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Word for the Day: Interdisciplinarity. Will it kill me?

I started reading Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality for my independent study course. Sandra Schneiders writes the first article in which she traces the contours and dynamics of the academic study of Christian Spirituality. She describes this academic discipline as having interdisciplinarity. This fun adjective describes the study of Christian Spirituality as one that requires an interdisciplinary approach. The spirituality scholar must draw from various academic disciplines e.g. Biblical Studies, Theology, Psychology, Sociology, Literary Studies, etc. in order to adequately investigate Christian Spirituality.

Schneiders mentions several problems that interdisciplinarity brings to the individual scholar and to the field itself. One of those problems resonated deeply with me. She states that mentors of young scholars “have to insure that the interdisciplinary methodology which students develop to pursue their research is sufficiently broad and sufficiently focused that the student will be neither a shallow generalist nor an academic lone ranger.” (13) She goes on to discuss the psychological fallout this can have on young scholars. “One implication of this intrinsically interdisciplinary character of the study of spirituality is that the scholar in the field is usually not an ‘expert’ in the traditional sense of one who dominates the subject matter and controls the literature in a particular recognized academic sphere.” This can lead to a sense of “panic…[or] generalized incompetence.” (14)

A “shallow generalist” and a sense of “generalized incompetence.” These are the two phrases that rattled my core. I struggle with this. I definitely fall on that end of the spectrum. My spectrum, however, spans far wider than the one Schneider indicates. She is speaking of a continuum that spans within the boundaries of scholarship and academia, naming the panic that young scholars find as they try to place themselves among scholars. My spectrum blows through the barrier of academia and into the realm of local practitioner. I am a pastor in a local church. That fact alone disperses my focus across a wide spectrum. The dispersion spans even further. I am not only a pastor, but, within my local church responsibilities I toggle daily between Middle School Catechism, High School Youth Group, Adult Formation, Leadership Development, Staff supervision, Preaching, Visionary leadership, and graphic design/website issues. I am writing lessons and sermons to be delivered every three or four days. All of that is the spectrum of responsibility within my “part time” job at the church.

My scholarship also reflects the interdisciplinarity described by Schneider, but it, too, spans beyond spirituality. I am in the Congregational Mission and Leadership department, in which I have studied leadership, missiology, and Trinity. Each of these topics have been pulled from their own academic spheres, thus rendering CML an interdisciplinary academic field. My independent study is combining Learning in Adulthood with Christian Spirituality, so that I can ultimately explore spiritual formation in a suburban setting.

Panic? A sense of generalized incompetence? Um…yes. I think so. I must stop this whirling merry-go-round of busy-ness and interdisciplinarity and ask a simple question. What am I doing? Am I the face of the new scholar in an emerging era of “constructive postmodernism…[that] is willing to admit, even embrace, the superiority of holistic approaches to the human subject…its ideal [being] less control, prediction, and domination than mutuality and relationship in wholeness?” (21) Or, am I just a guy who is trying to do too much and will truly be a jack of all trades and a master of none. The deeper question, which removes the narcissistic flavor of this reflection, is this: Can real ministry–the kind in which people are truly cared for and not merely talked at–happen when I am flitting along the surface of everything like a humming bird on speed?

There’s my word for the day: interdisciplinarity. Should it describe my life, or will it destroy both my ministry and my scholarship?

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