Thinking Faith blogs

Ivan the Terrible and Jesus

Have you heard about Ivan the Terrible? He was a delightful Russian king. Did you know that he secretly worshipped Cronus aka Saturn - the god who ate his own children? Ivan shows us clearly that you become like the god you follow. Ivan tortured and murdered thousands of his own people. His life was drenched in innocent blood. Can you imagine what would have happened if Ivan had followed Jesus instead of Cronus? 

 

Honesty in humanities research

Library with chair by window

I’ve just come to the end of the second official week of my DPhil. In between all the library inductions, research workshops, and meeting new people, I’ve been doing some thinking about where I want my research to go: the kind of questions I want to ask, and work towards answering, about medieval recluses’ prayer.

Defining a topic

I enjoy the freedom in the humanities, particularly in literature, to define my own topic. But I’m beginning to see that this has its dangers as well. I was struck, during a recent talk at the Oxford Graduate Christian Forum, by some advice which the speaker quoted from the physicist Richard Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.  You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.[1]

My initial reaction was that this wasn’t very relevant to me. My subject is a long way from experimental science! I don’t have to produce and reproduce measurable results, so the temptation to “adjust” them into more publishable material isn’t likely to be an issue.

I can see, too, how someone who’s invested in their research could end up convincing themselves that they’ve produced the outcome they want, whether or not the numbers bear it out. But in a field like mine, where general orthodoxy is that a text is whatever the reader makes of it, surely this call to honesty has little to say to literary scholars.

(I don’t mean to say that no literary critic or historian has ever so wanted to prove an argument that the evidence has become twisted. In fact, there’s an example from the critical history of the medieval text I wrote about in my last post.  That text is anonymous, so many people have tried to identify its author. In the 1970s one critic, E. J. Dobson, claimed to have established his identity and that of the original audience. Unfortunately, it later became clear that a key piece of his evidence was based on a mistake – he had misread a manuscript abbreviation for fratres, brothers, as sorores, sisters.[2] Dobson seems to have wanted his idea to be true so badly that this fairly unambiguous distinction got lost.)

Constructing a narrative

The more I think about this, however, the more it seems like I need Feynman’s advice. I probably won’t have much chance to falsify results, but I’m aware of a temptation to romanticise and generalise when I talk about medieval religion. It’s all too easy to downplay the misogyny, doctrinal differences, and sheer cultural alienness, in an effort to construct the narrative I want: one where prayer, both then and now, has the power to make genuine transhistorical connection possible. I don’t have a well-thought-out conclusion either way as yet, and I have to be careful about how I get there.

Honesty, both to oneself and (the ‘conventional’ sort) to others, is a virtue specially necessary for academics, as Feynman warned. For Christian academics, it must characterise all our work, as we seek to glorify the God whose word is Truth.

 

[1] Richard Feynman, ‘Cargo Cult Science’ (1974) http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm [accessed 15/10/16]

[2] See E. J. Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Oxford, 1976), for the original argument; and Sally Thompson, Women Religious: the Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1991), p.34 n.126 for the correction.

Does business matter to God?

A guest post from Dr Xia Zhu.

At creation, the mandate that God gave to humanity was for people to reflect and mirror God’s stewardship… This involves far more than religious enterprises or the church. It has to do with how we engage with scientific endeavours, how we do business, how we treat each other, how we treat animals, and how we treat the environment.

Sproul, R. C. (2016), How Should I Think about Money? Reformation Trust Publishing, p23

Why Business Matters to God coverReading from the title of the book Why business matters to God (and what still needs to be fixed), (J. Van Duzer, Madison:InterVarsity Press, 2010) we have one person’s answer to the question of whether or not business matters to God. But does business really matter to God? If we ask ourselves this question three times, do we still get a definite ‘yes’? More importantly, in what way does business matter to God? Aren’t ‘business’, ‘money’ and ‘profit’ just a few of those awkward, veiled words in a Christian dictionary?

