Being Christian scholars in dangerous times
Serviceable insight was a great way to summarize what loving one’s neighbour meant in scholarship and research when I started at King’s 32 years ago. Christian scholars generate and share serviceable insight with churches, Christian communities, and society in general. Loving our neighbour in scholarship meant, in part, discovering knowledge to enable society, the economy, and nature to flourish.
Professors at King’s do this remarkably well, conducting research in many disciplines and interdisciplinarily to alleviate poverty, understand the chemistry of oilsands tailings ponds, make the economy more sustainable, reclaim deforested foothills, enjoy poetry, music and drama, and theologize in support of peace.
One King’s initiative that beautifully embodies the spirit of serviceable insight is Community Engaged Research. CER sees students and faculty research teams “collaborate with local non-profit organizations to help provide data-driven solutions to pressing problems facing communities.” To date, teams have worked on research for agencies such as Lady Flower Gardens, Edmonton Area Land Trust, Mennonite Church of Canada, Boyle Street Community Services, and many others.
Serviceable insight seemed like a good description of my early research at King’s. However, as I focused on public questions related to justice throughout my career, another characteristic of research reared its head. Some of my more controversial research faced opposition from one segment of society or another and this shifted my understanding of what neighbour love means for scholarship.
Christian scholarship often involves controversy
As you scan the following topics and conclusions (listed in no particular order), try to imagine groups and interests that may have disagreed with, or opposed, my research conclusions.
- Oilsands developments have profoundly destructive and unjust impacts on nearby Indigenous peoples
- Faithful Christian schooling can occur in alternative programs within public school systems (if properly structured)
- Some faith will always play a part in politics and government, and Christian faith should also be allowed to play a properly defined role, yet government must never impose any faith on citizens, not even the Christian faith
- Greenhouse gas emissions generated by Alberta’s petroleum industry are unacceptably high and must be rapidly reduced to avoid catastrophic global warming
- Organizations like businesses or universities ought to structure their decision-making processes to involve employees in codeterminative major decisions
- Government’s public justice role demands equitable funding for all bonafide schools, including those run by Christian, secular, Sikh, Indigenous, Muslim, a philosophy, or other faith groups
- Loving one’s neighbour, I discovered through my research, can be polarizing, and opposed.
- Just to be clear, disagreement within the scientific process is normal and necessary. My research conclusions may be off base at times, and it is the task of science to repeatedly test them. Science is not first and foremost a body of knowledge, but a practice of testing and pursuing knowledge.
But how should this reality of external opposition be incorporated in a Christian view of research
Serviceable insight can become conformity
The weakness of the idea of research as serviceable insight is that it can all too easily mutate into a culture-affirming, cheerleading activity. It can degenerate into the search for neutral rational knowledge to merely tinker with and fine-tune society, economy, and culture. Scholarship as the handmaiden of the status quo, however, only serves to drive society down its predetermined progressive, modernist tracks at a faster pace. It fails to critique its deeper structures and driving faith. In so doing, even Christian scholarship can end up failing to challenge injustice, inequality, and other antinormative facets of society.
Opposition to facets of my research taught me that loving one’s neighbour through scholarship is more than serviceable insight. Bob Goudzwaard once suggested a powerful definition: “Science is given the divine calling to search for truth and truth alone, even if some social groups, governments, or businesspeople don’t like these outcomes.”
I find this definition helpful and liberating. Scholarly neighbour-love in a sinful world must critique society, reveal unpopular positions, expose oppression, lift up those marginalized by society,
propose healing changes, and address topics that are contested and controversial in society, church, and even within King’s. In a word, it must be scholarship for shalom.
The biblical idea of coram deo is helpful here as it declares that all of life is lived in the face of God. A Christian thinker that has influenced King’s, Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920), constructed the principle of sphere sovereignty on this idea. He suggested all spheres of human activity—business, art, government, family, university, and so on—are constantly called to love God and neighbour. In university research, loving one’s neighbour specifically means searching for truthful explanations of all parts of creational reality and sharing these in service of neighbours. While this includes providing serviceable insight, it also means truthful explanations must critique and oppose distorted systems, structures, and ideas. Therefore, Christian scholarship must also, by definition, be free of pressures and opposition from powerful outside interests.
Looking back on my research career, I’m deeply grateful that King’s enabled and defended my scholarship and public advocacy, even when controversial.
But what might this divine vocation of loving neighbours through truthful research mean as we enter increasingly turbulent and uncertain times?
Being Christian scholars in dangerous times
Society is struggling with stress and burnout from pandemic restrictions. We see the rise of disturbing populist movements, social media distortions, claims of fake news, and conspiracy theories. The United States appears on the precipice of becoming a failed democratic state. The climate crisis is coming into clearer focus: more intense and frequent droughts, atmospheric rivers, forest fires, and floods. An ecological crisis is intensifying as global resources decline, populations increase, pollution soars, ecosystems wobble and some collapse, species decline while others go extinct, and the world warms.
We see powerful actors invoke ideological distortions of truth, spinning words to advance their interests. Deceptive social media campaigns confuse swaths of citizens. News reporting by media corporations is distorted by their obsession with maximizing profits, thus transforming reporting into entertainment, spectacle, and distraction. The rise of white Christian nationalism and militant masculinity weaken the church’s witness. Mega-billionaires impose agendas on society. Corporations engage in unbridled profit-seeking. Truthful accounts are labelled as fake news. Public dialogue is choked, entangled in relativism, and declining.
Much of society refuses to see the true character of our problems, they dismiss looming decline and refuse to make the painful and necessary decisions on appropriate solutions.
If scholarship is understood as pursuing truthful understandings of reality in the face of potentially powerful opposition, then Christian scholarship is well positioned to help meet these challenges
As we move into dangerous times, by God’s grace, Christian universities need to shape themselves so they can help society discern wise ways forward. This involves coming to grips with seven questions:
First, can Christian universities resist outside pressures from powerful interests that want to make research about the narrow pursuit of technical knowledge, for neutral professionals, to adjust the established order, so it runs more smoothly?
Second, will Christian scholars dare to conduct larger structural analyses of, and speak the truth about, the vast deformities in our socioeconomic order?
Third, will Christian universities support research that emphasizes listening to the marginalized, lifting up and centring their voices as they speak truth to power?
Fourth, will Christian scholarship courageously promote and guard the norms the Creator gives for the good of humankind, as signposts on the path of flourishing and well-being, even if powerful forces in a survival of the fittest society deny they exist?
Fifth, will Christian universities continue teaching and nurturing new generations of ‘critical change agents’ equipping them for prophetic critique and healing service?
Sixth, will Christian scholars and their communities and churches continue to partner in the common cause of truthfully understanding our civilization?
Seventh, will Christian universities continue to protect faculty who faithfully carry out neighbour-love in research, by shielding them from outside interference?
King’s has a rich tradition in these areas. When Christ returns one day in glory, may Christian scholars be found still faithful. What could express hope and faithful loving of neighbour in a university better than scholarship that strives to understand the truth of our lives, inspires ongoing repentance, and designs healing, reorienting steps for our troubled society?