FiSch blog

The idea of a Christian university

university graphic

Christians hold a wide range of views about what kinds of Christian organisation should be created.  At one extreme, the Church is seen as the primary or even the only Christian organisation, its ordained leaders merely lending their authority to a limited range of other Christian initiatives - which thus have a denominational character (at least if you're Protestant) and fall under clerical control. Perhaps a next step is to allow for independent initiatives like Christian unions, workplace fellowships and theological colleges directed by laypeople. But it's quite a lot further along the spectrum that we find autonomous Christian schools, colleges and universities, in which a broad curriculum is available for study. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions have these - yet in the U.K. they are surprisingly rare and, in some circles, controversial.

I'm part of a working group looking at the idea of a Christian research institute for the U.K. - as part of the broader vision of a Christian university for the U.K. This is an idea close to the heart of Faith-in-Scholarship's parent organisation, Thinking Faith Network - which was founded in 1986 as the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies. So we're going to have a number of posts looking at the idea of a Christian university - starting with this one.

What's the idea of a Christian university?  My boldest answer would be that it's simply the ideal of the university. "University" comes from Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which meant a community of teachers and scholars: the "universitas" bit seems to refer to the unity of a group devoted to a common aim - implicitly that of building and sharing knowledge and understanding. And the term was initially used in European cultures pervaded by Christian worldviews where the object and guarantee of all knowledge was the order of God's creation itself, elucidated by the Christian Scriptures. Indeed a quick survey of university mottos suggests that in the British Isles, most of the earliest universities had biblical mottos ("Dominus illuminatio mea", "Via, Veritas, Vita", "Initium sapientiae timor domini", etc). If we also endorse more modern mottos such as "all truth is God's truth" and "He shines in all that's fair" and the notion of the common good, we might hold that a Christian university is ideally everything a university should be. And perhaps some of today's universities that don't label themselves Christian are not so far from that ideal. Indeed, there are a number in the U.K. that retain reference to Christian foundations: some members of the so-called Cathedrals Group of universities do so somewhere in a "mission and values" page deep within their website, while Liverpool Hope University more boldly claims to be "Europe's only ecumenical university" (referring to its joint Catholic and Anglican elements).

So why seek to establish anything else?  Let me intimate an answer - together with a critique of our university sector as I currently see it - by suggesting three ways in which a Christian university would ideally not turn out. First, it would not be run as a business. While it should seek financial sustainability, a mission of seeking and inculcating wisdom beginning from the fear of Yahweh would be the guiding consideration.  Second, it would not be a collection of academic departments unified principally by their adminstration. Interdisciplinarity would be promoted via a focus on a Christian philosophy articulating the coherence of all academic disciplines and through an emphasis on cross-disciplinary communication. (Joint honours degrees would not come from the widespread pick-and-mix approach: integrative modules would be required.)  Third, it would not give special status to theologians, nor burden chaplains or clergy with the requirement to uphold its Christian character. While theological study would be encouraged for all faculty and students and a good chaplaincy would no doubt be an asset, all faculty would be expected to give some account of their work within a Christian worldview framework.  A corollary to all this is that faculty would be appointed on the strength of their ability to relate their academic work to a Christian framework and philosophy, broadly defined. 

A final point needs to be made: that no such selection criteria would be applied to students. One of the most striking things about my visit to a L'Abri centre was how there was no questioning of the faith or morals of students like myself who turned up to study there. We had already selected ourselves, and the community we joined was permeated by Christian orthodoxy and liturgy to such a degree that the experience was transformational.

There is lots more to say, of course, and for me personally to work out. That's why this is just a first post on the topic - and why the Christian university project must be born out of a deep fellowship. 

Critical engagement and academic citizenship

Image 'Citizenship' by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

For the next in our series of posts on skills for Christian academics, I wanted to revisit one aspect of last week's excellent post by Will Allchorn on 'engaging in debate and controversy'. Will presented Dr Andrew Basden's LACE framework for Christians engaging in academic debates – Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich. The emphasis this places on a necessary balance of affirmation and critique – which together engender an attitude of encouragement and community rather than competitiveness – reminded me of an experience from the early days of my own academic apprenticeship. It's rather embarrassing for me to bring it up again now, since it doesn't paint me in a good light, but it taught me a very important lesson about Christian scholarship, so I thought it might be worth sharing with you!

