The faith-integration model, with its working assumption that “All truth is God’s truth,” has become the standard approach for many scholars at evangelical colleges and universities as they seek to understand the relationship between faith and learning. In this essay, Kevin D. Miller proposes that the integration model harbors an imperialistic impulse and proposes instead an incarnational model of scholarship that draws analogically from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas about a “religionless Christianity.” As conceived, incarnational scholarship rejects the faith-integration model’s goal of thinking “Christianly” and instead aims to think humanly. Mr. Miller is associate professor of communication at Huntington University in Indiana.
In a question-and-answer session several years ago at Huntington University where I teach, the historian Mark Noll was asked if he is comfortable with “faith-learning integration” language. His answer was “no.” The dualism of the faith-learning construct, he explained, presupposed an inherent antipathy between religious faith and scholarship. If scholarship is the pursuit of truth, he said, then scholarship should not be seen as foreign to faith but as a natural part of faith—a way of loving God with all one’s mind through the scholarly pursuit of truth. In the same session, Noll was asked to describe how he saw Christ-centered scholarship in relation to non-Christian scholarship: Could non-Christian scholars arrive at truth if they did not know Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life? His answer was generous in tone: non-Christian scholars discover truth in their research, he said, and Christians should gratefully regard what those scholars have contributed to the body of human knowledge. He also noted that scholars of religious faiths other than Christianity bring unique perspectives and questions to their scholarship that Christians should consider and learn from. But, he added, the “Enlightenment side of me” believes that “what’s true is true for all—and so I must take the imperial step” of proclaiming Jesus Christ as the final truth. Scholars, he concluded logically, cannot grasp truth fully without recognizing Christ as the center of the created order.
These two provocative points raised by Noll form the basis for the following reflection on how I understand the relationship between faith and scholarship, both in general and in my academic discipline of communication studies. They raise two questions for me: firstly, with Noll, I ask is “integration” the best way to understand the relationship between faith and scholarship? and secondly, are there ways of relating faith to scholarship that do not entail the “imperial step” Noll felt compelled to take as a believer in Jesus as the Lord of all?
To answer these questions, this essay tacks between the near shore of specific lived moments in my teaching and research as a scholar in communication studies, and the more distant shore of theoretical and theological considerations on the nature of truth and its apprehension in scholarship. I use as my guide the twentieth-century German theologian and ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, drawing analogically from his paradigm of a “religionless Christianity” explored in his letters and papers written in the 1940s from a Nazi prison cell. In contrast to the “faith-learning integration” paradigm, I propose the rough outlines for a “religionless scholarship” as the most truly Christian approach to academic teaching, research, and scholarly discourse. I interrogate the “integration” concept of faith and learning for what it both implies and occludes, especially in regard to Noll’s dilemma that the knowing of truth leads finally and inescapably to an “imperial step” that positions Christian scholarship as, at least conceptually, theoretically superior to atheist or other theistic scholarship. I propose and try to practice instead a scholarship grounded in incarnational humility and prophetic meekness—a scholarship that inherits the earth not through the coercion of superior argument from a superior position but through standing in solidarity with all scholars in their efforts to construct truth statements and evaluate their merits.
When Thinking Christianly Is Not Thinking Christianly
Faculty members up for tenure at Huntington University are required to submit what is called their “faith-integration” paper. A thought experiment at the time led me to begin to question the construct I was being asked to work within. I supposed that at the very moment I was sitting at my keyboard composing my “faith-learning integration paper” there was a professor at the same stage of the tenure process at an Islamic university in, say, Egypt also writing his faith-integration paper. How should I think of his task of integrating Islamic faith with the social sciences—and what should he think of mine as a Christian scholar in the social sciences? Should I hope he succeeds brilliantly, or that he fundamentally fails since his frame of reference is ultimately heretical and flawed? If we both succeed, what do the efforts tell us about exercise of integration of faith and learning and the disciplinary truths of the world we are able to fit conceptually into our respective metaphysic convictions? These questions raise a basic concern about faith-learning integration efforts: to what purpose, finally, am I integrating my faith with my scholarship?
I propose it should be this: to use scholarship to construct and establish the theoretical and intellectual conditions for the possibility of creating communities and societies of justice and peace and beauty on this earth. Paradoxically, to create these conceptual conditions of possibility is to reject thinking Christianly in our scholarship and is instead to aim to think humanly in our scholarship. Parallel to Bonhoeffer’s call for an “unconscious” or “religionless Christianity,”1 this proposal calls for an unconscious Christian scholarship—a religionless scholarship, so to speak. To aim to think humanly rather than Christianly in our scholarship, I contend, is incarnational scholarship, and is thus a truly Christ-honoring scholarship.
