Thinking Faith blogs

Could a Christian worldview enhance science?

Tom Ingleby (above, left of centre) reflects on the workshops he attended at Church Scientific in Leeds

Could a Christian worldview enhance science? This was the rather controversial question which sat behind the Church Scientific project. The claim is that if Jesus is Lord of all things and the one in whom all wisdom is found, then following him ought to make a positive difference in every area of our lives – including scientific work. I attended the Church Scientific workshops this year, trying to get my head around this idea. As I attended, questions such as ‘why would knowing Jesus make a difference?’ and ‘how does knowing Jesus make a practical difference?’ sprang to mind. Over a number of weeks, these questions were tackled by a variety of speakers with great insights to share and fresh perspectives to offer. Their input has helped me to begin to think through some ways of answering the above questions.

Firstly, why would knowing Jesus make a difference to science? Science is possible because the universe behaves in a consistent way – repeating an experiment is worthwhile because we don’t expect a totally random outcome each time. Furthermore, we are capable of producing explanations for why things seem to behave in a consistent way, often using mathematics. These facts are genuinely remarkable – we can either shrug our shoulders and say ‘this is the way things are’ or seek a deeper explanation. A Christian worldview, with a God who orders and upholds His creation, provides a compelling explanation for why these two cornerstones of science are true.

The world around us is multi-layered and requires consideration from a number of different angles. We can see this in the variety of university departments and in our everyday experience. Today I have driven from the Scottish Highlands back to Leeds. On the way I have appreciated the beauty of nature, enjoyed time with my wife, listened to the radio discussing the morality of comedy, enjoyed a meat pie, obeyed speed limits and used technology. All these things have occurred in a journey and highlight the myriad of ways we interact with our world. Church Scientific introduced me to a more formal way of thinking about our multi-layered experience of the world through ‘aspects’. These aspects are a number of irreducible, yet often interlinked, categories which provide a framework for thinking about the world. To return to my example, I was on a journey (kinetic aspect), but was engaging with the world aesthetically, relationally, ethically, juridically and with my senses. Without Church Scientific, I would not have come in to contact with a philosophical framework for thinking about our everyday experience. This framework was developed by reformed Christians such as Herman Dooyeweerd and has been practically helpful for a number of the instructors on the course.

Secondly, how does knowing Jesus make a practical difference?  One way is that the use of a reformational philosophy based on these aspects can help us to avoid reductionism. Furthermore, these aspects help us to have a broader view of our work, potentially providing new insights by helping us as scientists to think about a problem from a different angle. As well as providing new opportunities, a Christian worldview gives us realistic limits. Science is a human endeavour, and humans are fallen meaning that our scientific work will often be marred by sinful motives and practices. As we navigate the difficulties of practising science as fallen creatures in a fallen world, we need to seek to act ethically. Whilst society and government place certain ethical requirements upon us, the Lord Jesus commands us to be beyond reproach, seeking to be ‘more ethical’ than required.

Church Scientific provided a wonderful opportunity to learn a great deal from Christians involved in science and philosophy. Those who gave talks and presentations provided helpful theological, philosophical and practical insights. As well as the wisdom of the instructors, we had the pleasure of interacting with one another as participants, learning from each other. The building of this community has been another great outcome of the Church Scientific project and one which will hopefully continue to develop. I look forward to hearing from various participants at the Church Scientific café evenings over the months to come and encourage you to come and benefit too!

Tom is a PhD student working on the science of earthquakes at the University of Leeds. 

Frank Sinatra on Christian Faith

Story

Frank Sinatra had many friends in the Mafia. Frank was once spotted kissing the ring of hit man Sonny Franzese in an act of respect. Sinatra was grateful to Sonny because the mobster had done him favours. Frank Sinatra Junior was playing at the San Su San nightclub in New York; the paying punters were thin on the ground and Frank Jr was bombing. Famous dad telephoned Sonny and explained the problem. The next night and for many weeks, the nightclub was packed with hit men, bookmakers, loan sharks and prostitutes. They cheered loudly for Frank Jr and his singing career really took off. The famous crooner was deeply grateful to Sonny Franzese. You might be surprised to learn that Frank Sinatra believed in God!

Background Notes

Frank Sinatra was interviewed by the infamous Playboy magazine and he was asked if he believed in God. This was his answer:

"I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me.....I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don't believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I'm not unmindful of man's seeming need for faith; I'm for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel's.......Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It's not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount."

