FiSch blog

The bush of knowledge

Bush of scientific knowledge diagram: from religious roots via paradigms to observations

What is the relation between religion (in the sense of ultimate commitments) and the academic disciplines?  Frequently any positive relationship is denied. The sciences claim to have become autonomous (a law to themselves) with respect to philosophy, let alone religion. And the various schools of philosophy claim to be autonomous with respect to religion. It is generally admitted that this was not always so, but it is now claimed that since the disciplines have come of age, having developed their own methodologies and concepts, they are now autonomous (1) with respect to each other, (2) with respect to philosophy and (3) with respect to religion.

If this Enlightenment view of intellectual maturity is embraced, then religion has no structural role in the special sciences (including even theology) or in philosophy.  Any mention of religion, other than as a phenomenon to study, would be seen as a reactionary and obscurantist intrusion: a source of bias and distortion leading to a loss of scholarly neutrality. Scientific scholarship then requires the elimination of all metaphysics and religion - especially the Christian religion, so awkwardly intertwined with the rise of modern science!

The bush model illustrated here presents an alternative view of intellectual maturity.  The truly critical thinker will seek to explicate the philosophical presuppositions of the special sciences and the religious commitments underlying various philosophical approaches and methodologies. If the three autonomies mentioned above - especially (2) and (3) - are impossible in principle (as Herman Dooyeweerd argued and as growing numbers of scholars are starting to concede, albeit reluctantly) then a Christian re-formation of philosophy and all academic disciplines is possible.  Indeed, it is necessary: for it is mandated by the First Commandment: to love God with our minds [1], and so to make every thought subject to the lordship of Christ [2].

The diagram here illustrates, for the sake of argument, three important religious roots that have intertwined in the development of academic disciplines. Theism, materialism and humanism underpin a range of worldviews (pre-theoretical, non-scientific commitments) that have motivated academic work. This produces theoretical commitments in the form of systematic philosophies that spawn analytical research in communities gathered into a range of disciplines. Paradigms (broadly in Kuhn's sense; also see here) are generated in each discipline, and by working within these, academics hold to theories that contain laws (especially in the physical sciences) and typologies (especially in the human sciences). These in turn lead to hypotheses, which may in time become new laws and typologies. Any of these elements may also in time be discarded - but generally not (pace Popper) on the occurrence of a single refutation: even hypotheses are theoretical commitments! (Dirk Stafleu is a Reformational scholar who has explored this paradox [3].)  At the tips of the twigs in the diagram here, observations are represented as leaves. These have a different status from the other 'tools of thought' because they are unique particular experiences. Data are not so much part of scientific knowledge but can be used to guide our discernment of the underlying structure of reality.

Finally, this bush model makes clear that there is no simple deductive relationship between religion and the contents of the academic disciplines. What is proposed is a hierarchy, with the lower levels providing the conditions for the possibility of the higher ones - their transcendental pre-conditions. What should also be clear is that the development of Christian philosophy is a prerequisite for a serious Christian renewal of the disciplines (what Dooyeweerd calls the special sciences), for otherwise they will remain in the grip of non-Christian philosophies and religions. Without Christian philosophy there cannot even be a Christian academic theology that is faithful to the biblical religion.

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[1] Matthew 22:37

[2] 2 Corinthians 10:5

[3] See MD Stafleu (2016), Theory and Experiment, section 10.1

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Richard Russell is a philosopher and ordained Anglican minister. Previously a lecturer in philosophy at Trinity Christian College, Chicago, he is now based in Somerset, England. His Christian Studies Unit online bookshop has helped introduce countless thinkers to the riches of the Reformational tradition for academic research. The graphic in this post is based on a series of pen-and-ink diagrams that present a range of facets of the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd​.

Sing a New Song

At my church, we have been going through Isaiah in this month's sermon series. When we got to chapter 42, I was struck by the call in verse 10 to ‘sing a new song’. This is a phrase I've come across again and again in the Bible (in fact, I've found and listed a handful of these occurrences below) but it was the first time I stopped and pondered: why a new song? Why not an old song? God’s plan for his people was established before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-10). So what is it about the newness of the song that’s important?

