Dear Mentor: Transparency in the Social Sciences

Dear Mentor,

In social sciences, I’m often asked to explain the values motivating my research. My personal motivations mirror my research motivations. That is, I see my research as my ministry of Christ’s love to help hurting people in a fallen world. How should I talk to my advisor, peers, and colleagues in my very prestigious program about why I think my social science research is important and justified when I believe the reason is that Christ is the only answer to this problem?

I’m afraid if I am completely transparent about my motivation, I will be ostracized personally and professionally, or worse, give Christianity a bad name. I often end up using euphemisms like “human flourishing” to hide my Christian faith. How does one be a light for Christ’s truth (not just our personal behavior or witness) in a world antagonistic to it?

From guest mentor Margarita Mooney

The people we work with may not share a particular set of religious beliefs but they will relate to concepts like human flourishing and human dignity, as this question points out. If people can relate to those concepts, many of them will then ask—where does human dignity come from? How do we distinguish between competing views of what human flourishing is?

With our colleagues who do not share our religious views, it’s important to talk to them about their moral commitments and engage with them using reason and philosophy. For example, recent work in virtue ethics questions the implications of the current stance of so-called moral neutrality in the social sciences. In Women and Human Development (pp. 59–105), political philosopher Martha Nussbaum powerfully argues that if we care about justice we cannot be moral relativists.

In his 2010 article “Instrumentalism and Psychology: Beyond Using and Being Used,”: psychologist Blaine Fowers argues that the so-called morally neutral stance of most modern psychology actually promotes an individualistic and instrumentalist view of the human person that can lead to alienation and exploitation. Sociologist Christian Smith has written two books that question the moral neutrality of social science, Moral Believing Animals and What is a Person?

None of those articles or books rely on Biblical revelation or religious truths; rather they use human reason and philosophy to question contemporary approaches to social science. Hence we can these works to engage in discussions with people of diverse political and religious backgrounds and get a good conversation going about morality, justice, and social science. These types of discussions can be a good start to then explain to others how our Christian faith articulates well with and even enhances the types of justice and morality many people care about.

Guest mentor: graduate student in the social sciences

I’m with you in feeling that if I said that last sentence in my “very prestigious program,” most people probably just wouldn’t get it. So are we copping out by not saying it at all?

What strikes me is that this is in some sense a translation issue. How can we convey that we do what we do because of what Christ does, but say it in language that people can hear? The task is a lot like trying to speak the gospel in an entirely different culture and language—academia is it’s own culture with its own language and norms, and I see a large part of my task in life right now as learning to be an ambassador in my field, learning the language and norms so that I can share effectively there. I can’t claim to have it down yet, but missionaries would remind us that it takes years to really understand a language and culture well.

We’re often stuck using Christianese when we want to describe Christian ideas. Just because people in your discipline don’t speak that ”language,” though, doesn’t mean they can’t hear and understand the message. I would spend time creatively brainstorming how you can convey to your colleagues that ”Christ is the only answer to this problem“ in terms and concepts that they can relate to. What exactly does Christ do in the situation you’re studying that nothing else can do? How can you describe the inadequacies of any other option, and clearly delineate ways in which Christ’s answer is different?

For example, I could say that my motivations for study are to improve the effectiveness of international development efforts. But ultimately, I believe Jesus is the answer and I would hope to get to the point where I would be able to say: I believe God cares for poor and broken people in the world and also has changes he wants the wealthy of the world to make, and I want to find ways to participate in how God works out those desires.

Maybe “human flourishing“ is not such a bad term, if what you are using it to describe is the holistic wellness that comes through knowing God and following in his ways. What other phrases would colleagues understand that describe how people’s lives are different when they know God and follow in his ways? I would aim to consistently and accurately describe the transformation that you believe God makes in the world and how you participate in it. You might be able to do it without using the words “God” or “Christ.” If people understand that picture, it’s a starting point warming people to the bigger picture of the gospel.

When people relate to what you’re saying about the needs in the world, that’s a starting point to then say, “And I believe God is the one making those changes for the better.” Maybe you don’t say that to just anyone until you feel the Spirit’s prompting that they’re ready to hear those words. Ultimately it’s the Holy Spirit who enables people to understand, and when people’s hearts are closed, no matter how neatly we package a Christian message, it will sound like foolishness.

So I don’t see any easy answer, but then evangelism rarely has easy mandates. We need to be attuned to the Holy Spirit, and accept that sometimes an answer won’t convey every possible aspect of God’s good plan—but it doesn’t always need to. Instead focus on what you can convey, and be patient to take it step by step, and in different words for different people depending on what they’re ready to hear. At the same time you remind us to constantly return to God and let God push your own limits, too.


From guest mentor Christy Moran Craft

As I read your question, I began to think about the many similar questions with which I have grappled over the years that I’ve been in academia. Like you, I have often thought about the possible negative career-related repercussions of being transparent about my faith. However, more recently, I’ve thought about the repercussions of choosing not to be transparent about it. I’ve decided that the latter outweigh the former, and thus, I have been asking the Lord to grant me boldness and to help me be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove (Matthew 10:16) within the secular work environment.

I have found a number of biblical passages to be quite instructive to me where this challenge is concerned. First, we are to confess Jesus before others if we desire that he confess us before the Father (Matthew 10:32). Moreover, we should not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord (2 Timothy 1:8). And Peter wrote that we should always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Second, it seems quite clear that as Christians, we should expect to experience persecution. As Jesus was speaking to those closest to him, he told them that they were like “sheep in the midst of wolves,” that they would be delivered up to councils and brought before governors, and that they would be “hated by all men” for his name’s sake (Matthew 10:16, 22). Other passages of scripture reiterate the same message regarding suffering and persecution (e.g., John 15:19, John 17:14, 2 Timothy 1:8, 2 Timothy 3:12).

The good news is that Jesus tells us that we are “blessed” if we are persecuted for his sake (Matthew 5:10–12). Peter stated that “happy” are those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14). We can be confident that God will take care of us when we suffer as a result of being outspoken for him. Jesus reassured his disciples that he would give them the words to speak when they are delivered up to give account for their actions (Matthew 10:19). I believe he will do the same for us. Even more important, perhaps, if we lose our positions (or even our careers) in the academy simply because we have chosen to be transparent about our Christ-centered convictions and motivations, I have no doubt that he will take care of all of our needs. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Ultimately, we must decide which is most important: the approval of our colleagues (Galatians 1:10) or the blessing of the Lord. As a colleague reminded me, it is reassuring to know that the Holy Spirit gives us boldness; we need not conjure it up on our own. Moreover, our identity is secure in Christ. We are deeply loved by him regardless of our performance or accomplishments in the academy.

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