Scholarly Circles: A Practice for Thinking Christianly in the University

In: International Journal of Public Theology
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  • 1 Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  • | 2 Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  • | 3 Research Professor, American Bar Foundation; Honorary Professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National UniversityAdjunct Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University, USA
  • | 4 Senior Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
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This article documents how the formation of a Scholarly Circle led to the development of the articles published in this issue. We outline how our Scholarly Circle developed across three stages over a period of seven years. By doing so, we hope to encourage others to consider the Scholarly Circle as a potential model to guide small communities of scholars seeking to integrate their faith and scholarship in a deeper and more deliberate way.


This article documents how the formation of a Scholarly Circle led to the development of the articles published in this issue. We outline how our Scholarly Circle developed across three stages over a period of seven years. By doing so, we hope to encourage others to consider the Scholarly Circle as a potential model to guide small communities of scholars seeking to integrate their faith and scholarship in a deeper and more deliberate way.

1 Introduction

This issue has had a long and unusual gestation. The articles comprising it emerged from an experiment, to which we eventually affixed the label of Scholarly Circle: we are a group of research scholars on a single campus who come together to explore intersections of our faith and our current scholarship.1 In retrospect, we realize that we embarked on this experiment at least in part as a response to a nagging question each of us were confronting (and that is likely to be familiar to Christians active in the academy across the world): as a practical matter, how do we live integrated lives as both scholars and faithful disciples? Grappling with this question rapidly leads one to begin to wonder why such a large divide exists between theology and the various other academic disciplines.

We have found that the practice of a Scholarly Circle can help bridge both of these familiar divides—between faith and work at the personal level, and between theology and international relations/international law at the disciplinary level. The chief reason for documenting the evolution of our Scholarly Circle in this article lies in our hope that this bridge-building potential can be replicated elsewhere in the academy, across other disciplines. Other scholars eager to ‘think Christianly’ about their field/s of study might learn from our experience, adapting the approach to suit their own context and circumstances. Second, documenting the way in which this collection of articles came together will not only help the reader make more sense of each article in the issue, but also the issue as a whole, not least in understanding the variety of approaches the authors have adopted as a way to grapple with how their Christian faith intersects with international politics.

We realize that describing the evolution of our Scholarly Circle is likely to make a remarkably organic and exploratory journey appear much more structured and formal than it was in reality. While it is true that, as a group, we found ourselves increasingly compelled to be more systematic as time went on, it is only in retrospect that we see how our Scholarly Circle progressed through the three distinct stages we outline below, leading to the publication of this issue. That these stages unfolded over a seven-year period gives some indication as to the iterative and improvised nature of the exercise, as well revealing providential promptings and directions.

Over time, we have also come to recognize the importance of our initial posture. Rather than seeking to deepen the connection between our faith with our work by thinking in terms of negative apologetics (how do I defend my scholarly agenda or theological insights?), we took the stance that our disciplinary specialization could be enriched by theological insight and quite possibly our scholarship might broaden the horizons of encounter by public and political theologians and ethicists. In short, our initial (and ongoing) motivation was not based on a desire to defend ourselves, or our faith, but on an eagerness to uncover connections we had yet to explore or understand.

Our Scholarly Circle also benefitted immensely from several other advantages that may not be found so readily elsewhere. First, and perhaps most notably, the authors of four of the six articles comprising the special issue have been colleagues in the same university department—the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University (ANU)—for the majority of the seven year experiment.2 To find such a concentration of faithful, practising Christians in such a small academic unit at a first-class public university is remarkable in many ways.3 One important benefit we derived from this were shared disciplinary assumptions. This provided an important basis from which to more easily explore theological themes together. A second advantage our circle enjoyed was in having a varied membership in terms of gender and academic seniority, despite its small size. Especially because its membership spanned the entire spectrum of scholarly ‘statuses’, the Scholarly Circle functioned as a kind of ‘1 Corinthians 12 corrective’ to the hierarchy structure that typically permeates our professional lives, contributing to a sense of collective purpose beyond what is usually possible.

