The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship

This is the title of a book by George Marsden – and it’s also the title that David Hanson took for his talk at the recent FiSch leaders’ conference.  In this and the next few posts, we’ll share some of the things we heard at this conference, which took place in Leeds on 31 Jan – 1 Feb.

When Christians do research, is it automatically “Christian research” they are doing? Surely not! Christians might be more likely to study certain topics, like Christian theology and church history – but that doesn’t seem to require the term “Christian scholarship”. We might go further and hope that the work of Christians in all fields will be honest, trustworthy, fair, and have other “ethical” qualities.  But most scholars, from all kinds of ideological backgrounds, would rate such qualities highly, so this doesn’t seem to make the scholarship itself Christian. So what kind of thing could deserve the title “Christian scholarship”? Can we make our research more pleasing to Jesus Christ somehow?

David Hanson asked members of the group what we hoped our own academic research might achieve, in the grand scheme of things. “Improved quality of life”, “appreciation of God’s creation” and “contribution to future research” were the kind of things we came up with. But would our research automatically produce benefits? Perhaps not: we can easily think of discoveries, ideas and inventions with evil applications as well as good ones. Imagine someone working to create a script for a language that previously only existed orally. This script will open up exciting possibilities – both for developing a literature and sharing it with other peoples and also for translating things into it (Bible translation is, of course, often the primary motivation) – but it also opens up possibilities for causing harm and offence in all kinds of new ways. So it doesn’t seem easy to make our scholarship “Christian” by the choice of topic, manner of engagement or intended outcomes. We can’t expect any privileged foresight into future developments, either: consider Lord Kelvin, a deeply-faithful Christian, who said, “I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning” in 1896 – only seven years before the Wright brothers’ aeroplane took off!

Let’s try a more profound approach. If we, as researchers who are Christians, believe that God has gifted and called us for what we do, we could try thinking Christianly about what scholarship is, and where it might fit into God’s own purposes for His world. Inquisitive humans seem to have been opening up new possibilities within the created order throughout history, and surely this is part of the cultural mandate given to mankind in Eden, the exercise of our own creativity as stewards of God’s creation. Now, the mandate clearly isn’t restricted to Christians, nor has its enactment been: “filling and subduing the earth” (as in Genesis 1:28), and “tending and keeping the garden” (as in Genesis 2:15), are quite good descriptions of a lot of research and development work, and Genesis 2 may also hint at prospects for metallurgy, perfumery, taxonomy and sociology! But could a well-developed Christian worldview – call it a philosophy – affect how we go about this work of stewardship, of developing and opening up the creation, perhaps giving  a distinctive, redemptive flavour to our scholarship?

So in finishing, David mentioned a book that explores how a specific discipline can be opened up in a Christian-scholarly way. Albert Weideman’s “Beyond Expression: a systematic framework for the study of linguistics” applies Herman Dooyeweerd‘s philosophical framework to look at the diverse ways in which language functions in real contexts. This isn’t seeking to trump the scholarship of non-Christians, but rather, as Andrew Basden sees it, to engage and enrich it. Linguistics isn’t my field, but it’s one that fascinates me, and I’m now planning to get hold of this book and see where it takes me. And I mustn’t stop thinking about a Christian framework for ecology, my own discipline…

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