FiSch blog

'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.

A Reflection on Ecclesiastes

The head of my postgrad ministry recently gave a wonderful talk on Ecclesiastes 3:9-13. During my week away from work, I have spent time with the passage and have found it very encouraging. I hope my reflections on it prove helpful to others at a time of year when many of us are looking forward to changes and new challenges!

'What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.' 

In this time of rest, I thank you for the busyness of life! I often find life overwhelming, but many struggle with loneliness and directionless instead. Thank you for the crush of life: for activity, colour and variety, for friends, for family and relationships, for comings and goings, for bustles and burdens. You gave us this busyness and you are in it all—you are our reward.

Thank you for the work you have done through me: Bible studies written, evenings of service at the church, prayers for struggling friends, meals cooked for church ministries. This toil blesses others, but it also blesses me: it keeps me humble, it softens my heart, and it strengthens my thoughtfulness towards others—a muscle that needs constant use to prevent atrophy!

But thank you also for work done in my ‘day job’: chapters written, books read, essays graded. Sometimes I struggle to understand what all this ‘earthly’ toil amounts to, but I know the gifts you have given me, and I know the joy of using them—of working diligently to your glory.

'He has made everything beautiful in its time.'

In its time...thank you for this chapter and for the unique challenges and joys it brings. Help me not look regretfully at the past or longingly at the future, but dwell with you here in the present. Life really does come in seasons, and there is sadness in watching each end. Help me to trust that you are the source of all life, and though seasons go, they come as well. You have already planned the next season for us and will dwell with us there.

Help me to understand that there are different kinds of beauty in each season and each bears different fruit: delicate slivers of grass and majestic, soaring oaks; verdant bushes, laden with diaphanous roses and waxy succulents with tough skin and a lone, hard-won blossom. Whatever life this season brings, help me be grateful for it, and see the beauty in what you have given.

'Also, he has put eternity into man's heart,'

Eternity! This is the greatest news of all: there will be a season that never ends, and it is good to long for it as leaves chance and we wait for the next bloom. You are our constancy, our ‘ever fix’d mark’.

'yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.'

This is a welcome reminder in the academy where knowledge reigns supreme: there are things I will never understand, because God is far too big for me to comprehend. I don’t have all the answers about you, but you have all the answers about me!

'I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.'

Thank you God for your blessings throughout all seasons: the good things of life are not accidents but reveal your generous character and your love for us. Help us to accept them. In times of rest and non-busyness, I often feel anxious about things I can’t control. Please help me understand that none of your blessings were ever earned or ever could be. Help me be a child, reliant on you and trusting in both work and rest, humbly accepting the blessings of today without worrying about yesterday or tomorrow.

Alleluia, all I have is Christ!

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People who are free

I've spent much of the last two weeks at academic conferences. Now, while I take a few days off to recover (!), I'm reflecting on some of the challenges of the scholarly environment that can be exposed with particular clarity at this kind of event. 

I should say up front that in general I really enjoy conferences, and the two I've just attended were no exception - one was relatively small, for specialists in my particular research area, and the other was a huge medievalist congress that draws people from all over the world. At both I met old friends and made new acquaintances, heard eye-opening research papers, spoke to leaders in my field, and presented my own work to engaged audiences. I'm worn out, but I had a great time.

Various observations and discussions, though, had me thinking back to something I heard a few months ago from Sarah Williams, who spoke at the Humanities stream of the Developing a Christian Mind event. She said in her talk then that institutions, funding, and all the rest are useless without 'people who are free'. All too often, academics - especially young or early career scholars - can feel anything but free.

This can come out in the formal context of the panel, where the presence of a forbidding name in the seat next to you or in the audience can have you hedging and downplaying your work, or even overstating it in compensation. It might be the subtle jockeying over institutional class or seriousness of scholarship that comes up in question time. For many of us it's the mix of fear, embarrassment, resentment, and competition that bubbles below the surface during any conversation about the academic job market.

