Thinking Faith blogs

Dr Nott and the Queen

Pete Gillions told me this delightful story about Dr Nott meeting the Queeen.

For more than two decades, Dr Nott – a consultant surgeon at three major hospitals in London and a Christian – has given up several months every year to volunteer to serve in war zones amid major humanitarian crises.

He recalled meeting the Queen at a private lunch at Buckingham Palace in October 2014 a few days after returning from Alleppo in Syria. He was sat next to the Queen and she asked him about his work there. And he was so affected by what he had seen that he could not speak. He said: "I had been coping in Syria with children that were really badly damaged and she must have detected something significant.

"I didn't know what to say. It wasn't that I didn't want to speak to her – I just couldn't. I just could not say anything.

"She picked all this up and said, 'Well, shall I help you?' I thought, 'How on earth can the Queen help me?'

"All of a sudden the courtiers brought the corgis and the corgis went underneath the table."

Dr Nott said the Queen then opened a tin of biscuits and invited him to feed and stroke the dogs with her.

He added: "And so for 20 minutes during this lunch the Queen and I fed the dogs. She did it because she knew that I was so seriously traumatised. You know the humanity of what she was doing was unbelievable." The Queen broke dog biscuits to share, and in doing so she shared a loving acceptance of his brokenness.

Whole-life worship

I grew up in a Protestant church on the Continent, where we sang from the Genevan psalter (in a translation). The psalms cover a wide range of human emotions and situations, from the deepest depths to the highest heights. Of course some of the most jubilant psalms overflow with the praise of God (e.g. Ps. 150). But it is striking to see how even some of the darkest psalms tend to encourage the singer to put his trust in God, who protects us and is worthy of praise (e.g. Ps. 13, 42). The final chapter of Antony Billington and Mark Greene’s book ‘The whole of life for Christ’ focuses on praising God.

What kinds of things do you praise God for? Often we tend to praise God for the big events in our life: a friend becomes a Christian, or we get that grant that we applied for, or we finally submit our thesis. In the Bible, we often see people praising God for big things, but especially in the psalms, we also see God at work in the details of their lives. Take, for example, the ‘creation psalm’, Ps. 104.

It lists many things God does in nature, and how He takes care of us and all other living creatures. Or take Ps. 139, which lyrically describes the intimate involvement God has with our every move. Or, in the words of Jesus, ‘Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:30).

This series on ‘the whole of life for Christ’ started with a study on Col. 1:15-23, which covers the sweeping scope of God’s reconciliation of all of creation through Christ. In the psalms we discover that this grand scale of salvation is worked out in the lives of individuals. And in Rev. 4 and 5 we see several ‘psalms’ that bring the praise of all of creation to God in one great act of worship. How do you see God at work in your daily life? Do you praise him for the little things as well as the big things? For that experiment that worked this time? For the sunlight through the window? For that conference presentation that you were able to give? For the beauty of your object of study? And if you’re struggling at the moment, why not turn to one of the ‘darker’ psalms? Or join in with Habakkuk, who, in the face of terrible judgment and the threat of war and destruction prayed ‘…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.’

If you have found this series helpful as you live all of your life for Christ, why not meet up with a few other Christian postgrads and go through the studies in the book?

Whole-life hope

It’s easy to be gloomy as an aspiring academic. Will I ever finish my thesis? Will I ever get a lectureship? And even if I do, will I end up spending my entire life chasing arbitrary citation statistics and student satisfaction ratings? Will my research and teaching make a real difference? Do I have anything to look forward to?

‘We all need hope,’ say Antony Billington and Mark Greene in The Whole of Life for Christ. ‘Jesus did. After all, it wasn’t just his love for the world that helped him through his terrible sufferings on our behalf; it was because of “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). The hope of his glorious future helped him through his earthly agony’ (p. 49).

How can a biblical hope help us through the periods of academic agony?

The passage chosen for this study is 2 Peter 3:3-14. The ‘scoffers’ saw no reason to be optimistic about the future: ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ (v. 4).

