FiSch blog

God's workers?

Richard Vytniorgu offers an alternative perspective on scholarly freedom:

Alicia Smith’s recent blog posts on Rilke and Scholarly work under God affirm the importance of academics’ work. But they prompt me to ask some questions. Alicia’s language is saturated by an emphasis on the ‘sovereignty’ of God. She speaks of ‘working under the supreme agency of God in the world’, that God is an ‘omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being’ who ‘faces no restrictions’. Moreover, we as researchers seem called to ‘work under God’ and to ‘work in his laws […] the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality’. This makes me feel rather sat upon, reckoning with my contingent, ‘time-bound’ existence. Simply put, in this vision I am God’s handmaiden responding submissively, ‘Be it unto me’.

But I wonder how fruitful this view is. Firstly, I remind myself that God is a personal Trinity – that each person in the Trinity is a person in communion with the others, each with his special role. Christ – the God-man – is the person who reveals the Father to the human race and his Church is made up of those connected to the Head, who are becoming transfigured, revealing the divine to creation at the same time as revealing the human to the divine.

Creation was not finished at the first Sabbath; it is an ongoing project in which humans use their freedom either to work towards the realisation of the Kingdom of God, or to return themselves and the rest of Creation to nothingness. The Gospel is so radical because it asks that humans realise their full humanity by recovering their connection to the divine – to the one who has actually defeated death and promises a resurrection. As the Russian religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in The Destiny of Man (1931): ‘God longs for His “other”, His friend; He wants him to answer the call to enter the fullness of the divine life and participate in God’s creative work of conquering non-being. God does not answer his own call’.

Importantly, when we turn to God and work with him in the transfiguration of the world, we are coming into contact with a personal Trinity – a God who has an inner emotional life, an inward movement towards his beloved (mankind): ‘Men are afraid to ascribe to Him inner conflict and tragedy characteristic of all life’, wrote Berdyaev, ‘but have no hesitation in ascribing to Him anger, jealousy, vengeance and other affective states which, in man, are regarded as reprehensible’. Like Berdyaev, I am puzzled by some of the attributes for which God is traditionally lauded: ‘Self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, stony immobility, pride, the demand for continual submission are qualities which the Christian religion considers vicious and sinful, though it calmly ascribes them to God’.

The point of articulating this discrepancy is that creativity – what we engage in as academics (including scientists) – is something more radical than sliding into the grooves of pre-ordained ‘norms’ or ‘laws’. Indeed, personally I have my doubts about the very existence of such things, which seem to me to derive more from Enlightenment modernity than the Gospels.

Creativity is radically new only because it is radically personal: it develops out of a human’s transformational divine image, and is therefore a process, just as personality is also a process. All of us hope that the work we do will be considered of the gold and precious stones variety rather than hay and rubbish to be thrown on a fire. But I would argue that the only way we will create such work is by responding freely to God’s call to co-create with him (not for him), knowing that when we do so, we are bringing joy to a God who yearns to understand and love his creation as it unfolds new developments which will enter eternal life.

The Christian faith is either beset or bejewelled with paradoxes, depending on your perspective. Working under a sovereign God sounds very much like working under Caesar, and indeed, emphasis on the ‘sovereignty of God’ stems from a Roman interpretation of Christianity; it is less known among Eastern Christians. Yes, God has ‘control’ over all he made. But let’s be careful what we ‘do’ with this truth. We must remember that God’s eternal plan was always to reveal himself as the self-sacrificing one, who liberates his creation from slavery to sin and folds creatures into his sobornost (community) of transfiguring human beings. His ‘yearning’ is for this free response among us, to bring our own gifts to the great work of ongoing personal creation.

In my own work, how am I going to dignify the Triune God with a free response to his call to co-create with him as one connected to the God-man? How am I going to give joy to my yearning God?

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.

Scholarly work under God

In a previous post on the German poet Rilke, I concluded that art can help the Christian scholar ‘to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world’. Today I want to go a bit deeper into what that might mean.

Agency and a sovereign God

First: what do we mean by the ‘supreme agency’ of God? Simply that all action can, in the end, trace its motivating and enabling power back to God – as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being, he is continually working in his world to support and redeem it. All kinds of agents act, from individual humans to complex institutions, but only God can do so freely. Our actions are restricted and conditioned by the fact that we are time-bound creatures and our consciousness is contingent on various factors: God faces no such restriction.

