FiSch blog

A Christian philosophy of science

Diagram of "particulars" (and classes of particulars) in diverse "relations" over "time"

For the key to the icons, see this post.

We're beginning a series exploring the outlines of a Christian philosophy of the sciences. Not, I hasten to add, the Christian Philosophy of Science (as I know there's a tendency for the tag "Christian" to evoke a sense of dogma!).  Rather, I want to develop, aided by some guest bloggers and hopefully lots of comments and feedback from readers, a philosophical framework that could provide insights into what the sciences are, where they come from, and how we who are scientists can better go about our research.  This series is also written with an eye to the next phase of Church Scientific.

Here I pick up from the Triune view of reality articulated by Jeremy Ive that I described last year, with input from Hendrik Hart's "Understanding Our World" and the writings of Danie Strauss - although it is of course my own interpretation.  Suppose we accept that the created world of our experience can be summarised as "things in relation over time": how does scientific thinking apply?

Our starting point is that scientific thinking does not concern the uniqueness of things so much as classes, properties and behaviours that can be observed across multiple individuals or situations (universals).  In French, scientific knowing is generally savoir, not connaître, distinguishing knowing about generalities (or that something pertains) from knowing particulars (like people, pets and places). In English the distinction is simply between intransitive vs. transitive verb forms, but the contrast remains.  If I asked a zoologist friend, "How well do you know the alligator?", I'd probably be asking about a particular alligator - unless I were using an old-fashioned idiom whereby species are taken as particulars (echoes of platonic realism... of which more later!).  My zoologist friend's professional interest would be in knowing about alligators in general: how they live. Or if we turn to the Bible for a moment, we may note that while most of the canonical material is about particular people, places and events (though not pets), the wisdom literature (e.g. Job, as magnificently explored by Tom McLeish) dwells extensively on generalities and might be seen as proto-scientific.

Many scientific fields have their origins in taxonomy: describing and classifying types of rocks and stars, species of organisms and diseases, personality types, family structures, etc. And thus the sciences proliferate concepts for types of particular things within a certain domain of interest. Developing sciences then take increasing interest in assessing temporal processes and interactive relationships: sedimentation, gravitation, reproduction, infection, development and geographical prevalence, for example - mostly using quantifiable variables.  This is not metaphysics; rather these characteristically scientific interests concern conceptual abstraction. And modally-specific abstraction is perhaps the best single characteristic of "science".  

But for all the celebration of science as a source of empirical knowledge, the empirical basis of abstraction is rather obscure.  How do we come to see that this truffle and that truffle are both truffles, or to classify rocks - despite the fact that every single specimen is unique?  Biologists may fall back on the biological species concept - but this is more of an ideal than a useful tool.  If we seek refuge in nominalism and pretend we just made up the types for convenience, then the taxonomic elements of our sciences lose their appeal.  But just as problematic is the abstraction of variables relevant to scientific processes and relationships - like mass, temperature, lifespan, fecundity and relatedness.  How do scientists form these concepts and then discover theoretical relationships and formulate laws - merely from unique data?  We'll return to the problems of inference another time, but it's hard to deny that scientific knowledge is a strange kind of empirical description of invisible​ kinds and nonexistent variables: abstract projections of our experience that open up windows into another realm of reality.

This brings us to the diagram above. The particular things we directly experience (the white shapes) provide the "hard" data for scientific reasoning, and subjects for scientific prediction, but the abstract kinds (white patches) and diverse relations (the rainbow aura) are perceived in a different way.  Hart describes them as conditions and laws. As such, he says that they are real but do not exist; instead they "apply" or "hold". Turning again to the Bible (especially the Psalms), this also seems to be the sense in which God's word is real without being a creature. And here lies a key reason why this framework has a particular claim to being Christian.

For now, lots of intriguing questions could arise - e.g.:

  • How do scientists actually relate data (particulars) to theory (abstract generalities)?
  • Can a study of star constellations be scientific?
  • Does history count as a social science, or is it just about unique particulars?
  • Can theology be the science of God?
  • "Word of God" actually has several meanings - how do they relate to science?

