Review: The Vocation of the Christian Scholar

The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Richard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Summary: An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship.

Richard T. Hughes is concerned less with the idea of “Christian scholarship” and more concerned with how one is to live out one’s calling as a Christian scholar. For him this involves two elements. One is having “an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated.” The other is learning to embrace paradox, as we hold both to an faith informed by our tradition and others, and the perspectives of our discipline.

He describes his own journey of growing up in Restorationist churches, complemented subsequently by studies of Lutheranism and Anabaptism, learning to hold the paradox of grace and discipleship together. He turns his attention to the life of the mind and its requirements of a disciplined search for truth, genuine conversation with diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and intellectual creativity. He contends that this applies to thinking theologically as well as thinking about one’s discipline, so that one’s work is grounded in one’s faith.

Drawing upon the work of Sidney E. Mead, he outlines how both the political leaders and college leaders of the American republic modelled this approach of embracing paradox, holding both to theistic or deistic ideas as well as engaging the Enlightenment thought of the time. They recognized human finitude and the rule of God over human institutions. He moves on the advocate both for understanding the particularities of one’s faith tradition and why we ought move beyond them: the nature of God, the nature of the Bible, the core of the gospel that must not be displaced by particularities, our neighbors in faith who must not be excluded by particularities, and dying to our egos, acknowledging our finitude.

This does not mean denying the power of the traditions we call our own. Hughes goes on to describe appreciatively the contribution of Roman Catholicism, the Reformed Tradition, the Anabaptist Model, and the Lutheran traditions, showing the substantial spiritual and intellectual resources these offer for the life of the mind. Drawing on these ideas, he considers how one may teach from a Christian perspective. I would have liked to hear some discussion of church traditions outside the dominant white culture. He observes that because of the paradoxes within our faith, we are uniquely positioned to foster an atmosphere of comfort with paradox and ambiguity essential to good inquiry. He contends that his work is not to give students “pre-digested answers” but rather to “inspire wonder, to awaken imagination, to stimulate creativity….” It is also to help them explore ultimate questions. Drawing on Paul Tillich, he identifies three:

  1. How do I cope with the inevitability of death?
  2. Am I an acceptable human being?
  3. Is there any meaning in life, and if there is, what is it?

He believes that the values of the upside down kingdom ought shape our choices of what to teach, and how he recognized these values in Howard Zinn’s work, even though Zinn is not a Christian. He addresses the concern about the distinctiveness of his scholarship as a Christian. He contends that the depth of his commitment to Christ cannot help but shape his scholarship, just as Madeleine L’Engle answered a young writer who wanted to become a “Christian writer.” L’Engle told her that if she was a thorough-going Christian, her writing would be Christian.

He follows with a chapter on the vocation of a Christian college. His argument is that Christian colleges ought be shaped by a shared theological vision, all pragmatic considerations aside. He also proposes a theological vision combining Lutheran and Anabaptist perspectives, one both of radical grace and radical discipleship. This is a vision of both radical Christian engagement in society and radical dependence on God. He then ends the book with a postscript of how tragedy can uniquely shape the Christian mind, including a personal narrative of his own near-death encounter.

While this work is grounded in the Christian college setting, I think it is also useful to Christians called to scholarship in the secular setting. The essence of his argument is the importance of a life deeply grounded in a theological tradition and an embrace of paradox. While this may not enjoy institutional support outside the Christian college setting, one may find community with other Christian scholars. I also appreciate the focus on the calling of the scholar rather than “Christian scholarship.” Rather than forced expressions of faith, these are allowed to develop organically as one both deeply cultivates one’s faith, understanding one’s own niche in the great story, and pursues one’s research and teaching. I loved the focus on wonder and ultimate questions, although I’d be curious how he might work out the latter in STEM fields. This is a worthwhile work for any Christian wanting to integrate their scholarly calling into their faith.

Repentance and the Christian Mind

Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

It is typical to think of “repentance” as a highly emotional experience, often arising from a sense of one’s sinfulness and need for God. Perhaps the comic image of a bearded man carrying a sign saying “Repent or perish” comes to mind. We may think of a revivalist setting with an “earnest bench” or an altar call for the repentant turning to Christ.

I do not want to deny the reality of such experiences. In fact, there is an element within them that I want to focus on. All of these involve a mental understanding of a need to turn from one way of thinking and living to another, combined with actions that reflect this change of mind.

