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Christian Smith considers it “too narrow and exacting” to require that Christian scholarship seek to “weav[e] science and theology integrally together.” I, on the other hand, consider that to be the sine qua non of scholarship that is Christian. I am not suggesting that every individual work of Christian scholarship needs to articulate theological or philosophical commitments, much less be “maximally elaborated,” as Smith seems to suggest this demand entails. What I am proposing is that scholarship is Christian when, and only when, it reflects an understanding of life and the universe that engages the revelation of Jesus Christ. “Engages” here means not only that our reasoning and research are instructed by revealed truth, but also (and for scientists, perhaps more importantly) that we persistently seek to understand what we learn, according to our areas of competence, within the context of the whole of truth. Not necessarily in a single opus, and perhaps not ever attained fully, we should indeed nonetheless constantly seek to “fill in the entire picture … into one ‘worldview’ whole.” This is, to my mind, not optional for a scholar in Christ.

For thinking this, Smith deems me an odd Catholic, but I must decline the compliment; this concept (often termed “faith seeking understanding”) reflects the classic understanding of faith and reason of both the Catholic Church and the reformers. I first learned it at Wheaton College under the late Dr. Arthur Holmes. As we all know, but which bears repeating, its premise (though it certainly sounds odd to modern ears) is that all knowledge is integrated into a single, rationally accessible whole, a universe, so that every discovery, concept, or theory calls us to a deeper understanding of the whole. Here, for example, is the appeal of the scholar-Pope John Paul II in the 1998 document on faith and reason Fides et Ratio (106):

Finally, I cannot fail to address a word to scientists, whose research offers an ever greater knowledge of the universe as a whole and of the incredibly rich array of its component parts … I would urge them to continue their efforts without ever abandoning the sapiential horizon [where empirical knowledge gives way to what God has revealed] within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person. Scientists are well aware that “the search for truth . . . always points beyond to something higher than the immediate object of study, to the questions which give access to Mystery.

Smith, lest the point get lost, extensively explores integration with secular values and goods in creative and insightful ways that are well worth reading; but he is clear that he is not interested in doing so with regard to Christian truth and seems genuinely baffled that I might expect this from a Christian scholar. He points out that he is personally a theist, and his aversion to integral Christian articulation in his theories is strategic, to be better able to ally with nonbelievers in advancing human dignity. What this response does not seem to understand, I think, is that Christian scholars are called to integrate discovered truth with revealed truth, not primarily to communicate or present it to others (though it does enable this) but to understand it ourselves. If we really do live in a universe created by God, then we do not really understand anything we discover here until we have “maximally elaborated” it, as best we can, in the light of God and his revelation. The goal is not primarily to make the faith reasonable, but reason faithful.

Moreover, as Kierkegaard warned us, the attempt to make faith “reasonable” to those who do not share it leads ineluctably to compartmentalizing or abandoning the less compatible elements of Christian belief, a tendency which is readily discernible in Smith’s thoughtful and clear response. Original sin is one thing; accounting for radical evil another. The spirit, not just the word but the very idea of a supernatural end for humans, disappears. Social science describes the observable “human side” of life, theology the unobservable “divine side.” One can personally affirm theism “at rock bottom” but not assert it as a necessary principle of the theory. Thus does faith become “domesticated,” its challenges blunted or ignored in the interest of less tension with other intellectual perspectives.

Smith also points out that CRAS is not as bad as materialist philosophies, in that one can acknowledge non-material realities and defend the reasonableness of belief in God. To sum up his arguments, if a Christian scholar wants a less bad philosophy that can be held for optionally theistic reasons and has at least a “baseline compatibility” with the Christian faith, she or he may want to consider CRAS. I encourage Christian scholars to aspire for more: to rediscover the universe and the power of Christian truth to reveal it. With CRAS one can, like Smith, explore the reasonableness of faith, which is not without merit; but one is not likely to be able to—or even, like Smith, to see the need to—explore the faithfulness of reason, which is the unique calling and challenge of Christian scholarship.

Cite this article
Paul Sullins, “Response to Christian Smith”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 165-166

Paul Sullins

Ruth Institute
Paul Sullins is Senior Research Associate of the Ruth Institute and a former professor of sociology.