FiSch blog

Conference report: 'The Bible and Literature': Skopje, Macedonia

In the week after Easter I had the privilege of travelling to the Republic of Macedonia to take part in a conference on 'The Bible and Literature'. It was co-hosted by the Macedonian Academy of the Sciences and Arts - a research university in the capital city of Skopje - and the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture, a Christian organisation seeking to engage with academic circles and promote interfaith discussions in Macedonia and surrounding areas. This was the first time the two organisations had worked officially together and the result was a fascinating and wide-ranging bilingual conference touching on scholarship from manuscript studies to feminist theory.

The two keynote speakers represented two different ways of taking the title of the event. The first, my fellow guest Professor Simon Horobin of Magdalen College, Oxford, looked at Biblical aspects of literature - specifically, the genre of the saint's life in a fourteenth-century collection he identified for the first time only ten years ago.  The second, our host Academician Katica Kulavkova of MASA, examined literary aspects of the Bible, pondering the discourses of the sacred in the parables of Christ and their modern adaptation by the twentieth-century Serbian writer Borislav Pekić.

I also had the opportunity to present on my research, analysing the use of the Psalms in a thirteenth-century text. Other topics included the 'feminine principle' in the Bible and apocryphal texts; the Book of Malachi in James Joyce's Ulysses; creation in Marilynne Robinson's novels; the image of the suffering Virgin Mary in medieval frescoes and contemporary Macedonian poetry, and various others. I found it particularly stimulating to hear from Eastern Orthodox perspectives, and also from a number of academics who are also poets. This pairing of vocations seemed much more common in Macedonia than has been my experience in the UK!

The Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture stems from the small minority of evangelical believers in Macedonia, and is committed to fostering real and productive dialogue between different expressions of Christian faith, other religions, and more secular elements of society. This was certainly a feature of the conference, and for me also provoked the question of how this could be done more effectively in academic and literary spheres in the UK. The humanities have certainly seen a 'religious turn' over the last several decades, which (in my discipline especially) has borne fruit in history, theory, and interpretation which takes seriously the living power of religion. In a world where, in the West as well as the East, the centrality of religion in human decision-making and lifestyle is ever more obvious, Christian academics have an opportunity to speak into what can be a self-deceptively 'secular' academy with the authority of personal experience as well as disciplinary expertise.

The conference took place on 20-21 April 2017.

Perspectives on holistic biology

Many people ask how Christianity relates to science - often assuming some kind of conflict.  Faith-in-Scholarship has always involved scientists, and is more about progress than apologetics - so we'd typically start by pointing out that everyone has a worldview, that the Christian and naturalistic worldviews held by many celebrated scientists are closely related, and that all kinds of worldview inevitably shape the paradigms, theories, models and hypotheses that we develop and investigate (see the Church Scientific 'ideas' Prezi - especially Arthur Jones' diagram on slide 26).  Today I want to tell you about a research project where divergent paradigms are the main focus.

Back in 2015, the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) invited me, through FiSch, to contribute to a project called Philosophical, Theological and Educational Implications of the New Biology. This rather unwieldy title represents a number of intriguing ideas:

  • There has been a move towards more-holistic and less-reductionistic perspectives in biological sciences in recent decades;
  • This philosophical shift seems to fit better with theistic worldviews, and so may have interesting theological corollaries;
  • Biology teaching (especially in schools) is likely to take a while to adopt such a new trend and could be helped to pick it up faster.

So the 'new' biology refers to holistic thinking, organism-oriented models and non-linear causation, in contradistinction from reductionistic thinking, mechanistic models and determinism.  And the project focuses on three biological sciences where such a shift is thought to be particularly evident or interesting: genetics, neuroscience and ecology.  I was asked to join the project as an ecologist, and in a future post I'll report on my collaboration with Francis Gilbert of Nottingham University, which has produced a paper and is due to yield a book chapter.

But is there really a holistic trend in biology, or is this just a matter of idiosyncratic perspectives?  Then if there is such a trend, is it disingenuous for Christians (for example) to take a principled interest in it - perhaps we're engaging in some kind of God-of-the-gaps thinking (if reductionism is inappropriate in Christian worldviews)?  And finally, shouldn't school biology just be about facts, leaving philosophical interpretations aside?  Let me address those ideas in turn.

