Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Engineering Professors Witnessing for Christ

I'm in Minneapolis this week with thousands of other chemical engineers. It's been a very busy week filled with some small and large miracles along the way. On Tuesday morning, I obtained a real boost in my desire to be a better witness for Christ while attending a 6:30 am Christian fellowship breakfast, one of the highlights of each Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). Professor Lisa Bullard, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University, was the speaker. She shared experiences in which she has been able to help struggling students in rebuilding their faith, and offered ideas on how professors can stand as witnesses of Christ while respecting the rules and pressures of the secular organizations that employ them. Inspiring! She also got the group very involved in sharing. One professor shared his approach of simply letting students know at the beginning of each semester that he is a Christian and would be happy to talk privately with anyone struggling with their faith. Another professor whom I really respect and admire said that he regrets the quiet, bashful approach he took to Christianity over much of his career. In the past 5 years, this bold witness for Christ has decided that there's no need to be ashamed of Christianity and has been much more open and frank about his faith and says life is so much more fun that way.

Students need to know that it's possible for intelligent, respected professors to also be devout Christians. The smug anti-Christian attitude that pervades academia needs bold refutation by living witnesses for Christ. I was inspired by the Christian professors and other engineers who were at this breakfast, sharing their experiences and desires to witness for Christ and bless the lives of students who need Christ more than ever in the soul-numbing atmosphere of modern universities.

17 comments:

Paul 2 said...

Hi Jeff,

What kind of limits do you suggest on what is appropriate and inappropriate for public employees to do? My personal opinion is that religion should not be brought up in engineering classrooms or with students who are currently being taught. There are other ways to connect to students outside the classroom.

I had an engineering professor that somehow figured out I was Mormon, called me in, animatedly recited the full litany of anti-Mormon material, and witnessed for Christ, telling me I absolutely needed to change. It was uncomfortable for me and I ended up getting a below average grade (for me) in that class. Was it because I wasn't interested in converting?

Did you tell people at your meeting that you are a Mormon Christian? If so, how did they react to you?

Paul said...

Fascinating post, Jeff.

Two thoughts:

In my Fortune 10 company, we have many employee "resource" groups that allow employees to combine volunarily and extracurricularly around intersts and / or ethnicity. One of these is an Interfaith Network that has allowed people of faiths to combine for a variety of activities (National Day of Prayer, seminars on parenting, open houses at different faiths for information, etc). And LDS former stake president happens to chair the group now, though the leadership circulates through other religions also represented in the group. The group has allowed a place for religious expression (including establishment of meditation rooms used by members of all faiths in most of our buildings and plants) without overt missionary-ing.

Paul 2, you raise an excellent point. I have found that often self-identified Christians are not only vigilant in their faith, but somewhat less tolerant of others. Jeff, it sounds like this was not the case at your conference.

wage slave said...

The only prof I had proselyte in the classroom was a devout atheist. He went on for a couple of minutes. I'm glad he did it, since in hindsight it's my most hilarious memory. No God. Seriously?

Jeff Lindsay: said...

At the Christian fellowship breakfast, there have typically been 3 or so Mormons present every year in a group of about or so. We aren't super overt about being Mormon, but it's known. For me and most of the LDS folks who have attended, connections to BYU and Utah are hard to hide, and I do tell people that, for example, I have a son on a two-year LDS mission. But there really is a healthy spirit of mutual respect for anyone willing to come to come to the breakfast and support the cause.

Certainly some of our peers may feel animosity and alarm about Mormonism, but the atmosphere in this meeting is always very cordial.

Bookslinger said...

I would imagine the President of the church has generally had a good relationship with whoever has been the Catholic Bishop of Salt Lake City, and I would be surprised if they had not dined together, going back at least to the days of David O McKay.

Paul 2 said...

Hi Jeff,
I am glad that they are reasonably open to your presence there.

jackg said...

"Students need to know that it's possible for intelligent, respected professors to also be devout Christians."

It always puzzles me how it seems that most "respected" professors are those with leanings toward agnosticism or atheism. Can so much education and knowledge lead one to believe that he/she is superior in his thinking regarding such a silly notion as the existence of a God? I don't know. But, as wage slave points out, these are often the profs with the loudest voices and the least worries regarding discipline for their stand and comments in the classroom.

Peace...

Anonymous said...

