Thinking Faith blogs

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."

Whole-life fruitfulness

Read (Galatians 5:13-26).

This post continues our series ‘The Whole of Life for Christ.’ It follows Antony Billington and Mark Greene’s excellent book with the same name.

When we become Christians we can have an acute understanding of what it means to have the freedom that Christ has won for us. For some of us no longer do we feel that we are slaves to money, success, and self-promotion but in Christ we are free to live as we were designed to live: with Him as King. Confident and assured that we are safe with Him the one true King as Lord over all. This understanding, though, can be quickly lost and forgotten as we get caught up in the business of everyday life. Particularly in the academic work environment. But we mustn’t forget it! Why? Because seeing that we’re free to live how God Himself intended us to live makes our work life, our relationships with colleagues, and our research environment ultimately more fulfilling and satisfying.

To see this, think about your motivations for academic excellence. What is it that motivates you to get that next publication, win that research funding, write that review, or attend that conference? In order to get these things, we can, no doubt, be motivated by envy, selfish ambition and jealousy. Someone else has recently published in your area of study and is reaping the benefits. Someone else’s name appears on the top of that funding grant you applied for. In response to these events we can respond with, as Paul calls them ‘acts of the flesh’: envy, jealousy and selfish ambition etc. Now we shouldn’t be naïve: the acts of the flesh can make us get our heads down and work! But it also breeds fear, dissention and factions. It disunites and divides and it ultimately makes for a toxic research environment! Reflect for a moment on how these attitudes disunite and divide your research environment.

But we (Christians) are called not to live like this. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5:25) and keep away from the ‘acts of the flesh.’ In other words, since we’ve been set free by Christ we should live as his Spirit directs: in love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These fruits of the Spirit should be our motivations in our academic work and can be a force for real change in our universities. The question remains though, how? How do we get this fruit of the Spirit? Well, in John 15:5 Jesus tells us: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” We get this fruit by remaining in Him! When we became Christians Jesus grafted us into himself and it is in virtue of our being in Him, in virtue of Jesus’ choosing us, that we can be fruitful. This is important to remember particularly as we’re so often drawn back to a life apart from Him; living as those who are not members of Christ.

Take a moment to think about your workplace and answer the following:

In what areas of your work do you find it most difficult to display the fruit of the Spirit? Why is that? What could you do to change that? How might this change affect your work and relationships with your colleagues?

In what areas of your work have you experienced the fruit of the Spirit change your work and relationships with colleagues for the good? What fruit would you like to see cultivated even more?

Glenn Hoddle Story - Karma or Grace?

The Story

Glenn Hoddle was born in the suburbs of London in 1957. He became one of the most exciting and gifted footballers ever to play for England. In 1998 he was sacked from his job as the manager of the England team because of the following comments he made in an interview –

You have to come back to learn and face some of the things you have done, good and bad. You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.

In Italy, Rome's La Republica, below the headline, "Sacked Because of Karma," suggested that Hoddle may be the first man of the modern age to lose his job for his religious beliefs. Can you imagine a manager being sacked for being an atheist?

The Worldview

A woman living in India was asked why she wouldn’t take her baby son to the doctor. He was very ill. She replied that the illness was part of the boy’s karma and he was being punished for something he had done in a previous life. She asserted that it was the boy’s fate to suffer! Many Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma. When people suffer in this life they are being punished for deeds they have performed in previous lives.

Creative Evangelistic Spiel

"With karma you always get what you deserve, reincarnation in a rat, a shrimp or a deaf person. With Jesus you get what you don't deserve: God's love, the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life."

There are four way of looking at this story!

  • When you die you rot! (Materialist view)
  • When you die you get the afterlife you want (Relativist view)
  • When you die you come back disabled if you have bad karma (Hoddle's view)
  • When you die you are waiting for the resurrection if you love and follow Jesus. (Jesus' view, study John 6:35-59)

Whole-life wisdom

The next instalment of our look at the book ‘The whole of life for Christ’, by Antony Billington and Mark Greene, focuses on wisdom. I don’t know about you, but I am often all too aware of my need for wisdom. Whether it is a big life decision we need to make, or an immediate situation where we need to act or react, it is not always easy to know what to do. But where can wisdom be found?

The Bible contains several books that are known as ‘wisdom literature’. Of these, the book of Proverbs speaks most directly about wisdom. Right at the start we are told where wisdom can be found: ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7). And right at the end, it gives an example of a life lived wisely (Prov. 31). In a passage sometimes seen as a description of ‘the perfect wife’, we see how the wisdom that is found in the fear of the Lord (31:30) works out in practice. And that for sure is of relevance to both men and women of all walks of life!

A closer look at the passage reveals the wide range of qualities and activities that are praiseworthy in this woman’s life:

  • she can be trusted (11) and provides for those who depend on her (15, 21, 28). Her husband in particular is proud of her and benefits from having her as his wife (11-12, 23)
  • she is diligent (13-14, 18, 27)
  • she is involved in trade
  • she makes beautiful clothes and other fabric items (13, 19, 22, 24)
  • she cooks (15)
  • she is involved in agriculture (16)
  • she is generous to the poor (20)
  • she is respected in the community (25-26, 31)

As Billington and Greene point out, some of her activities are even described in words that are often used for military heroes (10, 17, 25)! They also notice that there is no mention of any religious activities. And yet she is described as ‘a woman who fears the Lord’ (30), with the implication that this fear of the Lord is expressed in all of her activities.

To most of us, the woman of Proverbs 31 is quite an intimidating example. How could we ever live up to that? Well, there is hope! As New Testament believers, we know that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). In this season of Pentecost, we give thanks that God has given us a source of His wisdom within us: His Spirit. So, ‘if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him’ (James 1:5). But notice also that God’s wisdom may not always be in line with what the world perceives to be wise: ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’, and ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men’ (1 Cor. 1:27a, 25a).

So we have seen that our ordinary lives can be lived ‘heroically’ if they are lived in the fear of the Lord. And that includes our academic lives. By His Spirit, God helps us to live wisely. If there are any areas of your academic life where you need wisdom today, ask Him to help you. Be open to His leading, even if His wisdom may seem foolishness to those who do not know Him!

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