These must be addressed in future posts in this series, which we plan to resume in the new year. 

Listening in relationship

“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

The third part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In my previous post I noted how Jesus’ disciples responded to the parable of the sower by being both imaginative and studious, and suggested that these are vital principles for Christian scholars.  In this post I look at a second principle that we can learn from these disciples’ approach to learning and listening.

Before looking at this principle, we should acknowledge that we are not naturally good listeners! Listening is not an easy task, and involves a deep commitment to people, communities, and the social spaces around us. As academics, the focus of our work is often narrow and intense, and we run the risk of becoming oblivious to the problems around us (especially if we are writing a thesis!) and fail to be sensitive to God’s callings to ‘seek his face’ in the routine of our lives (Psalm 27. 8). In Mark chapter 4 we are also told that the crowd resisted listening, and did not even seek earnestly the meanings of the Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus faced difficult listeners (Mark 4. 11-12). He charged that generation with ‘seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…’ (v.12). A collective refusal to listen to the word of God was at the heart of the communication problem between Jesus and those listeners.

It is interesting to note that Jesus addressed this problem not with compelling arguments that proved that his teachings were true and meaningful, but by creating a universe of meanings, illustrations, images, and questions about the nature of God, His word and our response to the divine. Listening thus relates to acquiring meaning. Therefore, speaking in parables or metaphorical speech served as the turning point in his ‘lecturing’: less interested listeners missed the opportunity to gain knowledge and meaning from Jesus’ teachings.  This leads us to the main principle I want to examine.

Jesus’ teaching invites us to develop a relational approach to listening (and learning). After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, his disciples leave the noisy crowd behind and come to Him for an intimate time of exploring, asking, and listening. And times of solitude with God and in different Christian communities (small groups or congregations) can inspire us to listen to the Spirit deeply. In the same way in learning (or conducting research), a relational approach means that we are open to our colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Research will not be the realm of the lone wolf. Cooperation instead of competitiveness, humility instead of arrogance, and dependence instead of self-sufficiency will enable us to flourish in a community of scholars in pursuit of the common good.

Moreover, the example of the disciples might help us to understand the importance of depending on God in learning and conducting our research projects. In this context, prayers and petitions (with thanksgiving) may constitute important resources in our task of learning (Philippians 4. 6-7). The academic life is full of uncertainties and intellectual problems. In my own PhD experience, the challenges of my fieldwork were invitations to prayer and trust in God’s provision for the completion of my project.

Finally, to address the question about fruitfulness (I am not saying "productivity"!) in our academic life, Jesus ends the parable of the sower with a promise of growth (Mark 4. 20). Hearing, thinking and responding appropriately to the Word will bring growth and fruitfulness to our lives. As Christians pursuing academic careers we are not only called to seek to comprehend the Creation with all its complexities, but also to deepen our understanding of our Creator and loving Father. Fruitfulness will be the result of acknowledging that learning leads us to know more His character and deeds. The knowledge of His secrets, wisdom and loving deeds are possible to those who are committed to listen.

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Christian postgrad groups in action: Oxford Graduate Christian Forum

One of the aims of Faith in Scholarship over the years has been to support groups for Christian postgraduate students – sometimes actively, sometimes through providing networks and resources. Most of the FiSch bloggers are or have been part of these groups in various universities across the country. Today I want to spotlight the group I’m currently involved in at Oxford: the Graduate Christian Forum.

The GCF is the official postgrad Christian group of the university, and came into being in 1993, making it one of the older extant groups of this kind. It’s mainly a lecture society, hosting talks each week during termtime (see the website for details of where and when). Subjects vary widely – in the last year there have been talks on everything from Shakespeare to Quakerism to beauty in science.

Our aim is to be a place of dialogue, fellowship, and inspiration, linking up Christians from different disciplines and churches. Oxford is generally a good place to be a Christian postgrad, with organisations like the Oxford Pastorate and some of the large churches’ targeted ministries working with our specific needs. The GCF aims to sit alongside these pastoral groups and help postgrads think more deeply about the links between Christian faith and all different kinds of academic work.