Jeff Van Duzer is Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University and points out that the most common positive views towards business and its relationship to God’s kingdom are probably instrumental: that business can contribute to God’s kingdom by supporting mission and ministry work; and business (or the workplace) can be used as a platform for evangelism.

But beyond the instrumental value of business in relation to God’s kingdom, does business matter to God? Does business have any intrinsic value to God? Does the actual work of business have any interest to God?

Going back to Genesis, Van Duzer points out that God created a material world and the material world matters to God. The material world is a blessing to human beings and with it comes the responsibility of stewardship. The dichotomy of ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ actually contradicts the biblical account of Genesis. In the creation–fall–redemption–consummation framework, the material well-being of humanity is an integral part of God’s promises, from the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8) to the ultimate promise of the resurrection of the body (Sproul, 2016).

God’s plan of redemption is concerned about the material welfare of human beings, and this concern is also central to the Christian faith (Sproul, 2016). “If we are concerned that people don’t have any food, the most important thing to do is to produce food. If people are naked, our concern is not going to do any good unless we make clothes. Production must increase in order to alleviate poverty in physical areas…the single most important element for meeting the physical needs of human beings is the production of goods and services.” (Sproul, 2016, p.48-49). Van Duzer observes the intrinsic purposes of business: outwardly, businesses provide goods and services that create wealth, enable a community to flourish and enhance the quality of life; and inwardly, businesses create opportunities for individuals to express some of God’s given characteristics (e.g. creativity) in the performance of meaningful and creative work.

Contemplating the question ‘Does business matter to God?’ opens up further questions that need to be explored. For instance, “If the material world matters to God, are we internalizing this biblically instead of over-spiritualizing things?” “If the material world and its business matters to God, are we grappling with these as we study the word of God?” “If business matters to God, are Christians sufficiently encouraged and equipped to engage with the business world?”

Dr Xia Zhu is a lecturer in Marketing at Keele University. Her research looks at service experience in consumer and business-to-business markets. Xia’s twitter name is @zhuxia.

Church Scientific begins in Leeds

Church Scientific logo

A new space for students and researchers to grow their scientific thinking is about to appear in Leeds. Church Scientific is a project to nurture scientific thinkers in building a holistic understanding of how our insights about the world originate and develop through imagination, theory-building and experimentation. The project concerns all kinds of pure and applied sciences: not just the “natural” sciences.

Funded by a “Scientists in Congregations” grant from St John’s College Durham, Church Scientific will see a group of science students and researchers engage in workshops looking at the nature of scientific progress in theological, historical and philosophical contexts. We’ll be asking questions like:

How does scientific understanding progress?  What’s the role of people’s worldviews in the birth of new theories?

Which scientific beliefs are the least liable to revision over time?  Are laws more reliable than theories, for example?

How does “General Revelation” relate to “Special Revelation” – should we think of a “Book of God’s Works” alongside a “Book of God’s Word”?  What is the role of faith in developing knowledge?  What’s the difference between belief and knowledge?

What’s meant by methodological naturalism, and do we really need it?

What norms and values are assumed and discussed within scientific enterprises?  How do they affect the ways scientists think and live in everyday life?

How are scientific fields shaped and driven by social, economic and ideological factors?

As you can see, we’re not shying away from big issues. But the project is driven by a conviction that our own careers as scientists, and also scientific understanding at large, can benefit from a deeper understanding of how scientific thinking fits into people’s broader frameworks of belief, and the cultural beliefs that are called “knowledge”. And that will help us explore connections with our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality, the sources of knowledge, and the best ways to live – which are where philosophy meets religious traditions. Ontology, epistemology and ethics are certainly brought very close to the scientific enterprise when science writers make bold claims along the lines of “where we really came from”, “a theory of everything” or that some scientific view “leaves us with no choice but X…”  We’ll explore these hidden questions, and when the workshops are over, participants will have the opportunity to sign up to share their insights in an informal science talk in one of the café evenings that will run in the new year.

