A Hermeneutic of Faith
In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden argues convincingly that the "rules of the academic game" in American higher education should be changed to make room for perspectives explicitly informed by Christian theology and a Christian world-view. Just as there are places at the table for Marxist or feminist views, Marsden contends, so should there be places for Christian points of view. Judging from the heated reactions in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times to Marsden's earlier work on this topic, The Soul of the American University, this would indeed seem to be an "outrageous" idea. How it came to be viewed as "outrageous" and why Christian scholars themselves are either unwilling or unable to "come out of the closet" and think deeply and openly about the relevance of faith to their scholarship is the focus of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.
I read this book while vacationing in the High Sierras, surrounded by blue sky, clean air, and lots of tall trees. I read passages to my husband, Don, a committed Christian scholar, who began his career as a physicist, then became a social psychologist, and who has been teaching for over 20 years at the graduate level in the academic mainstream. What I discovered in our discussions is something I always suspected: that while our commitment to Christ is the same, the differences in our disciplines, the fact that he is a professor of management in a secular university and I am an English professor in a Christian university, causes us to think differently about this issue.
My husband's research right now is focused on organizational design theory in business, government, and the nonprofit sectors. What he is trying to do, as I understand it, is to critique economic theories of the firm that dominate the field and that do not take into account altruistic, religious, or spiritual motivations. Is this Christian scholarship? If by "Christian scholarship" we mean scholarship written by a committed Christian under the lordship of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then definitely yes. If by that term we mean "advocacy" scholarship that is explicit in asserting Christian doctrines or a Christian world-view, then maybe not. Don's research is "shaped by background religious commitments," as Marsden says, but defended with arguments and evidence that are "more widely accessible." He "plays by the rules" of public discourse in a pluralistic academic environment. He has to if he wants to be published, and he has to publish if he wants to maintain his tenure.
My research, on the other hand, has for several years been focused on religious themes and religious experience in literature. For the most part it has been aimed at a Christian academic audience. For example, last summer I became fascinated with a twelfth-century German Catholic nun, Hildegard of Bingen. I wasn't sure to whom I was writing exactly. I just wanted to know more about this extraordinary woman whose achievements in poetry, art, music, and drama as well as science, theology, and medicine suggested to me the creative capacities of a "spirit-filled" woman. Beginning in 1982 with the first English translation of her writings, and increasingly in the years since then, Hildegard has been acclaimed and ad mired as a role model for women. Several feminist critics have commented on Hildegard's struggle to integrate her faith with beliefs and attitudes that appear to have been, if not radically feminist, then at least moderately so. Her story might have special interest, I believed, for Christian women today who feel torn between the orthodoxies of their faith and increasing awareness of (if not always agreement with) the agendas of modern feminism. And so, I began my research. The first thing I discovered was that feminists were not the only ones studying Hildegard. The most compelling versions of her story are currently being told (and sold) by holistic health advocates, evolutionary ecologists, and various seekers and promoters of the New Age.
How do we assess the phenomenal popularity of a medieval Catholic nun among these groups? Why do they like her? What does she say to them? These were some of the questions that shaped my research agenda. I had additional questions that perhaps only a Christian scholar would ask, questions that a Christian audience in particular would want to have answered. Modern feminist reconstructions of Hildegard's life typically employ a "hermeneutic of suspicion or doubt" when it comes to her miraculous gifts. I wanted to know if these suspicions and doubts were warranted by historical evidence or merely prescribed by assumptions inherent to a naturalistic world-view. Did Hildegard's voices and visions really come from God? If so, how did she know? Did she move in the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit? Was she a "charismatic" in the sense Christians use that word today? Was she a feminist, and if so, how did she reconcile her feminism with her Christian faith? Her spirituality clearly included the practice of spiritual gifts. What might the implications of that practice be for women today who struggle with issues of spiritual empowerment and the role of spiritual gifts in ministry?
Would Marsden consider this Christian scholarship? Possibly. But is it Christian "advocacy" scholarship aimed at advancing a Christian world-view in the mainstream academy? I'm not sure. Probably not. My point is that it is difficult to make generalizations about what Christian scholarship is and is not. It depends on the field you are in, the issues you are drawn to and care about researching, and the audience you are writing for.
Over the last nine years at Azusa Pacific University, I have increasingly felt a "calling" to write to and for a Christian audience. I teach mostly Christian students. I read and ask my students to read literary criticism written from diverse perspectives: Formalist, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, New Historical, deconstructive. I find these exciting and rewarding methodologies for "opening up" a work of literature. But I am convinced they do not tell the whole story and in some cases perversely distort the story. I want to broaden class discussion to include Christian perspectives. I search for books and articles that model Christian scholarship at its best. Frankly, I don't find much out there.
