Scholarship in good faith

In this post I want to show how faith lies at the heart of scholarship – perhaps in some ways that we hadn’t thought of before. I also want to explain why faith comes as the final virtue in our series ‘What is good scholarship?

Faith is a scholarly virtue at many levels.  First, we must have faith in the way the world is: trust in the underlying consistency of whatever we’re investigating.  Generations of natural scientists have conceived of ‘the laws of nature’ to justify their predictions and explain the accuracy of their inferences about the world.  ‘Law’ language may be falling out of favour now, but the so-called problem of induction remains, and scientists of all religious positions evidently practise what we might call ‘natural faith’.  And I’m convinced that every field of academic study assumes some kind of predictability or regularity in its subject matter: some underlying motifs, elements or tendencies that recur, so that what we write in our PhDs and papers will be relevant outside the immediate context in which we came up with it.

Library cartoonThen, of course, we need faith in our own minds.  We rely on our memories.  We seize upon problems believing we can solve them.  We immerse ourselves in the literature expecting to abstract something valuable and new from it. This leads on to the next category: faith in other people.

Like any communal enterprise, scholarship depends upon its practitioners trusting each other. If we suspected our peers and colleagues of making things up, we’d change career – but somehow the educational process by which we become scholars instills an admirable degree of professional honesty. We also need to trust in our interpretations of what others have written.Then we have faith that our area of study is worth our devotion.  This could be articulated in a profoundly personal way by every scholar, especially those whose work doesn’t seem likely to have consequences for daily life.  Why do people devote themselves to philosophyastronomyarchaeology or musicology?  Sometimes we may believe our discoveries could change the world, but often we don’t – and still less do some of our friends and family!

Christian faith in scholarship?

That’s a list of different kinds of faith in scholarship, hopefully none too controversial. But I’ve missed one, of course. As a Christian, I’m not going to forget the centrality of faith in God. We’ve had nine articles now about “good scholarship” but only occasional reference to classical Christian virtues (e.g. on social virtues, and generosity). Why this reticence?

The FiSch team believes that our ultimate faith commitments change our world.  For me, living in the story where Jesus Christ reveals how this world is meant to be the Kingdom of God colours everything.  Everything I wrote above – about faith in the world, myself, other people and my calling – is qualified by my conviction that it is God’s world, God’s creatures and God’s callings I’m thinking about – those of the transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For people living in other big stories, like a secular humanist one, ‘faith’ no doubt feels very different.  The scandal of Christianity is the claim that without knowing Jesus as Lord, people’s search for ultimate meaning fixates on something created, which ultimately cannot satisfy the demand placed upon it. And the focus of one’s faith ends up shaping not just one’s worldview but also behaviour – and hence other people’s lives too. The kind of faith we have in scholarship really matters!

How this works out needs exploring at greater length, and a final post in this series will suggest some echoes of faith in the other scholarly virtues we’ve looked at.

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