What then is the antidote to this cynicism? Surprisingly, the answer is to think about God’s judgment, which ‘will bring both destruction (3:7, 10, 12) and renewal (3:13)’ (p. 51). This gives us something to look forward to, even when we think about our lives here on earth:

For what’s described is not the end of the earth itself, but the earth in its current state. Our hope is not for the annihilation of the world, but for a remade world, as God’s created order is renewed through the fire of purifying judgment. The parallel to the flood confirms this. Just as the destructive power of the flood did not completely obliterate the world, so the fire of judgment will cleanse the earth for a new beginning – ‘a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’ (3:13, p. 79).

What difference does this make for academics? I suppose that all areas of academia, in their different ways, are seeking to make the world a better place: more like the promised ‘new earth, where righteousness dwells’. Is this worth the effort, in the light of the coming judgment? Billington and Greene address the question of creation care:

If a new, better earth is coming, is there any need to take care of the current one? The argument is sometimes made that environmental action is unnecessary and possibly even a distraction from more important matters. In fact, however, if God’s plan is to renew the world, then our own efforts to preserve, recycle and live simply are in line with his designs (p. 80).

Could the same be said about your academic discipline? How do your research and teaching fit in with God’s plan to renew the world? Does this give you hope that it might be worth the effort after all?

Mafia Hitmen at Emmanuel College

I was very pleased with how the RealityBites sixth form conference went down yesterday at Emmanuel College in Gateshead. There were about 150 students from two schools present and for the first time I presented two RealityBites talks. I spoke about Celebrity Culture, Human Trafficking and Responsible Citizenship before lunch and then I delivered the Mafia, British Values and Evil talk after lunch.

I was delighted that my stories about Jimmy 'the weasel' Fratianno, Giovanni 'the pig' Brusca, Toto 'the beast' Riina and Frank Sinatra captivated their imaginations. They were paying close attention when I challenged them to tell me how much a Mafia hitman charged for a murder in 2014 (£17,500). It was even better when they listened very attentively to my outline of five ways of looking at evil and suffering:

1) Evil is caused by bad karma
2) Evil is an illusion because nothing exists
3) Evil doesn't exist because everything is just physical
4) Evil has to exist because it comes from God
5) Evil is caused by human and angelic rebellion against God

In my talk I mentioned Glenn Hoddle, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Richard Dawkins, Plotinus and CS Lewis. The questions they asked were fabulous and showed clearly how closely they had been listening.

I was particularly chuffed when one girl asked me how I understood evil. I was able to say quite a lot about the New Testament and Jesus. I even mentioned the devil and how this relates to bombers, terrorists and Mafia hitmen.

Thanks to everyone who prayed for me yesterday!

Christian life with a PhD: real knowledge?

“A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, ” goes the saying [1], “until he knows everything about nothing.”  There were times during my PhD studies when I took heart from the first part of that quip, and times when the second half seemed all too realistic.  Nine years on (I submitted on 6 July), I’m reflecting on what doors the PhD has opened to me, and I hope my reflections will be helpful to readers seeking God’s guidance for their career.  I’ll first consider how a scholarly career can be justified, then give some examples of scholarly and non-scholarly work in my own case.

Defending the scholarly life

The ambiguity of the above quip, which is also said of academics in general, resonates with the ups and downs of my PhD.  Was my real-world knowledge increasing during those months of ecological experimentation, or was it merely ‘academic’ (in the popular derogatory sense)?  Generally I sensed growing knowledge when in the company of fellow students and academics, and the fear of insignificance when I socialised elsewhere.  “Get a real job, where you can submit your invoice at the end of a good day’s work,” advised one relative!  I do think it’s a healthy concern that our studies might be so abstract as to be of little earthly value.  After all, even the most fastidious of scholars can only research a fragment of what God has made, and in theoretical terms invented by humans.  And I don’t think the offer of a grant or salary makes the job in question worthwhile in God’s eyes.

But I do think there’s a broad range of Christian arguments for work in all kinds of disciplines.  CS Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time” eloquently offers a number of robust justifications for scholarly study.  To these I would add, for the believer, the possibility of nudging one’s discipline into more fruitful directions and of being able to teach future generations of students in ways that honour the Creator.  But to be more specific, let me turn to my own story.

