Scholars at Christian institutions have inherited from the broader academy an archival definition of knowledge that tends to obscure relationships between academic scholarship and broader human enterprises. This essay builds upon and extends the work of Ernest Boyer and others who have advocated for a stronger link between scholarship and human communities. It argues that scholarship should not itself be thought of as knowledge, but rather as a potential catalyst for the formation of knowledge in a community network. A more thoroughly communitarian metaphor for knowledge can help clarify the tasks of faith integration and community engagement on the part of Christian scholars.
Christian colleges of the sort that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have for a long time tended to share two beliefs about scholarship: (1) that it is important and worth doing, and (2) that in some way, Christian faith should matter for the way it is done. If “all truth is God’s truth,” as Wheaton philosopher Arthur F. Holmes asserted back in 1977, then the think- ing of the academy and the thinking of the church share enough common ground to share the enterprise of scholarship, however tricky the details.
Since then, evangelical scholars have produced a number of milestone works exploring the complex interrelationships between Christian faith and scholarship. Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, published in 1995, took the evangelical community to task for the internal shortcomings that had led to its failure to engage culture through academic scholarship.1 George Mars- den’s books The Soul of the American University (1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997) turned their criticism in the other direction, toward the “established unbelief” of the secular academy and its unreasonable objec- tions to faith-based scholarship.2
Questions about the nature and purpose of scholarship can’t be altogether detached from the even broader philosophical question, what is knowledge? The way we approach this abstract question will be colored in myriad ways by the ways we understand ourselves to be situated in the world. Are we fundamentally individuals? Members of communities? Members of a species? Is humanity moving toward stability, unity, and progress, or into ongoing disruption and fragmentation? Are human science and reason reliable guides, or do we look for light elsewhere? Our base definition of knowledge will invariably respond not just to philosophical reasoning but also to some such cluster of assumptions.
At times the academy defines knowledge individually, as personal and embodied, in binary contrast to a term like “information,” which is abstract and disembodied—merely potential knowledge. Through this lens, information becomes knowledge when it is appropriated by a human mind. In the personal definition, teaching becomes central to knowledge creation, as the site where the potentiality of inert information becomes actualized in a human person. Knowledge, by this definition, is embodied and individual. Through much of history, of course, this kind of personal generation of knowledge has been central to the mission of academia.
Knowledge can also be defined archivally. This might be called, with a nod toward the critical work of educational activist Paulo Freire, the “banking model” of knowledge accumulation. This model is not so often articulated in its fullness as it is implied in our metaphors, as we talk about contributing “to the stock of human knowledge.”3 Academic research is “knowledge creation,” and knowledge is imagined as an ever-growing account generated (in part) by academic research. In this metaphor, scholarship essentially is knowledge, which can be found in such “vaults” as library shelves and academic journals. It is an accumulation of words and equations, a store of what our knowledge industries have produced collectively, a collection of deposits into the bank of truth, waiting to be accessed and to support human flourishing.
Each of these broad definitions of knowledge, the personal definition and the archival, tends to illuminate some aspects of knowledge while obscuring others. But something like the archival vault has been the dominant metaphor for knowledge in the modern research university since at least the late nineteenth century. And by extension, our modern definitions of and infrastructures for academic scholarship are mostly built upon this way of conceiving knowledge. Generally speaking, in today’s university, knowledge is understood as personal and embodied in the classroom, but archival and cumulative in the realms of scholarship.
As might be expected, the work of Christian scholars is generally built on this same metaphorical foundation for conceiving knowledge as those in the broader academy. And honestly, in a good deal of this work, the scholarship of Christians simply participates in the collective projects of academic disciplines, addressing the same questions and using the shared tools and practices of those disciplines. Indeed, admonitions to engage in scholarly faith integration in a mixed group of Christian faculty typically evokes some skeptical whispers about what “Christian math” or “Christian chemistry” should look like. The useful classification system of scholarly disciplines as “compatibilist,” “reconstructionist,” and “transformationist” captures the idea that while some academic disciplines might challenge Christian scholars with assumptions and practices that are alien to their faith, others are largely usable for Christian scholars as they are.4 This sort of “compatibilist” scholarship works “alongside” other scholars “in the common human task of seeking to understand, nurture, and where necessary, mend the tough but delicate fabric of the world.”5 Their scholarship joins the great archive of the academic scholarship industry as disembodied “knowledge,” a resource for serving human needs and curiosity.
