Thinking Faith blogs

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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How Evangelism can be Fun

Very encouraged that my article 'How Evangelism can be Fun' is featured on the front of the Baptist Times. To date 15 people have made comments about my article.

So delighted that an old friend, Jeffrey Dudiak, Professor of Philosophy, The King’s University, Edmonton, Canada wrote this:

Behind the engaging silliness of Mark Roques' carefully targeted stories opens up a vista upon profound and crucial questions, an invitation to think through cultural assumptions that we often don't think about at all. His is not an evangelism with a hammer, but with a welcoming smile. Mark's stories set the stage upon which God's Word can be heard in non-threatening but still utterly challenging ways. His is an inspired, and inspiring, ministry. Thanks, mate!

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.

Teenagers are intrigued by Mafiosi and the gospel!

       

Thanks to everyone who prayed for me yesterday. I really need this prayer support. RB is a ministry that is committed to reaching out to British teenagers and during this conference there was some serious bespoke evangelism going on. Please look at previous postings if you don't understand this way of talking about mission.

I spoke to forty young people at a school in Thorne. I have not been to this school before and I had agreed to do the Human Trafficking conference in 90 minutes and then the Mafia and Evil conference in 100 minutes. It was exciting but intense! Holding the attention of teenagers for 2 ½ hours is never easy - even with a 30 minute break. The group work went very well with great comments and questions from the young people.

Here are some of the highlights of the morning. I was able to present the gospel by contrasting the consumerist worldview with the Christian faith. I told the stories of mafia hit-men, the 'beast' and the 'weasel' etc and contrasted the materialist belief that murderers and rapists are just machines with biblical teaching. I explained how CS Lewis understood evil and satan and how this contrasts with materialist, Hindu and Buddhist teachings. The students were alert, attentive and responsive, although one student did tell me off slightly for mentioning rape. She did add that she had really enjoyed the presentations.

I was then grilled by the students!

During the discussion I was asked by a very articulate student if it was fair that evil people could go straight to heaven just by repenting at the last moment. He believed that this was unjust. I reframed the question in terms of the biblical hope of the resurrection (Acts 23:6). I pointed out that those who love the Lord Jesus will be raised from the dead and live in a new heaven and a new earth. This good news could even surprise a mafia hitman if he repented at the last moment. The student was disarmed by my answer but seeds were being sown in young lives.

I was also asked to comment on my belief in the devil and I explained that when I examined all the alternative perspectives on evil - Materialism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism and Buddhism I found biblical teaching compelling, realistic and convincing. Some agreed with me. Some didn't!

The teacher who had invited me into the school told me: "It had been amazing."

It was a very encouraging morning's work. The words of Jesus in Matthew 28 kept running through my mind as I drove back to Leeds. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

 Please continue to pray for RealityBites and Thinking Faith Network.

         

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Bespoke Evangelism and Fish and Chips

 

Bespoke evangelism begins with everyday conversation. This might involve chatting about vegetarian cooking, fish and chips, the royal family, detective dramas, sport, social events, photography, poetry, travel in exotic locations, gangster films and Hollywood stars. We find out what people naturally enjoy talking about and then we build bridges into this enjoyable chat zone. We seamlessly connect Christian faith to garlic, diamond rings, the royal family and fish and chips. It's relevant, imaginative and fun!

This is how a conversation about fish and chips could help you share your faith.

What's the best chippie near you? Do you go for cod or haddock? Did you know that Plato, the Greek philosopher, taught that lazy, stupid, bad people are reborn in fish? What a contrast with Christian teaching! People live only once (Hebrews 9:27) and then are judged by how they have responded to Jesus. Those who love and follow Jesus are given wonderful resurrection bodies and will live in a new heavens and a new earth. Plato was a very clever boffin but he was lost in pagan darkness.
 

 

 

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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    Bespoke Evangelism: Vinnie Jones prays to his granddad!

     In 2003 football hard man and actor Vinnie Jones admitted assaulting an airline passenger and drunkenly claiming he could have a flight crew "murdered for £3,000". Jones became incandescent with rage when a fellow passenger, Stephen Driscoll told him he was being "annoying", sparking a tirade of aggressive threats from the celebrity. Jones was given 80 hours community service and fined £800.

    Despite this, Vinnie is a man of prayer. Surprised? In Vinnie the Autobiography, Vinnie explained his faith like this:

    "Yes, granddad was special. So special that, since we lost him, I've always believed he was still in touch. I am convinced he is my spiritual guide. I remember saying out loud: I'd love to be a professional footballer, granddad. A footballer. One chance. Anything, anywhere. If you can help....."

    In 1986, Vinnie scored a goal against Manchester United. This is how he prayed during the game:

    "It might seem strange, but at that moment I said another little prayer: 'Come on granddad, come on, please let it stay at 1-0.' And he did. United did bring on 'Pop' Robson, but there was nothing Captain Marvel could do to spoil my incredible day.

    How would a committed materialist respond to this story?

                "Superstitious nonsense. Spirits do not exist because everything is physical."

    How would a relativist respond?

                "If you believe it, it is true for you."

    How would a pagan respond?

                "There are many spirits, including granddads, which respond to prayer....so carry on             Vincent."

    And a Christian response would be:

                "Vinnie you need to repent of both your violent, uncouth behaviour and praying to a dead person. Unlike Jesus, your granddad, Arthur, did not come back from the dead!"

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