Nicholas Wolterstorff: Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University, has been one of the leading voices in Christian philosophy for decades. In October 2009, he spoke at the Veritas Forum at the University of Tennessee, presenting a talk entitled “The Role of God in Social Justice” and in conversation with David Reidy on the question “Good Without God? The Problem of Justice and Human Rights”. While he was there, Dr. Wolterstorff spoke to Christian graduate students, and he has graciously allowed us to publish his remarks here. Many thanks to InterVarsity’s Julian Reese for obtaining permission for us to publish Dr. Wolterstorff’s remarks and, of course, to Dr. Wolterstorff for sharing them with us. Originally posted by the Emerging Scholars Network on the Graduate & Faculty Ministries website. ~ Mike

What advice can I give to you whose sights are set on becoming Christian scholars?

My first piece of advice is that you get clear on what you understand by the project of being a Christian scholar. When I travel around and talk to Christians in colleges and universities, and when I read what Christians say about the contemporary university, I over and over come up against one or another of the following three attitudes.

Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity. Sometimes this supplementation takes the form of Christian organizations, housed in the region of the university, inviting students to weekly Bible study, to Sunday worship services, to twice-a-year camp-outs, etc. Sometimes it takes the form of Christian scholars adding theology to what goes on in the university, adding biblical scholarship, adding philosophical reflections on the epistemology of religious belief, etc. This additive or supplemental approach was in fact the basic strategy of most Christian colleges in the U.S. until around thirty years ago.

Second, some of those who believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is reject the additive approach because they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “bandwagon approach.” Some development takes place in one or another of the disciplines, and shortly articles appear arguing that one can be a Christian and accept this new development. Post-modernism appeared, and soon a spate of articles turned up arguing in favor of the compatibility of Christianity and post-modernism. In my own field, John Rawls became popular in political philosophy, and shortly a spate of articles appeared arguing in favor of the compatibility of Christianity and Rawlsianism. Evolutionary psychology turns up, and shortly a spate of articles appears arguing for the compatibility of Christianity and evolutionary psychology. Of course, developments come and go in the disciplines; so the person who adopts a bandwagon approach must be ready to leap off his currently favored bandwagon and onto some new one that comes along. You may assume that it is especially liberal Christians who are ever willing to revise their understanding of Christianity in order to make it compatible with the latest fad in academia; but I find evangelicals often doing the same thing. Let me not conceal the fact that I find this approach disgusting and demeaning; I want to say: Think for yourself!

And third, there are those Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university: preachers, free-lance writers, and the like. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.

It’s my view that there is some element of truth in each of these views; the problem is that each view takes that element of truth and runs with it.

The first position is correct in holding that not everything that goes on in the contemporary university is unacceptable to the Christian; it is quite another thing to assume, however, that basically everything that goes on is acceptable. The second position is correct in holding that sometimes one should revise one’s understanding of Christianity in the light of what turns up in some discipline; it is quite another thing to assume, however, that that is always the direction one’s revision should take, that one’s Christian faith should never lead one to critique some development in the discipline. And the third position is correct in holding that there is a lot of reductionism in the contemporary university, a lot of relativism, and the like. But that is by no means the whole of it; and let me assure you that lobbing grenades from the sidelines will have no effect whatsoever.

So how do I think of the overall project of being a Christian scholar?

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.

Let me unpack this a bit. Recently I heard a talk in which the speaker argued that teaching intelligent design is incompatible with the nature of natural science; if intelligent design is to be taught anywhere in the curriculum, it must be taught in philosophy classes. In thus arguing, the speaker was making the common assumption that natural science and philosophy both have an essence, a nature; his claim was that discussion of intelligent design is compatible with the nature of philosophy but incompatible with the nature of natural science.

I think of the various academic disciplines very differently. I think of them as social practices, some, like philosophy, with a long ancestry, some, like molecular biology, of recent origin. And I think of these practices as constantly changing due to all sorts of developments both inside and outside the discipline. I hold, thus, that natural science does not have an essence, nor does philosophy. What they have instead is traditions that are constantly changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly.

The application relevant to our topic is this: the Christian scholar participates as Christian in those social practices that are the disciplines. Those practices are not a project of the Christian community, nor are they the project of some anti-Christian community. They are human; they belong to all of us together – just as the state is not for Christians nor for non-Christians but for all of us together.

And now to make my opening point again: 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, sociology with a Christian mind, one will sometimes find oneself critical of what is going on in some part of sociology: 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 sociology, 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.

I mentioned that many different things contribute to those social practices which are the academic disciplines taking the form they do take – new technological developments, for example. Among the most important things shaping the academic disciplines are worldviews. I think the Christian scholar will be especially attentive to those worldviews, and will be especially alert to those points where the discipline-shaping worldview conflicts with the worldview embedded in Christianity.

