Faith Integration as Identity

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Faith Integration as Identity

Jonathan Pettigrew, Ph.D.

Arizona State University, Assistant Professor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication


Immediately after completing my undergraduate psychology degree from a small state school in Texas, I moved across the country to Indiana. Licensed as a minister and commissioned as a missionary, I began working as a Christian campus minister at a large, public university. I thoroughly enjoyed campus life and working with the vibrant, intellectual, and strategically positioned college population. I developed wonderful relationships with a few, devoted students and had the opportunity to debrief their classroom learning in terms of a biblical, theistic worldview. I quickly realized, however, that these few students selected into the ministry certainly were not representative of the broader university population. I began to see that in my role as a Christian campus minister I would be part of but always ancillary to the university community. This revelation motivated me to pursue a Ph.D. with the goal of joining a university faculty. Today I am a Christian scholar working at Arizona State University, a large, research-intensive, public university.

To clarify, I am not a Christian scholar because I study Christianity, Christian groups, religion, or any other social form related to Christ. I am a Christian scholar because my identity is fundamentally that of a Christian, a follower of the Way, a disciple of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. I do not believe there is any way to separate my identity as a person from my occupation as a scholar. As Christian apologists and literary scholar C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”[1] Because I work in a state institution as a scholar, where professing sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola fide (justification by faith alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) can be perceived as naïve, anti-intellectual, or even bigoted, the question becomes: How do I integrate my identity as a Christian scholar in my research and teaching?

First, I craft my syllabus to include an array of human experience and contemporary theory and research that includes, but is not limited to, spiritual themes. Evidence shows that humans do better when they practice some form of spirituality.[6] This finding is more readily accepted by some audiences than by others[7]; nevertheless, the claim has been empirically supported time and again, making it an easy item to include in a syllabus on human communication.

A course syllabus, in many ways, is a doorway to learning, which places responsibility on the syllabus architect to ensure that the best of our collective knowledge makes it into the course material. In my opinion and experience, we need not fear the philosophies that set themselves up against the knowledge of God (cf. Colossians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5), but we need not court them either. I construct my syllabus in such a way as to cover contemporary thought and also share a Christian or theistic position on issues. I believe this is a worthy endeavor and a powerful strategy for leading students to learn by exposing them to Christian thought that would otherwise be omitted. Directing them to timely, relevant arguments for or against contemporary issues is part of the job, and risk, of education. To summarize philosopher Luigi Guissani, we teach the best of what we know to the next generation and wager that they will espouse it personally, envision a better future, and work to achieve it by transforming knowledge into wisdom.[8] If I fail, as a professor, to include religion and spirituality in my state-school syllabus, then I am doing a disservice to my students by omitting an integral aspect of the human condition and knowledge base.

Engaging Presuppositions

A second, perhaps more profound approach is to engage students in thinking about course topics and theories at a presuppositional level. The goal is to direct them to query the social theories they read and examine how well the theoretical assumptions comport with reality. Which assumptions are tautological? Which do not align with an accurate (observable) view of humanity? Which theoretical claims defy logic?

For example, I often use American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because almost all students encounter this humanistic theory early in their educational careers and can easily recall it. Maslow suggested that the pinnacle of human experience is to be self-actualized. There is no spirituality in Maslow’s humanistic worldview, so the zenith is self. He envisions a pyramid with basic physiological human needs at the base (food, clothing, shelter), followed by social needs (companionship, belonging, acceptance), and ultimately by needs for self-actualization. In Maslow’s theory, the higher-order needs can optimally be fulfilled when the lower-order needs have been met. For instance, one cannot seek companionship when starving. I often bring up historic examples to question these presuppositions. I ask, based on what you know of the theory, was Gandhi self-actualized? How then did he go on a hunger strike? Does anyone know about the Franciscan order of Catholic monks? Saint Francis of Assisi took a vow of poverty. Was he self-actualized? Did he have absolute fulfilment even though he shunned shelter, giving away his possessions and living in simplicity? I then suggest that the pyramid does not capture the whole of human experience. Rather, we have the ability to supplant our needs in service of spiritual transcendence. Actualization, then, as Maslow defines it, can go at the bottom of the chart for people who choose to put other “needs” above instinctual and social needs.

