How to Integrate Faith and Scholarship– and How Not To

My title here makes a false promise, obviously, on which I can’t deliver. But comments on my earlier post suggest I ought to try to say something on the subject (which may be of interest, I admit, mostly to religiously-oriented academics). And it’s a subject about which I’ve wondered from time to time. In fact, though I hadn’t thought of this in years, it occurred to me as I began to write this post that I did an essay as a BYU undergraduate, for the Orson F. Whitney essay contest, on a related subject– something about how BYU could fulfill its prophetic destiny. Maybe the essay is moldering in some old issue of the Daily Universe. The only part I remember is that I thought BYU shouldn’t compromise its religious identity in order to achieve scholarly eminence. Seemed worth saying at the time; I don’t know if it is now. But I still believe it.

I think the same thing about Notre Dame, where I used to teach, and where this remains a live issue. In fact, I moved to dreary South Bend from beautiful Colorado in part because I thought Notre Dame had the potential to be a distinctive and world-class university by integrating its faith and rich intellectual tradition with its academic mission, and I liked the idea of being part of that. And I sometimes found myself in the peculiar position, as a Mormon, of urging Catholic colleagues to take their Catholicism more seriously– and of serving on the Provost’s Task Force for Enhancing Catholic Intellectual Life. But it turned out that my aspirations and expectations were, well, a bit innocent. In response to my urgings, a colleague who was an accomplished scholar in legal accounting (and a faithful Catholic) once explained to me, “I’m sorry, but there just isn’t any specifically Catholic method of accounting.” I could see that he was right.

I was pushing an approach to integrating faith and scholarship that now seems to me misguided. I was more or less saying to people (including myself): “Take the subject you work in, and figure out how to adopt a Catholic (or Christian) approach to it.” That was a natural enough strategy, I think, especially in law, in which interdisciplinary “law-and-…” scholarship is common. Law-and-economics, law-and-philosophy, law-and-literature, law-and-whatever. I was advocating that people come up with law-and-Catholicism, or law-and-Christianity.

But often there isn’t any obvious “Catholic” or “Christian” (or “Mormon”) perspective or approach to the subjects we study. So the results of the “X-and-whatever” approach, if there are any results, are likely to seem artificial. There’s also something troublesome about treating one’s faith as a sort of “angle” to be used for scholarly (and, probably, career-advancement) purposes.

Today I look at the matter a bit differently. When we study and learn law– or philosophy, or physics, or history, or whatever– we learn a body of knowledge but also, more importantly, ways of thinking and investigating and explaining. And in the process, we usually unlearn other ways of thinking and explaining. Or at least we learn to separate those other ways– which may include religion and faith– from what we do when we do law, or philosophy, or whatever. This process of learning and unlearning is natural and familiar enough, and to some extent we have to do it in order to pursue our careers in these various fields.

But even in pursuing their own questions, these various disciplines will encounter problems they struggle with, and they will sometimes offer explanations or descriptions that seem inadequate. Sometimes other ways of thinking and knowing from outside the conventions of the discipline will be able to help with those problems and inadequacies. (BenH will know that his mentor, Alasdair MacIntyre, has a much more adequate account of this process, in his discussion of of the development of traditions, than I’m giving here.) And sometimes, more in some fields than others, religious perspectives and ways of thinking may prove illuminating – if we haven’t unlearned them, that is.

There will be resistance, of course, to considering those perspectives. People of faith will have to be creative in trying to find ways to introduce whatever illumination faith may offer; sometimes we won’t be able to find any way to do it. But at least in this approach we aren’t just trying to concoct a Christian or Catholic or Mormon approach to matters, and we aren’t trying to foist our faith on others in a manner extraneous to our common enterprise. We’re just honestly trying to come up with the soundest and most adequate answers to the questions we share with others in our various disciplines. If a religious perspective illuminates, that’s good; if not, so be it.

I imagine there are disciplines (like accounting, as my Notre Dame colleague pointed out) where faith will have little directly to contribute. A religious scholar’s faith may lead him or her to be honest, diligent, collegial, truth-seeking, and so forth, but it won’t enter into the scholarly work in any more overt way. But my own view is that at this point in our civilization, there are lots of areas– jurisprudence, ethics, philosophy, various areas of public policy, various humanities– in which the answers available from purely secular outlooks are seriously deficient. (That’s more or less the theme of my recent book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, that Craig mentioned in introducing me.) In these areas, religious perspectives may have a valuable contribution to make.

