Perils and Pitfalls of Integrative Thinking

Cultivating an integrated faith is easier said than done. In the hopes of improving our skills, I have identified several failed models of integrating faith and learning. If you see yourself reflected in any of these failed models, don’t feel bad. Many of these have come to mind by reflecting on things I have said in lectures or sermons which later struck me as problematic. These are not so much intentionally formed models of integration as they are gutters into which we easily drift. But regardless whether they are models or gutters, some careful reflection may help us avoid them!

Hermit Crab Integration

Hermit crabs do not growth their own shell, they move into someone else’s. Christians scholars sometimes work as intellectual hermit crabs. They find an intellectual theory or cultural construct that they like, and then they move in and try to pack it full of Christian content.  

To draw an example from a less than intellectual practice, consider internet dating services. developed an internet dating service which seemed to meet a need for single adults having a hard time finding a spouse. Some Christians decided it would be great to adopt this shell, so to speak, and cram it full of Christian content and Christian Mingle was born. The shell of internet dating is the same, the contents packed inside are just tweaked to include Christian vocabulary, answer uniquely Christian questions about prospective partners, and adorned with graphic images that appeal to the Christian sensitivities.

Notice the cultural artifact of internet dating is never examined, it is simply overtaken and employed for Christian purposes or packaged for a Christian audience. This does not mean the product of hermit crab integration is necessarily bad. Perhaps Christian Mingle is good, or perhaps simply neutral. But the important thing to understand is that whether good, bad or indifferent, it has been left unexamined. In hermit crab integration, cultural artifacts unreflectively employed and never brought under theological scrutiny.

In the case of internet dating services, this is may not be a big deal. But the same principle applies in cases that are far more troubling. For example, when it comes to politics, Christians often ask whether they should vote Democratic or Republican. But notice that these two categories are taken as givens—facts of the created or cultural order. No one asks if we should form a third party, or if we should abolish parties, or if monarchies are more biblical than democracies. Or even more problematic, consider preaching in ante-bellum churches that instructed masters in the proper way to treat their slaves but never questioned the institution of slavery itself. In both cases, cultural structures are taken for granted and the only question is how to load them up with Christian content or deploy them for Christian usage.

It is an obligation of Christians to probe the givens of our culture and ask whether they are best accounted for by the creative hand of God, or the deleterious effects of the fall, or if they are simply crystalized into our institutions by habituated sins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this issue when reflecting on the troubles of the church under the Nazi regime. He was appalled and what was condoned by arguing that it was a given—part of the “orders of creation.” As he put it:

"The danger of the argument [from "orders of creation"] lies in the fact that just about everything can be defended by it. One need only hold out something to be God-willed and God-created for it to be vindicated for ever, the division of man into nations, national struggles, war, class struggle, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, the cut-throat competition of economics. Nothing simpler than to describe all this—because it is there—as God-willed and therefore to sanction it. It is not realized in all seriousness that the world is fallen and that now sin prevails and that creation and sin are so bound up together that no human eye can any longer separate the one from the other."

Bonhoeffer’s caution for his time and place should be taken up by Christians in every time and place. We need to take every thought captive lest we tacitly endorse and employ structures that are inherently opposed to the Gospel. A similar problem arises in a second pitfall for those who are trying to think integratively: Christmas tree integration.

Christmas Tree Integration

Not only does the secular academy define the structure of an academic discipline it also loads that discipline with content. When a Christian pursues higher education, that content becomes the measure of competence and its mastery is the right of passage into the academy. To achieve competency, a course of graduate study must be followed which is deep, demanding and detailed. When it comes time to teach this same discipline to others, the starting point will almost certainly be the content that was learned in graduate study.

But if one is teaching at a Christian institution, the stated goal is not merely that one delivers the core content of an academic discipline, but that it is “integrated” with a Christian worldview. The most common solution to this is to search the core content for points of contact with the Christian faith and attach these to specific biblical texts that address or seem to address the topic in question. The verses are often listed parenthetically in the syllabus as if it is from these texts that the content is derived. But the fact of the matter is that the content preceded biblical study, it did not follow from it. There was no systematic study of the Scripture or of Christian theology or of Christian reflection upon the subject matter. The biblical references are hung upon the content as ornaments upon a Christmas tree. The result is something that is biblical in appearance and secular in essence.

A distinctive danger of Christmas Tree integration unfolds for those who take the time to look up the parenthetical Scriptural citations. One often discovers that: 1) a relevant word is mentioned in the passage but it is used in a way that is incidental or unrelated to the topic of the academic discussion, or 2) the topic is merely mentioned but it is not subject of the biblical teaching, or 3) the topic is the subject of the biblical teaching, but the biblical teaching is distinctively different from or even contrary to the teaching offered in the syllabus.

These fallacies are all by-products of biblical study done after the essential content is already determined. The pressure to force passages to fit the pre-determined content is enormous and multiplies hermeneutical errors that are common enough without the pressure of an already filled-in syllabus.