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:
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.
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