To be sure, figuring out what this contribution might be and how to present it is a huge challenge. For myself, though, it’s a challenge that gives some purpose and meaning to what might otherwise be a comfortable but pretty empty career. Others of you may reach a similar conclusion.

18 comments for “How to Integrate Faith and Scholarship– and How Not To

  1. Craig H.
    July 30, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Very interesting Steve, but isn’t even the definition of what constitutes “religious perspectives” regularly changing, especially in a faith such as Mormonism which purports to accept all truth within its (theoretically) ever-expanding borders? Thus, certainly what we learn in religion might change our approach to history, or our understanding of some event, but isn’t possible that what we learn in history might change what we understand by religion, and thus change our religious perspective? At BYU, the dictum used to be (maybe it still is) to study your discipline in light of the gospel, and not vice versa–as if the gospel were always the same and your discipline wasn’t. But it strikes me as impossible now to make it a one-way process. It seems they inform each other, back and forth, all the time, if you’re thinking about both anyway.

  2. queuno
    July 30, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    All I know is that the BYU computer science faculty routinely mocked (and in some cases, they were needlessly overly harsh) the idea that there was a Christian or Mormon perspective on algorithmic analysis.

    A family member who teaches in the sciences at BYU runs into the same frustrations with his discipline — his students rate him negatively in some faculty evaluations because he hasn’t figured out how to find (I suppose) Book of Mormon scriptures that he can whip out in a lecture.

    There are some topics that naturally lend themselves well to the gospel … but others are mostly gospel-proof.

  3. Ben H
    July 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Steve, is there really not a Catholic approach to accounting? There are plenty of dishonest accountants out there. Some of them are doing things that are illegal. Others are doing things that are ethically problematic even if not illegal. I would hope that Catholics would have extra reasons to be honest. There are also ethical judgments implicit in accounting rules, and these rules are sometimes up for debate, as in the case of “mark-to-market” accounting. There is a lot of material in accounting where a spiritual dimension will not really show up, but there are dimensions where it will, and it seems to me that a Catholic educator should make a point of bringing them into the classroom, at least here and there. Every subject has a context, and at some point that context will engage with spiritual issues.

    Here what queuno says is relevant. While I can understand the professors’ bemusement and/or annoyance at the expectations of the students and the administration, students are actually hungry for meaning, and they want what they study in college to connect with some larger sense of meaning. To the extent that people are teaching things that don’t connect, honestly, students may legitimately wonder what the point of studying it is. And I think they should. This connection may only come up a few times during the semester, but it should come up, or else I’m not sure the class is actually educating.

  4. July 30, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I will stay out of the general discussion, as the premise provokes nothing in me, but I must say, I enjoyed this statement:

    “Maybe the essay is moldering in some old issue of the Daily Universe.”

    It hit home, because I have work moldering on probably hundreds of Daily Universe pages, from way back.

  5. Nate Oman
    July 30, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Steve: I am not sure that I entirely understand the distinction that you are making between finding a “Mormon” or “Catholic” perspective and simply trying to have a “religious” perspective. To what extent does your approach simply kick the whole issue up to a higher level of abstraction? It seems to me that you are stil using religion as a kind of “law and -” approach, even if you aren’t suggesting that religion provides some methodology per se.

    My second question has to do with a certain unease about religion. Santayana once observed that trying to be religious without being any particular religion is rather like trying to speak without speaking any particular language. I worry that “religion” is often a rather artificial category. I understand that it has it’s political uses. It can serve as a way of identifying friendly souls in an often unfriendly academy. It has a certain intellectual respectability by virtue of its abstraction. On the other hand, I think that there is a certain inauthenticity about the way in which it tends to downplay and obliterate the particulars of faith and practice.

    When I was on law review, an atheist/agnostic friend asked me to take a look at a passage in his note where he had made a mild joke about God. He wanted to know if it would be offensive to “religious people,” and since he knew I was a “religious person,” he figured I was a good guy to ask. I was flattered, but I found the identity a bit odd. I imagined my friend being introduced to some Tibetan monks and saying, “I’m not so sure about you guys. I knew this religious guy in law school…”

