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Wolterstorff mashup: becoming participants in the university

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an important voice in our discussions of engaging the university. Here’s a mashup of some of his thinking, which I’ve begun exploring in the last couple of years.

Wolterstorff originally comes from a Dutch Reformed background, in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper. He is often addressing Christian scholars in particular, but it’s not hard to see his ideas within a broader scope: how are we to live in the university?

To begin with, Wolterstorff tells us that the world is shared, as he says at Christian Century (currently behind a paywall). We are all, as humans, participating in the same world. This means, firstly, that there is no separated Christian world, so we do not ‘go off by ourselves somewhere’, but seek instead to bring a contribution into the shared space.

However, although we have the world in common, nothing is neutral. This means we do not bring our faith as an afterthought pasted on top of something else. Wolterstorff calls us to participate as who we are, whole people, Christian perspective and all. ‘The practices and institutions are shared,’ he says, ‘but the way in which we participate in them is not neutral but pluralist.’ The Christian voice that we cultivate is just one of many voices.

In this shared world, then, we are called to be participants, as Wolterstorff explains in this 2013 interview:

We participate together in this enterprise, in so far as that is possible, talking with each other, discussing issues together, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, and taking it from there. That’s the picture I received: being a participant in the shared enterprise of philosophy—from my own worldview, however, participating with others who engage in the enterprise from their worldview. I think it was this sense of being a participant in this shared enterprise, rather than a combatant against the enterprise, that was crucial.

This leads us to Wolterstorff’s understanding of academic disciplines as social practices, which he discusses in another interview, Advice to those who would be Christian scholars. The academic disciplines are shared traditions which, although not set in stone, are established by the give and take of scholarly interaction, and subject to change on that basis. If the disciplines are bodies of knowledge, they are living and organic bodies. In light of this, we are called not merely to accept or reject a discipline, but to take part in it, fully involving ourselves in the conversation.

The mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice.

What might this involve?

  • We are called to love, which Wolterstoff refers to as the dialogical imperative, introduced in this short blog post by Alan Rhoda. This is the love-command of Jesus expressed in an academic setting: to love your academic neighbour as yourself is to seek dialogue with them. We are to treat other voices as conversation partners, honoured guests at the discussion table.
  • We are called to see through the eyes of faith. Having a Christian perspective doesn’t necessarily give you a predetermined or fixed position in a conversation, but it certainly gives you a lens through which to view things and resources with which to weigh things up. In this way we learn to see the conversation Christianly and to speak Christianly within it, seeing through the eyes of faith, with distinctive, Christlike questions and insights.
  • We are called to earn a voice. Our voice needs to be geared to the university conversation rather than merely the needs of Christian communities; it needs to translate into something that others can comprehend, receive and interact with. The aim of having this voice is not to prevail, or even to persuade, but to make a contribution: ‘The goal is to get the person to say, “Hm. You’ve got a point. I’m going to have to think about that.”‘

Let me wrap this up with one reflection. While seeing ourselves as witnesses to Christ, and wanting to grow in our allegiance to Christ as his ambassadors in the university and beyond, what do we do with an idea such as ‘taking every thought captive to Christ’? It cannot be about a Christian takeover of the conversation or the university. God’s world is a human world, a shared and plural space, and our aim is to bring the mind of Christ to bear on it. That makes us not aspiring rulers, but beacons.

Read more Wolterstorff:

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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