Academic Inquiry & Practical Relevance

I frequently supervise student research projects and I occasionally hear something like this: “I don’t want my research to be merely academic. I want it to have practical relevance for the church.”

When I heard this from undergrads I would nod and say, “sure, I get it, relevance, so how about you engage these two or three views on this issue and then also reflect in a final section of your paper on the relevance of this discussion for the church?”

I don’t quite like hearing students say this, but to this point I haven’t made a fuss. I encountered this sentiment again recently and it became the occasion to clarify some thoughts.

It strikes me immediately as laudable to desire that one’s research have eventual payoff for one’s practice, for Christian discipleship in general, and for relevance to the church. But I think this goal ought to be kept at arm’s length. Students should not assume that they already have the capacity to determine when they have arrived at something that is practically relevant or that they know how to determine what is relevant and what is not.

Some areas of research that students tackle are massive and complex and students should seek to get their heads around them as much as possible as a purely academic exercise. They should get to grips with how people have configured the problems and how they have sought solutions. What is the range of opinions? Where are the fault lines? What solutions consistently rise to the top? Rather than cherry-picking what is “practical” while gaining only a general acquaintance with the larger issue, students should sit before the discussion and its history and learn it thoroughly and humbly.

I recently told a student that he wouldn’t be struck by anything “practical” or worth passing on to anyone else in the first few weeks of his study, or even after 8-10 weeks. I told him, however, that the whole time that he was learning, he’d be grappling with the overall issue and coming to a deeper understanding of the field not for others, but for himself. But this would lead to seeing the biblical text in new ways. He’d begin to discern strategies of biblical writers like never before, and all of this would enhance his ability to describe what is happening in biblical texts to lay people more effectively.

Students should not be trying to find the practical aspect of Issue X, to shake loose what is dispensable from what is crucial. They need to understand Issue X more deeply so that they can explain it more simply and clearly.

Student research involves penetrating deeply into a topic, understanding its complexities so that they themselves arrive at a deeper, more involved and profounder grasp of it. This ought to reconfigure their ideological frameworks and transform their vocabulary and conceptual grammar, making them better equipped to explain realities more plainly and more compellingly to others. Further, it will allow them to make connections with a range of other concepts and prepare them to grapple with ones they haven’t encountered yet.

The “purely academic” pursuit is the prelude to a person’s wearing her or his learning lightly, gaining the ability to attain the simplicity on the far side of complexity.

It seems to me that the alternative approach that raids the field for practical “nuggets” often reinforces the assumption that the academy is detached and irrelevant. This is the student who is only vaguely familiar with an issue, who can throw out some terms and refer to concepts, but who doesn’t actually grasp them and leaves others confused and with the impression of what is “merely academic” in the worst sense.

It is an illusion is that the more one gets lost in complex and involved discussions the less relevant and useful that person becomes. This is precisely wrong. Rather, such a pursuit opens the possibility of having a greater capacity to enrich others.

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7 responses to “Academic Inquiry & Practical Relevance

  • gaudetetheology

    My initial response to your students’ sentiments was not that it was reinforcing the perception of a gap between academy and church, but that it was the result of the actual gap between academy, pulpit, and pews. It would be interesting to explore your students’ perceptions of why they believe there is such a gap, how they have experienced it, and whether there are systemic issues that create such a gap, and corresponding systemic approaches, as well as individual interventions, that could begin to remedy it.

    That said, I entirely agree with the general thrust of your remarks regarding time, humility, depth, and superficiality. One of my professors put in his syllabus a statement to the effect of,

    When you study Christian theology, it is as if you are entering a conversational gathering that has been going on for 2000 years. There are ideas that have been raised, debated, and discarded before you ever entered the room; there will be ongoing allusions to conversational threads you aren’t aware of; and there will be many conversational threads that started before you entered and will continue after you leave.

    I found that a very striking and helpful metaphor in coming to terms with the breadth and depth of the field with which I was attempting to engage in my short papers. It was especially effective because it clearly had nothing at all to do with me, with my personal ability to grasp, synthesize, and critique concepts, so it didn’t stir up any defensiveness, as more abstract discussions of intellectual humility might have done.