  6. Steven Smith
    July 31, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Well, it’s understandable if the distinction I was trying to make wasn’t very clear to some of you, because it wasn’t very clear to me either. But I wasn’t trying to suggest that instead of attempting to take a Catholic or Christian or Mormon approach to scholarship, we should take the perspective of generic religion. My suggestion was a bit different. Rather than ask “What does Mormonism (or Christianity, or . . . .) have to say about this subject?”, we might just try to understand the questions that arise and develop the best, truest answers we can, using whatever resources seem pertinent. If our background and beliefs include a Mormon or Catholic or Christian dimension, and if we resist the practice and temptation of unlearning or filtering out these understandings, then sometimes we may find valuable help there. And yes, sometimes the process will probably run the other way, leading us to deepen or revise our understanding of “religious” matters. The basic idea is simply that it may be more helpful just to seek understanding and truth than to deliberately try to take some religious perspective on our subjects. That’s a pretty simple and bland point, probaby– so bland that I’m almost embarrassed to make it– but I think it’s different than what some people (including me) sometimes try to do

    Nate’s comment about “religion” in general raises lots of interesting questions, I think. I agree that it’s often unhelpful to talk about “religion.” In fact, I’ve sometimes resolved to write an essay called “‘Religion’ Doesn’t Exist.” (And another one called “‘Morality’ Doesn’t Exist.”) And yet sometimes it is useful to abstract, and to think about “religion” as a general matter.

    How about this? The various bodies or collections of beliefs that different people hold will be similar in some respects and different in other respects; for some purposes the similarities will be most salient, and for others the differences will be more important. If the question has to do with “how baptism should be performed,” differences among different Christian denominations will be important. But with respect to other kinds of questions, those differences (and the differences between Christian and Jews, and so on) will not matter much. I think, for example, that for somoe purposes it’s perfectly sensible to talk about a “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

    And sometimes it’s sensible to talk about “religion.” Nate’s atheist classmate may not have been entirely wrong to think that there is an important and fundamental divide that separated him from Nate– and from other Christians, and devout Jews, and Muslims, and even the Tibetan monk– and that “religion” is a term that designates this divide.

    In the world we’re in now, as I’ve mentioned, I think the “secular/religious” distinction is fundamental and important for many purposes, both political and philosophical, so to speak. which is not to deny important differences among religious beliefs or to suggest that there is such a thing as “religion” in the abstract.

  7. smb
    July 31, 2010 at 8:00 am

    I recommend Jonathan Z. Smith (Relating Religion is a good place to start) on some of this discussion about religion vs. the specific tradition(s) in which we operate. BenH may be merging the relevance of religious belief/community to how we live vs. how we think. My problem with the post is parallel to the problem of religion vs. specific tradition–not specific enough to be useful. It seems to me that there are at least three ways to pose this problem. 1) my approach to a discipline is based on my ethical/moral compass, as grounded in my religious tradition, i.e. I don’t advocate legal but immoral actions on the part of accountants. 2) I approach my discipline prayerfully–I pray (or seek in scripture or discuss with my pastor/bishop/HT/spouse/parent) over my scholarly work, seeking from God, as mediated by my religious tradition, valid insights into the intellectual problems I face (I remember distinctly receiving almost visionary clarity during an organic chemistry exam after I had stayed up the entire night before tending to an ailing homeless man and feeling that God had shown me how the molecule needed to be reconfigured). 3. Application of the intellectual/theological/doctrinal precepts of a tradition to a distinct discipline. This is much harder and more controversial. Mormonism in its intellectual roots is profoundly anti-Protestant. Its insights relate to the bidirectional eternity of consciousness, the familial contingency of God, the probability of ongoing directive interaction between divine and human beings. What scholarly endeavors will this inform? I can imagine wonderful literary criticism and some cultural history but otherwise suspect it will end up rather stilted. A risk to this approach is turning over the religious content to the academic discipline, which will acontextualize and often dissipate the significance of the religious tenets. I personally practice 1 and 2 generally. I do not practice 3 in my main discipline (cardiovascular physiology in critical illness), but I have tried to allow 3 to operate occasionally beneath the surface in my cultural history work. I think a formal engagement of 3 would cripple the cultural history work.

  8. James Olsen
    July 31, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Amen to Craig – if we believe Mormonism consists of all truth, than learning various truths will inevitably change our understanding of Mormonism, I think in a holistic way.

    Two other relevant points. I think smb’s #1 might be getting at the first: our Mormonism, at least when we’re passionately committed/interested in our faith, ought to naturally inform the rest of our life and the things we study. Consequently, BenH finds himself drawn to virtue ethics. I find myself drawn to various philosophical issues concerning embodiment. Sometimes there are insights to be had there on account of our backgrounds. Sometimes our own religious understandings and background are significantly transformed by studying what we were already interested in studying on account of that background.

