Outrageous Idea 4: What difference could it possibly make?

In chapter 4 of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden asks, “What difference could ‘Christian scholarship’ possibly make?” He quotes a critical reviewer who wants to know whether Notre Dame teaches “Roman Catholic chemistry” or if Calvin offers “Presbyterian anthropology”. Marsden answers with two suggestions: the analogy of a gestalt image, and the setting of scholarly agendas.

Quick question: Has your scholarly agenda been shaped by your faith in Christ? Have you been drawn to particular areas of research because of your Christian commitment?

Marsden’s concrete example of the difference made by perspective is a good one, I think. He describes the way that scholarly views of the Battle of Little Big Horn have changed over time.

As long as most Americans looked at the relationships of whites to Indians only through the lens of nationalism, scholars seldom saw the Indian wars from Native American perspectives. Once moral sensitivities to the oppression of minorities became widespread, a new generation of scholars saw the same information through a new set of glasses. The evidence had not changed, but now the advance of the white settlements of America was more often understood as an “invasion.” (62-63)

As far as scholarly agendas go, Marsden cites Robert Wuthnow, who writes about “living the question”:

I have borrowed the much-used phrase “living the question” because it seems to me that Christianity does not so much supply the learned person with answers as it does raise questions. It has been said of Marxists that even apostates spend their lives struggling with the questions Marx addressed. The same can probably be said of Christianity. It leaves people with a set of questions they cannot escape, especially when these questions face them from their earliest years. (65)

Marsden spends a bit more time interacting with Wuthnow’s ideas about Christian scholarship, and grants Wuthnow’s point that “good Christian scholarship may be virtually indistinguishable from scholarship done by anyone else.” Marsden corrects an idea that “distinctively” Christian scholarship means scholarship that is “uniquely” Christian, and that there exists the Christian perspective on any academic discipline. Nonetheless, Marsden notes, it’s difficult to review the titles of Wuthnow’s books and avoid the conclusion that his Christian faith has indeed shaped his scholarship in distinctive ways.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to four specific ways in which a Christian foundation can make a clear difference in scholarship.

1. Challenging what is taken for granted: here, he provides the example of Harry Stout’s American Puritan studies, which takes the Great Awakening seriously as a “spiritual phenomenon that could not be wholly reduced to naturalistic categories,” which had become the standard academic perspective on the Puritans.

2. Challenging naturalistic reductionism: Marsden contrasts Carl Sagan’s reductionistic dictum, “The [physical] Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” with John Henry Newman’s “Christian idea of the university,” which sees academic disciplines as parts of the same interconnected truth. J. Joseph Porter has a post today at the fish tank (The Harvard Icthus: A Journal of Christian Thought and Expression) about this very idea of Christians challenging “secular reductionism.”

3. Challenging the transcendent self: Christian scholars, with our foundation in the view that “the heart of human sinfulness is the illusion that we can be our own gods,” are distinctively able to critique academia’s celebration of the human self as an absolute good.

4. Moral judgments: “Moral judgments are not the whole of Christian influence on scholarship,” Marsden writes, but Christians have a foundation on which to base moral judgments, even if that base is often ambiguous, contradicts the judgment of fellow Christians, or seems hypocritical.

Yet all these ambiguities do not add up to an argument that Christian commitments either do not or should not make a difference in the moral agendas that so shape our scholarship. What the ambiguities suggest is that Christian commitments frequently do not make the difference that they can and should. Often part of the problem is the very kind of thing that we have been talking about, that Christians have often been too slow to challenge the conventional wisdom of their age. (81, emphasis added)

My questions for discussion (feel free to ignore them and add your own):

Do you agree with Marsden that Christian scholarship can make a difference in these four areas? Have you seen examples, in addition to Marsden’s, of Christian scholars working in these areas?

What about Robert Wuthnow’s conviction that “good Christian scholarship may be virtually indistinguishable from scholarship done by anyone else”? If this is the case, can Christians make their Christian commitment explicit without corrupting their scholarship? Should they even try?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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