In a theme appearing across his various writings and lectures—in his Ethics, Christ the Center, Papers and Letters from Prison, Act and Being, and The Cost of Discipleship—Bonhoeffer emphasizes in a variety of ways the point that God did not become human so humans could become gods; rather, God became human so that humans could at last become truly and fully human.2 The incarnation—Emmanuel, God with us in the flesh—models and makes possible true humanity for us as Jesus broke through the estrangement we experience with each other and that we experience with God because of sin. In this light, true Christian scholarship creates solidarity with others by becoming one with others seeking and constructing knowledge about social and physical reality. The incarnation of the Word shows that God values humans as humans and nature as nature. Scholars who make the aim of their scholarship exposing Christ in nature or society, I believe, are in danger of objectifying Christ by depreciating the created physical and social orders for what they are in themselves. The goal of scholarship too easily becomes merely apologetic rather than a positive act of worship using the mind. It enters the perilous territory of reducing Jesus to an idol of proof rather than the living, redemptive revelation of God.
What does incarnational scholarship look like? I propose it contains two requisite qualities: Prophetic meekness—a posture that results in speaking out against all that violates what is properly human, but speaking against these ills while in solidarity (in “kind”ness or oneness) with those one is confronting. It is remarkable that Jesus as the Word in flesh (in carne, John 1:1) did not impose knowledge of himself upon others—not on his disciples, not on the hundreds of thousands living at the time of Jesus in China, the Americas, and around the world. Jesus came humbly, Philippians 2 tells us, and grew in knowledge and in relationship with God and others even as the disciples he gathered around him grew in knowledge of this rabbi teacher until they could call him, in faith, the Christ. As rabbi, Jesus educated his students in the manner of the root meaning of the word “education”—he educed from within those who would hear him a fuller knowledge of God and God’s kingdom and of himself as the anointed one. Educing, in contrast to the coercion inherent in indoctrination of others, stands in opposition to the obstetrical equivalent of a Caesarian section. It is not the forced imposition of the delivery of knowledge but the skillful drawing out and maturing of knowledge in the student within kairos or ripeness of time. True education does not impose itself but sees the potential for the student to attain and form knowledge from within. It is a meek approach (Matthew 5:5) to scholarship, and thus one that will, paradoxically, inherit the world. This approach is restful in its trust in the sovereignty of God to establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven—even with the yawning students I am teaching on a Monday morning at 8 a.m.
Incarnational scholarship recognizes that we live on this side of the final eschaton, not in the consummation of all things in which we shall know even as we are known. It recognizes that, truly, we do see through a glass darkly—in our respective fields of study and as a whole epistemologically. It thus rejects the pretension of a special gnosis for scholars who know Christ, even as Christ Jesus emptied himself and became fully subject to the frailty and temptations and limited knowledge common to all humanity. “Christ-integrated scholarship,” by contrast, subtly shifts its practitioner to a privileged point of view, seeing the practitioner’s research as proceeding from a superior vantage point. It begins with a Christology from above (which I see in scholarship as equivalent to indoctrination) rather than from below, where coming to know Jesus as the Christ happens through a dawning recognition (education) of the human Jesus as the living and reigning Logos of God, through whom all things were created and hold together (Colossians 1).
