Thinking Faith blogs

A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

A theology for science

Diagram linking God's word to scientific research via the entities subject to it

"Science" means "knowledge" according to its Latin root, and that is what the pursuit of science is popularly supposed to deliver. But a little reflection shows that scientific knowledge is of a certain kind - powerful but with some peculiar limitations.  The diagram above attempts to illustrate from a Christian perspective what scientists are doing.  It could be the starting point for a Christian account of scientific work.  At Faith-in-Scholarship we want to supplant traditional questions about "science and faith", "science and religion" or "science and theology".  As Tom McLeish argues, the problem in this traditional framing is the "and" - because "science" has no direct comparability with faith, religion or theology.  To see why this is so, we need a theological definition.

Much has been written on "theology of science" and "scientific theology", but rarely do people recognise the simple yet profound connection between the word of God and laws of nature. As used in the Bible, "word of God" has three important senses. There is the word of God as Scripture itself, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and the word of God that commands and upholds the created order. Bible - Jesus - Word of Power

That last sense is crucial, yet often overlooked*. From the first "Let there be light!" to the indication in Hebrews 1:3 that God "upholds all things by the word of His power," the Scriptures contain many references to God's word as agent of natural processes (e.g. Ps 147:15-20), and there are important analogies between God's word and God's law (e.g. Ps 19).

So I propose a simple working definition of scientific research as "the search for the refraction of God's word that structures the created order."  That is to say that scientific work aims at articulating structural universals in the cosmos that emanate from God's word of power.  The natural sciences focus on laws of nature, structures and functions, classifications and principles; if we look as far as the Germanic concept of Wissenschaften (scholarship), we can also point to the identities and theorems of mathematics in one direction, and to the typologies, theories and frameworks of the humanities (even theology) in the other. This range of analytical phenomena is represented by the bottom tier of the diagram, which shows how we create scholarly artefacts by reference to "data".  All this is part of the "fact-side" of the created order: the concrete entities, situations and phenomena that we can experience - all, like ourselves as human beings, subject to God's creative word.  That word has been likened** to a radio broadcast permeating the cosmos, to which every creature tunes in on some wavelength. The scientist attempts to describe the radio waves themselves.

These scholarly artefacts thus refer beyond the fact-side of reality to the law-side (top tier of the diagram). People don't have to accept God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ in order to probe the structure of creation, God's "general revelation". But we can see natural laws, types and norms as the refraction of God's word into the diverse coherence of the order of creation, structuring the created order.

This definition of the sciences has important implications for how we relate scientific ideas to our daily Christian living and thinking. For example:

  • Starting from Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can know God through His word in all its three senses, before engaging in any scholarship (even theology).
  • The Bible generally refers to facts: specific events,  relationships, and persons and their acts (including God's self-revelation). Some regularities are of course described, such as God's faithful covenantal behaviour towards creatures - but these are still facts, not scholarship. Arguably the Bible is no more a theological textbook than a scientific one.
  • Scientific work does not produce "facts" (these are its data) but "artefacts": e.g. hypotheses, laws and theories. Hypotheses may refer to particulars (like the date of Jericho's fall), but "facts" is better reserved for beliefs founded on people's direct experience of particulars (like that event as witnessed by Joshua).
  • There's no privileged access to the lawlike refraction of God's word of power, but scientific training, insofar as it conforms our minds to the structures of the created order, can help us perceive it - and increasingly as we submit to the diverse, meaningful interconnectedness of that order.
  • Scientific knowledge is thus a kind of beliefs about the law-structure of the cosmos that are always subject to revision, although they may be highly reliable and - for all we know - approximately correct.

There's lots more to explore here. In a future post I shall probe some implications of this view for philosophy of science more generally.

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*Probably the best introduction to this theme is Gordon Spykman's "Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics" (1992, Eerdmans)

** by Dr David Hanson, Faith-in-Scholarship advisor.

What is a University Club?

Bruce C. Wearne encourages students to reflect upon institutional relationships in academic life and the effect of higher education reform.

I first developed the above diagram as a part of my response to what was happening at Chisholm Institute of Technology (CIT) in Melbourne back in the 1980s. CIT was part of the “binary system” of higher education in Australia, in which the Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Advanced Education were considered a “cheaper but equal” alternative to universities.

     These institutions provided courses leading to degrees and diplomas and their characters were often similar to those of the universities. They were regularly monitored by qualified university scholars and academics, and the qualifications were indeed “cheaper but equal”. These institutions were venues of significant student involvement in a healthy culture of local and national networks and associations. Clubs manifesting the political, religious and cultural commitments of students had federal links, and by the mid-80s such networks could exercise considerable public clout and made significant contributions to institutional culture. A considerable number of under-graduates from the 1970s and 1980s at universities, Techs and CAEs can recall involvement in these networks stretching from Perth to Sydney, from Hobart to Townsville. They were evidence of a renewed sense of being part of a national polity, a commonwealth.

          Much more can be said about such networks and how they have been significantly transformed and diminished by the “unintended consequences” of political and legislative changes initiated by “economic rationalism”, the forerunner of “neoliberalism”. “Higher education” is now viewed as an industrial sector. This is not just a quibble about nomenclature: it is an issue of how governments consider the work of students.

