Discussions of faith integration often lament the fragmentation of academic disciplines and express the desire for a theologically centered, unified synthesis of academic knowledge. Steven Jensen argues that every academic discourse is defined not only by a complex formative history and set of rules and practices, but also by a root metaphor that serves as a productive simplification, both facilitating and limiting its perspective on any subject. These properties work against a fully rationalized synthesis of academic knowledge drawn from the disciplines, and point instead to a model of integration grounded in the wisdom required to weigh the strengths, limits, and competing claims of our many irreducible discourses of knowledge. Examples are drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines and practices. Mr. Jensen is Professor of English at Malone University.
I once heard a theologian recall watching his daughter, a college student, return home with a load of groceries and pull a can of deodorant out of the bag. She turned the can around and read through the active ingredients: “Yep, that would work” she declared, noting the active ingredient and spelling out the chemical reaction that would bring about the desired effect. His daughter, he noted, had not just learned some facts about chemistry in her college course; she had learned to see the world through the eyes of chemistry. The world around her had become populated suddenly by chemicals, chemical bonds, and chemical reactions. She had not just acquired information; more impressively, chemistry had shown her a new way of seeing the world.
“Chemistry,” in the context of academia, can have several interrelated but distinct meanings. It can mean an academic discipline—an institutional structure that establishes and enforces the techniques and standards of its particular approach to the production of knowledge. It can refer to a profession as well—to the credentialing mechanisms that qualify one to be called a professional chemist in the workplace. It can refer to an academic subject—to the skills and content of what a student will learn in a chemistry class or course of study. None of those definitions quite fit this example. Here, “chemistry” means something more like a world picture or a conceptual metaphor associated with the discipline, proceeding from it and informing its focus.
It is fair to ask, of course, whether it is good to view the world chemically. The deodorant example suggests that what I would call the chemistry metaphor can function as a source of insight and empowerment. The work of chemists over the history of the discipline provides abundant evidence of both theoretical and technological power, facilitated by this way of viewing the world. On the other hand, certain literary artists a century ago claimed sometimes that human motivations could be understood and represented as a matter of mere chemistry, and looking back, few think now that it was a helpful idea. A physicist who did his work in particle physics, the subspecialty dealing with the smallest and most fundamental units of matter, was fond of dismissing the subspecialty of solid-state physics as “mere chemistry.” Clearly not everyone believes that chemistry provides the very best conceptual window on reality, at least not in all circumstances.
Obviously chemistry provides just one of the many different conceptual metaphors offered by the discourse of academic disciplines, one of many conceptual windows, or provisional world views. Much—probably most—Christian scholarship that discusses academic discourse as such has focused on its fragmentation, and on the modern university as a place that has encouraged the fragmentation of knowledge, its “Balkanization,” as it is called sometimes. Often faith integration is proposed not just as a way of relating the knowledge of a particular discipline to one’s faith, but also as a unifying approach to academic knowledge in general, one potentially capable of restoring the unity of knowledge that has been lost by the forces of academic modernism.
To a limited extent I share this hope. Unlike most of these discussions, however, I want to emphasize not only differences but also some fundamental continuities between academic knowledge and other kinds of everyday discourse. I believe that in some ways the fragmentation of human knowledge is irreducible, and that this fragmentation is native to human discourse, not just to academic discourse. Something like a unified approach to knowledge is, I believe, possible, but not necessarily of the kind that has been pursued frequently in academia. At the same time, understanding the role that these conceptual metaphors play in the production of knowledge has a number of other important implications for thinking about the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the appropriate goals of education.
The approach I take here will obviously be subject to the reductive limitations intrinsic to my own disciplinary identity as an English professor, yet part of my argument is that no one academic discipline possesses the conceptual machinery to provide a comprehensive and definitive account of such a subject. I began graduate school in the sciences and have been an informal student of disciplinary dynamics and attitudes ever since “crossing over” into the humanities some two decades ago. I draw here not only from my own professional experiences, but also from scholars in the history and sociology of knowledge; still, I can only offer a limited perspective on the complex issues of discourse and disciplinarity, a sketchy paradigm that readers who know the workings of their own disciplines far better than I do might find useful to bring to bear on their own experience.
George Marsden, in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, acknowledges that “in academic and other settings, Christians may engage in what could be called ‘methodological secularism.’ For a particular task, such as landing an airplane, this is the stance we hope our fellow citizens will take.”1 However much we may dream of unifying our discourses under a broad theological umbrella, we really don ot want to land airplanes or treat heart disease or design computer chips by primary reference to theological discourse, however much we might use theological discourse to find ultimate meaning in such activities. Recently I spoke with a woman in an airport who did not evacuate during hurricane Katrina because “you can’t run from God. When your time comes, it comes.” After the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell attributed them somewhat infamously to America’s moral offences against God. To most of us, such reasoning represents an unfortunate overextension of theological discourse into a situation addressed more appropriately and helpfully by other discourses.
Fragmentation of this sort is not a product of the modern university. It is hard to imagine a society, whether primitive or modern, that does not make use of multiple discourses, each developing out of a particular practice or realm of significance. And it is just as hard to imagine a society in which these various discourses do not fall into areas of overlap, ambiguity, and conflict. Just as contemporary academics argue over the relative truth value of biological, psychological, or theological discourses about the human mind, one can imagine conflicts in more “primitive” societies over the relative efficacy of, for instance, discourses of agricultural technique and of theology—or perhaps of rival theological discourses spelling out the proper sacrifice for bringing about a successful harvest. As Russian linguist M.M. Bakhtin puts it, “no living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme.”2 The coexistence of fragmentary “alien words” addressing the same object is clearly a problem that modern academic discourse has failed to overcome, but it is not a problem that academic discourse created in the first place.
