Faith,  Faith and Study

Faith and Study

Just how do faith and academic studies relate? More particularly, how should students relate their beliefs to their studies?

Before we examine the relationship between faith and study we should figure out what we mean by faith and study. Faith, simply put, is as a set of beliefs. A Christian believes, for example, that Jesus Christ is God. She does this not because she can see God in Christ through her eyes or logically deduce that the man Jesus is necessarily God, but by believing Christ’s and the apostles claims. She might also say that God, the Holy Spirit affirms the truth of scripture to her. Faith, then, in basic terms, is a set of basic commitments, assumptions that have come to be believed in some manner that relies on God’s revealing of them and the Christian’s trust in God. Let us also say that this kind of faith is Biblical faith in that this kind of faith believes the content of scripture to be the revealed words of God in writings by human authors. Perhaps this is a trifle too traditional for all Christians, but it is the kind of Christian I have in mind for the purpose of this blog, so perhaps you will grant me my definition (since it also is the description I would apply to myself and a great deal of my friends).

Now we have some definition of faith let us move on to “and.” In other words let us peruse the options that relate faith of the type described above to study. There appear to be a multitude of options, some poor and some partially right.

The secular model suggests that faith and academic study do not need to relate since they deal with different spheres of knowledge. Faith deals, one might suggest, with the spiritual sphere, while study deals with the material sphere. There are a number of problems with this approach. For a start, the Bible (being the content of belief) indicates that all reality is dependant on and subject to God. If the Bible is the word of God, then God appears not to have two separate compartments one marked spiritual, the other marked material. A further problem is that to live this way reveals an inconsistency. One worships the creator on Sunday, but studies as if he is not the creator on Monday. This, of course, raises a moral problem for it is not merely inconsistent, but deceitful  The Bible seems to have quite a bit to say about lying – it isn’t favored by God. Finally, to assume that one can compartmentalise faith and study is to assume a non-religious sphere, a “secular” realm in which no assumptions can be faith assumptions. This is nonsensical if one believes in the sense we have defined since one of the features of faith is that it is an assumption about all of reality.

The liberal model seeks to harmonise the content of faith (in our case the Bible) with the content of studies. The most obvious example of this model is the attempt to reconcile the affirmations of modern science with the teaching of the scriptures. This model adopts the assumption that all truth is God’s truth and it does not matter where such truth comes from. One might just as easily discover the truth from the test tube as from the testimony of the apostles. And if one conflicts with the other no one has a trump card for the truth of the matter. It also assumes that there must indeed be a way to harmonise the two. However, on this model it is rarely the scripture that holds sway. A first hand experience always seems to be more convincing than a 2000 year old report of an incident. It is more likely, the model suggests, that the ancient writer is mistaken than the contemporary peer reviewed scientist. Consequently, scripture is made to harmonise with science. Reinterpretation becomes the name of the game. The problem with this model is that the meaning of faith is diminished to a large extent. Assumptions found in faith become something not assumed; they are critically derived, contingent truths verified by contemporary discovery.

The conflict model, on the other hand, sees study as the enemy of faith, something that must be opposed by the people faith. One might end up in a classroom on the sole mission to undermine the whole project. The classroom is a battlefield between two entirely different claims, and the biblical one must win at all costs. Some Christians get so annoyed at their professors that they spend much of their time opposing the whole academic project. They become anti-intellectual. The problem with this model is that it is very difficult to live out such a conviction consistently  As soon as such a person has need of a doctor they are not that picky about whether or not the doctor believes the same things as he does. Furthermore, the Bible itself does not appear to condemn the intellect. Paul, for example, was not only a great leader, but a great academic  thinker. And that is also true of many of the best defenders and expounders of the faith.

Perhaps there is conflict between our faith and study. And perhaps the relation between them is unfathomable  At least for now and at least in human beings. This might be the Paradox model. Faith and Study are irreconcilable and operate in some kind of dialectic  Neither faith nor study allow certainty about what is real, but both can be undertaken in the hope of an existential encounter with the divine either in nature or in scripture.

Faith, for many students, is what gets one through the four long years of a Bachelor’s degree. Faith operates somewhat like a helpmate. How did you get through college? My faith got me through. We might call it the Helpmate model. There is truth to this solution for faith does help us through trial. The problem is that it is somewhat incomplete. Since the content of faith is the Bible it seems implausible that faith’s necessity for study is merely to help as a person considers math, science, politics and law. Just think of that list–math, science, politics and law. It seems inconceivable that the BIble is unconcerned with those things apart from merely helping a student pass an exam on any one of them.

If faith is about a commitment perhaps it is best to see it in terms of value. What does study matter in relation to faith? Surely faith is much more important. As long as one maintains faith it does not matter whether or not study is good, effective or successful. Negatively we might call this the excuse model. It reveals itself when a student flunks. “It’s okay. I don’t really care as long as Jesus loves me.” The problem here is that there is no condition under which any part of life would really matter. Why would doing a bad job at anything matter? Furthermore, why would doing well in an assignment matter any more than failure? It appears that there is no grounds for valuing success any more than failure.

I have suggestion for how faith relates to study: Faith is the necessary condition for right study. Faith, being the belief in the content of scripture, is the affirmation that scripture is true in all it affirms. If scripture is true, then because it gives an account of the world and all that is in it, then it is the necessary truth required to study any part of that world correctly. If the scripture claims that the whole earth was created ex nihilo by a loving personal God then in order to rightly understand that world one must assume the truth of scripture. That might sound a little circular. However, if one is already a believer in the truth of scripture–due to the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, for example, then it is not a vicious circle.

“Right” understanding would also be in terms of the interpretation of scripture. By “right” we would mean something like approved of by God. We study in accord with God’s understanding of the world. It also means existentially fitting, appropriate to the kind of person doing the study – a Christian. This might also mean that study is satisfying since it is carried out in the favor of the one in whom the Christian believes, it is done for the glory of the one who is highly valued by the believer.

There is also an implicit negative argument at play here. It is something like: if the content of faith is true (the Bible), then to attempt to study without assuming the truth of scripture is to study wrongly. It is to study outside the favor of God. Further, since the very tools of study–reason, sense experience etc–are only what they are, according to the Christian, because of who God is and what he willed the world to be, then the truth of scripture is the necessary condition for the intelligibility of the world (the intelligibility of the world being assumed by the idea of studying the world). This latter argument is better taken on in another post. But suffice to say it follows from the positive one.

So, the Christian student can approach her studies assuming the truth of what she believes – the truth of the Bible. This neither denigrates her study nor does it set it in opposition to her faith. Whilst she might have to defend her assumptions, she is not obligated to remove or compromise them; nor is she excluded from her studies by her own beliefs. Rather she approaches her studies in the knowledge that all she will discover about the world is only intelligible because God has created her, her mind and her world, His world.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.