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.