So what exactly is a “discourse?” As it is usually defined by linguists today, a discourse is not a particular utterance or text or other use of language; a discourse is rather a set of rules governing the production of any particular use of language. A single language encompasses numerous discourses, and a single utterance can draw from multiple discourses. Any use of language from a philosophical treatise to a conversational “what’s up?” draws from one or more discourses, and both academic disciplines (chemistry, psychology, linguistics) and academic theories (behaviorism, evolution, discourse theory) are inclined to generate their own discourse, their own particular language-within-a-language, for talking about the world.
A discourse has not only an internal logic and structure, but also a formative history. A discourse emerges at a particular time and under a particular set of circumstances, and it always emerges in dialog and competition with other discourses. The discourse of every discipline has a history rooted in particular social and ideological contexts, both at its point of formation and in its adaptations over time. The academic disciplines of classical Greece and Rome, for instance, were significantly different from our own, and the differences were rooted deeply in particular practices (for instance, political oratory) and particular ideological conflicts (such as those addressed by Socrates) that differentiate their worlds from our own. The cluster of disciplines represented in a university catalog or the periodicals shelves of a library does not represent a comprehensive matrix of interlocking approaches to knowledge rationally designed to complement each other and lock down all facets of human understanding. These disciplines are understood better as an unruly cluster of intellectual practices, each embroiled in its quest for authority and legitimacy. In part, then, understanding academic disciplines means understanding them historically.
Some academic disciplines have an enormously long and complex history (philosophy, the rise of the physical sciences), while others, including many that took their modern form during the 19th century, have a history that is at least a little more contained. The study of English, for instance, dates clearly to the 19th century, with important roots in the literary Romanticism that emerged early in the century.3 The establishment of English as a classroom discipline is bound up in a variety of formative contexts, from the work of Matthew Arnold and other cultural elites of the late 19th century to the industrial revolution, the intellectual crises faced by the Christian (or at least Anglican) church, and a cluster of additional concrete social, educational and ideological realities. Only after its establishment as a classroom discipline did literary studies establish itself eventually as a discipline of intellectual inquiry. Among the more applied disciplines, the formative context forthe origin of social work as an academic discipline includes not only the social developments of urbanization and industrialization, but also the perplexities and perceived shortcomings of those who were trying to help the poor during those times without the benefit of the kind of systematic thought promised by an academic discipline.
When a discipline makes knowledge claims relative to a particular practice or subject matter, it is unlikely to find the field deserted and ready for occupation. Tow in a voice and establish authority for itself, it needs to establish its unique value as an alternative discourse. Because of this necessity, every academic discipline is shaped by struggles with the rival discourses with which it has contended for authority. Some elements of modern political science, for instance, trace their conceptual origins to Machiavelli’s efforts to forge a more pragmatic and realistic approach to political life in opposition to more idealistic discourses about the same subject. Science has spent its entire life skirmishing aggressively with philosophy, religion, and a host of other discourses for supremacy of its knowledge and methodologies. The study of English literature has, since Arnold’s day, had to negotiate its turf of “spiritual formation” with various alternative discourses, including religious ones. Bible scholars have had to assert the authority of their discourse continually against the biblical ideas of untutored preachers, pre-critical tradition, and church authority. Social work has had to assert the superiority of its ideas to those of zealous “church ladies” and other pre-disciplinary poverty workers. Even a sub-field that understands itself self-consciously as complementary to other disciplines must still demonstrate its superiority to adjacent methodologies to win its way to disciplinary status, as with the forging of a field like cognitive psychology wedged between the related discourses of psychology and biology.
Typically, those trained in such disciplines will find themselves socialized, among other things, into a degree of exaggerated contempt for those rival discourses with which the discourses of their discipline compete. Thus one finds so often in academically-trained classical musicians an exaggerated contempt for popular music, in visual artists a contempt for mere “craftsmanship,” in biblical scholars a contempt for populist preachers, in particle physicists a contempt for “mere chemistry,” and so forth. In fact, the often-remarked hostility of many academic disciplines to religion in general or Christianity in particular may often stem not so much from the individual beliefs of their practitioners or to their content of their ideas, as to their past and present need to wrest discursive authority away from rival authorities of religious discourse.
In these ways, an academic discipline has not only a defining methodology, but also a defining history and sociology. Timothy Lenoir, for instance, downplays the conceptual, discursive identities of academic disciplines and emphasizes instead the role academic disciplines play as “political institutions that demarcate areas of academic territory . . . embedded in market relationships regulating the production and consumption of knowledge.”4 One example he cites is that of Carl Ludwig, who in the 1860s “began to appreciate the importance of placing his physiology in the service of medicine rather than defending its relevance as a philosophical discipline.”5 In this case an emerging discipline was shaped in decisive ways by its need to attract resources in the knowledge “economy.” In another example, he analyzes the history of mathematics in nineteenth-century England and its connection to the organization of the “Mathematics Tripos” exam around geometry and mathematics in order
to combat tendencies to politically and morally dangerous, wrong-headed, empty speculation through the encouragement of a concentration of thought upon the clear and definite, which only stern mathematical discipline could impart.6
In this case, a discipline shapes itself in part around broader social and ideological concerns.
