Otto J. Helweg received a M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University. He has held faculty ranks in the University of California, Davis and Texas A&M. He was Acting Director of the California Water Resources Center and chair of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Memphis. He has over 120 technical articles and three books. Helweg has chaired several national committees including the Water Resources Engineering Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Dr. Otto Helweg is dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture at North Dakota State University. He has demonstrated excellence in his academic pursuits as well as his ministry experience.
Among the many awards received, in 1983 he was selected as the Ground Water Scientist of the Year for the U.S., the outstanding Civil Engineer in the state of Tennessee in 1994, the most outstanding engineer in the Mid South in 1995, and the Distinguished Research Award at The University of Memphis in 1995. He also received a commendation from the US Navy for saving them $2.5 million. He is an "eminent engineer" in Tau Beta Pi and a "doctor of service" for Blue Key. He received the 1997 Hoover Medal, which is the "Nobel Peace Prize" of the engineering societies in the United States. Past recipients have included Herbert Hoover, William Henry Harrison, Vannevar Bush, Dwight David Eisenhower, Sir Harold Hartley. The 1998 recipient was President Jimmy Carter.
We asked Dr. Helweg to talk with us about how he has achieved balance between the demands of academic life and his spiritual obligations as a Christian professor.
RI: You have given a lot of thought to the balance of the secular and the sacred in a believer's life. In your view, what are the primary issues that Christians face?
Otto: There are two sets of issues. The first is theological (philosophical) and the second is practical. In dealing with the first issue, a person can say that all our work is sacred, or one can use a taxonomy that divides our work into the secular and sacred. I favor the latter because I believe there is a difference between my writing a research proposal and sharing the gospel with a colleague. Without that approach, I fear some Christian professors may delude themselves into thinking they have no obligation to share their faith. They hide behind the assumption that closeting themselves in a lab is sufficient.
I think the secular/sacred dichotomy was created by the Fall. I think that before the Fall there was no "secular." The Fall did not create work, instead it cursed it by separating God's creation into a fallen world and the spiritual realm. There have been a number of books written attempting to say that this dichotomy does not exist or that we can eliminate it by either full-time Christian work or something else, but I believe this approach is doomed because the tension is always going to be with us until the Lord returns.
The second, practical issue is that if one accepts the premise that we can categorize our work into the secular and sacred, then we have the obligation to balance the amount of time we spend on each. Let me give two simple definitions: secular work is what is commonly known as one's profession or the work one gets paid for, whether it is as a professor or mechanic. Sacred work is how one uses one's spiritual gifts and obligations, or "privileges," as a Christian, such as teaching the Bible, sharing one's faith, being an elder in one's church, or being active in the campus Christian Faculty Fellowship. I believe this taxonomy helps Christians who have personal vision and mission statements (written and followed) to better manage their time. I think we need to remember that we're stewards of time just as well as stewards of our money and talents.
RI: Is there a biblical basis for your view?
Otto: You don't find the word "secular" in the Bible, but I would say the principles are biblical. For example it's clear that Christians are supposed to be good stewards of their time. We have Ephesians 5:14-17 where it is said, "make the most of your time because the days are evil." It's interesting that the Greek verb used in "to make most of" is in the middle voice; in English we have the active and the passive, but the Greek has the middle voice which is the subject acting on itself. So it has an extra emphasis in the fact that we're supposed to be good managers of time, and it literally means "make good use of."
There are a number of good verses in Proverbs that support this, such as Proverbs 12:14 about the work of our hands coming back to us, and Proverbs 16 about committing our work unto the Lord. I think we also see Christians have tasks to use their spiritual gifts, such as the passages in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and also Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. So I believe it's very clear that we're supposed to both use our time in our secular work as unto the Lord and exercise the spiritual gifts. Even though the distinctions are not made explicitly in the Bible, I think they are there implicitly.
RI: How have you personally processed this issue and where has that process led you?
Otto: I'm ashamed to say that it was not until I had been a Christian for many years that I began to understand this concept. I assumed that work, that is, secular work, was a product of the Fall and that Paul made tents only in order to support his ministry. I thought the serious Christian should do likewise. In other words, I thought our secular job is a necessary evil in order to be like a self-supporting missionary.
I was really taking shortcuts professionally; nothing unethical, but certainly not maximizing the quality of my work. I thought I was basically working . . . well, maybe not for the evil forces, but certainly not for God's glory. What I discovered in exegeting Genesis and the creation narratives was that what we call secular work was created before the Fall. In Genesis 1:26-28 we have God commanding humankind to rule over all the earth and subdue it, and His words, especially in the Hebrew, are work words. In fact, I believe that God's words imply that He is saying, in effect, "Find out how I made this creation." I think this ought to form the basis for science and for Christian scientists who are fulfilling this command.