It can be easy to feel trapped by expectations - whether your peers', your supervisor's, or your own. And people who are trapped rarely think, or act, well.

Christians, however, are called to freedom. 'Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.' This instruction gets to the heart of the gospel freedom that comes through Christ: not total independence, but living in the service of God. Knowing that he is our highest authority, and the reason we do our work, can free us from the urge to prove ourselves, and to do so by stepping on others along the way. It can shore us up against the anxiety which, in the precarious academic world, seems to consume the lives of so many: if I have served God, then the details of my career are in his hands.

Reflect on how you interact with others in academic settings. What difference would it make to remember that Christ has set you free?

For an alternative perspective on this topic, see the latest Cambridge Paper by Tom Simpson.

Knowing truth: statistics and faith

Andi Wang considers how academic modes of thinking interact with knowing through faith.

I have always loved solving problems. Even as a four-year-old child in primary school, apparently my teacher once remarked to my parents that I was a “deep thinker”. Throughout my schooling I was naturally drawn to mathematics, and found deep satisfaction in solving problems carefully and systematically. As an undergraduate I pursued a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, and specialised in probability and statistics. Today, I am a PhD student in the Department of Statistics in the University of Oxford where I (try to) rigorously prove useful mathematical properties of statistical algorithms.

Growing up I also had the privilege of being raised in a largely Christian home and as such have considered myself a Christian for a long time. As I matured and began to seriously consider the beliefs I dogmatically accepted as a child, my default mode was to use my analytical and unashamedly logical mind to think things through “objectively”. At that time I stumbled across the field of Christian apologetics, and found satisfactory reasons justifying Christian faith, although the reasons I (continue to) follow Christ presently are very different from those I would have given then.

And today, as a theologically-interested lay-Christian, I continue to find great intellectual satisfaction in pondering and discussing the big questions of faith. What does it mean to “believe” in something? How did those in ages past see themselves in relation to God? What does it mean for the Bible to be “true” today?

Such problems are undoubtedly important and relevant for the church today. They are particularly appealing to me as interesting problems to ‘solve’ or as phenomena to ‘explain’. However, as a result I often find myself falling into the trap of an overly intellectualised mindset with relation to my faith. The temptation that creeps in is to see elements of my faith as primarily intellectual or conceptual — as if being a Christian could be reduced to merely understanding and assenting to a set of ideas. This reductionism forgets entirely that ultimately, belief and faith are manifested in actions and deeds, not ideas. The epistle of James bluntly reminds us that faith without works is dead.

Jesus himself in John’s gospel tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life. If we take this seriously this means that truth, fundamentally, is not abstract and propositional, as if all truth could be reduced to precise mathematical theorems with accompanying proofs. Fundamentally, truth is embodied and relational. After all, if you claim to “know” or “believe” something, but it doesn’t change the way you live, do you really know it?

For instance, knowing the definition of dyothelitism and the fact that spirit in Hebrew is ruakh is useful for my Christian life inasmuch as it helps me to better live out my calling to be a bearer of the divine image and a redeemed servant of Christ. Christ is far more interested in whether or not I am growing in humility and thankfulness than whether or not I understand the Ancient Near East setting of Old Testament Israel.

In Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov the pious young Alyosha finds himself unable to defend his faith in light of his brilliant brother Ivan’s savage intellectual assault. As the conversation ends Alyosha — meek and humbled, having admitted intellectual defeat — rises and kisses Ivan on the cheek. Perhaps in this touching moment Dostoevsky is also trying to remind us that genuine faith is manifested in action, not ideas.

If you are a person of faith within the academy, then you almost certainly will have a proclivity for ideas and wrestling with difficult problems. As someone who spends most of the day with my head in the highly-abstract, infinite-dimensional mathematical clouds, I certainly need to be reminded from time to time that my faith is not another problem that I need to ‘solve’. Wrestling with difficult elements of faith and thinking things through carefully is clearly necessary, but it is only one facet of becoming more Christlike and growing in wisdom and character. It is certainly not a substitute.