The first question is actually a central focus of the ISSR project itself.  Our papers about epigenetics and cognitive neuroscience certainly evidence a rise in less-hierarchical, less-reductionistic models than historically prevailed.  Michael Ruse, for his part, takes a historical look at holistic thinking in and around biological sciences, from Aristotle's four causes, through Darwin to E.O. Wilson.  He shows how holism has appeared in different guises as biological paradigms change - and that Christians have taken contrasting views on its value.

That last point is pertinent to the second question - along with the fact that not all of the project participants are inclined towards any traditional religion.  For my part, however, the project's appeal surely was related to my faith and my anti-reductionist leanings - so what have I to say for myself?  Quite simply: I have no doubt that every interest I have is somehow related to my faith: from why I enjoyed maths at school, gardening at home, and learning music and languages in my spare time, to why I became a biologist and did a PhD in ecology.  And I'm equally sure that everyone's interests are connected to their broader framework of convictions, values and visions, be they traditionally 'religious' or not.  It's a common ploy of secular humanism to try and separate out 'religion' as an interfering prejudice muddying intellectual waters - but there is no view from nowhere.

So, finally, what about restricting education to scientific facts?  That, I fear, is one of the most persistent delusions of the Enlightenment. 'Facts' are proclaimed by authorities (and yes - I'm trying to be one now!), and historically they come and go.  Facts appear to exist when there is consensus, but that doesn't guarantee their correctness, and truth cannot so easily be known.  But I do believe in progress - and in the very nature of both research and teaching, new ideas need to be aired and considered on their merits - indeed discussed and debated in order to test their merits. 

So I'm excited to be part of this project, diverse and unpredictable though the outputs may be. The workshops have been stimulating and jovial - a great example of spirited, communal and humorous dialogue. And that experience goes far beyond what biological sciences could themselves account for.

Looking to the cross

Image of three crosses on sunset background

It will surely have escaped no reader's attention that we are now less than a week away from Easter, that happiest of all days in the Christian calendar. This is the central celebration of our faith. It's a time when we remember the staggering, unthinkable sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross; when we rejoice at the earth-shattering power that God displayed when he raised him from the dead; when we recognise once more the forgiveness, power and hope that are ours now because of God's wonderful gift. In this celebration, the cross and the empty tomb are both equally important. Without the cross, we could never be cleansed from our sin; without the resurrection, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, our faith would be useless and we would be miserable!

Yet reading the four gospel-writers' accounts of Jesus' crucifixion this year, I was struck again by how different the cross would have seemed to those watching at the time, without the knowledge of the coming resurrection. The writers are careful to portray the very different reactions of the diverse groups who watched the scene. For the Roman authorities and the chief priests, this was a chance to gloat: a sign saying 'KING OF THE JEWS' sarcastically emphasised their military dominance – a warning of what happened to those who dared challenge the might of Rome. Meanwhile, the chief priests (who had always hated Jesus, for the threat his open grace represented to their dominance of Temple worship) revelled in their supposed vindication, using the mocking accusation that 'he saved others, but he can't save himself!' to drive home the reality as they saw it: a man hanging on a cross, and thus under God's curse (as declared in Deuteronomy 21:23), could never have been God's chosen Messiah. 

For the many ordinary people who passed by the cross throughout the day – whether Jesus' disciples or just interested observers – they seemed to be watching their latest Messianic hopes slowly fade away. Some are desperate for a last-minute reprieve, to the extent that they excitedly mishear Jesus' anguished cry Eli, eli, lema sabachthani as an announcement that the prophet Elijah would shortly be coming down from heaven to rescue him! Others seem happy simply to join in with the widespread shouts of derision. 

Most striking of all, perhaps, are the total outsiders – the thief on the cross, the Roman centurion observing it – who nonetheless seem to catch a glimpse of Jesus' true nature when all around them have totally missed it. These people look at Jesus with open eyes, free from misleading expectations of a military or Pharisaical Messiah, and they see someone totally unique; even his death points to his godhood.