I can respond to this situation in a couple of ways. I can complain that the Christians in my field are not doing their scholarly Christian duty, or I can start writing. Which brings us back to Marsden's thesis that contemporary mainstream university culture is not open to scholarship that is explicitly and overtly Christian. Given the "publish or perish" mentality that drives tenure decisions in mainstream and, increasingly, in Christian universities, it is not surprising that so few Christians are willing to be explicit about their faith in their professional scholarship. Marsden argues for less dogmatism and greater efforts to "be all things to all people": "When one wants to speak to diverse audiences, one must be willing to accommodate to the language and rules designed for that community."
Above all, we have to "get out of our own Christian ghettos," as Charles Colson says in an article I read recently, and bring our case for truth, whatever our discipline, to scholars and critics in the secular world.1 Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we go perhaps to a fiery furnace, but not without the help of that fourth man in the flames whose appearance, according to King Nebuchadnezzar, was "like a son of the gods!" (Dan. 3:25). Indeed, I have often imagined he was the Son of God, the One who says, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6), the One who calls Christian scholars to "let their lights shine" (Matt. 5:16), not in the closet or under the bed but on top of the hill where all can see.
Marsden urges us to reflect on what that might mean for our scholarship, how it might shape our priorities, what we see as worthy of study, what questions we ask, and what theories we entertain or rule out in trying to answer them. For example, if, as Marsden suggests, we in corporate Christian beliefs about divine creation, the Incarnation, and the Holy Spirit into our scholarship, what difference could it possibly make? What difference could it possibly make in the humanities? In particular, since I am an English professor, what difference could it make to the study of literature? Belief in God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—what do these Christian doctrines have to do with how we read and think about literature?
The doctrine of divine creation, the Christian claim that God made the heavens and the earth, the stars and the sun, the porcupine and the zebra, the color orange and the color purple has enormous implications for a Christian aesthetic in literature. Scripture tells us that God not only made all these things, but he liked what he made and called it "very good." Poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins capture the "grandeur" of God's creation, both the process and the product, in words that demonstrate our own capacity to create:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Explicating this poem is not difficult. This is a sonnet, 14 lines, an octave and a sestet, structured to contrast man's limited capacity to "sear," "blear," "smear," and "smudge" up the creation with God the Creator's infinite capacity to renew and refresh and, if necessary, start over. And even if we can't figure out every nuance of Hopkins's meaning, we can enjoy his creative use of language: "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things"; "Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs." This line is a mess grammatically. Where does "the dearest freshness" live? Somewhere "deep down" in things that live again, apparently, things that rise again like the morning sun, for what else springs eastward from the brink of the brown horizon? But who cares, as long as we get to wrap our tongues around the alliterated sounds in "dearest fresh- ness deep down things" and hear the chimes in the rhymes, "Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs."
In his book The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken notes that while Christians have traditionally defended their involvement with the arts of the imagination on the basis of their didacticism or realism, the Christian doctrine of creation and creativity suggests an additional defense: "Works of art have value because they are imaginative and creative. They are the product of human creativity and ultimately of God's image implanted in artists." Ryken applies this idea to Christian critics, all those who "enter in" to the creativity of others. To participate in and respond to a poem like "God's Grandeur" is "to acknowledge the worth of human creativity and to honor the God who gave the fits of creativity to the human race." The doctrine of divine creation can be a rationale, then, if we need one, to justify creating, reading, and writing about literature. As image bearers of God, we have the capacity, as Abraham Kuyper says, "to create something beautiful, and to delight in it."