God’s people are often told to remember: the Passover and the Lord’s Supper were both instituted as reminders of great historical events in which God intervened for his people, providing salvation and giving them an identity in Him. In coming to the Lord's Table today, we are in a sense singing an 'old' song: we are remembering in thanksgiving what God has done. 

The Bible's exhortations to sing 'new' songs aren't given because God is changing, but rather because He is faithful and He is still working! Wonderfully, we can meet God with a new song of thanksgiving everyday because 1) his promises are still true and his grace is still certain, and 2) his powerful works are ongoing and his mercies are new everyday—in our world and in the tiny details of our lives. He is alive and He is still in relationship with His people. We could never come up with too many ways to praise our God, from the Psalms of David to the newest praise song from Emu music, from the familiar words of the Lord's Prayer to the silent words of gratitude whispered in the melody of our hearts after a busy day. Of old things and of new, in times of joy and times of sorrow, we have much to sing about!

As researchers, we have even more reason to sing because we are at the cutting edges of our fields—however 'niche' or obscure our projects might seem to be! Whether we're looking at songs or cells, we are in a position to appreciate something about God's creation that probably hasn't been seen or understood before. Every day, I want to sing a new song to God for the wonders of his world—but even more, for the beauty of his character. 

I would encourage you to look through some of the verses below in which we find the exhortation to 'sing a new song': it is echoed by David, who had to wait for God to rescue him and put a 'new song in [his] mouth' (Psalm 40:3); by God's people, singing as a freewill offering in joy for all he has done (Psalm 144:9); and by the Elders and people of God praising the Lamb at the renewal of all things (Revelation 5:9). I hope they inspire you to ponder on God's works anew and respond winsomely to his grace every morning!

Psalm 96:1-2

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Psalm 144:9

I will sing a new song to you, O God;

upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you

Isaiah 42:10

Sing to the Lord a new song,

his praise from the end of the earth,

you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,

the coastlands and their inhabitants.

Psalm 98:1-3

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him.

The Lord has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

to the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen

the salvation of our God.

Psalm 33:1-3

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!

Praise befits the upright.

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;

make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!

Sing to him a new song;

play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 149:1-2

Praise the Lord!

Sing to the Lord a new song,

his praise in the assembly of the godly!

Let Israel be glad in his Maker;

let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!

Psalm 40:1-3

I waited patiently for the Lord;

he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,

a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

and put their trust in the Lord.

Revelation 5:6-10

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.”

 

Ezra Pound: A Lesson in Discernment

Guest blogger Audrey Southgate reflects on lessons drawn from studying a morally problematic figure. 

Some view the past as a shackle from which the present must free itself. By contrast, I grew up delighted by the stories that linked the present with the past. At church, at home, and at school, stories of admirable figures from history served as a source of inspiration. There was no question that we had much to learn from the subjects of these stories, whether Christian martyrs, great-grandparents, inventors, or other heroes. Surrounded by such stories, I came to look to authors from the past for timeless insights that would clarify my perspective in the present.

This became somewhat more difficult, however, when I found myself writing my undergraduate dissertation on Ezra Pound. Far from an exemplary figure, Pound is perhaps as infamous for the anti-Semitic slander and fascist sympathies he endorsed in broadcasts during World War II as he is famous for his contributions to modernism in poetry. Like his public views, Pound’s private life was hardly something a Christian would want to emulate: he kept a mistress for most of his marriage and even lived in a ménage à trois for a couple of years. Moreover, his publications and personal correspondence display an arrogance that is corroborated by the recollections of those who knew him throughout his life.

Since I could not admire Pound in several important respects, could I learn anything from him? I had chosen the project because I wanted to learn from how this key modernist had engaged with tradition and ‘made it new’ in his own time. But his appreciation for the poetic heritage was accompanied by scorn for those who didn’t share it or appreciate it as he did. More troubling still, it was accompanied by adherence to one of the most vicious ideologies of the twentieth century. If looking to the past involved the evils Pound espoused, I could not learn from Pound – nor did I expect to learn from the past at all.

