Christian University professors, along with seminary professors alike, and those who aspire to be professors, are often chided by other fellow Christians as “eggheads”, or “ivory-tower folks”, “brains-on-a-stick” and the like – and often for good reason. We ought to be challenged to be relationally winsome, ministerially sensitive, and pastorally keen. Academics, education and schooling are all supposed to produce thinkers who, indeed, do things and contribute to the world around them. Too often theological dissertations are heavily speculative, unnecessarily argumentative, autonomously creative, and thus pastorally empty. Such high-brow intellectualism has no place within the Christian life.
But in this post I’d like to offer a few reasons in defense of Christians who seek to engage in pure academic scholarship.
The Christian worldview offers a significant, and particular, view of what the educational enterprise ought to be about. The Christian worldview takes man to be made in the image of God – this includes man’s capacity to reason, to have an ability to make moral choices, and to have a covenantal relationship with his God. Thus, education is supposed to foster this view of man as a whole creature. Man is not just a pair of hands to be trained for one particular money-making job – man as a whole, thinking, moral, spiritual, covenantal being has to be developed as such. Therefore the Christian worldview ascribes an intrinsic value to the flourishing of the human being as an end in and of itself as this glorifies God – and thus to educate a person to be an automaton who merely does accounting, or engineering, or business, without yet attending to his spiritual, moral, philosophical, creative life would be an inadequate view of what education is. Not only that, we are reminded that man is to lay dominion over the world and to be fruitful within it – that requires exploring data, uncovering further knowledge, and to use all of this as a means to glorify God. I am reminded of that famous C.S. Lewis quote that friendship, in and of itself, has no survival value, much like philosophy and art. But friendship, along with philosophy, are those things that give value to survival. We human beings are so much more than a mere pair of hands and a hungry mouth. To be satisfied with merely being treated as such is simply to be satisfied with being undifferentiated from an animal.
Too often we think that education is a mere training ground for a specific job, or an investment for extra profit later on. This is an inadequate view of education, from a Christian perspective.
There are battlefields to be won in the area of academic scholarship. Simply speaking, if Christians stopped publishing dissertations and academic presentations, the universities will soon be completely at a lack of Christian-theistic voices. In our day and age, the Universities are the center of influence for society. Professors have a weekly podium from which they may evangelize their students to a particular worldview, and dissertations are avenues of serious spiritual warfare. Those students and university graduates then in turn become leaders in society, thus further perpetuating those worldviews. The constant engagement that is needed in Academia by Christians is analogous to the need for Christians to engage in any other sphere of life where people display their gross sins in different ways. If in business the most explicit sin is that of greed, and if the exposure of sin and a repentance from the same is a requisite in the following of Christ, then too, must the sin in the mask of intellectual rigor be uncovered for what it is.
We humans have a knack at self-deception and sinful self-rationalizations. In the academic form these sins occur with a vengeance – often in the form of a charitable essay beautifully written in fine prose. Intellectual acuity is often but a mask of a justification for our sin. It took many revisions, theologians, philosophers and councils for the greatest creeds and confessions that define the Church’s identity to be written – all the while motivated to battle what is now clearly regarded as heresy – without scholars who devote their lives to the study of Scripture, history, theology and philosophy, such definitions would never have been forthcoming, and the history of the church could’ve looked altogether different (Imagine if Augustine never debated Pelagius, or if Luther was unlearned!). These battles still occur – though they are now less political than before, as we live in a pluralistic society. But make no mistake, they occur nonetheless. Academic arguments for radically anti-theistic propositions abound, often masquerading in Christian dress. Defenses of homosexual practice is now taking the form of a defense of the Holy Spirit’s movement outside of the Bible; the Bible is now distinguished from the Word of God, such that the Bible may be criticized by the “Gospel” where the “Gospel” is now no longer being defined by Scripture but by humanistic philosophy; God is further and further being pushed to the status of irrelevance by not just “scientific” reasons but also for philosophical reasons – how might a Christian respond to this, if not to engage them, to be in the seminar rooms with them, to evangelize to them through (hopefully!) equally eloquent prose and to deploy categories drawn from the Scriptures and Christian theology as we interact with them? Christian philosophy must exist, C.S Lewis said again, if for no other reason than that bad philosophy must be countered. Likewise, Christian theology must exist, if for no other reason, than that bad theology must be repudiated. In my paper, for example, on Jonathan Edwards (http://www.covenantalthoughts.com/the-role-of-reason-jonathan-edwards-as-exemplar/), I attempt to argue for a model of how Christians ought to use philosophy and reason merely as a tool. Too often sin can creep into our thinking merely by letting reason become the arbitrator over Scripture. Sin occurs in our thoughts just as much as in our deeds (2 Cor. 10-11)
Indeed, academics, though often rightly accused of being out of touch with practical concerns, has in itself a whole set of skills and “rules” that the scholar must be acquainted with if he is to gain a place in the table – skills that are particular to the practice of academic scholarship. We must think in order to “do” but for academics the “thinking” is the “doing.” There is the skill of researching well, fueled by an inquisitive spirit that gets excited over a footnote which might lead to another yet unstudied source. There is the zeal of wanting to gain cognitive peace for a dissonance caused by an unanswered question. The habit of taking the first initiative in asking the hard questions and seeking the right answers is a non-negotiable pre-requisite for the task. The patience required in undertaking the arduous task of reading and working through the nitty-gritty work of linguistic, philosophical, and exegetical theological problems, and the discipline that all this might require. There is also the craft of writing that one ought to master, which requires clarity of thought and a sound command of a particular language. Not to mention also the need to be open and vulnerable to penetrating critiques to a failed thesis that might crush one’s ego.
But there is more. There is, of course, the networking behind the scenes that makes possible much academic publications and PhD program acceptances – the emailing back and forth that compliments and flatters a potential PhD advisor – the strategic decision to attend conferences with certain people that might get you in touch with others “in the loop” – the ability to “market” your personality well so that publishing houses take notice. All of this requires hard work, nuance, and a plethora of other skills. At the end of the day, of course, one must care primarily about having a place on the Lord’s table over the academic table. It will never be in this life, perhaps, that a revival would occur in the universities through the constant and faithful engagement of Christian scholars. But to engage in the world while not being of the world is the challenge that every Christian must endure with prayer, after all.
The businessman must produce goods and services. The lawyer must enforce justice. The doctor must provide cures. The pastor must minister, and the academic must read and write. Pastors must think well in order to preach and minister (there are battlefields of the mind, intellectual ones, that the pastor must seek to salve too), and thus he needs the academic. The academic must have the church to keep him accountable, to ensure that what he thinks and writes is for the service of God’s kingdom and within the bounds of biblical orthodoxy. We need theological pastors and pastoral theologians. But both require a certain set of skills and talents. All of these vocations are to be reflected by the individuals in the Christian community, and none ought to despise the other for engaging in their respective callings, as all work together organically for the glory of God.