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.

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