Rethinking Christian Scholarship

Academia is currently a sad, sad place

A recent blog post by Peter Enns has me thinking. Christians who make it into evangelical academia may face extremely limited academic freedom on account of restrictive “Statements of Faith,” and many more freethinking Christians may still end up tied to such statements for lack of alternative jobs.

Before reading the article, I had already given a lot of thought to the direction I want to head in life. I have been eyeing graduate schools, but beyond what Dr. Enns’ has advised for Christians in academia, the life of a professor outside of Christianity/evangelicalism isn’t very good right now, either. My thought: we’re doing it wrong.

Rather than try to conceive of the Right Way of running high-level scholarship, as though going “back to the basics” will save us, let’s just try to work from where we find ourselves. There is no Platonic Form of Scholarship — scholarship is a cooperative effort, and the terms of that cooperation can change if we just agree to change them.

So, let’s agree to start changing things

I’m not going to pretend to solve academia in a single blog post, but I can offer some suggestions on where we might start heading in the future. One of the biggest changes to learning since the advent of the university has been the invention of the internet. What universities sought to do — bring together the brightest minds in the world to discuss and learn from one another — is now possible just by turning on a laptop without even crawling out of bed.

I started to write the rest of this post as an “advantages of using the internet” sort of post, but who really needs that? What we need, generally speaking, is a practical vision of how this might look if we took academics to the cloud.

But life interferes with our dreams

Some of the main concerns in Enns’ article and elsewhere are practical: we have to be able to put food on the table. We need a roof over our heads. The essentials of life are not going to go away as we plug away at our computer screens while pursuing our dreams in our underwear (not that I ever do that).

This is a tough question for any internet-based community. It’s also not something I can answer right away, though I will offer my thoughts. Most websites survive on advertising revenue. Many online community efforts manage to succeed based purely on volunteer work and/or donations. Universities survive on tuition, donations, and grants. A new online community of this sort will not be able to rely on these sorts of revenue sources — at least not in the usual ways.

Monetizing academic freedom

My suggestion is that we turn to the churches and existing universities while adopting an open intellectual property culture. There is a growing desire within the church to overcome fundamentalist rejections of evolution, gender equality, and same-sex marriage, among other things. The church is already an outstanding vehicle for gathering donations to support various causes, and it may be possible to sell such a vision to churches.

In asking for donations, though, we must be clear that the money must come with no academic strings attached, and we must stick by our principles. We dug ourselves into our current hole partially due to the nature of demands from donors that our universities stick by certain doctrines, essentially paying the academics to come up with fancy ways of affirming our preconceived notions (we call this “apologetics” or “sophistry,” depending on your point of view).

Also important is that by adopting an open intellectual property culture — something similar to the Creative Commons License or the GNU General Public License — we could achieve a variety of different goals which traditional universities cannot: first, we would be able to offer pastors and interested laymen open access to a wealth of information which once may have seemed inaccessible. Second, we would be able to allow small-time collaborative contributions from volunteer scholars.

Between monetary donations and volunteer work from the already-employed, such a project could, in my estimation, very easily sustain a team of researchers operating with near-total academic freedom, if perhaps at a low salary.

Hoping for a reality

This is obviously not something I will pull off by myself. If such a project is to have any success, many more people will have to give their input and effort; however, I hope I have painted a picture of a new kind of reality for Christian scholarship. If you are interested in this project, let’s chat. Comment below or get in touch with me through The Discerning Christian Facebook page.

As always, be sure to subscribe and/or like my Facebook page to keep in touch. Also check out The Despised Ones, a newly-formed Christian bloggers’ collective.

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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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4 Responses to Rethinking Christian Scholarship

  1. Josh says:

    Reblogged this on pro Rege et Regno and commented:
    Some compelling thoughts from Chris Attaway:

  2. michelle says:

    I like the idea and honestly I think this is the path that college in general is heading. The problem is that this doesn’t seem to help the little guy. The amazing professor at a small college who hasn’t really published and isn’t famous in his/her field. If lectures goes online, the people who will be lecturing will be the superstars. That is the appeal because before the internet we didn’t have access to them unless we got into their program. This seems to cutout a lot of the traditional teaching jobs that most PhD candidates are looking for. Again I love the idea and I want it to work and I think the current system is flawed, but I feel like this could do some damage if not fleshed out properly. I agree that the church is part of the solution. I think that we severely got it wrong when we separated church and academics. Those need to be brought together again. Catechesis needs to be happening in the church, not removed from it.

    • Certainly good points about online academics as we have conceived of them previously, particularly with regard to taped lectures. This is not that, though. The proposed idea is a platform for research projects and collaboration without fear of reprisal. While I have not yet figured out a way to effectively monetize the project, it would in fact allow for “the little guy” to contribute to a larger project.

      Don’t mistake this for a new online university. This is a reconsideration of what it means to participate in scholarship more generally. But you raise some interesting points that I may want to consider in formulating the scope of the project.

  3. I lament the current trends. Recently, after reading Enns’ article and the perusing his past posts on the downward trend in academic institutions (both evangelical and non-evangelical) I found myself questioning my own path.
    I have desired to teach now for 5 years. After my first year of undergraduate I concluded this was the path, and my profs/advisors/mentors have urged me on that path. While I have found myself on the edges of evangelicalism (being a moderate Baptist in the vein of the Old Order of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was light years ahead of where the damned institution is currently), I also realize that I would fit firmly in with many non-evangelical institutions. What bothers me the most is that my main passion is teaching. And this almost certainly requires one to have some sort of position as a university or seminary. I do love doing research, but what really gets my gears going is interacting with students. I am not sure how your idea/proposal would quench the thirst of that desire. Perhaps, in the least, it would provide that extra monetary fulfillment that one who wants to teach would need since undoubtedly us inchoate instructors would be stuck in non-tenured adjunct positions, making little and having little to no free time to do much research.

    Nonetheless, despite the negative trends I find myself still desiring strongly this path. Perhaps it is a fool errand. Or perhaps I, and others like me, out of desperation will be required to renew our creativity and think more outside of the box concerning these problems. Perhaps we should all get together and create our own university structure!

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