Frank Sinatra was not an atheist but he didn't believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. His comments about 'religion' are pantheist. God is not a person at all because God is the same as nature. We should add that this impersonal god does not expect you to pray or to repent of your sins. After all this deity is in everything, both Mother Theresa and brutal hit man Sonny Franzese.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Frank was misguided because everything is just matter in motion.

Relativist faith: "We believe that Frank was being true to himself. He picked a faith that worked for him."

Pantheist faith: "We believe that there are sparks of the divine in everything. No need to pray, repent or confess your sins. Relax and sip Jack Daniel's with a Mafia pal.

Christian faith: "We believe that God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Sonny must repent and stop killing people. If he does that, the Holy Spirit will come and live in him."

Questions

1) Did Frank Sinatra have a convenient faith?

2) Is this a dangerous faith?

3) What is the difference between pantheist and Christian faith?

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Easter reflection: R.S. Thomas, 'Suddenly'

For Easter Monday, here is a reflection on a poem which I was sent by my supervisor recently: ‘Suddenly’ by the twentieth-century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas.

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

When you’ve read this once through for its meaning, read it again, more slowly, thinking through what Thomas is saying about Christ. What part, or parts, of the Easter narrative is he illuminating in this short poem? Does any particular phrase or image resonate with what you have been thinking, singing, or talking about with others over this Easter period?

The poem both models and invites this kind of contemplative engagement: ‘I looked at him, not with the eye only, but with the whole of my being’. Not unusually for Thomas, some of it is dense and obscure, difficult to pick apart. But what caught my eye particularly was the academic simile in the second sentence – ‘So truth must appear to the thinker; so, at a stage of the experiment, the answer must quietly emerge.’

As a way of expressing the experience of beholding the crucified and risen Christ, this is, to say the least, unusual. Contemplation and analytical thinking merge into one gaze: Christ reveals himself to the speaker like the quietly climactic resolution of a train of thought, like the moment of apprehension and integration which we as academics experience only from time to time. This moment of comprehension – of ‘something understood’ – expands steadily, as the speaker looks, into the experience of ‘overflowing with him as a chalice would with the sea’.

It’s a more positive, or at least more open, metaphorical use of scientific experiment and deductive thinking than can be seen in another poem by Thomas, ‘Raptor’, which associates them with ‘making God small’. In ‘Suddenly’, they offer us a way into contemplation of Christ which is not surface-level, but embraces him with the whole self.

Layers of reality overlap dizzyingly in the last lines of the poem: Christ is at once on the cross and risen from the dead, his garment at once diced over by the soldiers and worn by him in triumph. Thomas deliberately presents us with a mystery. It invites meditation; it invites us to practise integrated thought – following Christ as he reveals himself to us, entering into the deep sea of him, looking not just with the eye but with the whole of our being.

For further reflection, contemplatively consider Roger Wagner's 'The Flowering Tree', a stained glass window at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley - another example of a portrayal of the crucified Christ with layers of reality represented.

The transcendental context of Christian academic work

Picking up my series on Christian philosophy in diagrams, I want to share an idea that really excites me at the moment - inspired by Andree Troost's "What is Reformational Philosophy?", which I've just finished reading. Perhaps not everyone finds diagrams as wonderful as I do, but they have a great ability to present complex ideas all at once, in the simultaneity of a page or screen.

This graphic represents the whole created world as having both immanent (horizontal) and transcendent (vertical) dimensions. It looks a bit like one of those spinning colour wheels you can make by pushing a pencil through a disc, and indeed that's not a bad model for this big idea of what the world is like. The horizontal disc represents the whole universe of our day-to-day experience, with all the rich, scintillating diversity of temporal things and relationships that we know. This is the reality that everyone experiences in ways we can broadly agree upon: human society and institutions, people, animals, plants and inanimate things, all functioning in many different ways (represented by the 15 symbols around the circumference). At the centre of the disc lies a heart symbol, because this is a model of how we humans experience and influence the cosmos as we look out on it. That much describes the immanent dimension of reality.

