Does it matter what professors believe?

A friend of mine recently told me that, when she was in college, she never wanted to know her professors politics or religion. She didn’t want to have “an agenda pushed down her throat” (her words) while she was learning their subject. She just wanted to focus on the subject at hand.

Now, I work for a ministry whose mission is to develop Christian professors who will be a redeeming influence in the university. We expect their faith in Christ to influence their teaching, research, and everything else they do as professors. So my friend’s statement troubled me.  Would it be better for professors to “focus on the subject at hand” and check their politics and religion at the door?  Is it even possible?

I can appreciate my friend’s position. It always annoyed me in college when profs aggressively pushed a point-of-view that I disagreed with. But, in a college classroom, we’re all adults, and my feelings shouldn’t determine the content of the curriculum.

I am currently wrapping up a series on world religions at Lakeside, so I have various conflicting theologies bumping around in my head right now. On my way home, I began thinking about how professor’ religious beliefs might shape their teaching and research.

For example, Christianity teaches that, at the core of everything, there is a person. More specifically, there are three Persons, Three-in-One, co-existing in co-eternal community. According to Christian theology, personhood is at the center of the cosmos.  Every concept in Christianity is related to the personhood of God (e.g. sin is a personal offense against God; salvation is personal reconciliation with God).

Contrast this with Buddhism and Hinduism. Certain forms of these two religions teach that personhood is an illusion, that all distinct “persons” are really just expressions of the world-soul, which is a nonpersonal, spiritual force. Our objective in life is to perceive the world as it truly is (i.e. an illusion), to realize that there is no “self,” and to gain enlightenment that all is One.

To recap, in Christianity, personhood is fundamentally important. In certain Eastern religions, personhood is an illusion.

Wouldn’t those two perspectives lead to different conclusions in any academic subject that deals with human beings? Wouldn’t your interpretations of Shakespeare and Faulkner differ depending on whether you believed them to be two eternally distinct persons, or you believed them to be two representations of the same nonpersonal force?  Without even considering whether one of these world views is correct, wouldn’t they – shouldn’t they – affect your perspective on ethics, psychology, sociology, or healthcare?

And, if you can’t apply your deepest-held beliefs to an academic subject, if you can’t communicate those beliefs and the ensuring applications in a clear, respectful, and convincing manner, then what’s the point of being a professor?

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