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How Academic Research Benefits Christian Ministry and Education

The following is a brief reflection on research and its benefits for a vocation in Christian ministry or Christian education, written by Bradley R. Cochran.

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Love demands some apprehension of the good that is loved. … Accordingly knowledge is the cause of love for the same reason as good is, which can be loved only if known.” – Thomas Aquinas[1]

Although I have rarely seen or heard writing described as a tool for human development, my own personal development has been greatly shaped by my own writing. This is because writing involves research, research involves reading, and words have the power of influence. It is difficult to measure how great of an impact certain writings have had on my thoughts, and therefore my actions, at various stages in my personal development. For example, when I became a Christian at the age of twenty, it was prompted—at least in great part—by the words I read in the Bible. It seems hardly controversial to note that in the history of our Western culture, the words of the Bible have profoundly changed the lives of countless people.  Although not all Westerners would find this a happy situation, it would be naïve to deny that the Bible has historically had a powerful effect on Western culture, ethics, education, philosophy, politics, and therefore, people. Although the Bible is not the only collection of writings that have profoundly influenced people, it is a convenient example of how words—written words in particular—have the ability to change people.

After becoming a Christian in the Protestant tradition (where the Bible is venerated as the singularly ultimate authority for all matters of life and doctrine), I was immediately faced with the challenge of living out the teachings of scripture.  For me, this began my journey into research. In my own experience, then, research began not as an academic enterprise, but as a highly personal enterprise of spiritual formation. In trying to live out my faith, I began to search the scriptures and read Christian books in order to know how to think and act as a Christian.  My biblical research was, from the start, a matter of determining how to live.[2]

With the help of a mentor, the Bible, and research, I was able to satisfy most of my questions and live out my faith with a clear conscience. Therefore, although research may not always play a substantial role in personal development for everyone, such development continues to be my greatest reason for valuing research. This paper will be a brief reflection on the importance of writing and research in my own studies and in my vocational goals. Because I also have vocational aspirations to teach and also continue as an active Christian minister, I will also mention ways theological research and writing are helpful in teaching and Christian ministry.  Since in many ways I see my vocational goals as depending on my own personal development, I will seek to emphasize specific ways theological research and writing are important to my personal development.  I propose that the ultimate importance of research and writing in my own studies is for personal development, and this personal development turns out to be of greatest benefit to my vocational calling.

 

Points of Clarification About Research

Although the process of research and writing is relatively complex and involves numerous subtleties I will be unable to cover in this paper (e.g. limiting the scope of research, evaluating sources, developing an argument, etc.), there are a few key elements in the creative process that need clarification before I discuss the benefits of such research and writing.  First, there is research and there is academic research.  Research could be defined so broadly as to include finding a telephone number in a phone book, but this is not the kind of research I have in mind in this paper.[3] Academic research involves systematically finding sources that are most relevant to your question or research topic and reading books and articles relevant to your subject matter.

Research in an academic context is refined and has a more complex ethos and more clearly defined guidelines.  If I could describe the ethos in one word, it would be objectivity.  The goal of objectivity shapes the entire process.[4] For example, good research is not simply believing and regurgitating whatever you happen to read,[5] but reading broadly enough to engage different opinions that bring various evidences into view.  One must have some relatively objective way of evaluating the reliability, coherency, and prejudices of a given source.  Reading only sources one already agrees with is also poor research for the same reason: objectivity.  If one never reads the other point of view how will they come to know whether their own views hold up against counter evidence or argumentation?  Besides, this would take the fun out of research! The idea is this: the more evidence you examine, the more viewpoints you consider, the more objective your research report will be. It would be naïve, however, to think that research takes away all bias.[6] Yet the research process is designed to work against one’s biases and prejudices so as to help one grow toward an ever-increasing objectivity.  Developing critical thinking skills is crucial to the process for this very reason.

Secondly, apathy does not lead people to research, interest does.  There is no such thing as a disinterested researcher.  Perhaps researchers can be more or less interested, but something must move the will to desire to do research—even if it is imposed on them from a teacher as a dreaded assignment!  The most crucial part in the research process is determining a topic for research.  There are many guidelines for how to go about this, but the point I want to emphasize is this: contrary to popular belief, the heart as well as the head can drive good research.[7] The more passion I have for a topic, the easier it is to discipline myself to study hard and leave no stones unturned.  Furthermore, my choice of subject matter can determine how practical and helpful the research report will be to me and to others.  The judgment will inevitably involve some level of subjectivity, for different things are more important to different people, and the same things are important to a greater or lesser degree to the same people at different times.

The Importance of Research For My Own Studies and Vocation

If research did nothing else than provide the researcher with a greater agility with words, a broader vocabulary to draw from in her everyday speech, and a more confident tone of voice in her everyday interactions with people, this would be of weighty significance.  Yet this is precisely the sort of personal development I have found to be the result of research in my own life.  The constant grind of academia—reading books and articles, writing out one’s thoughts, questioning and answering questions—has the potential to rapidly develop one’s ability to communicate.  This has immeasurable relational (as well as vocational) benefits.

For example, when I used to have disagreements with friends over religious topics, the discussion would always escalate into an intense debate that put significant strain on our friendship (at least for the moment).  I did not know how to handle the skeptical criticisms of friends who questioned the direction of my life into Christian ministry and my religious beliefs.  After exposing myself to a wide variety of philosophical and theological opinions, observing how authors of books and articles kindly and eloquently disagreed with each other, and reading books that helped me better understand my own faith tradition, I found myself not only able to have discussions on religious and ethical topics without getting tongue tied or without causing a tense debate, but even able to impress those with whom I disagreed by how I could articulate their own thoughts with more force and clarity than they themselves could (before explaining why I disagreed with the same sort of force and clarity).

