May-June Column entry: Keeping the Faith and Our Identity
Column Description: Writing as a Christian who is a doctoral student at a public institution of higher learning, Lakelyn reflects on how graduate students can maintain their faith in graduate school when it seems hard to do. This column is not about how to “beat” the “other” side in debates about religion or secular ideas. It is not a column about winning arguments or converting people. Rather, it is about cultivating Christian mindsets to various struggles in graduate school and navigating what it means to be a Christian and a scholar.
Keeping the Faith and Our Identity
Lakelyn E. Taylor, University of Central Florida
The more I explore the concept of religion and religious communication in the Academy – especially the more secular side of academia—the more I discover how much people believe these to be dichotomous. On more than one occasion, I’ve been surprised by a colleague who has said something along the lines of, “The more educated you are and the higher up you go in the Academy, the less religious scholars tend to be. The two just don’t seem to go together.” For me, the two couldn’t be more intertwined. I would not be who I am without both my religious and scholastic identity. Just like any intersectional identities, though, it can be a struggle to navigate and reconcile both together. In this column, I want to discuss how we can process being both religious and scholarly or even how we can study religious topics even if we are not religious or spiritual ourselves.
I want to first acknowledge that it can be hard sometimes to be the “religious person” in our departments. Those of us who profess a faith tradition (whether Christian or not) may be perceived as an oddity in higher education. I’ve even heard of those who have had negative lived experiences because their colleagues treated them disdainfully based on their religious affiliation. Whether religious or not, those of us who simply study religious communication may be approached with a level of skepticism. Our work may not be taken as seriously and we may have to constantly justify our existence in academic spaces. And all of that can be extremely draining.
As exhausting as all of that can be, it is worth it to pursue religion and religious communication in scholarly ways. We can learn a great deal from studying religious perspectives, populations, and cultures. We can use Eastern, Indigenous, and/or folk religious or spiritual worldviews as alternative frameworks to traditional Western paradigms. The disciplines and sub-disciplines of communication may be more enriched through understanding how religious-minded individuals engage in decision-making, discourse, rhetoric, argumentation, and conflict negotiation (to name but a few examples). You may have to justify your work, but there are a plethora of reasons you can use to do so.
The question remains about how we as Christians navigate our identity when met with hostility. Let me be clear and frank: I don’t believe our colleagues are, in general, hateful or mean to us because we are Christian. But there are a few occasions when someone may be that way whether intentionally or not. First, I want us to think about the other person before we think about ourselves. As frustrating as it can be, their reaction toward your religious identity and/or topic of study can come from a place of hurt or a negative lived experience they have had. Christians aren’t always the nicest group of people, unfortunately, and you may bear the weight of how other Christians have treated your colleagues.
So, my primary piece of advice is to treat every situation with the same grace, mercy, and compassion the Lord gives us when we act with hostility toward Him. Your colleagues are people, too, with the same faults and biases as we all carry.
My second piece of advice is not to shy away from who you are. Embrace your full self and the identities you carry with you. You don’t have to hide the religious part of yourself, even though it can feel that way. When you acknowledge and position yourself fully in relation to your research agenda, you are more capable of recognizing your biases and the impacts you have on your scholarship. You are also able to have a more authentic conversation with your colleagues.
Which leads me to my third piece of advice: lean into God and have an honest conversation with Him about what you are experiencing. You are not alone in your struggle nor do you undergo such situations in vain. You have purpose in the time and place where you are situated. Your research has purpose in the topics and conversations you are trying to engage in. As I am prone to saying, “There is always cause for hope.”
So, try not to sit in discouragement if you are the only person in your department studying religious communication. Try not to wallow in despair at having to make the case for your research. Recognize that it’s frustrating, take a moment to feel those feelings, and then progress forward in whatever manner you can/choose. What you are studying is meaningful and who you are is worth exposing – it may just take a hot second for everyone else to acknowledge it, too.
And so we go….