Get involved

There are various ways you might get involved with Church Scientific. If you live in or near Leeds, come to the launch event on 25 October. Dr Elaine Storkey will be asking, “Could a Christian worldview make you a better scientist?” – and we’ll hear from a number of scientist Christians about their work and faith perspectives. Then, if you’re a scientist (student or researcher), you might participate in the workshops in November; if not, there are other important ways to be involved as a mentor or organiser.  Please register your interest on the project web site and someone will get in touch!  You can also find Church Scientific on Facebook.

In the longer term, we hope that this initiative will inspire a fresh wave of Christian engagement in the history, philosophy and theology of the sciences. Personally I’ve found these perspectives stimulating and helpful, and I’m convinced that many of us who are scientists can find new insights for our work by stepping back to survey the landscape.

Anti-materialist spiel

So you don't believe in God (Psalm 14:1)? Does that mean you are a materialist then? I used to believe that malarkey but it made me so miserable and grumpy. I thought about it and realised that if everything I do is programmed by hidden physical stuff then murdering my wife and kids is not my fault and even plotting to kill them is not my fault. Both my thoughts and my actions are beyond my control. What a nightmare for my family!

 

The Triune Structure of Experience

Last Saturday Faith-in-Scholarship hosted a workshop about Christian philosophy with Dr Jeremy Ive. Having asked what “Christian philosophy” might be, I’m now going to share the basics of a proposal concerning the structure of our experience. For now this framework is presented in Jeremy’s thesis awaiting publication… so remember, you heard it here first!

Three Transcendental Conditions

Does reality have a structure that humans have to acknowledge? Let’s start with an example from geometry. If we reflect on what reality feels like spatially, one of the obvious things is that there are three dimensions. You really can only find three mutually-perpendicular axes of space, and we can’t (as far as I know) imagine space any other way. Emmanuel Kant proposed that the human mind actually imposes the basic structures of time and space that we experience, in outlining his doctrine of transcendental idealism. But wherever they come from, there clearly are constraints (“transcendentals”) for the ways we can conceive reality.

It may be argued that a more fundamental set of conditions is necessary for us to have any experience at all. There are things, there are relations, and there are events. “Things” are just the items we recognise, like rocks, people and companies; they don’t have to be detached, tightly bounded or universally recognised. Although as babies we may have had a stream of consciousness without distinguishing people/things at all, we don’t remember that, and it probably wasn’t “experience” as we know it. Secondly, there are relations among things. This covers the sensations we have in perceiving a thing: we stand in relation to it as we conceive its location, colour, potential behaviour, economic value, etc. Thirdly, there are events. Our sensations are dynamic, giving rise to the sense of continuity and the possibility of change. Each of these three limiting “Ideas”, as Jeremy calls them, reveals a transcendental, as shown in the diagram below.  We’re playing thought experiments again: can you imagine a situation or state of affairs without conceiving of things, relations and events?

Ive's triangle

So the three transcendentals of particularity, relationality and time are supposed to lie behind our basic ideas of people/things, relations and events. The diagram also indicates three “descriptive views” (blue circles) in which we can begin to analyse reality. Lived experience comes to us in a rich, dynamic flow of consciousness, but undisturbed reflection allows us to focus, abstract and attempt to describe the world. The structural, life-history and evolutionary perspectives (my terms!) probably come up in most academic disciplines, for example, although there will often be a focus on just one or two.

This may appeal to you if you like big, unifying schemes, and believe that philosophy should start from common sense. The epistemology in play here (of which more another time) puts great weight on the phenomena we experience. And that’s where this proposal departs from that large body of the Western philosophical tradition that posits some kind of unfamiliar “substance” (e.g. matter or spacetime) behind the appearances we observe. The “substance” approach is unlikely to be either realistic or fruitful, Christians might suspect, because, originating in non-theistic cultures, the “substance” idea is suspiciously similar to an impersonal notion of what is divine.