The scholar, then, needs to acknowledge this. The predominant Western concept of the mind and its relation to the world assumes that we can have an objective and self-evident view of whatever we study. But only God sees the world accurately in all its aspects and events, and our actions are always affected by the limitations of what we can see and understand. Growing in humility is the right, if difficult, response!

Creation and sub-creation

But how do we then ‘work under’ God? Ultimately (although of course the exact mechanics of all this are up for debate!) the life of the world consists in the agency of its Maker. The creation mandate found in the Bible, however, tells us that we have a role to play. We have the ability – the responsibility – to act in the world, changing and exploring it in all kinds of ways, while keeping in mind that each of our actions has meaning only because God is acting at the same time, and on a much larger scale.

One of my favourite expressions of this is a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien, called ‘Mythopoeia’. Tolkien thought often and deeply about the point of his creative work, which often dovetailed with his academic work, and coined a term – ‘subcreation’ – for the action of working under God, not trying to usurp him. A section of the poem reflects on the dignity and fallenness of human action:

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,

man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,

his world-dominion by creative act:

not his to worship the great Artefact,

man, sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

The metaphor of light through a prism reminds us that though our work is important and dignified, its source is outside us and greater than us. This frees us to worship, not the work, but its ultimate Creator, by following in his footsteps in our own, smaller ways.

God's world and our work

The poem goes on, ‘We make still by the law in which we're made.’ Part of working under God is working in his laws – not simply the moral codes by which we live, but the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality. This is the keynote of reformational philosophy, which forms a great part of the foundation of FiSch’s vision (see here and here for more). We honour God, and do good work, by recognising his patterns and weaving our own within them.

This will look different in every field. Take some time to reflect on what patterns you are weaving as you work - of ideas, of methodologies, of interaction between colleagues and social groups - and where they fit into a world brooded over and loved by God. What does your work say about nature? About people? About sin? About the ideal society? How can you act, as a scholar, in line with the purposes of God?

A sensible shot of faith

Rudi Hayward reviews A Shot of Faith to the Head.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for this book, which contains a lot of philosophy in a popular and accessible way.  It is a response to the ‘new atheism' but not in a defensive mode; rather, Mitch Stokes takes the most common criticisms of Christianity and turns them against atheism.  The criticisms are that belief in God is irrational because lacking in evidence, that science has shown there is no God and that the existence of evil and suffering contradicts belief in a loving God.  These criticisms are dealt with in the three main sections that make up the bulk of the book – a short intermission on the rules of argument in chapters 8-10 making up the rest.

Stokes is a professional philosopher who studied under Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, well-regarded philosophers who have spearheaded a renaissance of professing Christians in academic philosophy.  Plantinga's influence, especially, is evident throughout the book.  However this is very much a popular book with short chapters and punchy prose.

On the first objection Stokes begins by arguing that public evidence is not always necessary for us to hold a belief rationally (not only is it hard to see what evidence we have to support the belief that evidence is necessary, but there's plenty of evidence that many of our beliefs are largely held on trust).  Now, the Christian has a ready account as to why we should trust our usual belief-forming mechanisms with or without public evidence, but the atheist's reliance on an evolutionary account of our cognitive abilities leads us into deep trouble.  So what at first looked a serious criticism of Christianity turns into a major headache for the atheist.

A similar pattern emerges with the science-verses-God objection. It turns out, among other things, that Galileo was a Christian attacking Aristotle, that the 'God of the gaps' is a recent invention and quite unappealing to orthodox Christian views of God, that explanations like: "that’s just how it is" and "maybe this is just one of billions of universes" are no better than "God did it", and that the natural sciences imply naturalism is wrong.

Finally Stokes takes on the problem of evil.  He reviews and responds to both the “logical” and “probabilistic” versions before again turning the tables.  Atheists, the new ones especially, tend to say things like “We are nothing but matter,” and ”Humans are the end result of the random and unguided mechanisms of natural selection”.  Such views undermine our usual sense that such things as rape, torture, genocide, etc. are unconditionally wrong whatever people may happen to think or whatever values we may have evolved to hold.  He concludes that a naturalistic explanation for moral obligation is impossible.  So the fact that we recognize the existence of evil turns out to count against atheism.