Such compatibilist forms of Christian participation in academic scholarship help explain why Christian academics have in general been affirming of and attracted to the enterprise of academic scholarship in the first place. But they don’t capture the second belief or intuition of Christian scholars and institutions, namely that Christianity should make a difference for the way those in the Christian community practice academic scholarship. They don’t account for the ways that Christian academics have often felt squeezed, marginalized, alienated, or even threatened by questionable assumptions or alienating practices of academic discourse. For this reason, Christian (and particularly evangelical) scholars have put a lot of thought and energy into understanding the nature and shortcomings of mainstream academic discourse and its relationships to Christian faith.6 Such scholars have pursued “faith-informed scholarship” by “demonstrating the ways that human reason is often influenced by what they would respectively label one’s worldview (Reformed), one’s community narrative (Anabaptist), or one’s tradition (Catholic).”7 They have focused on ways that “pre-theoretical and largely implicit assumptions and commitments”8 shape academic disciplines. They explore ways that the disciplinary apparatus of academic scholarship has been shaped by such variables as secularization, rival worldviews, partisan interests, state control, intellectual history, and industrialization. The goal has been to dig up academic scholarship by the roots, to “interrogate the very paradigms that govern the shape of theory and scholarship in the academy.”9
And so, in practice much—probably most—Christian participation in scholarship takes a business-as-usual approach to disciplinary research, while many of the most-discussed theorists of “integrated” Christian scholarship propose radical critiques that would overhaul disciplinary assumptions and critiques and make them more open and amenable to specifically Christian interventions in academic discourses over which Christian scholars usually have little control. One way to attempt to reconcile these divergent stances is to defend compatibilist scholarship by relegating more aggressive faith integration stances to “disciplines that might have been of traditional concern to religious faith—that is questions of human origins, meaning, and moral values.”10 The problem with that division of labor is that the integrative work of scholars in the disciplines to which radical integration would be relegated—most notably philosophy and theology—keeps insisting that faith integration matters much more widely than that.
In both theory and practice, this feels like an impasse. But it is worth noticing here that for all their differences, these divergent approaches have in common our inherited archival metaphor for knowledge and scholarship. That is, while our teaching rests on a conception of knowledge that is personal and embodied, our scholarship is grounded in a definition that is archival and cumulative. The question I would like to raise is, does our archival metaphor for academic knowledge contribute to this impasse by obscuring some of the real dynamics of knowledge and its uses? I think it does, and that we can bring greater clarity to some of these discussions by considering a different metaphor for knowledge, one that grounds it not in the individual or the archive, but in the collective minds of living communities.
Such a shift would not be a simple matter of correctness, of arguing for a “true” definition of knowledge to supplant our current false definitions. Academia already lives with incompatible definitions of knowledge and its relationship to scholarship, and we obviously find both definitions useful. A good question for Christian scholars to begin with is, what do our experiences of faith and Christian conviction and our experiences of the Church suggest about these metaphorical foundations? Do they seem true to the ways we participate in and are formed by our faith communities? By the ways knowledge functions in those faith communities? More specifically, do our faith communities embody knowledge in ways that are not reducible to the archive or the individual?
To start with, what about the concept of knowledge as personal, as embodied (and contained) by individual persons. What do our theological and experiential resources suggest about this definition? In the Christian faith, what matters is not just our collective stock of knowledge, but the ways that knowledge becomes actualized in human persons, for their flourishing and spiritual growth. But knowledge exists as a communal property before it is manifest in an individual. Knowledge in the Church is a collective inheritance of the community. Faith knowledge, in such forms as doctrine, collective history, and interpretive skills, fundamentally belong more to the community—the body of Christ—and its traditions than to individuals. To focus only on the ways knowledge is actualized in an individual person is to miss this important dynamic. Consideration of such dynamics in our faith communities should help clarify for us some of the limitations of a merely personal definition of knowledge, and this should have implications for the way we teach, as well as the way we relate to those faith communities.
