What are religious research values?
Musings on problematic of ‘transformative research’ in a
C of E foundation University
At the beginning of CCCU’s ‘Strategic Plan for Research and Enterprise 2018-2-23’, it is claimed that the mission of the University is inspired by its Church of England foundation, “to pursue excellence in higher education: transforming individuals, creating knowledge, enriching communities and building a sustainable future.” But what does it mean to ‘transform individuals’ in accordance with a religious foundation, and why is this core association of ‘transformation’ and ‘religious values’ not taken up in the rest of the document? Might the predominant agenda of “evidence-informed” research methods be missing something important, and can we challenge the idea that knowledge can be ‘created’, as if it is simply a matter of mixing together various ingredients and coming up with something new? In the views I present here, I am representing the teaching and research community of the Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred project in the Education Faculty. We are committed to a vision which is certainly based on CCCU’s core values—the development of the whole person, respecting and nurturing the inherent dignity and potential of each individual, the integration of excellent teaching, research and knowledge exchange, and the power of higher education to enrich individuals, communities and nations. We would also agree that at the heart of such intentions lies “a commitment to transform lives”. But it is important to ask what such transformation really means, and how it might it best be described in our predominantly secular milieu.
My first point of enquiry is the word ‘values’. The phrase “our research and enterprise is founded on a values-led duty” and the statement “we are a values-led organisation with privileged access to knowledge and resources” are demonstrated by seven key words: “connected, dynamic, collaborative, inspiring, creative, valued and sustainable”. I would agree that these are important aspects of research, and we are told that CCCU’s research should be “valued by the public, who will recognise our contributions as values-led and enhancing and enriching people’s lives”. We are then being led to make the association between transforming individuals, values and “a high quality holistic student experience” – but how, if at all, do these seven values connect with the Church of England foundation emphasised at the outset, which quite clearly implies some kind of explicit spiritual understanding at the heart of education?
The reference to Christian values raises a dilemma for the prevailing secular ethos that underpins the modern academy. On the one hand, CCCU has strong historical, locational (and no doubt financial) connections with the Church. It maintains a Chapel and Dean and requires a Christian commitment from the senior management team. The Chancellor is none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the other hand, it needs to represent itself as entirely neutral in its teaching and research strategies, as it seeks to encourage staff and students from all faiths and none and cannot be seen to be privileging the values of one particular religion. The result (in this document at least) appears to be a cursory lip-service paid to its Christian underpinnings, whilst ‘values’ are conceived as those of an ‘enlightened humanist’ society based on dignity and enrichment, but divorced from anything explicitly spiritual, religious, theological or, dare it be said, mystical.
This is the plight of an educational ideal based on a post-Enlightenment severance of ‘objective knowledge’ from either ‘faith’ or superstition—the ideal which underpins our academies whatever their religious affiliations. It is the result of a way of thinking which has so thoroughly separated the ‘sacred’ from the ‘secular’ that it has forgotten that beyond both these distinctions lies the possibility of a ‘third way’, a way in which it is possible to recognise and uphold a ‘value’ which partakes of both the recognition of an inner commitment to one’s own ‘truth’, and its interface with the practical and social demands of society and world.
I would suggest that a useful word for this two-way vision is wisdom, rather than ‘knowledge’. Wisdom is an interesting word, in that it clearly cannot be ‘created’ or ‘acquired’ in projects of knowledge-exchange. It is the goal of all spiritual paths and traditions and yet also embodies a practical sense, an orientation for the good, towards the world and fellow human beings, which requires no explicitly religious context. For a start then, wisdom is a word which everyone, of all faiths and none, can understand as pointing further than knowledge and requiring a relationship between individual integrity and world.
Wisdom also implies self-reflection. We would contend that no research project, however socially oriented, could be fully effective without the researcher entering into a contemplative act of self-examination, and discovering their authentic desire for the work. Surely words like ‘transformation’ mean nothing unless this desire, this passion, is seen as lying at the core of the project and leading as much to the researcher’s self-understanding as to changes or ‘impacts’ (what a harsh, thrusting word!) in the world. Is this goal not also a spiritual one, in so far as the researcher seeks to achieve a higher (or deeper, depending on which metaphor you prefer) alignment with what they regard as ‘truth’? Truth in research can never lie in objective ‘facts’ out there, for that is merely consensus. Truth can only ever be glimpsed when the deep, inner desire finds its sympathetic resonance and fulfilment in the work itself – the ideas, the discussions, the debates, the creative acts of reading and writing.
I would suggest then that ‘Church of England values’ need not be awkwardly sidestepped or marginalised, in fear of promoting one particular mythic narrative over others. They can be seen in a much wider context, as pointing to a dimension of knowing that we all have but which rarely finds a voice in the documents of academic bureaucracy. This is the voice of deep intuition, of imagination, of desire, of personal resonance and destiny, of transcendence, of faith in a mysterious ground of being beyond all individual ‘beliefs’, of curiosity and the love of learning for its own sake, of inner truth and the power we all have to ‘make meaning’ in our lives.
Like the blind man feeling his way around the elephant, there are many textures and shapes by which spiritual values can be brought into focus, many different coloured lens through which what it means to have a ‘religious sense’ can be conveyed through an appropriate language, without either polarising into the teachings of any one faith or the strait jacket of instrumental agendas. We all have a fundamental capacity to speak from a place of ego-transcendence, a place of the heart, where we can be truly heard. Could this not be incorporated into our research agendas? If not, why not? Why do we need to “camouflage the sacred” as Jeffrey Kripal puts it? Clearly, by ‘Church of England values’, CCCU is not pointing specifically to the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection or any other feature unique to Christianity—but to an ethos of celebrating the unique gifts and potential of each researcher within a context of participation in the wider community for the good of all. So why not dare to leap over the fence and consider how developing these gifts, this participation, might in fact involve the emotional and intuitive ways of knowing we call ‘spiritual’?
In my view, our ‘duty’, if indeed it is to be values-led, must be towards developing this—a new, deeper and more integrative understanding of what it means for human beings to be ‘religious’ beings, to acknowledge that there is a part of ourselves which will always yearn for ‘more’, that feels awe and wonder in the face of an ultimate mystery beyond our rational mind’s grasp. This is not just about social or community values, not just about having impact on people or ‘creating’ knowledge to share, but it is about daring to be fully human, to risk real transformation, to speak the unspoken. This is the only way a sustainable future can be envisioned, the ‘whole’ human being educated and nourished, the soul enriched. I would urge those who speak of Church of England values in research not to shy away from thinking about this could really mean in our pluralist society, and what all religious myths are trying to tell us about the nature of human being ‘as two’ – as culturally embodied social beings, but also capable of a wisdom which is timeless, empowering and universal.