Research and writing fosters healthier written and verbal communication between human beings—and this can have benefits for vocational goals.  I have an edge in public speaking—whether a Bible study, preaching, or teaching—because I have plenty to say and craft my words more carefully.  Being able to articulate myself has resulted in greater success in vocational tasks (e.g. trying to counsel teenagers who have no guidance and are struggling with all sorts of life issues, making sure I understand my supervisor’s intentions by asking key questions, communicating the vision of my ministry to those who support it financially, etc).  Because communication fosters better relationships, research and writing better prepare me for my vocational goals.  This would be true regardless of my vocational calling, but is especially true in vocational callings that require high degrees of personal interaction and public speaking (i.e. Christian ministry and education).  In a teaching vocation, such articulation is the life-blood of one’s daily affairs.

Research and writing not only help me to better articulate myself, but they force me to inform my opinions and become aware of the strongest arguments against my own convictions.  This can be a grueling process that humbles the intellect.  It can be a disorienting thing too, if one comes to realize that the persuasive arguments and rhetoric she inherited from her tradition to defend her beliefs simply cannot stand the test of evidence and counter-critique.  It fosters humility on the one hand, and respect and appreciation for those with whom one disagrees on the other hand.  It is important for people in a vocation of Christian ministry to understand and appreciate those within their own faith tradition who disagree with one another about how they understand the Bible and practical questions of church life.  Pastors should have well reasoned arguments in support of their ethical and spiritual teaching that makes sense within that faith tradition.  For a teaching vocation, having one’s opinions well informed is simply the default expectation.  For my vocational goals, then, the habit of reading arguments for opinions you disagree with is vital.

Whether I am serving as a Christian minister or a teacher (and Christian ministry most often involves teaching), I will be bombarded with questions.  The more research and writing I have done in my field, the more likely I will be to answer those questions in a way that satisfies the questioner.  After doing so much study and research, I may know of several books that treat the very topics church members or students are interested in. I may not always have the answers to all of the questions students or church members might ask, but after having acquired the skill of research, I may be able to either point the questioner to a helpful book or research the question myself and e-mail the questioner a response to their question.  In short, I will be able to better minister and teach.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, 5 vols. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948; reprint, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.

Turabian, Kate. L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean. Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008.


 

[1] ST I-II.27.2

 

[2] I was answering questions like this: Should I follow through with my engagement to a woman who is not a Christian? Is it wrong for us to be sexually active outside of a marital context? Should I continue deep friendships with friends who influence me to continue in drug abuse and criminal activity? What church should I join (Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist)? What should I say to Mormon’s who knock at my door? Should I only listen to Christian music? What can I do to grow in my love for God and for others? What school should I attend? What should I choose for my college major? Is drinking alcohol wrong? Is it still acceptable for me to hang out at nightclubs as a Christian? Is it wrong to be angry with those who try to hurt me? Does being a Christian mean that I cannot defend myself when physically attacked?

 

[3] For example, Turabian’s manual considers the mundane task of “finding a plumber” research.  Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed., rev. Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 5.

[4] The goal of objectivity makes intelligible the various ways of defining research.  For example, Vyhmeister defines research as a “systematic search for adequate information to reach objective knowledge of a specific topic.”  It includes “careful investigation of all evidence.”  Nancy Jean Vyhmeister, Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 1.

[5] This is why research is not simply “rewriting other people’s words and ideas into a neat description.”  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 5.

 

[6] In this respect, I find Vyhermeister’s way of explaining research a bit naïve.  Does all research result in “objective knowledge”? The claim needs a great deal of clarification. Can one always be aware of their presuppositions as to neatly list them in their introductions? The very nature of some presuppositions escape our notice and others would be too mundane to list.  Deciding how to list one’s presuppositions is not as easy as she makes it seem.  For example, she presumes a great deal in her own book without listing them in her introduction.  Why is this?  Do researchers really have to steer clear of defending their own convictions and opinions?  This seems impossible.  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 1,3,6. Turabian’s way of explaining research works much better.  “That is how a research report differs from other kinds of persuasive writing: it must rest on shared facts that readers accept as truths independent of your feelings and beliefs.”  Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 6.  This does not say whether these “shared facts” are true or false, only that they are “shared” and thus provide the grounds for persuasive writing.

 

[7] Cf. Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 2: “Research is done with the head and not the heart.”  The goal of objectivity does not, as she appears to think, rule out passion from the research process or the writing process.

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4 Comments

  1. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    I want to share this article with you as I think you will find it interesting.

    Nous: The Concord of Gnosis, Theoria & Theosis
    http://preachersinstitute.com/2011/01/10/nous-the-concord-of-gnosis-theoria-theosis/

  2. Occidental,

    Thanks so much for that link! My next blog post will be include a book review of Timothy Ware’s introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy, and from there on out, I will be posting about Eastern Orthodoxy for a while. I will be including a podcast version of my book review also. Hope you will provide me with helpful input.

    Pax,

    Bradley

  3. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Ware has some very intriguing audio lectures on the atonement and the cross of Christ. In them he lays out certain criteria to assess each theory and then walks through the various theories examining them with criteria. I listened to them years ago and appreciated them greatly. I have found them again at the bottom of this page:

    http://holycrossonline.org/our_parish/media/
    * Lecture I: The Cross as a Redeeming Sacrifice
    * Lecture II: The Cross as Suffering Love
    * Lecture III: The Meaning of Forgiveness

  4. Occidental … OMG. Very interested. I will be listening to these this week! Thanks so much for the link. So far I have found Ware to be the easiest to read among the Eastern Orthodox theologians. He seems to be more aware of Western sensitivities.

    Let me know if you know of any other lectures or podcasts that you have found very interesting (I already listen to certain Ancient Faith Radio podcasts).

    Thanks!

    Bradley

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