All academic disciplines and their discourses are bound to be grounded, at some level, in concrete human practices; otherwise they will find no meaningful space to occupy in the spectrum of human discourse. Even cultures and civilizations that we might regard as “pre-academic” presumably will employ a variety of discourses relative to such concrete practices as farming, politics, and worship, and while the spectrum of our own academic disciplines may be far more diverse and complex, our disciplines are not really different in kind, in that they must stake out a range of discursive authority related to one or another meaningful human practice if they are to establish and maintain a place at the disciplinary table. Such connections may be direct and obvious (economics, medicine, chemistry) or subtle and diffuse (metaphysics, sociology, history), but if the connections can be found or defended no longer, a discipline and its discourse will fade into obscurity. It is helpful, then, to understand academic disciplines as political institutions as well as conceptual tools, and the knowledge they produce will necessarily have political dimensions and motivations, whether understood internally, in their competition for resources and prestige, or externally, in their relationship to social dynamics beyond academia. As sociologist Barry Barnes puts it,
the growth of knowledge should not be thought of as the result of random learning about reality, but as the correlate of the historical development of procedures, competences and techniques relevant in various degrees to the ends or objectives of cultures or sub-cultures.7
Of course the discourses these disciplines produce are also conceptual tools for the production of knowledge. Indeed, it is really not possible to conceive of any form of knowledge without any connection to particular discourses, either inside or outside of academia. And while it is important that we not try to understand academic knowledge in isolation from what Foucault would call the “power relations” of discourse, it is also important to consider the way academic discourses equip themselves for the pursuit of truth and understanding. As Norman Fairclough puts it:
When different discourses come into conflict and particular discourses are contested, what is centrally contested is the power of those preconstructed semantic systems to generate particular visions of the world which may have the performative power to sustain or remake the world in their image, so to speak.
The primary way that the discourses are differentiated from each other in the “visions of the world” that they generate is through their root metaphors.8
It would be wrong to conflate the idea of disciplines entirely with the idea of discourses; a single discipline may harbor significantly different, even competing discourses (as evidenced by, for instance, liberal and communitarian conceptions of political science), and scholars within a discipline borrow routinely from the discourses and root metaphors of other disciplines. And as sociologists of knowledge and postmodern critics of academic knowledge point out, academic disciplines are about much more than generating conceptual approaches to knowledge. Still, by and large, disciplines do define themselves by broad conceptual metaphors in discernable and even obvious ways. Liberal and communitarian political scientists, for instance, may differ in their fundamental conception of the human person, but they have in common a disciplinary methodology that defines humans as political beings, by what could be called the metaphor of “homo politicus.” To operate within the bounds of this metaphor is fundamental to what it means to do political science, just as other conceptual metaphors are central to defining what it means to think as a chemist, or an anthropologist, or an economist, or a theologian, or a sociologist.
What is important to note at this point is that these foundational metaphors are also foundational simplifications. They are controlling concepts that both establish a focus and limit its scope in a way that facilitates systematic inquiry. I believe that all academic discourses work this way. They are each grounded in a productive simplification that provides new possibilities for concentrated inquiry and productive mastery, yet these same simplifications limit their appropriate range and authority. And knowledge generated in relation to one foundational metaphor cannot be simply combined or conflated with knowledge generated in relation to a different metaphor. Students of the disciplines can learn to see humans psychologically or sociologically, individually or relationally, but it is difficult or impossible to keep both disciplines in focus at the same time, even though they share a great deal methodologically. One can study social psychology—the influence of social realities on the human mind—but to do so is really just to subordinate the insights of psychology to the methodologies and root metaphor of sociology. One can also study the world literarily, by conceiving of human beings as “homo linguisticus,” as beings shaped decisively by the language they use—or in some versions, the language that uses them. One can learn to see the world economically, or biologically, or theologically, or according to just about any of the disciplines, and in each case, the very figure that facilitates inquiry and mastery also serves as a simplification that ultimately limits its valid scope. Even theology, which John Henry Newman posited as a central unifying discipline, has a spotty record in the realm of meteorology, for instance.
One of the biggest problems in the discourse of academic disciplines is the tendency of disciplines to overextend their valid scope and lose sight of the conceptual limitations built into their formative metaphors. In some ways this is not too surprising, given that disciplines are engaged in a perpetual battle for discursive authority in which they have every motivation to enlarge their cultural influence and claim more turf for themselves. In the more conceptual disciplines—those rooted less firmly to a particular practice—this tendency shows up in reductive “totalizing” tendencies, in tendencies to extend their dominant metaphor beyond its valid scope.