This is a very good book, but in a few places it fell short.  Here are two of them.

  1. The sensus divinitatis (an innate sense of the divine) is said to be part of humans' ordinary belief-forming mechanism except many people don’t believe in God because it has gone wrong.  On Stokes' account the problem is that sin has damaged this sense so that it partially works for some and fails altogether for others.  However Stokes also mentions that atheists could still be responding to the faint whispers of their sensus divinitatis when they posit an ultimate natural principle.  It is a real shame that he does not take this suggestion seriously here, since it is close to what Paul seems to imply in Romans 1:25.  The biblical position is not so much that the sensus divinitatis is damaged, rather that it is misdirected.  The atheist may deny the existence of God, but at some point they will end up giving divine status to something created.
  2. This becomes more important when Stokes turns to mathematics as a problem for naturalists.  He speaks rather warmly of Pythagoras and his religious attachment to numbers.  Here we should recognize an example of the sensus divinitatis being misdirected!  This is a typically pagan belief in the divinity of something created rather than the Creator - so it is disconcerting when Stokes tries to accommodate this faith in maths with belief in God when he takes numbers to be part of God, even identical to God's intellect.

These concerns aside, A Shot of Faith to the Head is well worth a read.

Stokes, Mitch: A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)

Rudi Hayward teaches Religious Studies and Philosophy at a secondary school in London. 20 years ago he read Francis Schaeffer and decided to study philosophy at university. He plays football regularly and badly, and is his local church’s leading expert in reformational philosophy.

Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! ..."

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

For Christians pursuing academic careers, listening constitutes a spiritual task. As researchers, we are called to understand a broken and complex world. We are also expected to answer difficult questions. The two are linked: our ability to listen properly will mediate our capacity to provide meaningful insights into the world’s issues. Here, I understand listening not simply as the immediate capacity of hearing others, but also an awareness and openness to broader relevant issues (including the pressing questions in our own research field). The ability to listen properly will enable us not only to untie the complexities of our own subjects but also to discern God’s wisdom on contemporary issues. The British theologian John Stott stresses that

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.

(1992, p13)

I believe that “double listening” is a task for Christian scholars. We are called to be sensitive to modern issues while preserving our attention and obedience to God’s word. Here I will focus on the importance of listening to the world’s issues with love and sensitivity, and in a subsequent post I plan to address the need to listen to God’s Word.

The ability to listen to people’s voices is a biblical mandate. From the beginning of the biblical narrative, God is presented as someone who hears people’s cries for help and is deeply attentive to the world’s problems. In the context of slavery and oppression:

The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

(Exodus 3:7; see also Genesis 18:20-21; Psalm 34)

There are even warnings against shutting our ears to people’s cries. “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:23). Listening was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry. He heard the cry of the poor, women, children, the mentally ill, and the wrongdoer. In one instance, He asked a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), revealing a deep interest in the man’s life story, hopes and problems. He considered critically the present issues of his time and showed compassion, love and sensitivity. As he once said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

I believe these are strong reasons for adopting a more sensitive approach to listening in our own research. This can take diverse forms: we may develop research questions that will enable the participants (or those who will benefit from our study) to voice their concerns and expectations. We may also need to be deliberate about asking whose voices we are privileging and whose we are ignoring. Like Jesus’ ministry, empathy should permeate our relationships with research participants, colleagues, and the public.

At the same time, Jesus regularly withdrew to listen to the words of his Father (see Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12-13). We are also called to be like him in both ways. My experience of doing a PhD in social psychology has taught me much about the need to listen to people’s voices on relevant societal issues. Listening to cries for justice, equal opportunities, adequate health and social care is paramount, particularly in a world of superficial interactions and noise in which many voices are systematically drowned out. For instance, in my own research, I explored older adults’ views on well-being in later life, particularly in community settings, and realised that this group has been consistently overlooked in policy campaigns and frameworks of care. Their voices are hardly heard!

Progressively, I became aware that listening to their concerns would be a spiritual task. Their views, experiences and hopes would be venues for spiritual, political, and psychological change.

Finally, John Stott (1992) highlights that

[Double listening] is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and to Christian mission.