          After 1987, at the behest of the federal government, wholesale mergers occurred in “higher education". Institutes of Technology could remain as part of multi-campus operations called “universities”.

          The “University triangle” was published before Chisholm’s “merger” with Monash. My article “What kind of a Community is Chisholm?” appeared in the student newspaper protesting the action of the CIT Council that unilaterally changed the constitution of the student association. The student association had oversight of all registered student clubs, and no consideration was given to how this constitutional change would impact student life. As a result of CIT Council's pre-emptive actions the student association leadership were left asking themselves why students had been treated as if they were "the enemy". This occurred at an early stage of what was to become a nation-wide Federal government effort to remake higher education into another industrial sector and do it by means of mergers that gave multi-campus "universities".

          But if I was to offer support to the “student association” (and student clubs), I needed to identify the character of “higher education”. This I did with the above triangle: academic-student, academic-academic, and student-student. This diagram attempts to redefine academic management as a supporter of the academy’s work by holding these three relationships together in “an ethic of mutual trust developed from a love of learning for training in science".

          The reigning ideology, however, is that a graduate from a “management school” is best fitted for such work. This ideology assumes that the surrogate science of management is the science of science education, the discipline of disciplines. That is the “economic rationalist” dogma that gave birth to “neoliberalism”. It was alive and well in the 1980s at CIT and lay behind the effort to destroy the self-management of CIT’s student association. Over time, student associations have come to be viewed as industrial unions and are thus no longer considered to be members of the academy’s corporate body. Students are customers and the vital student-to-student interaction and culture has been diminished under State decree. Universities have been transformed into commercial enterprises selling degrees and students must now pay for this.

Why the World is Failing by Craig Bartholomew

It was fantastic to welcome Dr. Craig Bartholomew (Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) to our TFN conference Why the world is failing and what we can do about it.

Craig's first talk was focused on understanding our contemporary world. Some say that we live in a postmodern world but Craig argues that we can discern at least four different forms of secularism that shape the western world. He distinguished classical modernism (faith in scientific progress), the structural-critical worldview e.g. Marxism and the Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, the Cultural-Critical Modern Worldview e.g. romanticism and the adulation of feelings and individual autonomy as well as postmodernism and its focus on playfulness, irony and the avoidance of all commitments.

This was very illuminating and reminded me how important it is to understand the many different kinds of idolatry that plague modern Britain. Craig, in his second talk, really earthed this excellent critique by showing us how the NHS is impacted by what he calls 'instrumental rationality', the efficiency idol. In brief you are ill and you want to see a doctor but within the system you have become a number on a page. You no longer exist as a person but an 'it'. Craig opened up how the NHS is gripped by an instrumental and controlling form of idolatry.

It was also very moving to hear Craig speak about how Christians lived with apartheid. Craig, a South African, lived under apartheid and observed very clearly how born-again, Bible-believing, Holy Spirit filled Christians accomodated their racism! He unpacked this by arguing that if Christians ignore culture (not even recognising how they swim in it) and refuse in dualist fashion to engage with culture they easily become its victims. Brilliant stuff!

In conclusion I was impressed by how Craig responded to the questions he fielded. He reminded me of his friend and co-author, Bob Goudzwaard, in the delightful way he showed sensitivity and a gracious and pastoral spirit. For example, when Mike, a friend from Barnsley, told us the sad story of the Christian school in Barnsley being forced to close down because the Ofsted inspectors were horrified to find a statement of Christian faith in the school's missional documents negating what they called 'British Values'. Craig opened up the biblical theme of 'lament' and that the faithful witness of Mike's school would one day be present in the new heaven and new earth. Mike's painful story highlights the pervasive intolerance of liberalism and the desperate need for Christians to grasp Kuyper's insights into both pluralism and sphere sovereignty. Much more could be said here.

Craig is a very rare Christian. He is both a very insightful scholar and a pastorally sensitive and empathetic disciple. Thank you so much Craig for a great day.

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Conversations with Dutch teachers and students

It was very encouraging meeting up with Piet Murre who is a Professor of Education at Driestar Christian University, Gouda in the Netherlands. I met him in 2009 in Holland. He came with another lecturer from Driestar and four students who are training to be teachers.

We spent a good two hours talking about storytelling and the RealityBites pedagogy. I outlined the Mafia conference we deliver and how evil can be understood in, at least, five different ways (Hindu, Buddhist, Materialist, Pagan and Christian). I explained how a government inspector marked the conference as 'outstanding' and that the material provoked the students to ask great questions about both Jesus and the differences between Buddhism, Materialism and Christianity. They seemed impressed and wanted to know more. I then told them about my experiences of talking about the Christian faith in ways that do not activate disdain and 'shutters crashing down'. I told them how rat worship, although strange and wacky, can lead to very fruitful and enjoyable conversations about the incarnation and idolatry. I further noted that conversations about karma and reincarnation can also be very profitable. I told them a story about a guru, Yogananda who claimed to have lived in a diamond and then later was embodied as William the Conquerer. I pointed out that humour and imagination are vital in the effective communication of the Christian faith. It is easy to contrast resurrection hope with reincarnation if you have a good story.The Dutch students pointed out that belief in karma was popular in the Netherlands and that these 'speech acts' were spot on.