Reflecting on these very different reactions to the cross, a verse from Proverbs seems strangely relevant: 'many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails'. Everyone in this scene has their own agenda, but it all ends up serving God's purposes. Even the sarcastic taunts of the Romans and chief priests end up rebounding to Jesus' glory, as in retrospect they turn out to be absolutely true – Jesus' kingship was rendered unquestionable when he conquered death, and it was because he chose not to save himself that he was able to save others.

As we reflect on the cross, then, we see not just Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, but also his ultimate victory. The forces of evil threw everything they had at him, and God turned their weapons against them; as Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, at the cross God 'disarmed the powers and authorities, and made a public spectacle of them'. Let's remember that victory this week as we prepare for the wonder of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday.

Spotlight on… Emerging Scholars Network

Although there are a few places in the UK where Christian postgraduate groups are thriving (have a look at the list on cpgrad.org.uk to find one near you), there are many cities and universities where there is no such group. This blog is one attempt to provide an online community. In the US, InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries faced a similar situation, and they found a similar solution! It’s called the Emerging Scholars Network. Their main aim is to ‘support those on the academic pathway as they work out how their academic vocation serves God and others’. And the primary means by which they do this is, as you may have guessed… a blog!

As the USA is a larger country than the UK, and InterVarsity a larger organisation, their blog has a larger number of writers than ours (including some from the UK – and even some who also write for the FiSch blog!) and offers 4 to 7 posts a week. The blog focuses on three themes:

- academic vocation and calling: what does it mean to be an academic and why would a Christian follow an academic vocation?

- the role of faith and theology in specific academic disciplines

- spiritual formation in the academy: how can we be faithful Christian scholars?

Besides posts that cover similar topics as this blog, they also have a regular ‘Science Corner’ series. Furthermore, over the past few years, they have developed a devotional specifically aimed at scholars and their vocation. This devotional is called the ‘Scholar’s Compass’. I followed it when it was being put together, and found it hugely stimulating to find a new post in my inbox a few times a week to start my working day with. I have also used some of these to start off meetings of our local postgraduate group.

Although some posts of course are more relevant to particular aspects of academia in the USA, it is striking to see how similar many of my experiences in UK Higher Education are to those of our US colleagues. Although the internet has many problems, it has made it possible for people all over the world to be blessed by this work. I would encourage you to subscribe to their blog feed, and hope you will be blessed as I have been blessed!

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Christian imposters?

Image of disguise glasses. Creative Commons image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar on Flickr:

Image copyright (c) 2013 by Kate Ter Haar, made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/8347212476

In the past few months, I’ve noticed increasingly regular mentions, in various places, of the concept of ‘imposter syndrome’ as a common problem within academia – especially for postgraduates or early-career researchers. I’m sure many reading this will already have come across the term, or have experienced something of it themselves, but if you haven’t, it’s fairly self-explanatory: it’s the feeling that behind the polished exterior you’re secretly a fraud; that you’ve got to where you are by blind luck, which is bound to run out soon; that one of these days you’ll be exposed as a phoney, and lose your place in the community that you so value.

These confidence-sapping thought processes are fuelled by the increasing opportunities that contemporary, digitally-connected life provides both to compare ourselves to those around us, and to stage-manage our own images so that such comparisons are never fair. Moreover, once this mind-set has been established, it can easily become a vicious circle: working hard and achieving highly only serves to provide you with a new set of unrealistic standards against which to measure yourself. The often achievement-driven culture of the academy (where people are too often encouraged to measure their own value by their most recent publication or grant award) only makes it all worse.  So I thought it might be worth considering how this common problem might relate to life as a Christian in this environment. What difference does knowing Jesus make? What difference can our words and actions make for others suffering in this way? Three truths seem vital here, corresponding to three dimensions of the syndrome itself.

  • There is no condemnation for those in Jesus. Comparing our own achievements (or any other aspect of our lives) with those of our peers can easily leave us feeling like frauds; yet the truth of the matter is that when we take on Jesus’ life, we are clothed in his identity and victories – our lives are no longer our own, and all comparisons are rendered void.
  • We need not worry about being ‘found out’; we are already fully known. We have no secrets from God; he knows the best and the worst of us, and he chose to redeem us when we were at our worst. We don’t need to fear the rejection (or crave the approval) of those around us; we have a Father who accepts us by grace, and is constantly making us more like Him.
  • Our value comes from our Caller, not our achievements. It is God who has invested us with value, by making and then dying for us. It’s great to work hard doing what is good, but we don’t need to become trapped by the lie that our achievements are what give us the right to exist. In his brilliant little book Ordering Your Private World, George MacDonald highlights the importance of being ‘not driven but called’; both identities spur us on to action and accomplishment, but the second sees it not as a precondition but a consequence of our acceptance in Jesus.

