The following describes how one Christian in a position of secular authority in the academy stewards the place God has assigned him. What do you think of his approach?
“Dr. Matteson, will you please say ‘grace’?”
All eyes turned toward me (the chairman) when Sharon, my new staff member who had coordinated the departmental Christmas potluck, asked this. I paused and glanced around the room at the faces of students, faculty, staff, and visitors assembled in the commons room for our annual festivities.
I saw Christian brothers and sisters, but there were many others who were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or who held no formal faith at all. Sharon knew I had no qualms about practicing my faith as a believer on campus. But I knew better than to lead a public prayer in this instance.
I replied, “I am not at this moment Sam the person you know as your friend but rather Mr. Chairman, the representative of the State of Texas.” I addressed the crowd, “Welcome to you all. We are indeed grateful for you and for this bountiful meal. Now, enjoy! The line forms to the right.”
I have reflected many times on this incident. In various administrative roles over the past decade I have had to judge what is an appropriate and wise exercise of my faith and free speech -- and what is over-reaching. Wisdom is the gift of knowing what is appropriate at each moment.
Our civil government is predicated on tolerance of divergent opinion. In my role as an administrator I don’t espouse a particular religious viewpoint, but I also don’t suppress the expression of faith by others, or by me in other appropriate venues.
So it is not political correctness but Biblical instruction to assure that the Christmas ham does not share the plate with the chicken so that our Muslim students are not offended. Or that the cheese is kept separate from the beef in deference to our Jewish colleagues. Or that a vegetarian alternative is provided for our strict Hindu delegation. As Paul told Titus, we are “to be peaceable and considerate and to show true humility toward all men” (3:1).
It is equally as appropriate to explore religious matters as it is to discuss the weather. I have hanging in my office a print of “The Puddle” by Escher showing foot prints in the mud and a reflection of a beautiful forest. Next to it I have both in Hebrew and English a verse from the Psalms “A person’s steps are directed by the Lord” (37:23). Recently a student came to my office and, while scanning the room, remarked, “Your office is so much FUN!” We then talked about the special meaning that each image and verse conveyed to me. The discussion that followed was totally appropriate and welcome.
For me the “razor” that decides what is appropriate is the answer to this question: “Who am I in this moment?” “Am I the agent of the state or am I ‘Doc,’ the friend and conversationalist?” The Golden Rule rarely fails to inform: How would I feel if I were a Christian student in Indonesia and the Islamic authority figure (my alter ego) were to act as I? Knowing what to do requires wisdom, clearly. But we have a resource: our Father who is all wise is never stingy with His counsel if we ask Him in humility. He will even strop our razor for us if we ask.
- Sam Matteson, Professor of Physics, University of North Texas