Integrating Faith and Knowledge

I. Introduction

James Orr, in The Christian View of God and the World, maintains that the Christian worldview is compelling because it provides a coherent and unified view of life. Christianity as an integrated worldview embraces all disciplines of knowledge and provides stability of thought and directions to Christians seeking to navigate through new intellectual challenges posed by advancement of knowledge in the modern world.

Christian integration of faith and knowledge is based on the following premises:

First, because all truth is God’s truth and because in Christ all things hold together, Christian knowledge must display an integrative character. The challenge of integration of knowledge is particularly relevant for Christian educationists in universities where they must demonstrate Christian truth claims in a coherent (uni-) and comprehensive (di-versity) manner if they wish to be taken seriously by their non-Christian counterparts. The credibility of the Christian message must stand the test of public scrutiny.

Second, the public character of the Christian message implies a social expression. Christian truth is not merely a mental construct of private fancy. It is verified inter-subjectively by a community where membership implies a responsible life-style consistent with its truth claims. Truth needs to be embodied into a community which comprises people of integrity. Truth is therefore inherently personal knowledge (to echo the influential work by Michael Polanyi). The relational character of truth refutes the suggestion that the Christian message is intended only for the private lives of individuals.

Third, the Christian message challenges a pluralistic society to go beyond cozy chaotic relativism which is symptomatic of intellectual sloth masquerading itself as open-mindedness and tolerance. It rejects any temptation faced by a minority community to retreat into its intellectual ghetto in response to the hegemony of consciousness imposed by the ruling elite of the dominant majority of the country. It envisions a society where common life is based on consensual truth, where force and coercion is eschewed and the only force accepted is the force of rational persuasion exercised within an environment of mutual respect.

II. All truth is God’s truth

A. Truth as from God
The one undeniable fact of modernity is the explosion and fragmentation of knowledge. The fragmentation is exacerbated by a plurality of ideologies and worldviews competing for the honored position of being THE correct system that can hold together what would otherwise be an unmanageable situation.

Christians should be careful not to make excessive claims that only such knowledge that is prefaced by the word “Christian”–, such as Christian science, Christian mathematics or Christian sociology is valid. The fact is, many non-Christian can be equally if not more fruitful in the production of knowledge. The Christian must not cavil or be grudging in acknowledging such contributions. Christians should be glad to acknowledge truth regardless of whether it is propounded by a believer or not. Their concern is that such knowledge is utilized for the glory of God in all circles.

We will do well to emulate Calvin who marveled on the intellectual and artistic achievements of the unbelievers and attributed such achievements to the common grace which God makes available to all men.

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. (Inst. 2.2.15)

A recognition of all truth as God’s truth will guard Christians against adopting a dualistic view of reality and knowledge. By this, I mean a malaise found among some Christians who take pride in anti-intellectualism since for them the transcendent God is known only “by faith”. The supernatural is dichotomized from the natural and God is regarded as inaccessible by means of natural forms of human knowledge. God is relevant insofar as his mysterious supernatural workings are invoked to fill in the gaps of human knowledge. Unfortunately, knowledge grows continuously and the gaps for God to fill in keep shrinking. God in effect is edged out of the knowledge enterprise and becomes increasingly irrelevant. We are reminded of Laplace’s reply to Napoleon when he declared that he had no need for God in his hypothesis. The “god of the gaps” strategy is seen as a desperate expedient. Christian truth-claims then appear hollow and pretentious, and lose their attraction especially among those working within an ethos of intellectual inquiry, such as in the university.

Not surprisingly, Christians who adopt the dualistic approach to the knowledge enterprise fail to relate their faith to modern knowledge on grounds that intellectual objectivity precludes involving faith. In effect, these Christians are tacitly accepting the dichotomy between ‘secular’ knowledge and faith. They share the same expectations regarding what could be gained from a university education, these being often utilitarian in nature. There is no consideration given to how intellectual skills and values may promote a thirst to think God’s thoughts after him. We need more Christians who will display intellectual passion for the development of the whole person in the presence of God, theistic thinkers rather than technicians for a materialistic culture. This calls for an integration of faith and knowledge.

B. Qualifiers: Human Finitude and Ambiguity
Christian integration of faith and knowledge does not entail an uncritical acceptance of the “assured results” of the intellectual disciplines taught in the University. We should be aware that all knowledge is theory-bound and that theories are often informed by metaphysical assumptions regarding the nature of man and nature, and ultimate reality itself. The debates provoked by Thomas Kuhn on the role of paradigms in theory formation, and Michael Polanyi’s emphasis on the personal dimension of inquiry has discredited the suggestion that personal beliefs be sacrificed on the altar of ‘objective’ scientific knowledge. Contemporary sociologists of knowledge have also alerted us to how such presumed ‘objective’ knowledge are often shaped by one’s social conditions of existence and sustained by powerful interest groups which exploit organizational resources to influence perceptions and actions.