The problem I want to point to in “Christian Scholarship” as a proper-noun paradigm is a tendency within it to engage secular or other religious scholarship only on its own terms, baptizing secular findings and methodologies as it subjects them to “Christian” interpretations and criteria. An example of this would be those evangelical historians who advocate writing history from a providentialist point of view—by adding God’s guiding hand in a causal sense into the narratives of social revolutions or movements for which historians have found economic, social, or other causal explanations. The same could be said for most forms of the intelligent design movement on the question of the origins of the physical universe. These approaches impose the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Author of nature into the methodologies and explanations of the natural and human sciences. To use the categories in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s helpful typology of knowledge, “data beliefs” in the integration model must be submitted to Christian “control beliefs” with all their interpretive criteria and constraints.3
All Truth is Not God’s Truth
This inclination toward conquest can be seen in a phrase used in the same symposium where Mark Noll talked of the inevitable “imperialistic move” against non-Christian knowledge. During the question-and-answer session, Duane Litfin, then president of Wheaton College and author of Conceiving the Christian College, emphasized the fact that “Christ is Lord.” The choice of the word “Christ” in this phrase indicates what I would describe as an over-anticipated eschatology. The early Christian phrasing was not “Christ is Lord” but “Jesus is Lord” (see Romans 10:9; I Cor. 12:3). To say Jesus is Lord was dangerous wording during first-century Christianity. It, and the phrase maranatha (“Come, Lord,” in I Cor. 16:22; see also Rev. 22:20: “Come, Lord Jesus”), resulted in persecution since the pledge of allegiance that citizens of Rome were required to repeat to show patriotic loyalty to the Roman Empire was “Caesar is Lord.” Replacing Caesar with “Jesus” was seditious for heralding a publically accessible name of a known individual (Jesus of Nazareth) rather than the more abstract, positional designation of an office holder: the Christ. To say Christ is Lord would be tantamount to saying something like “The King is Ruler”—a tautological truism. That Jesus, the man executed under Rome, is now being proclaimed Lord by early Christians still under Caesar’s rule, and so soon after the crucifixion of that man, points not only to the astonishing claim of bodily resurrection, but also—in Roman ears—to the likelihood of renewed efforts by a movement to mount an insurrection in the name of a condemned political enemy of the state. It is no surprise that the Christian movement was quickly driven underground (sometimes literally) and that much of the New Testament was written by those in prison or in exile.
This kind of Christology—starting with Jesus the human and leading to a growing realization of faith in Jesus as the promised Christ who will return again to the earth—serves as the model for my scholarship. I, as a Christian, do not hold the Christ in common with the world, but the historical Jesus I do, even if a Muslim or an atheist assesses who Jesus is and what his teachings and role in history is differently than I do. But beyond the fact that Jesus was and is a human accessible to historical inquiry, the teachings of Jesus are publically accessible and—centered as they are on the kingdom of God and what it means to live in right relationship with each other and with God—they are centered in ethics. The emphasis Jesus places on this kingdom being one of peace and justice (“I have come to free the prisoners and the oppressed”) and on loving one’s neighbors and especially one’s enemies—but also as one who brings a sword of division and of judgment—presents the gospel first at a moral, human level, albeit a radical, upside-down one. In Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life we find solidarity with the world community in his core values of meekness, just peacemaking, poverty, and the other attributes of the beatitudes Jesus said would be hallmarks of his followers. These are human qualities where they exist, and thus a “common grace” to all humans as living, existential beings. As the author of I John put it: how can we love God whom we do not see if we do not love our brother or sister we can see? “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (2:6).
Bonhoeffer’s search for a way to re-imagine Christianity in “a world come of age” that knows itself better than we as Christians can know it remains a pressing issue for Christians in scholarship today. The incarnation shows us that God chose to make the gospel of salvation decidedly human and this-worldly. If we who are Christians in scholarship are to be worthy of the gospel and of being heard by the broader scholarly community, our scholarship must likewise be human scholarship rather than “Christian” scholarship, not just in the sense of labels but in our methodology and our broader aims. Bonhoeffer warned that when we offer God at the “boundaries of the unknown” because at least there the world does not have answers, we have fashioned a God of the gaps rather than having recognized God at the center of our scholarship. But if we “by the Holy Spirit” can say Jesus is Lord (I Cor. 12:3), we can rest in confidence that this lordship extends to the entire created order. In his Papers from prison, Bonhoeffer writes:
God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the center of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in Christ. He is the centre of life, and he certainly didn’t “come” to answer our unsolved problems….In Christ there are no “Christian problems.4
In Council for Christian Colleges and Universities discussions to which I am party, however, the idea of “Jesus as Lord over all” is given this shorthand expression: “All truth is God’s truth.”5 This dictum, I want to contend, is not the same as saying Christ is the center. I would further suggest that it instead frames “truth” using a non-biblical category (the Enlightenment philosophical category of the “universal” is insinuated in that little word “all”) and is not incarnational in its worldview. It reduces truth to universal, objectively neutral propositional truth rather than retaining the relational, personal, and particularistic dimensions of truth that the sense of Hebrew and Christian scriptures imparts to the idea of truth. The clearest New Testament definition of truth comes from Jesus himself, who proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Why has the axiom “All truth is God’s truth” become a virtual statement of faith at evangelical Protestant Christian universities? I suspect it is because it serves as code language for naming and justifying faith-integration approaches to scholarship. Why, I want to ask in reply, do we not instead instinctively and reflexively proclaim, “Jesus is God’s truth”? For as Bonhoeffer contends,
Truth is not something in itself, which rests for itself, but something that happens between two. Truth happens only in community….Christ as Word in the sense of address is thus not timeless truth….It is not universally available idea, but Word, which is heard only when he allows it to be heard.6
Incarnational Scholarship 1
Thus, incarnational scholarship questions the impulse to define truth propositionally rather than relationally. It is suspicious of universal and timeless categories of any type, especially given the historical-geopolitical manifestations those grand narratives have taken on in societies where monotheistic beliefs have flourished. Incarnational scholarship instead asks: what does it mean to speak this researched truth in love? If I speak truth without love, is it still truth?
