Thinking Faith blogs

The idea of a Christian university

university graphic

Christians hold a wide range of views about what kinds of Christian organisation should be created.  At one extreme, the Church is seen as the primary or even the only Christian organisation, its ordained leaders merely lending their authority to a limited range of other Christian initiatives - which thus have a denominational character (at least if you're Protestant) and fall under clerical control. Perhaps a next step is to allow for independent initiatives like Christian unions, workplace fellowships and theological colleges directed by laypeople. But it's quite a lot further along the spectrum that we find autonomous Christian schools, colleges and universities, in which a broad curriculum is available for study. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions have these - yet in the U.K. they are surprisingly rare and, in some circles, controversial.

I'm part of a working group looking at the idea of a Christian research institute for the U.K. - as part of the broader vision of a Christian university for the U.K. This is an idea close to the heart of Faith-in-Scholarship's parent organisation, Thinking Faith Network - which was founded in 1986 as the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies. So we're going to have a number of posts looking at the idea of a Christian university - starting with this one.

What's the idea of a Christian university?  My boldest answer would be that it's simply the ideal of the university. "University" comes from Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which meant a community of teachers and scholars: the "universitas" bit seems to refer to the unity of a group devoted to a common aim - implicitly that of building and sharing knowledge and understanding. And the term was initially used in European cultures pervaded by Christian worldviews where the object and guarantee of all knowledge was the order of God's creation itself, elucidated by the Christian Scriptures. Indeed a quick survey of university mottos suggests that in the British Isles, most of the earliest universities had biblical mottos ("Dominus illuminatio mea", "Via, Veritas, Vita", "Initium sapientiae timor domini", etc). If we also endorse more modern mottos such as "all truth is God's truth" and "He shines in all that's fair" and the notion of the common good, we might hold that a Christian university is ideally everything a university should be. And perhaps some of today's universities that don't label themselves Christian are not so far from that ideal. Indeed, there are a number in the U.K. that retain reference to Christian foundations: some members of the so-called Cathedrals Group of universities do so somewhere in a "mission and values" page deep within their website, while Liverpool Hope University more boldly claims to be "Europe's only ecumenical university" (referring to its joint Catholic and Anglican elements).

So why seek to establish anything else?  Let me intimate an answer - together with a critique of our university sector as I currently see it - by suggesting three ways in which a Christian university would ideally not turn out. First, it would not be run as a business. While it should seek financial sustainability, a mission of seeking and inculcating wisdom beginning from the fear of Yahweh would be the guiding consideration.  Second, it would not be a collection of academic departments unified principally by their adminstration. Interdisciplinarity would be promoted via a focus on a Christian philosophy articulating the coherence of all academic disciplines and through an emphasis on cross-disciplinary communication. (Joint honours degrees would not come from the widespread pick-and-mix approach: integrative modules would be required.)  Third, it would not give special status to theologians, nor burden chaplains or clergy with the requirement to uphold its Christian character. While theological study would be encouraged for all faculty and students and a good chaplaincy would no doubt be an asset, all faculty would be expected to give some account of their work within a Christian worldview framework.  A corollary to all this is that faculty would be appointed on the strength of their ability to relate their academic work to a Christian framework and philosophy, broadly defined. 

A final point needs to be made: that no such selection criteria would be applied to students. One of the most striking things about my visit to a L'Abri centre was how there was no questioning of the faith or morals of students like myself who turned up to study there. We had already selected ourselves, and the community we joined was permeated by Christian orthodoxy and liturgy to such a degree that the experience was transformational.

There is lots more to say, of course, and for me personally to work out. That's why this is just a first post on the topic - and why the Christian university project must be born out of a deep fellowship. 

Ben Jones is a technical genius!

 

It was so uplifting working with Ben Jones this morning at Leeds City College. Ben is a wonderfully imaginative youth worker and I do commend his organisation Missional Generation to you.

The VirtualReality experience was a powerful and breathtaking journey through five very different planets and you felt like a seasoned astronaut gazing at the nooks and crannies of the universe in a comfortable and reliable rocket. The students loved it!

Ben then spoke very eloquently about the Christian faith and linked it to the incredible diversity and intricacy of God's amazing universe. I then pitched in by reading part of Psalm 139. I was struck by how absorbed and attentive the students were.

Anybody who wants to help young people connect with God should pick up a phone and talk to the affable and gifted Ben Jones. I was very impressed by his technical confidence with all the paraphernalia of VirtualReality.