For reflection:

1. How does your discipline train you to think? Does this interact with how your Christian community expects or encourages you to think?
2. Are you sometimes tempted reduce growth in Christlikeness to ‘understanding more’ or solving problems?
3. How can rational engagement with ideas form part of our growth in wisdom and character, rather than overwhelming or invalidating it?

 Andi is a DPhil student in the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, conducting research to the mathematical properties of Monte Carlo algorithms.

Ideas for government policymakers

The FiSWES project began in 2015 by taking a critical look at the ecosystem services framework for nature conservation, and the ideas developed by that small Christian working group are now bearing fruit in a new context. I began a fellowship last year with a group called the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), where I've been developing the ecosystem valuing framework for use in policy evaluation.  My fellowship is about "putting values into evaluation", and I want to tell you how it's going.

CECAN's unwieldy name means "we develop ways to evaluate policies for complex problems". The idea behind this cross-university project is that many government policies address complex situations at the "nexus" of challenges to provide water, energy and food security.  Evaluating the success, or likely success, of such policies is difficult because the challenges are so diverse and interconnected, each having a global context.  Simple evaluation methods that assess a policy's success against different criteria independently will tend to overlook the significance of side-effects and trade-offs, when what is needed is "win-win" approaches that simultaneously improve different aspects of the same situation.

Last week I had the privilege of leading a workshop in London with a group of civil servants in environmental policy appraisal.  Here, along with my colleagues Ian Christie and Adam Hejnowicz, I presented what we're calling a pluralistic evaluation framework.  The basic idea of this is that "goodness" can be refracted into many kinds of value that should be considered during the design and evaluation of any policy. We're talking here about values assigned to things and situations (beauty, efficiency, etc), rather than people's value-orientations (integrity, honour, etc.).  A "good" policy might mean one that is likely to foster innovation, beautify landscapes, grow the rural economy, enhance social justice, or increase levels of volunteering: it could be "good" in many different ways.  So if a policy pledges - as does the Government's 25-Year Environment Plan - "to leave the environment in a better state than we found it", we might ask: what does "better" mean?

Classic consequentialist ethics would try to use a simple metric of goodness to decide which of a number of courses of action should have the best consequences.  If "good" refers to the sum total of human happiness, for example, then although this might be difficult to measure, in principle it provides such a metric.  Some scientist might even propose a scientific definition of happiness, allowing the decision to be made on purely objective grounds!  (This scientist would be captive to an implausible notion of objectivity, but that's another topic.)  But sooner or later someone might point out some ways of increasing the sum total of human happiness that are in other respects deplorable - or that not all humans consider happiness to be their own ultimate good - and the problems of this naive consequentialism would become evident.

A Christian approach should be important here, and I hope that the pluralistic evaluation framework is more consistent with a biblical worldview.  This is because it provides a tool for considering a very wide range of kinds of goodness - wider, indeed, than people normally think of.  The map of meaning proposed by Herman Dooyeweerd and developed in the tradition of Reformational philosophy outlines a sequence of aspects in which all of reality is meaningful, in each of which we might recognise better and worse ways of functioning.  This is the basis of the framework I presented last week, and will be presenting again in York in a few weeks' time.  The bottom line of this framework is that wise judgment is ultimately needed for assessing the overall goodness of a policy, or any other situation.  The classic art of good governance will surely never be superseded by any scientific tool or technique.

Wisdom is of course an important biblical theme as regards governance.  Graeme Goldsworthy* points out that King Solomon's wisdom is portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind that was consonant with the Law of Moses yet beautifully integrative: Solomon knew how to act decisively for good in his kingdom.  Centuries later Jesus, "one greater than Solomon", urged his disciples to "seek first the Kingdom of God", evoking the prophetic vision of a reign of shalom where every kind of goodness would prevail.  Now that would be a worthy vision for policymaking!

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* Goldsworthy, G (1995) Gospel and Wisdom: Israel's Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life

A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

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