Do you, as a Christian academic, sometimes feel that the material you teach in your field is somehow inconsistent with a Christian view of the world? Do you feel that there ought to be a new paradigm in your field that is more consistent with it, but at the same time also soundly academic? Do you, as a new researcher, wish you could make a difference in your field in the Name of Christ?
Because of what Mark Green calls the Sacred-Secular Divide, Christian academics have not often shaped the content and direction of their disciplines. Where is the Christ-following Jürgen Habermas or Michel Foucault? Where is the Christ-centred Stephen Hawking? Or the Holy-Spirit-filled Peter Singer, Anthony Giddens, John Searle, Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes?
In the main, Christian academics have usually thought it enough to be ‘good’ people and hope to speak to people about Christ and the gospel, and do not see they have the power and responsibility to make significant contributions to their disciplines. Any contributions they make are usually in spite of, rather than because of, their commitment to Christ. No wonder the thought in many disciplines seems often to be inimical to a Christian view, if Christians have abandoned this responsibility.
But, why shouldn’t Christ’s people contribute to the very content, architecture and direction of their disciplines? Notice: “contribute”, not “conquer” nor “conform”. It is time for Christ’s people to begin shaping their disciplines rather than letting their disciplines shape them. It should be done. And it can be done.
This short document is an initial ‘how to’ guide: how to begin shaping our disciplines for Christ. (It does not give theological reasons for doing so; those may be found in Mark Green’s excellent booklet The Great Divide or on the website ‘A New View in Theology and Practice’ “http://www.abxn.org/nv/”.) It comprises six questions that have been used to assist thinking Christians working in a discipline – academic or professional – to reflect on how they might ‘shape’ their disciplines by critically enriching thought in those disciplines from an avowedly Biblical or Christian perspective.
About The Questions
These questions help Christian thinkers find a way to critically affirm and enrich the thinking in their fields, rather than take an antagonistic position. Note ‘critically’ – it is deeply critical but not antagonistic. Why? This approach rests on the following assumptions, which we ask you to accept while reading this, though you should question them later:
- Our disciplines are knowledge and practice in relation to God’s creation, which exhibits a lot of exciting diversity.
- Extant theories and methodologies tend to focus on only certain aspects of this diversity and ignores or suppresses others – often because of distorted presuppositions on one hand or personal pride on the other.
- We are called to a ministry of reconciliation.
- Reconciliation involves ideas and even whole disciplines, not just human souls.
- Reconciliation of disciplines means deeply understanding the aspect of God’s creation on which it centres its interest, and, with Christ’s attitude, critically affirming and enriching current understanding of it.
- Reconciliation is a long, hard process, but very fruitful.
These questions were originally generated for C-A-N-2007 annual conference, being used at the Workshops there, and have since been used at C-A-N-2009 and C-A-N-2010. It was part of the aim of the workshops to give participants pointers to shaping their own disciplines, together with opportunity to practice using these pointers. Participants found them a very useful way to structure their presentations and papers.
- is designed for groups, geographically together such as at a workshop, but can be extended to any group.
- works best when all present share a single discipline.
- is draft and has yet to be tested and refined.
Note: (a) ‘Discipline’ is very loosely defined, and may be thought of as involving scholarly work, including scientific or philosophical theorizing, and practical, normatively directed work. (b) The context in which these questions have emerged is that of a discipline in which there is no overtly Christian input, and so the challenge for Christians is to begin to make a start with engaging and contributing. (c) This set of questions is offered as only one approach; doubtless there are many others; for example in disciplines that bear marks of Christian influence a different approach might be more useful, but even there the following questions might prove of some use. (d) A single session of a particular group might best tackle a subset of questions and/or tackle them in a different order (e.g. start with Q4 or Q5).
Finally, a note about attitude: Shaping our disciplines for Christ should not be seen as a way to dominate the agenda but to serve it for its own benefit by affirming, critiquing and enriching it in ways that are meaningful both to Christ and to the discipline itself.
Six Questions About the/a Discipline I Work In
Q1 Intuitive awareness
Consider the discipline in which you work and reflect upon.
Brainstorm the following questions
- What do you like about your discipline?
- What do you find yourself not happy about?
Answer quickly e.g. begin with two plus and two minus points, then add more. Write the ideas down and then look over them.
Purpose of question:
(a) to unlock intuitive feel about the discipline before engaging a more theoretical attitude
(b) to get participants thinking about a discipline,
(c) to provide reference points for later discussions
What are the main perspectives or paradigms, current or recent, that influence the discipline?
Identify the frameworks – the top-level types of concepts, the values, the unspoken assumptions – by which the discipline is understood.
Purpose of question:
(a) to set out the main self-understanding of the discipline, usually as it has been theorized over the years
(b) to identify some of the deeper presuppositions that steer the discipline towards particular types of research and practice
a. To get you going: List a few of the relevant theories and methodologies that are at least respected by people in your discipline.
b. Begin to see the different perspectives: What battles are going on (or recently went on) in your discipline? Over theories, paradigms, methodologies, etc. Name them. If there seems to be no battles, then try to think about some minority views that are ignored or despised by the majority
c. Describe (summarise) the positions of the main protagonists.
d. Understand differences in perspective: What do these protagonists see as important to battle over? What assumptions does each protagonists make about …
– main types of thing or law?