In the process, I realized that my expectations were inconsistent with my faith. If I believed that all are fallen, I should not be surprised to find serious faults in any person’s thinking and life. If I believed that God is the author of truth, I should strive to recognize his truths wherever they appear. And if I believed that God showers the earth with common grace, I should expect his truths to appear even in the mouths of faulty people. Rather than asking whether I could learn from Pound, I needed to ask what truths I could learn from Pound, and what faults I could learn to avoid from his example.

As it happens, I discovered Pound does have much to offer. Not only is he a representative of an era whose effects we still feel today; he also models a search for the meaning that transcends particular eras. Comparing art to a river, he described artists as concerned, not with the features of its banks at certain points, but with its ‘quality of motion’, or ‘that which flows’. Pound’s own overarching concern, expressed here, was with the essence of art that transcends the historical and geographical circumstances defining its reception.

Here and elsewhere, Pound suggests his utter commitment to the transcendent – but confines the transcendent to the human artistic tradition. Perhaps the widely-deplored problem with Pound lay, not in his appreciation of the past, nor in his appreciation of this artistic tradition across history, but in what he failed to appreciate from revealed history. He failed to see the source of beauty who transcends all history, and who gives meaning to it: the transcendent God who is also immanent, the Word who became flesh and came to dwell among us. And because of this, Pound failed, too, to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and above all love for God and man which are beautiful in all ages.

Pound thus serves as a warning not to let our appreciation of human traditions keep us from loving God or other people. At the same time, Pound serves as an encouragement to dedicate ourselves to pursuing what is truly timeless. In a way, the very magnitude of his failures makes him all the better as an example of the importance of seeking the Truth – and as an example of the importance of discerning the timeless truths a person expressed from the failings that invariably accompany these insights.

 

Audrey Southgate is working towards a DPhil at Merton College, University of Oxford, researching Lollards and the Psalms.

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Science, philosophy and religion

Where does science come from?  Historically, the predecessor of what we now call the sciences was natural philosophy, which was, evidently enough, a branch of philosophy.  But when we study science at school and university, it's rare to hear much mention of any continuing dependence on philosophy.  We seem to study lots of scientific "facts": about the universe, the solar system and the earth, about impacts and reactions, about microbes, plants and animals, and about humans and society.  We gradually get introduced to experimental methods as ways of testing hypotheses and perhaps to demonstrate the tentative nature of scientific conclusions (after all, school science experiments rarely give textbook outcomes!).  Eventually we're told about scientific models and sometimes even about some controversies.  Some of the "facts" are confusingly known as theories.  But philosophy?  That seems to be just a sideshow - at best a defunct predecessor.

There is another view.  My philosopher friend Richard Russell argues that all of the content of science curricula is dependent on philosophy.  Learning about underlying laws, patterns and structures in the cosmos on the basis of specific data is fundamentally a philosophical problem, raising questions about what these underlying universals might be like and how our specific perceptions can relate to them.  Then there are also questions of error, fallibility, bias and so on.  Philosophy should not be merely of historical interest for scientists!  And Christians should be interested in this view, because of where philosophy comes from.

Where does philosophy come from?  Historically, one answer is that the Western philosophical tradition arose in ancient Greece as a competitor to the prevailing pagan religion.  Now, in some philosophy courses there's even less discussion of religion than there is of philosophy in science courses.  But once again, there's a hidden dependence. Philosophical arguments may invoke concepts like substance, abstract objects, minds, reason, justification, freedom and so on.  And many of these turn out to encapsulate clear or hidden notions of how reality is constituted and where it comes from, what a human being is, what persons are, and so on.  So religion should not be merely of historical interest in philosophy.  In fact there is the possibility of building a Christian philosophy, for example, on the basis of a biblical worldview.  That is what this series of posts is intended to display, albeit rather haphazardly.

The diagram below, conceived by Richard Russell, illustrates two views of the relationships among these areas of thought.  First is the Enlightenment view, in which religion is superseded over time by philosophy, which is in turn superseded by science.  Below that is a view that's characteristic of streams of neocalvinist thought like that pioneered by Herman Dooyeweerd.

The first option makes the challenge of being a scientist look simpler and less susceptible to controversy.  But the second one is arguably far more realistic.  We'll look more at how this ongoing dependence works in a subsequent post - with another of Richard's diagrams.