So, atheists like me are "smug" whereas Christians like you are "bold." I get the message, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about condescending.... Did it ever occur to you that maybe a lot of us have found the modern university liberating rather than "soul-numbing"? This country's public universities are one of its great glories, and it really bugs me when people like Jeff, who really should know better, deprecate it for the rather petty reason that it doesn't actively buck up their own particular belief system. I mean, really. We're talking here about an institution that is constantly making mind-blowing discoveries about everything from the cosmos to the microcosmos, from astrophysics to nanotechnology, and I find much of that work to be not numbing but tremendously inspiring to my soul, thank you very much. It requires an incredibly closed mind and cramped sensibility to be anything but inspired on a modern university campus.

Yes, some students modify or even lose their religious beliefs while in college, but if they do so, is it not their own free choice? And, even if we don't personally find such a choice especially wise, can we not respect it enough to recognize it for the choice it is rather than dismissing it as a "numbing" of the soul induced by those terrible college professors and their "anti-Christian attitudes"? Let's give students a little more credit than that.

Jackg, you write, "Can so much education and knowledge lead one to believe that he/she is superior in his thinking regarding such a silly notion as the existence of a God?"

I answer, Yes. I mean, aren't those with greater education and knowledge in some meaningful sense "superior" to those with less? Doesn't the systematic study of a subject tend to improve one's thinking about it? Why else would we send our children to seminary? Why else would we bother to create medical schools and colleges of engineering?

We're not doing ourselves any favors by so casually dismissing education and knowledge. If the majority of people who study philosophy, psychology, physics, anthropology, and the like wind up losing or moderating their faith, maybe we should open ourselves up to the implications of that, terrifying as they may be.

-- Eveningsun

Bookslinger said...

Eveningsun: "Wow, talk about condescending..."

The rest of your comment amply illustrates the principle of "takes one to know one."

Anonymous said...

Condescending? Not so. Rather I'm taking Jeff's aside about the "soul-numbing atmosphere of modern universities" seriously enough to respond to it seriously, as if it really matters. Disagreement is not the same as condescension. Please take my argumentative style as a sign of my respect for your maturity and intelligence.

At almost any American university these days students can not only take a wide variety of fascinating courses, they can also go to concerts and recitals featuring an incredible variety of music, and to lectures on everything from ancient philosophy to contemporary astrophysics. But in addition to all that (and of course much more), they can continue to deepen the faith they brought with them by participating in LDSSA, the Newman Club, Cru, Hillel, etc. They can join in various university-sponsored community service organizations and feed the homeless, organize food and clothing drives, etc.

Why would anyone finds this sort of atmosphere, chock full of opportunities for intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual growth, to be "soul-numbing"? The answer, I suspect, is that they fear the competition in the marketplace of ideas. Eeither they worry their children will be exposed to secular ideas they'll find more plausible than the religious ones they were brought up with, or they are the children of such parents and have brought those crippling fears with them to campus--if so, a great pity.

But the entry into the diverse world of the modern university should be no more "numbing" to the religious soul than stepping out onto the field is to the trained athlete. Yes, there's a risk that one might lose the game, but we should nonetheless welcome the competition and be enlivened by the excitement of it all. No one calls athletic competition "soul-numbing" just because, on a certain trivial level, it produces as many losers as winners; rather we understand how the pressure of athletic competition makes all athletes, even the "losers," stronger and helps them better understand who they are. Ditto for the particular kinds of pressures one encounters in college.

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Eveningsun said "I mean, really. We're talking here about an institution that is constantly making mind-blowing discoveries about everything from the cosmos to the microcosmos, from astrophysics to nanotechnology, and I find much of that work to be not numbing but tremendously inspiring to my soul, thank you very much. It requires an incredibly closed mind and cramped sensibility to be anything but inspired on a modern university campus."

I rejoice in the discoveries of science. But the inspiring environment you speak of is the environment of professional research by people years removed from the soul-numbing undergraduate environment of frat houses and co-ed dorm rooms. UW Madison, for example, is an incredible institution for discovery, and I've given presentations in both the U.S. and Singapore praising it for the bold approach being taken by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. But all that refined, lofty stuff is far removed from the shameful lifestyles that many undergraduate students are thrown into, filled with drinking, porn, and crudeness. For its real effect on human behavior and thought, the environment for undergraduates can be remote from the inspiring one you imagine. One need not be incredibly narrow to feel this way. One just has to dislike binge drinking.