I use the example of Maslow along with other theories to engage students in thinking about how well they comport with human experience. In this strategy, I integrate faith claims about anthropology (issues of human will) and spirituality (not merely self-actualization). In general, my approach follows Francis Schaeffer, American Christian theologian, pastor, and founder of the L’Abri community in Switzerland, who recommends that we push a student “toward the logic of his presuppositions.”[9] Engaging in this faith integration strategy, however, it is wise to heed the adage “they do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Especially in the public university classroom—a place where a pluralism of ideas, beliefs, positions, and perspectives exist—such teaching should be done with gentleness and respect (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). Schaeffer warns:

As I seek to [push people to the logic of their presuppositions], I need to remind myself constantly that this is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and ugliness of it all will destroy me as well. Merely to be abstract and cold is to show that I do not really believe this person to be created in God’s image and therefore one of my kind.[10]

Through teaching, I have the privilege of encouraging students to recognize and examine their own assumptions about humanity, society, and interaction.

Asking “Small Questions”

A third strategy for faith integration is asking “small questions.” A small question is one that does not typically require a theistic explanation or does not overtly involve moral issues. Obviously issues of faith come to the fore in matters of first causes and eschatology, but when I want to know the correlation between affinity-seeking practices and screen-time for married couples, issues of Jesus, the Bible, and prayer do not come to mind.

Small questions are not overtly Christian or even theistic, nor are they anti-Christian. For example, when I teach about a biosocial rhythm in the family, I am careful not to attribute men and women’s biological proclivities to processes of macro-evolution. Males and females have observable structures and traits that can be explained in terms of procreative function, but this fact does not confirm evolutionary forces any more than it does intelligent design. Rather, theories about evolution and design provide context and an interpretation of the facts. While I am persuaded by my own exegesis of Genesis and by reason from natural law[11] that procreation is a divine privilege given to Adam and Eve, I do not teach it as a professor in a public institution. I do not address the topic of human origins at all. Instead, I present that the family, according to the United Nations’ 1945 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. Doing so, I focus on the family as a natural (i.e., biological) group unit and avoid quibbles about what causes the overt biological differences.

Asking small questions can be an effective strategy to gain traction among secular audiences; deferring to pragmatic, utilitarian arguments has often won favor among my students and colleagues. However, sometimes I find focusing on small questions can be complicit with a system of secular humanism. Indeed, as the saying goes, “silence is agreement.” It is therefore a weaker strategy than others because it most closely borders the precipice of lies. Allow me to elaborate.

On February 12, 1974, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released a famous text, “Live Not by Lies!” The message of the text was amplified by the biographical events that surrounded it: Solzhenitsyn was arrested on the day of its release and exiled from his homeland the next. In the text, Solzhenitsyn calls all free peoples to “never knowingly support lies” and to “step back from this dangerous edge” where lies begin.[12] He charges men and women to shun the servitude that living by lies brings and, in so doing, they “will not write, sign, nor publish in any way, a single line distorting, so far as he can see, the truth; will not utter such a line in private or in public conversation. . . nor speak it in the role of educator canvasser, teacher, actor; . . . will not cite in writing or in speech a single ‘guiding’ quote for gratification, insurance, for his success at work, unless he fully shares the cited thought and believes that it fits the context precisely.”[13] He then essentializes the motivation of those who knowingly support propaganda. “Let [them] say to [themselves] plainly: I am cattle, I am a coward, I seek only warmth and to eat my fill.”[14] The list of obligations upon truth-speakers is not exhaustive and fits the particular context of soviet Russia. Nevertheless, the same charge falls to Christian professors in public institutions. Thus, t

Using the three strategies described above does not imply that it is possible for me to write, theorize, and research without ever having to engage my Christian identity. One cannot be Christian on Sunday and otherwise on Monday through Saturday any more than a university professor can be a Ph.D. on Tuesday and Thursday but otherwise on non-teaching days. Christianity is neither simply a set of religious practices nor is it solely cognitive assent to a set of platitudes. Faith is not merely belief; it is belief in action. Christianity is an integrated identity. When Jesus described the condition of faith, he likened it to being born (cf. John 3). Similarly, the picture of baptism is death and rebirth (cf. Romans 6:4). These teachings indicate that becoming a Christian is unqualified and total. One cannot partially die and birth begins something previously non-existent. In this way, my Christian identity must necessarily influence the theories that I select for my syllabus and research, the arguments and presuppositions I accept as true or reliable (e.g., types of evidence, lines of reasoning, underlying assumptions), the questions I explore, and the prose I articulate and pen.