Third, as will be very evident below, Halliday’s annual late-summer residencies at ANU contributed not only to the consolidation of our group, but also provided the regular spurts of momentum required to lead us to the point of producing and publishing theologically-informed academic outputs. Without these regular visits, our Scholarly Circle would not have transitioned beyond an informal, ad hoc reading group. Finally, the Department of International Relations at ANU was very supportive of our Scholarly Circle, to the point of funding an off-site mini-conference in 2017 as well as an additional conference the following year (see further below). The support we received from this secular department has since prompted us to reflect on a challenge that is relevant for all Christians seeking to integrate their faith and work: do we underestimate the goodwill and boldness of some institutional leaders who are not Christians in supporting reflective cross-disciplinary inquiry by scholars they trust?

2 The Progress of our Scholarly Circle

2.1 Stage One: Informal Beginnings

Beginning in late 2013, a trio of members of the Department of International Relations decided to meet every month or two to read and discuss an article or book chapter on political theology that related to International Relations.4 At this early stage, we were not thinking about the theological shaping of our current research. Though we shared a concern to develop ways of talking about our research to Christian audiences, each of us were involved with long term projects, and were not actively thinking about connecting our faith with our work in terms of producing explicitly theologically-informed academic outputs (although each of us believed that we were ‘called’ to an academic vocation).

During his March 2014 trip to ANU, Halliday sought out Glanville on the advice of a mutual friend whom Halliday knew through via his involvement in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). Glanville mentioned the reading group to Halliday, who subsequently sought out the other members, adding each of them to the IFES listserv mailing group he oversaw that facilitated discussion between Christian academics. While seemingly a minor detail, membership of this mailing group connected us with an international community of likeminded Christians in academia who were also eager to ‘engage the university’ intellectually and personally. Simply being aware that other like-minded scholars were ‘out there’, engaging in similar activities, was encouraging.

Prior to Halliday’s return to ANU the following Summer, in March 2015, we decided that our nascent Scholarly Circle convene a ‘working session’ where, as a way get to know each other and our scholarship better, we would each agree to: (a) identify one big question our academic field confronts; (b) identify one big question that each of us is tackling in our own scholarship; and (c) consider how we might begin to think Christianly/theologically/theologically-ethically about (a) or (b) or both? This working session saw the expansion of our circle to include a PhD student who had recently commenced in the Department of International Relations. It was also the occasion when we challenged ourselves with a question that would guide our activities over the ensuing years: how, specifically, is our current scholarship informed by our Christian faith?

2.2 Stage Two: Formalised Engagement

In late summer 2016 we enjoyed a working lunch together. As well as catching up on each other’s research progress, we also brainstormed ways to begin to address the above question in a more formal, collective way. While this lunch was where the idea of collaborating to publish a special issue relating to the intersection of international affairs and theology first originated, the agreed step coming out of this meeting was deliberately less onerous: we would each prepare a two-to-three page argument relating to our particular field of specialization or research in international relations/international organizations/international law and make some preliminary theological connections.

On reflection, the ratcheting down of expectations and time commitments at this point was essential to the ongoing viability of the experiment. The potential alternative—to try to rapidly produce stand-alone, theologically informed, academic articles—could have proven counterproductive in a range of ways. Moving too fast at this point would likely have compelled most of us to displace existing writing projects and research commitments, generating pressure by becoming an exercise in simply ‘producing another paper’. The risk was making the production of an academic output the chief focus of the group, rather than prioritizing learning together and from one another. In short, moving too fast here could have short-circuited the slow but steady development of theological thinking and reflection we were undertaking individually and as a group.

