FiSch blog

Abstract mushrooms and reduced cows

When you look at a mushroom, what do you see? You might be attracted by its colourful hood, or by its smell. Or you may think of mushrooms in garlic butter. When I look at a mushroom, I see the fruit body of a basidiomycete. This is because mushrooms are currently a research topic for me. And whilst I see the same object as you, I have a slightly different reaction to it.

What exactly makes scientific research different from everyday experience? When we research an object (whether that is an inanimate object, a living organism, a society or a work of art), we stop looking at it as an individual whole and focus on a particular aspect of it. This process is called abstraction. Which aspect we choose to study depends on our discipline. Take a cow, for example. A chemist might be interested in analysing the chemical composition of its milk. A biologist may focus on how the milk nourishes its calf. An archaeologist could study how cattle became domesticated and people started to drink milk. An economist could be interested in milk or cattle prices. Each discipline starts with the whole cow, then abstracts from all its complex features to home in on whichever part of the cow it can study with the particular tools and theories that are characteristic of that particular discipline.

While each discipline provides a valuable insight, none of the disciplines on their own can produce a full understanding of all the complexity of the world around us. But why is this so important? As we have seen in last week’s post on the Fall, one of the ways in which the Fall affects our research is through idolatrous worldviews. Idolatry is taking something other than God to be ultimate, to be that which everything else depends on, whether that involves direct worship or not. These worldviews go beyond abstraction to reduction. For example, we could reduce the cow and say it’s nothing but a collection of molecules that interact in a certain way. Nothing but matter. However, it is not possible to do this coherently. For example, when we think or speak about ‘molecules’, this already implies that we could count these molecules (a numerical aspect). The molecules are identifiable and distinguishable (a logical aspect). The molecules interact (a kinetic aspect). And so forth. Aspects cannot exist on their own. They are interdependent.

As Christians, we confess that God is the Creator of all that is. From this starting point, research is still about abstraction and focus. But we should be careful that it does not fall into reduction. And we should be open to the enriching voices of other disciplines, which help us to have a fuller appreciation of the rich complexity of God’s creation. So that through our research, and through the academic endeavour as a whole, we bring glory to the Maker of it all.

A Christian worldview (2) fall

The Bible presents a narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption.  A story of what our world is like and what God is doing in and through it. We might expect, then, that academia, as an enterprise located in God’s creation, fits into this narrative. In Anthony’s recent post we saw that Christian academics have the privilege of studying God’s multifaceted creation “to unearth some of the riches that God has made possible in this created order, and to put those treasures on display for the benefit of everyone, and for the glory of God.” After the biblical narrative sets up our task as creatures, however, we learn that our task and the rest of the created order are “subject to frustration” (Gen 3:17; Romans 8:20). This is known as the Fall.

The Fall affects the task of Christian academics. Not just because the thing we’re studying (creation) is fallen, but also because we ourselves (the studiers), as part of creation, are fallen. This prompts the question: in what ways is the task of the Christian academic affected by the Fall? I think there are at least two answers to this.

1) Idolatrous worldviews

First, the Fall means that we seek alternative worldviews.

At the Fall man fell into sin. I agree with Tim Keller that sin can, ultimately, be characterized as idolatry. He writes,

[s]in isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than God. Whatever we build our lives on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry.[1]

In this case any worldview that takes a part of God’s creation and makes it ultimate is an idol. Take scientism. Scientism sees that we can understand the world in new and interesting ways though scientific study and then makes that the arbiter of ultimate truth. So, the worldview goes, if a certain truth-claim cannot be explained by the natural sciences or fails to offer itself as explicable by the sciences then it cannot be considered as truth.

We must be aware that there are idolatrous worldviews that we, and members of our universities, colleges and departments, may turn towards. While these may offer valid truth claims that can help with the task of understanding God’s creation, they can also be subversive: they can make claims that ultimately distort truth, thereby disrupting the academic task to unearth some of the riches that God has embedded in this created order.

 2) The noetic effect of sin

The Fall also makes our task as intellectuals hard.

The Bible tells us that sin affects all of creation – including our minds (Rom 1:18). This is easy to forget. Whether in the lab, giving a paper, conversing in a seminar or writing up our theses, it’s tempting to think that we can have exhaustive knowledge of our subject area. Or at least assume that we carry out our task unhindered by any limitations on our cognitive faculties.