Thanks Stephen Ross and Leeds City College for asking us to come and share in your Interfaithweek. 

For more about Ben Jones and his ministry go to: 

https://www.missionalgen.co.uk/vr/

 

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Critical engagement and academic citizenship

Image 'Citizenship' by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

For the next in our series of posts on skills for Christian academics, I wanted to revisit one aspect of last week's excellent post by Will Allchorn on 'engaging in debate and controversy'. Will presented Dr Andrew Basden's LACE framework for Christians engaging in academic debates – Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich. The emphasis this places on a necessary balance of affirmation and critique – which together engender an attitude of encouragement and community rather than competitiveness – reminded me of an experience from the early days of my own academic apprenticeship. It's rather embarrassing for me to bring it up again now, since it doesn't paint me in a good light, but it taught me a very important lesson about Christian scholarship, so I thought it might be worth sharing with you!

It all began when I was in the process of writing my MA dissertation. Having thrown myself into close reading, I'd quickly discovered that there were only two or three other scholars writing about my chosen topic (not a particularly unusual situation in the study of contemporary music, it must be said). Much of the teaching I'd received regarding research over the previous years had stressed the importance of a critical approach to all existing scholarship, and certainly I'd lapped up the idea that I could make a contribution just as valuable as others who'd been working in an area much longer than I; so with all this in mind, and seeing an opportunity to make an original contribution, I set to work on these existing sources. In order to carve a space for my own interpretations, I took every opportunity to point out holes in the reasoning of the other texts I'd read, to undermine aspects I found unconvincing, and to underline the ways in which my viewpoint was so much more substantive, so much more cohesive. Throughout this it never really occurred to me to think of the authors of these texts as people with lives of their own; they were ciphers, meaningful primarily for the source-material they provided for my own intellectual display.

A year or so later, I had the privilege of meeting one of these scholars at a conference. And it was a privilege! When they heard about my interest in their area of research, they absolutely bent over backwards to help me out – sending me useful documents, arranging for me to attend relevant study days, inviting me to participate in a conference that they organised subsequently. It's no exaggeration to say that I owe some of the most formative experiences of my PhD to them. When I look back on the way I handled their own ideas in my MA work, I am heartily embarrassed. (I'm also extremely relieved that I didn't seek publication for that work, and thus they can't have read it!) It's clear to me now that I had barely even begun to think then about what it might mean for my academic work to think of myself as a Christian scholar; after all, I'd fallen at the first hurdle, that of doing to others what I would have them do to me (Matthew 7:12).

What this brought home to me was the constant need for all acts of critical challenge to be grounded in a broader vision of responsible academic citizenship. I thought the academic life was all about an impersonal quest for originality; but focussing instead on the academy as a living community – with its concomitant demands of encouragement, support and generosity – opens up a much richer and more welcoming concept of scholarly activity, and one which is much more in line with our calling as Christian scholars. I want to explore this concept of academic citizenship further in a future post, but for now I'd invite others' comments on their own experiences of this area: do you have any examples of academics acting as generous and responsible citizens (perhaps even as they respond critically to some of your ideas)?

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How to engage in debate and controversy

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil." 1 Peter 3: 15-17 (ESV)

Sometimes it’s hard to bite one’s lip in academic discussion. With entrenched and often deeply divisive positions pitted on either side, it is easy for Christians to get caught up in the proverbial mudslinging that all too often we see meted out by our colleagues and fellow students. In Peter’s letter to persecuted churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, however, he calls us to make our defence with gentleness and respect. How do we do this as Christians in an academic context?

One useful approach is put forward by Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at Salford University, Dr Andrew Basden. It's called the LACE approach. This dead-easy-to-understand acronym involves four imperatives to help Christians to engage in literary and academic debates that can allow us to have the ‘good conscience’ that Peter talks about.

The first letter of the acronym elicits the most important imperative: listen. We must be attentive to what others around us have to say about a particular scientific, economic, social or political problem and be prepared to understand the case that they are making. This involves understanding the ground-motives, assumptions and worldview that form it so that we arrive at a full appreciation of their position.

The next action is to affirm what is good and crucial about what they are saying. We must be prepared to seek out the positive aspects of someone's theory, study or piece of research such that we feel sympathy and empathy for their position. This involves focusing on things like originality, significance and rigour. How can we encourage our colleagues and thus inspire them on to Christ-worthy good works?