The working knowledge metaphor of academic scholarship, however, is not individualistic, but archival. How should Christians respond? Here we might consider a different set of observations. Knowledge in the Christian Church is often contrasted with knowledge in “the world.” Believers are admonished to avoid being taken captive by ideas and assumptions that are alien to the gospel. In particular, faculty who teach at a Christian college experience a unique, often formalized relationship with a Christian subculture. We have a chance to become intimately acquainted with the intellectual challenges and complex flow of knowledge within a formative community embedded in a pluralistic society. Looking beyond our own subcultures, the radical multiculturalism of the gospels leads us to affirm a measure of cultural relativity, to affirm that knowledge and other cultural expression might legitimately look different from one community and culture to another. The archival definition of knowledge that undergirds our institutions of academic research makes it difficult to see and do justice to the ways that the work of scholarship is only actualized when it becomes embedded in the needs and dynamics of a particular community. As Kerry Ann O’Meara puts it, our current “research paradigm is based on national rather than local allegiances.”11 The archival vault metaphor flattens our relationship to knowledge, encouraging us to believe that knowledge transcends all communal contexts, and fundamentally exists independently from them. All of these lived realities will look clearer if we operate from a knowledge metaphor that puts communities at the center. Scholarship is not knowledge. It doesn’t become knowledge until it becomes embedded in the collective mind of a living community. Knowledge is manifested in particular ways within particular communities and sub-communities, not just in an archive, or a broad collective whole.
The image of knowledge residing fundamentally in discrete human communities is hardly a dominant one in the academy, but such thinking has at times attracted the interest of philosophers and other academics. Philosophers who work on defining “a communal conception of knowledge”12 have developed such terminology as “epistemic communalism,” “distributed cognition,” “network epistemology,” or “plural subjects” to talk about a knowledge base that is both embodied and grounded in something that transcends the individual person. For instance, Andy Clark develops the claim that “human thought and reason are not activities that occur solely in the brain or even solely within the organismic skin bag.”13 Miriam Solomon goes farther in claiming that “social groups can work to attain and even realize epistemic goals without individual rationality or individual cognizance of the overall epistemic situation.”14 Frederick Schmidt, who advocates for a “social epistemology,” takes issue with “the traditional idea that social factors tend to interfere with cognition by reducing its reliability.”15 And Margaret Gilbert has bluntly claimed that “collective beliefs are unavoidable in our situation as interacting, conversing beings.”16 Our capacity for symbol systems guarantees that there will be important ways that what we “know” collectively will always transcend what we know individually. As evolutionist Merlin Donald puts it, “our representations become public, the public domain soon outstrips the capacities of individuals, and they become heavily dependent on the state of the group knowledge.”17 Human cultures, seen through this lens, “are vast mindsharing networks that enable us to think, remember, decide, and plan in the context of what the group knows, intends, tolerates, or condemns.”18
In 1997, around the same time that George Marsden and Mark Noll were interrogating the fraught relationship between academic scholarship and the evangelical community, another Christian scholar wrote an influential and very different book about scholarship. Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate took a generous stance toward the importance and reliability of scholarship in the academy and gave no direct attention to the specific task of Christian scholars.19 Instead, he turned his attention to broader institutional issues in academia. His concern was that the “research mission” that had come to dominate academia had “created a shadow over the higher learning enterprise.”20 The major animating thrust of Boyer’s project was to insist that “scholarship must have a connection to a community.”21 He accomplished this not by questioning the archival model of academic scholarship, which still undergirded his view of basic scholarship, what he called the “scholarship of discovery.” Instead, he sought to legitimize additional forms of scholarship that could better bridge the gap between academic knowledge and community needs, scholarship of what he called integration, application, and teaching. These three categories were to be legitimized by their power to connect “basic research” to human needs.
Later work by Jacobsen and Jacobsen attempted to bring Boyer’s community-oriented perspective specifically to bear on debates about faith integration. They were concerned that the dominant paradigms of faith integration in Christian scholarship were too tribal and negative, promoting “conflict rather than conversation”22 between Christians and other communities. They wondered instead “how Christian scholarship might look if it was undertaken in a conversational and cooperative style.”23 Rather than a battleground of competing worldviews or foundational disciplinary assumptions, they envisioned a realm of academic scholarship in which scholars in the Christian community used disciplinary tools to foster constructive conversations and mutual problem solving among communities. They wanted to see Christian scholarship not “fixate on the needs of the Christian community itself,” but rather “turned outward toward the needs of society as a whole.”24
Without being explicit, the Jacobsens’ book pushes closer to a communal definition of knowledge than Boyer. They discuss with approval the work of philosopher Nancey Murphy, who “views all knowledge as essentially communal.” They insist that scholarship “locate itself within the actual connectedness of the world and not falsely presume it existed outside the connected order of human relations in some independent realm of academic objectivity.” They clearly articulate a strong relationship between Christian scholars and their Christian communities, and the calling of those scholars to serve as “the church’s intelligencia.”25 But the outside beneficiaries of their scholarship are characteristically labeled rather vaguely as “human needs,” “the common human task,” or “society as a whole,” terms that fit comfortably into the archival definition of knowledge that Boyer still affirmed.
