I feel blessed to have spent the last 31 years teaching English at a Christian university. I say “blessed” because my profession has allowed me not only to make full use of the skills I learned during my nine-year sojourn in secular undergraduate and graduate universities but also to disciple and witness to students from all (and no) faith backgrounds. Not once in the last three decades have I had to choose between training and mentoring students academically and guiding and challenging them spiritually.
A few months ago, my school changed its name from Houston Baptist to Houston Christian University (HCU), allowing us to widen our mission and reach. Providentially, at the same time as my colleagues and I are journeying together through this transition, a generous donor has given us a unique opportunity to think and pray through what it means to be professors at a university committed to the lordship of Christ in all areas of life.
The donor has provided funds so that, over the next several years, all members of the faculty will be granted a one-course release to join a semester-long cohort led by a senior faculty member. We’ll study the Scriptures and essential theological doctrines of the faith while discussing two key areas of the Christian life: spiritual formation and vocation.
Most people today use the words “vocation” and “career” interchangeably, but their etymology couldn’t be more different. The latter connotes a road or path that one races along, while the former means, literally, a “calling” (think of the words “vocal” and “vocative”). To help us wrestle with the full depth and breadth of our callings, the cohort I’m part of (fall 2022) has taken a deep dive into Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.
Though published a decade ago, Keller’s book has lost none of its relevance; indeed, it has furnished me with a helpful vocabulary for thinking through the profession to which the Lord has called me. I’ll share three things I’ve learned over three decades of teaching that studying Keller’s book has helped me to clarify.
Free to Teach Within Limits
While putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, I began applying to teach at schools across the country. I told the Lord I’d be willing to go wherever he called me, but as a Yankee who grew up in the suburbs and attended all secular schools, I was quite sure he wouldn’t send me down South or to a big city or to a Christian school. The Lord listened carefully and then, in his gracious providence, sent me to a southern Christian school in the fourth-largest city in America.
Aside from offering proof that God has a sense of humor, my calling to HCU taught me God had something for me to do in a place that was outside my comfort zone but for which he had prepared and equipped me. While an undergrad at Colgate University, I felt led to take classes on India, though I’d never met a person from India before. While a grad at the University of Michigan, I worked with International Students Incorporated (ISI) and led Bible studies for a Korean and a Chinese Fellowship. Little did I know that God would send me to one of the most diverse universities in the country to teach students from across Asia (especially India and Pakistan), Africa, and Latin America.
“Something can be a vocation or calling,” Keller argues, “only if some other party calls you to do it, and you do it for their sake rather than for your own” (55). This doesn’t mean you’ll dislike or resent the work. On the contrary, the work becomes more fulfilling precisely because you were called to it—not as a form of works righteousness or as a means of proving your value but as an act of love and trust to the One who created and redeemed you.
Martin Luther, as Keller helpfully explains, broke down the artificial barrier between Christian ministry and secular work by reclaiming the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith: “If religious work did absolutely nothing to earn favor with God, it could no longer be seen as superior to other forms of labor” (63). He thus freed Christians from overpraising spiritual and intellectual jobs and undervaluing secular and physical jobs.
Luther further freed us to see work as a joyous outpouring of love rather than an onerous means of justifying our own existence:
The gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, for we are already proven and secure. . . . Since we already have in Christ the things other people work for—salvation, self-worth, a good conscience, and peace—now we may work simply to love God and our neighbors. It is a sacrifice of joy, a limitation that offers freedom. (63–64)
Every profession, including teaching, has its limits, but those limits have both made my work more meaningful and helped shape me into the type of change and cultivation agent that God created me to be. It’s true that the learning skills my students arrive in college with are much lower than they were 30, or even five, years ago; it’s also true that their anxiety levels are higher than they’ve ever been. But that has only released me to minister more directly to them as a mentor who desires to see them grow and thrive and gain the confidence they need to excel.
Teaching to Learn
Among the increasing number of students that need direct mentoring, I’ve most appreciated my interactions with first-generation students—students who are the first people in their families to attend college. Interacting closely with these students (the majority of whom come from traditional Latino families) has forced me to examine and reassess my own views of the nature and value of work. It’s also brought me back in touch with my own roots as the grandson of four Greek immigrants who came to America around 1930.
