Dear Stephan/ie,

Your question is such a good one: What difference does it make to my studies that I’m a Christian? I have also found that many churches (and even Christian ministries to students) assume that the only points of contact between scholarship and faith are evangelism and morality. But, yes, there is so much more – and I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more. Well, actually, I do have a hunch, which I’ll try and sketch for your reflection over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

It has become very important to me in my academic work as a follower of Jesus to stress the important role of discernment. But when I say “discernment,” I’m not only referring to the typical academic understanding of this practice. Yes, good research and writing form in us the skills to think clearly, deeply, and with sufficient nuance. This, in turn, helps us learn to distinguish the trendy topics from the truly necessary research questions. We do become adept at thinking critically and contextually.

As followers of Jesus, it’s not as though we’re entitled to secret information or special shortcuts in our academic work. No, our faith doesn’t remove us from our participation in this scholarly work with our colleagues, regardless of their faith. Instead, through following Jesus, we discover who we are and what we’re called to do for the flourishing of the world we inhabit

The discipline of discernment helps us recognize our place in the unfolding of human history, life, and culture. As we immerse ourselves in Scripture’s grand narrative arc more and more, we gain a deeper awareness of how intellectual traditions have developed, how thoughts have given birth to consequences, how knowledge becomes operationalized. In short, our Christian faith should make us more aware that the present moment didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it is the result of long historical and cultural and ideological processes.

I recently read Wendell Berry’s, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Berry identifies one of the important “spirits of the age” in which we live today: professionalism. He’s identifying part of our need for careful discernment: how human life has been transformed into a mechanical technique by industrial and corporate forces. 

For example, he asks, “What is the point of the further study of nature if that leads to the further destruction of nature?” (12). That’s a very good question for Christian graduate students to ponder. As a follower of the Prince of Peace, why work to advance the study of chemistry or physics or engineering if it will just create more lethal cruise missiles – which not only produce death and destruction but also enormous concentrations of financial power?

Discernment means asking to what degree our education or research is contributing to the flourishing or the diminishment of God’s creation. For Berry, one of the ways education today has been corrupted by “professionalism” is through education serving the financial reward of global corporate powerbrokers. Christian discernment calls us to a deeper and more realistic awareness of this context in which we live and study. Are we learning to discern how our disciplines are being distorted by forces which seek to dominate others and extend the reign of death?

Maybe this is why we as Christians turn to evangelism and morality so quickly: deeper reflection reveals the complexity of the world we’re embedded in. But, if Berry is correct (and I think there are important reasons why he very well might be), then we should be thinking carefully about how the professionalization of scholarship is contributing to the brokenness of the world. 

Berry sounds prophetic to me when he says that “Professionalism aspires to big answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions … [L]ike the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations” (15). I haven’t found a graduate student yet who hasn’t felt pressured into studying one thing over another because of financial incentives.

As a graduate student, you’re not just adding information to your brain or getting a credential to hang on your wall. You’re not just learning neutral crafts of research and writing. You’re also part of the unfolding of history. As a scholar, you actually have some measure of influence in how your discipline progresses towards knowledge, yes, but also life or death.

As a Christian, you play your part in this project. But you are also called to develop your discernment so that you can identify how knowledge and education are being assimilated into rival narratives of how the world is, what the world is for, what life is all about. 

As a Christian graduate student, you are being given a vocation to see and think more clearly how to contribute to God’s whole creation in a life-giving way. But you can’t do this important work if you have a limited or dualistic worldview. If God cares about anything, then God cares about everything. Since God cares about your morality, then God also cares about your economics, your politics, your technology, etc. The question you must discern, if you want your faith to have relevance to your scholarship, is how you as God’s image-bearer can steward this garden of knowledge you’ve been sent to tend for this period of your life.

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​