The human heart is also at the central point in this disc because the Bible reveals that humans are created as the image of God: the creatures that should image God to the rest of the creation (Genesis 1), and with whose obedience or disobedience the fate of the whole creation is tied up (Genesis 3; Romans 8:19).  And Scripture uses "heart" as a metaphor for our religious centre: the concentration point of our conscience and our will, which directs our worship either to God or after an idol.  Here, of course, we're moving beyond immanence perceptions to revealed truth about transcendent reality - which is represented by the vertical dimension of the diagram. This dimension represents what might be called cosmic time or a religious metanarrative: the all-embracing story of the cosmos from creation by God through the Fall in Adam to redemption in Christ Jesus, led by God's life-giving Spirit. This is a bigger view of time than merely clock time, stretching from the primordial creation, the religious origin in Christ, to creation's eternal destination, which is for Christ (think of Colossians 1:16). And our heart in a religious sense participates in this "depth dimension" of the cosmos: we transcend our own lifespan by yearning to participate in God's eternal purposes and to be granted eternal life at the Resurrection (as Paul does in Philippians 3:11).

The diagram above is based on Herman Dooyeweerd's model of reality. Here, every philosophical view presupposes some religious notion of reality, typically including an idea of where reality comes from (its origin), what holds it together (its coherence) and what it means (its destination). A philosophy in turn provides the framework for more specific kinds of scholarship, such as the sciences, to look at the diversity of reality. The model illustrated here posits the immanent realm as the common experience for such scientific study, while at the same time showing why the transcendent "religious depth dimension" is so important. That is, we cannot locate the centre of reality without God's revelation of its unity of origin and destination - which is Christ, the revelation of God as both transcendent and immanent. Without that special revelation, the human heart is inevitably drawn towards seeking explanatory unity in one or other aspect of created diversity - which leads to idolatry.  This is what Dooyeweerd means by "secularisation", and the dotted hearts in the diagram here represent some important idolatries of this kind that have shaped Western culture. But this is a topic for a future post.

Dangerous Faith in the Enneagram

Oscar Ichazo (born 1931) is the Bolivian-born psychologist who first developed the spiritual resource known as the Enneagram. The Enneagram focuses on nine personality types that are arranged into a chart resembling a pentagram. Ichazo, a Sufi-inspired mystic, claims to have had out-of-body experiences since childhood. He further claimed that he had received instructions from a highly evolved spirit being called 'Metatron' (an archangel mentioned in Gnostic literature) and that this revelation was crucial to the Enneagram project. Richard Rohr and Helen Palmer are committed teachers of this Gnostic way of salvation. Many admirers of the Enneagram are unaware of its occult roots.

Background Notes

The Enneagram diagram was first used by Sufi mystics for pagan fortune-telling. This resource is now used as a tool for character analysis and spiritual direction. It can be described as a sacred map of the soul which helps us to understand the nine ways that we forget our connection with the divine. This is a Gnostic mindset that can be summarised thus: 1) When we are born we live in our divine centre. As babies and toddlers we are sinless, perfect and at one with God. Biblical teaching about original sin is denied. 2) When we are three or four, we develop defense strategies to cope with our emotional pain and this process creates the ego. There are nine kinds of dysfunctional ego states that are caused by bad karma. 3) The Enneagram brings us salvation by removing the ego (false self) and restoring us to union with the divine (true self). We do this through mystical work and self-effort. There is no need for Jesus' death and resurrection. We find out our particular ego malfunction and then we move like an arrow towards the corrective ego type. For example a '1' (perfectionist) can find liberation and salvation by moving to a '7' (enthusiast).

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that the Enneagram is irrational. Humans are not sparks of the divine. We are consumers so shop till you drop."

Relativist faith: "We believe that mysticism is great if it works for you. Follow your mystical longings. The Enneagram can help you do this."

Gnostic faith: "We believe that your true self is identical with the divine. The Enneagram will purify your lost soul (ego) and take you back to the divine One."

Christian faith: "God is not an impersonal energy force. You cannot find salvation by trusting in the Enneagram. Follow Jesus and trust in His death and resurrection."

Questions

1) Is the Enneagram dangerous?

2) Why is the Enneagram a Gnostic spiritual resource?

3) Why is the Enneagram popular with Christians?

Universities for the Cultural Mandate

As part of our series on the idea of a Christian university - and in these tense times of academic "industrial action" - I want to share a review of "What are Universities For?" by Stefan Collini (Penguin, 2012). 

The appearance of a Penguin paperback about the purpose of universities indicates considerable public interest in academic scholarship. Indeed this book's second part comprises a series of polemical newspaper pieces produced in response to various initiatives of recent UK governments to modernize the university sector.  But it is in the first half of the book that Stefan Collini's main argument is developed: an argument against the modern obsession with finding economic utility in universities. I find in it important echoes of a biblical view of culture.

