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Foreword: Asking Questions as a Means to (Re)Connect the Dots of Scholarship

Published onMar 15, 2023
Foreword: Asking Questions as a Means to (Re)Connect the Dots of Scholarship

What can we say about ecology? In its original sense, this buzzword, used on a daily basis by political leaders, economists, the media, and the leaders of the world’s largest religious communities, has a double root. It refers both to the Greek oikos, or ‘household’ and to logos – a rather complex and open word with a vast array of meanings, ranging from study or doctrine to philosophically more abstract concepts such as ‘sense’ or even ‘essence’. This hasty etymological survey suffices to raise a series of questions. What or whose household are we referring to? And can some sort of underlying logic or even essence of our household conceivably be defined? Are there any universal principles or regulations that can be detected? And, to take it a step further: how should we cope with the fact that, while oiko-logia and oiko-nomia share the same original root, today’s ecologists and economists often seem to regard one another as antagonists? What does it mean ‘to be human’ in an era marked by the effects of unbridled consumerism and anthropogenic climate change?

Clearly, there is no shortage of questions, and this foreword cannot aspire to provide full-fledged answers. More relevantly, it wishes to point out that this multitude of question marks is consistent with the attitude of curiosity that lies at the very heart of scholarship and intellectual debate. Underneath today’s scattered academia, marked by hyper-diverse research cells, international rankings, impact factors and micro-credentials, pressure on outreach, trainings in skills and practices … curiosity is what still connects researchers.1 Even if this interconnectedness is facing ever greater obstacles, it is rediscovered and nurtured time and again. In our age, currents such as Team Science reconnect us with the age-old tradition of arguing and questioning in an atmosphere of dialogue and exchange across disciplinary boundaries. In this sense, the old medieval notion of the university as an ‘integral’ center of learning, connecting the universitas scientiarium, may still inspire us.

This reference to the ancient roots of scientific endeavor is not made randomly, of course. The current book is part of the celebrations marking the fifteenth anniversary of Tilburg’s School of Catholic Theology, which, as the reader will discover in the last contribution to this volume, is our University’s youngest and oldest school. In the preparations for this event, during which we had the assistance of Professor Bart Koet, we decided not to celebrate the anniversary on our own. Instead, we chose to organize an interschool symposium on ‘asking questions’, and to invite scholars from all Schools for a common reflection. The aim of our anniversary committee (consisting, beside the editors of this volume, of Quirien Hagens MA, Dr. Sam Goyvaerts and Dr. Stefan Gärtner) was to build bridges and to (re)connect the dots between the various islands in the academic archipelago. Initially, we had not planned to publish anything, but precisely the atmosphere of open exchange among a panel of scientists, led by Dr. Roshnee Ossewaarde, spontaneously inspired us to introduce this event to a wider forum as a form of academic best practice, at a time when Tilburg University seeks to promote interdisciplinarity and interschool collaboration.

 Prior to the symposium, which was held in June 2022, all contributors were asked to reflect, not just on the general theme of ‘Asking Questions’, but on how this could be connected with one of the most pressing needs of our era. Without much hesitation, the contributors engaged in an exercise in reflexivity on our common horizon of epochal transition, marked by drastic changes in climate, culture and geology, and our festive occasion became more than a mere leisurely activity. Questioning ‘science-as-usual’ turned out to be an urgent necessity. 

In his recent essay collection, Verschuivingen or ‘Shifts’, the novelist, poet and philosopher Stefan Hertmans depicts our world as a place marked by shifting grounds.2 Geographically so, as landscapes are literally changing, but also on the levels of political discourse and media communication, and in the fields of law, philosophy, and religion. What we are facing is a profound reconfiguration of our worldviews, which have been human-centered for centuries. Rethinking these not just means reconsidering habits and customs, but re-assessing the horizon against which we act, think, speak and believe, and our own role. This demands courage, and the wisdom, as Sophocles already indicated, to combine the old and the new. New models, skills and technologies are needed, but blindly rejecting values and insights of the past is not an option either.

The authors in this volume have decided to face this challenge. They trace new paths, and show that sometimes this is possible by dusting off forgotten models of thought about the place of humankind in its environment. The shifts of our times also touch upon the daily activities of scientists in other ways, as we are asked to abandon longstanding, firm and often privileged institutional positions. Whereas for long, scholars were publicly perceived (and saw themselves) as ‘those who have the answers’, that privileged position is rapidly fading. Today it is perhaps better and wiser to return to a more authentic position. Scientists do not need to possess, and perhaps never possessed, all the answers, but they have always been the people who dare to ask the questions.

In presenting this book, and mindful of everyone who helped prepare our fifteenth anniversary, Tilburg’s School of Catholic Theology wishes to offer the University a gift as a sign of the importance of building bridges, in society, in academia, and in faith communities. The latter point brings me back to the Greek etymological roots. Like oiko-logia and oiko-nomia, the word ‘Catholicity’ is not, as is often thought, a closed and static term. Catholicity similarly involves the work-in-progress of combining unity and diversity, in ever new contexts. The novelist Hertmans has understood the inclusiveness this requires, as he writes that ‘nowadays, a different kata holos has emerged: that of all the inhabitants of the earth, united by the great extinction that threatens us, the crisis of an entire planet’. If the era of the Anthropocene calls for a new response, it may precisely be such a holistic take on things, in the knowledge that the open space created by those who dare to ask questions is, to quote the philosopher Ernst Bloch, part and parcel of a cultural praxis of hope.

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