The third imperative in the LACE approach is critique. In my experience, this comes all too easily in academic discussion. Indeed, we are trained in critical thinking from the time we start at university right to the end of our careers. But 'critique' here does not mean criticism for criticism’s sake but to point out any deficiencies in an approach that might be holding it back from making a great (or better) paper, presentation or argument. Is there something they’ve missed or were not aware of, or an impediment that might need addressing?

The final letter of the LACE approach calls us to enrich. This involves suggesting how you yourself or they can improve on the work such that it is of greater standing and potential. As with Peter’s injunction in verse 3 above, we should not do this from a haughty position but with gentleness and respect. We should put in the time and hard work to help a fellow human being. Creative thinking may be required!

In sum, then, Peter’s letter is quite prophetic for Christians in the secular university of today. And by using the LACE approach, we can hope to emulate the gentleness and respect that he was calling the persecuted church at that time to exercise. I heartily advise anyone reading this post to try Professor Basden’s approach out.  You never know: it might even get you your next co-authored paper!

Will Allchorn leads the Leeds Postgraduate Christian Fellowship and recently completed his PhD in political science at the University of Leeds, where he now has teaching responsibilities. You can read his previous post here.

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A Case for the Humanities

Georgina Prineppi considers how God may value our research in the arts and social sciences.

As a music historian, I cringe whenever a new acquaintance asks me what I ‘do’:  my answer is invariably greeted with a somewhat quizzical expression, and often a barrage of follow-up questions about why studying the history of music would be a valuable use of one’s time. As a Christian, how do I answer?

Christians understand work within God’s design and plan for his people; as such, we have ideas about the purpose of our work beyond simply a means by which we meet our rent and Netflix subscriptions. From my own reading around the subject, I have found that a ‘theology of work’ usually encompasses the following tenets: 1) all honest, honourable work is valuable to God, however humble; 2) we should use the gifts God has given us to the best of our abilities; and 3) our work should be integrated into our primary vocation as redemptive ‘salt and light’ in the world, constructively benefitting society and furthering the Kingdom. Integrating these truths can be difficult, however, and as with everything in the Christian life, doing so takes prayer and wisdom.

How does my work fit into these theological truths? Scholarship of every description is, to some degree, esoteric, but I’m afraid the humanities have been particularly vulnerable to criticism for being irrelevant. It is easy to assume that ‘advancements’ in technology, medicine, law, or education must be valuable and God-honouring because they are ‘useful’—though of course that this isn’t always the case—but what do we say about the humanities? Does the world really need a dissertation on British popular song in the nineteenth century? As a Christian, can I defend my chosen ‘work’?

I would argue that Christians are uniquely equipped to defend work in the humanities—and are indeed called to it. We live in a utilitarian world that sees little inherent value in anything: traditions, morality, truth, beauty—in a relative world, all of these issues are up for debate. Unlike our deconstructionist counterparts in the academy, Christians are able to look at the humanities with the assumption that there can be something that is objectively beautiful—objectively true—because we believe that humanity is the reflection of something that is wholly beautiful and wholly true. This is where, for us, humanity’s indelible value rests. It would be a fallacy to think that studying the humanities requires—or leads to—a humanist worldview. Humanity has proven itself to be depraved and unflinchingly cruel: in light of our own personal brokenness, studying humanity’s history is like rubbing salt in a wound. But as a Christian, I am free to see beauty in brokenness, I am free to see inherent value in humanity despite its scars and self-mutilation because I have some little idea of what it was supposed to look like. If I were a humanist, I would find the humanities unbearably depressing; as it is, I study music not because I am in awe of humanity, but because I am in awe of the Creator humanity’s music reflects.

As Christians, I feel that we often put too much emphasis on No. 2 in the list above: the productivity or usefulness of our work. An accountant would never be asked ‘why do you think accountancy is a valuable use of your time?’ because professions don’t receive questioning on their philosophical or theological worth—even when they are abstract and repetitive—if they have clear function. But God isn’t a God of boring utility: He is the Definition of beauty, the unfathomable Inventor, the prolific Creator, the reckless Lover. As a humanities scholar, I believe that music is worthy of creation and study because it reflects Him—his extravagant and indescribable beauty. Like theologians and missionaries, I can glorify His name by making known the works of His hands and magnifying his name in my workplace. Like Eric Liddell, I was given specific talents, and when I write an insightful paper on the beauty of music, ‘I feel his pleasure’!