    • timgombis

      I think you’re right that there is this gap. And I think that the subject matter he has chosen has much that strikes him as esoteric and completely removed from issues he faces in church situations. I think he may have been tempted to write off a number of scholars and their contributions, but I encouraged him to dig in and let himself be drawn into the complexities of the discussion so that he can turn back and re-read what was familiar with a greater understanding.

      But I agree that there is not only a perceived disconnect, but an actual one. Some approaches, however, may only exacerbate that disconnect.

  • andrewcgordon88

    Thanks, Dr. Gombis. This is both a helpful and challenging post for a current student and pastor.

    In reply to the other commenter, I think the perceived “gap” is often one of personal ignorance, and if not ignorance, then laziness. It is summarized in this direct quote, “We pay you to wade through the deep stuff so you can tell us what it means we should do at work and at home.” Of course, you and I immediately see issues with this type of understanding of Christian living in light of the gospel. The challenge then is for the pastor to realize that he is leading his people to a better understanding of Christ before anything else. If we jump to the practical too soon or without the theological basis coming out in our preaching and teaching, we are simply preaching moralism outside of Christ. However, the aforementioned quote as a whole has some truth in it. And as Dr. Gombis notes here, the more we get to know the complexities of issue X, the better we will be able to teach it simply and clearly for those who are not wrestling with the issues at a more complex level.

    • timgombis

      Hey Andrew! Just to be clear, I’m referring to the perception on the part of students that they have to somehow find something practical in their academic studies. It is the responsibility of students to actually grasp the academic discussion(s) and its contours in order to enlarge their imaginations and re-shape their conception of things in general. This re-shaping of students will hopefully alter the way they then engage the church. But they probably won’t be grabbing for academic nuggets to bring to church.

      I’m not so much speaking with reference to pastors leading their congregations of lay people through advanced theoretical discussions and resisting getting practical. In many ways I do think that this is the responsibility of pastors — to so completely know the theory and be so completely shaped by life-giving ideological frameworks that they speak in life-giving and clear and plain ways to lay people.

      If lay people are objecting that their pastor is too academic, I do think that’s a problem for the pastor. If students are saying that of professors, that’s a student problem.

    • gaudetetheology

      I was thinking more of the gap I wrote about here: http://gaudetetheology.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/doubt-in-the-academy-the-seminary-and-the-pews/

      IE, when the pastor does not bring the depth&complexity of seminary training to the pulpit for fear of upsetting the folks in the pews. So, sort of the opposite direction from the sentiment you quoted.

      • andrewcgordon88

        Gaudetetheology, It would have helped me to have this perspective (your link) before responding. Thanks for sharing!

        Yes, and the quote I shared represented someone upset by depth and complexity brought to the pulpit. When I spoke of ignorance, I was referring to those who just don’t know–not their fault but ours as pastors. When talking of laziness, I meant those you just don’t want to know as reflected by the quote.

        I think to clarify to Dr. Gombis’ point: I am a student and pastor simultaneously. There is the temptation as a student to look directly for the practical in studying, so you have something to bring to your congregation. Rather than ruminating on a topic or issue, showing patience and diligence with the issue first and foremost. At the same time, there is a frustration when you sense the people in the pew do not want to hear allusions to some of the deeper stuff of theology that a text brings to bear.

        I guess I quickly tried to apply this post to my situation as a pastor (for which it was not initially intended). But I find myself within the discussion somewhere. I absolutely agree that the pastor is to lead the lay people with whom he is entrusted. This means, you must be leading those specific people clearly and practically.I would never want to resist the practical for the academic, but I would want to search to find some sort of balance.

        I think I misunderstood some of the post and discussion in the beginning–and still might to some degree. Thank you both for your gracious responses.

      • timgombis

        Thanks for this, Andrew. I can understand that you’re in a difficult situation, participating in both arenas. That does put particular pressure on you to want to see greater concern among lay people for deeper ways of grappling with the truth.

        I don’t have the final answer here, but I wonder if there’s promise in what guadetetheology mentioned in the linked post about offering deeper, more reflective opportunities in an adult formation session (or, adult fellowship, Sunday School, whatever). Much of this depends on the shape of each community’s corporate life together, expectations, etc. There are doubtless loads of other considerations that affect this, too.

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