Thinking Faith blogs

Nico Rosberg's materialist faith

Nico Rosberg, the current Formula 1 World Champion was educated in an international school in Monaco and it was here that he was indoctrinated into the insidious, dark and brooding materialism that pervades our culture. Life boils down to matter in motion.

'I was always thinking in school, "What the hell am I doing this physics for?",' Rosberg confessed to a journalist. 'But now I know the answer because I benefit from it every single day in my job. Everything relates to physics and maths: what is the car doing and how do we change it?'

It's fascinating that the articulate Rosberg seems oblivious to the dark implications of his materialist worldview and he, cheerfully and incoherently, adds in some Hollywood 'feel-good' slogans to his secular faith.

“I’m following my heart,” he said when breaking the news of his retirement. “My heart is telling me this.”

How could we begin a conversation about the Christian faith with Nico? You could do a lot worse than tell him the Eric Harris story.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School, Colorado, USA, on 20th April 1999. Eric wrote in his diary:

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

The belief that only the natural sciences hook onto reality is a key article of faith for many materialist believers. If only ‘nature’ exists then the only things we can believe in are those things that can be measured by scientific equipment. This leads to the conclusion that moral statements such as ‘murder is wrong’ are human constructs and empty of any genuine truth.

So do we agree with Eric Harris that only maths and physics tell us about the world? Press home the point. Where exactly did he go wrong?

I'd love to ask Nico how he would respond to this tragic story?

Called to be a scholar?

This year my autumn term has been a bit different from those of the last six years. At the end of September my postdoc grant ran out, and we moved to Durham, where my husband has started his training to become a vicar and I became a part-time visiting fellow at the University. A time of change and transition, and a time to reflect on my calling as an academic.

From a very young age I have wanted to be a scholar. I think I was about 8 years old when I started to answer the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ with ‘a researcher at a university’. Over the years, this desire grew into something I recognised as a calling to use my God-given talents to learn more about His creation and to teach and enthuse others about it. When I finished my masters’ degree, I started looking for opportunities to do my PhD in my own country, The Netherlands. After two ‘wilderness years’ of waiting and doing jobs that didn’t require me to use all of my brain, I decided to apply for PhD positions in the UK, and soon found a post in York. In contrast to many PhD students, I enjoyed my PhD years from start to finish (OK maybe not that summer month when everyone was on holiday and I was digging though statistics books, but pretty much everything else).

My experience post-PhD has been more mixed. After finishing my PhD, I applied for several postdoctoral grants, since there are not many postdoc positions advertised in my field. After about a year, I was awarded a three-year part-time postdoctoral grant, which I supplemented with teaching. Three years later, I got another grant and I moved to the other side of the country to take it up. Now, having just finished this last grant, I am more or less unemployed again…

I have felt confirmed in my calling by getting the PhD done and receiving several grants. I still love doing research and teaching, and find it hard to think of any other job which would use my talents to the same degree and would give me the same amount of satisfaction. But I have found it difficult to deal with the uncertainty of short-term contracts and the stress of moving over large distances. And the fact that I may well end up being a vicar’s wife also complicates things! Having a bit of thinking space, whilst still pursuing my research (and writing up those articles that I didn’t get round to in my full-time job!), is therefore welcome. You probably know others who are in a similar situation. Please pray for us that we will be able to discern God’s calling on our lives, whether He has something new for us or whether we should continue to pursue the academic life.

How have you experienced God’s calling to be a scholar? Have you received confirmation of your calling, whether through events or through people’s comments? Are you open to the fact that your calling may change over time or be different in different seasons of life?

Art, the scholar, and the self

Today I want to talk about a poem.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), trans. Stephen Mitchell (see the original German)

I read this poem in my first year of literary study and was struck first and foremost by the stark insistence of the last line: ‘You must change your life.’ At first it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the poem – a meditation on the strange living power of a damaged piece of art. (The technical term is ekphrasis, a verbal description of visual art.) But the bluntness of that last phrase is designed to make us consider its relevance to the rest of the poem.