God put a very high price on this humanity of ours, and as a Christian scholar, I anxiously await the day when its mangled form is redeemed and restored.

Georgina Prineppi is a doctoral student at Oxford studying popular music in Britain. She calls the Bahamas home. 

Talking to an atheist about Eric Harris

Talking to aggressive atheists can be enjoyable and fulfilling if you have an intelligent and creative spiel.

I was talking to an atheist builder who had a pop at me for being a Christian. He declared boldly: "I'm on the side of science and not religion."

I was straight in there. "Does that mean you agree with Eric Harris then?

The builder was puzzled and asked me: "Who is Eric Harris?"

I smiled inwardly and launched into my bespoke evangelism patter.

"Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School, Colorado, USA in 1999. Eric wrote in his diary:

“just because your mommy and daddy tell you blood and violence is bad, you think it’s a f—g law of nature? wrong, only science and math are true, everything else, and I mean every f—g thing else is man made.”

Eric also wrote: "It's all just nature, chemistry and math, deal with it.” 

I paused for breath and asked him again - "Is this how you look at the world? Eric was on the side of science! Is he right or wrong?

The geyser was taken aback at this and said he didn't know what to say. Then he opined:

"But surely religion is responsible for all the wars in the world today. Just look at what's happening in Syria today. It's truly terrible!

I continued my patter thus: "If I agreed with you and Eric Harris I would be truly miserable about all the horrors of war. If snipers, bombers and torturers are 'just machines' then there is no hope at all. What we call 'evil' is simply the laws of physics at work. Do you agree with that?

The builder was surprised that I didn't 'defend religion' but instead attacked his scientism. He was softened and admitted that he had never thought about the dark side of scientism.

In conclusion I delivered this spiel: "If I believed that torturers and bombers were 'just machines', I would top myself right now but I have a hope in the resurrection body and Jesus Christ. One day the middle east will be filled with love and mercy. No more bombers and torturers when Christ returns to bring His kingdom in its fullness.

"Wow" he said. "Never thought about that!"

He certainly didn't agree with me but he left with some glimmers of understanding and perhaps some hope.

 

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective

In the first of our occasional series of perspectives on the creation/evolution controversy, Abigail Motley reflects on the growing harmony between her faith and her ecological research.

'Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.' Undergraduate biology lecturers love referring to this quote, the title of an essay written by Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Personally, I am always moved that it was proposed by a Christian.

I am an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, studying for a DPhil in Oxford. I’m also a Christian. I have loved nature for as long as I can remember (as a child, my bedroom was littered with jars of creepy crawlies, collections of sea shells, and I saw no reason why the family guinea pigs couldn’t take part in my annual nativity plays). Growing up, I saw my passion for the natural world as a gift God had given me to try and address the exploitative behaviour of humanity towards the life on earth. However, as I plunged deeper into my Oxford biology degree, I increasingly felt like I had to choose between biology and faith. For some time, I chose biology.

By God’s grace, in the last year I accepted Jesus and moved to the evangelical Protestant tradition. In doing so, I have been astounded by the distrust and even animosity with which my discipline is received amongst some evangelical Christians. Concomitantly, I am still confronted by the staunch atheism of some scientists, including colleagues. Often when teaching biology undergraduates, I hear the argument “evolution helped us disprove there was a creator” (they’re always slightly taken aback when I challenge them on this!). Despite this, I believe God has placed me in this position for a reason.

However, I am not always strong in this conviction. Am I just blindly ignoring what God teaches us in the Bible and rebelling against Him? Something I have found incredibly helpful is Dennis Alexander's suggestion of looking at creation through two lenses: God’s Word and God’s Works. Science should never be superimposed upon the Bible. Doing so risks concocting “God of the Gaps” arguments that may become nullified as science progresses. The Bible teaches us theology and how we should treat other human beings and God’s creation. Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not give scientific details about the makings of the universe. However, God gifted Homo sapiens unique abilities – consciousness, free will, moral law, and language – that allow us to know Him and, through cumulative advances, understand his creation through science.

In a recent conversation with Dr Bethany Sollereder, a specialist in the theology of evolution and suffering, I came to realise that even young earth creationists will accept certain scientific views. She pointed out that many creationists will accept heliocentricity, that the earth and planets orbit around the Sun, and yet this is not the picture by which Genesis is written. Accepting heliocentricity means accepting a scientific theory to explain God’s creation.