But the reality of the Fall requires us to realise that while understanding can be gained and insights made, our knowledge will only ever be creaturely and the workings of our minds, this side of resurrection, will only ever be fallen and broken. This should give us great humility when it comes to engaging in the academic task. We cannot know creation fully (i.e. from God’s perspective) and neither can we know it without hindrance from the Fall. So we must be aware that our work may, and probably will at some point, contain logical fallacies, false claims and other errors.

The Fall, and its effects on research, stands as the dark backdrop to the exciting potential for redemptive work by Christian academics. But you’ll have to await a forthcoming post for that.

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[1] http://www.monergism.com/postmodernidols.html [accessed July 2014]

Planning better places

“Help make better places” is the strap line of my department. It’s fairly good as far as strap lines go, and is reflected in the goals of many of our students. It recognises that the cities and habitats we live in at the moment are far from perfect, but does so without diminishing the hope that we can improve both our situation and those of others.

The complexity, and the fun, arises when we start to consider what a better place might look, feel and smell like. We reveal our values and aspirations as we consider questions, such as what does ‘better’ mean, and for whom? We take theoretical concepts about space and society and use them to frame our discussions about making places, transposing our values into changes in our (largely) urban environments. In this sense planning is both a theoretically driven subject to study and an everyday experience as we shape the places around us.

So then, for the Christian, as for everyone else, our values are exposed as we promote a vision for society in space, for how places will work for our communities. But, how does the Christian decide on an appropriate vision? How do they bring theoretical understanding and everyday experience together to please Christ?

I have found the glimpses of Reformational philosophy I have seen to be of great help in shaping my framework for combining everyday experience and theoretical concepts. I’ve also found the work of others who have written explicitly about place and space from this perspective very useful, not least the work of Craig Bartholomew.

Bartholomew’s book Where Mortals Dwell provides a useful framework for Christians to work through an approach to place and planning. The first part of the book considers what Place means in various passages of the Bible, as well as the overall thrust of scripture. Humans as implaced creatures look for redemption as reimplacement, looking forward to the new Jerusalem as a place with God as co-inhabitant. The second part considers how Western Philosophical and Christian Traditions have conceived of place, revealing how the theological and philosophical perspectives have been intertwined and at times have been less critical of each other than they could have been. The third part develops Bartholomew’s thinking of a Christian view of place in the twenty first century.

Building on a christocentric trinitarian view of place means starting from God as the prime reality. Creation then flows as the place for humans to enjoy co-habiting with God, an ordered place for relationships, cultural development and environmental stewardship. Whilst the fall opens up the possibility of misdirection in the order of place, a Christian approach to planning seeks to redirect it. Consider the centre of your neighbourhood: its layout and design may well be dominated by the prevailing societal worldview and philosophical schools of trained planners. But a Christian perspective seeks to see these places as part of God’s order. A planner might respond by seeking not to prejudice one aspect over another, making places which are simultaneously supportive of relationships between humans, without damaging the environment, not pitting culture against nature; places that are sympathetic to, but not beholden to, the historical narrative of a site; places that encourage commerce without making economic success the pinnacle of the neighbourhood.

One joy of planning is that even though we recognise our neighbourhoods are not what they could be, we all have a role to play in making better places. As home makers, gardeners, neighbours, employees and students, we help make the places around us and influence how others experience our shared places.

Serving Christ in Academia

I heard a talk about “Being a Christian in Academia” recently and wanted to make a response.  I had a list of points at which I would have said something different from what the speaker said, and there were probably enough for a 30-min talk.

But as I reflected, there seemed to be just one point that really mattered.  One thing could set the general direction for everything else, and perhaps that was all I needed to say.  That point was, “What’s the point?”  I mean: why be a Christian in academia?  And why have universities at all, from a Christian point of view?

Universities might just be one type of organisation in which I can find a job, and get paid for what I enjoy doing… so I can work hard and have disposable income to support good causes.  Or universities might be more than this: as educational centres, they help prepare young people for life in the modern world – so I can try and get a lecturer’s job to invest in this.  They’re also research centres, where science is done, technology created, culture shaped, as academics, students and staff from around the world encounter each other’s ideas and spark off each other.

This is getting closer to what actually inspires me about academia – but it lacks that key point of direction.  What does Jesus think of the university?  Is it for him, or against him, or is he probably indifferent?

