I start by saying there is a God who created the universe and He is not an impersonal God. He has declared Himself as a loving God, who seeks a relationship with us, and also gives us free will to choose him or not. Our purpose is found in relationship with Him. God calls us to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and he calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And I would say He came to earth, in the person of Jesus Christ, to show us the way to Him.
So, what that means to me is that we can actually find God here – both through his word, and also through reason applied to his creation. If I were to describe myself, I would say I’m a reasoning Christian.
What does that actually mean for me here at MIT?
1. This faith that I’ve just talked about has driven me to want to do good in this world through what I do. Because of the way I was brought up in England, I ended up being good at science and mathematics, so it seemed like a natural path to go down. But I feel it’s important to interact with people in what I do. There are many ways you can do science and engineering. But the vocation of being a professor, which allows me both to explore science and to interact with people – especially young people – in a meaningful way, is something I feel as a calling.
2. I did my PhD in plasma physics and there are many things I could have gone and done at that point – including working on offensive, nuclear weapons. In the 1980’s there was a Cold War. I have friends who went to work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and worked on designing nuclear weapons. But I decided as a moral statement that I could never do that. Whatever choice I made, it would always be to stay away from that particular class of offensive weapons.
3. My faith has motivated me to mentor students and junior faculty. During my 25 years here, I have repeatedly run into students and faculty who find their identity in being at MIT, in doing well at MIT. This is a hard place to be. There are so many first-rate people here that some failure is inevitable. When that happens, a person’s sense of value has to be found in something greater than getting all As, or getting tenure at MIT, or passing the qualifying exam in their PhD sequence. I believe very strongly that a person’s value is found in their intrinsic value before God. This is the concept of being made in the image of God.
4. When I started at MIT as a faculty member, I agreed that I would maintain a sense of perspective and values before God – and with my wife – and not devote all my time to being here. We agreed as a family that weekends and evenings were off-limits, and whatever happened would happen. I’m also a minority faculty member, and I discovered later that the probability of survival at MIT when I started was only 25% – that data is actually in the 2010 race report released by Paula Hammond. There was a 75% probability that I would end being somewhere else.
5. The search for meaning and purpose through my Christian faith has motivated my intellectual areas of interest. I started out doing theoretical plasma physics, and then after a while, I wanted to be somewhere where I had more connection to people. That’s why I moved in the direction of policy work, and the interaction of technology and policy, because policy builds in the values that it cares about. That ultimately led me to the directorship of the MIT technology and policy program. There I wrestled with the students about how values were implicit in the choices that they made.
6. Finally, this sense of calling to this university environment has motivated me to stay. I’ve been asked repeatedly to take other jobs in industry and in the government. But it’s the ability to work with students – my own students, my advisees – and to work more generally with the student body, which actually motivates me to stay, and to try to do some good with the people I run into.
This article is adapted from a talk given at The Veritas Forum at MIT in 2011. Daniel Hastings is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Professor of Education at MIT, where he also serves as Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. See his personal webpage here.