I believe that most of the great founders of modern science who were Christians thought, as certainly Kepler did and as our present-day Fritz Schaefer does, that every time they discovered something, they could say: "So that's how God did it!" That is good theology. And if we go into Genesis 2:15 where the Lord placed Adam in the garden to "till" and "keep" it, both those words are even more obviously related to work. In fact the word RSV translates as "tilled" is the Hebrew word 'abad which has the root meaning of "work." So I think that it's very clear that in the act of creation God was at work, in the anthropomorphic sense.
And so work is part of God's character, and Christians are called to work and to fulfill the purpose of their being. Now this was a real revelation to me. And if I have ordered my day in the Lord and I am writing that journal article, then I am fulfilling God's will just as much as I am when I teach my Bible class in church. I believe this concept has been best captured in film in the movie Chariots of Fire. There is a great scene where Eric Liddell is being chastened for running in the Olympics instead of going immediately as a missionary to China. I don't remember the exact quote, but Eric said something like, "God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure." To me, a history professor who is a Christian ought to be able to say, "God made me a good historian and when I do good historical research, I feel His pleasure."
RI: So that led you to do a lot more thinking on the subject.
Otto: It really led me to clean up my act professionally. So now, of course I'm in administration, but now I realize that when I'm dealing with a budget or when I'm looking at faculty evaluations, that I want to do it as unto the Lord and not as a necessary evil I have to put behind me just so I can go pass out gospel tracts.
RI: Why did you choose to go into administration?
Otto: When we were in Saudi Arabia as non-professional missionaries, I asked the Lord, "I think I know the spiritual gifts You've given to me, but what about my talents? What are they and how can I use them?" He basically replied, "I've given you leadership skills, I've given you administrative skills and we need Christians in places of authority." I thought that made sense, so I made a conscious decision to go after some administration jobs. The first step, of course, is as a chair and then as a dean--where I am now. Whether this is the end or not, well, who knows?
I found that as a chair at the University of Memphis I was able to intervene on behalf of a Christian professor. When he was turned down for tenure there because of his Christian witness, as the chair I was able to talk to his chair, the dean and the vice president. As a quasi-administrator I could intercede for him. It didn't work out the way we thought it would, but the Lord of course had His plans for this professor, which were better.
As a dean I can do even more. The main reason I'm here as a dean is that the Lord basically spoke to me that this is a good place to go. I have talents in leadership and administration and I get great satisfaction out of "herding cats," as the phrase goes, in academia. I'm able to get consensus and take a lot of flak without losing my cool. As far as being good at that, that brings glory to God in the sense of it being my secular task.
On the sacred side I am able to bring in the Christian worldview into policy-making decisions and bring truth into a controversy. In the past I have helped administrations understand that they can't exclude the Gideons from passing out Bibles on campus or limit the use of a facility by a student Christian group. I've been able to not only protect Christian faculty members, but help them in their careers and their witness. I find that I can have a broader influence because now as a dean I can witness to other deans and other administrators as well as faculty and students.
RI: Do you miss the research and scholarship aspects?
Otto: A little bit. I'm trying to do some of that. But another advantage of being the dean is that I can assign some courses. We have a required one-unit course in engineering ethics and I'm giving that to myself to teach. Since I see ethics from a Christian perspective, it's a great opportunity to bring in what I would say are the necessary theistic presuppositions in one's ethical system. That's a little harder to do if you're teaching vector mechanics.
RI: It's not hard to see that you pursue excellence in anything you do.
Otto: I hope that's true. At any rate, I get a lot of publicity in the paper, news, interviews and things like that. Such publicity accomplishes two things. First, a lot of times it gives you opportunities; for example, I was in the front page of our leading paper here because I was a classmate of presidential candidate John McCain back in the Naval Academy. I mentioned the fact that my wife and I were missionaries overseas at one time; a lot of times reporters will not put things like that in, but this one did. So there was just a little, minor witness there. For the second thing, such publicity gives the Christian students, and even people in the church, encouragement by knowing a successful Christian. I don't want to say that in a boastful way, but it's just a great comfort to Christian students to know they have a Christian dean.
RI: How do Christian professors exhibit professional success?
Otto: Christian professors exhibit their excellence by being the best they can be, to borrow from the army-recruiting phrase. The Christian professor seems to be at a disadvantage in that he or she really has two careers: one in academia one in the church; I mean the larger body of Christ. For most people this means that one's time to do research is limited because one also has to leave time for exercising one's spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ. But on the other hand, the Christian has a distinct advantage that I fear is not utilized as much as it should be and which many do not understand: the Christian has the Creator of the universe as a partner.
