, Research Paper
Scholars do not operate in a vacuum, but within the frameworks of their communities, traditions, commitments, and beliefs. Their scholarship, even when specialized, develops within a larger picture of reality. So we must ask: What is in that larger picture? Is there a place for God? If so, does God’s presence make any difference to the rest of the picture? Does that presence change the relative proportions of the picture as a whole?
A picture of reality in which there is a being great enough to produce and to oversee the universe is, after all, quite different from one in which things operate sheerly through impersonal forces. If we affirm a reality that includes a being of immense intelligence, power, and concern for us, every other fact or belief will have some relationship to that being. At the least, the presence of that being should alter our view of the relative significance of the other aspects of reality that we deal with in our scholarship.
The doctrine of divine creation has the widest implications for scholarship in Christian and other monotheistic traditions, but Christians should ask as well whether more specifically Christian theological beliefs might also have implications for their scholarship. The Christian faith that Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity, who was incarnated as truly human, is central to Christian tradition. If such an astonishing belief is deeply imbedded in the web of beliefs that forms our thoughts, what implications ought it to have for our academic work?
One implication, which is not unique to Christianity but is accentuated by faith in Christ as God incarnate, is that the supernatural and the natural realms are not closed off to each other. Christians who affirm that Jesus was not only human but also fully divine must presuppose that the transcendent God, the wholly Other, the Creator of heaven and earth, can appear and be known in our ordinary history.
Most of modern thought, by contrast, assumes something like “Lessing’s ditch”: that one cannot get from the contingent truths of history to the timeless metaphysical truths of religion. Acceptance of the Incarnation, however, seems to presuppose that we can know about the transcendent through ordinary contingent means, such as the testimony of others and evidences drawn from our own experience.
The Christian experience of faith involves in some way knowing God through an encounter with the historical person Jesus Christ. The starting point for Christian thought, then, entails an implicit rejection of the rule (perhaps derived from more abstract conceptions of the deity in classical Greek thought) that we cannot bridge the gap between empirical truths and wider metaphysical realities. Religious truths are not first of all “necessary truths,” like the truths of mathematics, but rather, according to Christianity, revealed to us in encounters with the divine person within our history.
Christians who believe in the Incarnation are then working within a framework of a universe that is open to spiritual phenomena that go beyond those that people of all faiths or of no formal faith can agree on. While Christians may be as skeptical as anyone about any particular claim of a miracle, a revelation, or spiritual phenomenon, they would not rule it out on the modern premise that such things do not happen. In short, they are working in a spiritually open, rather than closed, universe.
At the same time, in academic and many other settings, Christians may engage in what could be called “methodological secularization.” For a particular task, such as landing an airplane, this is the stance that we hope our fellow citizens will take. No matter how open the pilot may be to spiritual realities, we hope that he will rely on the radar and not just the Holy Spirit when trying to get to O’Hare.
The same applies in many academic activities, especially the more technical ones. Yet the implication of such methodological secularization is different from that of the “methodological atheism” that is more often the academic rule. Methodological secularization means only that for limited ad hoc purposes we will focus on natural phenomena accessible to all, while not denying their spiritual dimensions as created and ordered by God or forgetting that there is much more to the picture. The pilot who follows the radar and the instrument panel may even sense those tasks differently if she believes she is ultimately dependent on God and that she has spiritual responsibility to her passengers. In academic work, such openness may have real impact on our theories, particularly in eliminating those that claim the universally accessible natural phenomena are all there is.
For Christians in the natural sciences, this incarnationally based viewpoint should invite a consciousness of the wider context of the more real and more permanent spiritual dimensions of reality within which empirical inquiry takes place. This awareness might have an impact on how one regards the significance of one’s work, even if, technically considered, that work might look much like the work of a nontheist. When scientists have occasion to articulate their understandings of the wider contexts–philosophical, historical, or practical–this wider consciousness may have explicit implications as well.