It all began when I was in the process of writing my MA dissertation. Having thrown myself into close reading, I'd quickly discovered that there were only two or three other scholars writing about my chosen topic (not a particularly unusual situation in the study of contemporary music, it must be said). Much of the teaching I'd received regarding research over the previous years had stressed the importance of a critical approach to all existing scholarship, and certainly I'd lapped up the idea that I could make a contribution just as valuable as others who'd been working in an area much longer than I; so with all this in mind, and seeing an opportunity to make an original contribution, I set to work on these existing sources. In order to carve a space for my own interpretations, I took every opportunity to point out holes in the reasoning of the other texts I'd read, to undermine aspects I found unconvincing, and to underline the ways in which my viewpoint was so much more substantive, so much more cohesive. Throughout this it never really occurred to me to think of the authors of these texts as people with lives of their own; they were ciphers, meaningful primarily for the source-material they provided for my own intellectual display.

A year or so later, I had the privilege of meeting one of these scholars at a conference. And it was a privilege! When they heard about my interest in their area of research, they absolutely bent over backwards to help me out – sending me useful documents, arranging for me to attend relevant study days, inviting me to participate in a conference that they organised subsequently. It's no exaggeration to say that I owe some of the most formative experiences of my PhD to them. When I look back on the way I handled their own ideas in my MA work, I am heartily embarrassed. (I'm also extremely relieved that I didn't seek publication for that work, and thus they can't have read it!) It's clear to me now that I had barely even begun to think then about what it might mean for my academic work to think of myself as a Christian scholar; after all, I'd fallen at the first hurdle, that of doing to others what I would have them do to me (Matthew 7:12).

What this brought home to me was the constant need for all acts of critical challenge to be grounded in a broader vision of responsible academic citizenship. I thought the academic life was all about an impersonal quest for originality; but focussing instead on the academy as a living community – with its concomitant demands of encouragement, support and generosity – opens up a much richer and more welcoming concept of scholarly activity, and one which is much more in line with our calling as Christian scholars. I want to explore this concept of academic citizenship further in a future post, but for now I'd invite others' comments on their own experiences of this area: do you have any examples of academics acting as generous and responsible citizens (perhaps even as they respond critically to some of your ideas)?


How to engage in debate and controversy

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil." 1 Peter 3: 15-17 (ESV)

Sometimes it’s hard to bite one’s lip in academic discussion. With entrenched and often deeply divisive positions pitted on either side, it is easy for Christians to get caught up in the proverbial mudslinging that all too often we see meted out by our colleagues and fellow students. In Peter’s letter to persecuted churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, however, he calls us to make our defence with gentleness and respect. How do we do this as Christians in an academic context?

One useful approach is put forward by Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at Salford University, Dr Andrew Basden. It's called the LACE approach. This dead-easy-to-understand acronym involves four imperatives to help Christians to engage in literary and academic debates that can allow us to have the ‘good conscience’ that Peter talks about.

The first letter of the acronym elicits the most important imperative: listen. We must be attentive to what others around us have to say about a particular scientific, economic, social or political problem and be prepared to understand the case that they are making. This involves understanding the ground-motives, assumptions and worldview that form it so that we arrive at a full appreciation of their position.

The next action is to affirm what is good and crucial about what they are saying. We must be prepared to seek out the positive aspects of someone's theory, study or piece of research such that we feel sympathy and empathy for their position. This involves focusing on things like originality, significance and rigour. How can we encourage our colleagues and thus inspire them on to Christ-worthy good works?

The third imperative in the LACE approach is critique. In my experience, this comes all too easily in academic discussion. Indeed, we are trained in critical thinking from the time we start at university right to the end of our careers. But 'critique' here does not mean criticism for criticism’s sake but to point out any deficiencies in an approach that might be holding it back from making a great (or better) paper, presentation or argument. Is there something they’ve missed or were not aware of, or an impediment that might need addressing?