Hopefully these truths will help give perspective when we feel like frauds. They also free us from the need to present ourselves as more accomplished, more perfect, than we really are – something which will greatly help those around us who also feel the same way. Moreover, this freedom and openness also provides a firm foundation when it comes to actually doing our work, day by day – it allows us to seek and give advice without embarrassment, be honest about and learn from our mistakes, and not use self-deprecation or false modesty as an excuse for retreating from our responsibilities.

In a sense, all Christians are imposters – we are clothed in the unearned status of Jesus, called to live as exiles and strangers, waiting for a new life that is yet to come. But in Christ we also have great authority to embody His truth and love in our communities – and that includes academia. And when God calls us, He also equips us: whatever situation we find ourselves in, as we rely on Him we can grow in our confidence and ability to do the job that is set before us.

God's workers?

Richard Vytniorgu offers an alternative perspective on scholarly freedom:

Alicia Smith’s recent blog posts on Rilke and Scholarly work under God affirm the importance of academics’ work. But they prompt me to ask some questions. Alicia’s language is saturated by an emphasis on the ‘sovereignty’ of God. She speaks of ‘working under the supreme agency of God in the world’, that God is an ‘omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being’ who ‘faces no restrictions’. Moreover, we as researchers seem called to ‘work under God’ and to ‘work in his laws […] the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality’. This makes me feel rather sat upon, reckoning with my contingent, ‘time-bound’ existence. Simply put, in this vision I am God’s handmaiden responding submissively, ‘Be it unto me’.

But I wonder how fruitful this view is. Firstly, I remind myself that God is a personal Trinity – that each person in the Trinity is a person in communion with the others, each with his special role. Christ – the God-man – is the person who reveals the Father to the human race and his Church is made up of those connected to the Head, who are becoming transfigured, revealing the divine to creation at the same time as revealing the human to the divine.

Creation was not finished at the first Sabbath; it is an ongoing project in which humans use their freedom either to work towards the realisation of the Kingdom of God, or to return themselves and the rest of Creation to nothingness. The Gospel is so radical because it asks that humans realise their full humanity by recovering their connection to the divine – to the one who has actually defeated death and promises a resurrection. As the Russian religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in The Destiny of Man (1931): ‘God longs for His “other”, His friend; He wants him to answer the call to enter the fullness of the divine life and participate in God’s creative work of conquering non-being. God does not answer his own call’.

Importantly, when we turn to God and work with him in the transfiguration of the world, we are coming into contact with a personal Trinity – a God who has an inner emotional life, an inward movement towards his beloved (mankind): ‘Men are afraid to ascribe to Him inner conflict and tragedy characteristic of all life’, wrote Berdyaev, ‘but have no hesitation in ascribing to Him anger, jealousy, vengeance and other affective states which, in man, are regarded as reprehensible’. Like Berdyaev, I am puzzled by some of the attributes for which God is traditionally lauded: ‘Self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, stony immobility, pride, the demand for continual submission are qualities which the Christian religion considers vicious and sinful, though it calmly ascribes them to God’.

The point of articulating this discrepancy is that creativity – what we engage in as academics (including scientists) – is something more radical than sliding into the grooves of pre-ordained ‘norms’ or ‘laws’. Indeed, personally I have my doubts about the very existence of such things, which seem to me to derive more from Enlightenment modernity than the Gospels.

Creativity is radically new only because it is radically personal: it develops out of a human’s transformational divine image, and is therefore a process, just as personality is also a process. All of us hope that the work we do will be considered of the gold and precious stones variety rather than hay and rubbish to be thrown on a fire. But I would argue that the only way we will create such work is by responding freely to God’s call to co-create with him (not for him), knowing that when we do so, we are bringing joy to a God who yearns to understand and love his creation as it unfolds new developments which will enter eternal life.

