Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Cambridge

CHAS

Chris Watkin, Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University, Australia, recalls the origins of CHAS:

The Cambridge CHAS group (Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) began in 2008 as an occasional and informal gathering of postgraduate students with a common interest in exploring what it means to be a Christian scholar. The “agenda” of the early meetings (a word somewhat over-formal for the “let’s get together with some friends and have a chat” vibe of the group) was a combination of prepared reflections from group members on their own research, conversations about books we had elected to read and discuss together as a group (George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was one of the first, and I think we also discussed John Stott’s Your Mind Matters), and free-form conversations about research-related issues that our non-Christian colleagues either would not understand or would not be interested in.

As I reflect back on those early days there are five main reasons why I am thankful for it:

  • At a very basic level, it kept the priority of thinking about what I was doing from a Christian point of view on the agenda, at a busy time when the pressures of completing a PhD could have been all-consuming.
  • In the context of a secular university where the idea that research in arts and humanities could be conducted from a Christian point of view would have been met by most people with incredulity or derision, it was an encouragement not to drift along with the flow, and the group formed its own modest little counterculture standing against the prevailing assumptions around us.
  • It introduced me to some stimulating thinking on what sometimes gets called the “integration” of faith and learning, both from published authors and from other members of the group.
  • It was somewhere to point Christians who were struggling with questions around faith and learning (this was a huge help).
  • Finally, though by no means incidentally, the craic was good.

David Parry, currently teaching English literature for various Cambridge colleges, continues the story:

Like many graduate student groups, CHAS has had ups and downs as enthusiastic new postgrads have got involved and key players have moved on to other places or responsibilities. En route, we have tried a wide range of formats and strategies, including at different times a weekly reading group and a seminar series bringing in academics from across the UK and visiting international scholars to provide a Christian perspective on their fields.

More recently, we have felt the need to get back to basics, fostering conversation and community over food. While Cambridge is blessed with an abundance of lectures and seminars by often eminent speakers, including many on faith-related issues, we feel that there is still a gap to fill in providing space where Christian graduate students can think through their faith and studies in a supportive peer group.

CHAS has a mutually supportive relationship with the Christian Graduate Society, which hosts weekly Bible study groups and outreach events. Although our active membership remains relatively small numerically, we believe that it is not insignificant. Taking the long view, for even a handful of people each year to catch the vision of thinking Christianly about our studies and about all of life can have abiding fruit over a lifetime. Just as in Jesus’ parable, the seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a small group of graduate students can grow into a tree that gives home and shelter to many.

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