A demand

The experience which Rilke describes here is not inspiration, pleasure, or quiet reflection – any of the states of mind we might want to associate with looking at art. Instead, it is obligation. You must change your life – it is required of you, even inevitable. We are not looking at the statue: it is looking at us. ‘Here there is no place/ that does not see you.’

How can a damaged statue of a pagan god require anything of us? I have been thinking on and off about this poem ever since I read it, and it has become something of a challenge to me as I have pursued my literary studies. As with all good ekphrastic poems, the technique of describing a piece of (usually visual) art allows the poet to explore the nature of his own art as well. Reading the poem, we don’t physically see the archaic torso, but Rilke conjures it for us, depicting in his own medium the life and ‘brilliance’ he describes. He then demands a response. He demands we consider ourselves in the light of the statue and of the poem which revives it for us.

A challenge

The challenge, I think, is to take art seriously, and act accordingly. Rilke forces us to recognise the living power of an object centuries out of its time, jolting us out of our self-centred preoccupation with the present moment. Art can do this if we let it: push us out of ourselves and remind us of the existence of a world beyond us, of wild beasts and legends and stars, or simply of the inner lives of others.

Apollo (the god of the arts) is not an especially comforting figure here. All the poem’s metaphors are full of contained energy, the sense that all at once there may be an explosion of movement, in what direction we don’t know. The demand for us to change our lives is the natural extension of the realisation, inherent in all good art, that there is powerful agency outside us in the world, and so human self-sufficiency is only ever partial and temporary.

Academics in particular have good reason to heed this truth, given the strong temptations towards idolatry of the self in the pursuit of knowledge. I regularly face the danger, as a literary scholar, of denying the agency of the writers I read by focusing only on what I want to find, rather than accepting what they have to say on their own terms. You will know your own specific temptations, from abstract problems of methodology to the everyday desire to hoard credit and resources for yourself.

The Christian scholar seeks, above all, to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world. Art like Rilke’s can help us to look away from ourselves long enough to do so.

Faith and Knowledge

Reasoning

Our “Christian philosophy in diagrams” series began with an ontology: things in relation over time. After ontology (what there is), philosophy typically looks at epistemology (how we know). This week I want to share a proposal based on the following diagram:

The oval represents what goes on in my mind, and it’s tightly bound to the green surrounding, which represents my experience. We’re looking at a common-sense, realist view of mental content here – and not just beliefs: the purple area on the right represents tacit knowledge, which was formally introduced to epistemology by Michael Polanyi. His phrase “we know more than we can tell” nicely evokes this sector of mental content. I know how to communicate, how to recognise certain faces, how to ride a bicycle, and so on – without necessarily being able to explain this knowledge.

We’ll leave tacit knowledge aside now to consider propositional knowledge (although Polanyi showed that tacit knowledge plays a central role in scientific research). So the central column indicates how knowledge that I might express by saying “I know/believe that…” can be arranged from what I find self-evident to what I hold most tentatively.  This is where things get interesting. I owe much of the following to Roy Clouser, whose book “Knowing with the Heart” takes its title from a quote of Blaise Pascale: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Knowing God is Real

Does the Bible tell us to have faith that God exists? Biblical writers never even seem to countenance that big question of our humanist age. Instead, we’re supposed to find it obvious that the creator God is real, and put our faith in Him. (Indeed, says Clouser, the authoritative texts of other religions make similar claims.) And I hope that is our experience – once we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in daily life and perhaps through visions or other special experiences. So that bottom layer of the blue column is for all basic beliefs that are obvious to me – about the reality of my friends, the accuracy of my vivid memories, etc – and also that God is real and loves me. The arrow from “Special Revelation” indicates one of the important influences – along with many other forms of testimony – on what I may come to see as self-evident.

