Christian life with a PhD: real knowledge?

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

Defending the scholarly life

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

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

The Christian scholar in God’s Kingdom

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

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

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

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