Discussion Guide for Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship


Do you agree or disagree that the contemporary university culture is hollow at its core?

Prominent academics "are unable to produce a compelling basis for preferring one set of principles over another… [O]thers… do not even try to deal with first principles…. Knowledge today is oriented increasingly toward the practical; at the same time, in most fields the vast increases in information render our expertise more fragmentary and detached from the larger issues of life" (3).

How optimistic is the book’s thesis? Do you agree or disagree?

"The proposal is that mainstream American higher education should be more open to explicit discussion of the relationship of religious faith to learning. Scholars who have religious faith should be reflecting on the intellectual implications of that faith bringing those reflections into the mainstream of intellectual life" (3).

Why do so few integrate?

"Unquestionably one of the main reasons so few reflect on the implications of faith for learning is that they have been formed by an academic culture in which such reflection is discouraged" (4).

Do you agree that socialization is a central reason so few integrate?

"The fact is that, no matter what the subject, our dominant academic culture trains scholars to keep quiet about their faith as the price of full acceptance in that community" (4-5, 7).

The author raises five arguments vs. integration. Do any of them have any initial appeal?

  1. "It is very common, for instance, for academics to dismiss religion as simply non-empirical and therefore worthy of no serious consideration…" (5).
  2. "Even though there may be cases of discrimination, such critics point out, many other groups have suffered much more, often at the hands of Christians" (6).
  3. "It is said that the respect accorded to a number of avowedly Christian scholars proves that there is no general anti-religious discrimination in the academy" (6).
  4. "By and large, however, the process of acculturation teaches those entering the profession that concerns about faith are an intrusion that will meet with deep resentment from at least a minority of their colleagues and superiors. Added to this is the alleged dogma for "separation of church and state" (7).
  5. "Outside of theology itself, do Christian perspectives really make much difference is scholarship? After all, there is no Christian mathematics or no distinctly Christian way of measuring chemical reactions. So what are we talking about?" (9).

Do you meet this response? How should you handle this?

"These observations will immediately raise objections from some who are deeply religious. Am I not saying in effect that they will have to compromise their faith? As Christians are likely to put it, are we not serving two masters…. Should Christian scholars expect or desire to be fully accepted in mainstream academia, where their basic commitments will often be regarded as foolishness? Does playing by the rules of the dominant academic community inevitably compromise one’s faith?" (11).

Chapter 3: "Christian Scholarship and the Rules of the Game"

What is the thesis of Chapter 3?

"Religious perspectives ought to be recognized as legitimate in the mainstream academy so long as their proponents are willing to support the rules necessary for constructive exchange of ideas in a pluralistic setting" (45).

Do you think there is anything wrong with this understanding of the essence of "Christian Scholarship"?

What logical error/fallacy is made when one says "Your motivation is religious, therefore your data is invalid?" What error is made when one argues a religious prejudice should not intrude in their scholarship? What logical fallacy is evidenced by the view that allowing for Christian scholarship will lead to cutting off of all intellectual exchange?

Summarize the main points regarding making religious perspectives explicit. Do you agree that some or all of these are appropriate rules? Why or why not? Do you agree that by following some/all of these rules the objections to making religious perspectives explicit can be nullified? Why or why not?

What is the central integrative question Marsden suggests the Christian scholar ask? Do you agree? Why or why not?

"If this religious teaching were true, how would it change the way we look at the subject at hand" (52).

Marsden suggests that true Christian scholarship will actually be more even, fair, critical of its own views than other, "secular" approaches to scholarship, which can be quite partisan. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Marsden raises objection on the other side of the debate: proposed Christian scholarship is too docile a project, if we really believe Christian revelation to be true. What is his response? Do you agree with his rejoinder?

Chapter 4: "What Difference Could It Possibly Make?"

What is the thesis of Chapter 4?

"This chapter responds to some of the most significant questions that are likely to be raised regarding the possibility or advisability of developing identifiably Christian scholarship. It also sketches some of the types of ways in which we should expect Christian perspectives to have real impact" (59).