The final letter of the LACE approach calls us to enrich. This involves suggesting how you yourself or they can improve on the work such that it is of greater standing and potential. As with Peter’s injunction in verse 3 above, we should not do this from a haughty position but with gentleness and respect. We should put in the time and hard work to help a fellow human being. Creative thinking may be required!

In sum, then, Peter’s letter is quite prophetic for Christians in the secular university of today. And by using the LACE approach, we can hope to emulate the gentleness and respect that he was calling the persecuted church at that time to exercise. I heartily advise anyone reading this post to try Professor Basden’s approach out.  You never know: it might even get you your next co-authored paper!

Will Allchorn leads the Leeds Postgraduate Christian Fellowship and recently completed his PhD in political science at the University of Leeds, where he now has teaching responsibilities. You can read his previous post here.


A Case for the Humanities

Georgina Prineppi considers how God may value our research in the arts and social sciences.

As a music historian, I cringe whenever a new acquaintance asks me what I ‘do’:  my answer is invariably greeted with a somewhat quizzical expression, and often a barrage of follow-up questions about why studying the history of music would be a valuable use of one’s time. As a Christian, how do I answer?

Christians understand work within God’s design and plan for his people; as such, we have ideas about the purpose of our work beyond simply a means by which we meet our rent and Netflix subscriptions. From my own reading around the subject, I have found that a ‘theology of work’ usually encompasses the following tenets: 1) all honest, honourable work is valuable to God, however humble; 2) we should use the gifts God has given us to the best of our abilities; and 3) our work should be integrated into our primary vocation as redemptive ‘salt and light’ in the world, constructively benefitting society and furthering the Kingdom. Integrating these truths can be difficult, however, and as with everything in the Christian life, doing so takes prayer and wisdom.

How does my work fit into these theological truths? Scholarship of every description is, to some degree, esoteric, but I’m afraid the humanities have been particularly vulnerable to criticism for being irrelevant. It is easy to assume that ‘advancements’ in technology, medicine, law, or education must be valuable and God-honouring because they are ‘useful’—though of course that this isn’t always the case—but what do we say about the humanities? Does the world really need a dissertation on British popular song in the nineteenth century? As a Christian, can I defend my chosen ‘work’?

I would argue that Christians are uniquely equipped to defend work in the humanities—and are indeed called to it. We live in a utilitarian world that sees little inherent value in anything: traditions, morality, truth, beauty—in a relative world, all of these issues are up for debate. Unlike our deconstructionist counterparts in the academy, Christians are able to look at the humanities with the assumption that there can be something that is objectively beautiful—objectively true—because we believe that humanity is the reflection of something that is wholly beautiful and wholly true. This is where, for us, humanity’s indelible value rests. It would be a fallacy to think that studying the humanities requires—or leads to—a humanist worldview. Humanity has proven itself to be depraved and unflinchingly cruel: in light of our own personal brokenness, studying humanity’s history is like rubbing salt in a wound. But as a Christian, I am free to see beauty in brokenness, I am free to see inherent value in humanity despite its scars and self-mutilation because I have some little idea of what it was supposed to look like. If I were a humanist, I would find the humanities unbearably depressing; as it is, I study music not because I am in awe of humanity, but because I am in awe of the Creator humanity’s music reflects.

As Christians, I feel that we often put too much emphasis on No. 2 in the list above: the productivity or usefulness of our work. An accountant would never be asked ‘why do you think accountancy is a valuable use of your time?’ because professions don’t receive questioning on their philosophical or theological worth—even when they are abstract and repetitive—if they have clear function. But God isn’t a God of boring utility: He is the Definition of beauty, the unfathomable Inventor, the prolific Creator, the reckless Lover. As a humanities scholar, I believe that music is worthy of creation and study because it reflects Him—his extravagant and indescribable beauty. Like theologians and missionaries, I can glorify His name by making known the works of His hands and magnifying his name in my workplace. Like Eric Liddell, I was given specific talents, and when I write an insightful paper on the beauty of music, ‘I feel his pleasure’!

