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Shaping our Disciplines for Christ
Version 2

Introduction

Do you, as a Christian academic, sometimes feel that the material you teach in your field is somehow inconsistent with a Christian view of the world? Do you feel that there ought to be a new paradigm in your field that is more consistent with it, but at the same time also soundly academic? Do you, as a new researcher, wish you could make a difference in your field in the Name of Christ?

Because of what Mark Green calls the Sacred-Secular Divide, Christian academics have not often shaped the content and direction of their disciplines. Where is the Christ-following Jürgen Habermas or Michel Foucault? Where is the Christ-centred Stephen Hawking? Or the Holy-Spirit-filled Peter Singer, Anthony Giddens, John Searle, Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes?

In the main, Christian academics have usually thought it enough to be 'good' people and hope to speak to people about Christ and the gospel, and do not see they have the power and responsibility to make significant contributions to their disciplines. Any contributions they make are usually in spite of, rather than because of, their commitment to Christ. No wonder the thought in many disciplines seems often to be inimical to a Christian view, if Christians have abandoned this responsibility.

But, why shouldn't Christ's people contribute to the very content, architecture and direction of their disciplines? Notice: "contribute", not "conquer" nor "conform". It is time for Christ's people to begin shaping their disciplines rather than letting their disciplines shape them. It should be done. And it can be done.

This short document is an initial 'how to' guide: how to begin shaping our disciplines for Christ. (It does not give theological reasons for doing so; those may be found in Mark Green's excellent booklet The Great Divide or on the website 'A New View in Theology and Practice' "http://www.abxn.org/nv/".) It comprises six questions that have been used to assist thinking Christians working in a discipline - academic or professional - to reflect on how they might 'shape' their disciplines by critically enriching thought in those disciplines from an avowedly Biblical or Christian perspective.

About The Questions

These questions help Christian thinkers find a way to critically affirm and enrich the thinking in their fields, rather than take an antagonistic position. Note 'critically' - it is deeply critical but not antagonistic. Why? This approach rests on the following assumptions, which we ask you to accept while reading this, though you should question them later:

Finally, a note about attitude: Shaping our disciplines for Christ should not be seen as a way to dominate the agenda therein, but to serve it for its own benefit by affirming, critiquing and enriching it in ways that are meaningful both to Christ and to the discipline itself.

These questions were originally generated for C-A-N-2007 annual conference, being used at the Workshops there, and have since been used at C-A-N-2009 and C-A-N-2010. It was part of the aim of the workshops to give participants pointers to shaping their own disciplines, together with opportunity to practice using these pointers. Participants found them a very useful way to structure their presentations and papers.

This version

Note: (a) 'Discipline' is very loosely defined, and may be thought of as involving scholarly work, including scientific or philosophical theorizing, and practical, normatively directed work. (b) The context in which these questions have emerged is that of a discipline in which there is no overtly Christian input, and so the challenge for Christians is to begin to make a start with engaging and contributing. (c) This set of questions is offered as only one approach; doubtless there are many others; for example in disciplines that bear marks of Christian influence a different approach might be more useful, but even there the following questions might prove of some use. (d) A single session of a particular group might best tackle a subset of questions and/or tackle them in a different order (e.g. start with Q4 or Q5).

Six Questions About the/a Discipline I Work In

Assume a convenor, and that all participants share a common flipchart on which to enter ideas, so all can see all ideas.

QUESTION 1: Intuitive Awareness.

Consider the discipline in which you work and reflect upon. (Answer quickly, individually, e.g. begin with two plus and two minus points, then add more.)

Brainstorm these. Put ideas down. Look over them.

Purpose of question: (a) to unlock intuitive feel about the discipline before engaging a more theoretical attitude, (b) to get participants thinking about a discipline, (c) to provide reference points for later discussions.

QUESTION 2: Perspectives.

Here is the main question, followed by several sub-questions that might be better for discussion.

Main question: What are the main perspectives or paradigms that influence the discipline?

Purpose of question: (a) to identify what those in the discipline or field find most meaningful, and hence have focused on over the years; (b) to identify some of the deeper presuppositions that steer the discipline towards particular types of research and practice.

Basis of question: In my experience the main opportunity for contributing to our disciplines as Christian thinkers is at the level of perspectives or paradigms, rather than at the level of theories. A paradigm or perspective centres on a way of being meaningful. Meaningfulness is important if reality is 'created', and is attracting increasing attention these days

To help you answer:

Note for Convenor: Help group to review the issues that the main positions find important, or the assumptions made. List them. They will be used in Q3.

Example: In information systems, three major paradigms are the objectivist, subjectivist and emancipatory (there might be others). Objectivist: main types include data types and measurable human behaviours, rigour is valued. Subjectivist: interpretations and opinions, harmony is valued.

Example: Andrew Hartley (2008) delineates four paradigms in statistics: direct and indirect frequentism, objective and subjective Bayesianism.

Example: What are the 'interpretations' in quantum physics?

QUESTION 3: What is missing or neglected?

Here is the main question, followed by several sub-questions that might be better for discussion.

Main question: Is there a major issue that is meaningful in human life that is either ignored or is not given its due?