The Christian faith is either beset or bejewelled with paradoxes, depending on your perspective. Working under a sovereign God sounds very much like working under Caesar, and indeed, emphasis on the ‘sovereignty of God’ stems from a Roman interpretation of Christianity; it is less known among Eastern Christians. Yes, God has ‘control’ over all he made. But let’s be careful what we ‘do’ with this truth. We must remember that God’s eternal plan was always to reveal himself as the self-sacrificing one, who liberates his creation from slavery to sin and folds creatures into his sobornost (community) of transfiguring human beings. His ‘yearning’ is for this free response among us, to bring our own gifts to the great work of ongoing personal creation.

In my own work, how am I going to dignify the Triune God with a free response to his call to co-create with him as one connected to the God-man? How am I going to give joy to my yearning God?

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.

Scholarly work under God

In a previous post on the German poet Rilke, I concluded that art can help the Christian scholar ‘to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world’. Today I want to go a bit deeper into what that might mean.

Agency and a sovereign God

First: what do we mean by the ‘supreme agency’ of God? Simply that all action can, in the end, trace its motivating and enabling power back to God – as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being, he is continually working in his world to support and redeem it. All kinds of agents act, from individual humans to complex institutions, but only God can do so freely. Our actions are restricted and conditioned by the fact that we are time-bound creatures and our consciousness is contingent on various factors: God faces no such restriction.

The scholar, then, needs to acknowledge this. The predominant Western concept of the mind and its relation to the world assumes that we can have an objective and self-evident view of whatever we study. But only God sees the world accurately in all its aspects and events, and our actions are always affected by the limitations of what we can see and understand. Growing in humility is the right, if difficult, response!

Creation and sub-creation

But how do we then ‘work under’ God? Ultimately (although of course the exact mechanics of all this are up for debate!) the life of the world consists in the agency of its Maker. The creation mandate found in the Bible, however, tells us that we have a role to play. We have the ability – the responsibility – to act in the world, changing and exploring it in all kinds of ways, while keeping in mind that each of our actions has meaning only because God is acting at the same time, and on a much larger scale.

One of my favourite expressions of this is a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien, called ‘Mythopoeia’. Tolkien thought often and deeply about the point of his creative work, which often dovetailed with his academic work, and coined a term – ‘subcreation’ – for the action of working under God, not trying to usurp him. A section of the poem reflects on the dignity and fallenness of human action:

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,

man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,

his world-dominion by creative act:

not his to worship the great Artefact,

man, sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

The metaphor of light through a prism reminds us that though our work is important and dignified, its source is outside us and greater than us. This frees us to worship, not the work, but its ultimate Creator, by following in his footsteps in our own, smaller ways.

God's world and our work

The poem goes on, ‘We make still by the law in which we're made.’ Part of working under God is working in his laws – not simply the moral codes by which we live, but the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality. This is the keynote of reformational philosophy, which forms a great part of the foundation of FiSch’s vision (see here and here for more). We honour God, and do good work, by recognising his patterns and weaving our own within them.

This will look different in every field. Take some time to reflect on what patterns you are weaving as you work - of ideas, of methodologies, of interaction between colleagues and social groups - and where they fit into a world brooded over and loved by God. What does your work say about nature? About people? About sin? About the ideal society? How can you act, as a scholar, in line with the purposes of God?

A sensible shot of faith

Rudi Hayward reviews A Shot of Faith to the Head.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for this book, which contains a lot of philosophy in a popular and accessible way.  It is a response to the ‘new atheism' but not in a defensive mode; rather, Mitch Stokes takes the most common criticisms of Christianity and turns them against atheism.  The criticisms are that belief in God is irrational because lacking in evidence, that science has shown there is no God and that the existence of evil and suffering contradicts belief in a loving God.  These criticisms are dealt with in the three main sections that make up the bulk of the book – a short intermission on the rules of argument in chapters 8-10 making up the rest.

Stokes is a professional philosopher who studied under Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, well-regarded philosophers who have spearheaded a renaissance of professing Christians in academic philosophy.  Plantinga's influence, especially, is evident throughout the book.  However this is very much a popular book with short chapters and punchy prose.