If you’re in Oxford (or are about to arrive) and you’ve never been to a meeting – do come along in the autumn term! Anyone is welcome, at any stage of their graduate career, and from any faith background. For readers elsewhere, you might be interested in the recorded talks which are free to listen to on our website. Some of my personal highlights from the last year:

There are talks from all kinds of disciplines, from a variety of really interesting speakers – a great resource if you’re looking for up-to-date thinking on faith and your subject.

I’ve got involved in the GCF this year and am now serving on the committee. As I go to a church which doesn’t have very many postgraduate students, it’s really good to be able to make connections to others who are balancing and integrating academic work and faith in different ways, and share the particular experiences that brings.

If you’re a Christian postgrad and not connected to some kind of specific ministry or group, can I encourage you to try one out? If you’re in Oxford there's the GCF and several other options; or the list at cpgrad.org.uk can direct you to groups in other places. Community is really important to the academic, and Christian communities with real insight into our opportunities and challenges can be a lifeline.

Jesus, virtue and the university

In the third and final post on the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017 (you can find the first and second posts here and here), I'll summarize the talk that Joanna Collicutt gave. She drew on her expertise in both psychology and theology to help us consider how we can be Christ-like in the university, using the concepts of virtue and character.

Most of us have heard of the seven deadly sins, but in church tradition these are counterbalanced by the seven virtues: temperance, prudence, justice, courage, faith, hope and charity. This strand of thinking starts early in Christian thought, with Ambrose of Milan, and found its most eloquent and extensive expression in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Many of these virtues are recognized in modern positive psychology as habits of mind and practice that enable human flourishing. However, in the gospels we do not see Jesus speak much about virtues. Partly, this is because we tend to focus on Christ's soteriological role rather than his life and teaching, and on his divinity rather than his humanity. We'll come back to this, but first let's look at bit more at how modern psychology thinks about virtue.

Edward Burne-Jones: Faith, Hope and Charity. Stained glass windows in Christ Church, Oxford

Our world is not perfect, and humans are fallen creatures. We are therefore faced with a world that is out of kilter, and our own fallible nature which, as Paul says, makes us 'do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing' (Rom. 7:19). How you make compromises between what is and how you would like things to be says a lot about what you base your identity on. Identity is 'telic': it is about goals and purposes. There are usually a number of different kinds of goals, and how well you manage to integrate these will impact on your flourishing and the amount of stress you experience.

What does all this have to do with Jesus and virtue? First of all, the goals we pursue have implicit theological roots. As Christians we believe that life is going somewhere, and that people were made to live in community. Secondly, we long to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). We want our life to be Christ-like, to form our habits into his character, with the help of the Spirit and within Christian community so we can help each other to express the life of Christ. This takes the form of Christ-like virtues, like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The practice of virtue leads to the building of character. Character is a concept that is halfway between personality traits and aptitudes. Character is embodied virtue, virtue become habit through long practice.

We can express virtue and character in our scholarship by being intentionally goal-directed rather than problem-focused. In our work, we should consider what we are living for as more important than task performance on its own. Learning as a vocation should take precedence over advancing professional and institutional agendas. We should also seek true interdisciplinarity, not just multidisciplinarity, to do justice to the multifaceted nature of reality.

You can probably sense that there was more in this talk than can easily be summarized in one blog post! The audio and slides of the talk will soon be available on Transforming the Mind's website, so do follow the TTM facebook page if you want to be kept updated!

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Welcome to the University of Babylon!

Following on from the first post a few weeks ago, here's the second of three posts summarizing the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017. This week we're looking at Mike Clifford's talk, which took the experience of Daniel and his friends in Babylon as the starting point.

Daniel was a young man who was taken away from his country and his family and moved to a new culture with different rules. There he was enrolled in a three-year course of study in 'every kind of learning', and especially language and literature. Feels familiar to some of you? Maybe you have moved away from your family and friends, and even your country, to pursue your course of study, although I suspect most of us did this by free choice rather than under duress! Daniel and his friends were fully immersed in everything the culture of Babylon had to offer. Some of the things they learned were good and useful, but other aspects of their programme of study may have deliberately aimed to assimilate them into the culture of Babylon, to change their worldview. What would their families have thought about that? Likewise, Christians in academia can feel caught in the middle: on the one hand there is the pressure to conform to the secular mould of society, and on the other hand there can be pressure from a Christian subculture that does not always value learning. Still, Daniel and his friends embarked on this course of study, and God used them not only to witness to the king of Babylon and his court, but he also helped them to develop the gifts and talents they had been given (Dan. 1:4). How are you using your gifts in your studies? How do you explain the importance of your studies to your church family? And how can you serve in your society without losing your identity in Christ?

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; © Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In this Babylonian environment, Daniel and his friends made sure they stayed in contact with God. Despite losing their home and even their names, through their distinctive diet (ch. 1), worship (ch. 3) and prayer (ch. 6) they not only survived but thrived (Dan. 1:15). What helps you to survive and thrive in your academic environment? What practices help you to keep in touch with God and his calling on your life in the midst of your research?

Daniel did not rebel against his programme of study. During their three years of study, God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and understanding of the things they were learning – 'all kinds of literature and learning' (Dan. 1:17) – so that they outdid all the other students (Dan. 1:20). Of course we should not expect to always be the best student. After all, God placed Daniel in Babylon for a very specific purpose. But it does mean we can ask God to bless us in our research, and to help us to understand what we are studying. At times our studies may challenge our faith, but the university can also be a place where our faith is tested and refined. Like Daniel, we need to be aware of which aspects of our discipline are in tension with our faith, and seek to engage with these faithfully, following the call of God on our lives.

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Listening to God with studious imagination

"The Sower" by Jean-François Millet

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

The second part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In an earlier post, I evoked John Stott’s theological concept of double listening:

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 (Stott 1992, p.13).

This, I suggest, is as important for those of us pursuing academic careers as for anyone else. Here I ask how we can listen to God in our academic life. Christians generally stress their communal and personal commitment to listen to, interact with and worship a Creator God, the One "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). But how can we hear God’s voice when so many voices compete for our attention? And to what extent will this have an impact on our academic careers?

To address these questions, I would like to invite us to reflect upon the interaction between Jesus and his disciples as seen in Mark chapter 4. Conscious of the need to be a more attentive listener, I believe that the disciples’ response to Jesus’ methods of teaching provides us with resources to develop an open and creative hearing of God’s word and relate it to our academic disciplines.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses a crowd of listeners with a series of parables - stories with meanings to be uncovered and constructed. The famous parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) fascinates and challenges us with its complexity. The different soils in the parable represent distinct hearts or mindsets that enable or hinder our capacity to listen to the Word. And we may learn a lot from reflecting on how different groups in Jesus’ audience responded to this parable itself.

Mark tells us that a group of studious and interested listeners approached him to inquire about the meanings of the parable (Mark 4:10). This is a striking (but often overlooked) point. This group was not happy with a superficial hearing of Jesus’ message, and by digging deeper, they were surprised by the powerful meanings attached to it. These disciples had an approach to learning (and listening) that can teach us two principles. I will look at the first here and at the second in my next post.

The first principle is to develop an imaginative and studious hearing of God’s word (and His world). What strikes me is that it was only his disciples who came to Jesus afterwards to ask him about the meaning behind the parable. Jesus was a creative and imaginative teacher, and He wanted committed followers who were keen to engage in an imaginative search for the secrets of the Kingdom (Mark 4:10-11). He invited his listeners to interact with truth and meaning in an active way. The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey emphasises that "Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. His primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than a philosopher." (Bailey 2008, p.279). Therefore, Jesus’ methods of teaching challenge us to develop a different approach to listening. Creativity, openness, and a willingness to respond to a word that may not always be immediately clear or welcome are important qualities if we are serious about listening to God (Cole, 1989). When Jesus says "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:9), he is calling us to "thought and action in response" (Cole 1989, p.147).

