On Being a Christian Scholar

With the start of a new academic year, it seems fitting to reflect a little more on integration. The Emerging Scholar’s Blog recently posted a talk Nicholas Wolterstorff gave titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars.” He gave the original address at the Veritas Forum in 2009. It is worth reading in its entirety, so check it out here.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to take the last  class Wolterstorff taught at Calvin College before he accepted the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Chair at Yale. A funny memory: he described our class as “pesky.” Until that moment, I had not considered “pesky” a compliment; now I do. (Actually, I tried to describe a cohort in our program this way a few years ago, and they did not take it as a compliment – must be the difference between philosophy and psychology students!)

Wolterstorff has good words that can be applied to Christian scholars in the field of psychology. We certainly see many fads come and go, and we do well to avoid a bandwagon approach, as well as the additive approach (to the exclusion of other considerations). Navigating the various pulls toward these approaches is a challenge in and of itself and worthy of an extended discussion, but let’s press on.

This is what it means to be a Christian scholar, according to Wolterstorff:

To put it in a nutshell, I think the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.

I want to come back to the issue of “voice” in one’s discipline, but first let me note that Wolterstorff briefly reflects on the nature of the disciplines. It is interesting to think of a discipline as not having an essence but rather being a social practice that has traditions. I think this is more readily apparent in some fields, and I suspect most folks in psychology (at least applied psychology) can see it right away.

Ok, back to voice. Let me swap out “sociology” for “psychology” in his explanation:

the mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice. When engaging in, say, [psychology] with a Christian mind, one will sometimes find oneself critical of what is going on in some part of [psychology]: one will find the assumptions being made about human nature mistaken, one will find the emphasis skewed, one will find the issues discussed unimportant, and so forth. One will then find oneself launching a critique of this part of [psychology], and beyond that, trying to do it differently and better. At other times, when thinking with a Christian mind one will find what is going on in some part of one’s discipline quite OK. Being a Christian scholar requires this sort of discernment.

Wolterstorff identifies a Christian voice as a voice of charity. I agree with this and wish more Christian scholars were able and willing to demonstrate charity in how they engage with others around controversial topics.

Also, he suggests we demonstrate patience, know our discipline, cultivate a Christian mind (through an understanding of Scripture, Christian tradition, and Christian thought reflected in your field), and “nourish” our learning through corporate worship. I love that Wolterstorff would add this last consideration. So often scholarship is thought of as removed from the experience of worship, let alone corporate worship. We do well to heed his advice lest our learning “becomes dry and brittle, easily susceptible to skepticism.”

These are good words for Christian scholars heading into the start of another academic year. Let’s think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s