God put a very high price on this humanity of ours, and as a Christian scholar, I anxiously await the day when its mangled form is redeemed and restored.

Georgina Prineppi is a doctoral student at Oxford studying popular music in Britain. She calls the Bahamas home. 

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective

In the first of our occasional series of perspectives on the creation/evolution controversy, Abigail Motley reflects on the growing harmony between her faith and her ecological research.

'Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.' Undergraduate biology lecturers love referring to this quote, the title of an essay written by Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Personally, I am always moved that it was proposed by a Christian.

I am an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, studying for a DPhil in Oxford. I’m also a Christian. I have loved nature for as long as I can remember (as a child, my bedroom was littered with jars of creepy crawlies, collections of sea shells, and I saw no reason why the family guinea pigs couldn’t take part in my annual nativity plays). Growing up, I saw my passion for the natural world as a gift God had given me to try and address the exploitative behaviour of humanity towards the life on earth. However, as I plunged deeper into my Oxford biology degree, I increasingly felt like I had to choose between biology and faith. For some time, I chose biology.

By God’s grace, in the last year I accepted Jesus and moved to the evangelical Protestant tradition. In doing so, I have been astounded by the distrust and even animosity with which my discipline is received amongst some evangelical Christians. Concomitantly, I am still confronted by the staunch atheism of some scientists, including colleagues. Often when teaching biology undergraduates, I hear the argument “evolution helped us disprove there was a creator” (they’re always slightly taken aback when I challenge them on this!). Despite this, I believe God has placed me in this position for a reason.

However, I am not always strong in this conviction. Am I just blindly ignoring what God teaches us in the Bible and rebelling against Him? Something I have found incredibly helpful is Dennis Alexander's suggestion of looking at creation through two lenses: God’s Word and God’s Works. Science should never be superimposed upon the Bible. Doing so risks concocting “God of the Gaps” arguments that may become nullified as science progresses. The Bible teaches us theology and how we should treat other human beings and God’s creation. Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not give scientific details about the makings of the universe. However, God gifted Homo sapiens unique abilities – consciousness, free will, moral law, and language – that allow us to know Him and, through cumulative advances, understand his creation through science.

In a recent conversation with Dr Bethany Sollereder, a specialist in the theology of evolution and suffering, I came to realise that even young earth creationists will accept certain scientific views. She pointed out that many creationists will accept heliocentricity, that the earth and planets orbit around the Sun, and yet this is not the picture by which Genesis is written. Accepting heliocentricity means accepting a scientific theory to explain God’s creation.

I find this incredibly reassuring. Some in the church were (understandably) hostile when Galileo proposed heliocentricity, and yet now it is widely accepted. When Darwin published the Origin of Species, much of the clergy in the Church of England eagerly accepted his theory of natural selection. They recognised that science does not have to undermine faith, but rather, can truly enhance it. What greater privilege is there than understanding just a small part of our Creator’s great works in all their glory?

Granted, there is still debate in biology as to the exact nature of evolutionary theory. Certain parts of On the Origin of Species are incorrect (as are certain parts of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene). Biology is an intrinsically uncertain science, simply because ecological and evolutionary systems are so complex. However, the nature of science is such that a theory can’t garner such strong academic support unless there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific data behind it. Dobzhansky was right: evolution is currently our only credible explanation for the sheer diversity of life on earth.

A knowledge of biology has deepened my faith in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible. God is not absent from science – He is at the centre of it. Evolution is a natural process that, along with all natural processes, was created by Him. Studying just a tiny part of that creation is an incredible privilege that I give thanks for every day.

 Abigail Motley is a DPhil student in Plant Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oxford. She is a regular member of St Ebbe's Church and on the 2017-18 cohort of Christians in Academia

Listening when others won't

Mark Surey writes on the importance of listening:

I have seldom met a scholar who is not fascinated by and excited about his or her field of study. That level of interest, combined with the God-given capacity to contribute, to a large extent forms the basis for a call to scholarship. It really helps if we both want and are able to do something.