Common Knowledge

Then we have the blue arrow labelled “Proof; discourse”, leading from self-evident knowledge to what I’ve called “common knowledge”. The claim here is that we tend to be less certain of things that have to be proven or explained to us. Much confusion is generated when beliefs that are easily shared and agreed upon get passed off as the only real knowledge – leaving everything else as mere belief or opinion. If we buy into the widespread “objective vs. subjective” dualism, we’ll be urged to refer to “knowledge” only when reiterating beliefs shared by lots of boffins! But this notion is completely unworkable, as Clouser shows. The history of ideas (not least science) readily shows that “objective knowledge” routinely changes. Moreover, it only takes a little post-modern awareness for us to suspect that, in many discourses, the use of words like “objective”, “proof” and “fact” owes more to their effectiveness in silencing dissenting points of view (“subjective” “beliefs” and “opinions”!) than to any real infallibility. More needs to be said about analysing how reliable a belief is, as distinct from how firmly I currently hold it.

So we’re left with the term “faith”. There’s a popular view that this is about believing in things without evidence. But biblical faith is more like extrapolating beyond evidence. “I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” Lots of teachings come in this category for me, like the belief that God will heal a loved one, or that Jesus will return. So I’ve put “faith” part-way up the column of uncertainty – having already parked my basic Christian convictions along with my most certain knowledge.

Try reading John 9 for a fascinating insight into the convictions of someone gradually coming to faith in Jesus. Then perhaps compare it with the way Jesus became real to you. Or pray and ask Jesus for that reality, if you’re not sure about it!

Talking to a Muslim lad about Jesus

I had a fantastic time talking to a young Muslim man about the gospel last week. It was very natural, relaxing and enjoyable for both of us!

I explained to him that Glenn Hoddle had managed the England football team back in the 90's and he was sacked for believing in karma!

The young Muslim man found this fascinating.

I told him that Hoddle claimed to be a Christian but the belief in karma is a Hindu belief. With karma you get what you deserve! Rebirth in a rat, shrimp or a disabled person’s body but with Jesus you get what you don’t deserve: God’s love, the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.

The young man was intrigued and so I outlined four ways of looking at

life after death -

1) Some people believe that when you die you rot under the ground.

(he recognised this as an atheist view)

2) Some people believe that when you die you get the afterlife you want.

(he found this postmodernist view very entertaining)

3) Some people, like Hoddle, believe that you are reborn in a deaf person's body or a rat if you have a bad karma.

(he found this view strange and obviously wrong)

4) Christians believe that when you die you are waiting for a wonderful resurrection body if you love and follow Jesus (John 6).

(he had never heard this view and was intrigued)

What is particularly striking is that the next day the young Muslim lad approached me and outlined these four views, including the Christian hope in the resurrection. He had understood every word!

I was astonished but delighted that my Hoddle themed presentation of the gospel had had this impact.

Modern music and faith

Music snippet

A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.

The image shows a (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It's music, Jim, but not as we know it...

My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).

For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?

The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.

For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!

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Everyday Apocalypse: From Antichrist to Zombies

Detail from Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

A guest post from David Parry.

A report from the Christian Literary Studies Group Annual Conference

The Christian Literary Studies Group gathered at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Saturday 5th November for our annual day conference, which this year had the theme “Shaping Ends: Aspects of Apocalypse”. Current world events were not in view when we chose the theme months before, but they added a certain resonance to our discussions.

Opening reflections by CLSG Secretary Roger Kojecký reminded us that humans tell stories to find patterns of meaning in life, and that they need “the sense of an ending” to make sense of those stories. The papers that followed ranged widely through literary history, but a common theme was the popularity of apocalyptic themes today. One speaker reported that his online research had led him to a product advertised as “zombie repellent spray”! (Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, reviewed by Alicia Smith in the forthcoming issue of the CLSG journal The Glass, explores apocalyptic in popular culture from a Christian perspective.)