The Christian scholar in God’s Kingdom

In the final year of my PhD I asked an older trusted friend with similar background what path he’d advise me to follow and he said, “Go and work overseas.”  He urged me to experience a different culture so that my worldview might be challenged and my outlook broadened.  A year’s post-doctoral work in a South African university did this for me in some ways, and a year in a research institute in France did it in others.  But I’d actually begun each of these posts before the previous one had finished, so upon returning to England, I delayed job-hunting while writing up a couple of papers – and now (after one longer post-doc) I’m in a similar position again.  This mix of academic contracts and ‘freelancing’ has proven productive, if not as lucrative as a regular academic path might have been.  The main opportunity it gave me was to work for two Christian charities.  Futurekraft is a consultancy serving community-focused charities, where my data-handling expertise has enabled me to oversee community surveys and help develop and raise funds for social projects with local churches.  And Thinking Faith Network is the charity which launched FiSch, where I’ve recently found opportunities to research the ethics and philosophy of ecology with a more explicit Christian orientation.  Now I’m looking for lecturing positions that may allow me to continue pursuing some of these ideas.  I feel I’ve been working for God more than for any employer.

GraphTo the mathematician in me, there’s an assumption of eternity in the quip with which I began.  I see ‘depth of knowledge’ increasing continuously while ‘breadth of knowledge’ decays exponentially – so the latter tends to zero only as time tends to infinity…  But in case I’m taking the joke too seriously, I’ll end with a biblical expression of hope concerning communal knowing.  In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul concludes his exhortation for love to be worked out in practice with his vision that, in the end, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  And there’s no reason to qualify this as ‘spiritual’ knowing – but that’s a topic for another time.

__________

[1] An Internet search suggests multiple sources for this quote, but one that sounds authoritative is William J Mayo. The Yale Book of Quotations attributes to Mayo, via Reader’s Digest (Nov 1927): “A specialist is a man who knows more and more about less and less.”

Whole-life mission

What is the mission of the church, and, by implication, of Christian believers? And how does that mission shape our everyday lives? These are the questions that Antony Billington and Mark Greene focus our attention on in the next chapter of their book ‘The whole of life for Christ’.

Right at the start of His three-year period of ministry, Jesus calls the twelve disciples and commissions them: ‘“Come follow me”, Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men”’ (Mat. 4:19). Over the next three years, Jesus taught them, through His preaching, through building relationships with them, through sharing His life with them. After His death and resurrection, He continued to teach them, until they understood that He had to suffer and rise from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sins could be preached to all nations (Luke 24:44-46). Only then were they ready to receive what is known as ‘the Great Commission’ (Mat. 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-20).

The first thing to note about the great commission as recorded by Matthew is that it starts with Christ: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mat. 28:18). To be a disciple is not just to be converted, but to live your life under the rule of Christ. Since we have so far lived our lives under the rule of sin and Satan, this is a lifelong process of growth and transformation. Slowly we learn to obey all that He has commanded us (Mat. 28:20), realising that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mat. 11:30). We are re-created in the image of the new Adam: Christ Himself. In this process of re-creation we become part of the new humanity in Christ, commissioned with the task of bringing creation under Christ’s rule, of calling other people to submit to His reign, and to disciple them in turn.

But we do not need to do this on our own. Jesus promises that He will be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mat. 28:20). By His Spirit, He gives us wisdom, produces fruit and transforms us into His likeness.

So what does this all mean for Christians in academia? Does it mean we need to tell our colleagues about Christ and then our work is done? Of course it is important that more people submit to Christ’s rule. But our task does not end there. The converts must become disciples, learners, who grow in love and understanding. And Christ’s rule is not limited to people either – the gospel must be proclaimed to ‘every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23), and all of creation must submit to him (Col. 1:16, 20). So our research itself is part of fulfilling the Great Commission! How would your discipline look different if Jesus was recognised as the One who has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’? And how can you contribute to this transformation? Are there any students (undergraduate or postgraduate) whom you can help grow as a disciple? And is there someone (such as a more mature Christian academic, or other Christian postgraduates) whom you could approach for wisdom and encouragement?

