Lately, I’ve been considering the ways a focus on research might expand and enrich our efforts to integrate faith and learning. As scholars and leaders, we see a multitude of examples among our students demonstrating the truism that the message received is not always the message sent or intended. Expanding and emphasizing our focus on academic research with students can help us better send the message and inculcate a faith-integrated approach.
During my 24 years at the helm of Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), I have had many academically able CCCU students come to Oxford with notions of the integration of faith and learning that are quite simplistic and lack the nuance and vision that I know the faculty at their home campuses offer. These notions they bring — which they believe they learned from their colleges and faculty — can easily devolve to something quite utilitarian, simplistic and counterproductive. These same students realize and find the notions trivial but nonetheless think, much to their dismay, that such is what has been expected of them.
Take an example from my own discipline, history. For some history students, an over-simplistic approach to faith and learning integration can lead them to think they must adhere to providentialism — that is, a need to define the particular ways of God’s providence in concrete historical moments. But this is beyond our perception. Whether one is discussing the collapse of the Roman empire, the Hundred Years’ War, the development of germ theory, or any historical development, the historian looking on does not have the tools or perception to say what God was doing and willed to happen in those particular moments.
In other words, a historian wanting to integrate faith and learning cannot simplify that integrative approach to predicating that we know what God was doing and intended in a given moment in our history. That at once says too little and blames God for too much. Instead, a historian’s scope of enquiries would include the human actors (and perhaps what they think about the divine), the contexts in which they work (such as environment, geography, or worldviews), and the like. While space does not allow me to express fully an historian’s sense of integration of faith in history, I will say briefly that this integration begins by understanding the oblique nature of knowledge in a world racked by sin and uncertainty, allows for freedom and individual will, and acknowledges the multiplicity and obscurity of root causes. Among other things the historian might give careful thought to the understanding of atonement, the imago Dei, and the broad vision of the Christian moral framework.
Meanwhile, the study of history requires one to interpret chaos, confusion, multiple causes, and massive uncertainties. Consider the impossibility of answering contra-positives such as: What might have happened differently had Chamberlain agreed with Churchill about Hitler and the Nazis during the negotiations in Munich? Answer: we do not know! This does not suggest that God is not sovereign or is not involved in human history; instead, it reminds us that all the forms of causation in a particular historical event are exceedingly difficult to determine and that we do not have direct access to the mind and actions of God in any given historical moment. Even worse, we trivialize both God and the subject studied by defining God as merely another subject and cause. No, the historian’s challenge is to discuss the God of history without wrongly encumbering God with our history.
So what does the active life of research offer to this problem, whatever the discipline? When an education is oriented around information — an emphasis on lectures and the reading of textbooks (which are generally filled with defined, known outcomes), it can unwittingly propagate the wrong message and a simplistic view of integration in any area of study. But by participating in and carrying out the art and craft of research, scholars — whether seasoned academic or aspiring undergraduate — discover the many challenges to arriving at a reasonable and firm conclusion when so much of our knowledge is provisional.
Well-conducted research is a hands-on teacher of the craft of knowledge-making and discovery; more than that, it is a hands-on teacher of our commitments to the integration of faith and learning. It affords faculty the opportunity to mentor and affords the student the benefit of being mentored, which thickens the knowledge gained. Research requires curiosity; one must be other-centered with the desire to know more about the wider world. Research projects entered honestly teach humility, self-awareness, awareness of disciplinary limits, and awareness of the broader intellectual and cultural contexts shaping the findings. The enterprise of research is a stern master that ultimately resists accepting sloppiness of thought or intent, requires patience, and reminds one of the necessities to both give and receive grace.
In the world of study abroad, we often say that a key benefit is helping students become less certain but more committed: the maturing leads to reducing unwarranted certainty on views held without sufficient basis, knowledge, or breadth of experience. More commitment develops when that space is freed up to engage the core understandings and discover a revised self-awareness of limitations.
Serious commitment to research offers a parallel benefit. Casual and thin certainties fall away amid the depth and extent of study that a substantial research project affords. In entering a world with unknown outcomes, we are taught to meet challenges and to negotiate living with a degree of uncertainty. What the student comes to know, however, benefits from the depth of work and the ways in which she came to that knowledge. This knowledge can be held with greater commitment (even if with some degree of provisionality) knowing that she does not have the last word on the subject and that the particular item under her scrutiny is the beginning of an endeavor, not its end.
The craft of research thickens formation and undergirds a view of integration of faith and learning that is honest, has lasting value, and is more readily able to sustain the challenges that a thin understanding rarely weathers. Participating in research is one of the antidotes to oversimplification. In committing to the work of integration, we should be looking to expand our focus on and access to research opportunities for our students to more fully provide the tools to properly receive the message the faculty are sending and realize our goal of the integration of faith and learning.
Stanley P. Rosenberg is the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship and the executive director of SCIO: Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary.