Scholarship and Devotion: Can They Co-Exist?

Scholarship and Devotion: Can They Co-Exist?

( – Scholarship and Devotion: Can They Co-Exist?

By Prof. Keith Ward

Can a scholar be a true believer? Can a believer be a good scholar? Two parts of a problem that has exercised many in the West since at least the Enlightenment. Prof. Keith Ward, Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Oxford, takes a fresh look at the conundrum by examining some of the main problems and outlining a few principles that may help modern-day devotee-scholars.

Religion calls for total commitment and faith. Scholarship calls for critical reasoning and a questioning of all presuppositions. How then can religious devotion and academic scholarship live together, even in the same person?

It may seem impossible. There are those who say that simple faith is enough, and scholarship is a distraction from a life of devotion. There are others who say that the study of religions requires a lack of commitment, so that you can be dispassionate and detached about whatever findings you come up with. Are devotees who become scholars thus doomed to religious schizophrenia, with two halves of their minds, the committed and the sceptical, condemned never to meet?

Must critical reasoning lead to scepticism?

I have taught philosophy in British and American universities for forty years, and I have been a Christian devotee for thirty of them, and I have to say that it has sometimes felt that way. It is easy to be sceptical about other people’s faiths, but it is quite hard to be sceptical about your own. Anyway, why should you be sceptical? Can you not have a form of education that is purely affirming, and supports your faith?

In tackling questions like this, it must first be asked whether the use of critical reason is bound to lead to scepticism. It does not do so in physics, and that might be a good place to start thinking about the problem.

Learning the fundamentals

In physics, it would be totally false to say that everyone is encouraged from the start to criticise everything they hear. No, Newton’s laws are just true, and if any first year student tried to criticise them they would be thrown out of the class. The laws have been confirmed by thousands of observations and experiments and never disconfirmed (at least at speeds much less than the speed of light, and at magnitudes much greater than that of atoms). They are the basis of modern science, and students just have to learn them.

That is perhaps the first important point to make. Before you can criticise anything, you must have a great deal of correct information. If you are looking at physics, you need to learn the laws and equations of the great physicists, to know how to apply them and what they do and do not say. So, if you are looking at religion, you need to know what devotees believe, what significance those beliefs have for their lives, and what they do and do not imply about the world.

At this stage there is no threat to religious belief. Unfortunately, teachers of religion are sometimes so ill-informed that misleading information is given, and a great deal of prejudice can be conveyed. It is possible but quite difficult for someone who does not believe in rebirth to give a sensitive account of that doctrine. All too often over-simple accounts are given, and the teacher does not have the information or experience to know when the doctrine is much more sophisticated than the simple versions that are often found.

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