In the Bible I find a creation story that anticipates cultivation, civilization and development.  Genesis 1 entasks the first people with filling and subduing the earth; Genesis 2 puts the man in the Garden to tend and keep it and sets the woman to help in the same work (with a river running suggestively into the unknown).  Genesis 3 sends the man away, more somberly, “to till the ground from which he was taken”.  But ask what God’s purpose for humans is, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s something about looking after the created order.

Much more comes into view as we go through the Bible, with Israel called as a light to the nations, to proclaim God’s holy name and righteousness.  In the Psalms and wisdom literature we’re exhorted to care for the earth and our neighbour in the face of evil powers that now wreak havoc.  And does Jesus anul this commission?  Surely not, when he stands as Israel’s Messiah and is proclaimed as the one by whom all things are reconciled to God (I love the christology of Colossians!) while “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8).

So I see the university in this perspective.  If we’re called to serve Christ in academia, it means seeking the Spirit’s power and wisdom to work in developing the creation and combatting the evil that confounds it.  Insofar as that vision guides our research, teaching, etc, I hope we will find our work to bear eternal fruit when Jesus returns to claim his kingdom.

A Christian worldview (1) creation

Is there a Christian way of thinking about your discipline? I think most of us would answer, ‘Yes,’ but spelling out what that means is usually a difficult task!

The Bible gives us a narrative of a good creation, spoilt by sin, and being put right through the redemptive work of Christ. To put it succinctly, ‘God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit.’1 From this, we can pick out three themes that can help us to think Christianly about our disciplines: creation, fall and redemption. In this series of blog posts we’ll look at each in turn.

When we think of ‘creation’, our minds often gravitate to non-human things: plants and animals, mountains and oceans, stars and galaxies. But there is much more to God’s creation than that. When God made people, he did so in full awareness of all that they would be able to do. Right at the beginning, God created us with the potential to make things, to use words, to make distinctions, to form relationships, to use resources efficiently, to strive for beauty and harmony, to think about how things ought to be, to act with generosity, and to hold beliefs about what really matters. So we can’t divide up the academic disciplines into those that deal with God’s creation and those that don’t: whatever we are studying, from mathematics to music, from psychology to philosophy, it is God’s creation that we are studying.

But God didn’t create a world with ready-made societies, art galleries, governmental structures, libraries and universities — even if he did plant a garden! All of these things, which were possibilities from the outset, needed to be put into place by people. So academic researchers have a great privilege: to unearth some of the riches that God has made possible in this created order, and to put those treasures on display for the benefit of everyone, and for the glory of God. Think of the precious stones that lay in the region around Eden (Genesis 2:12): each new PhD thesis or academic paper is like another precious jewel, the germ of which lay hidden in the creation until we unearthed and polished it in due course.

Thinking about your research, why do you think God made a world in which your discipline would be a possibility? What beautiful treasures are you and your colleagues in the process of discovering? How can you make sure these treasures are used as God would want them to be used?

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1) Herman Bavinck, quoted by Al Wolters in Creation Regained, 2005, p.11.

A is for archaeology

The most common reaction I get when I tell people I am an archaeologist is, ‘I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little!’ Since most people have left that dream behind and found more useful things to do, I sometimes find myself pondering why it is worthwhile to engage in archaeology.

This is the first in a series on the Lordship of Christ over our different disciplines. Once a month, we will consider a specific discipline and ask ourselves what difference the knowledge that Christ is Lord over all creation makes to our practice of that discipline. First up is archaeology.

After the first excitement of the prospect of digging up treasures has worn away (probably after weeks of finding nothing whilst digging in rock-hard clay in the scorching sun, or alternatively sloppy, slippery clay in the pouring rain), why would a Christian have an interest in pursuing an academic career in archaeology at all? In this short post I can only cover one reason: archaeology is arguably the discipline that does most justice to the great diversity of God’s creation. To properly understand human life and culture, you need to have an understanding of all the different aspects of God’s multifaceted works.

First, archaeologists study the non-living world. The landscapes that humans inhabit, the impact of climate on their lifestyle, the materials they use to build houses, make tools, toys, art. Then there is the non-human living world: the plants that are eaten, the animals that are domesticated, the small creatures that tell us more about the environment. And finally of course the people themselves: the techniques they use to make things, their social lives, their economic system, their religion.