Jeremy’s triangular proposal is actually a synthesis inspired by the notion of perichoresis in Trinitarian theology. It’s not meant to be natural theology (drawing inferences about God from nature), or evidence for the Trinity. The main source, in fact, is the 20th-century Dutch philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd. These brothers-in-law are said to have hit on their big idea one day when one (or both?) of them took a walk along the coastal dunes near Amsterdam. But that’s a story (and a diagram) for another time!

You can read more about Jeremy’s work, including his thesis, at www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/ive.htm.

Useful Christian philosophy

What is Christian philosophy? Is it a kind of theology? Is it apologetics, like proofs for the existence of God? A blinkered form of philosophy where the answer has to be “Jesus”? Or could it be a school of thought that envisages philosophy set free to be more fruitful, more useful and more real than ever before?

This Saturday brings a special FiSch event to Leeds with a world-class Christian philosopher. Jeremy Ive has PhDs in theology, history and Christian philosophy, as well as polymathic knowledge of culture – and a profound vision for unifying our understanding of reality in the light of God’s revelation. We hope that Christians with all kinds of academic interests will find this event stimulating and immensely useful for their work.

In the afternoon we will have a workshop looking at how a Christian framework for reality can enrich academic work in all disciplines. In the morning Jeremy will talk about  his involvement in peacemaking initiatives, such as the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. Those who like concrete examples will find the morning particularly interesting, while those of an academic bent are encouraged to come to both sessions.

Jeremy’s most recent scholarly work has focused on resonances between trinitarian theology and reformational philosophy. The latter has been touched on in many previous blog posts here, while the former needs no specific introduction – but Jeremy’s thesis reveals intriguing relationships between the two traditions. Reformational philosophy has been called the “discipline of the disciplines“, which hints at the way that Christian philosophy is intended to be a servant for all areas of scholarship. Meanwhile, the peacemaking work and Jeremy’s collaboration with the Jubilee Centre bear out the practical value of this grand vision.

Jeremy is a philosopher, historian and pastor who shares the oversight of an ecumenical parish in Kent with his wife, Pamela. The parish church of All Saints, Tudeley is noted for its complete set of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

To book tickets for Saturday’s event, go to www.thinkfaith.net/events/philosophy16.

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Lecturing in God’s Kingdom

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

The month to come will be a busy one for universities across the UK. Much attention will doubtless (and deservedly) be focussed on the numerous young people who are preparing to make what is often the most significant journey of their lives to date, leaving their family home and starting new lives as students, sometimes a long way from everything that is familiar to them. They won’t be the only ones facing the new term with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, though. Many lecturers around the country are right now busy getting ready to meet an entirely new group of students, thinking about ways to inspire and challenge them, perhaps even preparing to teach a module or course for the first time. I know, because I’m one of them!

This moment thus seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the value of university teaching specifically within the wider vision of Christian scholarship. What does it mean for us as scholars to ‘teach for Christ’ at a university level? Here’s a few thoughts which have encouraged and challenged me recently:

Teaching is a powerful means of dissemination. Serving Christ in the academic sphere means seeking (like all scholars) a platform to pass on our ideas to others. Publication is an established way of communicating with peers, but it’s far from perfect: it can be slow, narrow in its reach and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding. In teaching, by contrast, ideas can be tested out immediately, with instant feedback and the chance to rectify errors and misunderstandings, and the audience is (often) much more diverse, providing greater opportunities to have influence beyond our own immediate sphere. If our scholarship is rooted in the desire to honour Jesus, this can feed through powerfully into the ideas we communicate in our teaching.

Teaching challenges us to engage with new ideas, in new arenas. It is pleasing to feel like an expert, and research cultures tend to encourage scholars to pursue their own individual fields of expertise, alongside fellow-scholars who are largely sympathetic. Any lecturer, however, will sooner or later be faced with the prospect of teaching a subject they know next-to-nothing about, or communicating with students who are dismissive of or resistant to their course materials. Uncomfortable though these experiences may be, they are important opportunities to test out the value of the truths we affirm – about the value of scholarship to God, and the need to be willing to engage with even hostile audiences as we communicate it – in the crucible of real and challenging experience. In the process, we may see God’s power and Lordship all the more clearly.