In a similar way, in our own disciplines, listening attentively might involve a commitment to deepening our understanding of the academic field in which we study. For instance, what are the impacts of my research on society? In which ways does our area of study reveal the character of God? How does the study of society, human behaviour, and culture enhance our knowledge of humanity as God’s creation? Are there ethical questions to be considered through our research? Our studies also might reveal something to us about the nature of our Creator God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created.

References

Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels. London: Society for promoting Christian Knowledge. (SPCK).

Cole, R. A. (1989). The Gospel According to Mark: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-varsity Press.

Stott, J.W. (1992). The Contemporary Christian: an Urgent Plea for Double Listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

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What is your calling again?

It is now becoming a tradition that each year I write up the talks from the Transforming the Mind conference so a larger group of people can benefit from them. For previous years, see here and here. This year, we had three speakers. Today I'll tell you about the final talk of the conference, and there will be two more installments over the next month or so. Maithrie White, the conference chair, talked about 'Christian mind under renewal'.

What motivates you to commit years of your life to studying? What is your calling in the university? What is your calling in the world?

On this blog, we often talk about our 'calling' as Christian scholars. These are important questions that I hope you have thought about at least briefly before starting your degree. And it is helpful to return to these questions regularly. After all, most of the world around us does not think about pursuing studies in terms of a calling. But as Christian scholars, what should motivate us to study is not just love for the subject or a desire for an academic career (although these are also important and good). As humans, we are called to be God's image in the world. We are co-workers with God, and He loves all of his world.

The university can be holy ground if we worship God there by studying what He has made.
But what does it actually mean to live out that universal human calling in the university? What is God asking us to do?

1. Develop a Christian mind. God is calling us to 'be transformed by the renewal of your mind' (Rom. 12:2). Like Jesus in the transfiguration, we are called to reflect the love of God to the people and the world around us. We are called to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), to see the world from God's perspective. We do this by engaging deeply with Scripture, and by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Note that we are active in this: Paul doesn't say 'let Christ transform you', but he uses imperatives: 'do not be conformed… be transformed'. Christ works in us, but we are not completely passive.

2. Dialogue with the university. God calls his people to be a people of truth and justice (Micah 6:8), who speak prophetically to the surrounding culture. Let us hold fast to God's vision for our world passionately. A world where justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24). 'God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (…) gave us the ministry of reconciliation: (…) God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ' (2 Cor. 5:18-19). God is calling us to be part of this process of reconciliation! It is a privilege to study. But do you ever ask yourself what you will give back to the world? And I don't just mean 'impact' – although that is part of it. Whom can you serve through your calling as a scholar?

These questions are certainly worth pondering regularly. Let us in humility respond to God's calling on our lives, serving his purposes as we study.

A Christian academic booklist

Whatever stage of research we're at, we can benefit from a masterly overview of how everything fits together.  And we're sometimes asked what introductions to Christian thinking we can recommend for academics. 

First, there are some general principles that can guide and inspire us, and that's where a reading list ought to start.  So here are some introductory books on Christian thinking recommended by current and former FiSch bloggers:

  • Sire JW (2010) The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. InterVarsity Press (5th edn)

  • Wolters AM (2005) Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Eerdmans (2nd edn).

  • Middleton R & Walsh BJ (1984) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview. InterVarsity Press

  • Smith JKA (2006) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Baker Academic.

  • Kok JH (1998) Patterns of the Western Mind: A Reformed Christian Perspective. Dordt College Press

Next, here are some books that go deeper into ideas of Christian philosophy:

  • Bartholomew C & Goheen M (2013) Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. Baker Academic

  • Crisp TM, Porter SL & Ten Elshoff GA (2014) Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils. Eerdmans

  • Clouser RA (2005) The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Beliefs in Theories. University of Notre Dame Press (2nd edn) - reviewed by Anthony

  • Ouweneel W (2014) Wisdom for Thinkers: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. Paideia Press - reviewed by Eline
  • Plantinga C (2002) Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living. Eerdmans - reviewed by Thom