Whilst many disciplines are at risk of reductionism, losing sight of the wonderful ways in which everything in God’s creation holds together in Christ (Col. 1:17), archaeologists are forced to consider many different aspects of the world in order to piece together the full picture. Archaeological theories that try to reduce all of human life to e.g. environmental causal factors (the New Archaeology of the 1970s-1980s) or human social and emotional life (the post-processual archaeology of the 1990s) are bound to produce only a partial understanding of how people have lived throughout the ages. What is more, to build up a complete account, specialists from many different disciplines have to work together. In this way, archaeology implicitly acknowledges the richness of God’s creation, not least in the complexity of human life and culture. This reflects the lordship of Christ over all that exists, because God has created a world that is very multi-faceted and everything is intertwined with everything else.

A response to Anti-intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism in the church has been well documented (Noll 1995) and is still a problem for Christian academics today. It may appear in many guises, but one is what Don Carson calls “blue-collar arrogance”[1]. This is the idea that if you can’t do something practical – so that others can see the direct benefit or fruit of it, your job is fairly pointless. I encountered this recently when I was asked, “don’t you want to become a lawyer, teacher or vicar? In those jobs you can help people, serve the Church financially or serve the Church theologically and pastorally.”

This was not malicious but it was reminiscent of blue-collar arrogance by implying that I’m not following a useful career path. The jobs suggested to me were not “blue-collar”, but it came across as work-related arrogance all the same.

What should be our response as Christian students and academics?  I don’t pretend to offer an exhaustive response, but the following points crossed my mind:

First, we should from time to time let ourselves be challenged by our brothers and sisters in this way. When asked this question I wondered whether I really was doing the right thing,  and this is useful for everyone to think about – not just students and academics. We should examine our conscience and perhaps, if it isn’t clear, consider a different career.

Second, however, we should recognise, and point out to others, that God gifts members of his church with many different giftings. As Romans 12:6a reminds us, 6 [w]e have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” and since God is Lord over all of creation, including the academy and academic research, one of these giftings may be for academic work.

Third, it seems that we should offer a living testimony of how academia can be a valid Christian calling. The Apostle Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” If we truly take every thought captive for Christ, this may mean demonstrating “love for God with [our] minds and hearts, taking on the strongholds of intellectual lostness with exactly the same kind of missionary zeal that we want to take on the strongholds of, say, Islam and Buddhism.”[2] What is “intellectual lostness”? Many of our disciplines are governed by worldviews that are false, that ultimately cannot hold water and are therefore not satisfying. We need to be pointing out to fellow academics, just as we may point out to people of other religions, that their systems of thought ultimately leave one thirsty (Jeremiah 2:13).

Finally, however, our calling to be Christian academics need not necessarily concern apologetics or evangelism. We surely desire, as Christians, to give God the very best that we can in every area of life. Colossians 1:15 reminds us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him…all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Be it caring for wild places, tilling the earth, teaching, defending the innocent in court, administering medicine, building someone’s home, philosophy research, mathematics or ministering among God’s people with the Gospel as a bishop (a noble task indeed) we all need to be offering Him our best as faithful stewards.

Noll, M.A. 1995. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Inter-Varsity Press

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[1] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/christ-and-the-academy/

[2] Ibid

First aid for postgrads

This week, I’m taking a look at another initiative concerned with Christian scholarship.

Grad Resources has a unique model for engaging with the university.  Based in the USA, it has a telephone helpline dedicated to PhD students in moments of crisis, or who feel a need for anonymous support.  The National Grad Crisis Line (freephone
1.800.GRAD.HLP) receives hundreds of calls a month, apparently helping many postgraduate students avoid despair, self-harm and even suicide.

That’s one end of the work of this 24-year-old organisation.  Many campuses are keen to promote the Crisis Line for the well-being of their students, perhaps recognising that it’s a service that their own counselling services don’t do so well.  Beyond this, Grad Resources helps students find support on issues like time and money management, stress and thesis-writing, health and relationships. Some universities and groups want to host seminars on such topics offered by Grad Resources staff. So the organisation is respected and welcomed onto campuses around the country.