In its quest to encourage a more positive mode of engagement on the part of Christian scholars, the Jacobsens’ book sometimes errs on the side of optimism. Perhaps in their hopeful image of human communities as friendly neighbors in conversation, but almost certainly in their representation of the academy, they follow Murphy in rejecting “Foucault’s description of knowledge as nothing but cognitivized self-interest,” though they still acknowledge “the taint of powerful self-interest.”26 But their model of engagement doesn’t provide as much language for critiquing academic “fallenness” as that of the more radical “integrationists” they critique. Academic scholarship can be talked about as a constructive conversation among communities, but it should also be talked about as an industry, a system of competition for professional rewards, an ideological battleground, an agent of class interests. These are genuine problems, and not just for the Christian community.
The authors also address important issues of disciplinarity in academic scholarship, including the simplification and reductiveness of academic disciplines. In the end, however, their proposed definition of scholarship is simply, “a disciplined and creative reflection on the natural and humanly constructed world disseminated for the benefit of others and judged by appropriate standards of excellence.”27 Missing here is any mention of the disciplinary lenses, practices, and reductive simplifications that are foundational to academic scholarly discourse, and its “set of epistemological assumptions and methodological practices.”28 In truth, the imagined “archive” served by research would be better pictured as a cluster of smaller repositories built around individual academic disciplines, disciplines that are irreducible and always evolving in their distinguishing metaphors and their cross-disciplinary alliances.29 Disciplinary reductiveness cannot so easily be overcome merely by Christian scholars bringing “a commitment to antireductionism to their work.”30
We all like to believe—or at least to hope—that human knowledge is in some ways accumulating, that we are getting somewhere as a species, that (for instance) our medical technologies won’t be lost in some future post-apocalyptic collapse, and so on. But the many versions of the archival metaphor also seem calculated to bolster a comforting academic ideology in which academic research is central to human flourishing, and that every contribution, however modest, participates in a stable, universally shared, eternally meaningful human project. Yet as the needs and interests served by research change, attention is redirected, paradigms shift, and much of yesterday’s knowledge is replaced, forgotten, or ignored, regardless of what collections of words and equations are stored in the archive. The Jacobsens’ book at least points us in the direction of a metaphor for human knowledge that locates it fundamentally in the flux of discrete human communities, not in the archive. Scholarship may accumulate, but scholarship is not knowledge, only a potential resource for the communal formation of knowledge.
By this definition, knowledge is uniquely embodied in human persons, but exceeds and precedes them. It is cultural, but pluralistic. It is built around the life and needs of a community and draws from non-academic as well as academic sources. Granted, this definition of knowledge will open many vexing questions about exactly what communities are and how they function in a modern and pluralistic society, in which persons might belong to multiple communities of different kinds, with all their allegiances experienced as both partial and fragile. As a descriptive metaphor it will need to illuminate the actual forms of community connection that people experience, not just the idealized forms of our best moments or our deeply felt needs. But ultimately, I believe this communal metaphor sheds needed light on the academic calling of Christian scholars.
To explore further what academic scholarship and knowledge might look like from within a communal framework, it will help to engage with a few specific examples. One place to turn is self-conscious “scholar-activists,” who face clear and revealing challenges in navigating the interrelationships among subject, discipline, and constituent community. A representative example is the work of Bernd Reiter, a German political science researcher who spent time doing fieldwork in the state of Bahia, Brazil before moving on to a teaching career in the United States. He writes from the vantage point of an itinerant researcher who is (paradoxically) deeply committed to the ideals of local community and social activism, a position of tension from which he explores some of the pitfalls and contradictions of academic research, particularly in the social sciences.