Brother Lawrence's Practice of the Presence of God [Fleming H. Revell Co., 1999] should be required reading for every Christian because it encourages Christians to carry on a conversation with the Lord throughout the day. When professors are entering the classroom, preparing for experiments or writing a research proposal they should say, "Okay Lord, how are we going to solve this?" We need to constantly bring the Lord into these "secular" endeavors; and this actually creates an oxymoron because then we have a "sacred" secular task.
If you're known as a Christian on campus, you'll have Christian students coming in with spiritual problems. Now, I can guarantee that many of the problems are going to be generated by anti-Christian professors who attack their faith, and you can just count on the fact that when they knock on your door it's going to be when you're madly attempting to finish a proposal that was due an hour ago. You're in a crisis situation, so what do you do? I say, "Okay Lord, I'm giving this time to You, and I'm counting on You to make it up." The Lord does this; He just seems to give the necessary increased efficiency and pours in ideas to make up for lost time.
I remember working on my dissertation, which was before I understood all this, and I was nearing the deadline. My wife and I sat down and prayed about it and "boom!" God just gave me the idea (the solution) while we were praying. That taught me a lesson. It doesn't make any sense to leave the Lord out of your problem-solving techniques in the lab.
As another example, when I was working on my dissertation at Colorado State, two of the professors on my committee were Christians. I said to my professors, "What are we doing to integrate the skills we have as engineers (water-resource experts) in our faith?" We talked about it a little bit and I said, "How about the native Americans? They all live in semi-arid and arid areas and need water; there must be something we can do."
My dissertation advisor had to go to Washington and when he came back he was ecstatic. He said that every place he went people asked him, "What are you guys doing for the native Americans?" We eventually came up with a solution to one of the American Indians' problems which has been used all over the world; it's called artificial aquifers, and it prevents water from evaporating and seeping into the soil during times of heavy rainfall. If engineers and those from all disciplines are sensitive to the Lord or ask the Lord to guide them, they can find very practical ways to integrate their faith and their work.
RI: How do professors exhibit sacred success?
Otto: I think this is much harder and more neglected and for that reason a number of us involved with Christian Leadership Ministries have really debated this issue of the secular and the sacred. There is a fear is that acknowledging that our work ("secular" work) serves the Lord as much as witnessing, for example, will encourage those who never witness to continue in their neglect of that sacred task. Academia is a black hole; it will suck up every spare minute you have if you allow it to do so. The further problem is that academia is almost addictive because for most of us our professional work is enjoyable and challenging.
In the spiritual battle, we are always led to believe exercising our spiritual gifts is "hard work." In addition, as we don't have the deadlines in our spiritual work that we experience in academia, it is easy to replace our Christian responsibilities by those from academia. And finally, we have the "prince of the power of the air" with his arsenal of weapons that keeps us from our sacred tasks.
RI: In your opinion, is it sufficient to limit the sacred to involvement in a local church?
Otto: Absolutely not. I would say that this is a misunderstanding of Acts 1:8 where the Lord says to His disciples, "Go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world." I think that the place where we are working is our "Jerusalem," and I think that this is the strategy that God has given to us; it's a strategy in which the starting place of our sacred work is closest to us.
I believe the problem we have is thinking of church as a building, and that's not biblical; the church is the people, and we're supposed to be doing God's work wherever we are. To limit God's work to a Sunday school class Sunday morning is just myopic and un-biblical. One of the favorite lies of the enemy is that going to church satisfies our responsibilities to the sacred. For a professor, one's spiritual responsibilities are in his or her college. From this, I believe the general rule is for Christian professors to make their college or university a priority in exercising their spiritual gifts.
A corollary to that is becoming conversant in Christian apologetics; it is almost automatic with being a Christian in academia. I think we have an obligation to become much more theologically literate, in a good sense, than the average Christian in the pew because we're dealing more with the mind than with the heart.
Whether I am a physicist, a historian, a psychologist, a biologist or an engineer, a Ph.D. is just the beginning. And most of us have gone off into areas we've never even studied formally, but we have the background to do this. In other words we're supposed to be able, in a sense, to teach ourselves in almost any area into which we migrate. So there is no reason why Christian professors should not be getting the equivalent of an M.Div.
RI: Are there stages Christian professors go through in their careers? Is there a difference between a professor just beginning his or her career and one who is tenured?
