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.