You may be spotting a disproportionate number of Dutch names!  This reveals our connections with a tradition of Christian philosophy that began in the Netherlands with Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, building on insights from the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper. This reformational movement, as it is called, is of course just one place to find Christian scholars, but it does probably host some of those with the strongest conviction that scholarship cannot be religiously neutral, and that every discipline investigates a real facet of God's eternal creative word.  That is, we believe that an academic's work bears traces of his or her deepest convictions about the origin, nature and meaning of the world, yet is somehow constrained by the real given order of creation.  For more on this, see "What is this reformational philosophy framework?" on the About page, browse the ongoing "Christian philosophy in diagrams" series, or head off to www.allofliferedeemed.com

Now, occasionally I find a book that casts fresh light across a whole area of research I'm pursuing.  On one occasion, it was a book offering a Christian framework for statistics* - which gave me ideas I'm still working with.  Whatever your discipline, for an example of a more specific introduction to Christian scholarship, you might try one of the following (approximately arranged in order of Dooyeweerd's aspects):

  • James Nikel (2000) Mathematics: Is God Silent? Ross House Books
  • *Andrew M. Hartley (2008) Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference. Wipf and Stock
  • Tom McLeish (2014, 2015) Faith and Wisdom in Science. Oxford University
  • Magnus Verbrugge (1984) Alive: An Enquiry into the Origin and Meaning of Life
  • Willem Ouweneel (2014) Searching the Soul: An Introduction to Christian Psychology. Paideia
  • D.C. Schuurman (2013) Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology. InterVarsity - reviewed by Anthony
  • Andrew Basden (2008) Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. IGI Publishing
  • Jay Green (2015) Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. Baylor University
  • Eric O. Jacobsen (2012) The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment. Baker
  • Albert Weideman (2011) A Framework for the Study of Linguistics. Paideia
  • Henk Aay & Sander Griffioen, eds (1998) Geography and Worldview: A Christian Reconnaissance. University Press of America
  • Craig Bartholomew (2011) Where Mortals Dwell. Baker
  • Jeff Van Duzer (2010) Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed). IVP Academic - reviewed by Xia Zhu
  • Elaine Storkey (2000) Created or Constructed? Paternoster
  • Doug Blomberg (2007) Wisdom and Curriculum: Christian Schooling After Postmodernity. Dordt College
  • Hilary Brand & Adrienne Dengerink (2001) Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Piquant
  • Jeremy Begbie (1991) Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. A&C Black [on music]
  • David Koyzis (2003) Political Visions and Illusions. InterVarsity
  • James Skillen (2013) The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction. Baker
  • Michael P. Schutt (2007) Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession. InterVarsity

There's nothing here about classic areas of Christian involvement such as ethics or theology, because of the sheer volume of books available (perhaps we should have left out education and art too!). But we hope the above suggestions are helpful to our friends whose colleagues assume that Christian faith could only be a hindrance in their work.  Far from it!

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." (Col. 3:17; cf v23)

    Are we called to be academics?

    ‘Calling’ or ‘vocation’ is something we mention fairly often at Faith in Scholarship. In modern English it’s mostly used, in both secular and church contexts, to refer to profession: often to a certain kind of demanding, valued profession, such as medicine or pastoral work. Many Christian thinkers have (rightly) reclaimed this kind of value for all kinds of work, pointing out that God can be glorified in anything from retail to programming to construction to academia.

    Calling in the Bible

    But is ‘calling’ the right way to talk about the value of work? I recently noticed an interaction on Twitter between two Christian writers whose work I love – Jen Pollock Michel, author of the excellent Teach Us To Want, and Bethany Jenkins, who runs the Gospel Coalition’s ‘Every Square Inch’ initiative on faith and work:

    Michel’s initial tweets had me nodding and agreeing – but Jenkins’ corrective fit with some reading I’ve been doing recently as part of a group here in Oxford (‘Christians in Academia’, a programme run by the Oxford Character Project). Ahead of our discussions about ‘vocation’, we read the first chapter of a book by Gary Badcock, The Way of Life, in which he pointed out much the same as Jenkin’s second tweet above. The call of God in the Bible is almost never connected directly to profession or work as such. Instead, we’re called to repentance (Mark 2:17), salvation (1 Cor 1:2), and holiness (2 Tim 1:8-9).