A Reflection in Puddles: Distinctiveness in Academia

It’s a rainy day outside and my mind has wandered to puddles. Puddles are commonplace (in England especially!) without much beauty or substance, but they can do one great thing: they can reflect what’s above them.

I’ve been pondering distinctiveness in academia lately, asking: how does being a Christian affect how I navigate the academy? This has been a convicting exercise but a very helpful one. Below, I’ve jotted down a few ways I think I can reflect God better in academia, and I hope my own thoughts might inspire similar personal reflections in others.

Support students

I teach a lot of tutorials. I’m not the best teacher and I’m not the most knowledgeable. This is unlikely to change, but I can choose to care about my students. Like everyone else, I'm quite busy, but finding time to run a quick review session or meeting up to discuss an essay is a great way to support and care for my students. Time taken to serve others is a sacrifice, but it is certainly not wasted!

Invest in friendships

This is the one I’m the worst at—with so much going on, I find it hard to find time to invest in friendships at all, and I often end up ‘ghosting’ around my faculty because I’m too tired or lazy to invest there properly. But He’s placed me there for a reason. Friendship provides a chance to be in others’ lives, to let them into mine, to share my hope, and to build community.

Encourage each other’s growth

I happen to be at a very supportive faculty with a group of really nice researchers in my cohort, but below the surface somewhere, there lurks the truth that we are potential competitors for future jobs. Everything can seem to be a competition, but I must remember that I don’t need to enter the race. I want to congratulate others on their work, be humble and honest about my own, especially if I’m struggling a bit, because this demonstrates that no, research isn’t a matter of life and death to me. I want to make friends, support them, cheer for them. Maintaining a generosity of spirit can’t take anything from me that I need—I have all I need in Christ.

Be honest

This is a simple one, but one worth adding to the list. Truthfulness shows in one’s character in little and big ways, but maintaining truthfulness requires commitment. I find it can be easy to compromise honesty in the little things if I become lazy or lose sight of who am I and what I've been called to be! My word should be my bond.

Be dependable

We don’t usually describe Christ as ‘dependable’… the word seems far too dim for his glorious grace! But in fact, He is ultimately dependable. We screw up; He comes through. Over and over and over again. He can be relied upon to be there, to care, to help, to comfort. Do I demonstrate dependability in my own finite way at my faculty? Do I show up to meetings and tutorials on time? Can I be relied upon?

Express difficulties… but with hope!

When grad students get together, we tend to complain about difficulties in our work. Difficulties in research, in writing, with deadlines. Anything. Everything. I think it’s important to share where we’re actually at with people… that’s honest. But I’m as guilty of ‘grumbling’ as my non-Christian colleagues. By presenting my difficulties without any allusion—implicit or explicit—to the hope that I enjoy, I’m misleading them to ‘fit in’, rejecting an opportunity to talk about what really matters. I know whatever I am currently doing is not an ultimate, so why pretend that it is? I have every reason to be joyful, regardless of how my doctorate is going.

Don't speak badly about supervisors behind their backs

This relates to the one above. As a Christian, I should not be speaking about anyone behind their backs, but somehow it feels easy to make exceptions for advisors or supervisors because they are in authority over us and it would seem that not all of them are really good at supporting their students (though I’ve been very blessed with a great supervisor). It’s tempting to join in on supervisor-bashing as it allows us to connect with colleagues sharing a knowing smile and a roll of the eyes. But this is not how we are told to treat people—or those in authority. If I have a problem with a faculty member, I should speak to them directly before involving anyone else. This is hard… but we have Christ for a model!

Skip faculty events for church if you have to

There is an optional research colloquium that I have to skip every week because I lead a Bible study. I wish I could make it, but the time conflict has actually been a blessing in disguise. When faculty friends ask why I don’t make it to colloquium more, I have an opportunity to show that my faith takes priority in my life—even over professional growth or advancement.  