Basis of Question: A created reality is likely to exhibit diverse ways of being meaningful, and if the Creator loves the creation, then the diversity can be expected to cohere (harmonise); all things cohere in Christ. So a 'Christian' view is open to this entire diversity and seeks its coherence. Most extant paradigms focus on one or two each, but there are usually some ways of being meaningful that are largely ignored by all perspectives in the field. So, a 'Christian' contribution might be to identify these.

Purpose of question: (a) to identify how current frameworks can distort our perception of the field (b) to reveal possible opportunities where a Christian perspective might make a real and valuable contribution.

To help answer the question, consider any of the following:

Note for Convenor: Help group draw up list to use for Question 4.

Example: Normativity in information sciences - the notion that there is right and wrong - is absent from both objectivism and subjectivism, from objectivism because technology is assumed to be neutral, from subjectivism because all views about what is right and wrong are considered equal.

Example: Dialogue among the four paradigms in statistics is missing.

Example: In physics, ====

QUESTION 4: Possible Contributions.

This question helps us identify possible contributions that a Biblical viewpoint might make that could be welcomed by the field as a contribution.

Question: Which of the 'neglected' issues in Question 3 might we be able to develop as a contribution for the field?

Basis of Question: Identifying an aspect that God has woven into the fabric of creation - and which all experience in some form but is neglected in scholarly discourse - is likely to be one that those in the field are disposed to accept, if handled aright. Such aspects are not foreign to the field, imposed from outside, but are 'natural' contributions.

To help answer this question, take the most important 'neglected' (or 'thin') things, and assumptions, from Q3. Then ask:

This might be helped by seeing if there are 'friends' who already place some value on these things, in conjunction with Question 5.

Purpose of question: (a) to get us thinking positively about how and where to engage, (b) to help us separate out the easier from the more difficult.

Note to convenor: It can be useful to take missing things, thin things and assumptions separately.

Example: in information systems, (a) we can enrich the vague notion of 'emancipation' by reference to the joyous diversity of creation (e.g. social, economic, artistic, political, religious emancipation), (b) we might suggest emancipation is just one type of a more general dysfunction which Christianity has called 'sin', (c) we might expose the presupposition underlying critical theory that humanity can by itself achieve emanciption, and raise the question of whether this is valid in view of the strong non-neutrality of human reason and action.

Example: Andrew Hartley (2008, Christian and Humanists Foundations for Statistical Inference, Resource Publications) shows how a Christian philosophy can bring an integrating overview among the paradigms in statistics.

QUESTION 5: 'Friends'.

Who are the 'friends'? Is there any group in the discipline which recognises what is missing and makes it a topic of discourse?

'Friends' may often be found within relatively new paradigms and will tend to be a minority voice. In what way are these 'friends'? And in what ways is the friends' view problematic (other than in disagreeing with some Christian doctrine)?

Purpose of question: (a) to expose the fact that (usually) Christians are not the only ones concerned about problems in the discipline (since all work within God's creation), (b) to identify which groups have already explored which problems, (c) to identify which groups might be attuned to receive any contribution we might make and in which literature we might engage with. It is useful for a Christian perspective to recognise who its 'friends' are, even though there may be differences. Often practical people are 'friends' about enrichment, while those from critical social theory (Marxists, feminists, etc.) are 'friends' about presuppositions.

Note for convenor: It can be useful to guide participants to consider minority or critical views in the discipline, even those that some deem 'anti-Christian'.

Example: critical social theory criticises both objectivism and subjectivism for lack of normative stance, and thus joins with us in underlining normativity. But in offering 'emancipation' as an overriding norm yet retaining humanist presuppositions, 'emancipation' is very vague and tends to end in any group claiming the right to dominate the discourse.

Example: In statistics, Hartley seems to treat subjective Bayesianism as a 'friend' in that it is more open to the diversity of creation.

Q6. Planning for Groups.

How might you introduce the new ideas into the thought and practice of the discipline in a way that people will listen to and understand? Here are some subquestions:

Purpose of question: To move from thinking about the discipline to planning for action (which would usually be a group activity).

Note for convenor: This is a long-term question, considering strategy and tactics. It might take some time to answer. And even longer to activate. Think about into which parts of the community (especially to which 'friends') an attempt should be made to offer each contribution that emerged from Question4.

TIPS

Where This Approach Has Been Used

1. A line of reasoning similar to the above has been employed by the author to suggest a new 'shape' for five major areas of research and practice in information systems: human use of computers, the nature of computers, information systems development, information technology resources, and information technology as our societal environment. In each case the area has been re-interpreted and extant frameworks have been engaged with and critically enriched. This exercise is described and discussed in the author's work, Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems, published December 2007 by IGI Global (Hershey, PA, USA).

2. It has been used within the UK Christian Academic Network in interdisciplinary workshops.

3. It is being piloted in a one-to-one setting to give hope to seasoned Christian academics who feel trapped in teaching things with which they disagree, and to give direction to new researchers setting out on their research journey. The feedback is that this approach gives hope and direction.


Author: Andrew Basden.

Created: 13 February 2011 Last updated: 9 October 2011. 7 April 2013 Stats examples. 16 January 2021 links, and replaced demon website.