(p29)

I believe (double) listening is also indispensable to Christian scholars. In the context of academia, it may enable us to tackle relevant issues in a creative and transformative way.

Thanks to my friend Jess Hope (PhD student in History, University of Cambridge) for proofreading and for helping me to think more deeply about double listening in research.

Reference

Stott, John (1992). The contemporary Christian: an urgent plea for double listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

Bruno Medeiros recently completed his PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Originally from Paraíba in Brazil, he is interested in the social psychology of health and community.

Wisdom for Thinkers

For Christmas a year ago I was given a book called ‘Wisdom for thinkers: An introduction to Christian philosophy’. It’s not a very thick book – under 200 pages – but fairly dense. So, having just finished it, I thought I’d tell you about it.

Wisdom for Thinkers by WJ Ouweneel

The book was written as part of a series designed to help Christian students think Christianly about their subject. Subsequent volumes on a Christian approach to politics, theology and psychology have already been published, and there are plans for further volumes on biology and history. The author, Willem J. Ouweneel, is a prolific writer who has three(!) PhDs, in biology, philosophy and theology. As the first volume of the series, this one focuses on philosophy, with a particular emphasis on philosophy of science (taken to mean academic scholarship in a broad sense, as in the German Wissenschaft). As such, this book can be fruitful reading for Christians in a wide range of subject areas.

The first chapter asks the question ‘Does it matter whether there is a Christian philosophy or not?’. The second chapter looks at the concepts of wisdom, knowledge and science and traces how these related to seeing and thinking through the history of Western philosophy.

The next four chapters form the core of the book and provide a concise, readable and accessible introduction to Christian philosophy – in particular, the philosophy of the ‘reformational’ Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and others who further developed his ideas. These chapters provide a philosophical analysis of reality, giving you a framework and terminology with which you can analyse your own area of study, as well as all kinds of societal trends. For instance, the FiSWES group used this framework to analyse the ecosystem services framework and to provide a less reductionist alternative.

The last four chapters of the book move from a philosophical analysis of reality to a philosophical analysis of knowing, and particularly the kind of knowing that goes on in academic scholarship. There is much here that can help in understanding the role that scholarship plays within the wider context of all human knowledge.

I do have some points of criticism as well, though. Overall, the book seemed quite dry - but perhaps just because I was already familiar with much of the content. The transitions between chapters could have been better, which would have greatly improved the coherence of the book. At the end of each chapter there is a list of ‘Questions for review’, but these are all factual questions and do not help the reader to deepen his/her understanding.

Be that as it may, for anyone interested in developing a Christian approach to their subject area, this book has much to offer - not least a framework from which one can begin to understand the focus of their discipline better, and a method to analyse its shortcomings.

Wisdom for thinkers, An introduction to Christian philosophy by WJ Ouweneel (2014, Grand Rapids: Paideia Press)

The multi-faceted meaning of life

Reductionism is a key issue in many Christian critiques of other ideologies. Claims that the rich diversity of life as we know it can be explained by a single fundamental kind of reality often sound authoritative and sensational, but fundamental substances that are supposed to underlie what we experience are thereby attributed with a kind of occult power. I'm not denying that things are not always what they seem; we can uncover surprises about the world and develop illuminating explanations. And indeed, the explanations we find most profound and enlightening often relate one kind of phenomenon to another that appears very different. If I explain that water makes things wet because of its dampening properties, I'm merely presenting a tautology; explanations need to do some conceptual work!  But while the sensational appeal of an explanation may increase as the two kinds of phenomena being related become more and more different, another problem may arise if my explanation invokes inconceivable or incoherent properties. Consider a claim that feelings of guilt are a product of certain states of brain chemistry.  The problem here can be simply stated as a category error: chemistry is not in the same category as feelings, so neither is properly explained in terms of the other. That's not to say that there can't be meaningful correlation between feelings of guilt and certain states of brain chemistry (although even "brain chemistry" might turn out to be a category error). But the problem arises if I attribute power to one of these to produce the other, as in the above claim. 

Thus it can be argued that the guile of a reductionistic explanation is in the same category as the allure of an idol, in biblical worldview terms. (This reasoning needs unpacking further - as done, for example, in Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality.) How can we avoid such idolatry?  One approach is to posit God as the ultimate  explanation: the being Who grounds all phenomena.  But such a perspective doesn't seem to foster any further scientific analysis, and we may be sure that some kind of scientific work can legitimately be pursued without falling into idolatry. 