Those were some comments about thinking with a Christian mind. What about speaking with a Christian voice?

Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.

So how do you arrive at the point where you can think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice?

Let me throw out some suggestions, and then open it up for questions.

First, be patient. The Christian scholar may feel in his bones that some part of his discipline rubs against the grain of his Christian conviction, but for years, and even decades, he may not be able to identify precisely the point of conflict; or, if he has identified it, he may not know for years or decades how to work out an alternative. Once he does spy the outlines of an alternative, the Christian scholar has to look for the points on which, as it were, he can pry, those points where he can get his partners in the discipline to say, “Hmm, you have a point there; I’m going to have to go home and think about that.” He doesn’t just preach. He engages in a dialogue – or tries to do so. And that presupposes, once again, that he has found a voice.

Second, to arrive at this point, the Christian scholar will have to be immersed in the discipline and be really good at it. Grenades lobbed by those who don’t know what they are talking about will have no effect. Only those who are learned in the discipline can see the fundamental issues.

Third, to be able to think with a Christian mind about the issues in your discipline, you have to have a Christian mind. As I see it, three things are necessary for the acquisition of such a mind.

  1. First, you have to be well acquainted with Scripture – not little tidbits, not golden nuggets, but the pattern of biblical thought. Let me add here: beware of the currently popular fad of reducing acquaintance with scripture to worldview summaries.
  2. Second, you need some knowledge of the Christian theological tradition.
  3. And third, you have to become acquainted with the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition generally, especially those parts of it that pertain to your own field.

Too often American Christians operate on the assumption that we in our day are beginning anew, or on the assumption that nothing important has preceded us. You and I are the inheritors of an enormously rich tradition of Christian reflection on politics, on economics, on psychology, an enormously rich tradition of art, of music, of poetry, of architecture – on and on it goes. We impoverish ourselves if we ignore this. Part of our responsibility as Christian scholars is to keep those traditions alive.

Fourth, Christian learning needs the nourishment of communal worship. Otherwise it becomes dry and brittle, easily susceptible to skepticism.

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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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    Patrick Sawyer commented on August 7, 2012 Reply

    As a Christian in secular academia, I appreciate the post. I would add that the first thing that is necessary for the acquisition of a Christian mind is to in fact BE a Christian, to be born again, to be a partaker of sonship, ergo, to be an authentic follower of Christ.

    Tim Cowley commented on August 8, 2012 Reply

    I like the post and agree with the overall approach. But I have to disagree about his comments regarding “the nature of science.” I’m not sure what is meant by a discipline having a “nature.” Depending on what is meant by this the author could be right that disciplines do not have “natures.” However, there does have to be something about science that makes it what it is. We define science by it’s methodology. A methodology that uses observational and experimental evidence to describe that natural world. Unless Intelligent Design advocates use observation and experiment to describe the natural world, it is not science. Perhaps being antagonistic to the methodology of science is what is meant when people say ID is against the nature of science. The methodology used in Philosophy requires that it be logically consistent within itself and the natural world, but allows for unverifiable speculation. This gives Philosophy greater freedom to address more interesting questions, but makes its application less practical than science to particular challenges such as those that arise in engineering and medicine.

      Patrick Sawyer commented on August 8, 2012 Reply


      I’m curious, all other things being equal, do you think an evolutionary biologist’s approach to science has more scientific integrity (methodologically) than a biologist who advocates for Intelligent Design?

        Tim Cowley commented on August 10, 2012 Reply

        The short answer is yes I think evolutionary biologist approach is more scientific. Intelligent design (ID) is ill-defined, so I’ll stipulate that how far off ID is from being a proper scientific theory depends a lot on what you mean by ID.

        1. What makes evolutionary biology scientific: It relies on observations and experimentation to make predictions and then tests those predictions. Most importantly scientists have observed evolution. I realize ID advocates would argue this is only micro-evolution, but this distinction between micro- and macro-evolution, in my opinion, is mostly arbitrary. However, if one chooses to make this distinction, macro-evolution is still testable. One can make a hypothesis, based on evolutionary theory, on the relationship between two species and one can test that hypothesis by determining if further observation is consistent. One can also compare different lines of data and determine if they come to the same conclusion by evolutionary theory. Such as constructing evolutionary trees from different kinds of DNA evidence and determining if they match. I don’t want to get into technical details here, but feel free to contact me for more specific examples of how evolutionary biology relies on scientific methodology.

        2. Why Intelligent design is not a scientific theory. First it tends to be too vague to be testable. Science is all about determining the validity by testing. Being untestable doesn’t make it untrue, but does put it outside the scope of science. In it’s purist form ID doesn’t say anything about who the designer is or what process the designer used. ID can be boiled down as being the statement that if it looks designed it is designed. This is an unvalidated assumption. That isn’t to say that someone in the future won’t develop a test to determine if something is designed or not, though I doubt that it is even possible.