The study of language and literature serves as an instructive example. Literary studies carved out a disciplinary niche during a time of expansion in literacy and higher education, partly at the expense of the classical studies that had dominated school curricula for so long. A lot of the motivation for this establishment had to do with spiritual uplift of the sort that artists and critics had been claiming for literature since the Romantic movement, or at least claiming with greater insistence and renewed urgency. In Matthew Arnold’s influential view, literary study could help address a cultural/spiritual crisis in a society that had been re-shaped around the industrial revolution, encouraging the “philistines” of the emergent industrialist class to find their way to a more public-spirited orientation, and helping those to whom higher literacy was being newly extended to a richer and broader spiritual heritage. Ideally, Arnold seems to have seen literary study as a crucial complement to religious belief, one that had the power to rescue religious experience both from the rational reductions of the educated elite and from the narrow sectarianism of the lower classes.9 C. S. Lewis makes a similar point many years later when he claims that non-literary people inhabit a smaller world than literary people of the right sort, regardless of their moral goodness and personal piety.10
Literature as a scholarly discipline emerged somewhat later than it did as a classroom discipline, and while the field passed through several paradigm shifts in its formative decades, these paradigms were largely compatible with its founding vision of spiritual uplift. Through the middle part of the 20th century, the New Criticism was the dominant paradigm in literary studies. The New Criticism studied literature by focusing attention on literary texts themselves rather than on their various contexts, and treated literature as a unique and valuable form of discourse that needed to be distinguished from other (potentially reductive) forms of rational and scientific discourse. When this new critical consensus broke down in the 1960s and 70s, the scholarly discipline (though not necessarily the teaching discipline) of English lost touch not only with a particular scholarly paradigm, but with the entire project of spiritual uplift upon which the discipline had been founded. Which came first—the breakdown of the scholarly paradigm or a loss of confidence in the founding rationale of the discipline—is an interesting and difficult question. As the discipline often tells its own story, what happened next is that the discipline entered in time of “theory,” a period when the discipline’s consensus broke down, and during which many of its foremost practitioners were engaged in vigorous debate about what consensus should emerge in its place.
I am no longer convinced that is a complete account of what has happened during the discipline’s “age of theory.” In truth, I think several things were happening at once. First, it is significant that the classroom discipline of English, at the very least in the form of composition requirements, has sustained the discipline institutionally through its crisis, guaranteeing that even if the scholarly discipline of English were to break down, there would still be plenty of academic English scholars left at the table to argue about it. Second, I think that what theorists have largely done is two things. On the one hand, they have taken the foundational figure of the discipline, “homo linguisticus,” and extended it systematically to the breaking point. English study has always been founded on the idea that higher literacy facilitates human flourishing, and that the lack of such linguistic resources leads to narrow vision and what might be called “conceptual entrapment,” an inability to see and negotiate successfully what one cannot name properly, or whose story one has not yet learned to tell. What the discipline did during its age of theory was to extend this concept of conceptual entrapment into a systematic “prison house of language,” and higher literacy into a resource for radical self-creation, since language is to be understood as the central determining force of human life. At times, these explorations of the power of language have spawned interesting and productive dialog with such other fields as philosophy, psychology, and even the sciences. But seen from another angle such claims of linguistic determinism are really just re-assertions of the foundational simplification of the discipline. The discipline begins by exploring what we can learn about human life by narrowing its focus to the formative role of language. It ends with the breathless discovery that essentially, human beings are determined by their encounters with language. The discipline’s founding metaphor is unveiled as its finest discovery, a process that virtually every discipline is tempted to repeat. To a large degree, the age of theory in English studies has really been a time of retrenchment, more a matter of burrowing more deeply into the founding metaphor of the discipline than of holding it up for interdisciplinary questioning.
This is not to deny that the age of theory has been a time of intensive interdisciplinary dialog. It is just that generally the purpose of such dialog has been to extend, rather than explore the limits of, the discipline’s founding metaphor. Scholars from the fringes of other disciplines have been adopted systematically by the discipline of English if they promise new and radical ways of extending the metaphor, while scholars from other disciplines whose work might promote rival metaphors and suggest limitations to this founding metaphor have been largely ignored.
The most significant interdisciplinary work of the age of theory, however, has served the need to re-imagine the significance of literary scholarship in the face of the collapse of its foundational purposes. If English studies had lost confidence in its foundational purposes, that does not mean necessarily that its teaching and scholarship needed to collapse in an admission of purposelessness and defeat. But it might mean that it was time to “sell the firm” to another discipline that could promise new ways of making the discipline profitable. Much of the theory revolution in English has involved the exploration of other disciplines as renewed path-ways to significance in English studies, and many of the emergent schools of literary criticism simply cluster around these new disciplinary pathways. Many (but not all) of these disciplines draw from the sub-discipline of sociolinguistics, studying the interrelationships between language and social structures, with especially productive links to feminist and Marxist categories of contemporary significance. Such new pathways have, of course, been resisted by many in the profession, who often complain that literature is being reduced by the methodologies of such outside disciplines as psychology and sociology. This claim is, I think, a bit of a half-truth. It is true that some of the leading figures of the theory revolution have made a name for themselves by developing complex and esoteric methodologies for understanding literature, the chief value of which has been their ability to connect literary study with assorted projects, theories, or metanarratives drawn from the social sciences. In truth, however, even critics who employ more traditional and more author-centered or text-centered interpretive strategies still have grown to rely more and more on categories of significance drawn from these other disciplines. Moreover, at a deep level it simply is not true that new interdisciplinary coalitions have sacrificed anything of the formative metaphor of English studies to these other disciplines. Rather, they have insisted consistently on the radical formative power of language, even while exploring ways that language is itself the product of other forces. They have not compromised this radical insistence on the formative metaphor of the discipline; they have only searched for ways to make the discipline matter by making it serve other disciplinary discourses whose significance in the world is better appreciated.
Other disciplines manifest this same combination of foundational simplification and the need to compete for discursive authority. Outside of such “school-room” disciplines as language and literature, in disciplines aligned more closely to concrete practices outside of education, disciplinary dynamics are played out in the competitive arena of professional expertise. One such discipline is economics. Recently our college invited an economist to campus to give a talk supporting the industrialized approaches to agriculture that have driven what he called the “gree nrevolution” and its role in alleviating prospects of catastrophic world hunger. His thesis was controversial, and after the talk he responded to a few challenging questions. At one point, as he discussed more primitive or traditional methods of farming, he made the common sense claim that hours spent doing the difficult work of weeding in small traditional fields are simply bad for people, and that technological innovations that liberate people from such tasks are unambiguously desirable.