We presented our ‘extended abstracts’ to each other at a half day mini-conference in February 2017. In a conference room at a hotel nearby the ANU, we devoted an afternoon to listening to each other’s ideas reflecting on the intersections of faith and themes. The decision to convene off-campus was designed to deliberately remove ourselves from the distractions of our regular work environment, and while not necessary, did provide a sense of being on a retreat that helped to foster a creative atmosphere and focus our discussions. The mini-conference also saw the further expansion of the Scholarly Circle, with two newcomers also presenting ‘extended abstracts’. The afternoon proceeded in a fairly unstructured way, with each of us presenting briefly, followed by various rounds of feedback, and concluding with a discussion about how to proceed. As was reported in a memo, this mini-conference proved was ‘a rich time of encouragement and reinforcement, infusion and exchanges of social science and theological perspectives, and stimulus to press forward’.5

Following the 2017 conference we decided to expand our abstracts into short papers (around 3–5000 words) to present at a closed off-site conference in March 2018. We invited several theologians from St. Mark’s National Theological Centre, an Anglican-affiliated institution in Canberra, to join us as commentators.6 Our 2018 conference proceeded like a traditional academic gathering. Each of the six short papers were allocated 40 minutes on the program, comprising a short overview by the author, a response by a theologian (each of whom were allocated two papers each), followed by a short discussion. The conference program also included two roundtable discussions to conclude the day: one where we discussed our roles as Christian academics and our experiences grappling with theology as we prepared our papers; and another where we discussed publishing options and other avenues for engagement.

The formal engagement with theologians that this conference facilitated was a crucial step in the journey towards developing this issue in several respects. First, it signified how we implicitly or explicitly recognized our own limited expertise or learning on the theological front (becoming a moment of admitting our own incapacities and a small gesture of intellectual humility). Second, the theologians brought to our attention key markers in the broader currents of political or public theology. And third, we saw for ourselves, and imagined for others, the potential benefit of initiating discussions across the theology/International Relations disciplinary divide. As a result of the feedback from these theologians, including suggestions of various theological themes, concepts and works we could (or should) engage with, we gained confidence in the theological robustness of our papers.

2.3 Stage Three: Towards Publication and Sharing

The final stage involved redrafting, editing and improving our articles to the point of being publication-ready, as well as finding an appropriate avenue for publication. Concerning the latter, we had developed a short-list of potential publication options during the discussions that concluded our March 2018 conference. We chose to approach the International Journal of Public Theology with a proposal for a special issue as we had engaged in lengthy discussions over the years as to what kind of audience we were trying to reach; were we seeking to translate our academic disciplines back to a Christian audience, or to translate Christian thinking back to our secular disciplines? IJPT provided us with an outlet that bridges multiple audiences that we hoped to reach and promoted interdisciplinary engagement that was ideal for our project. The question of identifying relevant audiences is, however, an ongoing point of deliberation for the Scholarly Circle as there are ideally many different audiences to which our work speaks, whether that be public policy, the academic community, the Church community or elsewhere.

Following interest from the IJPT, a ‘Special Issue Consultation’ was organised at ANU, involving the editor of IJPT, Clive Pearson, and most of the members of the Scholarly Circle. This consultation provided the opportunity for Pearson to hear the background of our Scholarly Circle and for him to provide us with an introduction to the IJPT. The authors gave brief summaries of their prospective articles, before Pearson provided a response, often suggesting one or two key works to consult to facilitate a closer dialogue between our work and the field of public theology. Pearson made the editorial decision to move ahead with the special issue and its development proceeded in the typical manner.

At this point, it is pertinent to respond to a question that some readers may be considering: why produce scholarly articles? Stated another way, what is the benefit of a scholarly circle transitioning from an ad hoc reading group to a point where it facilitates the production of scholarly output? While we certainly stop short of suggesting every scholarly circle should necessarily work toward the goal of publishing, we nonetheless strongly advocate its benefits. The very process of putting thoughts to paper, and discussing them formally with academic colleagues, demands more thorough and considered reflection, deepening theological engagement in a way that builds on, and yet goes beyond, discussion. Preparing written papers becomes a form of discipleship for the Christian academic, a journey to complete with like-minded Christian brothers and sisters. The opportunity arises for us to see the steps leading toward producing an article (familiar as they are to those in academia) as ‘redeemed’. That is, the very ‘work’ of an academic, the way they function as ‘sub-creators’, is to ‘work with their hands’ to produce written material for others to read and benefit from. The production of a ‘tangible’ artefact arising from a scholarly circle also gives the circle itself more of an identity, in part through a sense of accomplishment. Crucially, this artefact, almost by default, also becomes a tool for Christian witness, simply by appearing on google scholar and curricula vitae. These contributions will also serve, we hope, as encouragements to other scholars seeking to integrate their faith and work.