Enter the most distinctive element of the reformational philosophy tradition. Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, brothers-in-law, were professors of philosophy and law, respectively, at the Free University of Amsterdam, and in the 1920s and 1930s they gradually came to agree on a spectrum of what they called modalities [or aspects] in which reality is 'disclosed' to us. These are, in other words, a set of fundamentally discrete ways in which reality (its things, relations, and time) can be known and analysed by humans. The diagram below attempts to illustrate these using both words and images.

This diagram is also designed to represent an ordering among these fifteen aspects that is somewhat flexible - and this is where it gets quite interesting. Reformational philosophers agree that the aspects lower in this diagram are conceptually foundational to those above them, while higher aspects in some sense 'guide' or 'direct' those below. For example, spatial functions can be conceived of without any kinetic ones (e.g. shapes need not be conceived of in terms of motion or rest) whereas kinetic functions depend upon spatial ones (movement has to be in space), and indeed motion can guide our interpretation of a space. Or again, jural functions like giving due credit don't presuppose altruistic ones like generosity, but generosity only makes sense against a notion of what was justly due.

Using thought experiments like these, Reformational philosophers tend to agree about the ordering of those aspects that are stacked vertically in the diagram here, but hold divergent views about the ones in the turquoise boxes. Most strikingly, the aesthetic aspect is conventionally the 12th (just before the jural) but sometimes placed as early as 7th (straight after the sensory).

A number of previous posts here have explored how careful distinction of these aspects can help us do better scholarship, and you may like to read about how this idea was pivotal to an outcome from the FiSWES project.

Review: James K. A. Smith's 'Who's afraid of postmodernism'?

Cover of James K. A. Smith's 'Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?'

This week’s post takes the form of a brief book review, my first as a blogger here (but hopefully not my last; I’ve got a few other books in mind that I’d really like to share with you). I thought I’d start with one of my favourite books on the intersections between Christian thought and academic culture, James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). It’s a slim little volume, but don’t let its slight dimensions fool you: this is a lively, provocative book with a lot to say.

The title of the book sets out Smith’s basic thesis pretty well. Essentially, he suggests that postmodernism, as a significant movement within academic discourse, has suffered unfairly from a severe image problem within the Christian community, especially by comparison with modernism. Modernism – with its basis in scientific rationalism and humanistic narratives of technological and social progress – is often presented as an intellectual framework whose only defect is its tendency towards atheism, its willingness to explain God away; by contrast, postmodernism is seen as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, the antithesis of modernism’s calm rationality and hopefulness, flagrantly rejecting every value that the Church should be holding dear. Smith’s aim is to redress the balance: he points out a number of ways that postmodernism serves to reemphasise vital aspects of our faith and witness that are all too easily obscured by an uncritically modernist worldview.

By its very nature postmodernism, more than perhaps any other intellectual movement, can only be understood as a (far from unified) patchwork of individual thinkers’ contributions. Smith’s approach is thus to move away from the kinds of generalisation often found in (generally dismissive) Christian discussions of the topic, and instead focus on the contributions of three of the most influential writers associated with the movement. Hence the subtitle: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

All three of these writers have a pretty fearsome reputation (I’m ashamed at how glancing my own engagement with them has been over the years), and the first impressive achievement of this book is to make their thought so accessible. Each chapter begins by using a relevant film as a lens to approach the ideas of a specific author (the origins of the book in a lecture series are quite evident here). It’s a gesture that could easily seem clichéd or superficial, but in practice it works remarkably well – Smith’s insightful analysis of his chosen examples leads smoothly into a discussion of the key ideas of each author that is surprisingly rich, given the brevity of the book as a whole. He focuses on key statements by each writer that have become in effect postmodern ‘slogans’ within contemporary culture: Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, Lyotard’s description of postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and Foucault’s equating of power and knowledge. 

