Can We Talk? Interdisciplinary Studies and the Spirit of Ecumenism

Don Thorson

I am a theologian, and whenever two or more of us gather together debate occurs. The debate is healthy, if we can handle it emotionally. Debate helps us to understand and, perhaps, appreciate the views of others. It helps us to articulate our own views better and---it is possible---to learn from one another.

Outsiders, that is, non-theologians, might be appalled by our debate. Unfamiliar with the jargon, they can mistake the debate as personal attacks upon one another or, worse, inquisitions. Indeed the debaters themselves might think this if one or more of them take the debate personally rather than professionally.

The same kind of misunderstanding occurs in other disciplines, again mostly by outsiders. For example, I have heard colleagues of mine at Azusa Pacific University debate vehemently over issues of public education or nursing practices. After what seemed to me to be a "knock down, drag out fight," the apparent combatants would walk away, smiling and joking with one another. The intradisciplinary debate may have helped my colleagues, but it left me intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied.

Interdisciplinary debate at the University, however, leaves me with quite different impressions. When debate occurs that spans multiple academic disciplines, there seems to be greater effort by people to explain themselves. They use words and ideas in ways that are more understandable, more concise. Greater patience as well as care is taken to communicate with one another. Interdisciplinary dialogue requires a proactive type of communication that promotes cooperation---more cooperation than often occurs in dialogue within a particular academic discipline. This atmosphere of cooperation can become infectious. As we learn from people in other disciplines, we grow more open to future learning and to different ways of learning.

The Christian Scholar's Review has long recognized the scholarly benefits of interdisciplinary studies. For that reason it has promoted the publication of articles that are integrative of multiple disciplines of academic study.

The importance of interdisciplinary study was highlighted several years ago with the publication of a book by Ernest Boyer. The book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate argued for a broadened conception of and appreciation for more than the scholarship of discovery.[Fn{1)] Boyer also advocated the importance of the scholarship of integration, application and teaching. The Christian Scholar's Review continues to recognize and promote through publication scholarship that is integrative of the discoveries made in various academic disciplines.

In addition to promoting scholarship, interdisciplinary studies can help to foster general understanding, appreciation and cooperation among Christians. This is the whole point behind ecumenism. Although not all Christians appreciate ecumenism and the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, they basically represent nothing more than attempts to cooperate with one another. These attempts at cooperation reflect the concern of Jesus that there be unity among believers (see John 17:21). Christian ecumenism occurs through dialogue, mutual understanding and respect, and cooperation in witness to the gospel.

Scholarly events, conferences and projects that promote interdisciplinary studies can also serve to promote a general spirit of cooperation---of ecumenism. The spirit of ecumenism that occurs can become a type of role model to our colleagues, our students and the constituencies of our colleges and universities. Interdisciplinary studies may thus nurture a general disposition that seeks unity rather than disunity. In promoting interdisciplinary studies, we not only promote scholarship. We may also promote a spirit of ecumenism that helps to unite us in faith as well as learning.

Fn1 {See Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, 1990), 15--26.}

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Last Updated: January 4, 1999
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