I find this incredibly reassuring. Some in the church were (understandably) hostile when Galileo proposed heliocentricity, and yet now it is widely accepted. When Darwin published the Origin of Species, much of the clergy in the Church of England eagerly accepted his theory of natural selection. They recognised that science does not have to undermine faith, but rather, can truly enhance it. What greater privilege is there than understanding just a small part of our Creator’s great works in all their glory?

Granted, there is still debate in biology as to the exact nature of evolutionary theory. Certain parts of On the Origin of Species are incorrect (as are certain parts of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene). Biology is an intrinsically uncertain science, simply because ecological and evolutionary systems are so complex. However, the nature of science is such that a theory can’t garner such strong academic support unless there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific data behind it. Dobzhansky was right: evolution is currently our only credible explanation for the sheer diversity of life on earth.

A knowledge of biology has deepened my faith in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible. God is not absent from science – He is at the centre of it. Evolution is a natural process that, along with all natural processes, was created by Him. Studying just a tiny part of that creation is an incredible privilege that I give thanks for every day.

 Abigail Motley is a DPhil student in Plant Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oxford. She is a regular member of St Ebbe's Church and on the 2017-18 cohort of Christians in Academia

Listening when others won't

Mark Surey writes on the importance of listening:

I have seldom met a scholar who is not fascinated by and excited about his or her field of study. That level of interest, combined with the God-given capacity to contribute, to a large extent forms the basis for a call to scholarship. It really helps if we both want and are able to do something.

Then, as well as a desire to research the field, there is also a desire to teach it. A scholar who is fascinated by their field wants both to acquire knowledge about it (research) and to find an opportunity to transmit knowledge to those who want to hear and/or learn (teaching). So if either is blocked, there is frustration - although the nerdy among us may develop contentment with specializing in research, and the ideologically obsessive likewise with teaching!

In general we want to be listened to, and to have a responsive forum for what we want to communicate to others about our field of study. And it's annoying when our hearers don't seem to really listen - whether it's apathetic undergraduates, unresponsive peer reviewers, or even that yawning boy in Sunday school. Why do they not understand the significance, or indeed the actual content, of my pearls of wisdom? What is wrong with them? Should I repeat what I have already said? Say it louder? Perhaps I'll say it slower so that they can get it more easily? Maybe go back to the basics again, so that they have all my assumptions? But this risks boring them further, if they can't or won't listen to you, because what you say is either detached from their previous experience, or seems irrelevant to their life or interests.

I am sure this is a common experience for us all. So how do we go forward?

Basically, before we want other people to listen to us, we must be willing and able to listen to them. And that listening has to be active. I have met so many Christian scholars who have had to adjust to either a class that does not understand their material (although they ought to be able to), or a rejected research proposal which was put forward optimistically, or simply uninterested colleagues. And their stance has been not exactly subtle: YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS! But the louder the shout, the greater the switch-off.

We simply need to listen to others before we expect them to listen to us. This is so simple but not always easy. Why is it hard? Simply because our starting position is our obsession with our own research and teaching. We get it - so why don't they?

Not because there is something wrong with them - but because they are not us. Each of us has specific and different things which matter to us in particular, and this is valuable. 

Therefore, maybe I should listen to what matters to them before I expect them to listen to me.  Experience shows that this actually works. Think about your own life: after someone has listened to you, are you then more inclined to listen to them?  As Christians, we are called to a counter-cultural unselfishness.  And aren't we supposed to share material, to expand teaching and research as scholars?

I should listen to the experience and worldview of my hearer, before I expect them to listen to mine. This is so important in funding applications and impact statements. To be successful, you need to see your material not from your perspective but theirs! They are primarily giving to you, not you to them, so let's not be arrogant!

My experience is that teachers and researchers who can step sideways and look at their work through the eyes of outsiders, actively listen, and start looking at their insight through the eyes of others, are the ones who manage to communicate the significance of what matters in their scholarship. The class listens. The funding comes. The peers review.

Dr Mark Surey is Travelling Secretary for the Christian Academic Network. You can read a previous post by him here.

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RealityBites in Crete

Just came back from a great holiday in Crete with Anne. Truth be told, Crete has a lot more sunshine than Leeds and Zeus, the Greek god, was supposedly born on that fair isle! We didn't bump into the husband of Hera or any other Greek deity but we did have a remarkable encounter with a witty and outgoing plasterer, Ron and his delightful wife, Sally. (These names are not the real names.)

