Insights from Professor Chuck Huff

Avodah: Chuck, can you tell us how you ended up at St. Olaf College?

Dr. Chuck Huff: When I was a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University doing research in how people use computers to interact with each other, I applied at major research universities and a couple liberal arts colleges. My friend Tom at Carnegie Mellon had an uncle who was a dean at St. Olaf. Since Tom knew that I was a Christian and cared deeply about such things he said, “You might like St. Olaf College.” It looked to me that St. Olaf was the kind of place I could really do rigorous psychology. It had bright students who could do research with me. But I could also think about Christianity without feeling like I had to switch into another set of clothes or some­thing.

My research has been an attempt at maintaining this tension between Christianity and careful schol­arship. It is a tension that has only recently arisen in the U.S. since the late 1800s, and within world history since the enlightenment. Now lots of schools have dropped their church affiliation. St. Olaf has maintained its affiliation, but not at the levels of places like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Bob Jones University where there is a creed you have to sign. So this to me is a place where you can get, to my mind, the most thoughtful integration of religion and secular scholarship. And that sounded to me like a great place.

Avodah: What do you currently teach and research at St. Olaf College?

Currently, I’m teaching in three different programs. I teach a senior seminar on moral psychology in the psychology department, a class that has a large section on religion in it since religion is closely wrapped up in morality. Some evolutionary theorists think that one of the reasons that we’re wired to be religious is because it helps us in being moral and that being moral is helpful for the species because it means we kill each other less, provide for each other, things like that.

I also teach a course in the science conversation along with David Booth who is my co-teacher where we look at the social nature of science – in other words, the sociologists and anthropologists studying science. We also put that up next to theology. We’ve been reading Paul Tillich [20th c. theologian], but also Bruno Latour [French philosopher and an­thropologist of science]. The Science Con course is not just about epistemology. It’s also about what we should believe and how we should believe, particu­larly the theological aspect of it.

The third class is in computer science and looks at the ethical aspects of the design of software. The students are divided into teams and each team gets a real client—some of them Fortune 500 companies—to give advice with regard to the ethical aspects of a particular software project. Right now we are working with the college’s registrar to look at the accessibility of the St. Olaf website. We have a couple of blind students, several faculty members with vision impairment, and other people with movement problems. How do those people get access to the website? What are the barriers in the way for them? For example, we have this cool webpage, with nice rotating pictures at the top. The problem is that if you’re using a screen reader because you’re blind, every time the picture refreshes the screen reader presumes that the page has reloaded and it starts all over again. So essentially you never make it past the first top third of the webpage and nobody thought about that. People design software that deeply affects the way people interact with each other and access information, but designers don’t always have the skills to think about those social and ethical implica­tions because it’s not taught in undergrad.

Avodah: Do you have any particular examples from your classes where people have really thought through or wrestled with the issues of religion and science?

CH: In the science conversation people—particu­larly some of the science majors—have been chal­lenged by the idea that many of what we call facts are actually quite socially constructed. They have a kind of reaction to this in the way some fundamentalists in Christianity do. A gut reaction of rejection, be­cause they think, “what do you mean there aren’t any facts?” It’s a kind of foundationalism that facts are these things that exist out there when really ‘facts’ are a complex interaction of people who care about the world and a world that does exist and pushes back against us. We have to figure out the categories we will put it into as we study it. That makes the idea of a fact very difficult.

For example, across three or four disciplines that study molecules you’ll find that they all disagree about what a molecule is. They have to have long conversations with each other if they are going to collaborate. There is a place where again a somewhat naïve view of science and a naïve view of religion gets confronted with a more complex reality. Then they have to figure out what that means. Am I not looking for truth as a scientist? The answer is well, yes, of course you are! But, now we have to be a little more complex about what we mean by truth.

In the moral psychology class you get a similar kind of reaction when beginning to look at religion and evolutionary explanations for why a religious ten­dency would have arisen in our species. It certainly makes sense, at least, that religion would arise as a way of helping us to be moral. Being moral helps us cooperate as well as practice the kinds of skills that we need in order to do that. But it is unsettling for people to think that their religious sensibility might have evolved. But frankly, pretty much everything about us has evolved. So then I have to think more complexly about what that means for my religious sensibilities and how I relate to religion and morality.

Avodah: Do you have conversations with students on religion?

CH: Yes. Usually the conversations about that don’t happen in the classroom as much, because in the classroom we’re more focused on what the science says about it. But I make it very clear to the students that if they would like to talk to me about those subjects, they can. I am, by the way, an oblate of St. John’s Abbey. I discovered St. John’s while I was up here and decided to become an oblate, which means I’ve taken vows to live my life according to the rule of Benedict. So I’m a kind of Benedictine.

