Mike Wagenman introduces a new series on scholarly disagreement.
How does a Christian scholar navigate scholarly disagreements? Over the years, I’ve endured my fair share of differences of opinion, perspective, and conviction with academic peers. Sometimes they have been friendly and fruitful but more often they have devolved into bitterness, bullying, and even personal attacks. And sometimes the worst offenders have been fellow Christians.
As a result, I’ve developed a commitment that my witness as a Christian scholar is through both the content of my academic work but also the way in which I conduct myself as a human being within the academy. There are times when the content of our scholarship can be a means of witness; but when it cannot, then we can still be the kinds of people who conduct ourselves as scholars with patience, grace, and forgiveness. This is especially so when disagreements emerge.
A couple of months ago, I facilitated a (Zoom) book discussion with a former classmate of mine in Bristol, where we both completed our PhDs. In the course of reading his book to prepare for the online discussion, I came across many ideas and perspectives that I appreciated and that ran parallel with my own work. But I discovered (to my surprise, actually) that at a foundational theoretical level I held a view that was in fundamental disagreement of rather significant proportions with him. It was my opportunity to put three principles into practice. On that occasion, we succeeded in having a penetrating discussion but without descending into mere disagreement.
Principle 1: Understand another’s perspective. It is so easy to discern differences between ourselves and someone else. The scholarly craft sometimes seems to be fuelled by finding even the slightest difference and then making something monumental out of it. But I have often found that the differences that first strike me when examining another’s work are, upon closer examination, not what I had initially thought. So, when engaging others, I try to understand their perspective as much as possible. This means not only understanding what their position is but also why they arrive where they do. I seek to inhabit their perspective as much as possible. Otherwise, I probably will find out later that I haven’t really understood them yet. This might sound obvious but I mean it in a way far deeper than is usual. This is about a Christian vocation to love my scholarly neighbour (and their work/ideas).
Principle 2: Focus on what’s constructive. One of the most joyful, and humbling, aspects of scholarship is being able to contribute something – even a small part – to the edifice of human knowledge and passing it along the generations. In this work, scholars who want to carve out a place for themselves can become very adept at tearing each other and their work apart. Part of what it means to me to be a Christian scholar is that I want to be known as someone continually seeking new lines of thought, even in the midst of or through deep disagreement, and pursuing constructive pathways for the common scholarly task. Being a scholar isn’t something that happens in isolation but through guild-like cooperation, working constructively together through engagement with others’ thought and work.
Principle 3: Keep an open mind. I know my perspective. I also know why I hold my perspective. I can also situate my perspective within the grand scheme of human (philosophical and theological, in my case) development over the ages. Most scholars are like this. We know why we know what we know. But there is a problem (to greater or lesser degrees depending on what discipline you’re looking at): a certain rigidity can ossify our conceptual framework over time, which makes us more and more unlikely to discern how new ideas, which don’t seem plausible at first, might actually have some merit. Scholars are prone to pride, but in an intellectual way that can close us off from considering that I might have something to learn from someone with whom I disagree. Some disciplines are better at this than others but as a scholar I must continually strive to keep an open mind, particularly when disagreement emerges. I need to be reminded often that something I disagree with today might, in time and with further reflection, become something that fundamentally assists me positively.
I don’t have any illusions that these comprise a “magic bullet” that can diffuse any disagreement. And I surely am not suggesting that I always do this well in all areas of my life. But I have found that when I conduct myself in this way, not only am I able to navigate disagreement better but I’m also able to conduct myself in a way that feels faithful to the Teacher I claim to follow.
Mike Wagenman teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. You can read his previous FiSch blog post here.