Some universities, such as Oberlin, seem to feel it is their duty to degrade the kids who come into their power with parties, movies, and lecturers aimed at promoting immorality. It's a moral pigsty for many of our nation's undergraduates, and all the great research being conducted by their professors does not counteract the soul-numbing nature of the undergraduate experience.

And don't mistake the wonders of science with academic freedom in the liberal arts. Universities are dismally narrow when it comes to many of the big issues in life. Try being a philosophy professor who believes in God or a history professor who sees the threat and failure of Marxism. There is remarkably little tolerance for alternative views in the stern politically correct atmosphere of the university, and as a result students and professors may confuse a narrow sliver of monochromatic light with the full spectrum of knowledge.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

And even for those who actively pursue the "mind-blowing" discoveries of academia, they may still suffer from the soul-numbing behaviors, temptations, and dogma of the university. The impact on the soul, rather than the mind, is what concerns me. How sad that as students learn more about the marvels of God's creation in the university, they frequently develop less respect and faith in the Creator.

Anonymous said...

I see where you're coming from, Jeff. Looks to me like our differences are mainly theological. Correct me if I'm wrong, but what you seem to see as soul-enlarging is obedience (which one learns in church), whereas what I see as soul-enlarging is the struggle with temptation and the difficult work of adjudicating between radically different claims rooted in radically different points of view (which one learns in the university).

FWIW, my take on these matters is based on my reading of the story of Adam and Eve. In my view, Eve's encounter with the serpent (which we can take as roughly analogous to the student's encounter with the modern university) was good for her, in fact allowed her to be fully human.

-- Eveningsun

Paul said...

Eveningsun, you take a most interesting view of Eve's experience, one that I have never before considered. It seems your hypothesis is that only through sin can a person come to life.

While it is true that we all sin, and we all have need of the atonement in our lives, I do not believe that it is our Father's intent that we should seek out sin for experience's sake. The risks are astounding.

It is also true, however, as you said, that religious students do have some havens within many universities -- often extracurricular if they choose to seek them.

But what of Jeff's other point, namely the pressure even on faculty to enjoy academic "freedom" so long as it supports a particularly humanistic world view?

jackg said...

I can't believe that Jeff and I are being attacked for being on the same side of an argument! Did anyone ever think that would happen?

Eveningsun, what is the extent of your systematic study of theology? I can't respond further without knowing that much about you. As for me, I have studied systematic theology at an accredited Bible college. I am not a total expert, but I have some understanding of theology. My theology doesn't align with LDS theology on numerous points, but we all believe in Jesus Christ.

Education and knowledge are important, and I don't think anyone here would begrudge you that position, but there is a little thing called truth, and there is another little thing called faith. Remember that you are a finite being without any omni-anything about you, just like I am. God is infinite, and certain knowledge can only come through revelation. My position is that revelation needs to be tested against God's Word so we know it's coming from a true source. And, then, there is some knowledge of truth that we just can't wrap our brains around while in our finite state of existence.

Anyway, I'm doing the best I can with this discussion. Maybe I'll get some help from the others.

Peace...

Anonymous said...

Paul, it's not quite that "only through sin can a person come to life." It's more that one can only become fully human by facing genuine moral tests--which, because we're imperfect, will inevitably result in our sinning. The important thing is the moral decision-making; the sinning is merely incidental. I'm a little surprised that you've never run across this interpretation of the Fall. It's a pretty standard variation of the "fortunate fall" theme.

I agree with you that no one should "seek out sin for experience's sake." But of course, while that might be why some people go to college, it's not the reason most people do so.

I also agree with you about the very real risks involved. I just happen to think those risks are worth taking.

As for Jeff's point about "the pressure even on faculty to enjoy academic 'freedom' so long as it supports a particularly humanistic world view," I've always felt that the liberal-humanist tilt in higher education is mostly a matter of self-selection. Certain kinds of people gravitate toward business, others toward academia. The former tend to be conservative, the latter liberal and secular (and those among the latter who are conservative and religious are much more likely to wind up at religious universities, thus skewing the publics even further). Of course, there are a fair number of liberal, secular-humanist businessmen, just as there are a fair number of conservative academics, but the general demographics don't seem to demand any other explanation than the kind of self-sorting that happens in all fields of endeavor.

-- Eveningsun