Be committed to work

Being a research student—at least in the humanities—can be very lonely and quite directionless. Nobody really knows how we should be using our time and therefore nobody really knows how we really do use our time. Without accountability, it can be really hard to commit to productivity—procrastination comes with the grad school territory! Diligence in work requires motivation, but when everyone is struggling to find theirs, I have a deep, unending source of it—if I dare to draw upon it. I am not working for myself or for man but for my Saviour and Redeemer!

I am a puddle: a bit grubby and dreary, finite and fleeting, but there is a sun above me and reflecting His beauty should be my chief delight and purpose!

'That Hideous Strength' and institutional sin

In his recent post ‘Forays into finance’, Richard reflected on the challenges of institutional sin in his new context of the financial sector: an industry governed by forces which seem to tend towards exploitation of others, manifesting sin beyond the personal to the societal level.

But, of course, you don’t need to be in finance to recognise the way human institutions can be a force for evil. This concept of sin is easily recognisable to those in academia, too.

Sin in the university

The institution of the modern university – like any human construct – conditions and promotes sin in various ways. The time pressures and bureaucratic requirements of teaching lessen our capacity to treat each student as a person, made in God’s image. The competitive, driven environment of a lab or a graduate programme can skew how we treat our colleagues, and chip away at intellectual honesty. Perhaps most insidiously, the large-scale philosophical underpinnings of our disciplines draw on modes of thinking and valuing which can be deeply unbiblical and even hostile to Christian understandings of the world.

I was reminded of this over the summer as I re-read That Hideous Strength, the third book of C. S. Lewis’s idiosyncratic science fiction trilogy. I’ve written before about representations of academics in the fiction of the Inklings, and the plot of THS turns Lewis’s sharp satiric eye on a fictional English university, Edgestow, which foolishly gives a foothold on its territory – both physical and intellectual – to a scientistic, eugenicist, and eventually demonic organisation.

Corruption in theory and practice

Near the end of the the novel, one of the characters draws a clear line between sin in the academic institution and the nihilistic anti-humanism which the euphemistically named ‘National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments’ attempts to bring into being:

“One’s sorry for old Churchwood […] All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he’d have walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid.
   But all the same… was there a single doctrine practised at Belbury which hadn’t been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.”
   “I’m afraid it’s all true,” said Dimble [...] “None of us are quite innocent.”

Lewis claims in his foreword to have chosen a university setting only because of his own familiarity with it, but this seems disingenuous in light of the very specific warnings this novel gives about academic inquiry’s relationship with societal developments and norms. When an academic discipline is corrupt, Lewis argues, that corruption spreads.

What’s more, even well-intentioned academics find themselves enmeshed in these replicating structures of institutional sin: ‘None of us are quite innocent.’ As a graduate student in a literature department, hopeful of a longer-term career in the same field, another character’s reply – ‘Those who call for Nonsense will find that it comes’ – sent a chill down my spine.

Truth and nonsense

The philosophical grounds of modern literary study are highly relativistic, deconstructing meaning and intention at every turn. I continue to grapple with what it means to be committed to a God who is Truth and yet work within the norms of this field.

Deconstruction and related frameworks can, I believe, be useful tools in understanding and illuminating literature: but where do I slip over the line into the worship of Nonsense which Lewis describes? How does this relativising impulse affect wider society, and with what consequences? These are challenging questions to ponder as I develop my research. 

Recognising institutional sin in our disciplines

One of the foundations of Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that it is worthwhile for academics to identify and understand the philosophical underpinnings of their fields, and to compare them with the norms and realities of God’s world as revealed in Christ.

Would it help you to reflect on the ways your institution – your department, your discipline more widely – shapes your work, and how that work in turn shapes the communities you are part of? Institutional sin is difficult to root out, but the first step is recognising its presence.

Forays into finance

Bank of England and Royal Exchange Panorama

For the last 18 months I've been a research fellow on a project about financial stability that's run by a small consultancy firm.  Since I was trained as a biologist and have done nearly all my academic work so far in ecology, and in universities, this has been both a steep learning curve and a great adventure.  The story of how I came to make this transition, moving from university into a business environment, will be for another time. Here I want to share some reflections firstly on my move into a new discipline and secondly, briefly, on financial economics itself.

