Engaging with secular thought: ace!

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A very good friend of Faith-in-Scholarship is Andrew Basden, Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at the University of Salford. (Indeed, Andrew will be speaking, along with Professor Tom McLeish, at next month’s Faith-in-Scholarship Christian Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference: places still available!) A few months ago he came to Liverpool to speak to the Postgraduate Christian Forum on the topic of Engaging with secular thought. What follows is my personal re-presentation of that talk (mainly based on an earlier version from Andrew Basden’s website).

I wonder how you have tended to respond to secular scholarship in your discipline? There can be a tendency for Christians to do one of two things. They tend either to respond with antagonism, for example, with Marxism or postmodernism, or with acquiescence, adopting the world’s ideas uncritically.

A better approach is to see secular thought as impaired insight. “Insight”, because we all find ourselves living in the same world, and we cannot fail to bump up against it in the course of our research. There will always be some truth in every piece of scholarship. But “impaired”, because our ultimate commitments about reality touch on every area of life and scholarship. If our view of the whole of reality is impaired in some way, then however great our insights are, there will always be distortions and blind spots in our thinking.

Seeing things in this way means it is always worth engaging with secular thought. There is always something we can learn, and there are always contributions we can make as Christians.

But how can we achieve this?

Andrew Basden provides us with three steps, easily remembered as ACE: affirm, critique, enrich.

Affirm. When I try to see things from this author’s perspective, what is there that I can affirm? What insights are there? What new ideas are being presented? What valid criticisms are being made of alternative ideas?

Critique. This involves digging deeper, to find the presuppositions and assumptions that underlie a piece of scholarship. What is being assumed to be meaningful, or meaningless? Is there any reductionism going on: taking something to be absolute, and writing other things off as ultimately insignificant? This requires humility and patience; it may take many years before you can discern what is wrong with your discipline.

Enrich. What fresh insights can a Christian bring to resolve the problems with an area of scholarship? Often this might be a response to reductionism. A Christian can comfortably recognise the diverse and multifaceted nature of the world we inhabit. While secular thinking often narrows things down, to explain complex phenomena in terms of one or two simple ideas, Christian thinking ought to resist that trend. Andrew Basden finds the work of Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd helpful in this regard, particular his aspects: an attempt to describe the various facets of reality as we experience it. I described those in a previous post, and there is a lot more about these aspects on Andrew Basden’s website.

I hope this approach will prove helpful for you. Our calling in academia, and in the world more generally, is not to fight against it, or to assimilate into it, but to engage with it, seeking its renewal, praying that God’s kingdom will come, and that his will will be done, on earth as in heaven.

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