The Truth is One: A Reflection on the Importance of Interdisciplinary Studies

by Dylan Pahman, ‘012, M.T.S

Abraham Kuyper famously said that “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest.” His conviction is grounded in what follows: “and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (Sphere Sovereignty) Indeed, I would even push a more philosophical justification as well: if we truly believe that the Truth is one and indivisible, then we ought to acknowledge that all disciplines of study are essentially interdependent, because all ultimately seek to study the same thing—the Truth. And for this reason, I argue that, whenever possible, theological education ought to be augmented with insights from the vast treasuries of other disciplines (and vice versa).

Over the years, there has been a gradual increase in the diversification of disciplines. There is something good and healthy about this—the division of labor has been an essential aspect of human society since time immemorial. Yet there is a real danger, as Kuyper points out, of diversification to the point of isolation. The severity of this problem has become increasingly evident with regards to the relationship between theology proper and what was once referred to as “natural theology,” i.e. the natural sciences. Today, the popularity of books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have become a strong cultural force, propagating a narrative of incompatibility between faith and science, not helped by years of dismissive treatments of scientific studies—especially the theory of evolution and the geological record—from many popular religious leaders and theologians. This is especially bizarre to me considering the way Charles Darwin ends his Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. (emphasis mine)

Darwin, at least, does not see any dissonance between faith and science on this issue, even if his rapprochement seems to lean in a deistic direction. The point being that the Dawkins narrative of incompatibility is relatively novel and ought not to be embraced by anyone, whatever a person’s field of study.

Now, to be clear, I am not simply arguing that theologians and pastors ought to accept everything uncritically from other disciplines; I greatly respect those who stick to their convictions despite the peer pressure of other professionals. But what I hope to highlight is that one need not and should not allow conscientious disagreements to foster antagonism. Rather, apparent dissonance can, instead, be viewed as opportunities to challenge one another to think more critically and see another aspect of the multifaceted light of the Truth. “As iron sharpens iron,” notes Solomon, “so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Scientists can challenge theologians with the evidence supporting an old earth and common ancestry between species, while theologians can challenge scientists regarding the necessity of God-given teleology for the coherence of the scientific method. Economists can challenge ethicists regarding the causes of wealth and often frustrating economic realities that prevent easy solutions to questions of social justice, while theologians and ethicists can help set better guidelines for normative economic prescriptions, highlighting our duty of stewardship before God and his special concern for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, i.e. for the poor and the marginalized. And so on.

Indeed, the idea of stewardship undergirds Kuyper’s pronouncement that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” In this context, Kuyper is talking about education; his words are directed at our “mental world.” Each of us, whatever our strengths may be, have a duty to invest them for a good return to their rightful Owner (cf. Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–28). Furthermore, they are also meant to serve the Body of Christ as a whole, just as “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). So also, taking the time to dialogue with other disciplines offers an opportunity, a duty even, for stewardship and service and for greater communal apprehension of the Truth.

But what, practically, can be done? I realize that the demands of seminary life tend to crowd out free time for study of other disciplines. But, I would submit, there are yet many things that can be done. First, put an academic book on your Christmas or summer reading list that is not written by a theologian or pastor. It could be a classic like Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, Darwin’s Origin of Species, or John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government or something more recent. The advantage of older books, however, is that they are public domain can often be found for free as ebooks on sites like archive.org or gutenberg.org (I highly recommend the latter). Second, look into some interdisciplinary journals and magazines. Interdisciplinary scholarship is in high academic demand right now, and many publications exist that explore the intersection between faith and all sorts of other disciplines, such as Faith & Economics, Christian Scholar’s Review, or Big Questions Online, to name only a few. Reading a good article usually only takes an hour or two and often can turn us on to various ways of thinking or to authors that were not previously on our radar. Third, take the time to read Christian authors of the past who have endeavored to wrestle with the unity of the Truth in the diversity of academic disciplines, such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Abraham Kuyper, or Vladimir Solovyov. Such great minds offer thoughtful, Christian models for broadening our worldviews, whether or not we end up agreeing with their conclusions all the time. Fourth, see if there are any academic conferences that you could attend that focus on the intersection between faith and another discipline that interests you. Fifth, be creative and see if there are any ways that you can integrate interdisciplinary studies into your class assignments. Look at them as an opportunity to stretch yourself. Last, take some time to build relationships with friends of other professions: engineers, businessmen, medical professionals, and so on. Pick their brains about the things they know and care about best and enjoy some coffee or a beer while you’re doing it.

But what’s the payoff? First, broadening one’s range of study helps exercise the mind. Sometimes reading about something entirely unrelated to theology helps us to understand our theological studies better (e.g. human physiology and the Body of Christ). Second, broadening one’s interests can serve one’s ministry, since most congregations are not filled with budding young theologians or biblical scholars. Having a basic familiarity with the subjects other people care about and being able to relate them to the Gospel helps establish the common ground so necessary for building meaningful relationships. Third, in the same way, such knowledge can be a powerful tool in evangelism, dispelling stereotypes that religious people are not intellectual or prefer superstition to rational inquiry. Last, since the Truth is truly one and undivided, your perspective, with your strengths and education, has something to offer humanity as a whole. The voice of educated Christians seems, too often, to be ignored or dismissed, such as by Dawkins et al. Yet the Gospel message—that the Truth itself became incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ, to turn us from error, deliver us from darkness, and raise us up with him from the dead—remains the central truth of all existence, without which every field of study lacks its ultimate fulfillment. As Orthodox priests declare in the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, “The light of Christ illumines all!”

Dylan Pahman is assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality and for Christian’s Library Press and research associate at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He has his MTS in historical theology with a concentration in early Church studies from Calvin Theological Seminary. He is a regular contributor to Acton’s blog (blog.acton.org) and has published in the Calvin Theological Journal, Ethika Politika, and Touchstone Magazine (forthcoming).