Teaching is a chance to demonstrate God’s grace. I am delighted here to link to the best article I’ve ever read about university teaching, by the American mathematician Francis Su. Su presents a vision of teaching whereby students can learn not only information, but also a sense of identity which is built around grace, God’s free gift of acceptance and love. When we communicate to those around us that they are valued regardless of their intellectual standing, we are showing them grace. Su argues that this is evident in lecturing both in the way we approach material (with freedom to experiment, take risks and celebrate the joy of discovery), students (not giving more time or attention to higher-achievers), and even assessments (as judgements on the value of a piece of work, not of the student who produces it). It is a lifelong challenge to pursue this vision of grace in teaching, but I think it provides a powerful chance to witness to the grace shown to us through Jesus.

Is the Duke of Edinburgh a god?

There are people on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific Ocean who worship Prince Philip, the gaffe-prone husband of Queen Elizabeth as a god. The duke once shocked a student during a visit to China by saying: "If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes." Tragically many of the islanders living on Tanna used to worship Jesus but they have exchanged the Prince of Peace for Phil the Greek. Do you think that the Duke of Edinburgh can forgive your sins, grant you eternal life and save you from the perils of hell. It's worth thinking about.

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Report on the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial Conference: Marriage, family and relationships

Marriage, Family & Relationships - title page

Over the summer I attended the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial conference on Marriage, family and relationships. It was fantastic.

I have been to many Tyndale Fellowship conferences before. The Tyndale Fellowship conferences are normally comprised of several separate groups that meet at the same time and venue but never attend each other’s talks (well, unless you dare). These separate groups are subject specific. For example, there’s a New Testament group, a Systematic Theology group, and a Philosophy of Religion group (the one I attend). Every four years, however, we break out of our groups and have a conference of a slightly more interdisciplinary flavour. Our keynote sessions are mixed (we’re all together) and they all focus on a single theme. This year it was ‘Marriage, family and relationships.’

The conference opened with Dr. Onesimus Ngundu providing a fast and furious history of Marriage. His talk entitled ‘Glimpses of Some Interesting Elements of the History of Marriage’ was both thrilling and enlightening. I learnt the etymology of the words ‘honeymoon’ and ‘best man’ (I won’t relieve you of the joy of doing the research yourself). I was challenged over whether or not the utterance ‘who gives this woman to be married to this man?’ was really biblical (my wife and I subsequently disagreed on this point, but not in the way that you may think!).

Part way through the conference I was deeply moved by Dr. Elaine Storkey’s paper ‘Scars Across Humanity.’ In it she presented her research on global violence against women. She covered topics such as child marriage, female infanticide, rape and domestic abuse, among others. Her talk was not a mere documentary, however. She also challenged us to think about the role that Christianity has played in the past and the role it might play in the future. She provided compelling arguments that Christians can and do have the best true story of hope for these women and that this should move us into action.

Finally, after being jolted awake by the Rev. Dr Ian Paul’s suggestion that Jesus is depicted as having female breasts in Revelation and what that (among other things) might mean for our being sexed in heaven, we were given the treat of having two lectures, one after the other, arguing for opposing theses. First, Dr Daniel Hill (one of my supervisors) very persuasively argued that the connection should be cut between marriage and the state. Second, Prof. Julian Rivers argued (equally persuasively) that English law would not fare so well without it. Both talks were exemplary, as was the manner in which they were conducted. Both Prof. Rivers and Dr Hill engaged one another with the utmost charity and care…although Dr Hill’s argument, of course (!), won out.

Overall the conference, as I said, was fantastic. Yes, there were some blunders made because we have highly specific subject-dependent terminology (not everyone knew the difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition!), but those few blunders aside, this interdisciplinary conference was a treat. Our Lord’s creation is multifaceted and we’re to understand it in all its glory, to find new connections between disciplines and explore new avenues of research. This was encouraged by this year’s Quadrennial. I look forward to the next and hope you will join us!

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