What are the common objections Marsden raises?

"The argument is that there are lots of academic topics which Christian perspectives or in this case denominational perspectives, do not seem to change substantially. Hence it seems that we must be chasing a phantom" (60).

"Implications of the faith may sometimes have an important bearing on their theories and interpretations.. Even mathematicians or technical scientists will be able to point out some faith-related considerations that have relevance to the foundational questions affecting the frameworks of their disciplines or the applications of their work" (61).

Are there additional objections you hear? What is the most common objection you hear? What is your response? Are you satisfied with your response? What are Marsden’s responses? Do you find the responses compelling? Why or why not?

Is there one Christian perspective? What should be included in "mere Christianity"?

What are the various ways to integrate?

Chapter 5: "The Positive Contributions of Theological Context"
Questions by Jon Boyd

Perhaps the best overall question is Marsden’s own: "Suppose someone believed in God, how would the assumptions or conclusions of our discipline look different?"

"Because there are many Christian theologies and many academic disciplines, it is impossible to present a simple set of rules for how theology might be integrated with other scholarship" (84).

Leaving aside the many answers to that question for the moment, do you think it’s a valid and useful question to ask?

He argues that the universe’s divine creation provides a solid foundation for both our morality and our epistemology (or "philosophy of knowledge"). Which of these, if either, is the bigger issue in your field?

Marsden suggests that the Incarnation broadly construed — the interpenetration of the natural and the supernatural — has "huge implications when [academics] relate their subjects to the larger issues of life." Have you seen this happen? That is, how often does the "occasion to articulate [your] understanding of the wider context — philosophical, historical, or practical —" of your academic work arise (92)?

Are there ways to "pump up" your theological understanding in anticipation of such occasions? Are there ways to make such occasions more frequent and meaningful?

Have you read or seen or heard a work of art, literature, drama, or music that helped achieve this difficult, but important, goal? Anyone inspired to work toward this end? On Marsden’s idea about artists helping us to envision the Incarnation (92), compare this quotation:

"As [Frederick] Buechner has noted, many modern writers have plumbed the depths of despair in a world where God seems largely absent, but few have tried to tackle the reality of what salvation, of what God’s presence, might mean" (Philip Yancey, "The Reverend of Oz," Books & Culture 3, no. 2 [March/April 1997]: 9).

He seems to think the impact the doctrine of the Holy Spirit might have on academics — chiefly on their "attitudes," especially fostering humility (96) — is very important. Perhaps an outbreak of academic humility would be spiritually miraculous indeed! Do you agree?

On the one hand, he emphasizes the weakness or depravity of the human condition. On the other, he introduces Augustine’s "City of God / City of Man" concept, and uses it to ennoble the human condition and the academic enterprise. How do these fit together? (Perhaps reviewing pages 97-98 would help.)

He concludes that "the best education involves being not only critical, but self-critical" (100). Can you think of ways a vigorous, biblical Christianity might correct your own, personal academic path? (This is intended to be a tough, very personal question!)

Are there "sacred cows" that you cherish in your discipline which could benefit from a Christ-centered reevaluation?

Chapter 6: "Building Academic Communities"

Marsden’s main point is the need for academic communities (from the local to the international levels). Do you agree? Why or why not?

What are the hindrances at a secular university? at a research university?

Have you sought community? If so, where and how? With what success? If you desire more community, how might you go about finding it?

Is there a Christian society in your field? If so, are you a member? If not, are you in a position to form one?

A related emphasis of the chapter is the centrality of the spiritual life and virtues, and the need of community for such to be fostered. Do you agree community is necessary for the development of such virtue? Why or why not?

Does your local church provide this community? If so, how? If not, why not?

If you sense need of such community on campus, how might you be able to find such community? Might ESN help?

What is the next practical step you need to take to find or develop such community (on some level, local or beyond)?


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