3 Multiplying Scholarly Circles

Many Christian scholars across the spectrum of university faculties have a desire to ‘think Christianly’ about their scholarship. Yet, while they may be at the leading edge of their fields, they feel unable to engage their scholarly work with any theological depth. The Scholarly Circle is one example of a practice by which Christian scholars can collaborate with likeminded colleagues to promote deeper and more systematic thinking about the connections between their scholarly work and their faith. We are also cognisant that the scope of functionality for scholarly circles goes well beyond our own experience. For example, we can imagine scholarly circles:

  1. Within a single university, where there is a critical mass of faculty/advanced students focused on a particular cluster of scholarly or policy issues (as per our experience);

  2. Within a university where there is cross-disciplinary focus and scholarship on a particular value or concept or metaphor. For example, awe, light, order, justice or flourishing;

  3. That span universities in a city where the very occasional meeting might be manageable;

  4. That meet virtually (‘distanced’ scholarly circles) to facilitate people with common interests working together, perhaps using our newly enhanced awareness of the power of overcoming space and time zones through Zoom or similar technologies.

We also see scholarly circles with the potential to be ‘nested’ within an array of other practices which pursue similar ends. Examples include: the Developing a Christian Mind programme at the University of Oxford, which aims to provide a ‘space for postgraduate students, postdocs and faculty to consider how they integrate their Christian faith and their academic life’;7 the series of ‘Draft’, ‘Publish’ and ‘Write’ Workshops’ run by the Simeon Network among universities in Australia; and the ‘Passion Talks’ Conferences, initially pioneered at Stanford University.8 The Faculty Initiative is a current initiative that ‘seeks to promote the integration of Christian faith and academic disciplines in research universities worldwide’.9

Clearly, our Scholarly Circle represents a very small stitch in a much larger tapestry of Christians across the globe desiring to connect serious discipleship with serious scholarship. As Mark Noll has written in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, these twin objectives should not be as separated as they are often assumed to be: ‘The Jesus Christ who saves sinners is the same Christ who beckons his followers to serious use of their minds for serious explorations of the world’.10 Our hope is that the formation of new scholarly circles, perhaps incorporating some of the ideas we have shared above, can function as a useful vehicle for this aim.


This article draws on a range of documents that have been developed to communicate the work of our scholarly circle over a seven-year period, including emails, memos, reports and interviews. Key documents can be found at the Engage Resources website,, which exists to help ‘21st century Christians to engage every aspect of the 21st Century university’.


As well as including the authors of the six papers included in this special issue of the International Journal of Public Theology, other postgraduate students and colleagues also participated in the various workshops and gatherings of the Scholarly Circle over the years.


That said, we have become aware during the course of this process of concentrations of like-minded scholars in other locations across the world. For example, in his work developing the Faculty Initiative, Halliday has found concentrations of reflective Christian scholars in such disciplinary clusters as law, social sciences and public policy, physics and engineering at major research universities, including the Universities of Oxford, Otago, and Hong Kong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Victoria University, Wellington, among others.


These articles included, for example, William T. Cavanaugh, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation‐State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good’, Modern Theology, 20:2 (2004), 243–274; Scott M. Thomas, ‘Living Critically and “Living Faithfully” in a Global Age: Justice, Emancipation and the Political Theology of International Relations’, Millennium, 39:2 (2010), 505–524.


Luke Glanville, Cecilia Jacob and Terence C. Halliday, ‘Scholarly Circle in International Relations 2018’, March 2018 <> [accessed 9 October 2020].


Another reason for writing this introduction is to publicly thank these three theologians: Andrew Cameron, Michael Gladwin and Jaqueline Service.


DCM Oxford. ‘About—DCM Oxford’, <> [accessed 9 October 2020].


Passion Talks. ‘About: Passion Talks’, <> [accessed 9 October 2020].


Global Faculty Initiative. ‘Global Faculty Initiative: Promoting the integration of Christian faith and academic disciplines’, <> [accessed 9 October 2020].


Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2011), p.41.

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