What is interesting to me about this episode is not the particular claim about weeding, but the way such issues crop up inevitably in discussions of economics, and the way an economist has to step outside his or her discipline to address them. Is weeding or other manual labor good or bad for people? What kind of work is good for people? What (as Wendell Berry has put it) are people for? Are traditional villages good or bad places to live? Should we preserve them or help liberate people from them? If the discourse of economics provisionally defines people according to the simplifying metaphor of “homo economicus,” how could the methodologies of the discipline possibly presume to investigate such questions?
Addressing such questions in “purely economic” terms has, as this economist’s talk demonstrated, the power to cut through the complexities of his topic and bring a clear, bracing, and challenging perspective to bear upon it. He was able to illuminate important, relevant dynamics of the situation he addressed that would have remained inaccessible or opaque without the disciplinary simplifications he employed. On the other hand, one does not have to be a Marxist to know that the way economic life is organized is related to a great deal about human life that escapes economic categories, such as the life of communities, the flourishing of working humans, political freedom and justice, care of creation, and so forth. Economics as a discipline, rooted in its own foundational simplification, has no language of its own to bring to bear on such questions. Both businesses and political entities might ignore the genuine disciplinary insights of economics at their peril, but the foundational metaphor of the discipline is potentially so reductive that it is difficult for an economist, speaking strictly from within his or her discipline, to address any broad social issue without being similarly reductive. Scholars in other disciplines with a strong connection to concrete practice face similar dynamics, in such fields as psychology, education, or the sciences. When a journalist, in the wake of some broad-in-scope newsworthy event, flips through the Rolodex to decide which kind of expertise to call upon, he or she is often choosing which forms of disciplinary reductiveness to sanction and apply.
Of course, some academic disciplines—for example philosophy, history, sociology—are associated less with concrete practices outside of academia and function more as free methods of inquiry. This is not to say that they do not reflect and participate in the practical and ideological concerns of their immediate cultural context—clearly they do—but such disciplines are linked far less tightly to claims of expertise in a concrete practice, and they tend to be defined more by a particular methodology than by a particular subject. In such cases tendencies to reductiveness take on different forms.
Philosophy, for instance, is defined largely by its methodologies rather than by its subject matter. It tends to promote certain kinds of excellence or virtue in human discourse, unlike more results-oriented methodologies in the social sciences. One theologian has defined philosophy simply as “well-ordered speech,” and that might be the most that can be said to contain the various forms of dis-course and practice that make up the academic discipline of philosophy. Logically and historically such a discipline must have its roots in the recognition and appreciation of the rationality manifest in ordinary, pre-disciplinary discourse, with the promise that this “primal” excellence might be cultivated and distilled into a still more excellent tool of inquiry through more systematic attention. In practice, however, the discipline of philosophy can find itself in competition with not only this kind of populist rationality, but also with other—now rival—approaches to truth, such as intuition, revelation, authority, and science. What may start as recognition of and attention to one particular kind of human inquiry can easily end up in the glorification of “homo rationalis,” at the expense of other forms of inquiry or sanctioning for belief. Such reductive thinking is once again really a totalizing re-statement of a foundational simplification. And when historians “discover” that the objects of their study are really just reducible to their historical contexts, or psychologists “discover” that the consciousness or behavior of human beings are really just reducible to dynamics of the human mind, or biologists “discover” that the origins of human are reducible to mechanistic processes, what they are really doing is re-packaging the foundational simplifications of their disciplinary metaphors.
In these ways I believe that the tendency to reduction so prevalent in academic discourse is actually built deeply into the structure of discourse itself—not just academic discourse, but all discourse. If all knowledge proceeds from discourses, and discourses have conceptual foundations in simplifying metaphors, then vague ideals of the unity of knowledge—academic or otherwise—need to be reigned in to account for these dynamics. To begin with, what are the implications for such an understanding of academic discourse for the integration of faith and learning?
A case study might help. One interesting disciplinary clash in recent years has been that between evolutionary biology and the emergent field of intelligent design. Intelligent design researchers have distanced themselves from the earlier “creation science” movement with its attempts to validate the early chapters of Genesis scientifically. Instead, they have taken on the more limited project of attackinge volutionary claims that imply that the development and characteristics of our universe can be accounted for as a closed mechanistic system. Most scientists have rejected the field as unscientific, and science organizations have lobbied to keep intelligent design out of the public school classroom.
One (still common) solution to this conflict first articulated in the 19th century simply assigns the science of origins and religion to their appropriate academic disciplines. This solution has often been recommended by scientists who wish tobe protective or affirming of religion. Religion, it is said, is about meaning, values, and aspirations—“matters of the spirit”—and religious people should not be threatened by developments in science, because science has nothing to do with those things. Likewise, religious people should not presume to intrude on matters of scientific inquiry, including the science of origins, because those matters belong to their appropriate scientific discipline.
