Yesterday, I wrote that because scholarly communities are formative communities, Christians and other persons of faith who care about a seamless connection between belief and scholarship need to engage in what James K. A. Smith calls “thick formative practices” that foster that seamless connection. The alternatives to this are assimilation into the prevailing worldview and values of one’s scholarly community at the loss of vibrant Christian faith, the bifurcation of life into sacred and secular categories resulting in privatized faith and a public embrace of the worldview of one’s discipline. A third alternative is the “embattled enclave” mentality, where one holds to one’s faith convictions but engages with one’s discipline from an exclusively conflict-oriented posture.
Today, I want to turn to what those “thick formative practices” might be. I would like to focus on four practices which I believe important to bringing our discipleship and scholarship together.
1. Cultivating practices of attentiveness to God in one’s life. Years ago, as a college student, I was taught the habit of “The Daily Quiet Time”. At times this is maligned as inflexible, or confining of God to one’s personal devotional life. This needn’t be the case and there are a variety of spiritual practices of attentiveness one may explore in these private times with God over a lifetime. At the core of all of these practices is the idea of listening attentiveness to God, in prayer, in scripture, and in the examination of one’s life resulting in a response to God of joyful worship, trust in the practical matters of our lives, and obedience to the commands and precepts and personal insights from God that we gain in these times. What I and others are discovering more in recent years is that the habit of humble attentiveness is one that spills over into academic life, as we seek to attend to the creation, to data, to other voices–listening for the promptings of God–sometimes in the form of questions that turn into research questions, sometimes in terms of insights.
2. Learning to think Christianly about all of life. This practice flows from the practices of attentiveness as we consider, what is God’s pleasure in this area of research, this area of human activity, this personal endeavor, this relationship? But there are two additional pieces that the scholar-disciple needs to cultivate. One is a devotion to study of Christian sources: the Bible with the end of understanding God’s redemptive story as that is worked out from cover to cover, the basic contours of Christian belief captured in creeds, confessions, and theological works, and at least some understanding of Christian history and how believing people have confronted life’s greatest questions over two millenia. It is often helpful to ask how the truth we encounter bears on the questions of our disciplines. Mark Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind gives us a wonderful example of how reflecting on Christology, our beliefs about Christ, inform questions in various disciplines. The other is study in and practice of one’s chosen discipline where one is consistently asking God for insight into the underlying worldview, the questions, findings and practices of one’s discipline. In some cases these may be consistent with Christian conviction, in some cases they actually reflect a creative outworking of that conviction, and sometimes at the level of ideas, sometimes at the level of ethics, we will find ourselves differing. My sense of how this seems to work for many is the movement from disparate things (faith and scholarship) to strands of connection, to a seamless garment over the course of years of thought, exploration, questioning, and discussion.
3. Engagement in Christian scholarly communities. One of the paradoxes of scholarly life is that one is both deeply embedded in a formative community of fellow scholars, and yet often working in a solitary fashion. Temperament may reinforce this as many, though not all, academics are introverts. Certainly an important element is involvement with a diverse worshiping community beyond the university that reminds us of the relevance of our faith beyond our own contexts. At the same time, via physical communities in one’s own university, virtual communities online, and the written works of others wrestling with questions similar to ours, we sharpen our insights and strengthen our resolves to live faithfully in our own contexts. The “Inklings” with which C. S. Lewis, Tolkien and others gathered to read and critique work is an outstanding example of this (which also included friends who didn’t share their beliefs). In another context, William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery were greatly enhanced by a community of religious leaders, businessmen and scholars committed to working out the implications of Christian faith for the benefit of British society and the glory of God.
4. Practicing intellectual hospitality and engagement in one’s context. I posted recently on some of the contours of intellectual hospitality so I won’t reiterate all of that here. In brief, I would say that in the departmental or professional context where one works there are opportunities to the practices of Christian charity, courtesy, and courage. Charity means welcoming colleagues or peers as Christ has welcomed us and treating them as valued human beings regardless their views. Courtesy calls us to afford the ideas and beliefs of others the same respect we would wish for our own. It also can mean accepting the hospitality of peers and colleagues–both in terms of personal friendship, and in terms of intellectual exchange. And finally it may sometimes call for courage in being honest about our faith where the situation requires it, even while we seek to be charitable rather than belligerent, and willing to listen as well as to speak. Sometimes, speaking to a Christian student group or as part of a public discussion hosted by such a group involves practicing this courage. This is not a call to proselytize in class but rather a call not to “duck” when we are given opportunities to be honest about our identity or speak about how our faith contributes insight to important disciplinary questions.
I would appreciate hearing the insights of others in bring faith and scholarship together. In a world where these two are so polarized, and often function antagonistically toward each other, it seems this is a vital discussion.
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