Common Good and Kingdom of God: Implications for Christian Scholarship

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This post is the third of a short series summarising the three main talks given by Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin at the Faith-in-Scholarship conference in February. (Summary of Jonathan’s first talk. Summary of Adrienne’s first talk.)

To finish the conference Jonathan and Adrienne gave a joint talk entitled ‘The common good and the kingdom of God: implications for Christian scholarship’. Jonathan began by reflecting that Christian scholarship seeks the common good of society. As we find in the book of Jeremiah, God’s people are told to ‘seek the peace of and prosperity of the city’ (29:7). We can be a part of this as Christian academics. We can aim, together with our non-Christian colleagues, to be engaged in the same pursuit of truth, advancement and dissemination of knowledge and culture.

There is, however, perhaps obviously to many Christians, a striking problem with this. In our pluralistic society we have no shared vision of sources or content of truth, or definition of reliable knowledge, or even understanding of what is valuable in culture. We have a plurality of perspectives partly overlapping, partly diverging, contending with one another.

What are we to do about this problem? Jonathan suggested that we may uphold a ‘principled pluralism’. We should honour deep differences arising from different worldviews. We should have respect for freedom of conscience and its public expression as far as possible and protect the university from resistance to this. On the face of it, however, this may cause some Christians to kick back. Promoting pluralism is not seen as beneficial by many Christian groups because they realize that there is only one truth and not a plurality. Jonathan was insistent, however, that ‘principled pluralism’ should not be mistaken for ‘relativist pluralism’ or ‘pragmatic pluralism’: relativist pluralism being an acceptance that truth is plural, and pragmatic pluralism (I take it) meaning that we, together, can aim towards finding the most appropriate truth for our society at the current time.

Jonathan concluded from all of this that we should not, therefore, cultivate ‘Christian’ scholarship or institutions merely for their own sake, but to work for the common good. This, of course, does not preclude the exercise of Christian critique of our culture, but Christian scholarship should not fundamentally mean providing Christian critique. Rather, as Jonathan notes, ‘Christian scholars should be ready to bring their authentic perspectives on common goods to bear in public debate in academy and society over many issues’. These authentic perspectives are inspired by ‘a transformative vision of [the] kingdom of God’.

Adrienne and Jonathan then helped us to see what this might look like on the ground. The applications were far reaching, and go beyond the scope of this short post, but I will mention one application here. This is that we, as Christians, should be entering existing debates within our prospective fields. We need not give a critique of that field straight away; rather we can first seek to find answers to recognised problems by drawing upon certain aspects of the Christian worldview. Adrienne, for example, mentioned that she was told by her PhD supervisor not to use biblical reasoning when engaging in the topic of her PhD. She was, however, able to use the resources of her Christian worldview to enrich her work nonetheless. In doing so she was able to further debates in her field from the perspective of a transformative vision of kingdom of God.

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