My qualification for this new post was being a quantitative ecologist, which, as I used to say, often feels more like being an applied statistician.  I could also point out that ecology is an economics-rich branch of the biological sciences, and I'd already been taking some interest in economic arguments for nature conservation (the ecosystem services approach), and the ensuing policy debates.  But in practice the mathematical background was the most relevant qualification - together, of course, with a fascination for knowing about other disciplines.  This, I believe, has been fostered by my faith and Christian philosophical framework.

Mutual enrichment?

Moving into a new discipline has been an upheaval in some ways.  There's a whole literature to get to grips with, of course, and I'm attempting to immerse myself in it sufficiently to see where our project outputs fit.  The project was initially motivated by the 2008 financial crisis and by developments in the world of finance, with which my boss is well acquainted, rather than by outstanding questions in the literature - so that adds both excitement and some headaches to the challenge.  One the one hand, the volume of literature in any discipline is so great nowadays that even devoted scholars can barely keep up with more than a narrow specialism.  Added to that, the more one reads the more one may suspect that everything worthwhile has been done already - so perhaps there's something to be said for coming fresh to a new discipline and trying to work out a strategic, limited course of reading.  On the other hand, there's clearly no substitute for an authoritative induction into a discipline such as comes through degree courses.  At this point, helpful colleagues can be a lifeline, if they see some mutual benefit emerging from the collaboration.  The fundamental question about moving to a new discipline is whether one's freshness of perspective can complement the depth of understanding held by established colleagues. And that calls for a great deal of trust and humility on all sides - 'fellowship' might be a good word.

Faithful scholarship

So what am I doing? The aim of our project is to suggest improvements to financial regulation for the benefit of market participants and society at large.  There's a clear ethical concern, which attracted me in the first place, and then there's an expectation of drawing inspiration from mathematical ecology.  In practice it turns out to be far from trivial to find cross-disciplinary insights that go beyond metaphors (e.g. the "ecosystem of investors"), and there are obvious reasons why ecosystems don't provide complete models for finance (no analogue of money, for example).  But fruitful metrics and models can certainly cross disciplinary boundaries from time to time.

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most from this foray into finance concerns the reality of institutional sin.  The financial system we inhabit is so complex and powerful that no-one really knows how to model it, let alone manage it.  That's true of ecosystems too, but in the case of finance the agents driving the system are either highly intelligent humans or their algorithmic creations (so-called artificial intelligence), which adapt to, anticipate and exploit each other and the regulatory framework with zeal and, too often, impunity.  I believe there is much goodness in the financial system and its agents, but egregious injustices arising from it seem to confront me daily.  The Apostle Paul's comments on "principalities and powers"[1] have been interpreted by some to refer to institutional structures where sin is manifested beyond the level of individual persons, and I'm convinced that some aspects of our financial system are profoundly contrary to Christ's kingdom.  This is the unsettling side of this field of research, for me.

It will take a future post (and more wisdom than I currently have) to look at specific ideas about finance in God's purposes, and the redemption of economic systems.  Meanwhile, I maintain my passion for ecology alongside my intrigue about financial economics and hope, in God's grace, to find further fruitful insights between the two.

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[1] This phrase occurs (in the King James Version and some others) in Rom 8:37-39, Col 1:16; 2:15, Eph 3:10-11, 6:12 and Titus 3:1.  Tom Wright has written about this theme, but I can particularly recommend Colossians Remixed by Walsh & Keesmaat.

On Horses and Victory: Proverbs 21:31

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord. Proverbs 21:31

Despite the Bible’s frequent exhortations to the contrary, I often find myself reverting to stubborn independence—trying to do things my own way and in my own strength. When I came across this verse earlier in the week, I found it both convicting and comforting: the victory is not mine—but neither is the battle! God’s omnipotence is the verse's core message, but like most Proverbs, it has rich implications that are worth spending a few moments considering…

Victory

No victory will be made against God—that is certain; but I don’t believe this verse is a warning for those warring against God so much as a reminder to those warring for God. As Matthew Henry (1662-1714) said in his Bible commentary on this passage. ‘Be the cause ever so good, and the patrons of it ever so strong, and wise, and faithful, and the means of carrying it on, and gaining the point, ever so probable, still they must acknowledge God and take Him along with them.’

