Faith intertwined with learning has always been a defining principle in the life of Dr. Chris Soper. Now the political science professor finds himself right in the middle of The Center for Faith and Learning’s mission to “enhance the connections between classroom teaching, scholarship, and Christian faith,” as he accepts a position as the center’s new director.
Professor Soper was recently appointed by Provost Daryl Tippens to replace Richard Hughes, the program’s founder.
“Dr. Soper is an excellent model of what a Christian university professor should be. He is an accomplished and respected teacher and scholar,” Tippens said in an e-mail. “His research and publications illustrate how one can brilliantly combine one’s interest in religion with one’s academic discipline.”
Tippens also said that Soper is well qualified for the position because “he has demonstrated great administrative leadership” and has “actively supported the work of the Center for Faith and Learning” as a faculty member.
Soper views the position as a “wonderful leadership opportunity” that caters to his interest in integrating faith and scholarship.
Along with his new role as director, Soper will continue to serve as a professor of political science as well as chairperson of the Social Science Division. His academic endeavors and personal faith work together, just as the center encourages.
“There is a close connection between religion and politics,” Soper said. He joked, “Sometimes too close.”
“Early on I was very interested in the integration of my religious convictions and research studies,” Soper said. His research led him to forming the same types of questions the center seeks to answer.
The center asks three key questions in its pursuit to connect faith and academia. The first question a Christian scholar might ask, according to the center, is how aspects of the rich intellectual heritage of the Christian faith might inform his or her scholarship.
The second asks what presuppositions guide a scholar’s academic efforts and whether they are consistent with their Christian commitments.
The final question deals with the ethical and moral implications of scholarship in light of the Christian faith.
To address and answer these questions is the center’s main goal, and it realizes its objectives in eight ways.
These ways include promoting scholarship; supporting faculty research and publication; offering seminars and hosting national conferences; clarifying the Christian mission for students, and acquainting faculty, students and staff with the heritage of the Churches of Christ as well as the broader history of the Christian tradition.
The center was originally founded by Dr. Hughes, professor of religion. Hughes was instrumental in the writing of the grant to the Lilly Endowment, which provided $2 million for the center, the Pepperdine Voyage and the Lilly Vocation Project.
Hughes has served as director of the center, the Lilly Project and Pepperdine Voyage since 1999 but needed to step down this year to focus on researching and writing his follow-up book to “Myths America Lives By” while still teaching.
It is important that the center director be dedicated to learning and teaching, Hughes said. He thinks Soper is the best person for the job.
“I’m thrilled he’s the successor,” Hughes continued. “He’s a first-rate teacher and scholar. He’s well-respected and that’s a plus for the center.”
Hughes is confident in Soper’s abilities to lead the center and help it grow.
“Dr. Soper is a very creative and imaginative guy and he’s going to do a lot of things I never thought to do,” Hughes said. “He will bring a whole new dimension to the center.”
Soper said he wants to follow Hughes’ precedent and use him as a resource during his directorship.
“I’ve always been very much impressed with what Richard has done with the center,” Soper said. “I plan to take Richard out to lunch at least once a month. He has great ideas, and I would love to pick his brain.”
Still, Soper has his own ideas.
“It is inevitable and expected that I would make some changes, but my hope for this year is to get a lay of the land,” Soper said, in order to determine the future of the center. “I want to continue the programs and do an assessment of where the Center could go in the future.”
That assessment includes determining which programs should be altered, maintained or dropped. The center’s programs initiate and engage faculty members in conversation about what it means to teach at a Christian university, Soper said.
“I think the faculty appreciate the opportunity the center provides,” Soper continued. “Under the very able leadership of Richard Hughes, faculty have responded very positively to the work of the center.”
Soper said he believes strongly in the program’s objectives.
“The study of religion or more specifically, the connection between religion and academic disciplines, is vitally important,” Soper said. “These types of centers are cropping up around the country because they [other schools] are interested in the types of questions we explore.”
The center is grounded in the university mission statement and seeks to unite Christian perspectives with scholarship and classroom teaching. It offers support for faculty in all five schools of the university.
The center’s programs are funded through the Lilly Endowment grant and the University.
However, this is the last year of the grant. Pepperdine has applied for a second grant, which will not be as large as the first one. The original grant was for $2 million over four years. The second will be for $500,000 over three years. The university will find out in November if it will get the grant.
Lilly’s hope, Soper said, is that the program becomes so positively embedded in the university that the school must continue to support it eventually through its own finances.