Christianity in elite academia? It’s risky business. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway.
Yet there was Professor Jeffrey Reimer, chair of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, defying that wisdom this week at another uber-elite bastion of secular humanism, Harvard.
“I was a newly appointed associate dean at a dinner party with the sophisticated administrative elite at Berkeley,” Reimer said, “and over cocktails someone made a comment that ‘there were no Christians here at Berkeley.’ Sheepishly, I told the group that this is not so, and that I was a Christian. One of the deans retorted, ‘Well, at least there are no Republicans here.’ ”
Reimer was speaking at the Harvard Faculty Club Tuesday. His audience was the Cambridge Roundtable, an organization that exists to bring together believers and non-believers from the rarified academic world for dialogue. Tuesday’s theme was mentoring and students’ inner lives. Previous themes include “American Politics & Religion: Untangling the Web We Weave” (featuring Harvard’s Robert Putnam), “God, Stephen Hawking, and the Cosmos” (featuring MIT physicist Alan Guth), and “What do Scientists Really Think about Religion?”
And there was Reimer, totally upfront about his own powerful faith, using none of the usual God euphemisms. “Source.” “Reality.” “Ground of being,” etc. He actually invoked Jesus’ name, talked about his personal relationship with the Lord, recited the “Our Father.” And he repeatedly called himself a “Christian,” as in a born-again, accept-the-Lord-as-your-savior Christian. In Red State/Blue State America, that can conjure up lots of negative associations with in-your-face, anti-gay, pro-life, ultra right wing evolution deniers and rabid fans of Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Yet Reimer, the Christian chemical engineer, seemed to be embraced.
It was not what I expected, even at a gathering where faith, non-faith, and intellect meet. It’s a testament to what the Cambridge Roundtable can achieve.
But then the kumbaya cracks began to emerge. Harvard and MIT graduate students and faculty talked about practicing an under-the-radar religion — lest colleagues or superiors doubt them as serious scholars. Some said it’s best for any “out” and serious Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or even mainline Protestant to emphasize their progressive views. That’s doubly important for self-identified “Christians.” One MIT scholar spoke movingly of her sense that it’s one thing to be interested in the history of religion or spirituality, but another to be interested in prayer or actually adhering to religious tenets. But she did not feel comfortable being quoted about it. Neither did a long-time Harvard fan of the roundtable who explained to me the crucial difference between “overt” and “covert” Christianity on the tenure track.
Reimer himself said professors know they cannot “come out” as Christians until they get tenure. In an interview with the Berkeley student paper, he said junior colleagues at his weekly faculty Christian prayer group tell him, “You cannot use my name in public in association with this group until I get tenure.” What an image: young faculty sneaking in a side door, bibles covered in plain brown wrappers.
It’s no doubt different in the elite schools of the Bible Belt, the Midwest, those great swaths of born-again Southern California. But the takeaway from Harvard Tuesday: on the East Coast and West, ambitious young scholars who are practicing Catholics, Jews, Muslims, whatever, had best be discreet. And “Christians” like Reimer best pray for tenure track miracles.