(re)Imagine Knowledge

puzzleWhere faith seeking understanding connects with life

 As mentioned in a recent iChapel, for more than four years, these seven words have accompanied nearly every email from my office.  Borrowed and appended from a nearly one thousand-year old maxim by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, these words capture an environment I seek to cultivate through the work of Religious Life on our campus.

Stereotypically, religious experience is approached from two directions on the college campus.  One, religious experience and practice is seen as a subjective phenomenon to be observed and evaluated from an external perspective, noting the variety, the distinctive characteristics, the developments, the constructs, and the mythos emergent from and shaping that experience and its practitioners.  Such an objective adjudication of a religion has great intellectual and academic value.  However, the kind of knowledge acquired through this engagement with religion is always and self-consciously limited in scope.

Two and conversely, religious experience and practice happen regularly and are engaged in enthusiastically by members of the academic community but in such a way that either assumes that their practices are irrelevant to their scholarly pursuits or should be protected from their intellectual probing.  Such a subjective yet isolated practice of faith may enable the faithful to know incredible, rewarding personal experiences.  However, this deliberate isolation inadvertently renders faith as something irrelevant to higher pursuits or intellectually underdeveloped, defined by naivety and assumption.

In the first instance, religious practice is something seen from the outside but only known in part.  In the second instance, religious practice is something seen from the inside but only exposed in part.  The first seeks to protect the mind from faith, while the second seeks to protect faith from the mind.

Now, admittedly, I have painted my canvas of religious experience on the college campus with rather broad, generalizing strokes.  Nevertheless, I feel these broad brushstrokes paint a general yet useful portrait.  In examining this portrait both from the outside (as someone trained in the academy to look at subjective experiences and supply objective observations) and from the inside (as a trained practitioner instructed on how to lead the fellow faithful on spiritual journeys), I have always felt that the portrait could use a little refining, a clearing up of some of its blurry, scumbled edges.

Religious practice, I think, needs to be an active participant in the intellectual enterprise of the academy—not simply because religious folk are already on campuses and need some direction or that spiritual angst seems an inevitable outcome of deep inquiry or that by advocating for religion’s role in the campus I help shore up some much appreciated job security—but because I hold an abiding conviction that the practice of faith supplies a type of knowledge of the world only acquired through habituation in the rhythms and rituals of a faith tradition and that faith traditions only deepen and expand when committed to rigorous examination and friendly yet skeptical interlocutors.  Or, to use terminology given to us by Aristotle more than two millennia ago, religious practice provides a kind of phronesis, a practical wisdom about the world, a wisdom that provides additional insights and perspectives absent the ponderings of the academy should religious practitioners be either absent from the campus or so cloistered upon it by its practitioners as to be effectively irrelevant to it.  This phronetic knowledge may only be acquired in the doing of something, allowing those who acquire it to see the world from the inside out or the bottom up, as it were.

It is for these reasons that I labor to create space and opportunities on campus where practitioners are encouraged to perform their faith and explore it in safe, welcoming environs while exposing that faith to the intellectual scrutiny it deserves.  Simultaneously, I look to created moments and places where the faithful might converse with those of many perspectives, offering the wisdom acquired through faith to be coupled to other, equally valid wisdoms about the world, enriching and broadening all who enter this open and inquisitive conversation.

Out of this desire to link faithful practices with rigorous inquiry and to occasion and promote their interaction, I use this modified form of Anselm’s maxim, recognizing that faith pursues understanding from a slightly different perspective and enriches both the faith and understanding in the process.  Such an enriched, faithful, wise means of viewing the world is found, it seems, only from this kind of inside-out, bottom-up approach to knowing.  Grounded in the complexities and dirt and brokenness and beauty of truly lived life, knowledge of the world in real and tangible ways forms.

This real, tangible knowledge is where my modification of Anselm’s maxim finds its traction.  For Anselm, he was committed to a kind of understanding that might occur when that pursuit of knowledge took seriously the intellectually formative habits bound to our most dear and enduring practices.  Anselm understood the inherent link between doing and knowing and wanted to explore and honor that link.

In a similar way, I want to preserve that link by creating a “full circle of knowing,” exploring and honoring the connection between doing and knowing and doing some more as newly intellectually enriched practitioners.  By embedding faith in the academy, it is my hope, that the academy will gain a new set of voices with unique sets of wisdom and that faith will gain meticulously examined habits and commitments.  And, both the academy and the faithful will appreciate the compelling necessity to always retain a direct and lively link with the material, gritty, real, and practical world of our everyday lives, knowing that such living in connection with the world is the only way to retain this practical wisdom.  Without this connection, our wisdom becomes abstract and our faith becomes ethereal, both are emaciated and diminished.

So, I encourage everyone over the coming weeks to find ways actively and intentionally to link the intellectual life with the faithful life and to link both with real, material ways of engaging the world.  Come to a panel discussion this Tuesday sponsored by IRC on divergent perspectives on the afterlife.  Sign-up to volunteer next week with YHC S.E.R.V.E. at our Stop Hunger Now event to pack 10000 meals in three hours.  Share in an evening of conversation and food as we celebrate our fourth annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration near the end of the month and learn how different faith communities and cultures give thanks.

There are many ways to connect what each of us believes with what each of us knows with the world in which each of us lives because, after all, we are a place where faith seeking understanding connects with life.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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