Then, as well as a desire to research the field, there is also a desire to teach it. A scholar who is fascinated by their field wants both to acquire knowledge about it (research) and to find an opportunity to transmit knowledge to those who want to hear and/or learn (teaching). So if either is blocked, there is frustration - although the nerdy among us may develop contentment with specializing in research, and the ideologically obsessive likewise with teaching!

In general we want to be listened to, and to have a responsive forum for what we want to communicate to others about our field of study. And it's annoying when our hearers don't seem to really listen - whether it's apathetic undergraduates, unresponsive peer reviewers, or even that yawning boy in Sunday school. Why do they not understand the significance, or indeed the actual content, of my pearls of wisdom? What is wrong with them? Should I repeat what I have already said? Say it louder? Perhaps I'll say it slower so that they can get it more easily? Maybe go back to the basics again, so that they have all my assumptions? But this risks boring them further, if they can't or won't listen to you, because what you say is either detached from their previous experience, or seems irrelevant to their life or interests.

I am sure this is a common experience for us all. So how do we go forward?

Basically, before we want other people to listen to us, we must be willing and able to listen to them. And that listening has to be active. I have met so many Christian scholars who have had to adjust to either a class that does not understand their material (although they ought to be able to), or a rejected research proposal which was put forward optimistically, or simply uninterested colleagues. And their stance has been not exactly subtle: YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS! But the louder the shout, the greater the switch-off.

We simply need to listen to others before we expect them to listen to us. This is so simple but not always easy. Why is it hard? Simply because our starting position is our obsession with our own research and teaching. We get it - so why don't they?

Not because there is something wrong with them - but because they are not us. Each of us has specific and different things which matter to us in particular, and this is valuable. 

Therefore, maybe I should listen to what matters to them before I expect them to listen to me.  Experience shows that this actually works. Think about your own life: after someone has listened to you, are you then more inclined to listen to them?  As Christians, we are called to a counter-cultural unselfishness.  And aren't we supposed to share material, to expand teaching and research as scholars?

I should listen to the experience and worldview of my hearer, before I expect them to listen to mine. This is so important in funding applications and impact statements. To be successful, you need to see your material not from your perspective but theirs! They are primarily giving to you, not you to them, so let's not be arrogant!

My experience is that teachers and researchers who can step sideways and look at their work through the eyes of outsiders, actively listen, and start looking at their insight through the eyes of others, are the ones who manage to communicate the significance of what matters in their scholarship. The class listens. The funding comes. The peers review.

Dr Mark Surey is Travelling Secretary for the Christian Academic Network. You can read a previous post by him here.


Pride and peer review: taking criticism as an academic skill

We’re aiming to write about various academic skills on FiSch over the next few months. Aside from the narrow, subject-specific skills we all acquire in our fields – from paleography to coding to titration – there are many more general skills academics need to thrive in our work, and through which Christians have the larger goal of serving our Lord as well as those around us.

Bruno Medeiros has provided several helpful posts on the skill of listening, and the skill I want to talk about is related: taking criticism. This is something I am not very good at, so I won’t be offering specific recommendations! But I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the processes of criticism in academic contexts and how we as Christian academics can respond in ways which are godly and productive.

I’m still a graduate student, and so feedback and (usually constructive!) criticism are an important part of my current academic life. My experiences so far have often reminded me how poor I am at responding well to criticism, however. One example of this (which still stings) was the written feedback on my MPhil thesis: while it had several positive points, the assessor questioned my command of the language of the text I’d analysed and suggested I was using the translation as a crutch. I found this incredibly frustrating and it played on my mind for weeks. Perhaps you can relate to the resentment even a small piece of criticism can provoke.

I had to come to terms with the pride at the root of my frustration: I was overprotective of my work to the extent I found it difficult to admit any flaw in it. But my pride wasn’t productive – it wouldn’t help me move from my finished and definitely flawed Masters project to more ambitious, complicated doctoral work. What’s more, if I couldn’t take on board the criticism of this specific piece of work, then how would I work with a supervisor whose job is to critique and improve my thinking, much less benefit from the long process of transfer, confirmation, and defence of my DPhil?