This being the case, knowledge so produced may carry along with it a hidden metaphysical baggage that is inconsistent with Christian values and commitments. Such ‘knowledge’ may be reductionist in denying Christian truth claims about human nature and society, and ultimate reality. It may recommend a way of life inconsistent with the Christian understanding of how we ought to conduct ourselves responsibly before our Creator. Finally, such alternative world-views undergirded by intellectual credentials and institutional sponsorship challenge the claim of Christianity as the final and authoritative revelation of God.

Christian integration will always be tempered by a sense of our human finitude and fallenness. The intellectual disciplines remain as human ventures. Scholars often project themselves as paragons of human rationality, but they are no less vulnerable to sinful distortions that hide the individual’s evasion of the demand to live responsibly to the truths endowed to them by God. Those with even a slight familiarity with academic jealousies need little persuasion to agree with this reading on the academia. In other words, human rationality often serves as tools to strengthen human autonomy in deciding where ultimate loyalties should lie, and in rationalizing and legitimating self-interests.

Given the ambiguity of human knowledge, it is imperative that the Christian be critical and purposeful in the way he goes about securing knowledge. Integration of faith and knowledge must do justice both to the integrity of faith and the intellectual disciplines. In the words of David Wolfe, “Genuine integration occurs when an assumption or concern can be shown to be internally shared by (integral to) both the Judeao-Christian vision and an academic discipline.” (Heie & Wolfe, p. 5).

Wolfe’s suggestion emphasizes the importance of laying out the presuppositions, the methodology and the status of the resulting conclusions of research both in the academic disciplines and in Christian theology. A posture of humility and self-critical attitude is necessary to enable a fruitful engagement between Christian faith and the academic disciplines.

Research aims at understanding of phenomena of their own terms and for their own sake, without regard to what causes them or how they can be used to cause something else. This requires a descriptive and qualitative methodology consistent with a holistic view of life since human action involves the whole person. However there must be recognition of the human understanding is contextual. As such, the researcher must spell out the biases influencing the course of research and the conclusions drawn. Modesty in truth claim is also necessary, given the ambiguity of the responses of the human subjects under examination which cannot be captured in cookbook terms. Research is not pure and objective. It is always influenced by the personal interests, data-background beliefs or ‘control beliefs’ of the researcher. Nicholas Wolterstoff explains that control-beliefs include beliefs about the requisite logical or aesthetical structure of a theory, beliefs about the entities to whose existence a theory may correctly commit us, and the like which provide criteria for acceptance and rejection of theories (Wolterstoff, 67-68).

Control-beliefs for the Christian include the following:
-Living responsibly as stewards of God’s creation
-Dignity on the basis that human beings are created in the image of God.
-Personhood as relational, fulfilled in community.
-Epistemological realism, however chastened.

The recognition of the inevitability of control-beliefs in all academic disciplines led Wolterstoff to argue that Christians need not apologize for bringing in their faith and commitment to function as a set of ‘control-beliefs’ in theory formation and evaluation, especially given the demise of foundationalism in contemporary epistemology. On the other hand, Wolterstoff recognizes that new knowledge or scientific developments may also induce us to revise what we consider as authentic commitment (p. 72, 90). In other words, Christian integration is dialectical. It cannot be a piecemeal intellectual exercise since inquiries take meaning within comprehensive intellectual frameworks. This means integration is always conducted worldviewishly.

III. Critical integration
Integration involves several other components:

First, it begins with our attitude which should be characterized by a quality of intellectual integrity and passion. I am not implying that non-Christians do not share these qualities. I am only pointing out that Christians ought to display these qualities as a distinctive of their faith. Arthur Holmes explains,

The Christian believes that in all that she does intellectually, socially or artistically, she is handling God’s creation and that is sacred…The scholar’s love of truth becomes an expression of love of God, just as the citizen’s love of justice in society can be an expression of hunger for righteousness, and the artist’s love for the creative and the beautiful expresses love for the Creator” (Holmes, (1987), 48).

There is no denial that some disciplines may be less directly open to any specific ‘Christian’ approach, such as in mathematics and the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the attitude of the Christian should be an openness to the possibility of integration.

Second, integration demands that the Christian maintains a constant ethical valuation of knowledge in the light of biblical ethics. One danger to note at this juncture is the necessity for Christian suggestions to go beyond general platitudes that cannot be tested or implemented as specific personal actions and social policies. The challenge for Christian integration is to generate theories that will be worthwhile to pursue. In particular, Christian integration should suggest middle theorems (Robert Merton) and middle axioms (J. H. Oldham) in social policies. The latter implies Christian strategies in areas of social life such as questions of the goal and quality of work, criteria for distributive justice, education and social engineering.

