Collin Slowey has correctly noted that a Christian approach to teaching International Relations (IR) requires more than the blind adoption of prevailing contemporary theories. In particular, he offers a solid, if standard, critique of the many shortcomings of realism. However, there appears to be a missing piece in Slowey’s article – the “teach differently” part. Christian schools should certainly think differently about pedagogy, yet the question remains: How does one teach about IR theory as a Christian?  

Slowey ends his piece with a brief argument calling for renewed emphasis on teaching Just War Theory and, I presume, its attendant natural law presuppositions. While this certainly is a good and worthwhile pursuit, I fear Slowey is putting the theoretical cart before the epistemological (and theological) horse; even if explicitly Christian-influenced theories of IR are taught, that does little to show students how to think Christianly about theory more broadly.  

So then what role does theory play in Christian thought? To begin with, theory is a tool for the acquisition of knowledge that uses inductive reasoning and hypothesis testing to understand cause and effect relationships. It relies on observable, measurable data and is thus both inherently empirical in nature as well as inherently limited in scope.1 Its falsifiability assumes these limitations and the need for ongoing refinement, which ensures future employment for scholars and the endless “making of many books” that Solomon’s older and wiser Preacher warns of in Ecclesiastes 12:12. 

  • Recognizing the fundamental limitations of theory, it might be worth asking what kinds of knowledge a theory-first pedagogy can’t account for, like moral knowledge,  
  • revealed knowledge, and deductive logic. 

Put differently, inductive, empirical theory privileges a narrowly definition of what counts as true  knowledge versus what is merely recognized by the community as true.2 It ignores the much larger pool of human knowledge and experience that interacts with divine revelation to produce that highest of intellectual virtue: Wisdom. 

Wisdom is true knowledge applied in context. Theory, normative and otherwise, is merely one tool in the wise person’s tool belt. For example, take the famous story of Solomon and the (almost) divided baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). Why is this strange story such a remarkable display of insight such that it would be included as an example of Solomon’s otherworldly wisdom?  

Solomon is confronted by a bigger problem than being able to discern who is telling the truth and who is telling a lie – that of political legitimacy. If he can’t determine a true and just outcome to this particular problem, he undermines his own claim to royal authority. To address this issue, Solomon theorizes that a credible threat of cruelty will produce enough of a moral shock to the true mother’s maternal instinct that it will manifest in her behavior. His theory is proven right not because he’s lucky but because he’s wise. In other words, he’s able to blend knowledge, experience, and moral truth to get close enough to the truth that the truth reveals itself. Observe all the domains of knowledge that he accesses: 

  • Political and legal knowledge: He uses his royal position to create a credible threat of cruelty. 
  • Law of God: The threat to the baby would be a cruel violation of God’s commandment against murder, eliciting the kind of moral shock that only a truthful person could show. The lying woman had already violated God’s law both in stealing the child, and then lying about it. Why should she be cowed by the threat of murder? 
  • Human psychology: the maternal instinct to protect one’s young is deeply woven into the created order, and Solomon was a keen observer of that order. 

For Solomon, a legal or behavioral theory was not primary; instead, Wisdom came first and provided the foundation for a sound theory.  

In sum, teaching IR Christianly cannot just be swapping out theories, or privileging one theory over another before moving on to ascertaining some “verifiable” truth downstream from, and reliant on, a falsifiable theory. Rather, it starts with wisdom that acknowledges transcendent truth. The theory is downstream from that

That all may sound terribly abstract, so what would this approach to a “thinking Christianly” pedagogy look like in an IR course? In my own case as an IR theory instructor at a Christian university (Biola), I first lay out three basic assumptions about theory: 

  • Theory needs to be known and understood as a knowledge tool. 
  • It is inherently limited and flawed because we, its formulators, are limited and flawed. 
  • Knowing theory is to know and understand its limits and flaws. 

These assumptions are rooted not so much in a theory of knowledge as in a Christian anthropology that both recognizes the creative genius of human thought found in the Imago Dei as well as its limitations, being both created and fallen. Those truths about human nature have implications for the analytical tools we use to understand and interpret our world. 

For example, when we discuss the foundational assumptions of an IR theory like realism in my classroom, we have to engage the assumption of rationality. It’s fashionable today to point to the obvious truth that humans do not always act rationally, discarding any theory that assumes rationality as anachronistic.3 However, to take such a critical approach to rationality would deny humanity’s divine design. Rather than reject a theory grounded in rationalism wholesale and make the equal and opposite mistake of assuming human irrationality, my students and I discuss the theology of human nature, the imago Dei, and the effects of the Fall. From there we can proceed to analyzing a theory of rationality (and its critics) more firmly grounded in reality.  

Beyond establishing key assumptions about theory, I ask three interrelated questions of a theory and/or field of inquiry under discussion, IR in this case: 

  • What is the objective, or good, of IR?  
  • Does this theory help us understand how to achieve that objective?  
  • Does this theory prescribe policies that are oriented to the natural law/moral order? 

If a theory cannot help us answer any of these questions positively, then it should be rejected as unhelpful at best and misleading at worst. Such a framework helps us develop a rubric by which to judge the good of a theory by the standard of revealed truth. Because such an approach places theory in subjection to revealed truth and we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5),” I incorporate reflections on Scripture and theological discussion into my classes as critical elements of our inquiry as opposed to just rhetorical or devotional window dressing. 

Good international relations aims at mutual flourishing and security as intrinsic human goods. A worthwhile IR theory would therefore meaningfully illuminate the factors pertaining to such intrinsic goods as these. In turn, the policy crafted in accordance with such a theory would necessarily be recognizable as good because of its alignment with created order since it too pertains to human flourishing. 

Fundamental to IR pedagogy in a Christian environment is the recognition that, while all theories are falsifiable, not all falsifiable theories are good or useful, as Slowey outlines. Critical to the training of minds in Godly wisdom is being comfortable with making and expressing value judgements. This is indeed a weighty matter and should develop intellectual humility alongside wisdom. However, making such explicitly normative judgements certainly runs contrary to the training professors receive in social science graduate programs. Perhaps the real obstacle, then, to teaching IR Christianly is the need for Christian scholars to unlearn habits of inquiry imbibed in secular graduate schools.