Whereas my years in modern secular schools and universities have ingrained in me a view of work that celebrates autonomy and self-expression, my first-generation students have reconnected me with a more traditional, communal view of work as service to one’s family, ethnicity, and culture. Keller describes well the difference between these two approaches to the meaning of life, the role of labor, and the definition of success:
Traditional cultures of the past and present understand the world to contain moral absolutes that are known mainly through tradition and religion. Wisdom is passed down from one generation to the next through figures of authority such as parents, priests, and rulers. Such cultures teach their members that their lives have meaning if they assume and are faithful to their duties and roles within the community—as sons and daughters, as fathers and mothers, and as members of their tribe and nation. (134–35)
Although Keller goes on to expose the specific kinds of idols to which traditional cultures can fall prey, he encourages his readers to consider how greatly the West has parted from these older values since the triumph of the Enlightenment:
Modern society dethroned the idols of religion, tribe, and tradition—replacing them with reason, empiricism, and individual freedom as the ultimate values that overrule all others. . . . Modern societies no longer saw the world as containing binding moral norms of truth to which all people must submit. Rather, they insisted that there was no standard higher than the right of the individual to choose the life he or she wanted to live. (137–38)
Like most college professors, I’ve been trained, largely unconsciously, by the pervasive worldview of reason, choice, and individual freedom to encourage my students to use their education to redefine themselves and their purpose. I vividly remember having a conversation with a colleague who championed the need for professors to push their students to shake off constrictive family ties that would prevent them from excelling in college and landing meaningful jobs. Though I agreed at the time, my first-generation students have helped wake me up to the spiritual dangers of such a view.
God’s calling on my life, I slowly realized, isn’t just to teach but also to learn. Modern notions of work have led to great advances and innovations and have freed women, minorities, and economically disadvantaged groups to pursue a wider variety of career paths. But they’ve done so at a cost, and my work with first-generation students, as well as with Indian, Vietnamese, Nigerian, Filipino, Egyptian, and Colombian students from traditional homes, has educated me in the nature of that cost.
I no longer consider it my mission to turn traditional students into modern ones. I strive, instead, to help my first-generation students, and others with strong family and ethnic ties, to succeed in modern America without sacrificing their roots and their sense of vocation.
Teaching the Right Story
Of course, to do that, I’ve had to rethink more than just my definition of vocation but also what greater story (or metanarrative) my individual calling is a part of. That story, Keller explains, “must have an account of how life should be, an explanation of how it got thrown off balance, and some proposed solution as to what will put life right again” (155). It would be nice if the culprit that threw humanity off balance was ignorance. Were that the case, teachers like myself would be the true heroes, for we’d possess the superpower to bring about utopia simply by educating everyone.
But the problem with man isn’t ignorance but rather sin, rebellion, and disobedience. As such, the role of the teacher is more modest—not savior and redeemer, but guide and mentor. With that reality check in mind, Keller offers further advice on the connection between the stories we tell and the vocations we accept: “Our worldview places our work in the context of a history, a cause, a quest, and a set of protagonists and antagonists, and in so doing it frames the strategy of our work at a high level. At a day-to-day level, our worldview will shape our individual interactions and decisions” (158).
If the culprit was ignorance, teachers like myself would be the true heroes, for we would possess the superpower to bring about utopia by simply educating everyone. But the problem is sin, rebellion, and disobedience.
The university has a long history, with roots in the Academy and Lyceum of Plato and Aristotle and in the Catholic universities of the Middle Ages. Though its pre-Christian and Christian phases differed in some ways, both phases identified (1) the cause of education as freeing the mind from the delusions and temptations of this world and (2) the quest of education as enabling the student to perceive that which is good, true, and beautiful. The antagonist was ignorance, but it was a willful ignorance that was closely allied to sin in its stubborn refusal to see, to understand, and to change.
My vocation is not to heal or redeem ignorance but to break through it to wake in the student a desire to throw off the shackles of confusion and sloth and pride and release a sense of awe, humility, and gratitude. When I work with an entire class of students, my goal is to draw them into the text we’re reading, into the Great Conversation that’s been going on since Moses and Homer. When I work with students individually, my goal is to fan their self-confidence and convince them they have the skills, and the right, to join that conversation.
I reject the worldview of the post-Christian university, with its equating of knowledge with skepticism and of wisdom with the critical ability to see through the beliefs and traditions—they would say superstitions and institutions—of the past. Instead, I do all I can to foster the wonder that Socrates believed was the beginning of knowledge and the fear of the Lord that the church believes is the beginning of wisdom.
The universities of Plato and the medievals were elitist, catering to the wealthy few and the prodigiously gifted, but my role at HCU is to extend the blessings of education to students who wouldn’t have had the chance to pursue college in the past. They’re the new neighbor I’ve been called to serve.
The first generation of Jesus’s followers were mostly poor and uneducated, living on the margins of the mighty Roman Empire. Another first generation is now sitting in my classroom, and I feel blessed to be able to disciple them.