Faith-in-Scholarship currently offers the opportunity for Christian postgraduates to receive mentoring from more experienced Christian academics. If you are a postgraduate and interested in forming such a mentoring relationship with someone in your field, do get in touch with us and we will try to put you in touch with someone who can help you be a faithful follower of Christ in your area of study.

Flies, bluebottles and Jesus

Have you ever thought about flies? They can ruin a picknic without trying very hard. Ponder how different religions and philosophies look at these irritating insects. The Egyptians worshipped them as gods. Plato said flies are just prisons for badly behaved souls? Materialists contend that flies are just items for sale? (£1 per item) Do you know what Scripture tells us about them? The book of Colossians tells us that bluebottles were made by and for Jesus? Jesus is Lord of all… even bluebottles.

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Culture, Pluralistic Knowing, and Mutual Understanding

A guest post from Richard Vytniorgu.

‘Culture’ is a notoriously difficult word. For some it refers to art galleries and piano concerts; for others it refers to something faintly bacterial; while for others still it refers to the entire realm of human activity and life. Broadly speaking, in the arts and humanities, culture seems to refer to specific elements of human existence: processes of personal and social development and transformation; aesthetic experience; and basically, the institutional outworkings of everything that concerns the ‘growth’ (or lack thereof) of the individual in his or her society.

Culture, then, has an intimate relationship to knowledge, to an understanding of social codes and conventions, lively engagement with the arts, and the development of critical abilities. The twentieth century witnessed a sea-change in the way philosophers understood knowing. No longer was the individual a separate, impartial entity interacting with the stimulus of the world, after the manner of Descartes. Instead, she became a ‘personal knower’ (Polanyi), whose observational activity profoundly affected the nature of what was observed (Einstein). The knower and the known were inter-fused (Dewey and Bentley).

Not only is this a more honest description of how human beings know, it is also extremely liberating. There are certain implications if we understand that knowing is an embodied, partial, and transformational experience.

Firstly, as researchers, we must be very careful about how we present our own activity to others, as professional ‘knowers’. Are we affirming a personal, incarnate model of knowledge, or do we hold ourselves aloof from the interface between ourselves and our subject? The revised notion of knowing is not initially intuitive, and many will continue assuming that their understanding of a given issue is unaffected by themselves as human agents in the world. Their prejudices, blind spots, and vested interests may remain veiled to them, and such talk may threaten what they wish to do with this so-called knowledge after they have lodged it safely in their minds. We want to help as best we can those who are not professional knowers.

Secondly, an exploration of personal modes of knowing eventually brings us to a gap, an absence which can only be filled by listening in humility to others, and revising our own understanding of things in light of their experiences, insights, opinions, recognising of course that other people are also limited in their apprehension of life. We all see through a glass darkly.

I have recently been travelling in the corner of the world I originally came from, and sitting in Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Eastern Europe, I feel touched by witnessing an expression of Christian faith alien to my now Western, Protestantised eyes. Office men in L’viv come into church at lunchtime and sign themselves with the cross, bowing on the ground, kissing icons. Having read more about Orthodoxy – my baptised expression of faith – for these Ukrainians faith is a physical, habitual performance that helps to make them daily aware of God’s merciful, immanent, and passionate yearning in their lives.

The logical path from personal knowing to cultural growth runs via the defence and architecture of a pluralistic society. Pluralism (Kallen) is the way in which individuals of difference create a society together in which everyone can reach forth most fully toward life. Orthodox theology would frame this as the drive toward life in God and with others rather than death, mastery, alienation, and deconstruction (Louth). Christ has brought life in the medium of the Kingdom of God (Wright). Unless I reckon with the full force of the epistemological shift: from Descartes to Einstein and Dewey, I will be locked in a redundant model of knowing that excuses me from having to listen to and learn from others.

At a time when Britain seems to be verging on the hysterical regarding European immigrants, it seems crucial that as Christian thinkers we ponder again our epistemologies, conscious that much English Christian thought is built upon historic epistemological foundations long discredited outside the (especially Evangelical) church – discredited not least because they tempt us toward isolationism, oppression, and exclusion. What will it mean for us to entertain a pluralistic way of knowing for building up an exhilarating culture, bejewelled with virtues of humility, love, and attachment? We may see through a glass darkly, but new light from others, wherever they are from, will help to patch our knowing into an exquisite, creational mosaic.