I can’t hope to sum up Smith’s responses to each of these in such a short review, but I was particularly struck throughout by his ability to find redemptive meaning in each writer’s work, and to move from it towards a thoughtful and loving critique of contemporary Christian culture. He focuses in particular on the importance of the church as an active, distinctive and engaged community of truth; he suggests that postmodernist ideas can help us to engage more with the insights of the historical church, and even to rediscover helpful liturgical practices that set the body of Christ apart from the world and redirect our gaze towards Jesus. In the end, he suggests that postmodern ideas, far from undermining the basic tenets of Christianity, can in fact act as a stimulus for revitalising our thought and action.

What do you think? Do leave a comment to let me know!

FiSch research published in Trends journal

About two years ago, FiSch launched a research project on ecosystem services. A group of Christian scholars, with backgrounds in philosophy and/or ecology, formed the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES). After a number of face-to-face meetings, we continued to work on improving the ecosystem services framework with insights from a Christian philosophical framework. We (Richard Gunton, Eline van Asperen, Andrew Basden, David Bookless, Yoseph Araya, David Hanson, Mark Goddard, George Otieno and Gareth Jones) are pleased to announce that this work has now led to a first publication, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a leading journal in the fields of ecology and evolution. We expect the article to be available online in the next few weeks, so watch this space! Also, for more information on a Christian conference on this topic, please scroll down to the end of this post.

So how did we go about this? We followed Andrew Basden’s ACE approach: affirm, critique and enrich. In essence, this is also the structure we follow in our TREE article.

Affirm: Ecosystem services (ES) provides an important framework in conservation science and policy. It analyses the many ways in which people benefit from ecosystems, and uses these as incentives for conservation. It has been very successful in motivating people to conserve ecosystems, and has broadened people’s understanding of the different ways in which natural habitats benefit humans.

Critique: The use of ES has not been without controversy. The main criticism arises becomes it encourages people to put a price on the different ‘services’ that an ecosystem provides. But many of the benefits that people derive from ecosystems cannot really be commodified. Think for example of recreation. You can measure how much money people spend on visiting nature reserves, or how much it saves the NHS if people’s health improves as a result, but do such numbers really express the full benefit? Monetisation and commodification can also lead to bias towards those stakeholders who are richer, more vocal or better connected. These issues, and the fact that the definitions and categories used in ES are often vague and contradictory, point to a deeper underlying conceptual problem.

Enrich: In order to do justice to the plurality of motives people have for conservation, and the multiplicity of stakeholders, we propose a framework that focuses on mutual human—environment relationships and the diverse ways in which particular people value particular places. To do this, we offer a comprehensive, mutually irreducible set of axes to consider, derived from aspectual theory. For a particular place and a specified stakeholder we can then ask how the stakeholder appreciates the place in these kinds of ways.

If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, the article contains a diagram to outline the different axes and some examples of stakeholders. And of course we are planning to develop this further. We really hope this will be a constructive contribution to the discussion around ES.

If you’d like to learn more, the John Ray Initiative’s annual conference on 18 March in Birmingham has the theme ‘Nature in the balance: Can we put a value on the environment, and should we?’ A number of FiSWES members will be giving talks or leading workshops. We’d love to see you there!

Here's the full reference of the article:

Gunton, R.M., van Asperen, E., Basden, A., Bookless, D., Araya, Y., Hanson, D.R., Goddard, M.A., Otieno, G., Jones, G.O. (in press): Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Doing English in the church

‘Oh, you’re thinking of doing English at university? You’ll have to be careful about that. A lot of people lose their faith.’

I was seventeen. I had been a Christian for several years, and I had loved books for much longer. I was doing two English A-Levels and thoroughly enjoying them, and I had just moved past a period of crippling doubt in God – the first I had experienced – into a steadier, more confident faith.

Dangerous territory

So hearing the above, from an older friend at church, was jarring. It didn’t stop me pursuing my studies, but it was an attitude I’ve encountered more than once in the evangelical church. The academic study of literature is dangerous for the Christian: Christianity is a religion of the Book, but for some, really only the one Book is safe.

This can manifest simply as gentle warnings and raised eyebrows, which is all I faced, or – for others I’ve talked to – active discouragement from pursuing English at all. Related subjects such as philosophy and history often attract similar worries: I remember a peer’s loss of childhood faith being directly linked by other Christians to her study of philosophy.

The death of the Author?