The verse reminds us that our battles are his battles and our victories are in fact his victories. I often think I just need to try harder to conquer that sin, or work a bit more to get that postdoc, or pray a bit longer to fix my family’s problems. All of my objectives are good enough, but I should approach these issues saying ‘God, what are You doing here and what do you want me to do?’ rather than ‘How am I going to tackle this?’ My self-reliant attitude invariably creates two problems. Firstly, it leads me to despair, because when I see a big obstacle or an enemy on the horizon, I rightfully realize that I am too weak to overcome it! Secondly, my attitude leads to pride because if I succeed to any degree against a problem, I think the victory was in fact mine! Pride follows independence; but if I engaged problems with proper humility and faith, I would be much more likely to remember who won the victory when the battle is done!

Ride with Me   

Yet this verse has more to tell us. We are unreliable servants and stumbling, stuttering messengers of the Gospel, but the Bible shows us that very often God chooses to work with us and through us despite our shortcomings. God doesn’t need us to achieve his purposes or bring himself glory: it’s not like He needed a full team to play ball and we were the last kids left in the schoolyard from which to choose. No, He doesn’t need us, but He does want to use us and so invites us to take part in his Great Plan.

That’s why I find the horse in this proverb profound: it’s a beautiful reminder that God doesn’t just leave us in camp to wait for his return. To again quote Henry: ‘Means indeed are to be used; the horse must be prepared against the day of battle, and the foot too; they must be armed and disciplined.’ God has a job for us to do.

How would understanding this change my approach to work and church and family and friends? Would I feel less scared, frustrated and enervated in sharing the Gospel, praying for friends, serving in church, or navigating academia if I understood that these are not my battles and will not be for my glory—but I am invited to join the winning side? I can ready my horse, not because I think that doing so will ensure I win the battle, but because it will mean following after the One who will.

The victories do not belong to us—but Jesus does!

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Taking time apart: discipline and blessing

Inspired by this post from the archives of The Well (InterVarsity’s ministry to women in academia and the professions), I recently took a mini-‘retreat’ in the midst of my current summer season of being at home, preparing for a family wedding and working on my thesis in the midst of planning and errands.

As the article suggests, I got some ‘geographic space’ – simply by going to a different part of town and settling myself in a coffee shop for the morning. I took with me the novel I was reading (C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra), my Bible and notebook, and another resource from InterVarsity called ‘Taking Time Apart: Spiritual Disciplines and the Academic Life’. It’s a short booklet, which you can download for free here; it introduces the idea of spiritual discipline as integrated and intertwined with intellectual discipline, and provides several short readings, Bible studies, and guided reflection exercises.

I spent a peaceful morning alternating between reading my novel, and taking the opportunity to reflect and pray over the last year with the help of this resource. I went through a Bible study based on Luke 5:1-11, the miraculous catch of fish:

When Jesus finished speaking he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water, and let the nets down for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.

Peter’s obedience to Jesus – listening to him, letting down the nets – is necessary for the blessing of fish, and later for Jesus’ call into his service: ‘Don’t be afraid: from now on you will catch men.’ This was a particular challenge to me as I reflected on the past academic year.

It’s easy to keep the effort and discipline I put into my academic work, and the effort and discipline I put into my spiritual life, in completely separate boxes in my mind. This is the case even as I study prayer and devotion themselves: I can spend my time writing and thinking about a central part of Christian practice, analysing and theorising how it worked in the lives of historical people, and making exciting theological connections and applications – and yet lack the discipline to pray with any regularity or fervour myself.

The story of the miraculous catch reminded me that God gives us the results of our work, and calls us to new work in his service. So it’s part of good scholarly practice to listen first, and to practice obedience first, in faith that all the world is God’s and that he works through us as much in our academic lives as in church or mission. Spiritual discipline and academic work are not separate, but integrated parts of life. 

Have you had the opportunity this summer to take some time apart in intentional reflection? Consider using the resource I’ve mentioned, or another guide, to help you pray over the last year or term and hear from God in this quieter time.