Not all scientists have, of course, been so generous—scientists and their spokespersons have been notorious over the last couple of centuries for periodically repackaging the foundational simplifications of their discipline as the discovery of “homo mechanisticus,” and much has been said about that kind of disciplinary reductionism. But there are also numerous, widely discussed reasons why a division of labor that would leave the study of physical creation exclusively to the mechanistic sciences is incompatible with the claims of Christianity. What is interesting here is the frequent claim by these scientists that a single discipline can claim “dibs” on a particular area of inquiry, and then claim its own sufficiency for the study of that area without any clear recognition that its founding metaphor—like all such founding metaphors—is necessarily reductive, and that other disciplinary approaches might therefore contribute to a fuller understanding.
When some scientists claim that the study of intelligent design cannot contribute to the study of the origins of the physical universe as a matter of principle because its methodologies are “unscientific,” then they are simply confused—and not for the first time—about the scope and authority of their discipline. But if they want to argue that intelligent design is not really science because it violates the foundational mechanistic metaphor of the discipline, they are on stronger ground. In a recent Christian Scholar’s Review discussion of this issue by Robert Larmer, he complains that “advocates of methodological naturalism insist that it is never, even in principle, legitimate to posit the intervention of a non-natural agent upon the natural order.”11 But if science begins conceptually with the idea of seeing what can be learned about the universe by studying its properties and regularities relative only to each other, and not to the unpredictable interventions of an outside force, divine or otherwise, then it is hard to see how intelligent design can qualify as a science, since it is precisely interested in exploring the kinds of interventions that would violate the discipline’s foundational metaphor.
That is not to say, of course, that the work on intelligent design is not valid or important. But it does suggest to me that it is a different discipline than science, perhaps one that should be wedged in somewhere between theology and science. Saying so does frustratingly little to challenge the illegitimate hegemony of mechanistic science over discourse about the origins and primal history of the physical universe in the classroom, since generally such issues are assigned exclusively to the classroom discipline of biology. Nor does it do much to further what I think is the impossible dream of a seamless synthesis of knowledge between science and theology. But what is really needed is a better grasp of the scope and limitations of science rather than a blurring of the kinds of foundational simplifications that make discipline-based inquiry possible.
Many calls to Christian scholarship dream of a kind of seamless “unified field theory” that will unite faith and discipline into a single harmonious discourse. In many cases, I do not think this goal accounts realistically for the reductions and limitations built into the foundational metaphors of academic disciplines. If disciplines can rarely be integrated into each other seamlessly (except by the kinds of subordination I talked about earlier), then why should it be any easier to integrate them with theology?
Like so many Christian discussions of academic knowledge, George Marsden begins his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship with a series of questions, including the inevitable, “Is there any alternative to the fragmentation of the disciplines?” and “Why are there in mainstream academia almost no identifiable Christian schools of thought to compare with various Marxist, feminist, gay, post-modern, African-American, conservative, or liberal schools of thought?”12 I think that a proper understanding of the discourse of academic disciplines suggests answers to these questions, however rhetorically they are intended.
Regarding fragmentation, Marsden’s nuanced discussion of some of the issues involved suggests an answer already. He affirms that “scientific naturalism is. . . a very useful methodological stance, which Christians employ all the time in the technical aspects of their scholarship.”13 “The problem,” he points out, “arises when a secular pragmatic methodology that works well in a pluralistic setting is mistaken for a definitive account of reality.”14 True enough. But how can a Christian scholar hope to weave together into a seamless whole scholarship whose “technical aspects” and methodologies have been forged under the reductive simplifications built into their foundational metaphors? How can sources of knowledge grounded in various “naturalistic” metaphors be integrated seamlessly even with each other, let alone with theology or with some other manifestation of faith-centered discourse? Marsden quotes Newman’s ideal that
a true enlargement of the mind . . . is the power of viewing many things at once as a whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.15
But he does not, in this book, suggest a convincing answer to the challenges forthis ideal posed by disciplinary metaphors.
One compelling answer is that Christian integration involves not a theological concept but a master narrative, that the broad narrative of the Christian story can serve as an integrating framework for all partial knowledge, even when such fragments of knowledge are founded on various simplifying metaphors. After all, the most compelling secular approaches to unified knowledge—among them progressivism, Marxism, and evolution—all take the form of historical narratives rather than mere concepts, and those narratives have crossed disciplines and drawn together knowledge from various disciplines very effectively. Why, as Marsden asks, can we not have a narrative-based Christian approach to the unification of knowledge, analogous to what has been accomplished through these secular metanarratives?
Unfortunately, the problem with these secular models is that their narratives are generated from particular simplifying metaphors, and it is their very reductiveness which gives them their power to generate knowledge across so many disciplinary boundaries. Beginning with simplifying metaphors drawn from economics or biology, they can then generate master narratives by appropriating the reductive metaphors of many other disciplines, showing (for instance) biological or economic realities to have been the ultimate causative forces behind the objects and dynamics of those disciplines. What they achieve is not so much a synthesis of disciplinary knowledge as an interdisciplinary imperialism in which one reductive metaphor develops chains of causality by which it appropriates the reductive metaphors of other academic discourses, and facilitates the development of methodologies that link those discourses with the broader narrative. And (as the earlier example of English studies and the social sciences illustrates) academic discourses are easiest to appropriate in this way when they push the reductive tendencies of their own native metaphors the hardest. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the Christian story is not grounded in a well-defined simplifying metaphor in the same way that Marxist and evolutionary narratives are. And while every realm of human knowledge and human endeavor can find its place ultimately in the Christian story, its very lack of reductiveness tends to blunt its imperialistic potential. It is a loose, open, flexible narrative that can both learn from and speak to the discourses of knowledge, but it has no clear, sharp-edged metaphor to bring to bear on such discourses that would enable them to develop rigorous methodologies of subordination. In this way a synthesis of knowledge based on, say, the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption cannot be expected to generate a tight master narrative of the sort generated by Marxism and evolution.