For Reiter, research isn’t “discovered” in some neutral academic space and then “applied” in a community context; it is community context that grounds, shapes, and motivates healthy research in the first place. For him the problem is: “in the absence of community embeddedness, where to get inspiration from? What questions to ask? What to write about, and for whom?”31 What exacerbates this problem is that academic life and values often work to dis-embed scholars from affiliation with a particular community; they become itinerant in ways that go beyond their physical un-rootedness. As a result, “the work of many scholars has long been a reflection of their condition: they write only for themselves and their academic community—a group of experts without any connection to other experts, let alone lay people and the local communities that they have studied.”32
The “paper radicalism” that Rieter complains about results from “global thinking . . . without consequences and commitment,”33 and without “a genuine involvement with local communities and their struggles.”34 In this situation, the clear distinction between Boyer’s “scholarship of discovery” and his scholarship of application starts to break down. For Reiter, genuine academic knowledge begins with community engagement. By contrast, an academic “scholarship of discovery” that takes purely professional discourse (and professional rewards) as its starting point is apt to produce objective, disengaged scholarship “from no- where.” This kind of work by professional scholars is at least as likely to harm as to help the communities that they study, as “agents contributing to the eroding of local sense-making efforts.”35 That is, if anyone outside of their professional networks is listening to their work at all.
The kind of scholarly fieldwork analyzed by Rieter is an extreme case study that helps clarify the distinctions and the symbiotic relationships between a constituent community and a community of practice, for an academic scholar. To qualify as academic scholarship, research needs to participate in disciplinary standards that derive from an academic community of practice. But “scholarship of discovery” requires more than that. It requires a researcher grounded in questions and commitments outside of academia. It needs to be engaged in on someone’s behalf.
These dynamics play out less dramatically but more pervasively in the ordinary careers of many American academics, as “inductees into the profession typically are trained at ‘the center of things,’ at a small number of elite doctoral programs, and then, for the most part, must move ‘toward the edges.’”36 Not only a remote fieldwork site like Bahia, Brazil but, for instance, a liberal arts college on “Old Main” with a heavy focus on teaching and service can be experienced as a kind of exile by an ambitious scholar bent on “basic research” and the cutting edge of discovery. The challenge here is for someone beginning an academic career to “settle,” to “take up residence . . . to find a place in a community, a region, a watershed, a history; to accept the responsibilities of membership and offer relevant skills; to cultivate a critical affection rather than condescension.”37 What can complicate this transition is the academic “temptation to approach the parochial as the opposite of educated,” which “flows naturally enough from the universalism and principled indifference to places that are deeply embedded in the academy’s disciplinary guilds.”38
Academics who make this transition successfully will need “to find a more modest scholarship program that fits their circumstances,”39 perhaps one with a local connection, facilitating undergraduate research or public partnerships. Epp and Spellman emphasize the need for a scholar to “discover what Wendell Berry calls a ‘beloved country’—a point of reference and accountability beyond the academy alone.”40 They also remind us that the college in which a professor serves can itself be such a place, in contrast to the wider affiliation with the academic discipline that takes primacy for many academics. As with Reiter’s example, this kind of community identification becomes not just an “application point” but a starting point for meaningful academic research.
These examples suggest several observations about what academic scholarship looks like from a communal perspective. First is a basic difference between a scholarly community of practice (or “disciplinary guild”) and a constituent community. Academic scholarship requires disciplinary communities of practice, with their grounding metaphors, professional standards and connections, and journals and publishers and conferences. But a disciplinary guild does not ordinarily make a good constituent community. Scholarly projects and questions need to come from somewhere for scholarship to connect with the “mindsharing networks” of human communities, if we believe that such mindsharing networks are the basic loci of human knowledge. Such communities are not just sites where basic research is “applied.” They are the fundamental sites at which and for which knowledge is created.
This distinction has important implications for how we understand what Boyer called the scholarship of discovery. The kind of scholarship created by and for academics can qualify as basic research, in that it can address the foundational practices, assumptions, and metaphors of a scholarly community of practice. Those issues can be important for anyone who partners with an academic discipline—and anyone who does academic research at all will, by definition, do so in partnership with an academic discipline. But knowledge is generated when researchers use the resources of an academic discipline to add to the mindsharing network of a human community. From this perspective, the kind of disciplinary theorizing and paradigm-shifting work of “integrationists,” which we often celebrate as our most foundational examples of academic research, can look more like the work of a good IT department. It sharpens the disciplinary tool so that constituent-based researchers can do the real work of adding important knowledge to their community networks.
Finally, these examples suggest ways that scholarly research has the ability to do harm to community knowledge networks and to the communities they serve. This isn’t just because academic research can confront the parochial mind with inconvenient truths generated by objective and dispassionate research. It happens first of all because in a pluralistic society differing communities generate knowledge and meaning in differing and potentially incompatible ways. And it also happens because scholarship generated “from nowhere,” from no strong tie to a constituent community at all, has a tendency to generate knowledge that has been emptied of the networks of meaning and “sense-making” on which a constituent community relies.