Otto: Absolutely. In fact, we counsel young professors on a tenure track to certainly not hide their faith, but be innocent as doves, wise as serpents, and not lead the parade. In fact in the bylaws in the Christian faculty groups that I've been a part of, we require that all the officers be tenured. While an untenured professor may get in trouble for his or her faith, he or she is not purposefully visible so to speak. I think this is wise. You have to get your research established and gain tenure before you really have the freedom to do the high profile witnessing and carry on some of the battles that need to be carried on.
Now there are exceptions to this and no one is suggesting that non-tenured Christian professors should soft-peddle the gospel or not identify themselves as Christians or anything like that. But there are different stages in the battle, and I think there are different callings we have at various times in our life. Although the Lord certainly makes exceptions, I think that as a general rule once you're tenured you have different responsibilities and different opportunities than you do before you're tenured.
RI: How about tenured professors who are nearing retirement or in retirement? What sort of role can they play?
Otto: Well, certainly mentoring is one thing, but I think that there is no question that when our children are grown up that we have a lot more time to use our spiritual gifts and to do more work in the sacred than before. I think certainly some will be led to retire from the secular and go full-time into the sacred. Myself, I don't feel like I'm being led to retire any time soon; I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing.
RI: Can a person escape the dichotomy of the secular and the sacred by enrolling in full-time Christian service?
Otto: That's a good question and I would say no. First I dislike the phrase "full-time Christian service" because I think every Christian servant should be a full-time Christian servant. If I am doing the Lord's will throughout the day, I'm not a part-time Christian worker, I'm a full-time Christian worker.
However, to accept the general meaning of the phrase, I've been a professional missionary in the Middle East and I found the problem of time was still there. I had to overcome the temptation to stay at my desk and study the Bible and not get out and do the work of evangelism--and in the Muslim world it's a lot easier to stay at your desk. It's the same hope that fuels the monastic mentality. Going into the monastery does not solve the problem of living in the world because we take our sinful nature with us.
So while I think that some people are called to use their spiritual gifts full-time, others are not, and I don't think there should be a distinction.
RI: How have you been able to incorporate your sacred life into your secular life?
Otto: As I said before, I have done this by practicing the presence of God throughout the day and just carrying out a conversation with the Lord. It has almost become automatic for me to talk to Him if I'm going between buildings, or find myself worshipping or singing to myself or something like that. Then there is the issue of making the conscious decision to bring Him into every problem and task that I have.
RI: What effect does achieving balance have on those outside the faith?
Otto: I think balance is a great witness. It should yield a peace and joy that are fruits of the Spirit. It's well illustrated in the throne illustration in the Four Spiritual Laws booklet: placing Christ on the throne of our hearts causes us to be in balance, and it can produce a "having-it-togetherness" that impresses people. But nothing replaces a verbal witness. The confidence that your life is in order does get communicated, but I think we need to do more than that.
RI: What effect does living in imbalance have on those outside the faith?
Otto: If we get sucked into the same rat race that many of our colleagues are in, then there is no external difference between us and unbelievers.
RI: You are going to participate as a discipline chair in the upcoming God and the Academy conference in Atlanta in June. Why do you feel this conference is important?
Otto: The conference is going to be a great help in balancing the secular and sacred in our lives as professors. We want to have excellence in our secular work, but I feel we get sloppy in our spiritual tasks. We have all seen people who teach Sunday school who haven't really prepared or who get up to make an announcement in church and they really haven't thought it through, just as if because it's for the Lord we think we can "wing it." I think that's bad theology.
I think the conference that is coming up is going to challenge all of us to integrate our faith and our profession more. I think it's going to give us spiritual resources to do a better job. You never go to such events without coming away with some great ideas that others have tried and you've never thought of. And then there is the encouragement of having other brothers and sisters in Christ who are in other places, and being with others who are sort of fighting the same battles you are. Finding out that you're not the "Lone Ranger" is especially encouraging.
Networking is sort of a trite phrase now, but it really is important. For example, one thing we [Christian engineers] were able to do at our national civil engineering conferences was to start a prayer breakfast for Christian engineers. Initially, this raised some hackles, but we've been doing this for years now and it has become accepted. It has been a neat way to "show the flag" at these national conferences. The problem is finding out who your compatriots are, and a conference like this helps do that.
RI: Do you have any final thoughts?
Otto: Christians can place both secular and sacred tasks under the Lordship of Jesus so that when they are making out a monthly, weekly or daily schedule, they can say, "Lord, we have thirty days--or 24 hours--how should we spend it?" We realize, of course, that God may want to modify our plans as we go along, but this prayer should give Christian professors great freedom, joy and confidence, so that "when she teaches, she feels God's pleasure."