“Change of mind.” That phrase is a good way to translate the Greek word metanoia which is often translated as repent in the Bible. It reflects what happens in genuine Christian conversion, or other forms of conversion. A person who has been thinking, seeing the world, and living one way, begins to think, see the world, and live differently. Christians believe this involves both human agency, believing and following Christ, and divine intervention–forgiveness and the indwelling of God’s Spirit, initiating and empowering this new life.

I’ve written from time to time as one who works among academics of the idea of the Christian mind and how this is formed. The title of a chapter in Who Created Christianity titled “Metanoia: Jesus, Paul, and the Transformation of the Believing Mind” written by Alister McGrath stimulated my thinking about some of the ways metanoia or repentance shapes the Christian mind.

Humility. The awareness that one’s prior way of thinking was subject to error ought lead to humility in our thinking. We may believe that the faith we have embraced is true but we don’t confuse our own grasp of that faith with the one we believe to be true. I think this makes us more willing to be proven wrong in other areas.

Passion for Truth: When we turn from being our own source of truth, we become more passionate for truth in whatever field we pursue it. We discover that truth is bigger than us and that if someone else has an insight or even shows where we have gone wrong, we are glad and open to learn, because we have been freed from a life that sees ourselves as the source of truth.

Dependence: Understanding in any field, whether Christian doctrine or any field of academic study doesn’t come easy. The change of mind that is repentance means turning from autonomy to dependence upon the God we trust. If we believe that God is creator and the source of all knowledge and wisdom, it only makes sense to turn to God for insight in our studies. It’s not that God does this for us, but that God wants to do this with us.

Doxological wonder: I draw this phrase from Jeff Hardin, an embryologist, who hopes to foster that sense of wonder in his students. So many who are drawn to academic work come to this with a profound sense of the wonder of some aspect of the world, whether it is how tone, harmony, meter, and rhythm make music or for how four nucleotides paired together in a double helix can encode all the instructions needed for the “program” that creates all living things. Whereas we’ve wondered what to do with this wonder, with this newfound way of thinking and seeing, we find that worship is the proper outlet of wonder.

Realism: In life among the academics, I’ve observed this interesting fluctuation between ungrounded optimism about the human project and unremitting cynicism (usually directed toward the institutions within which one must work). We are quite skilled in seeing what is wrong with “them” but pretty clueless to what is wrong with us. Repentance recognizes the worst in human beings because we’ve seen it in ourselves and yet believes in a God who does not give up on us. We live with a kind of critical realism that holds together our newly won self-knowledge of our finiteness and fallibility and hope in one who is devoted to the world he has created and is redeeming.

Peacemaking: To repent is to accept God’s peace offer ending our rebellion against God. Of all people, Christians ought be people of peace because of our peacemaking God. We often work in contexts of contended ideas. Often these reflect societal binaries–the either/ors that often polarize and separate us. While contradictory ideas cannot both be true (they both can be false!) it is rare that people are utterly wrong. Might the role of Christians in at least some of these disputes be to listen to both sides and help reconcile the connections to a possible larger underlying truth and place of agreement? Often, instead, we side up and add to the acrimony.

Curiosity: I do not think that curiosity is unique to the believing mind. In fact, curiosity strikes me as one of the things that drives the academic enterprise. Questions drive research as well as the peer-review process that tests and advances that research. I would simply suggest that repentance punctures all our mental pretensions, challenging us to question our questions, to doubt our doubts. Curiosity coupled with a new way of seeing might lead us to ask different questions. One education researcher I know, caught in the tension between social justice and academic performance asked the questions, why aren’t advances in academic performance for ethnic minorities not social justice? and, why shouldn’t social justice be concerned about academic performance? This led to crafting a novel approach attempting to bring these two polarized streams in educational theory together. (This is also an example of peacemaking!)

Excellence: People in the academic world care about excellence. Often career advancement and reputation become obsessions that drive excellence. Repentance de-centers the self. Someone else and what that Person cares about becomes the center of our lives. Excellence is no longer a competition with others over who gets the most citations or the biggest grants. It is a passion for the reputation of God showing through how we teach, the quality of our work, our care for students and collaboration with colleagues. It shapes not only how we work but our ethics. Nor is it one dimensional. It concerns our families, our community life.

You might think of other implications of repentance for the development of the Christian mind. The development of a Christian mind is a lifelong project as we seek to see God’s world God’s way. Likewise, repentance is not a moment but a way of life. We keep turning from a self-centered to God-centered life. I would propose, as I have here, that this means a change from a mind closed in on our selves to a mind set afire by the grandeur of God. To my mind, that is a project worthy of our lives.