On the first objection Stokes begins by arguing that public evidence is not always necessary for us to hold a belief rationally (not only is it hard to see what evidence we have to support the belief that evidence is necessary, but there's plenty of evidence that many of our beliefs are largely held on trust).  Now, the Christian has a ready account as to why we should trust our usual belief-forming mechanisms with or without public evidence, but the atheist's reliance on an evolutionary account of our cognitive abilities leads us into deep trouble.  So what at first looked a serious criticism of Christianity turns into a major headache for the atheist.

A similar pattern emerges with the science-verses-God objection. It turns out, among other things, that Galileo was a Christian attacking Aristotle, that the 'God of the gaps' is a recent invention and quite unappealing to orthodox Christian views of God, that explanations like: "that’s just how it is" and "maybe this is just one of billions of universes" are no better than "God did it", and that the natural sciences imply naturalism is wrong.

Finally Stokes takes on the problem of evil.  He reviews and responds to both the “logical” and “probabilistic” versions before again turning the tables.  Atheists, the new ones especially, tend to say things like “We are nothing but matter,” and ”Humans are the end result of the random and unguided mechanisms of natural selection”.  Such views undermine our usual sense that such things as rape, torture, genocide, etc. are unconditionally wrong whatever people may happen to think or whatever values we may have evolved to hold.  He concludes that a naturalistic explanation for moral obligation is impossible.  So the fact that we recognize the existence of evil turns out to count against atheism.

This is a very good book, but in a few places it fell short.  Here are two of them.

  1. The sensus divinitatis (an innate sense of the divine) is said to be part of humans' ordinary belief-forming mechanism except many people don’t believe in God because it has gone wrong.  On Stokes' account the problem is that sin has damaged this sense so that it partially works for some and fails altogether for others.  However Stokes also mentions that atheists could still be responding to the faint whispers of their sensus divinitatis when they posit an ultimate natural principle.  It is a real shame that he does not take this suggestion seriously here, since it is close to what Paul seems to imply in Romans 1:25.  The biblical position is not so much that the sensus divinitatis is damaged, rather that it is misdirected.  The atheist may deny the existence of God, but at some point they will end up giving divine status to something created.
  2. This becomes more important when Stokes turns to mathematics as a problem for naturalists.  He speaks rather warmly of Pythagoras and his religious attachment to numbers.  Here we should recognize an example of the sensus divinitatis being misdirected!  This is a typically pagan belief in the divinity of something created rather than the Creator - so it is disconcerting when Stokes tries to accommodate this faith in maths with belief in God when he takes numbers to be part of God, even identical to God's intellect.

These concerns aside, A Shot of Faith to the Head is well worth a read.

Stokes, Mitch: A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)

Rudi Hayward teaches Religious Studies and Philosophy at a secondary school in London. 20 years ago he read Francis Schaeffer and decided to study philosophy at university. He plays football regularly and badly, and is his local church’s leading expert in reformational philosophy.

Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! ..."

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

For Christians pursuing academic careers, listening constitutes a spiritual task. As researchers, we are called to understand a broken and complex world. We are also expected to answer difficult questions. The two are linked: our ability to listen properly will mediate our capacity to provide meaningful insights into the world’s issues. Here, I understand listening not simply as the immediate capacity of hearing others, but also an awareness and openness to broader relevant issues (including the pressing questions in our own research field). The ability to listen properly will enable us not only to untie the complexities of our own subjects but also to discern God’s wisdom on contemporary issues. The British theologian John Stott stresses that

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.

(1992, p13)

I believe that “double listening” is a task for Christian scholars. We are called to be sensitive to modern issues while preserving our attention and obedience to God’s word. Here I will focus on the importance of listening to the world’s issues with love and sensitivity, and in a subsequent post I plan to address the need to listen to God’s Word.

