Why research matters: the so what question

As a biblical scholar who has been a researcher for over twenty years now (where did the time go?), I have often been asked the “so what?” question. Why do you do research on the bible and what difference does it make?

I suspect that these are questions that have been posed to many researchers in theology, history, and biblical studies, and perhaps even those in practical ministry and related disciplines.

My response? It matters a lot!

As a biblical scholar I deal with ancient texts—and as a Hebrew Bible scholar those texts are especially ancient. Oddly enough, it is the antiquity of the texts that make ongoing research so important. The bible is a live text, a book that continues to be central to the life of the church and influential in wider culture from subtle references in movies and tv shows through to more overt uses in social and political rhetoric. It is a book that has been be used, abused, and manipulated to support a myriad of ideological positions: colonialism/decolonisation; slavery/emancipation; ordination of women/male only ordination; equality of women/male headship; for and against care of the environment…

The world we live in now is vastly different from the ancient world. Our knowledge of science, psychology, the environment, society, and social structures has changed dramatically. The way we view the world and the factors which shape the way we read and hear the biblical narrative is radically different from that of the past. Because of this we can not assume that the way we interpret the bible, or the writings of the Church Fathers, or the movements of history, the understanding of social issues such as gender and sexuality, or even the very nature of God, is static.

This means that our theological reflection, dialogue, hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, understanding of the role of the church, of ministry, of public engagement, of our own humanity—the list could keep going—needs to be constantly explored and nuanced. And that is the work of research in the disciplines of theology, philosophy, and ministry. Deep delving into what it means to be human, to be the church, to be citizens of our world, and ecological beings on our complex planet.

So, research matters because research helps us to explore who we are. Good research helps us to see the world anew, to strive for better ways of being, better ways of living, of being church, of being community. Research is not content with safe answers and dogma, but is an act of courageous engagement which pushes us and our readers  to examine our assumptions, interrogate our reading practices, recognise the places where our ideology has blinded us to acts of mis-reading and mis-interpretation. Research strives for more a rigorous and deeper understanding of ourselves, the church, the world, and our relationship with God.

Research in a University context also matters. Universities are places of teaching. The University of Divinity offers degrees for lay people and for those who are preparing for ordination in a diversity of denominations. Many of us who are active researchers are also teachers, and all our teachers are informed by the latest research. The Vision of the University is that “Together we empower our learning community to address the issues of the contemporary world through critical engagement with Christian theological traditions.” Research in all its guises underpins out understanding of the contemporary world by bringing it into conversations with the traditions we have inherited. It is in the nexus of teaching and research that the conversation comes alive and in which our students are prepared to engage in the world in ways that contribute meaningfully.

And finally, when people ask me why research matters, sometimes I simply answer that it is fun! For me, it is at the heart of who I am as an academic. It is the creative core of my being, and without it my life is less enriched and less fulfilling.

Why do you think research matters?

Contribute to the conversation by posting in the comments below or send us an email with your thoughts written as a short opinion article, to vox@divinity.edu.au.

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