Picture it. We are on the plane and Ron, the plasterer, is worried about Sally who is a 'nervous' flyer. We offer to help by switching seats. Ron was very grateful and generously bought Anne a gin and tonic (£7.40). He told me a bit about himself and suddenly informed me that he had a 'gift'. I probed gently and it turned out that he is 'clairvoyant'. Ron knew things about me that surprised me! I then told the charming couple my Vinnie Jones and Duke of Edinburgh yarns. Both were intrigued and they began to ask me lots of questions about faith and God. Stories can unlock conversations about faith in a relaxing and stress free way. This is the heart of RealityBites.

Ron and I then talked for about 3 1/2 hours. Our conversation touched on Leeds United, the kingdom of God, buying and selling cars, the death and resurrection of Jesus, holidays in Cuba, spiritual warfare, gin and tonics, Tarzan, the human trafficker, repentance and conflicting ways of understanding clairvoyance and spiritualism. I probed Ron about his work and family and he told me a lot about his painful estrangement from his mum. This was very moving and I listened attentively. I also told Ron about my conversion from secular faith to Christian faith and the story of the clairvoyant slave girl who was exorcised by the Apostle Paul in Acts 16. Ron didn't become a Christian on the flight but he did tell me that this had been 'the best plane ride of his life'. He also told Anne that talking to me had been 'amazing'. I offered to pray for him about his 'gift' and he told me he would think about it. I hope to see him again.

So often Christians dread these moments. I found the entire conversation exhilarating and exciting. It is easy to talk about Jesus when you follow the master and tell great stories! Vital also to listen empathetically and create genuine dialogue.

  

      

Pride and peer review: taking criticism as an academic skill

We’re aiming to write about various academic skills on FiSch over the next few months. Aside from the narrow, subject-specific skills we all acquire in our fields – from paleography to coding to titration – there are many more general skills academics need to thrive in our work, and through which Christians have the larger goal of serving our Lord as well as those around us.

Bruno Medeiros has provided several helpful posts on the skill of listening, and the skill I want to talk about is related: taking criticism. This is something I am not very good at, so I won’t be offering specific recommendations! But I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the processes of criticism in academic contexts and how we as Christian academics can respond in ways which are godly and productive.

I’m still a graduate student, and so feedback and (usually constructive!) criticism are an important part of my current academic life. My experiences so far have often reminded me how poor I am at responding well to criticism, however. One example of this (which still stings) was the written feedback on my MPhil thesis: while it had several positive points, the assessor questioned my command of the language of the text I’d analysed and suggested I was using the translation as a crutch. I found this incredibly frustrating and it played on my mind for weeks. Perhaps you can relate to the resentment even a small piece of criticism can provoke.

I had to come to terms with the pride at the root of my frustration: I was overprotective of my work to the extent I found it difficult to admit any flaw in it. But my pride wasn’t productive – it wouldn’t help me move from my finished and definitely flawed Masters project to more ambitious, complicated doctoral work. What’s more, if I couldn’t take on board the criticism of this specific piece of work, then how would I work with a supervisor whose job is to critique and improve my thinking, much less benefit from the long process of transfer, confirmation, and defence of my DPhil?

The Bible obviously doesn’t have anything specific to say about academic evaluations, peer review, or supervisory relationships – but pride is a recurring theme in Scripture, and it’s very often pride which prevents us benefiting from the processes of criticism which make academic work better. Ecclesiastes instructs, ‘Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools’, and James that ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’. For me, this cuts right to the heart of the proud, resentful anger I can be tempted to feel when my work is criticised. Proverbs reminds us that ‘wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’. Things which are hard to hear often benefit us if we accept them, while an academic who never hears anything but flattery will inevitably become the most unbearable of colleagues!

There’s a lot more that could be said on this subject: how do we respond if criticism is unjustified or overly personal? How should we think about the systemic biases of university cultures, which often tip the balance of critical feedback more heavily in the direction of certain types of people?

I haven’t got the space here to discuss all these complexities. In these areas of academic life, as in all of life, however, our example must be Christ: who ‘emptied himself… and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. Jesus’s profound humility throws our academic pride into sharp relief. Let’s pray for the grace to reflect it a little more each time criticism comes our way.

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