Christian Scholarship, For Such a Time as This

I’ve got to be honest. There was a time, not long ago, when I had become weary of conversations about “Christian scholarship.” These conversations, it seemed to me, had become stale, and sometimes took the place of actually doing scholarship, Christian or otherwise.

Recently, however, I’ve found myself reconsidering the idea of Christian scholarship. I’m not entirely sure what’s changed. Perhaps I’m just older (yes) and wiser (maybe). Or perhaps our historical moment demands that we ask old questions in new ways.

My own institution, Calvin College, is beginning a new “visioning” process in preparation for a new strategic plan, and this week I was asked to comment on the role of research and scholarship in the institution’s larger vision. In preparation, I tossed out a series of questions on the value of Christian scholarship to my social media friends, inviting their responses.AB Calvin poster resized

What ensued was a lively, nuanced, and insightful conversation that has only added to my conviction that the time has come for Christian academics to reassess the value of Christian scholarship and press institutions of Christian higher education to support this endeavor with renewed courage and conviction.

Borrowing from my Facebook feed, here is a glimpse at several of the key questions, cautions, hopes and desires that friends and colleagues shared:

Christian Scholarship vs. Christian Anti-Intellectualism

Friends of mine who are Christians but not academics quickly chimed in, affirming the significance of Christian scholarship today “as a counter to the anti-intellectual strain of Christianity that seems so predominant now,” even as it was acknowledged that some Christian scholars perpetuate this anti-intellectualism. This may seem obvious, but it’s a good reminder that the very act of scholarship serves as a witness within and outside of academia. Sociologist John Hawthorne (Spring Arbor), too, noted that “quality scholarship (and the lower teaching loads that requires) could play a significant role in shaping how evangelicals are seen with the academy and perhaps the larger culture. An institution pursuing a long-term vision would recognize that faculty scholarship is a key part of achieving institutional mission.”

Christian Scholarship and the Kuyperian Tradition

Daniel Meeter, a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, affirmed the need for Christian scholarship, but with the caveat, “as long as we don’t draw the antithesis in the way that Kuyper did.” In other words, “Yes, if Christian scholarship surrenders its pretense to rightness and works out of love, intellectual love and faithfulness.”

I agree with Meeter on this, and have been reflecting on this tendency while reading Craig Bartholomew’s recent book, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition. It seems there’s a tendency (in both Kuyper and perhaps also Bartholomew) to underestimate the fact that any antithesis runs through the church as well. As Meeter expressed, “I have come to think of the antithesis not as a vertical line between Christian and secular, but a horizontal line over everything, the church included, Christian scholarship included. Christian scholarship is never innately more sanctified or redeemed, except by the sheer grace of God.”

Meeter also took issue with the Creation/Fall/Redemption motif of the Kuyperian worldview, which he sees as incomplete: “That ground-motive tends toward a backward looking attempt to ground culture and science in Creation-norms, and a hankering after Medieval or Reformation-era or Nineteenth Century European worldviews. But the New Testament worldview begins with Resurrection, and a new creation, and is eschatological. Now, while biology and other Natur-wissenschaften can hardly study the New Creation of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection, certainly the Geistes-wissenschaften must study society, politics, and so on in the light of the truth being in the future, whose builder and maker is God, and is thus best found among the poor and voiceless and the weak of the earth.” Given the formative role Kuyperian thought has played in the project of Christian scholarship, reassessing that heritage can help us reconsider the nature and purpose of that project.

Christian Scholarship—“The Interdisciplinary Think-Tank for the Church”

Others highlighted the role that Christian scholars play in the larger church community. As biologist Sara Tolsma (Northwestern College) explained, “Our integrative scholarship is important because Christian academics have expertise in a particular area and should use that expertise to be a voice to the church and a voice to the world. It is one way we have a seat at the table of some of the most important discussions happening in and outside the church.”

And economist Steven McMullen (Hope College) added: “One way to think about the value of scholarship is to ask about what would be missing if Christian schools did no research at all. I think everyone would agree that society overall needs historians, physicists, etc. But does the Church need them? Here I think the answer is a clear ‘yes.’ Even if you take the position that Christians will not do economics, or chemistry, or literature differently than non-Christians, it is still the case that the Church needs thoughtful Christians to be engaged at the highest levels of their disciplines.”

McMullen continued: “Even if economics looked the same with/without Christian theology (and I believe that Christian thought actually changes the way we do economics), we would still need Christian economists to help the church navigate economic questions, and choose between the many competing economic narratives out there. Moreover, we need Christians engaging these areas of thought in community with other Christians, because it is *really hard* to do this integration work alone. So the Christian college is the inter-disciplinary think-tank for the church. And it serves an essential function.” I love this concept, and I think if more Christian colleges embraced their role as “intellectual think-tanks for the church,” the church might be better off today.

The Limits of Christian Scholarship

But when we say “Christian scholarship,” do we actually mean “Christian scholarship?” Historian Janine Giordano Drake (University of Providence) challenged Protestants to consider broader Christian traditions, especially Catholicism, when they think of “Christian scholarship”—or, if not, to at least be clear that they’re actually talking about “evangelical Protestant scholarship.” She (and others agreed on this), noted that as time goes on, she has felt she has “less and less to offer about how a Christian academic should offer something different from our neighbors.” It would be good, however, for “evangelicals to all recognize that they are *not* a persecuted minority, nor should they be proud of the worldly empire (intellectual, political, and even militaristic) they have built.”

