A few years ago I outed myself as a church-goer to some graduate students and colleagues over drinks at our campus pub. My students reacted with a predictable mixture of shock, bewilderment, and thinly-veiled contempt. Confessing to my church habit was like admitting I had an addiction, with a twelve-step program that included weekly church attendance and a cannibalistic ritual of eating a dying man’s flesh and drinking his blood.
One of my colleagues tried to salvage my reputation as a reasoning post-humanist by informing me and everyone who was listening that my church habit was “more cultural than religious, right?” In other words, the only way to explain the anomaly of a church-going academic in a Humanities department in the twenty-first century was through the safety valve of “culture” –colourful foods and folkways that fulfill the “ethnic heritage” requirement and are somehow okay to want to preserve. The problem is that the ethnic culture I belong to is also and inescapably a religious culture, rooted in the church.
A long time ago, in graduate school, I mentioned my religious/ethnic identity to another student who jokingly responded, “Well, you’re doing a good job of hiding it.” Either I was being accused of hypocrisy, or I didn’t match their stereotype, or I was being complimented for concealing something shameful or at least distasteful. Or maybe it was none of these, but I came away feeling that a significant part of who I am was something to withhold. No one wants to hear about it.
It’s hard to be a professing, feminist Christian in a secular institution whose modern history goes hand in glove with the rise of liberal individualism. It’s hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t suffer from the delusion that I am persecuted because we have a holiday party in our department every December. It doesn’t bother me when colleagues or students openly criticize the church, or the Christian tradition. I do it myself in lectures all the time. My specialization in Victorian literature means I’m constantly teaching texts that were authorized by discourses of Christian imperialism and the civilizing mission and I make sure my students recognize this and have language to critique it. The thought of using the classroom as a place to profess my religious beliefs practically gives me hives. I have never tried to “save” anyone. I have never tried to fool myself that my faith gives me some kind of special glow.
But the main reason I don’t talk about church when I’m at work is because our lives outside of work are irrelevant there. I know this because of feminism. In the same way that the work of social reproduction done by women on the second shift is hidden when we are at our “real jobs,” so too is my secret life as a church-goer. Just as the hours I spend raising my children “don’t count” (and are an impediment to my productivity at work), neither does the work I do for the church. And I’ve done a lot. In the past ten years I have served on numerous church committees, taught faith formation classes to children and adults, been appointed as the church librarian, attended countless evening meetings in other people’s homes, written articles for my local church newsletter and our denomination’s national paper, planned and led worship services, delivered sermons (or whatever you’d call them), organized women’s retreats, cooked meals for congregants who are ill or facing death, and a bunch of other things. I have taken on this unpaid work willingly and even joyfully. I have spent most Sunday mornings in church when I might have been writing articles and book chapters. I have sacrificed work time (evenings and weekends) to Sabbath time.
At work I often feel guilty about my modest research record. At church I feel proud to talk about my teaching and research. Calling myself an academic at church brings me social capital; calling myself a church-goer at work diminishes it. So much of what I do at church (teaching, writing, committee work, organizing, community building) are skills that I transfer from my job, but investing those skills at church isn’t recognized by my job. In fact some of my colleagues would see it as a contemptible waste of time that could be better spent being “productive” at work. So I do a good job of hiding it. If I try to make visible the work I do for the church, I am in danger of being branded a lunatic–of being, quite literally, a bad faithacademic feminist.
And while my feminist colleagues make visible the kinds of socially reproductive labour we do as women (through blogs like Hook and Eye), there is very little room for talking about—confessing to—the other kinds of work we do when we’re not being productive in the narrow sense of fulfilling tenure and promotion requirements and achieving metrical excellence.
It feels scary to admit this because of the pressure to “love” my work—to sacrifice my leisure time, and often my family’s time—to work time. The Do What You Love mantra has been thoroughly internalized by academics; we have put our faith in our work because we believe in it; we believe it is worth doing even when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize its importance, and even when many of us don’t receive a living wage, job security, or the respect of our employers. Our emotional vocabulary about our work—love, sacrifice, faith, belief—is the same vocabulary we use in church.
But the difference between unpaid academic work and unpaid church work is that while my employer can invite me to leave at any time if I don’t conform at least minimally to the market-driven academy’s ever-increasing demands on my time and my love, (or even if I do), my religious faith and the church that gives it expression and coherence will never ask me to leave. My employer is not interested in me or my family, only in the value it can extract from me. It wants only my excellence. Church is interested in all of me, and will take as much or as little as I give it. It sees even my faults and failings—my bad habits—as something to be loved. At its core, church is a rejection of precarity.
Jan Schroeder goes to church in Ottawa and works at Carleton University.