'Christian' Art, Physics, Maths, Sociology, etc. ?
What is a 'Christian' art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.? Is it possible? Is it meaningful? Should we aim for a 'Christian' whatever?
This page seeks to stimulate and assist discussion of such questions. It was begun because of a discussion on Thinknet I received today (16 April 2013). I had been wondering about this and had a vague view, but liked the clarity the Thinknet discussion brought.
- Christians doing art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
- Doing art, physics, maths, sociology, etc. in a 'Christian' way, e.g. with integrity
- An alternative Christian theory about art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
- Christian interpretation of what is in the fields of art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
Let us go through them. I admit: the one I like best is the fourth; it was suggested by Roy Clouser. However, this is only an initial response view, and requires debate. This page is set up to stimulate that debate. Theologically, it is inspired by New View.
See also: 'Why Christian Scholars Should Love Mainstream Scholarship.
Christians doing art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
To have this as a definition of 'Christian scholarship' is problematic because it says nothing about the quality of what Christians do. Also, who are deemed 'Christians' here? Who is to say? It is possible in principle to try to answer those questions and define 'Chrisians' and 'doing', but doing so is likely to involve taking one of the other views below. So we may as well go straight to those other views.
Doing art, physics, maths, sociology, etc. in a 'Christian' way, e.g. with integrity
This seems to be what most Christians and non-Christians, at least in England, assume. That is, it does not matter much what topic Christians research or teach, as long as we research and teach in a 'Christian' manner. Usually this means: doing these things honestly (scrupulous honesty, e.g. in filling in expenses forms), with integrity, never cheating, being scrupulously fair to all, being nice to all, forgiving, and so on. There are two problems with this view.
- It is more to do with morals and attitudes than with faith commitments, vision and belief. (One might say that it focuses on the ethical aspect of scholarly work instead of the faith aspect. However faith and morals have some kind of link: it is assumed that certain types of morals (especially those around integrity and forgiveness) correlate with the Christian faith.)
- It says nothing about the content of theory that is generated or taught, only about the style of producing or teaching it. The body of knowledge of the discipline in which we work is seen as peripheral. Maybe this is an expression of the of the sacred-secular divide, under the influence of which we consider morals and faith as of eternal worth and things like theoretical bodies of knowledge as ultimately of no worth, probably being brought to an end when Christ comes again because "knowledge passes away". This is problematic because it goes against swathes of Scripture that affirm what humanity can do (which the Jewish view affirms).
An alternative Christian theory about art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
This does recognise the importance of the content of our fields, not just our style of working. It deems current, past or emerging theories etc. as somehow 'anti-Christian', and seeks either to formulate alternative Christian theories. It often ends up resisting the new in a reactionary way - and that might bring dishonour to our Saviour.
An example of the former is the theory of evolution, against which the alternatives are the theory of 6-day creation and that of intelligent design. (I use the term 'theory' widely here.) An example of the latter is Christian reaction against postmodernism, and a reaction back into modernism, overlooking the anti-Christian elements of that.
There are problems with this view and its reactions.
- The tendency to see the body of knowledge as 'anti-Christian' seems to be against the tenor of Scripture. Whilst it is certainly true that the early Christians were persecuted by a "wicked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world", are we not here to bless the world rather than merely oppose it? This requires more debate. Are we not salt and light rather than acid and heat?
- Setting up alternative theories is usually motivated by a desire to have Christian dogmas or the notion of God play an explicit role in theories, either as an object within the theory, or as a curb on what theories are allowed. To me, this is a misuse of Scripture, and God himself can never faithfully be treated as a theoretical object.
- Reaction against the new means that (a) we have not taken trouble to genuinely understand the new, seeing only its surface manifestations and ignoring its deeper motivations, (b) we tend to unquestioningly overlook the problems of the old theories, (c) Christians unnecessarily become seen as reactionary and to-be-ignored.
- It cuts us off from mainstream academic discourse. So we fail to immanently understand it (i.e. from inside) and so are in no position to properly critique it and enrich it.
Christian interpretation of what is in the fields of art, physics, maths, sociology, etc.
To me, a Christian interpretation usually recognises the diversity and goodness of creation, which is not destroyed by the fall. It treats all aspects of creation as meaningful and good, because God has made it. So the fields of art, physics, maths, sociology, etc. all study and teach something of that goodness. However, in a Christian interpretation, each retains awareness of the meaningfulness and goodness of all other aspects and the fields that study them. There is no isolation, no elevating our own fields or topics, no arrogance, no reductionism. This means that it takes the body of knowledge that the world has generated and, instead of rejecting it, it affirms, critiques and enriches it.
I like this view because it overcomes many of the problems of the others.
- It recognises the worth and goodness of the 'secular' fields.
- Its attitude can inculcate a certain attitude and style of working.
- It does not treat extant knowledge as 'anti-Christian', but rather looks for what can be affirmed in it, while clearly understanding ways in which it is to be criticised, and seeks to enrich rather than replace.
- It does not necessarily provide new theories, but new paradigms, from which theories come.
- It has a basis for critique of the old without rejection.