    Second, we’re getting to the point (though I’m convinced we’ve not fully arrived yet), when Mormonism will be its own interdisciplinary field of study. One can already specialize in Mormon history. Various other disciplines are and will continue to become more accessible. In this respect, scholars from quite a spectrum ought to be able to integrate their faith and scholarship naturally simply be bringing the tools of their discipline to bare.

    It seems that one of the take home points from your posts – or maybe just my own position that I’m reading into it – is that too self-conscious an attempt to “integrate,” rather than just naturally pursuing your religious and intellectual passions, can be dysfunctional and unsatisfying.

    Finally, I want to take issue with the simple vision of pan-religious affinity and the religious/secular divide. I think things are far more complex, and it depends very much on the issue. I’ve often found myself with a far greater affinity toward my atheist friends and professors on various political points and issues of flourishing generally, than I did with my religious cohorts. I think Charles Taylor’s “A Catholic Modernity?” is very insightful on this point and the issues raised here in general.

  9. queuno
    July 31, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    While I can understand the professors’ bemusement and/or annoyance at the expectations of the students and the administration, students are actually hungry for meaning, and they want what they study in college to connect with some larger sense of meaning. To the extent that people are teaching things that don’t connect, honestly, students may legitimately wonder what the point of studying it is. And I think they should. This connection may only come up a few times during the semester, but it should come up, or else I’m not sure the class is actually educating.

    Let’s say I’m studying acoustics. What’s the Mormon or Catholic “connection”? It’s easy enough to say that God created sound, but I’m not sure there’s a controversial edge to it that needs to be Mormonized. The statement in the first minute of the first day of class that “acoustics is the study of sound” is all the larger connection anyone needs.

    Genetics, you may have a point…

  10. Mark D.
    July 31, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Catholicism traditionally prohibited usury, and so by medieval times lenders and borrowers had perfected a technique to charge interest without charging interest. Something to do with leasing and exchange. I suppose that could be called a “Catholic” approach to accounting.

  11. Mark D.
    July 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Mormonism in its intellectual roots is profoundly anti-Protestant.

    I think that is an enormous exaggeration. There are any number of LDS beliefs which could be paraphrased from the teachings of Arminian Protestantism, and John Wesley in particular. This passage seems typical:

    It is generally supposed, that repentance and faith are only the gate of religion; that they are necessary only at the beginning of our Christian course, when we are setting out in the way to the kingdom…. And this is undoubtedly true, that there is a repentance and a faith, which are, more especially, necessary at the beginning: a repentance, which is a conviction of our utter sinfulness, and guiltiness, and helplessness…. But, notwithstanding this, there is also a repentance and a faith (taking the words in another sense, a sense not quite the same, nor yet entirely different) which are requisite after we have “believed the gospel;” yea, and in every subsequent stage of our Christian course, or we cannot “run the race which is set before us.” And this repentance and faith are full as necessary, in order to our continuance and growth in grace, as the former faith and repentance were, in order to our entering into the kingdom of God. (John Wesley, “On the Repentance of Believers”)

    To be sure the Book of Mormon is much more eloquent on the subject than this, but the idea is the same. In many ways the Book of Mormon is one of the most “Protestant” works ever written (however that came to be the case, I don’t rule out joint inspiration). Not Calvinist by any means, but Protestant just the same.

  12. August 1, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    queuno, if your goal is simply to teach people to understand sound, then yes, that (and that sort of thing) is all the context you need to give. However, why should a Mormon university, receiving a very large portion of its funding from the Church, and from donors who support it because it is important to the Church, invest the resources in even having a class in acoustics? And why should a BYU student take acoustics? I think if the professor hasn’t thought about these questions, and answers to them aren’t visible in the content of the course, there is something important lacking from an educational standpoint. I’m not saying there’s any question about whether BYU should teach acoustics; of course it should. And I’m not saying that these questions should be explicitly asked in such a class; in most cases probably not. But there are reasons why actual human beings study acoustics, and in particular Mormons, and if the students aren’t put in contact with these reasons, then the study becomes disconnected from the rest of their lives, and the rest of their perspective on the world, and that is a failure from the standpoint of education.

    Why do acoustics matter? One major reason is because music and speech matter, and these are transmitted acoustically. The acoustics of a space and a sound system have a big impact on the audience’s experience of the music and speech they transmit. So, for example, a lot of careful work and design in acoustics went into the new Conference Center to allow it to serve a huge audience with an experience appropriate to the events, many of which are spiritual events. What kind of acoustics makes spiritual music work? How is it different when the congregation is singing too? Questions like this that connect acoustics with a larger context, including the things that matter most to us, add a lot to a class and to the education of those taking it. These are the kinds of connections that should be present in a university education, particularly at a place like BYU.

