The Greystone Way (or, at least, part of it)

(From Jason Rampelt's address given at the Greystone 'Day of Giving' dinner, Sept. 9, 2017.)

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There are two academic values which I have gained, particularly as a historian, have been exercising in my research, and will be communicating to my students. Some of them are commonplace values among academics, but are often not passed on to those serving within the church. The first is the centrality of context in interpretation, and the second is one of judgment.

Theologians are traditionally thought of as top-down thinkers, working from first principles, from an existing corpus of theology, or from study of God’s nature and action in the Scriptures. Typically, on the opposite pole are empirical scientists, the quintessential bottom-up thinkers. Reducing phenomena to the smallest or simplest parts they seek to quantify and explain the world. Historians occupy a middle terrain because our object of study is everything and everywhere at once. We pool together our data not from above, or from below, but horizontally. And when there are missing pieces, we attempt to triangulate on the truth within the plane of what we do know. It’s a long hard labor to build up the context needed to answer historical questions and to ensure that we are not conveniently ignoring some essential part of it.

This is a contrast to what we find among many in the church. They have a dictionary-definition view of knowledge. Go to a book, and there, reassuringly, is the answer to their question. They neither have the patience nor discipline to look beyond the dictionary, which is only a first approximation, or even to question whence that dictionary definition came. It is not the job of one generation to write the dictionary, and another to merely to follow it. Rather, every generation needs to be equipped first to know the origin of the handbook, and be trained to fix it in every place where it is weak or unfit for the job at hand. This is exactly how Reformed Catholicity, that double principle of past and future, is applied to our academic work.

The second value is for a certain kind of judgment. When I say judgment, I mean how we decide one way or another about a question. I work in the area of Christianity and Science, but I think the attitude I have in mind easily applies across multiple domains of Christian thought and experience. Like the dictionary-definition Christians who are lazy in their acquisition of knowledge, there are equally impatient Christians who expect the “correct” answer and that it should be easy to understand and apply. They want a turn-key solution to all social ills. With respect to Christianity and science it means simplistic viewpoints without qualification or possibility of change. However, when one enters into the complexity of the problems, both historically and scientifically, it becomes impossible to have the convenient judgment one wants. Part of my job as a Greystone lecturer is to slowly build the student’s knowledge and skill to the point that they can understand and deploy the long, complex, historically bound, and heavily qualified answer to such questions. The other part of my job is to sometimes disappoint my students with the truth that no good answer yet exists, but at least warn them of the danger of answering too quickly. Instead, one must sometimes adopt a stance of suspended judgment. This is uncomfortable territory for many Christians, yet it is an extension of Christian humility.