I had the hardest time coming up with paper topics during my undergrad years. The more freedom I had, the harder it was to choose. As a result, I ended up writing a number of lackluster essays for classes simply because I had to. Ironically enough, many of these classes were doing a lot to shape my thinking about the shape of my life and what I wanted to spend my days doing, but little of this bled into my academic writing. In retrospect, the fundamental problem was obvious: I lacked a way to understand and articulate how the work of academic writing and research fit into a world in which the kingdom of God was near.
There are a variety of different research projects which drive academic research today. From the transhumanist vision of technological utopia to the dream of liberation promoted by advocates of critical theory, differing conceptions of how the work of research connect with the broader fabric of human society inform the academic enterprise. Increasingly, the demand for “qualified” workers turns the academy into a factory of sorts producing technically trained workers who are able to “think critically” for the workforce. For Christians, however, the drive to academic work and research ought to be driven by the Biblical imperatives of image-bearing and witness-bearing: humankind’s creational calling as well as the Messiah-people’s redemptive calling.
Earlier this month, I spent two weeks with the amazing folks at Yale’s Rivendell Institute (yes, that Rivendell) where, among other things, we talked about how one might think about the Christian motivations for the academic life. What Manna has accomplished using the language of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glory, Rivendell does with the dual-tasks of image-bearing and witness-bearing. Simply put, for Christians, there are two categories under which to subsume all of their activity, one associated with creation (and its fall) and one associated with creation (and its renewal): the cultural mandate and the Great commission.
For the uninitiated, Genesis 1:28-30 has often been referred to by Christians as the “cultural mandate”:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
This is, as it were, humanity’s mission statement: to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it. Lest the word “dominion” sound too much like “domination”, it would do well to remember that the kind of rule to be exercised was best exemplified by God himself in Jesus – he who wishes to be great must be the slave of all.
What does this dominion look like? The second chapter of Genesis gives a closer look: it looks like taking care of a garden. One episode stands out for special attention: God brings the animals one by one to Adam and has him name them. Naming. The cultural task par excellance. One discovers a particular pattern of organization in the world that God creates – i.e. the awe-inspiring coordination of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen into proteins and cells and organs that we know as animals – and we give it a designation, a place and a role in human society.
This is, I suggest, is the primary task in which academic research is involved. Researchers look at the world looking for patterns of activity – natural and social – which they attempt to name, describe, and embody . It is by no means a benign act, for naming is fraught with social-political implications. Whether one calls a particular phenomenon the act of a freedom fighter or a terrorist makes a world of a difference. Even the seemingly apolitical work of research in math or physics has potentially groundshaking social consequences in the technological implications it makes possible.
For a long time, we have operated with a view of “science” drawn from the Enlightenment and positivist philosophy. Under this scheme, things having to do with “subjective” human opinions and decisions such as politics, economics, and religion were excluded from the halls of science because they failed to exemplify the kind of “objective” inquiry that was supposed to characterize scientific endeavors. (Note: This did not stop various humanities and social “sciences” from trying to claim the status of “science” by means of trying to increase the amount of quantitative analysis used in the field.) This, combined with the crisis of Western civilization post-World Wars, led to a kind of technological optimism that strongly emphasized the benefits of “scientific” inquiry while yet remaining ignorant of its social costs. Before that, intellectual activity tended to be characterized by the classical ideal in its various forms – whether disengaged contemplation of Truth/God as the ideal human activity or Stoic meditation of one’s place in the larger scheme of things – which also tended to minimize its world-formative dimensions.
It is these world-formative dimensions, however, that allow us to see and understand the ways in which our acts of “naming” might be concretely implicated in the effects of the fall. Instead of being true to the imago dei implanted within each of us, humans have turned from glorying God to glorying self. Romans 1 puts it this way:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Shrewd commentators have noted how the curses of the Fall correspond exactly to the blessings of the Creation. The call to subdue the land and multiply one’s seed is met with a curse of the land and a curse in childbearing. And interestingly enough, when God turns to Abraham to jumpstart his redemptive plan, the very things that man was created for and had lost – the land and the seed – are the very things that he promises. Whereas at Babel, humanity tried to make a name for itself and was scattered, now God was going to make a name for himself.
One of most fascinating themes in the Bible is the theme of creation and new creation. If in Adam, humans were bound in slavery to sin; in Christ, we are bound in slavery to righteousness. If humans were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply” in the Old Testament, it is the gospel which “bears fruit and multiplies” in the New. Where in one sense, Christ comes to restore humanity to its rightful place in creation, in another sense, his followers have picked up an additional task above and beyond their call to engage culture: the call to make disciples of all nations.
This certainly has implications for intellectual life. Whereas in Genesis 2, the cultural mandate had Adam naming animals in the garden, in Acts 17, we see Paul naming on behalf of the Athenians the “unknown God” to whom they offered worship. In his speech on the Areopagus, Paul skillfully engages with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his age to show how elements within each of them ultimately point to faith in Jesus. Not only are Christian thinkers tasked with naming aspects of God’s creation, they are to do so rightly, in a way that nudges our different cultural concepts – tinged by sin – closer towards the kingdom of God. This is both a “pre-evangelistic” and an evangelistic task, both clearing the way to challenge dominant cultural conceptions in light of the truth of the gospel and translating the gospel into differing cultures.
The connection between our institutions of higher education and mission is historically suggestive: it is at Princeton, at Yale, at Cambridge that our modern missionary movement gets a lot of its impetus. In the medieval ages, it is at the universities that jumpstart a good deal of today’s monastic orders – the Dominicans, the Jesuits – that served as missionaries to China, to Japan, and to the native Americans. If one is disappointed with attempts to evangelize today, much of it is due to the intellectual currents which have gained ascendance in our universities over the past century. If the Lordship of Jesus is to be proclaimed throughout the world, the work of making the gospel plausible and understandable to all will remain one in which Christian academics necessarily play a role.
In a way, one can roughly distinguish between the image- and witness-bearing task of Christians using the age-old distinction between activities of the church ad intra and activities ad extra. At the center of the former lay the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the task of passing forth the teaching of the apostles and the celebration and maintaining of the unity and holiness of the church. In the latter is the proclamation of the gospel throughout every land, the missional dimension to spread the light of the knowledge of Christ far as the curse is found. In all, Christian academics ought to be seeking comprehensive human flourishing in all that they do, in accordance with the Biblical vision of shalom.
These goals ought to present Christians in the academy with a barrage of potential research projects based on which to direct their inquiry. How ought Christians to respond to the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the United States? In what ways are Christians letting race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, or some other factor other than their shared new identity in Christ define their communion? What are the beliefs and practices that make faith in Christ difficult to communicate or sustain in our culture today? All these and more are questions deeply in need of Christian responses. Insofar as the academic disciplines may facilitate or hinder such research, it ought to be the Christian academic’s duty to allow his or her commitment to Christ to come first and foremost, seeking to find a way to be faithful in the place where he or she is placed.
 Consider, for instance, Esther Lightcap Meek’s view of knowledge as “subsidiary-focal integration” – knowing as integrating from relied-on clues to a coherent focal pattern to which we attend and embrace (see Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology) or Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education, in which philosophy is characterized as a “general theory of description”.