Since Christ the Word is co-creator according to Christian doctrine, scientists with a strongly incarnational view of nature may be sensitive to spiritual dimensions in all of reality. Practically speaking, such views might affect how one applies scientific or technological inquiry to issues such as ecology, medicine, or engineering. For some pure researchers, simply the doxological implications of an incarnational world-view may be sufficient. They might resonate with the sensibilities of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed . . .
Such sensibilities might not change one’s research methods or conclusions. Nevertheless, they might have an impact both on the quality of one’s work and on one’s agenda in studying God’s creation in the first place. Surely there would be huge implications when such scientists relate their subjects to the larger issues of life. At the least, it would counter the impression, created by some scientific popularizers, that because natural science is essentially materialistic, materialism therefore provides the best account of reality.
The incarnational motif also has implications for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It suggests, for instance, that we may see God working in the ordinary, if only we have the eyes to see. Poets, artists, and musicians may be most open to giving expression to such dimensions of reality, but they are there for all to see.
For the Christian, the Incarnation is not an abstraction; it is central to the revelation of the character of God. As Jonathan Edwards emphasizes, God is not only a righteous judge, but is also infinitely loving. God is not only revealing the beauty of his love in creation, but he displays the highest love and hence the highest beauty in Christ’s dying for us, the infinitely good God incarnate dying on behalf of those who despise him. Although we are creatures capable of great love, we in fact build our universes around love to our selves. God’s display of his sacrificial love to us in Christ relativizes our self-righteousness. United with Christ, we are to love even those whom we would naturally despise.
This revelation of the character of God in Christ should thus change our sensibilities toward other humans. In the Incarnation, Christ emptied himself and became poor for our sake. He identified with the poor and the ordinary. Christ went so far as to instruct us that when we see the poor and the destitute we see him. How we act toward them is an indicator of how we love him. Christ’s incarnation honors what the world has not usually honored.
We run into a central irony in attempting to isolate the implication of Christian commitments for our scholarship. The sensibilities of Christians toward the poor and the weak have been dulled by the very success of the assimilation of these same sensibilities by the wider Western culture and, lately, world culture.
Sometime in the last four centuries, many Westerners began attacking hierarchies and emphasizing the essential equality of all humans. Often such ideas had direct religious roots, as in early Quakerism or in the pietism and other forms of “religion of the heart” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other instances, the religious roots, although substantial, might be less apparent. Some prevalent modern political sentiments grew out of the convenantal idea that divine law stood above rulers as well as ruled and evolved into talk of “the rights of men” and eventually “the rights of women.”
At least by the time of the French Revolution, the flowerings of such sensibilities were often separated from their Christian roots. In fact, whatever spirit of Christianity they embodied was often being opposed by institutional Christianity. So, while in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many Christian expressions of such sensibilities have persisted, they have been overshadowed by their non-Christian or anti-Christian counterparts. Marxism’s concern for the poor is the most obvious example.
Eventually the rootlessness of such humanitarianism caught up with Marxism. One of the great tasks of Christian scholarship is to recover some dimensions of Christian teaching that have been alienated from their theological roots. This task is particularly urgent in an era when secular morality is adrift and traditional Christianity itself is too often beholden to the politics of self-interest and simplistic solutions.
Academic work is an expression of life commitment to God the Creator, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Science and scholarship cannot have a neutral, uncommitted character but should be pursued from a biblical perspective.
A.The quest for truth in education and scholarship presupposes the meaningful character of the creation which is upheld by the Creator for the sake of his creatures. To his human creatures He has given a variety of cultural tasks which require education and scholarship.
B.The interpretation and understanding of the truth is radically distorted by sin. For that reason, true knowledge is possible only because of God’s grace which has triumphed in Jesus Christ. At the same time it should be recognized that God’s grace is the source of truthful insights that arise outside of Christian scholarly endeavor.
C.By the Holy Spirit, Christ calls and directs his people to the renewal of their educational life so that the contribution they make can strengthen the people of God worldwide and be of service to all humankind.
D.God reveals is Scripture the true meaning of creation, sin, redemption, and service. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are consequently authoritative for education and scholarship.