Style and craftsmanship are not the whole tamale, however. The "meat" of a literary work, if you will, is in the intellectual content or meaning. Sensitivity to artistic beauty is basically a matter of attending to form. There is nothing distinctively Christian about explicating the formal features of a literary text. Intellectual content, the ideas communicated in and through the form, is another matter. In his essay on "Religion and Literature," T. S. Eliot asserts that criticism of artistry and form must be "completed" by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In an age like our own in which there is no consensus on ethics or theology or anything else, it is all the more necessary, says Eliot, for Christian readers to "scrutinize their reading" with explicit ethical and theological standards:
We must remember that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours. And the greater part of our reading matter is coming to be written by people who not only have no such belief, but are even ignorant of the fact that there are still people in the world so "backward" or so "eccentric" as to continue to believe. So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us.2
Just as a Marxist critic might "scrutinize" a literary text for its illumination or contradiction of Marxist ethics and Marxist truths, so a Christian critic would "scrutinize" in terms of Christian ethics and Christian truths. I do not have an exact formula for how this should be done, but I know a few ways it should not be done. Using the Bible to bash literature is surely not what Eliot had in mind! Nor did he mean for Christian readers to see Christianity where it doesn't exist. Every hero in every story is not a "Christ figure" and every villain is not the Devil. Every cross, cup of wine, or loaf of bread is not being used as a Christian symbol. We all know the difficulties of psychoanalytic criticism in this regard. Even Freud admits that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." We too must be careful. All rivers are not the River of Life—sometimes a river is just a river.
My ideal for Christian literary criticism is an eclectic methodology that makes use of the insights of contemporary theory while remaining open to theological truths obtained through "scrutiny" of authors, characters, texts, and readers from a Christian perspective. The Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the belief that there is a spiritual dimension to reality and a supernatural as well as a natural way to discern truth, makes a profound difference in how we approach these methodologies. As Marsden reminds us, all contemporary secular theory begins "with purely naturalistic as sump tions and makes those normative for good scholarship." The Christian scholar must challenge these assumptions and not just suggest but demonstrate that responsible, rigorous scholarship might also take place within the framework of other assumptions—for example, that material reality is not the only reality. A hermeneutic of "faith seeking understanding" that takes into account the spiritual dimension in the lives of characters, authors, and readers would argue that "our experience makes best sense," as Marsden says, "if we realize that we are in a universe of truths sustained by God, even if humans can glimpse these truths only imperfectly."
The research I've been doing on Hildegard is a case in point. Out of dozens of well-respected medieval historians and feminist scholars, I found only one, a comparative literature professor at Northwestern University, who was willing to consider a supernatural explanation of Hildegard's prophecies, visions, and other seemingly miraculous gifts. Applying a "hermeneutic of suspicion" to religious experience generally, especially in the Middle Ages, all the other critics bracketed Hildegard's testimony of the miraculous and looked for more "credible" causes in politics and/or pathology. One of the most popular theories has been that Hildegard suffered hallucinatory migraines, which she used politically to advance an otherwise unacceptable feminist agenda. As Christian scholars employing a different interpretive lens, one of "faith seeking understanding," we cannot dismiss such explanations out of hand, but neither must we accept them as the only views worthy of serious consideration. Christian scholars leave room for transcendence, as Marsden would say, conducting their research in a "spiritually open" rather than a "spiritually closed" universe.
In answer to Marsden's question "What difference could thinking Christianly about literature possibly make?" I would say all the difference in the world. The incorporation of Christian doctrines, belief in God the Creator, God the Son—it would require another entire essay just to sketch the deep implications of the Incarnation for literary study!—and God the Holy Spirit alters our view of the creative process and product, determines what topics we see as important, gives us ethical and theological standards by which to scrutinize texts, and ultimately sets an interpretive agenda that, while not disregarding empirical data and scientific evidence, remains open to divine mystery and the supernatural.
There is another key Christian doctrine that Marsden hints at in several places but never fully examines. This is the doctrine of Christian community. As Christian scholars, I don't believe we are meant to take on the academic mainstream alone. We need one another. Ideally, Christlike attitudes will characterize our interactions with one another and also with those in the mainstream. We will accommodate to the conventions of public discourse and argument, we will become familiar with theories and methodologies practiced in our fields, and we will demonstrate generosity and fairness toward those holding opposing views. At the same time, we will actively support communities within our disciplines; for example, groups like the Conference on Christianity and Literature and the American Religion and Literature Society, and at the local level within individual departments, where there is acceptance of scholarly inquiry in formed by faith. "If such inquiry is to grow as a recognized part of the contemporary academia," Marsden urges, "it must depend on institutions and networks which can sustain that enterprise."
If we are to make a difference "for Christ's sake" in the academic world, we must create and nurture discussion groups, workshops, seminars, and conferences where Christian scholars are encouraged to think deeply about the relevance of faith to their scholarship. Marsden's book has raised our consciousness about the importance of this task. The rest is up to us.
Emily Griesinger is assistant professor of English at Azusa Pacific University.
- "The Crisis of Truth." Renewal News: For Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, No. 142 (Summer 1997), pp. 8-9.
- Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (Harcourt, Brace, 1950).
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