Christ at the centre of good scholarship

Norms ring

Our series “What is good scholarship?” has examined nine aspects* of God’s created order in which we can discern norms – different kinds of “goods”. We believe these norms are recognised to varying degrees by everyone, thanks to God’s grace.

At the same time, Christians know that pursuit of goodness does not automatically please God; it can still lead us into sin if not done in faith (cf Rom 14:23) and love (cf 1 Cor 13).  Christians are traditionally conscious of the dangers of idolising such goods as reason, progress, beauty and pleasure – but the ascetic path isn’t for most of us (it certainly sounds like bad news for scholarship!).  We may say that believing in Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit is the answer – but we’ll still need to work it out in practice, using our minds.  So what might it look like to pursue what’s good without idolising particular aspects of goodness?

I believe it’s about balance. Jesus’ sinless life was fully human and did not eschew good things: he ate, drank, slept, reasoned, invented stories, socialised, laughed (no doubt), prioritised, righted wrongs, loved and trusted. His goodness clearly involved doing each of the above at the right time and in good balance with the others. His life was at least as full of challenges, trials and constraints as are ours; he was tempted in every way yet without sin.

Jesus wasn’t an academic, but we academics might benefit from thinking analytically about how his life balanced competing norms. For we live in the same created order, and like all humans, must navigate and negotiate among norms that are often in tension as we seek to do what’s best.  So let me briefly recap the norms covered in our series on good scholarship, asking what dangers of idolatry lie in each.  I hope this will help illuminate what it might mean to learn from Jesus in our academic work, and to seek that all-round goodness known in biblical Hebrew as shalom.

  • Logicality: All disciplines rely on good reasoning, but rationalism may easily become an idol. We should also respect the intuitive, imaginative and other thought processes on which ideas depend, and have compassion in our dialogue and debates.
  • Progress: The good of innovation drives academia, and is also surely an idol of Western culture. Genesis 1 and 2 do clearly envisage a history of civilisation and development – so can we balance progress against such goods as contentment and wisdom?
  • Clarity is worth a lot in scholarly communication but may need weighing against economy of words, the value of humour, etc.
  • Social norms and influences are perhaps more often demonised than idolised in academia. Although such norms vary among cultures, we pay the price when they are ignored in our computer systems, architecture, pedagogy – to name but a few areas.
  • Economic idolatry is notoriously damaging in any sphere of life. But getting value for money rightly drives a lot of what we do, as do time-efficiency, resource-use efficiency and wise choices in general.
  • Harmony: There are obstacles to getting much excitement or beauty into our publications, but we should take them seriously in external outputs – and inject them into conferences!
  • Justice: perhaps too often relegated to ethics committees!  In pursuing righteousness, we might consider what is owed to all kinds of parties: organisations and animals as well as fellow-humans.
  • Generosity, and its endpoint in self-sacrifice, is sometimes held up as the central Christian virtue. But it can’t stand alone, and it can even jeopardise other norms. Read about the faithful godly αγαπη love extolled by Paul in 1 Cor 13 and see how it enriches all kinds of goodness!
  • Faith encompasses many kinds of conviction. In its special Christian sense of ‘right relationship with God’ faith is, of course, the key to true goodness. But even this faith must be revealed in other virtues, as James’ letter reminds us.

What do you think? In what ways are these norms part of your work?

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* Our list was based on Herman Dooyeweerd’s framework of modal aspects, in which characteristic norms are supposed to pertain to all aspects from the analytical aspect onwards.  It isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of virtues, simply to give good coverage to the breadth of human experience. Some virtues, like truth and love, cut across these categories; others may be related to ones we’ve covered (e.g. hope relates to faith).

Comments

High fives, Richard! Very well done.

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