This academic year, I’ve been reflecting with you on the topic of questions when it comes to the life of a Christian engaged in postgraduate studies. I’ve been working with the assumption that I hear from many Christian postgrads that there is a perceived tension between faith and scholarship. It is often thought that faith provides answers; but then how does a Christian meaningfully lean into the work of research and scholarship which are about formulating and pursuing questions? Many Christian postgraduate students feel pressure to leverage their research towards evangelism. And if that can’t be done, then at least postgrad courses gives one a captive audience of peers whom we can evangelise. And if that fails, at the end of the day, we can retire to our room where we can be comforted with the Bible’s answers to life’s questions.
In this reflection, I’d like to explore Scripture’s place relative to questions. Is this the best way to understand Scripture: as a book of answers with which we can respond to the questions we encounter? I’ll give you my concern about this way of framing things right up front: what if we come across a question (in scholarship or in life) which the Bible doesn’t address? Does Scripture then become irrelevant? Is Scripture then shown to only have relevance in one part of life? This would make Scripture a narrow book; the God revealed through Scripture a tribal god.
The French Catholic Paul Claudel (1868-1955) wrote that “It is not proper to say that we interrogate Scripture. It would be more accurate to recognize it is Scripture that interrogates us and finds for each of us, across all time and all generations, the appropriate question.” Claudel has turned things on its head: Scripture isn’t a book of answers to life’s questions; rather, Scripture is the questioner and our life is to be an appropriate grasp of that question.
Jean-Louis Chrétien (1952-2019) explores this idea by saying that “the capacity to question, and to question well, can only grow to the very degree in which we have been able to let ourselves be questioned. For it is not a matter of inventing questions that would only be clever but to see in the midst of things what is the question. And what is the question is what comes toward us with that silent dignity in the patience of thought.”
Whereas today we tend to assume that our faith is measured by the answers we can provide, these two Christians invite us to approach from the other direction: our faith is measured by the questions we can entertain and endure.
What does this mean, either for the Christian or for the Christian student/scholar? It means we must “be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19) in order to perceive the question that is compelling beneath the one that’s merely clever. It is in what Chrétien calls “the patience of thought” that we begin to perceive the important questions that need asking. We don’t necessarily need to have the answer fully formed; rather, as the first step in recovery helps us recognize: we must begin by admitting that we have a question. And the best question will not be one that we alone are asking but a question that our whole context of life in the present state of the world is begging to be articulated.
This is how the scholarship a Christian is engaged in can be part of one’s missional calling or vocation: we do not see ourselves with privileged access to all the answers of the universe but as those courageous enough to listen to the groaning of creation (Romans 8:22) and to perceive in that groaning of our context the questions that are seeking to be heard and made explicit.
Over at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge (KLC), this is what is meant by missional Christian scholarship at the highest level. That doesn’t mean we look for the most effective way to make slam-dunk apologetic arguments. It means we stand under the weight of Scripture’s interrogation, we endure Scripture’s searching eye, so that we can perceive how Scripture is giving birth to the most important questions that need to be heard and given our most careful attention. It means approaching scholarship as a form of (individual and communal) prayer so that we can grow in our “capacity to question, and to question well” by letting “ourselves be questioned.”
KLC is in its first year of supervising PhD students in a partnership with Union Theological College in Belfast. On Wednesday, February 15 at 5:30pm (UK time), we will be hosting an online event where we will talk more about this view of Christian scholarship and highlight our PhD program. If you’re a postgraduate student or if you’re interested in how we’re re-envisioning PhD research from the ground up, you are warmly invited to join us. You can register on the KLC website here.
I wish you well – not just in giving the right answers but in allowing yourself to be questioned so deeply that you become transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2)! How are you, through your studies, hearing the question Scripture is asking you about our world?