As mentioned in yesterday’s post, my research undertaken with my graduate students has discovered that Christian graduate education is not very Christian. The marketing, objectives, and curriculum at two-thirds of programs show little sign of Christian influence. Our undergraduate programs may be different, but our graduate programs are really imitations of the secular programs from which most Christian professors received their Ph.D. or master’s degrees.
In my own experience, I have also seen this problem in master’s theses and dissertations. Most theses and dissertations written at Christian institutions show little sign of Christian influence or Christian theorizing. In fact, many simply borrow from currently popular theories today, such as critical theory, in the same manner that numerous 1980s and 90s theses and dissertations tended to rely on Marxist or Feminist analysis to uncover injustice among economics classes or men and women. They follow cultural academic trends.
What could help Christians develop their own positive theory? I contended in yesterday’s post that every graduate program should offer at least one class about the relationship between Christian thinking and the discipline being studied (although I would hope all classes address the topic). For example, our Ph.D. program requires a class on Christianity and Education. In that class, students learn to think theologically about the whole of education and their discipline instead of simply thinking sociologically, psychologically, critically, etc (sidenote: this was also the class I mentioned yesterday that was critiqued by a Baylor university committee as making a new K-12 Ph.D. expansion proposal “too Christian”). Such a class would ideally help prepare students to engage in two types of Christian theorizing in their thesis or dissertation that I discuss today.
First, I propose we need to do a better job of encouraging the development of Christian theory in some of these projects. Now, I want to be clear that I think that certain dissertation projects in STEM fields or certain other fields do not need to be engaged in explicit Christian theorizing, and I’d even suggest some should not be. After all, as George Marsden noted decades ago, technical research in various academic areas often share similarities at secular and Christian institutions.
That being said, I think we can do a better job of encouraging Christian theorizing in the social sciences and humanities. For example, I contend that we should raise questions if a dissertation is merely deconstructing and thus developing the academy’s preoccupation with critical thinking according to certain popular categories (e.g., race, gender, sexual identity).
Now, one of my graduate students reading this post objected that one could use critical theory for Christian ends. They imagined a graduate student arguing, “My Christian faith inspires my desire to employ critical scholarship to emphasize the voices and perspectives of those on the margins and to challenge the prevailing powers as an act of loving my neighbor and seeking justice in accordance with the biblical mandate.”
I agree with this point, but I think we need to ask whether the thesis or dissertation also engages in creative, redemptive, and visionary thinking to help achieve this justice (versus simply critical thinking). Yes, we do need to deconstruct the ways that fallen thinking, affections, or practices have corrupted every square inch of human culture, but our Christian vision of the world should lead us to do more than what is usually undertaken in these projects.
We need creative and redemptive in addition to critical thinking. An understanding of God’s created order helps us understand oppression and distinguish the marginal voices to which we should listen. Furthermore, simply challenging the prevailing powers by uncovering marginalized voices does not necessarily explore and develop the redemptive and hopefully imaginative dimension of Christian thinking that would propose ways to join with Christ in reversing the fall to recover God’s good, created order and achieve justice. Deconstruction should never be the whole task of Christian scholarship, and it should not be the whole task of a thesis or dissertation.
That’s why I propose a second element linked to the suggestion in my title, I think we should request that every master’s and Ph.D. student write a Christian positionality statement for an Appendix in their thesis or dissertation. Now, this positionality statement would be slightly different from a normal positionality statement. As anyone who undertakes qualitative research knows, using qualitative methods in a paper or book requires that one be forthright about how one’s identity or positionality influences one’s research methods and interpretation of the findings. Of course, the point of the exercise is to ask scholars to reflect critically upon how one’s identities and related normative commitments that are relevant to the research topic may influence one’s research perspective and interpretation.
The positionality statement I have in mind is different. The end goal of this positionality statement would be to position one’s research in light of God and God’s story. I would hope that emerging Christian scholars would be able to take even the most obscure or specialized scientific or professional topic and place it within the Christian narrative. That’s simply encouraging basic Christian intellectual discipleship regarding one’s life. Asking for such a statement would encourage students to gain the skill of becoming conscious of and drawing connections between their Christian identity, their academic research, and the whole of the Christian story.
Interestingly, I have noticed that when interviewing job candidates, they often do not have this skill. They usually think it is obvious why the topics they are studying are important and connected to Christianity, yet they are often unable to articulate the theological connection in a way that is clear and persuasive.
This practice could also correct shortcomings I see in many research projects. After hundreds of pages of critical analysis, I find students leave a couple of pages in their conclusion for addressing the problem they uncovered. Yet, much of what serves as “redemption” or reversing the fall in a dissertation is a few slapdash policy proposals that are not given serious interrogation. As someone who worked in public policy for a number of years after my graduate work, that experience revealed to me the limits of sloppy policy work. I found using policy to achieve redemptive ends often backfires unless one gives those proposals serious thought. Solutions are always much harder than exposing the problem. Christian theorists should be some of the best at learning to think creatively, redemptively, and imaginatively about solutions. The redemption we have experienced through Christ and the motivation for redemption that gratitude for it produces should power our imagination.