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com .

Whole-life purpose

Cityscape

This post is the next in our series ‘The Whole of (Academic) Life for Christ’, looking at Andrew Billington and Mark Greene’s thought-provoking collection of Bible studies.

The question of purpose is a pressing one in academia. Many who spend their hours working in universities around the world find themselves torn between an ideal (or perhaps a dream or fantasy) and reality. On the one hand, there is the ideal of the academic as someone whose work is both satisfying and meaningful – someone whose thoughtful contributions to the sum of human knowledge help society to flourish. On the other, there’s a reality that is often characterised by frustration, stress or exhaustion. For Christians in this environment, the added desire to make our lives count for God’s kingdom purposes can make this mismatch seem even more overwhelming.

Jeremiah 29, written to the exiles in Babylon in around 600 BC, addresses a group of people whose situation must have seemed far worse. They were hundreds of miles from their homeland, stuck amongst a nation whose cultural and religious practices must have engendered severe culture shock and even revulsion. They would have wanted nothing more than just to go back home; surely God wouldn’t leave them in exile more than a year or two? Surely he couldn’t want them to put down roots here, in this land, to compromise their purity by contributing to the society around them? It’s no surprise that there were so many (false) prophets among them making just this line of argument.

But Jeremiah’s letter says exactly the opposite! This is their home now; they are to settle down here, and to devote their hands and their prayers to the well-being of their adopted city. It’s in this context that we find God’s famous reassurance (probably the most-quoted passage in Jeremiah) that he has ‘plans to prosper and not to harm’ his people (29:11). Far from being a get-out clause from engaging with the world around them, this promise is a reassurance that God knows what he’s doing by leaving them in Babylon for now. It gives them the impetus they need to live in this new place as active citizens, not reluctant captives.

There’s much food for thought here as we reflect on our purpose as Christian academics. I’ll select just two things to chew on:

  • God’s plans are not just for Christians. The growth of God’s kingdom is not accomplished through Christian empires or enclaves; instead, he scatters his people like salt across the world, calling them to enrich and add flavour to the communities around them. This means engaging wholeheartedly with our environment. If the exiles had listened to the false prophets, they would have forfeited the opportunity to be God’s ambassadors to the Babylonians – and the book of Daniel shows just how powerfully God used them when they were willing to engage. Serving God in academia isn’t accomplished just by creating Christian universities (although those can of course have value), nor by sticking to theology or theologically ‘safe’ subjects. Sometimes we are called to be God’s witnesses in places we would not necessarily choose for ourselves!
  • We are bringers of peace. The exiles are instructed to seek ‘the peace and prosperity’ of Babylon: this translates the single Hebrew word shalom, which encompasses a rich communal and spiritual dimension that the English cannot convey. Even though they’ve been sent to Babylon as punishment, God wants to use them there for blessing. So their contribution is to be spiritual and relational, not just practical – that’s why they are instructed to pray for Babylon, their enemy, a concept which must have seemed repulsive at the time. As for us, we have the wonderful promise that Jesus himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14); however uncomfortable aspects of academic culture might seem to us sometimes, God wants to use us to bring his shalom here.

Buried Alive for 147 days! His mum, Emma inspired him!

In 1998 Geoff Smith spent 147 days buried in a coffin six feet under a pub garden in Mansfield reclaiming a world record set by his mother, Emma, thirty years earlier. Food, water and human waste were transported through a plastic tube!

There are three ways of looking at this story.

1) "Geoff – you are a nutter. You could have supped foaming pints of real ale in the pub garden like any normal person. Don't bury yourself alive."
2) "Geoff – You are an incredible bloke. You have been true to yourself. Burying yourself alive rocks! Your mum would be so proud of you."
3) "Geoff – There is absolutely no point burying yourself alive in a pub garden setting. Jesus died, was buried and came back from the grave after three days. Focus on that good news and not on getting your name into the Guinness book of records."

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