In pursuit of Christian scholarship (2)

Rudi Hayward completes his review of "Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship" by Robert Sweetman (Wipf & Stock 2016).

The first part of this review ended with the paradox that either Christian scholarship is understood as so integrally Christian as to endanger the sense in which the Christian and non-Christian are engaged in the same enterprise at all, or else the shared standards and results of scholarship are elevated so much that identifying anything distinctively Christian is embarrassingly difficult. Sweetman points out the difficulty by noting that theoretical results, once articulated and made accessible to others, are open to all. Christians can, do, and should make use of the scholarly findings of non-Christians, and vice-versa. As an illustration, Sweetman uses the example of Andrew Basden’s work in information systems, which employs the uniquely Christian claims and methods of Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy. Yet Basden has many non-Christian collaborators who have found his Dooyeweerdian framework helpful for their own scholarly practice. Sweetman draws from this the conclusion that we must reject the Aristotelian inquiry into a "Christian difference” grounded in some stable set of claims and/or methods that are intrinsically if not uniquely Christian.

How then should we understand and pursue Christian scholarship? Sweetman’s suggestion is that Christian scholarship is scholarship that is self-consciously attuned to the shape of the Christian heart, individually and communally.

Attuning one’s scholarship to the shape of the Christian heart means, first of all, moving away from a view of faith as assent to a set of changeless propositions, the content and guarantor of orthodoxy. Instead faith should act as a spiritual orientation towards the world which acts something like a set of reflex-like expectations. Sweetman uses the familiar triad of creation-fall-redemption as an example. This sets up “an impulse in which one approaches something open to encountering it with indications of its original blessing, its marring and consequent ambiguity, and its reception of a new and redemptive meaning by which its original blessing shines forth again and becomes redolent of new possibilities” (pp142-143). Another example he develops and illustrates is what he calls the “cubist painter’s eye”, whereby a scholar listens patiently and with humility to the analysis of the same phenomenon from very different cultural and religious perspectives. So what the Medieval monk calls “humility” the modern secular humanist calls “despair,” yet both can be seen to be describing a recognizably common phenomenon. This leads Sweetman to consider a generous humility which recognizes the ubiquity of creational goodness and redemptive possibilities, always mixed with the Fall and its effects. Thus the scholar learns to recognize in the results of other scholars that they are more likely than not almost right, yet at the same time more likely than not almost mistaken. That is the kind of twofold expectation that Sweetman believes should orientate the Christian scholar’s critical antennae.

Wanting to make these suggestions as concrete as possible, he offers an example. One thing that moves his heart, that excites him about Christian faith, is that the God we meet in Jesus is a peacemaker. And in his scholarship he seeks to image a peacemaking God, and wants to begin his scholarly endeavors with “pacific questions”. That is how he seeks to attune his scholarship to the shape of his Christian heart. Sweetman is clear that peacemaking is no scholarly master key; it is only an example. Furthermore, it doesn’t set his scholarship apart in a special category of Christian scholarship. It is something that can be meaningfully practiced in the context of the secular academy, and he believes may be just as applicable to the STEM researcher as the humanities scholar. The Gospel is expansive enough to fill Christian hearts in many different ways. So he would ask you and me a simple yet profound question. What is the shape of your Christian heart, and how could your scholarship come to be attuned to this shape?

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