Of course, the status of placed communities is not the same in all places. It isn’t only academics whose local ties are often temporary and weak. Even a member of Reiter’s Bahia community in Brazil will surely inhabit multiple overlapping communities. But an urban American is apt to inhabit a wider array of affiliations that are not shared with his or her neighbor. Neighborhood, city, local church, or local bar might all contribute to a person’s community portfolio. But so will many other more diasporic communities, not so firmly rooted in a place. These might be political or religious. Family ties might be local or scattered. Friend networks are apt to be voluntary and ever-changing. Shared identities might draw from class, race, gender, or age cohort. They might draw from institutions: work, profession, school, charity organization, or from brand loyalties. They might draw from leisure activities: from sports (as fans or participants) or hobbies, from arts and entertainment, from gaming or social media.
What we are calling knowledge, then, necessarily links to such lived communities, such “mindshares.” But the challenge for such communities is often felt at their boundaries, in their many points of tension and overlap. Many of these tensions are experienced as inconsequential or even trivial, and many can be handled through simple compartmentalization. But community ties that are “thicker,” or closer to the center of our identities, or that require more loyalty or exclusivity can end up requiring more thought. Such communities can end up generating the need for a different kind of knowledge—even a different kind of scholarship, one that tends the boundaries and overlaps of community life.
First a relatively trivial example, that of a devoted NFL football fan. While attending or watching games might be the central activity for a fan, many words and much knowledge are generated behind the scenes, on websites, television, podcasts, and a host of various media outlets. A football expert might use words and film to analyze the success or failures of the team’s pass protection schemes. Another expert might break down the economic salary cap reasons for a team’s decision to let a player walk in free agency. A writer might let fans know about a player’s struggles to overcome poverty or mental illness, or details about the last time the team won a championship, long ago. And while a team’s general manager and coach presumably know more about a team’s tactics and personnel than the journalists who write about the team, these journalists could still be said to be doing original research—even “scholarship”—since it is their work rather than the tight-lipped team staff who are driving an increase in the knowledge base of this fan community.
At times, however, these same writers might need to help the community deal with a different kind of need. A national media personality derides the team’s star quarterback. A member of the roster is charged with sexual assault, or the team’s name is suddenly deemed an offense to Native Americans. Online trolls mock the team’s lack of recent success. And some friends or family of these avid fans suggest from time to time that football itself is a stupid waste of time. These are problems of pluralism, of the bumps and bruises that come with ongoing interaction and overlap with members of other or competing communities, or with the complexities of multiple community allegiances. Trolls need to be put in their place. Players need to be defended. Charges need to be evaluated, and responses considered. And a few images that capture the wholesome fun and family bonding of the community’s activities would be welcome as well.
This example is drawn from a relatively trivial realm of human community, and we might want to pause to lament that in our modern world too much of our community investment takes such forms, and not enough or it resembles placed and formative communities celebrated (and lamented) by a writer like Wendell Berry. A community of football fandom makes few demands on its members to integrate their lives around football. But a religious community, or an environmental activist group, or a profession, or even a street gang might take some of those boundaries more seriously. When should external perspectives be welcomed, filtered, or defended against? How should one’s own multiple community identities be ordered and disciplined by more primary identities? In a pluralistic setting in which few communities are strong enough to shape their members within a thick network of regular interactions and plausibility structures, integrating community identities becomes more of an intellectual project, and scholarship can play an important role.
The high stakes and complexities of this kind of scholarship are on full display in the American evangelical community, which supports a broad network of publishers, journals, conferences, schools, colleges, and other organizations that do cultural work for the church and the movement. It is clearly important that the knowledge base of this community not all come directly from mainstream American culture (however that might be defined). Christians and the Christian community are expected to know some things that people outside this community don’t know, and to know other things differently, through the eyes of a shared faith. If it is to thrive and survive as a community and subculture it needs to take an active role in producing or refracting its own knowledge base. Outside sources of knowledge, produced for other communities and with differing agendas and under differing assumptions, need to be integrated into the knowledge base of the evangelical community.