In an introduction to communication class I teach, we learn that every act of communication has two levels of meaning—a content level and a relational level. We ponder the fact that even a simple offering of “hi” to a stranger in passing has not only the content level of a recognized verbalized greeting but also the relational level of, at the least, acknowledging the singular humanity of that other person. That is why someone would be considered unhinged if overheard saying hello to a telephone pole as she or he walked by one. Similarly, the missiologist Paul Hiebert noted that “truth” is conceived in the biblical literature (and in modern Eastern cultures today, including in the Middle East where the Bible was written and in much of India, where Hiebert was a missionary before teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) primarily as loyalty, which I compare to the relationship level of meaning, and secondarily as honesty, or the factual content level of meaning.7 In Western culture, Hiebert taught, we tend to see honesty as the primary definition of truth. Thus, Western Christian students are naturally puzzled when they read in the Bible that Rahab the harlot is commended in the “roll-call of faith” (Hebrews 11) for protecting the Hebrew spies by lying. But from a Hebraic perspective, Hiebert would argue, she was truthful because she was loyal to the righteous (the Hebrew spies). Tellingly, even the Decalogue in Exodus 20 does not command “Thou shalt not lie” but instead, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This kind of rhetorical analysis leads to applications that students sometimes find surprising. For example, the question of what a Christian hiding Jews in Nazi Germany should, ethically, answer to the question of whether there are Jews in the house could be conceived as, truthfully “no” since it is exercising loyalty to the oppressed and not enabling the oppressor. This is an exercise in attempting to think biblically rather than within the Enlightenment category of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
Changing our habits of language away from the general formula “All truth is God’s truth” to the more biblical phrasing of “Jesus is God’s truth” may seem a splitting of hairs. But adhering more closely to the biblical language reminds us that truth is relationally consequential. It also prompts us to interrogate received truths and those we generate for their social consequences—all concerns for me as a scholar in the social sciences and for me as a scholar working to find solidarity with scholars around the world who may look with suspicion at my faith in Jesus as Christ but who naturally, because of our common humanity, share the same human questions that drive my research.
There is a certain attendant vulnerability in incarnational scholarship. “Jesus” language is more offensive than “God” language, for one thing. But it keeps us humble and exposes to ourselves and to others our social/religious position and starting points. It focuses us on this world, deflating our pretentions to insider knowledge. “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Incarnational scholarship becomes, in Bonhoeffer’s apt phrase, “participation in the powerlessness of God in the world.”8 It is a religionless scholarship that privileges inductive over deductive methods of knowing. (Contra Neo-Platonism, it would propose that Aristotle was more incarnational in his thinking than Plato!) It starts not with Word but with words. Yet it believes—by faith—that behind the words is the Word in whom we live and move and have our being. It toils in epistemological and ethical humility, trusting in “the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.”9 It conducts scholarship with the belief that the one who took up our infirmities (Matt. 8:17) is Jesus Christ, and that, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” Bonhoeffer adds—disconcertingly—that the God who is with us also forsakes us. The glass is still dark, and so we “live in the world without the working hypothesis of God” since “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.”10
Cite this article
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Papers and Letters from Prison, trans. and eds. E. Bethge, R. Fuller, F. Clark, and others (New York: Macmillan, 1971; first published 1953), 380.
- See, for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. E. Bethge, Ed.; M. H. Smith (New York: Collier, 1986; first published 1949), 296.
- Douglas Jacobsen & Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, eds. Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 21. See also Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Epistemology of Religion,” in The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, J. Greco & E. Sosa, eds. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 303-324.
- Bonhoeffer, Papers, 312.
- For example, see Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Revised edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 7.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York: Harper, 1978; first published 1960), 54.
- Personal notes from discussions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School when I was a student there.
- Bonhoeffer, Papers, 361.
- Ibid., 360.
- Ibid., 360.