Modern fiction and apocalypse

A keynote presentation by Andrew Tate (Lancaster), spinning off from his forthcoming book Apocalyptic Fiction, addressed the recent genre of ‘climate change fiction’, novels that depict a world after ecological catastrophe. After hailing the nineteenth-century writer and artist John Ruskin as something of a prophet of environmental disaster, Andrew examined novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood, observing that, though depicting a post-apocalyptic world, these writers (even those hostile to Christian faith) tell stories of the survivors that suggest some kind of hope for humanity on the other side of catastrophe.

Simon Marsden (Liverpool) looked at how Christian ideas of apocalypse and the afterlife surface in unexpected forms in contemporary Gothic horror novels – he referenced the TV show The Walking Dead, in which a zombie apocalypse survivor remarks, “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.” Although Gothic horror is often sceptical about organised religion, depicting a nihilistic universe or a bleak afterlife, the recent novels of Peter Straub and Justin Cronin depict a kind of redemption. For instance, in Cronin’s Passage trilogy, the “viral” race of vampire-like humans is redeemed by the messianic Amy, who overcomes the virus progenitor Zero through sacrificial love. (The A to Z names are not coincidental).

Antichrists and apocalyptic hope

Victoria Brownlee (National University of Ireland, Galway) helped to give the long view by looking at how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants saw the pope as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as the scarlet woman foretold in Revelation, exploring how this belief is expressed in texts such as Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Though this sounds like an extreme fringe belief to most Christians today, it was a pretty mainstream view amid the interweaving of political and theological conflicts of that time. Historians have long observed that periods of crisis give rise to apocalyptic thinking, and Christians have often been tempted to play the game of “pin the tail on the Antichrist”.

However, two further papers reminded us that the original sense of “apocalypse” is not disaster but rather unveiling/revelation, which for Christians is a revelation of an ultimate hope beyond catastrophe. Tom Docherty (Cambridge) drew from his PhD research on the poet Geoffrey Hill, looking at how the form (e.g. rhyme scheme and line endings) as well as content of Hill’s poems expresses a longing for a completion that remains unresolved in this life.

Finally, Roger Pooley (Keele) probed New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann’s assertion that “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology”, exploring both ancient apocalyptic texts, parallel with the Bible, and literary works by Yeats and Bulgakov, with Russell Hoban’s sci-fi novel Riddley Walker cited as another literary representation of post-apocalyptic hope. Roger encouraged us to be open to “everyday apocalypse”: we do not have to wait until the end of time for God’s hope-filled future to be revealed to us.

Most of the conference papers will appear in revised form in the Spring 2017 issue of the CLSG The Glass (along with several book reviews). CLSG membership is open to any
one interested in the intersection of the Christian faith with literature, within or beyond academia. We would be delighted for you to join us.

David Parry teaches English literature for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, and his research focuses on early modern / Renaissance literature.

The importance of a Christian mind (2)

Last week, I summarised the first part of a talk given by Andrew Fellows at this year’s Transforming the Mind conference. We saw that setting up faith and reason against each other is not a fruitful approach, neither for the church as a whole, nor for Christian scholars.

A second option, which attracts many Christian academics, views faith and reason as each having a separate function, with faith being the more important. To get from reason to faith, a mystical leap is needed, and the two are not integrated. For Christian academics, this may seem to solve perceived conflicts between faith and reason. It also fits well with the current culture of secularism where religion is pushed into the private realm to create a ‘naked’ public space. However, both the academy and the church need heart and mind engaged. Separation of the two leads people to experience a cognitive dissonance, and ultimately to a diminishing role for faith.

Thus we finally come to the third option, which seeks integration. On this view, there is no real conflict between faith and reason. Both function under the lordship of Christ. Our motivation for seeking the integration of faith within the life of the mind is threefold:

The life of the mind is substantiated and grounded in God the creator. God is a person and he is rational (see e.g. Ps. 92:5 and many similar passages). This is why there is a correspondence between the human mind and the rest of creation. Without this grounding, reason has no foundation, and we have no reason to trust our mental capacities to produce knowledge.