The ability to listen to people’s voices is a biblical mandate. From the beginning of the biblical narrative, God is presented as someone who hears people’s cries for help and is deeply attentive to the world’s problems. In the context of slavery and oppression:

The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

(Exodus 3:7; see also Genesis 18:20-21; Psalm 34)

There are even warnings against shutting our ears to people’s cries. “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:23). Listening was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry. He heard the cry of the poor, women, children, the mentally ill, and the wrongdoer. In one instance, He asked a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), revealing a deep interest in the man’s life story, hopes and problems. He considered critically the present issues of his time and showed compassion, love and sensitivity. As he once said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

I believe these are strong reasons for adopting a more sensitive approach to listening in our own research. This can take diverse forms: we may develop research questions that will enable the participants (or those who will benefit from our study) to voice their concerns and expectations. We may also need to be deliberate about asking whose voices we are privileging and whose we are ignoring. Like Jesus’ ministry, empathy should permeate our relationships with research participants, colleagues, and the public.

At the same time, Jesus regularly withdrew to listen to the words of his Father (see Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12-13). We are also called to be like him in both ways. My experience of doing a PhD in social psychology has taught me much about the need to listen to people’s voices on relevant societal issues. Listening to cries for justice, equal opportunities, adequate health and social care is paramount, particularly in a world of superficial interactions and noise in which many voices are systematically drowned out. For instance, in my own research, I explored older adults’ views on well-being in later life, particularly in community settings, and realised that this group has been consistently overlooked in policy campaigns and frameworks of care. Their voices are hardly heard!

Progressively, I became aware that listening to their concerns would be a spiritual task. Their views, experiences and hopes would be venues for spiritual, political, and psychological change.

Finally, John Stott (1992) highlights that

[Double listening] is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and to Christian mission.

(p29)

I believe (double) listening is also indispensable to Christian scholars. In the context of academia, it may enable us to tackle relevant issues in a creative and transformative way.

Thanks to my friend Jess Hope (PhD student in History, University of Cambridge) for proofreading and for helping me to think more deeply about double listening in research.

Reference

Stott, John (1992). The contemporary Christian: an urgent plea for double listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

Bruno Medeiros recently completed his PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Originally from Paraíba in Brazil, he is interested in the social psychology of health and community.

Wisdom for Thinkers

For Christmas a year ago I was given a book called ‘Wisdom for thinkers: An introduction to Christian philosophy’. It’s not a very thick book – under 200 pages – but fairly dense. So, having just finished it, I thought I’d tell you about it.

Wisdom for Thinkers by WJ Ouweneel

The book was written as part of a series designed to help Christian students think Christianly about their subject. Subsequent volumes on a Christian approach to politics, theology and psychology have already been published, and there are plans for further volumes on biology and history. The author, Willem J. Ouweneel, is a prolific writer who has three(!) PhDs, in biology, philosophy and theology. As the first volume of the series, this one focuses on philosophy, with a particular emphasis on philosophy of science (taken to mean academic scholarship in a broad sense, as in the German Wissenschaft). As such, this book can be fruitful reading for Christians in a wide range of subject areas.

The first chapter asks the question ‘Does it matter whether there is a Christian philosophy or not?’. The second chapter looks at the concepts of wisdom, knowledge and science and traces how these related to seeing and thinking through the history of Western philosophy.

The next four chapters form the core of the book and provide a concise, readable and accessible introduction to Christian philosophy – in particular, the philosophy of the ‘reformational’ Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and others who further developed his ideas. These chapters provide a philosophical analysis of reality, giving you a framework and terminology with which you can analyse your own area of study, as well as all kinds of societal trends. For instance, the FiSWES group used this framework to analyse the ecosystem services framework and to provide a less reductionist alternative.

The last four chapters of the book move from a philosophical analysis of reality to a philosophical analysis of knowing, and particularly the kind of knowing that goes on in academic scholarship. There is much here that can help in understanding the role that scholarship plays within the wider context of all human knowledge.

I do have some points of criticism as well, though. Overall, the book seemed quite dry - but perhaps just because I was already familiar with much of the content. The transitions between chapters could have been better, which would have greatly improved the coherence of the book. At the end of each chapter there is a list of ‘Questions for review’, but these are all factual questions and do not help the reader to deepen his/her understanding.

Be that as it may, for anyone interested in developing a Christian approach to their subject area, this book has much to offer - not least a framework from which one can begin to understand the focus of their discipline better, and a method to analyse its shortcomings.

Wisdom for thinkers, An introduction to Christian philosophy by WJ Ouweneel (2014, Grand Rapids: Paideia Press)

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