3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Hauerwas on the vocabulary of academic research

…I have learned that different disciplines use particular words to describe good work done in that discipline. For example, in physics the best work is described as ‘‘elegant’’ which seems to mean the implications of the work may not be understood or the work itself may not be understood, but the mathematics has an undeniable beauty. Work in mathematics is sometimes described as elegant, but mathematicians usually describe the best work as ‘‘deep.’’ Deep mathematics usually indicates math not well understood in the community of mathematics. Once what was ‘‘deep’’ is generally understood, it becomes applied mathematics. Work in biology is usually described as ‘‘interesting’’ which means the work helps me understand or ‘‘see’’ what I had not understood. The primary words used in the social sciences are ‘‘robust,’’‘‘powerful,’’ ‘‘important,’’ and ‘‘useful.’’ ‘‘Robust’’ usually means work that helps the social scientist explain wider implications other than the ones the work was initially designed to accomplish. In the humanities the work is described as ‘‘influential’’ which seems to indicate that the work has changed the minds of other scholars who know something about that subject. In some fields in the humanities, such as philosophy, the work can be described as representing a powerful argument. I often reflect that the word that should best describe theology is ‘‘faithful’’ which may well make theology closer to mathematics and physics than the social sciences. At least in mathematics and physics it is still assumed that such work is committed to truth.

From Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: academic knowledges and the knowledge of God (Oxford?; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 20, note 19].


  1. My doctrine tutor was only ever interested in whether our work was ‘orthodox’, which is I suppose a bit like Hauerwas’ ‘faithful.’

    Personally I never moved much beyond the old adage “If it moves it is biology. If it smells it is chemistry. And if it doesn’t work it’s physics”

  2. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    3 June, 2011 at 6:24 am

    Or, as my father used to say, about his National Service: “If it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t move, pick it up; and if you can’t pick it up, paint it.” (Works for diocesan synods too!)

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