could ever imagine.”
Russell Cowburn is a Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University and a world-expert in nanotechnology. His research focuses on nanoscale magnetism and spintronics, with applications including low energy computer chips, ultrahigh density 3-D data storage, and healthcare devices. From his point of view, faith and science go hand-in-hand. In fact, his relationship with God gives him additional motivation for his research.
“You can’t work in science and not be struck by the amazingness of the universe. A good day in the lab is a cause for worship. Because you come out of it seeing God’s creation just a little bit more clearly than when the day started.”
Lydia Dugdale is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University, where she directs the Columbia Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. In addition to serving as director, she is involved in teaching, programming, research and ethical consultations in hospital wards. She has also tended COVID-19 patients in those hospital wards, the emergency room, and in medical tents. Because of her deep Christian faith, she is unafraid of death and willing to care for those who face it with less certainty.
“I’m on the favorable side of fifty, in good health, and not afraid to die. For me, it doesn’t seem too much to ask. But this isn’t the case for everyone.”
Daniel Hastings is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, where he also serves as head of that department. His many external appointments include serving as chief scientist from 1997 to 1999 for the U.S. Air Force, where he led influential studies of Air Force investments in space, as well as of preparations for a 21st-century science and technology workforce.
“I have never found my occupation as a scientist and engineer to be in conflict with my faith. Rather I see my calling to be in searching out and using the knowledge that God has given us to better the lot of humanity and serve him on this earth.”
Nancy Hill is a developmental psychologist and a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores how ethnicity, culture and context influence parenting beliefs and practices on the one hand, and children’s mental health outcomes and academic adjustment on the other. As a mother herself, and an African American woman of profound Christian faith, she has thought hard about the relationship between her deepest beliefs and her own ethnic and cultural heritage.
“My Christian faith is not in tension with the drive to love people who are different from me. My Christian faith demands I commit myself to loving those who are different from me.”
Ian Hutchinson is a Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT and the author of Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? (IVP, 2018). In some ways, he is his fellow countryman Richard Dawkins’ antithesis. Hutchinson is a Cambridge grad while Dawkins hales from Oxford. Both went on to careers in science at world-class universities. Both speak and write on questions of science and faith. But where Dawkins turned to atheism in his youth, Hutchinson turned to Jesus.
“When I became a follower of Jesus, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, quite a few of my friends said or implied that I was committing intellectual suicide. 35 years later, it doesn’t feel like suicide.”
Charles Lee is a Professor of Management and Accounting at Stanford Business School and a pioneering behavioural economist. He credits the teachings of the Bible on human nature, especially the account of the Fall in Genesis 3, for the insights that have led to his success in his field of inquiry, and for understanding how sinful human beings behave in the world of markets.
“Life is like a dance. We’re dancing on the edge of eternity. And our worldview, whether we acknowledge it or not, is like the music playing in our heads.”
Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University. He leads an interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology: for example, how a virus self-assembles once its components have been made. He and his wife Mary, who teaches at Oxford’s business school, run a program at Oxford called “Developing a Christian Mind” to help graduate students integrate their faith and their research.
“People often ask me if my science causes me to doubt God. I think the opposite is true. The more you learn about how amazing and beautiful the world is, the more it points to someone behind it all.”
Ruth Okediji is a Professor at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. An expert on the role of intellectual property in social and economic development, Professor Okediji has influenced government policies in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and South America. And she has had countless opportunities to witness to students who have come to her office seeking advice.
“One of the most profound things to me is the fact that being a Christ-follower is an eternal calling by an eternal Being with whom I have an eternal relationship. I am not just living life, I am carrying his life in me; I am not just going to a place, I am going to be with Someone.”
Rosalind Picard is a Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, where she directs the Affective Computing Research Group, which focuses on a field of computer science that she basically invented. She is also a TED Talks speaker and entrepreneur. She co-directs the MIT Media Lab’s Advancing Wellbeing Initiative and was named one of seven “Tech Superheroes to Watch” by CNN. Her technology is helping people with epilepsy monitor seizures and people on the autism spectrum communicate emotional cues.