        3. ID arbitrarily excludes evolution. ID simply says that there is a designer, it doesn’t state the process. The scientific theory of evolution, (and not what has been co-opted by some prominent atheists), says nothing about the existence or lack of existence of a designer. Many Christians believe an Intelligent designer (God) used evolution as His process of design. ID advocates don’t justify the exclusion of this possibility even though their theory is sufficiently vague to include it. To me this seems to point to an unacceptable bias. Even if ID could be developed into a proper scientific theory, it would not directly address the validity of evolution unless its focus was expanded beyond looking for evidence of design and looking at the process itself.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on August 11, 2012 Reply

      I don’t think I disagree with any of your points below about ID vs. evolutionary theory, though I do tend to agree with Wolterstorff regarding the “nature” (or lack thereof) of academic disciplines.

      My larger concern, though, is the frequent bleed-over from a scientific theory of evolution to an unscientific “evolutionism.” A “hard” evolutionism would be found in people like Dawkins or PZ Myers, who argue that evolutionary theory requires scientists to take a certain philosophical/religious position, but I see a lot of “soft” evolutionism as well. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read about a scientist who finds something interesting in the genome or in human psychology, but then goes on to conjecture about what life “must have been like” millions of years ago or what this finding “must mean” about human nature. Sometimes this is just carelessness on the part of the scientist or the science writer, but there are plenty of high-profile scientists who use their legitimate research to promote their pet theories of the meaning of life (yet don’t encounter anywhere near the academic hostility faced by ID proponents). Your 3 points below could just as easily apply to those forms of evolutionism.

        Tim Cowley commented on August 11, 2012 Reply

        I agree with you and I think both groups deserve academic hostility. The solution isn’t to be softer on ID people in the name of fairness, but instead to be harsher on militant atheists who push their own pseudoscience. I’m not going to get into a debate about which side is more victimized. Consider that a great number of scientists are people of faith and they experience their own share of hostility from members of the church.

        Perhaps you could help me understand what Wolterstorff means by disciplines having or not having a nature. I’m not sure what he means, and I’m even less sure he knows what the speaker he was criticizing means. I wouldn’t call it a “nature” but science does have a methodology. Is the methodology what the speaker was referring to when describing the “nature” of natural science? Or does the speaker mean something beyond methodology? Does Wolterstorff disagree that their is a methodology to science or is he assuming the speaker meant more than that? How does Wolterstorff know what the speaker meant? Is their context missing (after all I wasn’t at this lecture, but Wolterstorff was)?

        The main reason I commented in the first place is that I feel people are two quick to assume that ID is being unjustly persecuted. While some people oppose ID because of hostility against the idea of a God, there are valid criticisms of ID and there are thoughtful Christian and non-Christian who oppose it on scientific grounds. We must listen to each other instead of jumping to conclusions. Wolterstorff believes the speakers opposition to ID was due to some philosophical fallacy, but based only on what Wolterstorff tells us about what the speaker said, his opposition to ID could have been a completely valid criticism about the unscientific way ID proponents frame the question of Intelligent Design.

    Tim Cowley commented on August 8, 2012 Reply

    I should clarify in my previous post that when I talk about observational science. It is not sufficient to observe and speculate. Science involves the testing of ideas. Even when an experiment cannot be performed, a scientist can still make a prediction about future observations. An astronomer can observe a phenomena, develop a theory, and can test the theory based on it’s ability to accurately predict what he expects to see before he sees it.

    snowdenn commented on December 19, 2012 Reply

    About the nature of disciplines, I’m not sure that I agree with Wolterstorff’s view, or, for that matter, if I’m correct in my understanding of it. But I will take a stab at why he might think that disciplines don’t have natures.

    With science, while it’s clear that the subject material is constantly changing, the methodology is supposedly constant. If that’s the case, then an essential nature of science would be its methodology.

    But there’s a long-standing issue in the philosophy of science called the demarcation problem. In a nutshell, it’s an issue of defining science vs. pseudo- or non-science. To my knowledge, the question has yet to be uncontroversially settled. One of the primary problems is that any definition given for science suffers from either being too broad or too narrow. For example, defining science by what’s commonly known as the scientific method gives too broad a definition, since there are many fields and pursuits in which one might observe and make predictions and test them, and yet such activities aren’t technically regarded as science. One could apply the scientific method to poetry or dating or a thousand other things that aren’t, strictly speaking, science. On the flip side, the kind of theory building done in some science seems to be done without direct observation, prediction, or testing. Like big bang cosmology, for example.

    As a result, science starts looking like a bunch of sub-disciplines that are a bit arbitrary in their inclusion. This isn’t to say that the work done in these fields isn’t fantastic or reliable. Just that science seems to be more or less what enough people say it is. You can probably see why this would make science susceptible to definition by tradition rather than nature.

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