In a brief opening survey of the status quo provocatively headed “The global multiversity?”, we find Collini's central theme: the perennial debate between those who ask how universities are practically useful and those who ascribe them intrinsic value. The central thesis then comes in Chapter 3, which engages with John Henry Newman’s classic work The Idea of the University. Collini’s treatment is critical – and not just because he does not share Newman’s religion. He suggests that this work has attained its classic status as a defence of the university against political and economic demands for utility not only by its literary accomplishment but also by its lack of specific content as regards the actual subject matter of university study. This defence shows a breathtaking lack of proportion in suggesting that, as Collini puts it, “three years spent in some particular course of study in one’s late teens” can produce such glorious social and personal fruits as “cultivating the public mind”, “purifying the national taste”, “facilitating the exercise of political power”; and then personal eloquence, perspicacity, force of argument, perfection of judgment, adaptability, empathy, camaraderie, tact, and so on. Collini suggests that such grandeur is typical of those who advocate universities for their own sake, as if hyperbole is in the very nature of their argument! 

I find it fascinating how expansionary spatial metaphors abound here: “enlarging” the mind to avoid “one-sidedness” and take in “wider perspectives” from “fields” within a broad “framework”. It seems as if the university stands as the gateway to exploration of an unlimited conceptual cosmos. Perhaps, indeed, the overweening vision of some advocates actually represents an innate tendency of academic work itself to expand indefinitely, ranging and drifting as one question elicits another. This is partly why the arguments over the usefulness of universities recur in each generation, and governments may sometimes succeed in reigning in academic work to what is more obviously useful. But what strikes me here is the idea that universities should stand as gateways and pointers – however incipiently and inadequately – to an infinite universe of discovery. And this reminds me of the tenor of Genesis 2, where the river running out of Eden leads to vast scope for discovery and civilisation.

Collini’s idea of a university and its raison d’être turns out to be a purist one. Humans have an innate desire for understanding, and universities are an important expression of this – rather as are galleries and museums, each in their own way. Universities “provide a home for attempts to extend and deepen human understanding in ways that are simultaneously disciplined and illimitable”.

While teaching does not at first glance seem central to this vision, Collini actually questions the distinction between teaching and research in a crucial way. He argues that the modern concept of research does not do justice to endeavours in such disciplines as history, literature and classics, especially when divorced from teaching. Scholars in the humanities are always addressing an audience, and in so doing they may cultivate new understanding no matter how naive that audience is, while simultaneously being engaged in education, no matter how learned the audience. Indeed, a reformational philosopher might observe that teaching and research are both forms of innovative formation engaging human freedom and creativity – the formation of students together with the formation of culture. This suggests another characterisation of the university: a community of endless cultural formation.

Universities, then, are a basic cultural institution to be justified by their contribution to human understanding. Clearly the public funding they should be allocated and the ways in which they serve other needs such as the training of professionals remain important questions. But, Collini argues, the university must continue to transcend utilitarian demands from governments, religious institutions and businesses – to name some of the historically most demanding – even while it helps shape each society’s understandings of religion, politics, economics, science, engineering and whatever other aspects of reality may be uncovered. In a reformational Christian perspective, universities exist as part of humans' response to God's calling to create and build wise understanding of the created order. As each student develops their own understanding, the cumulative heritage of human understanding is developed and displayed in new ways, to the glory of God. This is the sense in which universities are for everyone, and point beyond themselves to Christ the coming king.

Soli Deo Gloria

J.S. Bach often scribbled Soli Deo Gloria at the end of his music: glory to God alone. His humble dedications are beautiful—and striking because of his genius—but they have always left me with niggling questions. We are all called to dedicate our work to the glory of God, but what if we don’t have any glittering keyboard suites on hand? What if all we have to offer just…isn’t great? After all, it doesn’t seem quite the same typing Soli Deo Gloria on an under-baked thesis as it would writing it at the end of a masterly cantata…

It would be lovely to do something brilliantly and be able to make God a ‘big’ offering, but I am aware that pride lurks here. Am I wanting to ‘do God a favour’? To impress him with a splendid gift? I am reminded of David’s offer to build God a temple in 2 Samuel 7: David thought he’d do something great for God, to give him glory and honour. But God’s response was surprising to both David and the prophet Nathan: ‘No.’ God answered, ‘I don’t need your gift. I will do something great for you instead...’

God didn’t need David’s fine architecture—or Bach’s talent at an organ keyboard, for that matter. So why would he need my skill at a computer keyboard? As a Christian, I am called to cast my crown at the feet of Jesus (Revelation 4:10), but when I do so, I shouldn’t be worried about how much it weighs. That would be the very opposite of humility!