I remember a lovely conversation I had with one of my students while I was doing term in the Middle East. She had just discovered that many of the sacred numbers and other parts of the structure of the Old Testament’s stories had been influenced by Egyp­tian mythology. This was deeply disturbing to her, because she understood “the Bible” as a document written for Christians. That is often the way it is taught in Sunday school.

So we sat up on a rooftop overlooking the Nile and had an hour and a half conversation early one morning about what that might mean for her faith. So here is a place where literary analysis, history, and the study of religion intersected with her personal faith struggles. It was a time when she had to rear­range some of her understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. I felt privileged to be someone involved in that conversation.

Avodah: Can you tell us about your own religious experiences, convictions, and engagement with Christianity?

CH: I think it was in the Jesus movement of the 1970’s that I discovered what my colleagues over in the religion department would call pietism. I discov­ered a deep concern for the personal experience of religion, which can be dangerous in that people end up worshiping the experience.

But it also can be wonderfully liberating in that you recognize that it is the practice of the way one lives one’s life that is more important than the doctrine. And so Jesus says, for instance, “Follow me.” He doesn’t say, “I believe in the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, etc.” He doesn’t say believe these things. Even when he does say ‘believe,’ the word is used in the sense of trust rather than doctrine. Many of the arguments he gets in, with what some of the gospels portray as the local bad guys [Pharisees], are argu­ments about doctrine where he confounds them and says, “No, it’s about compassion… love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not about belief in the afterlife. A lot of people miss, for instance, in the story about the Good Samaritan, that there were good reasons for the first two people who passed by to not want to help and they were religious reasons. They had to do with things like uncleanness, which was really very important to those folks. And so they were being religious to not help the person.

This also ends up being one of the reasons why I’m now a Benedictine. Benedictine spirituality is much more about practice than about doctrine. If you’ve looked through Benedict’s rule there is a whole lot about practice and not a whole lot about doctrine.

Avodah: What does being Benedictine look like as a professor?

CH: It means that I do the daily office, morning and evening prayer, I read the rule of Benedict regularly, and try to apply it to my life and the way I interact with students, family, and others. I regularly do spiri­tual direction. I have a Benedictine spiritual director whom I see regularly. That way of being in the world is a way I try to emulate. It influences the way I am a faculty member here, the way I live with my family, but it also constantly reminds me of the ways I fall short.

Avodah: Did you notice a change in what it meant to be a professor after you took that vow?

CH: Not a change in the classic American style of conversion story. Instead it was what Benedict urges a kind of practice. It’s the practice that helps to change the way you experience the world. And it’s like people who do meditation, because doing the daily office, if you do it in a particular way, can be a kind of mediation. It does change the way, slowly, that you relate to the world. And it grounds you and helps you realize that not everything is an emergen­cy.

Avodah: Do you have any advice for St. Olaf students who are exploring their own faith during college?

CH: My first advice would be to be fearless about it. If a question bothers you or sounds scary that is probably a reason to approach it rather than a reason to avoid it. The second bit of advice would be to seek a guide. Seek somebody who has done that before. That is one of the reasons I try to make it obvious to folks that I’m happy to talk to students about issues in their religious lives. I do it across religious con­victions; I’m non-sectarian in that regard. I talk to Buddhists and Muslims. A guide can help you ask those questions in a way that is full of compassion rather than full of fear. Too often people go to a question like that with a base of fear and they want to get an answer that helps to reduce their fear. That usually narrows the window about the kind of ways you’re willing to answer the question. I think a better way to do it is to go into that question with a spirit of gratefulness and a spirit of compassion – compas­sion for yourself and compassion for the people who might disagree with you. Think about your commit­ments with that sense of compassion.

Avodah: Any last thoughts?

CH: I will say that St. Olaf College is not entirely unique, but at least a rare place in the American landscape. There are a handful of other places where you get the really high quality of scholarship and academic challenge and an open commitment to things of God, where the conversation about these things and their tensions is welcomed rather than hidden away or only done with embarrassment or deeply restricted. So there are places like Cal­vin and Wheaton that do wonderful work, there is great scholarship that happens and students learn tremendous amounts at those schools, but there are certain things that aren’t represented there and certain conversations that are hard to have. But here we can put together a panel with Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and have a conversation about what those spiritual lives are like with people who are part of this community.

I have learned a great deal from one of my friends and colleagues, DeAne Lagerquist, about St. Olaf as that kind of institution. One of the things she said, that I think is really important, is, “we can host those kinds of conversations precisely because we are somewhere instead of being nowhere.” We can host those conversations because we have a spiritual home. We come from a Lutheran line of thinking, whereas big universities and other schools that have given up their religious connections or never had them host a conversation like that in a different way. But we host a conversation like that in a way that makes it clear we really take the faith commitment seriously, rather than just think of it as just an interesting topic of academic study. This is really a great place to be to ask just the kind of questions you’re asking.


Chuck Huff is Professor of Psychology at St. Olaf College.

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