It affirms the link between Christ and creation. Christ is the ‘logos’ of creation. ‘Logos’ cannot be reduced to rationality alone, but all things do find their coherence in Christ (Col. 1:17). The Incarnation shows that there is an affinity between thinking and Christ, who created reason. Christ provides a rationale for rationality.

The life of the mind is a path to spiritual maturity (Rom. 12:1-2). If you do not engage your mind in spiritual growth, you become conformed to the pattern of this world, the futility of reason without faith. Instead, in the way of Christ we are ‘made new in the attitude of our minds’ (see Eph. 4:17-24).

I hope this helps you to understand how the life of your mind fits in with your life of faith. What a great motivation not only to seek the life of the mind, but to do this as faith-ful Christian scholars! What drives you to pursue the life of the mind? And how can you help others (fellow Christian scholars, your church family) to value the life of the mind and to overcome the separation of faith and reason?

The importance of a Christian mind (1)

A while ago I summarised a talk Andrew Fellows gave at this year’s Transforming the Mind conference. He called on us to further the purposes of Christ’s kingdom in our universities. In his second talk, Andrew focused on the relationship between faith and reason, and how this has been viewed in the church over the past 2000 years. 

Andrew FellowsWhat business does a Christian have with the knowledge enterprise? This is a question we are sometimes asked by our fellow Christians. Behind this question often lies the assumption that the academy is a secular institution, and that faith and reason are at odds with each other. However, this is a relatively recent view, going back to the Enlightenment. John Locke famously held that faith falls short of knowledge, and unfortunately, the church has often uncritically accepted this view.

In fact, there is no such divide. Many key Biblical figures, such as Moses, Daniel and Paul, were towering intellects with a first-class education. Throughout church history, God has used rationally-gifted people to achieve his purposes. Examples abound: Boethius, Augustine, Erasmus, Calvin and Luther, to name just a few. The early church father John of Damascus wrote that it is spiritual to cultivate the life of the mind. The reformers encouraged a questioning mind, not just for the elite, but for the masses. For this reason, they made the Bible available in the vernacular and contributed to the democratization of learning. One might even say that Europe is a thinking civilization because of the church.

Having said that, we do need intellectual discernment to navigate what is happening around us, especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture. There is a wide range of options in Christian thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. As I already mentioned, many Christians, as well as much of the culture around us, think that faith and reason stand in opposition against each other. Historically, this Enlightenment idea was influential in pietist movements, and it remains an undercurrent in many evangelical churches. On this view, reason is seen as weakening spiritual experience, and hence a vision of the Christian life emerges that celebrates anti-intellectualism. To be moderately anti-intellectual can seem to be taking the moral high ground, emphasizing simplicity in faith to avoid pride. Thinking is seen as a kind of ‘theology of works’: working towards our own understanding of God’s ways in the world. Instead, people say, we should leave the difficult questions to God’s sovereignty and leave space for mystery.

Three things happen as a result of this:

Knowledge is reduced to the pragmatic. Knowledge is only required when it is useful, and this is also applied more widely to the knowledge enterprise as a whole. This fits well with the new ‘epistemology of numbers’ that is more and more prevalent in academia: knowledge must yield good results, measurable outcomes, not ideas or certainty. However, ideas, like art, have intrinsic value: beauty, truth, goodness, intellectual satisfaction, delight.

Faith is reduced to the volitional. This trend has a long history, starting with William of Occam’s move from the universal to the particular, moving away from ideas. In the Reformation this trend was amplified as faith became more exclusively linked to salvation and an act of the will to accept Christ.

Faith is reduced to the affective. Feelings and personal preference become the new criterion for truth.

The problems of this view are a mental carelessness, a church that is trying to be relevant but becomes populist, and a worldly ethic – because sincerity is seen as more important than wisdom.

It seems clear that this view is not particularly helpful or productive for Christian scholars. Next week we will continue our discussion with two further options that may be more fruitful.

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? 

 

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