  13. Nate Oman
    August 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Mark D: There are a number of ways of avoiding the usury restriction. One is a sale-lease-back-option-sale transactions. I sell you my house (You pay money to me); I then lease the house back from you (I make periodic payments to you); at the conclusion of the lease I have an option to buy the house back from you (I make a payment to you equal to the size of the original payment that you made to me). What we have in reality created in this transaction is a loan, secured by a mortgage on my house with periodic interest payments followed by a balloon repayment of the principal at the end.

    The contract that in some sense “broke” the usury restriction was known as the German contract. The usury restriction did not prohibit returns on capital invested in risky enterprises. Hence, I could enter into a sleeping partnership in which I put up money for a venture that was then managed by others, provided that I bore the risk of loss if the venture failed. The usury restriction also did not prohibit insurance contracts, e.g. I pay a nominal fee in return for which you agree to pay me that cost of my ship in the even that it sinks. The German contract was a combination of these two:

    A became a partner of B, providing investment capital, in return for which he was promised a fixed dividend.. B then provided A with an insurance contract that would pay out in the event that the investment went sour. The insurance could be provided directly by B or B could purchase it from C. The upshot of the contract was that A was given a guaranteed repayment of his principal with the dividend providing an interest payment. When the casuists signed off on this contract, commercial lending was off to the races and the Fuggers and others started raking in the cash.

    Sorry — I couldn’t help myself — this is the kind of contracts/commercial law history stuff that I enjoy geeking out on.

  14. August 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    12 — Thank you, Ben H. That was a clear and helpful answer to a question I didn’t even realize I wanted to ask until I read it here.

  15. August 2, 2010 at 7:40 am

    I recommend Jonathan Z. Smith (Relating Religion is a good place to start) on some of this discussion about religion vs. the specific tradition(s) in which we operate.

    Chapter 8, “Religion, Religions, Religious”, is particularly helpful in providing a history of term “religion” and its application as a term of analysis.

  16. Ken
    August 2, 2010 at 9:22 am

    James Olsen: “… scholars from quite a spectrum ought to be able to integrate their faith and scholarship naturally simply be bringing the tools of their discipline to bare. …”

    I object to naked tools, but only on moral grounds (particularly when a tool has too many curves): I’m fine, however, with scholars “bringing the tools of their discipline[s] to [bear].” (Otherwise, I enjoyed your post, James … ;-D)

    queuno: “Let’s say I’m studying acoustics. What’s the Mormon or Catholic “connection”? It’s easy enough to say that God created sound, but I’m not sure there’s a controversial edge to it that needs to be Mormonized.”

    Sure, there is! We could say that God organized sound out of already-existing energy rather than ex nihilo, and therefore He is not responsible for all of the bad/evil sounds in the world. (Happy to help! ;-D)

  17. August 2, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Fine post and discussion. I certainly agree with this statement from the post: “… BYU shouldn’t compromise its religious identity in order to achieve scholarly eminence.” The trick for a school like BYU or Notre Dame is in deciding how that religious identity should inform and influence (or not) the curriculum, student life, and university governance. This requires hundreds of small decisions and a few big ones. On the whole, I think BYU does a pretty good but not perfect job of having BYU reflect an LDS religious identity without compromising the academic life of faculty or students. What more can we ask?

    As to the more general question of intermingling faith and scholarship, the position of the Church seems to be that there are many fields where scholarship should stand independent of any LDS perspective or input. I think that is a sound position, and the student evaluations referred to by queno (#2) should probably be updated to reflect this LDS position, which I derive from the following counsel of the First Presidency in 1931 (as quoted in the “Evolution” article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism):

    In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded, Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church ….

  18. Brad Jenkins
    August 4, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Dave, your last post was excellent. Your 1931 First Presidency message is one of my favorite. I couldn’t agree. I used that quote a lot when I was a ward mission leader. One of the things I enjoy most about being an active member of the LDS church is how much freedom I am given to study, understand and express my understanding of the universe/world around me. My local church leaders have, for the most part, always given me tremendous latitude in my callings (which have primarily been teaching positions, in one form or another, for the past 16 years). We all approach “truth”, especially “religious truth”, from unique perspectives. These perspectives come from a host of powerful influences: genetic, social, educational, etc. However, for me, my perspective on “truth” is most influenced by my personal experiences. For instance, my overcoming two separate bouts of cancer have profoundly changed the way I see the world. It has changed the way I view and interact with God and other people.

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