Wise Engagement

This fall (2021), our convocation chapel was conceived as a time to explore three key facets of our university mission: wise engagement, joyful engagement, and redemptive engagement … in the church, society, and the created order … through excellent Christian university education. The vice-president academic asked the two deans—my colleague, the dean of theology, and me, dean of arts and science—to speak for three minutes each about wise engagement.

As is so often the case, when I began to think about what I would say, I drew a blank. As is so often the case, when I asked my wife Colleen about it, she offered me several thoughtful suggestions that unlocked my thinking. And as is so often the case, I ended up expressing my ideas through the lens of history—my history—in the form of stories. Here are my thoughts:

When asked to talk with you about wise engagement, I found myself remembering stories from my own journey as a student and a professor. So, this is my version of “Life in Pieces”: four short stories, no action scenes, but vivid memories I have of formative moments in my own journey towards wise engagement.

Story #1: I’m an undergraduate—a history student at a public university, realizing in my third and fourth years that I think quite differently than my peers who aren’t interested in Christianity and aren’t familiar with the Jesus way. One day, a fellow-student asks me about my beliefs and I explain that I’m a Christian. His response is a shake of the head and a quick retort: “Such a waste of a great mind.”

In that moment, a realization: how can he not understand that I can think seriously and have faith at the same time?

Story #2: I’m a PhD student, enjoying lunch with my mentor—a church friend who happens to be a top professor of linguistics at McGill, where I study. (He was later recruited by an outstanding US university.) Wanting to sound sophisticated to him, I ask how he conceptualizes his research, how he determines his next scholarly project. He answers in four words: “I pray about it.”

In that moment, embarrassment at never having thought about my work in that way—at never having connected my faith, the life of the Spirit, or prayer with my intellectual work—at least not beyond a few desperate pleas for divine rescue at exam time! My friend continues, explaining how he prays for research ideas when he plans his scholarship, prays for insight when he reads books and articles, and prays for guidance when he enters the library to search for sources. Here was a towering intellect who was simultaneously a thoughtful, practical, warm-hearted Christian.

Story #3: I’m a new faculty member at Canadian Bible College/Canadian Theological Seminary in Regina—a forerunner institution to Ambrose University, where I have invested my career. I enjoy regular coffee break discussions with faculty colleagues, often over a shared plate of curly fries! And as they discuss their teaching and research, I hear them wrestle with what the Bible does and doesn’t say and grapple with the challenges of preparing students for ministry in church and life in the world.

In those moments, I realize the depth of the wisdom they are accessing and discover whole new levels at which my faith can inform my thought, my work, my ministry, my life.

Story #4: I’m a well-established historian, asked to speak to several hundred church leaders about the pandemic, to use my historical knowledge to provide context (well, lessons, really) about the ways in which major upheavals in history have impacted Christians and churches. As I work on this, I soon realize that my incessant use of the word “unprecedented” to describe our pandemic situation is absolutely unwarranted. Of course Christians and churches in other times and places have suffered tremendous upheavals! Roman persecution, then Roman favour, the rise of Islam, the Black Death, scientific modernity, totalitarian dictatorships. In all these cases, Christians and churches had choices—to place themselves at the service of their neighbours or to retreat into fear and self-preservation. In that moment, I am embarrassed to have to relearn (again!) the deep wisdom that my own discipline of history has to offer me as I seek to live well, to pursue the good life, to be formed in the image of Christ.

Four stories—memories of just a few of the ways I’ve been challenged to cultivate wise engagement in a manner that brings together my academic calling as a historian, administrator, and leader and my Christian calling as a disciple, a follower, a servant.

May God guide you as you seek to live out wise engagement in the callings God has for you.

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