- It has a basis for critique of the new without reactionism.
- This enables Christian thinking to engage with, and contribute to the mainstream - and to allow the mainstream to contribute to it without diluting or compromising it.
It seems to me that this is what God intended. As Romans 8 makes clear, the creation waits with "eager longing" for the revealing of the 'sons' of God - those who, by inner nature, will treat it as their Father and its Creator would. (See 'Three Dimensions of Salvation' for more on this, and an exposition of Romans 8.) The creation is not necessarily restricted to the natural world, but can include all the worlds of knowledge. They are all still waiting.
But how? I would like to offer three suggestions. They are all about how Christian scholars can make radical contributions to mainstream thought, writing papers that would be valued as a genuine contribution rather than rejected as irrelevant.
Since first writing this page, I have set down the approach that I try to take in my own fields of informations systems, business, environmental sustainability and philosophy. In brief I found myself neither being antagonistic to the world's knowledge, nor acquiescing to it, but treating it as impaired insight. This is because all scholars are living and working within the creation, and hence cannot escape its laws (physical laws, psychological laws, linguistic laws, sociological laws, etc.). If this is so, then there are three things I can do in any field: Affirm, Critique, Enrich (ACE):
- Affirm what is valid in the world's thought. That raises the question of how to discern what is good and valid, distinguishing it from what is not. My rule of thumb is that when a new paradigm or perspective enters the fray, its critique of the status quo in the field often reveals something of the way creation works that had previously been overlooked.
- Critique the assumptions and presuppositions on which the field is based. Often these are based on a 'ground-motive' that contains an inherent antinomy (unresolvable contradiction). But critique humbly, from the inside not from the outside.
- Enrich existing though rather than trying to destroy it. For example, draw attention to aspects that have been overlooked. In a way that makes sense to scholars already writing in the field.
This enables Christian thought to be salt and light in the mainstream, rather than just antagonistically isolating itself.
For an example of how this works, see video of talk given in South Korea in June 14 on Integrating Christian Faith with ICT: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
See also texts of Four Talks given.
2. Shaping Our Disciplines for Christ
Shaping Our Disciplines for Christ is a project of the UK Christian Academic Network. It involves workshops which take participants through five questions they can apply to their disciplines to identify how to bring Christian thinking into the discipline in a way that the discipline might value. The aim is to help Christian scholars be leaders in their fields by judiciously introducing new paradigms or perspectives. The five questions are:
- Q1: (Introductory) What do you like and dislike about your discipline.
- Q2: What are the main perspectives or paradigms by which those in your discipline view the world? (What battles are going on?)
- Q3: What is missing from them all? Often from a Christian point of view we can identify some aspect that nobody in the discipline is considering. (Remember: a good quality 'Christian' view might be in tune with the way creation works .)
- Q4: Does this suggest a contribution you can make? If something is missing, then drawing attention to it and suggesting how it might fit in is likely to be welcomed - as long as we think carefully about how to introduce it into the academic literature.
- Q5: Who are our 'friends'? Often, some minority or radical movement in the discipline already recognises the missing thing that we have identified. Albeit under different names, and often with rhetoric that, superficially, Christians don't like. It might be wise to work with them to an extent, citing their papers, etc.
3. Dooyeweerd's Multi-aspectual Philosophy
One good way I have found of operationalizing such an approach is to conceive the world as functioning in a number of aspects simultaneously, meaningful in several different ways, and subject simultaneously to several distinct kinds of law-order. The best expression of this that I have found so far is Dooyeweerd's aspects, which number fifteen and range over mathematical, material, mental, social and societal aspects. This employs philosophy that has Christian roots but, I have discovered, is attractive to those who are not Christians but who want 'wisdom' or an interdisciplinary approach.
An excellent example of Christian interpretation (rather than Christian theory or mere Christian behaviour), is Paulo Ribeiro et al.'s  proposal for holistic design and operation of smart grids for electricity distribution, which makes renewable energy more effective. Instead of focusing solely on the technical, physical and economic aspects of smart grids, the authors widen their consideration to social, ethical, faith and other aspects too. This is on the grounds that, under God, we are responsible for all aspects, even though we might focus on one in our study or practice. With Maarten Verkerk, Paulo has also convened an IEEE Working Group and is chairing a Panel at the 2013 IEEE conference. Paulo says,
"I am excited about these developments - which allows us to have an impact on societal infrastructes via real engineering projects. Of course, not everyone is a Christian - but we hope to influence their thinking present a framework which is grounded in a creational / Christian philosophy."
For a summary of Ribiero's work (paper and panel) see On Holistic Design and Operation of Smart Grids for Electricity Distribution.
Ribeiro P.F., Pounder H, Verkerk M.J. (2012). Planning and designing smart grids: philosophical considerations. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Fall 2012, 34-43.
See also: 'Why Christian Scholars Should Love Mainstream Scholarship.
This page is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2012, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext.
Created: 16 April 2013.
Last updated: 2 July 2015 some mistakes corrected; some strengthening. Added ACE, CAN. Link to youtube video.