The sort of synthesis it can generate is, I believe, illustrated well by another of George Marsden’s books, his recent biography of Jonathan Edwards, himself an ardent faith integrationist 16 Here Marsden makes the observation that
our culture’s intellectual life is largely preoccupied with observing material and social forces that lead to change. Typically we think we have found the best explanation of an event when we can see some of the cultural or psychological dynamics that contribute to its development.
Marsden’s own biography, he concedes, “reflects some of these characteristic concerns.”17 And while it is true that the book largely maintains its alternative promise to help readers “enter imaginatively into another place and time” with relatively few interpretive intrusions,”18 it also, as would be expected in a scholarly biography, engages with a wide range of formative and interpretive contexts. Many of these contexts are intellectual and theological, as befits both Edwards’ own central accomplishments and Marsden’s central interests. But Marsden also attends periodically to both broad and local cultural contexts, personal health and psychology, and such broad social contexts as the transition to capitalism, contemporary music and architecture, demographics of land inheritance and family size, and the “ongoing invention of the modern self,” employing along the way such academic disciplines as political science, economics, psychology, and philosophy. Any one of these disciplines could be used to generate a reductive causality for Edwards’ life and accomplishments, but instead they are used in piecemeal fashion to “thicken” the book’s contextual framework without establishing a systematic disciplinary hierarchy. Marsden also manages to loosen in subtle ways the founding metaphor of historical study—the reduction of objects of study to their contexts and genealogy—in part by the way he emphasizes Edwards’ creative intellectual activity within the confines of his formative context, in part by the way he sometimes uses Edwards’ formative context to relative our own times, and in part by simply leaving enough interpretive space around his subject to leave some room for indeterminacy or mystery about the ways Edwards responded to his formative circumstances. All in all, Marsden engages in an approach to interdisciplinary knowledge that is founded on wisdom rather than on disciplinary synthesis and subordination, an approach that perhaps exemplifies what it means to write history as an art rather than as a science. If this is what Marsden means by over-coming the fragmentation of the disciplines, then his project is well-conceived. But one might just as well say that he carefully preserves the fragmentation of the disciplines, respecting both their powers and their limits, using them and resisting them as dictated by sensibilities both personal and communally shared, rather than by the controlling logic of any one discourse of knowledge.
Another example can be furnished by Roger Lundin’s recent book, From Nature to Experience.19 Like Marsden, Lundin avoids disciplinary reductiveness in several ways. His book is a critique of what he considers the doomed quest for “cultural authority” grounded solely in human experience, particularly as this quest has been manifest in American literature and pragmatic philosophy. The book is a work of intellectual history, grounded in “a conviction currently out of intellectual favor . . . that ideas have considerable power within history and, to some extent, over its course.”20
Lundin also begins with the conviction that history should not be understood “as an elaborate system of cause and effect.”21 That kind of causal reductionism can certainly be related to the issue of disciplinary reductiveness—reductive disciplinary approaches easily yield reductive causal approaches—but it is not entirely the same issue. A work of intellectual history can suggest openness about causality while still treating the discipline of intellectual history as a self-contained and exhaustive approach to its subject. Ultimately, Lundin’s approach is not reductive in either of these two ways, even though page by page the most of his account reads like a self-contained dialectic of ideas and consciousness as thinkers and writers respond consciously or unconsciously to ideas and assumptions developed by previous thinkers and writers.
Causal agency is attributed to a wide range of intellectual sources at one timeor another in the book: Christian movements, theologies and heresies, individual scientists and philosophers, schools of philosophy, science, literature, cultural orders, trends in consciousness, and others. Most of these are cast sometimes as active agents, other times as passive vehicles for ideas and assumptions. One practice that helps rescue Lundin’s approach from the disciplinary reductiveness of an intellectual historian is his occasional foray into other kinds of causal agency: economic shifts, urbanization and industrialization, war, individual psychology. As suggestive and appropriate as these forays generally are, from a disciplinary stand-point they stand as undigested lumps and fragments, indicating without pursuing entirely different disciplinary practices by which the book’s subject matter could be analyzed. Like Marsden, Lundin preserves the fragmentation of academic disciplines, pursuing an interdisciplinary synthesis based on art and wisdom, one that is willing to display its own limitations as it puts together a compelling but not exhaustive account.
Obviously this interdisciplinary model is not the only one for Christian scholars to follow. For that matter Marsden and Lundin could not have written the books they did without making extensive use of a great deal of scholarship that operates firmly within the bounds of its disciplinary metaphors, which may be what Marsden means by affirming scholarship that is “secular” and “technical.” Many Christian scholars at least tacitly affirm what has sometimes been called a “complementarian” approach to faith and scholarship, working comfortably within the constraints of disciplinary boundaries and leaving faith matters to their own separate realms of inquiry. The idea that disciplinary approaches might be irreducible in some fundamental way, with respect both to each other and to theological discourse, might in some ways support a complementarian alternative to the project of integrating faith and scholarship.