Different approaches have been tried in the encounter between faith and knowledge:

Harmonization: Exponents of this view attempt to incorporate academic findings insofar as they are seen as consistent with Scriptural teachings. These scholars aim at upholding together Christian and professional credentials. Unfortunately, there is a strong temptation to disregard the integrity of academic findings through a cherry-picking methodology. Subjective misunderstanding of Scripture (eisgesis) is not uncommon when Biblical verses are bent to support claims that modern findings are indeed though somewhat indirectly found in Scriptures.

Complementation: Christians of this school accept theology and other disciplines as different but relative valid views of the same phenomenon. There is no need to force them into an artificial unity. But these descriptions are ranked according to a hierarchy of values. We rank the sciences upwards from physical, biological, anthropological/psychological, to sociological sciences and finally, theology. The problem of this view is the polarization if not dichotomization of the disciplines. Non-Christians may not be duly impressed – why bother to look to the sky for divine explanations when we can construct naturalistic explanations by ourselves?

Transformation: Kirk Farnsworth, speaking from the field of psychology, suggests that critical integration is “a process of a scrutiny from a Christian perspective of psychological theory, research, and practice, and the underlying assumptions of each; and b) incorporation into one’s thinking of those psychological theories, research findings, and procedures for application that pass the test. Reinterpretation of research findings that are not consistent with a Christian world view into terms that are, so that they can be incorporated into one’s thinking”. The process may be re expressed as “critique (and possible correction), comparison, and commitment.” Corresponding psychological and theological facts are a) critiqued for methodological-hermeneutical soundness and perhaps corrected through the regeneration and/or reanalysis of data, b) compared with each other for degrees of similarity, and c) committed to as truths in one’s own life (Farnsworth, 92, 94).

Genuine Christian integration demands a Christian ethical response. Knowledge for the Christian goes beyond description to prescription. Concepts move to conviction and commitment to action. The dialectical process of mutual transformation of faith and knowledge emphasizes that integration is a conscious, active and purposeful process. A Christian’s quest for knowledge and education should not be reduced merely to an acquisition of bare information and technical skills. Truth is seen as multidimensional and demands personal valuation and decisions. I have already pointed to this important insight by Michael Polanyi. The deepening dimensions of knowledge is also aptly captured by Bernard Lonergan in his commandments for inquirers: Be attentive! Be intelligent! Be reasonable! Be responsible! (See his works Insights, and Method In Theology).

Knowledge involves human beings as rational beings interested in accuracy of facts of experience and right relations between ideas. Valuation is entailed because beliefs are inseparable from values. Such valuation implies a transcendence over personal viewpoints based on judgments made in the light of one’s tradition or one’s community of faith. Action is called for in recognition of the human need to act in a framework that gives unity, direction and accountability in all that we do. This leads to the source and ultimate purpose of knowledge, namely, the Creator.

Valuation is fortunately not a lone individual decision. The Christian can always rely on the accumulated insights of his own religious tradition. Nancy Murphy in her stimulating book on science and theology suggests the following criteria for valuation: 1) agreement with apostolic witness, 2) production of a Christlike character in those affected, meaning specifically freedom from sin and manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit, and 3) unity within the community based on prayerful discussion (Nancy Murphy, p. 152). We are back again to the communal context of integration of faith and knowledge. Kevin Vanhoozer concurs,

“Whether we admit it or not, the worlds of meaning that we inhabit and create constitute our everyday lived theology…When the people of God learn to read the signs of the times and to respond to culture so that they become a sign of end time, they will have achieved not only cultural literacy but counter-cultural wisdom. For the church is to be a contrast society, an ecclesial excorporation [the process by which people make their own culture and meaning out of the resources and commodities produced by the dominant culture] that demonstrates a way of living blessedly here and now by taking not only every thought but every cultural text and way of life captive to Jesus Christ” (Vanhoozer, p. 58).

Useful Books
Kirk E. Farnsworth, Wholehearted Integration: Harmonizing Psychology and Christianity Through Word and Deed (Baker, 1985).
Harold Heie and David Wolfe, The Reality of Christian Learning (Eerdmans, 1987).
Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth (IVP, 1977).
Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Eerdmans, 1987).
Nancy Murphy, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell UP, 1990).
Kevin Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology (Baker, 2007)
Nicholas Wolterstoff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1984).

Related Post
Christian Annexation and Transformation of Pagan Learning: From Augustine and Boethius to John Calvin