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?

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