Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
Mark A. Noll
196 pp., $25.00
Christology, Christian Learning, and Christian Formation
This idea has shaped virtually all thinking and writing about the arts for the past two and a half centuries. Philosophers of art and art critics write about the sort of visual art that one finds in museums and about the sort of music that one hears in concert halls; they do not write about liturgical art. The implicit attitude is that the liturgical way of engaging art is inferior to engaging works of art as objects of disinterested contemplation.
When I first began teaching philosophy of art, early in my academic career, I unthinkingly went along with this dominant attitude. Then one day my Christian formation intruded. The question arose in my mind: is it really true that engaging works of art liturgically is inferior to engaging them as objects of disinterested contemplation? Could I as a Christian go along with this assumption? I concluded almost immediately that I could not; praising God by singing a hymn is not inferior to listening to a piano sonata. It was that thought that led me to spend the next decade or so rethinking how we think about art.
I offer this as one example of allowing one's Christian formation to shape what one does within one's academic discipline. Notice that it was not some Christian doctrine that spurred me to rethink how we think about art; it was the liturgical component of my Christian formation that led me to do so. It was the value I attached to worship and to the role of the arts in worship. In particular, it was not Christological doctrines that led me to engage in rethinking. Perhaps with some imagination one can get from Christological doctrines to the conclusion that the dominant way of thinking about the arts in the modern period has to be rethought; I don't know, I haven't tried. But the point I want to make is that one's Christian formation includes—or should include—more than doctrines, and that the doctrines it includes go well beyond Christological doctrines. Christian scholars should allow the entirety of their Christian formation to shape how they engage in their discipline.
Noll has convincingly shown that Christological doctrines can be employed to make a compelling case for Christians engaging in serious learning. But it seems to me that once that case has been made, and once Christians do engage in serious learning, then it should not just be Christology that guides what they do but their Christian formation in its totality. And though explicitly formulated guidelines are useful, we as Christian scholars must always be open to what our guidelines have overlooked.
Let me add that whereas the Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning seems to me both compelling and rich, the guidelines that he teases out of classical Christology for how we actually engage in learning strike me as rather thin by comparison. Christians, he says, will affirm contingency. They will affirm particularity. With the Incarnation in mind they will insist, by analogy, that ascribing a natural cause to some event is compatible with ascribing it to God as well. They will resist the pride characteristic of intellectuals. All true; but very general and abstract.
Noll goes beyond these four general affirmations when he takes three academic disciplines—history, natural science, and biblical studies—and offers guidelines for Christians working in these particular disciplines. It is in this last of these, biblical studies, that Noll's Christology yields genuinely helpful guidelines for engaging in the discipline; what it yields for history and natural science is mainly guidelines for thinking about the subject matter of the discipline rather than guidelines for engaging in the discipline. Of course, how we as Christian scholars think about the subject matter of our discipine is important; but I would say, and I am sure Noll agrees, that how we actually deal with that subject matter is at least as important.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Yale University and currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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