The Bible obviously doesn’t have anything specific to say about academic evaluations, peer review, or supervisory relationships – but pride is a recurring theme in Scripture, and it’s very often pride which prevents us benefiting from the processes of criticism which make academic work better. Ecclesiastes instructs, ‘Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools’, and James that ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’. For me, this cuts right to the heart of the proud, resentful anger I can be tempted to feel when my work is criticised. Proverbs reminds us that ‘wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’. Things which are hard to hear often benefit us if we accept them, while an academic who never hears anything but flattery will inevitably become the most unbearable of colleagues!

There’s a lot more that could be said on this subject: how do we respond if criticism is unjustified or overly personal? How should we think about the systemic biases of university cultures, which often tip the balance of critical feedback more heavily in the direction of certain types of people?

I haven’t got the space here to discuss all these complexities. In these areas of academic life, as in all of life, however, our example must be Christ: who ‘emptied himself… and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. Jesus’s profound humility throws our academic pride into sharp relief. Let’s pray for the grace to reflect it a little more each time criticism comes our way.


Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

Some people might think the very first topic for a "faith in scholarship" blog to address would be the notorious controversy around evolutionary origins for living organisms and especially for human beings.  But this blog has run for nearly four years without the word "evolution" appearing at all*!  To some extent this is deliberate.  We wanted to show how a Christian perspective can shed light on all areas of research in arts and sciences, while steering clear of what is all too often a flashpoint where Christians fail to understand each other.

But the time has come to touch that tricky topic!  We're planning some occasional posts around this issue with the aim of garnering insights and ideas for other areas of scholarship as well as biology.  Now, there is of course a broad scientific consensus that the paradigm of evolution by natural selection provides an adequate scientific explanation for the origins of all kinds of living organisms from a common ancestor.  Among Christians and Muslims, however, there are small communities of researchers working with opposing paradigms consistent with Special Creation (divine creative acts for different kinds of organisms) and in some cases a young earth (<10,000 years old), and indeed there are also scientists not professing religious faith who are skeptical of the consensus paradigm. We should also note that, while most research biologists can readily situate their work within an evolutionary framework, very few actively study historic or contemporary processes of evolution themselves.  That's the sense in which evolution may be called a research paradigm.

What have I to say here?  I'm an ecologist trained in biology, and a committed Christian since childhood, so I've had plenty of time to reflect - and my conclusion may surprise you!

While many Christians holding to the scientific mainstream position clearly find it embarrassing that so many fellow-believers - with trained scientists among them - might reject it, and these in turn may be ashamed of the first group, I personally see this stark situation as a fantastic educational opportunity.  An opportunity, that is, to learn about the rationales behind divergent views and seek to understand how intelligent, faithful fellow-believers come to hold them.  And if you don't believe there's sophisticated, convincing reasoning in the minority view, you need to read more**!  After all, next Sunday I might sit down in church next to someone who believes the age of life on Earth to be a factor of half a million different from what I believe.  This phenomenon has inspired many surveys and studies, but it's also a great challenge - indeed, it's probably the main reason I began studying history and philosophy of science.

The next thing to point out is that there's a lot more than two contrasting paradigms out there.  Alongside the mainstream biological consensus (which is itself evolving!) and a contrasting view where all kinds of organisms were created within four days or so (I hope you've read Genesis 1 recently?) some 6,000 years ago (if you've analysed Genesis through Chronicles in the right way!), there are other non-consensus views concerning timescales and mechanisms, many of which attempt to reduce the apparent gulf between the extreme views.  Then of course there is plenty of divergence within the biological consensus concerning histories and mechanisms of evolution. 