Christ has accomplished all, and I can add nothing. Wonderfully, he has freed me from having to build my own portfolio of excellence, because that isn’t where my identity was in the first place. God wants my all and my best: but miraculously, he needs nothing else…not even a fugue or an extraordinary dissertation.

Humanly, I find Bach’s humble dedications remarkable because I consider him to be great; they would be pleasing to God, however, only because Bach didn’t consider himself to be great. Bach’s relationship with God was never dependent on his performance—moral or musical. As with the widow giving her two pennies (Mark 12:41-4), it was not the size of his gift that mattered, but the humility with which it was tendered.

There is freedom here. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

Georgina Prineppi is a doctoral student at Oxford studying popular music in Britain. Her previous post is here

Katie Price can help us talk about Christian faith

Katie Price is an English celebrity, former model and businesswoman. She was the most successful page three girl featured in The Sun newspaper. She is notorious for her outrageous and rather tawdry lifestyle. A role model to some and an embarrassment to others, she is brutally frank about herself and asserted this in an interview:  "I am a rich chav. You couldn't get any more chav than me. I'm the only person in Britain to own a bespoke pink Land Rover with crystals on it, and I love it. I'm a chav but I'm just lucky that I've got money with it." In 2012, Price's net worth was estimated at £45 million.

Background Notes

Katie Price is a celebrity whose impulsive and chaotic lifestyle intrigues many. Katie is living in an individualistic and materialist story. This is how she outlined her faith: "No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that's it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn't? It gets you things and it's security.” Many do not notice that this is a confession of faith. Instead of trusting in Jesus, Katie trusts in the money god. We should not be surprised that Katie has earned millions of pounds as she faithfully serves this popular god. Her faith is similar to the rich fool in the New Testament (Luke 12:13-21). In this parable Jesus challenges a selfish and materialistic mindset - 'eat, drink and be merry'. The rich fool's monologue is infused with 'I' six times and 'my' four times. The rich fool is oblivious in his egocentric musings. "I'll put my barns here, my donkeys there and my jacuzzi over there." Is Katie a rich fool? This is how you can begin a conversation about Jesus. Tell people that you disagree with Katie's faith. Expose the false money god and then contrast faith in Jesus with Katie's false faith.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Katie is a shrewd and successful businesswoman. She is following the money. She is a role model."

Relativist faith: "We believe that Katie is following her heart. Well done Katie."

Karma faith: "We believe that Katie must have done very well in previous lives."

Christian faith: "We believe that Katie is following the seductive money god. She must repent, believe in Jesus and get baptised."

Questions

1) How would you appraise Katie's faith?

2) Why does it sound odd to claim that Katie has faith?

3) Why does Katie put her security in her huge fortune?

Review: Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy

This review is reprinted with permission (and some additional material) from The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (issue 30, Spring 2018). See other selected articles and more information about the journal and Group here: www.clsg.org

Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy (Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Singapore, 2017) 

This short book aims to encourage and equip Christians in a variety of academic fields - in particular undergraduate students, but there will be interest here too for those further on in their own disciplines, as well as accessible introductions to the issues relevant to other fields. An introduction by Vinoth Ramachandra, the IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement, is followed by ten chapters, each contributed by a Christian academic or professional and reflecting on their experiences of and framework for living and thinking as a Christian in their field. These range from Denis Alexander on biology, to Priyan Dias on engineering, to Grace Koh on social work.

The rest of this review concentrates on the chapter most relevant to my own field, but of the other chapters I particularly enjoyed Wee-Liang Tan on business - hearing how a Christian thoughtfully and prayerfully navigates an environment very unfamiliar to me was challenging and interesting. Joy L. K. Pachuau's chapter on history was also stimulating and an excellent introduction to the challenges and opportunities available to Christians who study the past.

Maithrie White contributes Chapter Eight, 'Faith and Literature: A Journey'. Like several of the contributors, she reflects on the process by which God formed and guided her into her studies. The journey she describes will be familiar to many Christians who have studied literature: the initial, passionate 'rush of adrenaline' of undergraduate study and the joy of creativity, tempered by challenges such as the darker history of Christianity revealed in postcolonial literature and anxieties about Scriptural interpretation engendered by deconstruction and postmodernism.

