Reflections particularly on chanpter 11 & 15: John Wolffe

Professor John Wolffe, Faculty of Arts, The Open University, Walton Hall,

Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It seems useful briefly to set my comments in an intellectual autobiographical context. My first degree and my doctorate are both in History, although my postgraduate research took me into areas that are very much in the borderlands of History and Theology. I then taught for five years in a History Department, at the University of York, before being appointed to the staff of the Open University as Lecturer in Religious Studies in 1990. When I was promoted to a Chair early last year I was particularly pleased that it at last became possible to reflect the actual scope of my academic interests in my formal job title, which is now Professor of Religious History.

So I see myself as very much an interdisciplinary person, and I operate in an institution and a faculty that has a strong tradition of interdisciplinary teaching, which I find enormously enriching. I am also proud not to be a theologian, the more so after reading Gavin D'Costa's stimulating chapter on ‘the Babylonian captivity of theology in the secular university'! I very much agree with D'Costa's analysis in his exposure of the ways in which Theology, in order to retain some kind of validity as an academic discipline in secular universities  has sacrificed its claims to teach an integrated Christian world view and has become simply ‘a study of texts that are concerned with religious matters'. It is for that reason, among others, that I personally steer clear of Theology as an academic discipline, not like secular colleagues, because it seems too much concerned with Christianity, but because it is not Christian enough.

Where I part company with D'Costa though is in his subsequent argument that Religious Studies, which has grown up alongside Theology since the 1960s, is primarily secular and reductionist. I strongly believe that the objectivity in the study of religion that the discipline strives for can actually cut both ways, in exposing the problems and limitations of secularism and secularity as well as in refusing to accord any prima facie validity to Christian truth claims. Academic Religious Studies asks key questions that churches are not always good at asking for themselves - why do churches grow and decline? Is our society inexorably becoming more secular? How do we reach a dispassionate understanding of the place of Islam in the contemporary world? Religious Studies is also an inherently interdisciplinary discipline. It draws for example on history, anthropology, sociology, literature and philosophy.  In that sense it leads us to a wider and holistic view of the world that would seem consistent with Christian teaching. From a Christian faith perspective there will indeed be issues that Religious Studies does not address sufficiently explicitly, but I firmly believe that it can be a servant rather than an enemy of the church.

This leads me to chapter 15, William Kay's treatment of interdisciplinary perspectives. There is again much that I like in this chapter, particularly his careful distinction between the institutional and more strictly intellectual dimensions of interdisciplinarity. We are all I suspect familiar with situations where organizational boundaries are a barrier to collaboration with colleagues working in closely related areas. On other other hand, as Kay points out, true interdisciplinarity raises much greater intellectual challenges and opportunities, particularly when one is operating at an interface where rules and criteria do not yet exist. Here, he suggests, there is a real opportunity for Christians constructively to shape academic agendas.

Kay's argument here very much chimes with my own thinking. I am convinced that a key way forward for Christian worldview thinking is an interdisciplinary one. In most, if not all of our disciplines, the limits and rules of enquiry have been set by primarily secular thinking, which implicitly preclude asking the bigger questions that cut across disciplines. Here it may well become possible to introduce Christian perspectives while retaining an appropriate degree of academic rigour. To offer an analogy: in finding someone to service our car, most of us would be more concerned about whether we were employing  a good mechanic that whether or not he was a good Christian. However if commissioning somewhat to draw up an integrated transport policy for a whole city or country, we might well feel that there were distinctively Christian perspectives and outlooks that could legitimately and usefully be advanced. In the same way it seems unrealistic or perhaps even rather silly to look for Christian approaches in the nuts and bolts of academic life, but we should surely be trying to articulate a wider Christian worldview that transcends and illuminates this kind of detail.

I think Kay is though too cautious in his hopes for interdisciplinarity. He writes (p.256) that ‘interdisciplinary study between physics and literature fails to function.' That is a fair judgement on the status quo, and on the very different subject matter of the two disciplines in question. However, in a Christian context, might there not be useful conversations to be had between physicists and literary scholars on how we understand and interpret physical phenomena in creation? Might not a Christian understanding combine the insights of scientists and poets? As a starting point for such a discussion what about Joseph Addison's great hymn, first published in 1712?

            The spacious firmament on high,
            With all the blue ethereal sky,
            And spangled heavens, a shining frame,

            Their great Original proclaim.

            The unwearied sun from day to day
            Does his Creator's power display,

            And publishes to every land
            The works of an almighty hand.

I am not sure whether or not I would want to advocate a Christian university in an institutional sense. While it is a noble vision, it could also easily become an introverted and self-indulgent one. I have taught in secular universities for twenty years, and although I often struggle ‘through a glass darkly' to see, much less to express, a Christian viewpoint, I believe such environments are an invaluable stimulus and discipline as well as a constraint. I am however a convinced advocate of the value of sustained intellectual exploration and conversations among Christian academics, both as a means of strengthening our collective witness to Christ, but also of serving our academic disciplines through the distinctive perspectives and insights we can offer.