    Work and identity

    None of this is to say that the ideas behind ‘faith and work’ thinking are wrong! The value and holiness of work done well for God, using our given gifts and circumstances, is undeniable. But we can unintentionally, and unbiblically, narrow our thinking by linking vocation – the call of God – too closely with our work or role in society (paid or not).

    God calls us as whole people, in every part of our lives. This is something I’ve been taught ever since I can remember. But it’s dangerously easy to use the idea of God’s calling to make the label of ‘academic’ (or teacher, or researcher, or scholar) into my central identity. First and foremost, God has called me to be his child, his disciple.

    Maybe it’s better to talk about profession and calling using verbs, not nouns. I am called to love God: in my professional context right now, I do this by reading, thinking, analysing, teaching. In the future those particular ways of loving God may be different, but my calling will be the same. This mindset guards against the potential to spiritualise over-reliance on professional achievements or labels.

    What do you think? In what ways is the language of 'calling' as regards our work helpful, or unhelpful? 

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    Cross-cultural teaching

    In my work as a lecturer over the past year, I've had the privilege of working particularly closely with students from a number of different nationalities and cultures. This has been especially exciting for me because it fits into a lifelong love for other languages and other places. As a student I loved being part of the meetings of international students at my university Christian Union, and seeing how people from very different parts of the world (and with wildly contrasting life-stories) could come together in worshipping Jesus and encouraging one another.

    Now I'm working on the other side of the chalkboard (so to speak) as a lecturer. Part of my job is to help communicate the ideas and tasks required of the syllabus to the students so that, regardless of where they're coming from (figuratively or literally), they'll be able to make sense of them and put them into practice. This isn't always totally straightforward, as I'm sure you can imagine – but it can be very rewarding! Whilst there have been many occasions where a student response has suddenly revealed that we've been talking at cross-purposes for some time, there have been many others where I have come away from teaching feeling hugely excited because of a breakthrough of some kind, a moment where a bridge has been built between our cultures and there's been an instant of mutual understanding – or, equally, when I have been suddenly awoken to some aspect of a student's culture that throws my own into sharp relief, or indeed puts me to shame. 

    I believe that a touchstone for our attitude as Christians towards those of other cultures is found in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. Not only did this momentous event mark the birth of the church and the arrival of the Holy Spirit as a universal anointing for God's people, but it also presented a tantalising reversal of the curse of Babel. Where in Genesis the multiplication of language had brought chaos and division, here the Spirit's gift of tongues united seekers of God from many nations in worshipping Him and hearing the truth about Jesus. This is a foretaste of the new creation, where peope from every tribe and tongue will come together to worship the Lord; those of us working across cultures in an academic context have a unique opportunity to show this same unifying love and power in our own attitudes and actions. Here are a few things I'm trying to remember as I teach in this context:

    • God's love cannot be culturally constrained. As the world enters a period of increased tribalism, some voices wish to draw Christianity into the orbit of a particular cultural group – either to claim ownership of it, or to outlaw it. But from the beginning, the message of Jesus was radically anti-tribal (to an extent that caused friction among all the cultural stakeholders in the early church). We need to be very careful that we don't conflate our own culture with God's calling.
    • We need the Holy Spirit. God deeply desires to break down divisions between people-groups, especially those with a long history of hostility. What He did at Pentecost He is still doing now, through the power of the Spirit. As we serve across cultures at university, we need to ask for His help not just to overcome language barrier, but to reflect His genuine love for and interest in all the people He has made.
    • All Christians are cross-cultural. Paul called the Philippians to see themselves as citizens of heaven, living as ex-pats in their earthly world. We should be able to understand something of what it is like for a student in an unfamiliar culture, because we are all in that position to some extent – 'foreigners and strangers on earth', in the words of the writer to the Hebrews. Let's not get too comfortable, but take every opportunity to reach out across cultures, as God has reached out to us.

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