Why is this the case? I don’t think the concerns stem simply from anti-intellectualism, though that is certainly something evangelicals have to reckon with. Distrust of academic literary study, where it is raised, seems to come mainly from anxiety about postmodern or relativist practices of reading, and the way these may undermine the Bible’s authority. The death of the author and the death of God, two memorable claims advanced by twentieth-century thinkers, are certainly linked, and for some Christians this is enough warning to stay well clear of the literary academy.

This concern is rarely stated explicitly. But it’s a problem. Not an urgent or even a major one, perhaps; Christian young people still study literature, and there are more believers in this section of academia than at first appears. But there is often a lack of support from their churches, partially out of ignorance of the nature of the work and partially from the anxiety I’ve discussed.

Bridging the gap

Christians in literary study can feel isolated, already a problem in a field not well suited to collaboration, and encounter few resources to help them integrate faith and work. If we believe Christ to be the Lord of all life, what can we do to foster more and better Christian engagement with the literary academy?

I have a few ideas on the church side of things:

  1. On an individual level, we can affirm and encourage young people with an interest in literature (and similarly ‘difficult’ subjects), making sure they hear positive reactions as well as negative or unsure ones.
  2. The church can acknowledge the power and value of literature that is not explicitly 'Christian': this can work out in lots of ways, but centrally I think it’s important to talk about, give, lend, and reference a wide variety of books in church contexts. (This will mean going beyond C. S. Lewis and other ‘safe’ fiction.)
  3. Ultimately it should be an integrated, public part of our witness, as individuals and churches, that academic life can and should be lived for Christ, including the ‘difficult’ parts of the humanities.

From the academic side, Christians in literary study can aim towards a greater willingness to integrate their faith with their academic field in an explicit way. We can model a commitment to doing it well in Christ which will be winsome both to unbelievers and to those Christians who are sceptical.

And we can do better at supporting one another – there are resources and initiatives available on specific issues relating to literature and Christian faith, and there are Christians faithfully doing literary work, but often these are not very well linked up. In the UK, the Christian Literary Studies Group is one forum for exploring this interface and also has a helpful list of resources and groups. I would love to hear in the comments about other ways that Christian literary scholars can connect with one another and with their churches, for everyone’s benefit.

Can Christianity enhance science?

Church Scientific is a project of Faith-in-Scholarship in partnership with Blenheim Baptist Church. Launched last October, it seeks to help Christian students and researchers in science-related subjects to explore how a Christian worldview might enhance their scientific work. We believe Church Scientific is unique in bringing Christianity to bear on scientific work in three ways:

  1. It explores and develops a Christian philosophy of science;
  2. It examines the processes of research and discovery, seeking to help scientists in their endeavours;
  3. It addresses scientists in the communal context of Christian fellowship, including the church.

The core of the project is a series of scientists' workshops. These ran in Leeds in autumn 2016, with six different speakers presenting a total of nine talks to a group of around 15 participants. These talks picked up from the overarching question, "Could a Christian worldview contribute to science?" by unpacking some of the ideas that philosopher Elaine Storkey had laid out in her talk at the launch event. There's more detail about the talks in this post at www.churchscientific.org.uk.

The next phase is a series of science café evenings.  In each of five evenings, three participants will give short talks about an area of research that they are currently pursuing, mentioning any ways in which a Christian worldview might be having an influence in their work. After each talk, an audience (hopefully drawn from churches across Leeds) will take some time in small groups to discuss what they've heard, and come up with some ideas and questions for the speaker. Then there'll be a period of conversation with the speaker, so that everyone can benefit from the combined wisdom and creativity of the whole group. So we're not putting scientists on pedestals to expound knowledge so much as seeking to bring faithful scholars into conversation with fellow believers and followers of Christ.  I'm excited to see how this works out!

The third and final phase will be a conference to bring together the best of what's been shared in the earlier parts of the project. This will also provide an opportunity for refinement and development of ideas that are taking shape as we go along. The format of the conference is still being discussed, but we envisage it taking place around July 2017, somewhere in Leeds. Watch this space!

So far Church Scientific has a northern feel: located in Leeds, it's funded by a Scientists in Congregations project based at St John's College Durham, along with Blenheim Baptist Church (Leeds) and Wetherby Baptist Church (North Yorkshire). But next year we also hope to take it to new locations - subject to funding, of course!  For all the news, you can follow us on Facebook.

Pages