Scholarship as a Spiritual Discipline

I recently co-hosted a conference at Queen’s University on “Engaging the University”–a symposium on the integrality of faith and academics. One professor spoke up at one point when the discussion was centred on expressions of faith in the public university classroom. She said: “Something as simple as the practise of starting off the semester with a lecture on the limits of your discipline–it sends a message, and sets up a framework for discussion of something more.” The idea that our research and creativity are limited–this could be the beginning of wisdom. Its a way to open up space for wonder, for interdisciplinary connections, and for a certain humble reverence for our scholarly vocation.

Scholarly life is structured by such practises, and by even more everyday routines–customs of the trade that can include academic one-upmanship, ego defense tactics, and intimidating graduate students; or it can include encouraging colleagues, graciously accepting criticism, and dedicating time to mentoring graduate students. These habits shape our character and research in one direction or another. Jamie Smith has been writing on this for years. I lifted the following quote from the IVCF Emerging Scholars Network email.

Academia is a world of rhythms and practices. In many ways, to answer the calling of an academic is to devote yourself to practices that aren’t just something that you do; they do something to you. Now, sometimes we need to be attentive to the ways the liturgies of the university can distract us from what matters. But one of the joys of answering the call to academia is an opportunity to give yourself to liturgies of attending to God’s good-but-broken world with concern, care, and creativity. There are echoes of spiritual disciplines in the hard good work of being a scholar—which is also why devoting ourselves to the spiritual disciplines can deepen our attention and creativity as scholars. And in an age that is flippant about truth and facts, teaching these truth-seeking disciplines to young people is as important as ever. So take heart: you don’t need “spiritual” justification for your work—the work itself is an act of worship. 

James K.A. Smith
Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College
Author of Desiring the Kingdom & You Are What You Love

This is why I like being part of Global Scholars Canada and its partner, The Society of Christian Scholars: it inspires me to see what a creative, collaborative, and holy task academic work can be.

Rembrandt – The Scholar at the Lectern

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