– what is valued during research methodology?
– what is good and bad (quality criteria)?
– what is important to get across when teaching?
Q3 What is missing?
Is there a major issue that is meaningful in human life that is either ignored or is not given its due? And why is it missing?
Sometimes one of the minority and ‘radical’ perspectives is trying to indicate a missing issue. Note it (don’t judge it). Then ask yourself whether both majority and minority perspectives have together missed yet another issue. ‘Everyday’ issues are very often overlooked.
Purpose of question:
(a) to identify how current frameworks can distort our perception of the field
(b) to reveal possible opportunities where a Christian perspective might make a real and valuable contribution.
a. To get you going: Looking at the list of important issues compiled at end of Q2, ask: Try to think about everyday experience of those who practise within the discipline. Identify some such practitioners, or identify some cases.
b. Finding important issues overlooked by the perspectives. What issues are important in everyday experience in the discipline that were not listed under Q2d? List them. And give a word or two about why they are important.
c. Finding ‘thin’ ideas. Of the issues that are considered important in Q2d, are any of these rather ‘thin’ or impoverished when compared with how they might pertain in everyday experience?
d. Questioning the assumptions of the perspectives. What is it about everyday experience that makes each of the assumptions listed under Q2d questionable? State why, including reference to experience.
e. Review. Ask: which of the things from Q3b – Q3d are most important?
Q4 Possible Contributions
This question is helps us to see if there are ‘friends’ who already place some value on the ‘missing’ things identified in question 3
Take the most important ‘missing’ things from question 3 and then ask the sub questions below
Purpose of question:
(a) to get us thinking positively about how and where to engage
(b) to help us separate out the easier from the more difficult.
a. Why is each thing or question about assumptions important, in God’s economy or plan?
b. How important is each in the discipline?
c. Which ones might be welcomed by at least some in the discipline?
Who are the ‘friends’? Is there any group in the discipline which recognises what is missing and makes it a topic of discourse?
‘Friends’ may often be found within relatively new paradigms and will tend to be a minority voice. In what way are these ‘friends’? And in what ways is the friends’ view problematic (other than in disagreeing with some Christian doctrine)?
Purpose of question:
(a) to expose the fact that (usually) Christians are not the only ones concerned about problems in the discipline (since all work within God’s creation)
(b) to identify which groups have already explored which problems
(c) to identify which groups might be attuned to receive any contribution we might make and in which literature we might engage with.
It is useful for a Christian perspective to recognise who its ‘friends’ are, even though there may be differences. Often practical people are ‘friends’ about enrichment, while those from critical social theory (Marxists, feminists, etc.) are ‘friends’ about presuppositions.
Q6 Planning for Groups
How might you introduce the new ideas into the thought and practice of the discipline in a way that people will listen to and understand?
This is a long-term question, considering strategy and tactics. It might take some time to answer. And even longer to activate. Think about into which parts of the community (especially which friends…..)
Purpose of question:
To move from thinking about the discipline to planning for action (which would usually be a group activity).
a. Which missing important issues might be of interest?
b. Which assumption-questions might be understood by others?
c. Are there any communities of thought in the field in which these might be fruitfully planted? (Think of ‘friends’.)
d. How might these react to explicit mention of Christian thinking?
e. What aspects of Christian thinking might they react to not too negatively?
f. In what journals or conferences etc. might these ideas be disseminated?
Avoid reacting against particular perspectives. (Example: Some Christians are vocal against postmodernism on the grounds that it seems to deny ‘truth’, but it might be that postmodernism is better treated as a ‘friend’ in fighting the worse error of modernism – that though is a different story.)
RathRather, see every perspective as offering a real insight (though limited), with which we might engage and which we might critically enrich. (Example of insights and limits: Objectivism: the insight that there is a world outside us which we can know, but it has a very limited view of what it means to know the world, and some versions deny norms. Subjectivism: the insight that human beings interpret the world freely (not as automata) and with genuine meaning and values, but it has no basis for judging one set of values against any other. Emancipatory approaches: the insight of an overriding norm, but this remains undefined and not open within the framework to being critically probed.)
OcOccasionally we might feel we should ‘defend Christianity’ when engaging with our discipline, but usually it is unhelpful and ultimately counter-productive to do so as a long-term strategy, because it not only leads to continual warfare, but the war tends to be executed at the wrong level. (Example: the creationist reaction to evolution seems to have been counter-productive.) The real problem is deeper, at the level of presuppositions, and it is by exposing these that the most helpful and acceptable critical engagements can be made; the questions above suggest how to proceed.
Where This Approach Has Been Used
A line of reasoning similar to the above has been employed by the author to suggest a new ‘shape’ for five major areas of research and practice in information systems: human use of computers, the nature of computers, information systems development, information technology resources, and information technology as our societal environment. In each case the area has been re-interpreted and extant frameworks have been engaged with and critically enriched. This exercise is described and discussed in the author’s work, e_href=”http://www.dooy.info/bk/” href=”http://www.dooy.info/bk/”> Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems, published December 2007 by IGI Global (Hershey, PA, USA).I