My dear postgrad friends,
We are quickly approaching the end of this academic year, according to our secular educational calendars. In our church calendar, we’ve just celebrated the cosmos-redeeming feast of Easter. And now we also come to this final installment of our reflections this year on the relationship between our Christian faith and the questions which arise from our academic research.
As I’ve tried to point out over these monthly reflections, my experience with Christian postgrads is that we often hold these two worlds – our faith and our scholarship – in an uneasy or unreflective opposition (or maybe compartmentalization). I’ve heard this many times: the challenges that emerge as scholarship raises questions and the impulse for faith to provide the definitive answer. And, if that moment is elusive, at least we can evangelize our peers in the meantime (the historical development of this and other problems in contemporary English-speaking evangelical Christianity is traced by Keith Sewell in The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions).
Instead, I’ve tried to show how our Christian faith, rooted in the events marked this past weekend, doesn’t so much give us a simplistic answer but gives us a humble-yet-hopeful reassurance that no question, in whatever area, pursued with the highest level of seriousness, can cause the world to fall apart. In fact, the God we come to know in Jesus is full of questions, too.
Just think about the post-Resurrection narratives that the church often hears during Eastertide. Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus in the garden, mistaking him for the gardener, and wonders why she can’t stay and worship at Jesus’ feet. Or, the disciples out fishing all night, returning to the beach to find Jesus making them breakfast, filled with questions of “Who is this?” Or, that couple on the road to Emmaus, listening to Jesus explain how the entire Old Testament points to himself, while they ponder why their hearts are burning within themselves. These are all deeply human questions that emerge from faithful discipleship!
Maybe we need a fresh start. Maybe this year has found you drifting further and further away from that point of deep integration and wholeness between your faith and your scholarship. You wouldn’t be the first who found it easier to keep these very different worlds sequestered off from each other. Even most churches struggle to know how to bring abstract ideas of faith down to earth, and this is often even more true for those of us whose discipleship has taken us into scholarship. So, maybe this Easter we need a fresh start – not a place where all questions cease but a new-found freedom to embrace our whole world in all of its God-given everyday integrity. How might we give this “fresh start” suggestion a go? Here are three tips to spark our reflection:
- Think outside the tomb. How have I allowed my imagination to get boxed-in? How have I become assimilated into the public (facts) vs private (faith) secular frame of our culture? How have I become oriented to the assumption that my faith only affects my life on campus in only “spiritual” or ethical and not also scholarly ways? What might it look like for me to engage my research as a form of Resurrection faith where I can love God with my mind as well? Just as Jesus walked out of the tomb into a renewed human life of serving his friends, how can our faith become “incarnated” in the very flesh of our scholarship also?
- Practice Resurrection humility. The American farmer-poet Wendell Berry, in his poem “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” speaks of “practicing resurrection.” The idea of Resurrection is triumphalistic on its own (“We will overcome!”). To speak of “practicing” Resurrection introduces humility (to practice something means, inherently, that you don’t know it yet). If we think we have all the answers, it’s little wonder that the culture around us has become hostile to Christians who are just projecting their egos all the time. Instead, Easter reminds us that no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, we’re still and always mere beginners. It takes humility to admit that. But that same humility makes us curious, inquisitive, and eager to search for what we do not understand yet – all qualities that will enhance our academic work anyway!
- Forget what you think you know. From the earliest centuries of the Christian/Common Era, from the first monastics to the present, there have been those within the Church who appreciated that knowing, at its deepest level which is wisdom (and not just memorization of facts) truly takes place in “The Cloud of Unknowing” (14th century): that place where we become willing to live with the humility of not knowing (or ever knowing) everything simply because we are fully known by a loving Creator. We are disciples of the Resurrected Jesus – and the Greek term for “disciple” also means “student.” And as we study and follow this Jesus, out of the tomb, in Resurrection humility, back into the world of God’s creating, we will come to realize that we’re always just beginners, just starting off, just getting out of the starting blocks, just beginning to maybe understand – if we will just (like any student) give up our pre-determined certainties of how things must be. If we can forget what we think we know, then in faith and in research we might be shown even more questions than we could ask or imagine.
The one who called you is faithful. What he has begun in you he will bring to completion. Well done this year, good and faithful student, good and faithful questioner!