We continue our guest series from Richard Hughes on the vocation of Christian scholars. Dr. Hughes is the Distinguished Professor of Religion and Director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College, as well as the author of the book, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2005). Previously in this series: Paradox and Calling of the Christian Scholar, Can Christian Faith Sustain the Life of the Mind?
In the second post of this series, I promised to consider some of the great biblical motifs that can both equip and liberate Christian scholars to embrace the life of the mind, to make important connections between their faith and the world in which they live, and to dialogue with those with whom they may disagree.
I want to mention four great biblical themes that can help us achieve those objectives and, significantly, each of those four themes stands at the heart of the Christian gospel.
God is Infinite
The notion of an infinite God is perhaps the most important theme in the biblical text, for every other biblical motif builds on that proposition. But what do we mean when we speak of God as infinite?
First, when we say that God is infinite, we confess that God simply defies my comprehension. This is why every adjective we might use to describe God is at best a poor approximation. If we say, for example, that God is good, we surely don’t mean that God is good in the same way that human beings might be good, for God’s goodness is infinite goodness. But infinite goodness is a quality we simply cannot understand.
We are Finite
Further, if we say that God is infinite, and if we confess that we cannot grasp what infinity might mean, we have thereby confessed the truth of the second great biblical theme—that human beings are finite.
Simply put, my finitude means that I am constrained by extraordinary limitations—limitations that God completely transcends. I am constrained, for example, by the time frame (e.g., 21st century), the geographical boundaries (e.g., the U.S.), and the cultural milieu in which I live.
But finitude means something even more basic than that. Finitude means that I cannot consistently do what is right, in spite of my best intentions. And finitude means that I suffer in body, mind, and spirit, and eventually die. God, on the other hand, is subject to none of those constraints.
So what do these twin propositions—that God is infinite while we are finite—have to do with the life of the mind? Just this—that there is much that I do not know and much I do not comprehend. That, of course, is the message of the book of Job.
These propositions form the foundation for the life of the mind, for my ignorance compels me to search for truth, even though I understand that, as a finite mortal, my understanding will never be complete.
Justified by Grace
But if God is God and I am not, what gives me the license to search for truth? Here I want to invoke the third great biblical truth—justification by grace through faith.
This profoundly biblical doctrine means that I am not justified before God by good works—and by extension, by my knowledge or my comprehension—but by God’s good grace which I receive through faith. And the fact that I am justified by grace through faith frees me to search for truth, so long as I understand that my knowledge will always be partial and my comprehension inevitably incomplete.
The Search for Truth
Finally, if justification by grace through faith frees me to search for truth, there is one more component in the Christian gospel that requires me to search for truth. No passage in the biblical text states that component more clearly or more starkly than I John 3:11—“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
1 John describes our love for others in terms of service—“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”(3:18) But we cannot serve others unless we take them seriously as human beings—people with their own unique stories, their own histories, their own cultures, and their own religious traditions.
How can I serve children, for example, if I isolate myself from their presence? How can I serve the poor if I am ignorant of who they are, where they come from, what they think, how they feel, and why they suffer from poverty’s constraints?
How can I prepare to serve people of other ethnic traditions or people in other parts of the world if I know nothing of their histories, their cultural traditions, and their religious commitments?
The point is simply this: my finitude compels me to search for truth, God’s grace frees me to search for truth, and God’s command that I love others requires me to search for truth.
For all these reasons, any claim that Christians cannot serve as serious scholars is based on misunderstandings of the Christian faith. Indeed, there can be no more compelling reason to take up the life of the mind than those great and powerful truths that stand at the heart of the Christian gospel.
About the author:
Richard T. Hughes has spent over 40 years working at the intersection of religion and culture in the United States. Under that broad panoply of interests, he has taught and published on (1) the biblical vision of peace and justice, (2) Christianity and America’s self-understanding, (3) the relationship between Christianity and higher education/the life of the mind, (4) the history of Christian primitivism in America, and (5) the history of Churches of Christ in America.
With a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity since 1500, Hughes has taught at Pepperdine University, Southwest Missouri State University, and Abilene Christian University. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Religion and Director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
Thank you for this. I read the final bolded section and let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. The difficulty of translating the pedantries of my academic discipline into feeding the hungry or healing the sick has always bothered me. Thank you for the reminder not to put the cart before the horse – that love is the basic characteristic of Christ-like service, and that it’s much harder to love someone well if you don’t know the truths that have shaped them into who they are.