Friday, 18 June 2010

A theology of scholarship

I've started working on a paper titled "Discerning Christ in Contemporary Thought: The Christological Basis of Christian Scholarship", for a conference in Melbourne next month. I'm trying to develop a christological understanding of the nature of Christian scholarship, followed by a brief discussion of contemporary philosophical readings of St Paul as an example of this approach to scholarship. Here's an excerpt from my first draft of the paper:

Contact with contemporary thought has nothing to do with generic sentiments about difference, tolerance and open-mindedness. It is rather – to put it as starkly as possible – a matter of obedience. The risen Christ is not internal to the church’s life; he is not ‘in’ the church, but is always on his way into the world. He judges, addresses and leads the church from without. For this reason, the church cannot rest content with its own traditions and internal resources, as though the church already possessed Christ. Rather the church must remain alert and attentive, looking into the world for traces of Christ’s life and activity.

It is here that scholarship proves indispensable to the church’s mission. The vocation of Christian scholarship is to cultivate a continuing alertness to the voice of Christ, knowing full well that Christ – because he is risen – is ‘not a dead friend but a living stranger’ (Rowan Williams). He speaks to the church in ‘strange ways’ from strange places; scholars have no privileged access to Christ’s voice, but their job is to help the church to discern this voice so that the whole church can respond in obedient faith. The church will at times discover ‘its own nature and mission’ only as it listens carefully to the voice of Christ in contemporary thought or in wider social discourses and practices.

Christian scholars must labour with the complexities of contemporary thought, not in pursuit of mere novelty or a colourless open-mindedness, but out of a disciplined attentiveness to Christ’s own voice. It is the risen Christ who draws the church out of itself and into a history of promise; because Christ is not ‘in’ the church, there is no way of anticipating in advance where he will be found, or the places from which he will speak. As Karl Barth famously remarked: "God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog…. God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the church and the secular world can take at any time a different course from that which we think we discern."

Just as the church’s vocation is to remain poised and attentive to Christ, so the vocation of Christian scholarship is to cultivate the asceticism of discernment, to steel the church for future opportunities – strange and unpredictable – to respond faithfully to the voice of Christ.[...]

This account might go some way towards dissolving the old debate about whether theology is primarily oriented towards the church or the university. Christian scholarship will naturally be practised within these (and other) diverse institutional environments. Fundamentally though, the vocation of Christian scholarship is neither ecclesial nor academic, but christological. Its most basic orientation is neither to the academy nor the church, but to the risen Christ.

20 Comments:

Emerson Fast said...

Ben,

I thought this was a really helpful post. It sanctifies* what is said in Col. 3:17: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

*I'm using the word in the old Puritan sense, not intending that the subject matter isn't already holy!

Baus said...

Some questions.

1) by "church," it seems you mean the institutional church. Is that correct? If so, this church has a mission already, and that mission is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commands. The voice of Christ for the church and her mission is sola scriptura.

2) by "Christian scholarship" do you mean theology, or do you mean non-theological disciplines including so-called natural, social, and cultural sciences and philosophy?

3) how is it that you take Christ to not be in His church by His Spirit?

4) apart from discerning truths of general revelation regarding creation (and not salvation, as in Scripture alone) that might be present-however-distorted in non-Christian non-theological scholarship... How do you think confessing Christians might do non-theological scholarship in a distinctively Christian way?

Terry Wright said...

I think it's time for a moratorium on the word 'christological'.

Ben Myers said...

Terry, wash your mouth out!

Seriously though, I'm sorry if the word sounds like a slogan here. If it's any consolation, I do spend the first half of the paper explaining what I mean by this term. I hope the paper manages to avoid sloganeering!

Chris Tilling said...

When "Paul" and "christology" are used in the same sentence, I get excited. Look forward to reading more about this one. If any proof-reading is required ...!

byron smith said...

For Barth, listening to the risen Christ is always in service of proclamation. And proclamation takes the forms of exposition of Scripture and of sacrament. Ben, do you follow Barth at this point, and if so, what is the relation between scholarship and proclamation?

KB CD, I/1, 55-56: If the question what God can do forces theology to be humble, the question what is commanded of us forces it to concrete obedience. God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation. God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the secular world can still take at any time a different course from that which we think we discern. Yet this does not mean, unless we are prophets, that we ourselves have to proclaim the pagan or atheistic thing which we have heard. Finally, we may truly and rightly think that we have heard the Word of God in the worship and active love and youth education and theology of the Church known to us. This does not mean, however, that we have received a commission to pursue these things as proclamation. However it may stand with the undoubted possibilities of God outside the Church or in a new Church; however it may stand with the greater sphere, perhaps unknown to us, of the visible Church, or even with the real, if involuntary, proclamation by other elements of Church life within the Church perceived by us, there can be no doubt that, together with the commission which it may seek to obey by listening and responding in these other functions, the Church known to us has a special commission of proclamation, and therefore not merely of listening and response but decisively of talk about God both to men and for them, and that it neglects this commission if it seeks to proclaim what it has no commission to do or where it has no commission to do so.

But what is this specially commissioned proclamation of the Church which it must accept as a commission to and for men? Our initial answer is purely descriptive.

1. This proclamation is preaching, i.e., the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of an exposition of some portion of the biblical witness to revelation, to express in his own words and to make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God as they are to be expected here and now. [...]

2. This proclamation is the sacrament, i.e., the symbolical act which is carried through in the Church as directed by the biblical witness of revelation in accompaniment and confirmation of preaching and which is designed as such to attest the event of divine revelation, reconciliation and vocation which does not merely fulfil but underlies the promise.
(emphases added)

Sean Winter said...

