I have just had an argument with myself. I’m not going to tell you who won because I don’t want to sound either arrogant or depressed. It has to do with the mountain range that has been built in western Christian culture through academic study. My argument was to question whether something I was writing was going to sound banally anti-academic. I wouldn’t be able to say that I am tribally anti-academic. By that I mean, I don’t like reading or studying, so I belittle people who do. I spent seven years in theological training before my ordination. Three different institutions. I reckon I read a new book every fortnight. Then there are audio teaching, podcasts and the like. I would say that would put me to the right of centre on the spectrum.
What I am critical of is the idea that more study and greater learning will make a person a better follower of Jesus. More to the point, that academic work will enable a person to be better at reproducing disciples or exercising kingdom ministry in general. I am not convinced of that. I see all of the places where Christian people go to learn how to serve God and find that many of the people doing the teaching are hardly serving God at all – apart from gathering, analysing and representing information. I know, I know, it doesn’t apply to everyone who does academic work as part of their training. I just notice that academic training, in and of itself, does not necessarily equip a person for reproducible ministry. It often just makes them academic experts.
There is a branch of philosophy that studies epistemology. It is researching the theory of knowing, or how we come to know things. Its original meaning was made up of two Greek words, one referring to “justified belief” and “knowledge.” So it studies how we know things and come to conclusions about what is true. This is a crucial issue for Christians of course. We are people who are convinced that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life.” (John 14). We also have a book that we believe is revealed truth. My problem is that I am not sure that the epistemological process is the same for embracing Christian truth as it is for mainstream academic truth. For example, I am not convinced anyone can discover the truth just be gaining a body of information. My observation of the regular academic world (and I may not have done sufficiently extensive research) makes me conclude that it is possible to do academic study in a particular field nd then spend the rest of your life teaching about that area without any involvement in actual practice.
I am convinced that this is not possible when it comes to Christian revelation (knowledge of God). At the risk of oversimplification, I would offer Jesus’ quote on the subject of epistemology: “So Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you live by what I say, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32). This is my proposition. I think academic research is helpful when the researchers are willing to put into practice what they have discovered and present their findings by telling the stories of their implementation. Until then I think academic research has limited value and can often get in the road of best practice Christian living.
The same goes for background study or elaborate philosophical speculation about the simple message that is represented in the stories contained in the Bible. It is even worse when someone comes to read a particular incident or section of the Bible with a rigidly presumed systemic view (e.g. Calvinism, pre-millennialism, etc.). The stories in the Bible are meant to connect us with Jesus. When we get connected to Jesus, we gain the life and liberty that comes with truth. When we decide to live by that life and liberty, we will know things. The most important issue here is re-producibility. That simple process is re-producible. Everyone is in, and no one is excluded. It works the same for everyone no matter how old, young, educated, uneducated, rich or poor.
So I am only interested in theories that have become practices. There is no such thing as theoretical Christianity. And there is no such thing as a Christian truth that is not able to be reproduced in anyone, anywhere no matter who they are and what their capacity.
And I don’t need to tell you who won the argument. My great humility makes it impossible.