That last area is particularly interesting to me.  The tradition from which FiSch comes doesn't find "supernatural" a helpful category for thinking about God's work (more of that in another post), so I want to look christianly at theories that are fully biological.  And some theoretical emphases may be more plausible within a Christian philosophy than others - especially if they avoid reductionisms.  For example, Danie Strauss has argued that Darwin's theory itself is too physicalistic to explain biotic evolution, and Uko Zylstra suggests that the Intelligent Design movement points beyond itself to the need for biotic laws.  Simon Conway Morris sees some kind of physiological laws in the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, and Robert Ulanowicz advances a model where self-organising processes are the foundation of biological diversity.

I'd go so far as to suggest that in the evolution controversy, God calls His people (1) to learn how to appreciate rationales very different from our own, and (2) to recognise the role of faith in the development of scientific ideas.  That is, we must be able to overcome scientific dogma; after all, if the majority were always correct, science would have no history.  If we read the forthcoming posts with such an attitude, I trust they will yield much fruit.


*except in reference to the journal "Trends in Ecology & Evolution".

**The most helpful book I've found for appreciating diverse positions on evolution is "Mapping the Origins Debate" by Gerald Rau (IVP, 2012).

A Christian philosophy of science

Diagram of "particulars" (and classes of particulars) in diverse "relations" over "time"

For the key to the icons, see this post.

We're beginning a series exploring the outlines of a Christian philosophy of the sciences. Not, I hasten to add, the Christian Philosophy of Science (as I know there's a tendency for the tag "Christian" to evoke a sense of dogma!).  Rather, I want to develop, aided by some guest bloggers and hopefully lots of comments and feedback from readers, a philosophical framework that could provide insights into what the sciences are, where they come from, and how we who are scientists can better go about our research.  This series is also written with an eye to the next phase of Church Scientific.

Here I pick up from the Triune view of reality articulated by Jeremy Ive that I described last year, with input from Hendrik Hart's "Understanding Our World" and the writings of Danie Strauss - although it is of course my own interpretation.  Suppose we accept that the created world of our experience can be summarised as "things in relation over time": how does scientific thinking apply?

Our starting point is that scientific thinking does not concern the uniqueness of things so much as classes, properties and behaviours that can be observed across multiple individuals or situations (universals).  In French, scientific knowing is generally savoir, not connaître, distinguishing knowing about generalities (or that something pertains) from knowing particulars (like people, pets and places). In English the distinction is simply between intransitive vs. transitive verb forms, but the contrast remains.  If I asked a zoologist friend, "How well do you know the alligator?", I'd probably be asking about a particular alligator - unless I were using an old-fashioned idiom whereby species are taken as particulars (echoes of platonic realism... of which more later!).  My zoologist friend's professional interest would be in knowing about alligators in general: how they live. Or if we turn to the Bible for a moment, we may note that while most of the canonical material is about particular people, places and events (though not pets), the wisdom literature (e.g. Job, as magnificently explored by Tom McLeish) dwells extensively on generalities and might be seen as proto-scientific.

Many scientific fields have their origins in taxonomy: describing and classifying types of rocks and stars, species of organisms and diseases, personality types, family structures, etc. And thus the sciences proliferate concepts for types of particular things within a certain domain of interest. Developing sciences then take increasing interest in assessing temporal processes and interactive relationships: sedimentation, gravitation, reproduction, infection, development and geographical prevalence, for example - mostly using quantifiable variables.  This is not metaphysics; rather these characteristically scientific interests concern conceptual abstraction. And modally-specific abstraction is perhaps the best single characteristic of "science".  

But for all the celebration of science as a source of empirical knowledge, the empirical basis of abstraction is rather obscure.  How do we come to see that this truffle and that truffle are both truffles, or to classify rocks - despite the fact that every single specimen is unique?  Biologists may fall back on the biological species concept - but this is more of an ideal than a useful tool.  If we seek refuge in nominalism and pretend we just made up the types for convenience, then the taxonomic elements of our sciences lose their appeal.  But just as problematic is the abstraction of variables relevant to scientific processes and relationships - like mass, temperature, lifespan, fecundity and relatedness.  How do scientists form these concepts and then discover theoretical relationships and formulate laws - merely from unique data?  We'll return to the problems of inference another time, but it's hard to deny that scientific knowledge is a strange kind of empirical description of invisible​ kinds and nonexistent variables: abstract projections of our experience that open up windows into another realm of reality.

