Thinking Christianly in Academia
Dr Richard Gunton
Why should anyone want to think Christianly in academia? After all, there’s a widespread view that religious commitment compromises free enquiry by limiting what kinds of conclusions a researcher is prepared to accept. As an undergraduate student I remember this attitude with some of my scientist classmates, and it made me uneasy. I also wondered if some discovery could turn out to made my Christian beliefs untenable. Isn’t it safest to leave our faith outside the lab, the library and the lecture theatre?
I now want to propose the very opposite. Knowing the creator, sustainer and redeemer of the cosmos in Jesus Christ should and can enrich our academic thinking, galvanize our research and enhance our teaching. However, I should emphasise at the outset that there’s no easy route to success here. Academic thinking is subtle and complicated largely because the world is subtle and complicated, and we shouldn’t expect Christian thinking about God’s world to be any simpler.
I can see two main reasons why it’s tempting not to pursue Christian thinking in our academic work, each touching on an important truth. The first reason is about common grace. Clearly great academic contributions and scientific breakthroughs are regularly made by people who don’t know Jesus, and one easy conclusion to draw (as our secular colleagues tend to) is that Christian faith is at best irrelevant to research. The second reason is about the Fall. Biblical teaching makes clear that the human heart is evilly inclined and that even our thoughts are tainted by sin, and one simple response to this is to seek God’s grace only within the activities of the church. Put these reasons together and we have more than enough ballast of our own to account for the sinking of Christian thought out of the academic and public squares of our age – even before we start looking at the broadside attacks launched by enemies of the Gospel.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and it wasn’t in the past, or when many of our academic disciplines were young. (Peter Harrison’s work is illuminating on the history of Christian and scientific interactions). God’s grace is spread widely abroad, yes, but that same grace includes God’s response to the Fall. And the Fall taints everything: even church life, alas, so we can’t escape sin by focusing on the church – important though it is to seek fellowship, as I’ll reiterate below. I find Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) a helpful guide in the struggle to see how grace and sin relate in culture at large, and there’s currently a resurgence of interest in this Dutch statesman’s work. The hope held out by the Kuyperian tradition is that Reformational Christian thinking can do better than secular, Islamic and perhaps even Catholic thinking even while, at the same time, we should expect great insights to arise from all these traditions, and others. Accordingly, we won’t expect our Christian thinking to be distinctively Christian at every turn. Sometimes contributions made by Christian scholars seem to bear clear traces of God’s wisdom; sometimes they don’t. Arguably the same is true of contributions from non-Christian scholars, if we have eyes to see.
But how can you get started with thinking Christianly in your academic discipline? I do have some specific suggestions that could help in your study, research and teaching:
Look for controversies. Perhaps the quickest way to see the potential for faith to affect theoretical perspectives is to find scholarly disagreement. You may not see any distinctively Christian positions or options, but controversies by their nature are places where narrow rationality runs out and ideological differences (based on values) come into play. The option you see to be best (or you might propose a new one!) will be shaped by your philosophy: keep an open mind, think hard and pray to take the best one.
Look for the philosophical foundations of your discipline, and critiques of them. How are the boundaries of your discipline defined? What paradigms are assumed, and how did they arise? If you’re a scientist, be sure to have read Kuhn’s classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
Look for reductionisms. Abstracting some aspect of reality is a proper part of theoretical analysis (arguably, it’s central to objectivity). But if some abstract concept is spoken of as if it has real independent existence (be it matter, energy, life, language, power, money, love – whatever), we’re in danger of epistemic idolatry. Or so says Herman Dooyeweerd, my favourite Christian philosopher.
Dare to be a realist. Some readers will disagree with this one, but I suggest that some kind of realism is implicit in the doctrine of creation, and that forms of nominalism (where all the structure we perceive is projected by human minds) tend to place us further away from an interest in the reality of God’s creation and His real presence in the world.
Try storyboarding your discipline. I think Chris Watkins’ idea is a great one – and his website recommends other great resources too.
Once you find an issue where you think you have something to say, use Andrew Basden’s LACE approach: first listen carefully; then affirm the good; then offer critique; then seek to enrich by formulating your contribution. I’ve seen fruit from this in a working group I set up.
Take opportunities to teach. Teaching a course brings me to confront fundamental questions about the structure of a subject and make big decisions where my faith surely has an effect. Why should people be interested in this course? Where should we begin? How does thinking in this subject affect the wider world? What literature shall I recommend? What examples shall I use in exercises or essays? What skills should be assessed? You’ll have considerable freedom even if you aren’t designing a course from scratch, and your teaching can make a big impression on people’s thinking.
Look for scholarly fellowship. It may not be easy to find and meet with Christians pursuing Christian thinking in your discipline, but seek to participate in the most relevant groups you can. The Forming a Christian Mind conferences are an excellent start, and Good News for the University can put you in touch with any local group that exists – or you can start one!
Keep reading. Our worldview must be shaped by the Bible first and foremost – read in big chunks as well as verse-wise, with inspiration from commentaries too (do you know The Bible Project?). But also search out the deepest Christian analyses and commentaries on your field that you can find. I’ve edited a short list at Faith-in-Scholarship in case it’s helpful.
You will have spotted that some of my suggestions could themselves be subject to disagreement among Christians. I make no apology for this: our unity in the Gospel need not work out as conformity in every field of endeavour. In the end, your Christian thinking will be as unique as your calling in Christ. May it form part of Christ’s glorious inheritance and bear good fruit in his eternal kingdom!
Richard Gunton has a PhD in ecology and is currently a lecturer in statistics at the University of Winchester, where he also teaches Value Studies. He coordinates the Faith-in-Scholarship blog for Thinking Faith Network, and was previously part of the committee for the Transforming the Mind conference.