Research as Foot-Washing

This is the next in a series of pastoral reflections from 2020 about academic research: “Researching Christianly.” Read the previous post, “A Wise and Understanding People.”

This week I’d like to reflect on our motivations for research. One common motivation is benign and noble, but not sufficient in itself. Each of us (researchers) can recall a moment, early on in our academic journey, when s/he felt the thrill of learning for its own sake. We chose this vocational path because we love reading and writing, learning the techniques and insights of our fields, and honing our own academic tools of study. I’ll speak only for myself, but maybe your experience is similar: I originally chose the path of master’s/doctoral research because I wanted a qualification to teach—but now I would continue to do research in my field for personal enjoyment and fulfillment, even if I had no students to teach. Once one has drunk at the fount of knowledge, it’s hard to take a slurp from a stagnant pond. (I’ll leave you to imagine what the pond might be—but you know my opinion of social media…)

As we’ve seen, there is a nobility in the quest for knowledge and wisdom—which I’ve construed as a priestly enterprise. Yet the knowledge of God and His world through revelation, reason, and experience should never be for our own sake alone. We are pedagogues, leading our students to the fount of knowledge and teaching them how to drink for themselves. The knowledge we seek for them (research) and to give them (instruction) is not just for our enjoyment (though we do enjoy it) or their entertainment (though occasionally they are entertained!), but to help them live fulfilled lives and to make good judgments.

In ancient Israel, YHWH God ordained the priests from among the tribe of Levi, to administer the sacrifices and (among other responsibilities) to ensure that the king knew and followed the Law of Moses (Deut 17:14–20). But He also scattered the non-Aaronide Levites throughout the land, who were tasked with teaching the people the Law and judging disputes (Deut 17:8–13; 18:1–8; 2 Chr 19:4–11). At many key junctures in Israel’s story, the Levites are close by—and their ability to speak wisdom from God’s Law into the situation (or more often, their failure to do so) is crucial. Israel’s well-being was dependent upon their elite “letting their light shine,” not “hiding it under a bowl” (Matt. 5:14–16).

As usual, our best example from the Scriptures comes from Christ himself. As the Second Person of the Trinity, very God of very God—the Son knew all mysteries and all knowledge—not just what was necessary for human salvation, but all knowledge of creation (including all the fields in which we work)! And yet he did not keep this knowledge for himself. He chose to hang out for three years with a group of a dozen or so men in ancient Roman Galilee and Judea, each pupil with a different level of intelligence and probably a different learning style; teaching them similar lessons again and again, through parables, explaining the parables when they didn’t understand—patiently entrusting to them knowledge that they wouldn’t even fully understand or make use of until he had been raised and ascended. This was not the work of a teacher who took refuge in the ivory tower, coming out briefly to lecture from time to time. This was not the work of a “sage on the stage,” soaking up attention and admiration. This was the work of a master who (the water metaphor is evolving, I know—work with me, here) girded himself with only a towel and washed his disciples’ feet—and taught them that they must do the same if they would call themselves his followers.

For Christian teachers, research is hauling the water for foot-washing—it’s water for us to slake our own thirst, no doubt, but also for washing. Our students need to drink—and they need us to wash their feet: to correct their papers, and encourage them through the halting, gradual learning process. Sometimes our students will be ungrateful. Occasionally they will kick and splash us while we are trying to serve them. Many of them will not realize how much we do for them, until years later—if ever. Most of them will never understand how much research it took to gain, to process, and to present the knowledge that we offer them. The satisfaction of knowing, and the joy along our own journey of learning, is part of our reward. But the highest reward comes from our Heavenly Father, “who sees what is done in secret” (Matt. 6:4), in service of others.

For more posts in this series, click here.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Research as Foot-Washing

  1. Susan M Soesbe says:

    I found this very refreshing!

  2. Pingback: Write As Children of the Light | think hard, think well

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