Christian Integrity in Academia | Evan Laksono, Ph.D Student in Applied Physics, Stanford University
A reflection on Christian integrity is highly important for Christians who seek to be salt and light in the world and become a faithful witness for the Gospel. It is a desirable quality Christians should pursue if we take the Scripture seriously (see Prov. 11:3, 19:1, 29:7). With a stark reminder of the recurring failures of the church to uphold the message that she proclaims (1), we should focus and discipline ourselves in pursuing Christian integrity. In this blogpost, I will try to sketch some aspects of Christian integrity and discuss some possible applications for Christians in secular academia.
The meaning and nature of Christian integrity
Integrity points to the quality of completeness, wholeness, uprightness or perfection (2). There is no dissonance between a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions when they face different circumstances. There is also a consistency between a person’s public and private identities. As Christians who take seriously the Lordship of Christ over our lives, we cannot shy away from wrestling with integrity since God demands our utmost and total devotion (Mat. 22:37-40).
I would suggest that Christian integrity means consistency between our way of life (3) and our given identity rooted in God’s call (4, 5). Firstly, note that Christian integrity flows out of God’s call, which marks its distinct nature from the notion of integrity which is not exclusive to Christianity. It is also not an identity of our own choice, but a given identity (6) which requires obedience. We should not miss how countercultural the idea is. In a secular and individualistic Western culture, we are accustomed to thinking that we are free to choose our way of life and that we are in charge of our own identity. It is easy to turn self-actualization into the goal of our life pursuits (7). There are also plenty of opportunities to become whatever we fashion ourselves to be. Coupled with our innate tendency to cling to power and control, it becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to pay attention and respond to the Caller. Christian integrity stands in diametric opposition to self-determination. Instead, it demands Christians to overcome this fallen tendency as we strive to live with the posture of faith because our goal is to please God (Heb. 11:6).
Christian integrity also means our way of life is fully shaped by the gospel that we profess. We do not only proclaim the gospel which culminates in the cross, but also embody the gospel and the cross in the way we live. As we make Christlikeness our goal in our spiritual growth, we also strive to emulate Christ, who “emptied himself” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). Undoubtedly, this is a radical idea. Yet, Christ himself did not sugarcoat His call as He said that, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mat. 16:24). A life shaped by the gospel will be increasingly characterized by self-giving love, readiness to overcome evil with good, patient endurance, self-understanding, self-affirmation, joyful obedience, mature holiness and hope for glory (8).
Clearly, the demand of Christian integrity is very high. An honest and critical examination about the way we live can always reveal our own shortcomings. As Christians are endowed with a capacity to know ourselves before God, our eyes can see beyond our innate pride that we are fallen human beings. Our grasp of the gospel paradoxically leads to an essential element of Christian integrity, that we recognize and acknowledge our own shortcomings to live up to God’s demand for integrity (9). To put it differently, Christian integrity, in its most comprehensive sense, is elusive. The reason is found in the gospel, which sheds light on our conditions that we are sinners before God. However, through the gospel, we have also tasted God’s salvation freeing us from the bondage of sins, so that by His grace we can be bold in pursuing a life increasingly characterized by Christian integrity.
Application for Christians in academia
We can now reflect on what Christian integrity might look like for Christians in academia. I found it helpful to think about our engagement in academia in terms of the following categories: contact (relationship with other academic members), context (how to approach our work) and content (the subject matter of our discipline) (10). These are three areas in which we should be prepared to engage with.
The emphasis put on each of these categories would also change throughout a person’s academic career. During our early days in the academia as PhD students, we are probably not in the position to shape the content from a Christian perspective. It will be a time for us to understand our discipline at a greater depth and explore some potential areas for Christian engagement. However, we can pursue Christian integrity in the areas of contact and context. For example, we can make ourselves available to our colleagues instead of burning all of our time for research work since we seek to extend God’s love for them. Refraining from gossip, we might instead offer a different perspective towards PhD life when corrupt talks that demean professors or promote cynicism are prevalent. In the area of context, we can demonstrate Christian integrity by being transparent about the status of our research when it might not be what our supervisors or collaborators expect to hear. Exercising integrity in financial matter might mean that we refrain from claiming reimbursements more than our actual expenses.
The challenge does not get easier as we become senior researchers or young professors. In the academic world with ‘publish or perish’ mantra, it might be tempting to dedicate all our efforts only to pursue more high-profile publications which are necessary to secure well-paid faculty jobs.
Nevertheless, at this career stage we should be prepared to be Christian witnesses by engaging with substantial issues concerning our disciplines. For example, we should be prepared to critique the dominant narratives defining our fields, if they align with the vision of the Kingdom to bring shalom (11) upon the world. When we are called to speak in an academic or a church context, we should also guard ourselves from developing a dualistic life, such as by devising our speech according to the audience in order to avoid the risk of objection or even rejection (12).
Christian integrity also means we come up with a different set of priorities when we discern our vocations as we seek to live according to the gospel. We are willing to honestly evaluate if our routines and decisions truly serve God’s purposes in the world and address tough questions. For example, will we willingly serve the communities in which God places us when it does not give us direct benefits even as the demands for academic publication increase? Will we make room for ourselves to grow in our Scriptural understanding so that we are prepared to testify about our faith and its influence on our learning and practice to our academic colleagues, while making a consistent testimony to the church? Are we open to the possibility that God might call us to serve as faculties in lesser institutions, where our roles potentially bring greater transformative effect to the community?
There is no neat formula for Christians to ensure our lives are marked by Christian integrity. The best bet seems to be a continual effort to leverage every opportunity to develop essential character traits for Christian integrity, such as humility and courage. Therefore, we should watch and examine carefully the way we live day by day. We should also seriously learn from the Scripture so that we grow in our understanding of what it means to lead a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). Cultivating Christian integrity is simply not a matter to be left for the future.
The task of becoming academics who live with Christian integrity is daunting as we reflect carefully what might come before us. In its pursuit, there might be a time when we have to face uncertainties, challenges or failures. It might be difficult to pursue it alone, but we should remember that we are not alone in the journey. It is thus important to get rooted in a Christian community to spur our growth in Christ and support us to live with Christian integrity.
When we face uncertainties, stand on what we can be sure about, that God is faithful and gracious to grant us wisdom (Jas. 1:5) and “teach the humble His way” (Ps. 25:9). When challenges come, we should remember that we have received costly grace (13). When we fail to live with integrity, we can confess our sins and ask God for His grace to forgive and sanctify us (1 Jn. 1:9). God’s grace is not powerless. It is the most important resource that will empower us to walk with integrity in order to fulfill His calling for us in academia.
I would like to thank Kristel Tjandra, Andrea Chaikovsky and Nathaniel Wei, who have provided invaluable inputs for this blogpost. I am indebted to them for their willingness to read this piece carefully and thoughtfully. I am delighted to present the draft of this post to Adrian Nugroho, my undergraduate mentor, who has also commented on the post.
Contributions are from various grad students throughout our area. There are a wide variety of thoughts and beliefs within our community, but we strive together to engage in reflective conversation with the common goal to seek Jesus.