Faith, Knowledge and Statistics

XKCD caricature of the Frequentist approach to statistical inference

Knowledge is a special kind of belief, and the science of statistics provides one approach to gaining knowledge. So does faith have any direct connection to statistics? [1]

A couple of months ago Andi Wang wrote about his interest in statistics as a Christian, and now I want to share something of mine.  I'm an applied statistician, using statistical methods to draw inferences from ecological, and more recently financial, data. My fascination with stats started on an ecology field trip that was part of my A-level Biology course, when an introduction to some basic statistical tests one evening revealed how we can discern scientific order in the apparent chaos of our natural environment.  My fascination has gradually developed ever since - but recently I've been excited about ways in which faith might guide statistical practices.  Drawing conclusions from numerical data, I now see, is not the purely objective process it might seem.

The basic point to make is that data don't speak. Although we talk of "analysing" data as if conclusions were latent in the data, waiting to be released, that's far from an accurate portrayal. We also proclaim what data "tell" us and speak of "following the evidence where it leads" - all of which, it can be argued, are seriously misleading. In fact we inevitably (1) collect data according to prior assumptions, (2) bring our beliefs to bear when choosing statistical methods and (3) incorporate theoretical ideas into our analyses. 

That's the simple point I want to make against the objectivity of statistical inference. To argue for a specifically religious factor, I need to give a simple example and recommend a book that makes the case more fully.

Let's take a very simple problem: what's the probability that this coin will land heads up? Here's a good empirical method: toss the coin 100 times and record the number of "heads". We can easily imagine doing this and getting, say, 47 heads and 53 tails. So we might conclude that the coin has a 47% chance of landing heads. Statisticians call this the maximum-likelihood estimate of the coin's probability of landing heads up: this value would make our observations more likely than would any other value - including 50%. (Philosophers call this general approach "inference to the best explanation".) 

Fortunately there's another method: do a null-hypothesis test based on a 50% "null hypothesis" (a default, "nothing-going-on" starting point).  Then having got 47 heads, we'd refer to a table of probabilities for possible outcomes from 100 trials with 50% probability in each one to find the chance of getting a number of heads that's at least as far away from 50 as is 47 (this needs a bit more explanation, but it's not the most important point). The answer (called our P-value) would be about 0.55 and we'd say that nothing terribly unlikely has happened if the fair-coin null hypothesis were true... whereas if we ended up with a P-value of just 0.05, we should suspect the coin of not being perfectly fair (which would mean getting fewer than 40 heads or tails). But we have two important queries: where did our null hypothesis come from, and how does that "if...whereas" line of reasoning about P-values work? The null hypothesis was based on a simple theory about coins, which means our statistical method is not as purely objective as we might have thought: for more interesting questions, the key theory might be controversial and open to change. And the P-value reasoning turns out to be based on some odd logic. For now let's note how non-intuitive it is, and that it seems odd to derive probabilities directly from data. For more detail, see the book recommendation below!

So there we have two methods for investigating the flipping-properties of a coin, each with some obvious problems. Regarding my three concerns above, we may have (1) chosen a flipping technique which we believe to be unbiased (but further research[2] could call it into question); (2) chosen the null-hypothesis method, unperturbed by caricatures like the cartoon above; and (3) employed the simple theory that coins are equally likely to land heads up as tails. But what about the religious factor?

The religious issue, actually, is right there. Humanist–empiricist views of science require that knowledge can arise objectively from evidence without dependence on prior beliefs, so that truths can be established independently of each other, free of subjection to historical, social and cultural factors - especially religious ones! - ensuring the resulting 'knowledge' can be divorced from other beliefs. A Christian view[3], by contrast, might insist that knowledge is a form of belief, and that beliefs can never be reduced to data. The particulars of data - including all kinds of experience - shape our beliefs, and that's how we grow our knowledge. What's more, there is an alternative statistical approach to those outlined above that explicitly builds conclusions upon prior beliefs: Bayesian inference.  For a much better exposition, I can heartily recommend the wonderfully-titled "Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference" by Andrew Hartley.

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[1] For enlightened nerdy insight about the above cartoon, see this discussion.

[2] e.g. Diaconis et al. (2007) SIAM Review 49:211-235

[3] I refer especially to the Reformed and Reformational traditions.

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