Others have offered perspective on the role of a Christian professor at a state university, and some of their thoughts are useful for faculty.[15] As a final strategy—nay, requirement—of my faith-integration quest, I want to emphasize the importance of Christian community. I am not alone in my profession but part of a community of scholars as well as a community of Christians. This takes form in both colleagues at my university and elsewhere who are Christians and through friends who are part of my local Christian congregation.[16] Part of the role of the Christian community, according to the Scriptures (e.g., 2 Peter 1: 5-7, 12-13; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Zechariah 8: 16-17), is to exhort, rebuke, and call us all toward truth.[17] In community, we encourage one another to act, write, and speak in ways that are consistent with our identity as Christians. We push each other to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love others as God loves them.

In conclusion, working as a professor is a profound privilege. We interact with some of the most astute and gifted members of society. We are exposed to people and ideas from around the world. We are paid to pursue truth and teach it. As Christian faculty, too, we are charged to glorify God in everything we do (Colossians 3:17). This imperative is staggeringly comprehensive. To glorify God in all things—in family, faith-community, recreation, and in our occupation as professors—we must consistently, faithfully engage our Christian identity. Thoughtfully crafting a syllabus, probing fundamental assumptions about reality, asking small questions while avoiding lies, and embedding ourselves in Christian community are strategies that hold us accountable to be consistent and open about our identity as Christians. As we do, we can glorify God and enjoy Him[18] within an intellectual, stimulating, diverse, and strategic setting.


[1] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in They Asked for A Paper: Papers and Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962), 164-165.

[2] Neil Gross and Solon Simmons “The Religious Convictions of College and University Professors,” in The American University in a Postsecular Age, eds. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda H. Jacobsen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 22.

[3] Higher Education Research Institute, “Spirituality and the Professorate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors,” University of California, Los Angeles,

[4] Gross and Simmons, “The Religious Convictions,” 23.

[5] Ibid., 25-26.

[6] For example, see Wesley R. Burr, Loren D. Marks, and Randal D. Day, Sacred Matters: Religion and Spirituality in Families (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[7] For example, note discussion of “spirituality” as a consistent finding for strong families in David Olson and John DeFrain, Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 80ff.

[8] Luigi Guissani, The Risk of Education: Discovering our Ultimate Destiny (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001).

[9] Francis Schaeffer, “The God Who Is There,” in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 138-139.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See J. Budziszewski, “Designed for Sex: What We Lose When We Forget What Sex Is For,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 18, no. 6 (2005),

[12] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005, eds. Edward E Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006), 558.

[13] Ibid., 558-559.

[14] Ibid., 559.

[15] Perhaps one of the most helpful and inspirational guides is the fictitious faculty member, Professor M. E. Theophilus, who provides timely, relevant, sometimes piercing advice to students during “office hours” dialogues. Authored by J. Budziszewski, this resource is a treasure trove of wit and wisdom for both faculty and students alike, Other examples include Joseph M. Mellichamp, Ministering in the Secular University: A Guide for Christian Professors and Staff (Carrollton, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1997). This is a guidebook of strategies for personal and collective influence of Christian professors at public universities; Mark U. Edwards, Jr., “Why Faculty Find It Difficult to Talk about Religion,” in The American University in a Postsecular Age, eds. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda H. Jacobsen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 81-97; Paul M. Gould, The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014). This book, written by a philosopher teaching in a seminary, offers a useful theoretical view on the influence Christian professors might leverage at secular universities; Faculty Commons ( is a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and offers support and resources for Christian faculty. Grad Resources ( and gives useful information, networking, and resources for Christian graduate students.

[16] See, for example, Christianity and Communication Studies Network,

[17] See also, Os Guinness, Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000); Del Tackett, The Truth Project, (

[18] See Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1.

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