“We are not just stuff: just mind and body. We are beings who live in relationship to One who transcends all stuff: all space and time, all matter and all mind.”
Charmaine Royal is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies, Biology, Global Health, and Family Medicine and Community Health at Duke University. She is also core faculty in the Duke Initiative for Science and Society, senior fellow in the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and faculty in the Social Science Research Institute where she directs the Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference and the Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. But the deepest part of her own DNA is her faith in Christ.
“When I think of my own identity, I think of Christ and how he created us in his image, so we had identity with him. And we sinned. And through his grace, he wanted to bring us back into relationship with him, and to bring us back in identity with him.”
Praveen Sethupathy is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell University. His research is focused on the “dark matter” of the human genome, the parts not directly responsible for coding, but with applications for diabetes, dyslipidemia, Crohn’s disease and a rare form of liver cancer that particularly affects children. He sees this work as worship, both in helping others and in discovering the wonders of the human body created by God.
“What was it that stood out for me in Christianity? It was meeting the unique person of Jesus. He’s the supposed hero of the story, but he’s naked and broken on a cross.”
Mark Shepard is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where his research focus is the intersection of health, industrial organization and public economics. In an academic world where status is measured in papers and professorships, he feels the challenge of living as a Christian and not just seeking to build a name for himself. He draws on the resources of the Gospel to combat this innate tendency.
“For me, the most powerful testimony on a daily basis is Jesus being the foundation of everything good that we all long for and strive for. He and his way are the heart. And he’s not peripheral. He’s foundational.”
Tyler VanderWeele is a Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, Co-Director of Harvard’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, and 2019-2020 George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford. He holds degrees from Oxford, Penn, and Harvard in mathematics, philosophy, theology, finance, applied economics, and biostatistics. His research is on the connection between religious commitment and physical and mental health.
“Simply from a public health perspective, the continuing diminution of religious upbringing in America would be bad for health. This is not proselytizing; this is science.”
Troy Van Voorhis is a Professor of Chemistry at MIT, where he also chairs the Chemistry Department. His research has impact on renewable energy and quantum computing, and has led to advances in light emitting diodes, solar cells, and other devices and technologies crucial to addressing 21st-century energy concerns. He considers his work as a scientist to be a key part of his vocation as a Christian, and his research on renewable energy has direct applications for better stewardship of the world’s resources.
“I believe that our deepest needs – our thirst for justice, our hunger for security, our search for answers, and our desperate need for hope – all these things are met in the person of Jesus Christ.”
Reclaiming the university
This is a small sample of Christian professors who work at leading secular universities, a tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even so, they represent a distinct minority within an academic environment that’s indifferent or even hostile toward the Christian faith.
It’s why Rebecca McLaughlin, who compiled these stories, has called for Christians to reclaim the university, not as a hostile takeover, but as a homecoming.
And she’s quite right. After all, it was Christians who invented the university in order to pursue all forms of knowledge to the glory of God. Christians were once cultural and intellectual leaders, using their talents and their influence for the benefit of society and the thriving of their fellow humans. And yet, in the face of advancing secularism, Christians have largely abandoned the arena of public discourse, ceding their former position of influence to the secularists.
But this sad retreat will no longer do. Neither will a prideful urge to regain cultural prestige. As in the past, Christians need to be captivated by the prospect of exploring the wonders of creation and discovering more of the glories of its Creator, allowing this to drive them to humble worship of God and service to others.
The stories of these women and men of faith, pursuing world-class scholarship for the glory of God and the benefit of humanity, are a cause to celebrate. More than that, they’re a call to every follower of Jesus to engage in the world of the mind, as God may have gifted us.
“Christ calls us to love God with our heart and our soul and our mind and our strength,” McLaughlin reminds us. “He is not content with three out of four.”
Sources and further reading
The Veritas Forum website and YouTube channel offer a platform for university students and faculty to engage life’s most difficult questions from a Christian framework, in dialogue with other belief systems.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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