Giordano Drake wants evangelicals “to be more humble about the power they wield, use it for the sake of defending and supporting the oppressed and subordinate, and to stand in solidarity with the socially and economically marginalized.” Is this a vision that Christian college administrators would support? Giordano Drake isn’t optimistic. “Right now, she concedes, “’Christian scholarship’ seems like a very thinly veiled way to rallying evangelicals behind an overly particular moral theology.”

Baylor historian Elesha Coffman, too, confessed to harboring doubts about the “Christian scholarship” enterprise, and its claims for its own distinctiveness: “To put this in clumsy Calvinistic terms (clumsy because of my facility with these terms, not because they are in and of themselves clumsy), God’s common grace ought to enable anyone to apprehend truths about the created world. Matters touching on salvation are different. Some scholarship pertains to matters touching on salvation, but most of it doesn’t.” Coffman added that “Christian institutions are likely to be far more distinctive in their teaching missions.” Here I think Coffman is right to draw attention to the question of teaching and pedagogy, topics that have received far less attention from Christian academics than “Christian scholarship.”

As a fellow religious historian, I was also intrigued by a critique of the larger project of Christian scholarship that Coffman offered. From the vantage point of 2017, she finds herself questioning “how Christian scholars’ habits of mind gave us 30 years of scholarship in my field–American religious history–that did not prepare us to understand or combat the worst aspects of fundamentalism/evangelicalism. Maybe better scholarship would have made no difference. We’ll never know.”

When pressed to explain her statement, Coffman added: “Imagine if the last generation of scholarship on American religious history had focused more on the ideas propounded in Charles Reagan Wilson, “The Religion of the Lost Cause” (Journal of Southern History, 1980) than those in Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture.”

Many Christian historians—and many Anxious Bench readers—have ties to this “Marsden school” of evangelical scholarship, myself very much included. For those of us who are products of this wave of evangelical scholarship—for those of us who have been influenced by Marsden, Noll, Hatch, Carpenter, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, Pew and Lilly funding, and the like—how has our own work been shaped by this school of thought? And are there ways in which the histories produced by this wave of scholarship must be reexamined in light of recent events?

Along the same lines, might it also be appropriate to interrogate more carefully the roots of the “integration of faith and scholarship trend” itself? Giordano Drake, for example, suggests a conference panel may be in order to do just that, to examine how “this ‘Christian scholarship’ ideal arose right alongside the rejection of US social history (ethnic, gender, African American history) as ‘secular.’” (The Conference on Faith and History’s 50th anniversary meeting at Calvin College next fall would be an ideal venue, I think). At the very least, for many of us a more critical engagement with our own intellectual heritage may be in order.

New Directions…

Others, too, chimed in to urge us to reconsider the shape Christian scholarship might take in our current context. John Mulholland helped focus the conversation by asking us “to think about specific questions as ones that Christians and Christian colleges & universities could/should be considering”—virtue ethics and intellectual humility, for example, and questions examining the intersections of gender, power, faith and politics. If we are moving beyond the epistemological questions that often dominated the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which new areas of inquiry should Christian scholars turn their attention to?

Other scholars weighed in on the need to support “activist scholarship,” too. As Calvin English professor Linda Naranjo-Heubl explains, “Activist scholarship sometimes gets negatively stereotyped as prof-protesters who don’t do any conventional scholarship, but in education research, it refers to scholars who do research that can be immediately applied in social movements. Advocates argue that separating theory and action is not useful for society or for “producing knowledge within the academy” (Croteau, Ryan, and Hoynes’ *Rhyming Hope and History* is an extended study of this issue). While the nature of some disciplines lends itself well to the concept of activist scholarship (sociology, political science), other fields not so much. The scholar-activist in other fields faces the obstacle of having their work rejected come tenure decisions because it is not ‘traditional’ scholarship.”

Next Steps…

I’ve written before about how this moment ought to be a golden age for Christian colleges and universities, and I still think that’s the case. I believe that Christian scholars can play a critical mediating role in a polarized society, problematizing simplistic assumptions and ill-fitting categories, and seeking wisdom, justice, and human flourishing.

But in order for this to happen, I think that changes must be implemented on the institutional level.

As I’ve also noted before, I think it’s essential that we broaden the conversation when it comes to “Christian scholarship.” For too long, what counts as “Christian scholarship” in many circles has largely been white, middle-class, mostly male, American (evangelical) Protestant scholarship. But the problems facing our churches, our nation, and our world are problems that white, middle-class Protestants may not be ideally situated to address, certainly not in isolation.

It seems clear that the future of Christian scholarship must be one in which a diverse range of voices and questions are welcomed and amplified, in which the American church enters into sustained conversation with the global church, and in which the needs of those on the margins are privileged. More diverse institutions and networks will be essential to this task.

In addition, if Christian colleges are to serve as an “interdisciplinary think-tank for the church,” we need to do a better job creating a courageous space where rigorous debate can happen. To do this, we need administrators, donors, trustees, parents, and churches to be drawn into this vision. (I’m assuming that faculty and students are already there). Rather than serving as doctrinal gatekeepers, a task that perhaps made more sense when denominations exercised a greater hold over members, perhaps colleges might re-imagine their role in terms of facilitating a dynamic, deeply faith-based conversation on the most pressing issues of the day. They may find that in doing so, they can ensure the transmission of the faith far more effectively than by trying to prop up required orthodoxies in a way that leaves the next generation distrustful, jaded, and ultimately looking elsewhere for answers.

Finally, Christian colleges should seek to engage in these conversations in a way that is truly distinctive—in community, with humility, charity, prudence, and with deep conviction. There are so very few places where these conversations can take place. For Christian colleges looking for a market niche, they may find one here, along with a way to meet a deep spiritual and intellectual hunger.

Feel free to extend this conversation by sharing your thoughts on the project of Christian scholarship in the comments below.

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