Much of this work is done outside of academia, in sermons, study groups, and Sunday School classes, in popular books, magazines, websites, podcasts, conferences, retreats, and more. Academic scholarship has a clear role to play in this process of knowledge production and cultural vetting, but not necessarily a lead role, and oftentimes a contested role. Many Christian colleges embody a unique example of formalized institutional partnerships with non-academic communities, and an important role of such colleges is to play a part in this work of integration, both in the classroom and in the realm of scholarship.
This kind of work at the boundaries and intersections of community dis- courses has played an important role in the evangelical community in a number of ways. It has modeled a thoughtful and sophisticated mode of engagement with academic thought and helped instill confidence in a community who has often felt that their perspective was being written out of current paradigms of academic discourse. It has at times earned a broader hearing and helped encourage a healthy complexity in the thought of high-level academic thinkers who might otherwise be more hostile and dismissive toward religious-based scholarship and communities. The content of this thought hasn’t exactly made an evangelical philosopher-tribe of its constituent community, but it has influenced the work of countless thought leaders in the community, both academic and otherwise.
What distinguishes this kind of “integrative” scholarship from more straightforward instances of community-based academic knowledge production is that it takes place at the boundaries, friction points, and overlaps of community knowledge. Its starting point isn’t necessarily the intrinsic, felt needs of community life. Rather, its agendas typically come from external sources, from challenges and opportunities that the community did not seek or anticipate. Its best practitioners are often bi-cultural straddlers of community borders, people who can interpret and mediate the knowledge and practices of more than one community. This bicultural status is certainly true of many academics. And in communities ranging from the Bahia people and their increasingly global society to American evangelicals and their increasingly pluralistic and fragmented society, communities that want to make claims on people’s identities, knowledge, and practices need members—or sympathetic non-members—who can navigate those borders.
Building our understanding of scholarship around a communal metaphor for knowledge would have a number of implications, many of which would be clarifying for the work of Christian scholars. For instance, Christian scholars have been quite consistent of late in distancing their objectives from what is often called “triumphalism,” from the posture of attempting to defeat rival worldviews through scholarly argument. This community-based lens suggests why that kind of triumphalist goal might not only be undesirable, but actually impossible. Christian scholars can carry out arguments with particular scholars who disagree with or attack their position or their community. But those scholars are too often envisioned as the embodiment of (or even the source of) “secularization,” or some other disembodied cultural force that can be engaged in the arena of academic argument. In truth, either these scholars are mere guild representatives, doing scholarship “from nowhere,” or they are doing work on behalf of another community, another “beloved country.” Either way, winning a scholarly argument of this kind is unlikely to exercise all that much cultural power outside the Christian community itself.
This model also suggests that each disciplinary apparatus is not really a self-contained world of meaning, but a practice and perspective that constituent communities can use to generate knowledge. The recurrent dream of a scholarly discipline that is intrinsically and systemically inclusive of Christian truth or theology does not adequately consider that academic knowledge is generated at the intersection of a disciplinary practice and a constituent community. Academic disciplines each supply a rigorous perspective and mode of inquiry that is intrinsically partial and necessarily reductive. This isn’t necessarily because they have been nefariously emptied of purpose and meaning or theological illumination, but because no one discourse can capture everything about its subject. To some extent disciplines are secular in the same way a wrench or a beam is secular. It is up to a constituent community and its scholarly representatives to build something meaningful with them.
Of course, that is really only a partial truth. Academic disciplines did not simply fall from heaven in their current configuration, nor did they gradually coalesce into some inevitable truthful form, revealed under the continuous pressure of rigorous inquiry. Each discipline has a social history that is intertwined with its intellectual formation. Every discipline has won its place at the table by doing work for constituent communities. And not every community has equal power to shape academic disciplines to its own ends. Disciplines can be flexible modes of inquiry, but their practices, protocols, and configuration will certainly make it easier to see and say some things than others. In this way academia tends to mirror the power structures of our broader society. And Christian academics have sometimes fixated on their arguments with the academic guilds without fully considering the ways those guilds serve the interests of broader constituencies.
Integrative scholarship really does do important work, then, when it interrogates the foundational structure of knowledge formation in academia. But it seems a bit insular for evangelical scholars to focus almost all their attention on the borders between academia and their own communities of Christian faith. Many different communities and demographics interface with the same com- mon structures of academic research. The Christian church and their Christian community don’t have to be the only “beloved countries” that animate the work of Christian scholars. The efforts of Christian scholars can reflect a Christian vision of shalom and of human flourishing by serving other communities with their scholarship as well, including communities whose needs are currently underserved by academia, or whose interests are not always well served by the academic guilds in their present form.
