On Inter-Disciplinary Studies: 12 Thoughts

As a matter of personal and professional interest, I shuttle back and forth between different fields of study. This includes, for example, worship studies in general and liturgical theology in particular, the discipline of systematic theology, and both theological aesthetics and aesthetic theology, along with the arts in their broadest sense.

During my early years as a pastor, in Austin, Texas, fifteen-some years ago, I frequently enjoyed talking about these subjects. I talked about them at length and with no want of enthusiasm. As I look back on my preaching notes and the adult education materials that I had developed, however, I see evidence that my enthusiasm lacked a measure of care in what I now understand to be rather complicated business.

As Saint Paul might have said, if he'd written a letter to the Christians in Austin, and he'd included a personal aside to me, which would be extraordinarily flattering: "I can testify about David that he is zealous for worship, theology and the arts, but his zeal is not always based on knowledge."

Point taken.

The desire to be careful should not of course lead to complete paralysis, where one says nothing in a public venue for fear of saying the wrong or embarrassing thing, unless one had spent a billion years editing and re-editing, which in the end resulted in saying nothing whatsoever. Risks must be taken. But a good dose of humility always helps and a scrupulous attention to the peculiar logic and landscape of each discipline is essential.

Over the past three years I've noticed certain patterns of speech and writing in my students that concern me. I've noticed how students will use terms, for example, that are assumed to be self-evident or they will rush headlong into superlatives—Art is spiritual! It ushers the transcendent! It makes the invisible, visible! That may be so, and I am perfectly happy for art to fulfill all these functions, but it begs the question: How so? In what sense uniquely? For what contexts exactly? And so on.

Clear communication, among other things, is essential for genuine communion.

Because I want to give my students a fighting chance to succeed in these fields of worship, theology and the arts, I wrote a handout to help them think through the specific skills and virtues that, to my mind, are necessary to do the work of inter-disciplinary studies well. I'm including that handout here in case it's helpful to anybody else engaged in similarly inter-disciplinary activities.


1. The virtues of an interdisciplinary practitioner are clarity, charity and humility. The vices are hastiness, prejudice and presumptuousness. The virtues are hard-won, while the vices are gained without effort.

2. It is hard work doing interdisciplinary studies well. The hard work is worth the doing.

3. Inasmuch as we are engaged in an inter-disciplinary exercise, we are doing the work of diplomats. This means that we are shuttling back-and-forth between two or more worlds about which we do well to become patient students if we seek to understand and to serve them well.

4. It is not simply a foreign language that we are learning; it is a foreign culture. This requires an immersive experience over time rather than a slapdash engagement in order to learn how things work in a foreign culture and how we may flourish within that culture.

5. If we wish to know what authors are after, we need to pay attention to their assumptions, methods, terms and primary conversation partners, not just their stated aims and arguments.

6a. In order to discern the meaning of a tradition, we need to attend carefully to thought-patterns, linguistic tendencies, favored conceptualities, and specific departure points that open up and close down horizons of possibility for the discipline of worship, theology or the arts.

6b. This means that the confession of God as Triune should, in some definite, concrete fashion, inform our work of interdisciplinary studies.

7. We need to keep clear the distinction between a descriptive and a normative. People will say all sorts of things about their field, but that does not necessarily mean that their statements have to be taken as absolute or final, let alone as true. This is to state the obvious. But the obvious sometimes needs stating.

8. Each of us occupies a tradition of thought and practice that involves a number of things that we assume without question. We use terms, for instance, that seem self-evident to us but which remain ambiguous to outsiders. Reading outside our tradition not only helps us to see ourselves more accurately, it also helps to rescue us from the worst parts of our own tradition. It helps us to see the best parts, too.

9. Just because we use theology words does not mean that we are actually doing theology. Just because we worship regularly does not mean that we know why we worship this way. Just because we make art does not mean that we know everything that art ought to be on about in the world. An assertion about any of these things does not amount to an argument.

10. Being a beginner means that we are ignorant of a whole host of things. It means that we get to ask a lot of questions about which we may feel foolish or embarrassed. The virtue of humility enables us to overcome the fear of how others will perceive us and it positions us to succeed rather than to fail. 

11. Not knowing things means we need the help of others. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Learning in community is ten times better than learning in (self-absorbed) isolation.

12. It really does not matter how far along in the field we have progressed, there are always new things to learn. The virtue of humility enables us to remain in a childlike place of wonder and curiosity, eager to learn new things, again and again, as if for the first time. It also makes us, as often as not, a pleasure to be around.

Screenshot from video lecture, "On the Meanings of Art" (October 18, 2017)


Neil Craigan said…
Some very helpful thoughts. I struggled with this in writing my D.Min. thesis on the impact of the imago dei on portrait photography.
Neil, thanks for the kind words. Hope things have gone well for you since the DMin.

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