I still, however, affirm strongly the value of integrative and interdisciplinary scholarship. One reason is that the complementarian alternative is often understood in a way that is too benign, too easily affirming of the academic structure and division of labor as it exists currently, for a number of reasons: 1) Even when disciplines are operating on their own turf—on the very problems and phenomena they are created to address—they still cannot offer an exclusive and exhaustive account of what they describe or analyze. 2) Academic disciplines are self-promoting institutions perpetually competing for resources and prestige. Even the research practices and root metaphors of these disciplines are apt to be affected by these dynamics. 3) Academic disciplines serve the broader society, or at least derive their ultimate significance through connections with society. Their structures are apt to reflect the sins and pathologies of the wider society of which they are a part. 4)Academic foundational metaphors are not conceived arbitrarily; probably without exception they reflect some valid and significant feature of reality in their very conception. But our world is complex and multi-dimensional; these metaphors are not inevitable, and they are always subject to re-negotiation and improvement. 5)There really is such a thing as “methodological atheism,” and some aspects of academic knowledge reflect a deliberate attempt to marginalize religious authority. Academic scholars should not simply take the workings of their own disciplines for granted, and assume that faith integration is merely a special task for those interested in interdisciplinary research.
This understanding of academic discourse should also have implications for teaching and curriculum. Here is one: what role, if any, should interdisciplinary coursework play in a general education curriculum? If academic knowledge is inherently disciplinary and irreducibly fragmentary, it is important that students be introduced systematically to a wide spectrum of academic disciplines. Proponents of interdisciplinary studies sometimes talk as though disciplinary boundaries are arbitrary, and that education can be carried out effectively by mixing and matching discourse from multiple disciplines in wide-ranging survey. I disagree, and I think many students who have experienced such a course would disagree as well. Interdisciplinary study is valuable, but it is only truly possible for those who have mastered to some degree the concepts, methodologies, and foundational metaphors of the disciplines they are bringing together. Otherwise the result will be confusion, a random-feeling accumulation of texts and facts not readily held together by the kind of provisional worldview provided by a discipline.
At the same time, interdisciplinary undergraduate work is still worth the risk, so long as it is upper-level work that can build on a degree of disciplinary mastery. What a generally educated person needs to know is not necessarily how to produce knowledge within disciplinary frameworks, but how to negotiate the myriad discourses of knowledge that he or she will encounter in his or her life wisely, confidently, and effectively. Such persons need to understand something of both the powers and the limitations of disciplinary inquiry, and see how a single subject might be illuminated by multiple discourses of knowledge. In particular, students who seek to sort out the relationship between their Christian faith and the academic disciplines they encounter in school are very apt to either underestimate or overestimate the authority of academic disciplines. Underestimate, as they are tempted (and often encouraged by pastors and other discourses in their formative backgrounds) to adapt a facile populist dismissal of scholarly academic authority, or to overextend the authority of non-academic biblical studies in a way that mirrors in some ways the hubris of academic disciplines themselves. Overestimate, as they lack confidence to engage with many academic disciplines and confine themselves to areas and forms of intellectual life that feel safe and non-threatening to their faith. Often, students manage to combine both of these opposite, exaggerated responses at once.
All this is to say that, as one sociologist puts it, “All thought, even the most comprehensive doctrines intending to snare the universe, man, the earth, and the heavens . . . turns out soon enough to have captured only a part at best.”22 Human knowledge is a real and valuable achievement, but always and inevitably a partial achievement. No amount of discourse and inquiry is capable of extending the dominion of language far enough to exhaust the significance and the mystery of our objects of academic study. To suggest that scholars would benefit from holding to knowledge a bit more humbly, lightly, and provisionally is not postmodern skepticism; it is just a realistic view of the powers and limitations of the capacity for language with which we have been gifted. At the same time, even if our disciplinary “knowledges” cannot be synthesized seamlessly into integrated discourse, they can nonetheless be integrated meaningfully within human persons and communities, who are capable of cultivating the artful wisdom that can transcend the reductive boundaries of disciplinary discourses.
Cite this article
- George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1997), 91.
- M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist,trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981),276.
- I owe much of my understanding of the history of English as an academic discipline to suchscholars as Gerald Graff, Terry Eagleton, Richard Ohman, and Robert Scholes, though I makeno attempt here to sort out my many debts to them.
- Timothy Lenoir, “The Discipline of Nature and the Nature of Disciplines,” in Knowledges:Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity, eds. Ellen Messer-Davidow, David R. Shumway,and David J. Sylvan (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 82.
- Ibid., 89.
- Ibid., 93.
- Barry Barnes, Interests and the Growth of Knowledge (Boston, MA: Routledge and K. Paul,1977), 6.
- Norman Fairclough, Analyzing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (New York:Routledge, 2003), 130, 131.
James C. Livingston, Matthew Arnold and Christianity: His Religious Prose Writings (Colum-bia, SC: South Carolina University Press, 1986). It has been widely written that Arnold sawliterature as a substitute for a Christian religion that had lost its power to form and inspire inan emerging post-Christian society, but that seems to be a bit of an oversimplification, sinceArnold seems to have worked through his own well-documented doubts enough to main-tain a somewhat heterodox, liberal faith that kept him entrenched in churchgoing, prayer,and family devotions, one that at least maintained a belief in God and in the supremacy ofChrist.
- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961),140.
- Robert A. Larmer, “Intelligent Design as a Theistic Theory of Biological Origins and Devel-opment,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36.1 (2006): 54.
- Marsden, 4, 6.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 99
- Quoted in Ibid., 76.
- George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
- 7Ibid., 503-04.
- Ibid., 5.
- Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)
- Ibid., 4.
- Harold J. Bershady, Ideology and Social Knowledge (New York: Wiley, 1973), 11.