We then had an excellent conversation about modernism, postmodernism and new age mindsets and how vital it is to engage with these worldviews if we are to talk meaningfully and credibly about the Christian faith. Piet Murre encouraged me to produce a resource that would focus on which stories to deploy when talking to a relativist or a materialist etc. He said this would be a very helpful resource for Christian teachers in the Netherlands.

I was delighted that all the students and the lecturers bought copies of my book. Piet told me that my approach was 'novel' and this was very encouraging.

Eternal progress: how to find fresh ideas

(Photo under a Creative Commons Zero public domain licence, via Dreamstime.com)

"Of making many books there is no end..." (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

There is a point of view from which it looks implausible that research in any field could continue indefinitely, century after century, endlessly discovering new things about reality.  Part of the classic fin de siècle phenomenon was the suggestion that there might not be much left to discover. But at least since Augustine[1], many Christians seem to have imagined that cultural development will be terminated (or even destroyed) on the Last Day when Christ returns - as suggested by the term 'consummation'.  But this isn't necessarily a biblical perspective. Christ's kingdom will never end (Luke 1:33), and there's a case to be made that cultural development, finally freed from sin, will continue forever under His reign. Might not the created order, once more fully disclosed in the New Creation, be worthy of ongoing scholarly research into eternity? 

Be that as it may, there seems to be no slowing down in the rate of scientific progress at present.  And what we believe about the potential for ongoing research may affect how we approach our scholarship from day to day.  So, continuing our scholarly skills series, I want to share some thoughts on how to find original questions and fresh perspectives on a topic.  These were originally prompted by the simple challenge of asking good questions after a talk, but they also apply to thinking up new research projects for ourselves - or our students, if we're at that stage.

What tips, then, can I offer?  My principal advice is actually rather demanding.  It is no understatement to say that the created order is inconceivably complicated, and any research programme must sooner or later open up completely unanticipated ideas.  Insightful questions, therefore, must come from some framework that provides context and helps locate contours of meaning within the overall coherence of the created order.  And such a framework is offered by the series of modal aspects of Reformational philosophy.  It's often from the categories and relationships of this grand model that I find an angle for asking questions on other people's research, and have found some of the kernels of my own research ideas.

A few specific tactics might also help:

  • Look out for reductionism.  This is actually the simplest outworking of my advice above.
  • Look at motives. Why might this person or group want to study this topic, and why might it have been funded? Why do you like the subjects you do, and why might peer reviewers and funders like your area (or not)?
  • Ask "so what?" questions.  Academics often give rather little concrete context for their ideas - perhaps because our culture prizes scientific abstraction so highly. But Christian scholars should be interested in the particular as well as the abstract.
  • Ask what tenets are best established or most likely to be superseded. The historical dimension of knowledge is likewise often sidelined - as if today's pronouncements will be subject to no further revision.

In all this, let's seek a gracious affirmation of the hard work that has gone before - as advocated by Andrew Basden's Affirm-Critique-Enrich approach and its extension, LACE. And let's pray that the way we work to answer research questions will be worthy of the age to come, a fitting tribute to Christ the king.

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[1] according to Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014): p 291ff

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Transforming the Mind 2018: early bird deadline approaching!

This year's Transforming the Mind, the annual national conference for Christian postgraduates and early career academics, will take place from 15 to 17 June 2018 in Dovedale House, Ilam. The speakers are Nick Megoran and Eline van Asperen, who will help us to think through what it means to be a Christian scholar, drawing on their own experience in UK Higher Education. 

Besides talks, this unique weekend features times of worship, group discussion, free time in the beautiful surroundings, a barbecue, and above all, much time to share with other Christian postgraduates. Coming from many disciplines, nations and cultures, we meet together to encourage each other and explore what God is calling us to be and to do in the university and beyond.

Registrations are now open online at http://transformingthemind.org/register. The cost is £89 for students and the unwaged, or £99 for others. Students who register before the early bird deadline (30 April) get a discount and pay only £79. The fee includes accommodation and all meals. A number of bursaries is available on request.

The conference has as its strapline ‘Transforming the Mind’, taken from Romans 12:1-2, which states: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

The conference was founded to encourage Christian postgraduates to fulfill the stewardship that God has entrusted to human beings in the particular context of the university. This means that God's perspective should direct our assumptions, our manner of inquiry and learning, our striving for excellence with humility. We are called to engage with God’s creation around us, whether that is by focusing on natural phenomena such as atoms, genes or ecosystems, or by studying human culture and life. Most significantly, our calling is to seek God's Kingdom. The conference helps us to think through what this may mean in practice as we follow our calling as Christian scholars.

Talks from previous conferences are available online. Many of the talks have been very helpful to my own thinking about being a Christian scholar, so do make use of this resource! And don't miss this year's event: a great opportunity to relax, make friends and take away new ideas.

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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.

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