'Literature confronted my faith, and turned my world upside down.' White recounts a conversation with a Literature major friend who unashamedly partitioned off these two parts of her life - 'they had nothing in common, she said, so it didn't matter'. Dissatisfied with this neat dismissal, she goes on to describe the struggle and joy of getting to know the Bible's story, of wrestling with the multiple perspectives of literature and theory, and of working towards a personal integration in which 'love of literature was part of my love for God'.

White writes engagingly about the experience of wanting to do full justice to both theological commitments and literary study, and her definition of this endeavour as a 'spiritual discipline' is a helpful one. She mentions several thinkers and writers who have been helpful to her in developing the necessary framework for this discipline - Nicholas Wolterstorff and Carolyn Sharp, among others. While she acknowledges the familiar shortfall between her formation in church and the challenge of academic thinking, she emphasises how the vocational aspect of literary work can and should serve the church. All these aspects of the essay make it a stimulating and challenging read, both for those within the literary academy and those with a non-professional interest, and perhaps especially for undergraduate and early postgraduate students who are beginning to grapple with what it means to integrate faith and understanding in this area.

'My study of literature and encounters with people at university led me to rediscover awe in the mystery of God, who is revealed in Christ.' Literary study is, indeed, uniquely formative of the capacity to appreciate mystery; as White says, while the academy may often be atheistic, literature itself is not, and this useful essay will encourage and inspire those who read it to deepen their understanding both of literary work and of the God whose Word underwrites it.

On IPBES and ecosystem valuing frameworks

Last year a FiSch working group that I led published a paper entitled "Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable", which we hope will be part of a trend towards more transparent approaches to environmental policy. So we were excited when a paper appeared last month that echoes our primary concerns - coming from a much more prestigious organisation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was founded in 2012. It currently has 128 member states, as well as a large number of participating observers (NGOs, conventions, etc), and several thousand individual stakeholders, ranging from scientific experts to representatives of academic and research institutions, local communities and the private sector.

As its web site explains, IPBES' "mission is to strengthen knowledge foundations for better policy through science, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development." This is a welcome aim, even if it bears the hallmarks of being written by committee. As a research ecologist and a Christian concerned about humankind's poor performance in nurturing the whole creation, I'm pleased we now have IPBES. 

I was, however, a little disappointed when I first heard that this initiative, a kind of ecological version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was enshrining the term "ecosystem services" in its name. It was uneasiness with the notion of ecosystems delivering services to humans that led to our FiSWES project, which has as its crowning achievement so far the publication of an article critiquing the ecosystem services framework and outlining an approach to assessing how a full range of stakeholders may appreciate particular natural places. In that article we argued that "ecosystem services" is not well defined - so liable to misunderstanding and misuse - and dangerously vague about who is served by ecosystems - so liable to result in further oppression of marginalised people.

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of weeks ago, an article appeared in the journal Science from an IPBES team laying out the initiative's framework for assessing human interactions with the natural environment - and "ecosystem services" was no longer to be used as a term. In its place, this framework will be considering "nature's contributions to people" (NCP). It was as if the IPCC might have declared that "climate change" was no longer a helpful term! More significant, however, is the fact that the IPBES team's reasons for their change of terminology resonate strongly with the perspective of our FiSWES group. All human benefits from natural systems, they point out, are mediated through human culture, and indeed "nature" and "human" need not be taken as distinct categories. The new framework goes on to distinguish a "generalising perspective" from a "context-specific perspective", which appears to be a scientific versus what we might call a pre-theoretical attitude and gives more space for the insights of local belief systems to be incorporated. It also reminds us that particular stakeholders can experience negatively what others perceive as positive "contributions".

I and my colleagues are quietly pleased with what we see as an important move in a wise direction. Are we disappointed that this Science article doesn't cite ours? I confess I am - but perhaps I should rejoice to think that our shared views may have come to the two teams independently.  Do we feel our work has been duplicated? Not at all - we remain, I think, healthily critical of elements of the new IPBES framework and intend to offer enrichment by publishing a comment om it. 

Most importantly for now, I'm pleased to know that the IPBES analyses and advisory work are set to proceed on the basis of a recognition that humans really are part of nature (part of creation, we'd say as Christians), that it's not helpful to construe nature as "serving" us (Psalm 104 gives a wonderful picture of all kinds of creatures serving each other), and that humans are inherently cultural beings, our cultures always shaping how we experience other creatures (even when we simply eat them). On that last point hangs a whole theology, for culture, in a Reformational view, is our invaluable yet imperfect response to God's word in creation, the context of salvation history, and ultimately the inheritance of Jesus Christ.

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