This brings us to the diagram above. The particular things we directly experience (the white shapes) provide the "hard" data for scientific reasoning, and subjects for scientific prediction, but the abstract kinds (white patches) and diverse relations (the rainbow aura) are perceived in a different way.  Hart describes them as conditions and laws. As such, he says that they are real but do not exist; instead they "apply" or "hold". Turning again to the Bible (especially the Psalms), this also seems to be the sense in which God's word is real without being a creature. And here lies a key reason why this framework has a particular claim to being Christian.

For now, lots of intriguing questions could arise - e.g.:

  • How do scientists actually relate data (particulars) to theory (abstract generalities)?
  • Can a study of star constellations be scientific?
  • Does history count as a social science, or is it just about unique particulars?
  • Can theology be the science of God?
  • "Word of God" actually has several meanings - how do they relate to science?

These must be addressed in future posts in this series, which we plan to resume in the new year. 

Listening in relationship

“He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …”

Mark 4.2

“Give ear and hear my voice, Listen and hear my words.”

Isaiah 28.23

The third part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In my previous post I noted how Jesus’ disciples responded to the parable of the sower by being both imaginative and studious, and suggested that these are vital principles for Christian scholars.  In this post I look at a second principle that we can learn from these disciples’ approach to learning and listening.

Before looking at this principle, we should acknowledge that we are not naturally good listeners! Listening is not an easy task, and involves a deep commitment to people, communities, and the social spaces around us. As academics, the focus of our work is often narrow and intense, and we run the risk of becoming oblivious to the problems around us (especially if we are writing a thesis!) and fail to be sensitive to God’s callings to ‘seek his face’ in the routine of our lives (Psalm 27. 8). In Mark chapter 4 we are also told that the crowd resisted listening, and did not even seek earnestly the meanings of the Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus faced difficult listeners (Mark 4. 11-12). He charged that generation with ‘seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…’ (v.12). A collective refusal to listen to the word of God was at the heart of the communication problem between Jesus and those listeners.

It is interesting to note that Jesus addressed this problem not with compelling arguments that proved that his teachings were true and meaningful, but by creating a universe of meanings, illustrations, images, and questions about the nature of God, His word and our response to the divine. Listening thus relates to acquiring meaning. Therefore, speaking in parables or metaphorical speech served as the turning point in his ‘lecturing’: less interested listeners missed the opportunity to gain knowledge and meaning from Jesus’ teachings.  This leads us to the main principle I want to examine.

Jesus’ teaching invites us to develop a relational approach to listening (and learning). After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, his disciples leave the noisy crowd behind and come to Him for an intimate time of exploring, asking, and listening. And times of solitude with God and in different Christian communities (small groups or congregations) can inspire us to listen to the Spirit deeply. In the same way in learning (or conducting research), a relational approach means that we are open to our colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Research will not be the realm of the lone wolf. Cooperation instead of competitiveness, humility instead of arrogance, and dependence instead of self-sufficiency will enable us to flourish in a community of scholars in pursuit of the common good.

Moreover, the example of the disciples might help us to understand the importance of depending on God in learning and conducting our research projects. In this context, prayers and petitions (with thanksgiving) may constitute important resources in our task of learning (Philippians 4. 6-7). The academic life is full of uncertainties and intellectual problems. In my own PhD experience, the challenges of my fieldwork were invitations to prayer and trust in God’s provision for the completion of my project.

Finally, to address the question about fruitfulness (I am not saying "productivity"!) in our academic life, Jesus ends the parable of the sower with a promise of growth (Mark 4. 20). Hearing, thinking and responding appropriately to the Word will bring growth and fruitfulness to our lives. As Christians pursuing academic careers we are not only called to seek to comprehend the Creation with all its complexities, but also to deepen our understanding of our Creator and loving Father. Fruitfulness will be the result of acknowledging that learning leads us to know more His character and deeds. The knowledge of His secrets, wisdom and loving deeds are possible to those who are committed to listen.