Ben - you will need some good malt after all that exertion. Are you staying Sat night? Did you get me email about the Coakley colloquiam?

Steve Wright said...

Ben, are you really saying that Christ is not in the church, or that Christ is not contained by the church? It seems to me that you are wanting to say that he is active outside the church, but in the section you have posted here you seem to have closed off the possibility that he is in the church at all. It is true to say that the church does not possess Christ, but surely this is because it is Christ who possesses the church as his body and his bride.

Anna M Blanch said...

Ben, I'd like to read more about what difference the christological orientation makes to the practice of scholarship - how does it change what and how I do my research and writing?
I would be interested in seeing how you would interact with Maliks "two tasks of a Christian scholar" as a consequence of your argument (i'm not saying you differ or that there's any specific tension, I just think it would be valuable to consider your argument in light of such a significant article considering similar issues).

I think you raise some valuable points and I'd love to read the whole paper when you're done (this is definitely a topic I've been thinking through alot over the last few years).

Anonymous said...

"The church will at times discover ‘its own nature and mission’ only as it listens carefully to the voice of Christ in contemporary thought or in wider social discourses and practices."

I don't think so. There's more Barth to be quoted (thanks Byron) but the church's nature and mission is given to us pretty plainly in Scripture. Can you prove what you're saying here from Scripture?

tim Y said...

Ben I think the word "christological" is very helpful here. It clearly marks out the difference of your approach from those who see their scholarship in service to the academy or to the church. Scholarship is service to Christ who is in both. I think it allows for a more open response to academic investigation then does the ecclesial focus some put forth as the reason for scholarship. And it is better starting point than the academic perspective, which attempts to sever the scholar's Christian discipleship from his/her academic profession in the name of "objectivity."

JKnott said...

I really get the sense that Ben wants to put Christ (at least partly) outside the Church, but to treat scripture as wholly internal to the Church. I agree with the first, but not the second tendency; assuming I'm not misreading it.

Exiled Preacher said...

"The church will at times discover ‘its own nature and mission’ only as it listens carefully to the voice of Christ in contemporary thought or in wider social discourses and practices."

Isn't the Barmen Declaration nearer the mark?

"8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death."

And

"8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions."

Exiled Preacher said...

When it comes to hearing the voice of Christ, isn't the Barmen Declaration nearer the mark?

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these various questions — I'll try to respond to some of these questions as I continue working on the paper. For now though, a few quick responses:

Byron: I don't talk about proclamation in the paper; my focus is on "confession". I'm arguing that hearing the voice of Christ is always at the service of the church's confession. This doesn't mean that scholarship should always have a direct or immediate impact on the church's confession. Rather scholarship is an ongoing exercise that helps keep the church ready for the possibility of a fresh confession. It is the labour of keeping the church's imagination supple, so that the church will be ready and able to confess. As Gerhard Sauter puts it: all theology is a preparation for emergency.

JKnott: I don't think of scripture as "wholly internal to the church" — just the opposite. In the paper's last section (on philosophical readings of Paul) I discuss the way scripture speaks to the church from outside itself. By engaging with contemporary philosophical readings of Paul, the church can receive Paul again (as though for the first time) from such sources; we can discern Christ's voice in this surprising place, and receive our own scriptures (which were never really "our own") in a new way.

Exiled Pr: As I hope my previous point illustrates, I'm not claiming that the church receives new revelations apart from scripture — but sometimes "scripture" speaks much more clearly and eloquently from outside the church. It's the NT witness to Christ's resurrection that compels us to see Christ as a living lord who does not belong to us but is always ahead of us, drawing us into the world.

Highanddry said...

A couple of things.

I wonder if Barth's notion of the church being those to whom, through grace, God is revealed in Christ, is helpful to remember at this point.

It is not our ownership of Christ that makes us Christians, but our confession that Christ is Lord. In this way, we are effectively both the body of the living Word and always seeking to hear and see the living Word as it transcends and subverts all the limitations we place on it.

I have also been thinking about the warning of RO and others against correlationism and I wonder whether this is one way of reading what you are saying. Our task is not to look to the wisdom and scholarship of the world for truth and then use that truth to add credence to the revealed Truth. Our task is to be humble under the Word and as such, to recognise that the Word is always beyond us - strange to us. It is not that the Truth is relative but that it defies the cages we build.

Theology, Biblical or otherwise, is a love song to God and as such holds the truth loosely awaiting further surprises as the depth of God's love continues to unfold for us.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis writing of Aslan, "He is not a tame lion". How easier it would be for us if he was.

JKnott said...

Ben--

I agree with what you seem to be saying here.

Anna M Blanch said...

i think the distinction between proclamation and confession is important in clarify the scope of this paper, especially if this is being delivered to an audience that includes non-theologians...

I look forward to reading more.

David said...

Ben, if so, then how does theology avoid becoming entirely contingent? I think Barth's insight (via Byron) shouldn't be too readily dismissed.
If the compass is simply to follow Christ in the world, then how do we know it is the risen and proclaimed Christ we are following, and not the 'zeitChrist'? Where does coherence come from?
If scholarship ascribes to itself this kind of freedom in questions of authority and source (even in the service of the church), it seems to place scholarship outside even the confessional realm, not just the proclamatory one.

Phillip Gration said...

two questions re St Paul;

1. what does your scheme make of the 'in Christ' language of his epistles

(this consideration makes me think that you are really describing a pneumatological vocation for Christian scholarship)

2. which 'philosophical readings of St Paul' are you referring to - I am unaware of this phenomenon

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