Academic scholarship is always disciplinary. It works within the powerful enabling constraints of a particular disciplinary perspective, a particular disciplinary metaphor. When it chooses to transcend those constraints, it does so by becoming interdisciplinary, by exploring interrelationships among disciplinary perspectives, or layering multiple perspectives into thick description from multiple angles. Helpful academic scholarship doesn’t sidestep academic disciplines, but it maps their strengths and limits, and their relationships to other disciplines. Moreover, academic scholarship makes itself accountable to a full breadth of relevant scholarly perspectives. That doesn’t, of course, mean accountability to an entire discipline. But it does mean accountability to disciplinary discourse that bears upon the community-driven project at hand. It should also mean accountability to other disciplines and to non-academic knowledge as they bear differently but relevantly on the project at hand, since the project itself is defined by the needs of the community, not by the discourse of the disciplinary tool.
It should also be emphasized that successful scholarship is defined more by its outcome in a community than by the activity of the scholar. The processes and forums through which a scholar legitimately brings knowledge to a community may well go beyond those most familiar to academia. We are not merely talking about “applying” or “passing along” knowledge from its neutral location in the imaginary universal vault of knowledge. The production of knowledge begins with community engagement and doesn’t come to fruition until new knowledge is generated within the particular context and the knowledge network of that community.
Of course, individual faculty scholars will bring their own “beloved countries” to their work, and institutions themselves could—and probably should—value community partnerships that go beyond their formal or most natural constituents. It is true that much current scholarship directed to “the vault” is generated from nowhere and for nobody, serving only the professional ambitions of a scholar. But in many other cases these constituent communities simply need to be named more clearly: the nation, America’s rural poor, potato growers in Bangladesh, American art museums, gun control advocates. There can, of course, be a crucial difference between scholarship for a community and scholar- ship about a community. Though this is an arena in which Christian scholars can participate in breaking down insularity and “seeking the welfare of the city” on behalf of the gospel and the Christian community. It’s a place where scholars can go beyond defending Christian interests and modeling Christ’s “belovedness” for countries not our own.
As an aside, the current configuration of journals and publishers that serve academic scholarship is not particularly helpful for supporting community-based scholarship. Most academic outlets are discipline based, not community or issue based, so they struggle to bring together multiple voices around a common group or issue. A cursory glance at a typical academic journal will suggest not multiple voices engaged in a single conversation, but multiple and largely unrelated conversations all employing a common disciplinary tool. Such outlets are not natural contact points for addressing the knowledge base of a particular community. Academic libraries are perhaps the most obvious concrete emblem of the archive model of academic knowledge. But in practice many such libraries are farther along the path of understanding themselves as a community crossroads rather than a repository, as they help multiple communities connect their interests with relevant scholarship in many different ways, in practice doing some of that dissemination work that academic publishing outlets don’t do very well for themselves.
An understanding of academic scholarship based on a communal definition of knowledge, then, suggests three loose categories of scholarship. The first is guild scholarship, which addresses or participates in academic practices and infrastructure. The second is the scholarship of integration, which does border work among communities of knowledge. The third is the scholarship of discovery, which creates new knowledge in a constituent community. In this last and most important category, scholarship understands the creation of knowledge to be community-based from its very origin, not merely “applied” in communities. Such a perspective will particularly help us during a time when many voices are calling Christian communities to adopt more constructive and less adversarial relationships with others. It will also help us during a time when many Christian faculty—in particular those who aren’t affiliated with major research universities—are finding that the world of academic research feels distant from their mission and everyday work. Academic scholarship for Christians can be more than an abstract demand to feed the archive, or a notably inefficient way of keeping up with one’s discipline, or continuous demand to prove one’s professional adequacy. It can be a way of serving people who matter to us.
Cite this article
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- George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997); George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).
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- For an example of a recent review essay, see Stephen Moroney, “Where Faith and Learning Intersect: Re-Mapping the Contemporary Terrain,” Christian Scholar’s Review 43, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 139–155. This essay maps recent theoretical discourse about faith and learning into three broad categories: (1) “faith-learning integration,” (2) “Christian worldview,” and (3) “practice and formation.” A common feature of this family of approaches is that they do not cede the production of “new knowledge” to mainstream academic researchers. They have generally not been content merely to “apply” the basic research of mainstream, secular academia to their work as teachers and as members of church and local community.
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