But look a little further on the web site and you can find pages like this. As Christians, we don’t expect people to know complete fulfilment while being lost in sin. Rather, we recognise that Jesus Christ brings healing from sin and its effects – already in this life, as well as the full salvation to come at the Resurrection. So why not offer resources to help students think about their worldview, the state of their soul, their standing before the Creator – in short, why not find appropriate ways to share the Gospel?

Grad Resources goes further still. The Kingdom of God, of course, is not a head-count of Christians – it’s more than bums on seats at Sunday worship! The exposure of Grad Resources in universities puts it in a unique position to connect with existing Christian postgrads. If people like them – and us – are not being disobedient to God by doing academic work, then we surely need the help of other faithful, mature Christians to explore what God is calling us to do.  So Grad Resources staff are on the lookout for Christian faculty members and students who can be put in touch for support, mentoring and mutual encouragement. And they provide special resources for groups of Christian students to use in discussions about Christian scholarship, vocation, apologetics, etc. – which is just what FiSch wants to encourage.

I first came to meet Nick Repak, Director of Grad Resources, because of this shared interest – and because Nick wanted to explore how this “first aid” model might work in the UK and Europe. Is any other Christian group offering pastoral care and counselling as a doorway to evangelism and intellectual stimulus? I wonder if our readers have any thoughts…

Meanwhile, students anywhere in the world can now call the Grad Crisis Line via Skype: just select the USA and dial 800-472-3457.

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In support of a rest

Recently I took time out of a holiday to finish preparing a conference paper. At the same time I could see a colleague becoming more stressed with the pressure of their work load, and read an article by the Vice Chancellor of a large British university, in which he admitted that university staff could not be expected to absorb any more work.

Many PhD students are under similar pressures: they feel unable to find enough time to prepare adequately for leading seminars and teaching, whilst juggling the competing demands of publishing and writing their thesis. Many Christian postgrads also take on responsibilities within their churches and graduate groups. Within this mix they are grappling with how to be faithful to Jesus as lord of the cosmos in their discipline.

How do principles of rest, such as the sabbath and taking our burdens to Christ, impact on our academic lives and attitudes to rest? How do they impinge upon our expectations of people who follow Jesus, and of those who don’t?

Could our foundational view of Jesus’ lordship over every discipline, and his love of his creation, speak to our view of rest in relation to our academic work?

This view would not remove the hard work of understanding his creation, nor remove the difficulties we face. Nor would it mean that we are less busy overnight (or that we will take on only what in our creaturely nature we can do!). It certainly wouldn’t mean that my conference paper would write itself.

But, one encouragement is that as we do so we are working towards Christ’s purposes for creation. That we are bringing our work, even our theories, to Christ to meet his character, the only way these thoughts can be at rest. Just as in God’s common grace many of our atheist and deist colleagues do have genuine insights that work in creation for its good. It is likely to be with faltering steps, but steps that are encouraged to return at any time.

I have a niggling feeling that Christian postgraduate groups could play a role in encouraging a Christ centred, creation affirming view of rest for everyone, including our academic work, that might serve to bring blessing to each other. Should these groups also be known for supporting rest in the wider academic society?

A special Book on the academic's shelf?

At one of our postgrads’ discussions, a friend doing a PhD in literature was sharing how difficult it is to attribute special authority to the Bible in the English faculty, where a first principal is that all texts are treated equally.  Must we just make a special exception for this book, and take the ridicule on the (other) cheek?

I’m from a science background, and in my faculty non-scientific texts are supposed to have no authority at all.  Can either of us ever hope to be considered rational by our colleagues, when we trust in God’s written word?  Surely that challenge is there even if we never get into apologetics discussions at work, never mind claiming scientific or literary insights from the Bible in our research!

Well, first it occurs to me that we should see the Bible more as a library than a book. Putting aside our compact small-print editions on tissue pages, let’s remember that for many centuries, the people of God lived by scriptures that were never compiled beyond bundles of scrolls.  Indeed, until the second century or later there may not have been a common list of the scrolls that would eventually make up the canon.  So we immerse ourselves in a whole literary tradition – the backbone of a whole culture.  Christians seek to read Scripture under inspiration of the Holy Spirit who also guided its writing, and that surely includes the ways that our reading is coloured by input from the body of believers that is the Church.  It’s like the central library in a city of wisdom!

This biblical culture may also be seen as a metanarrative, a field of truth that we dwell in.  So I want my ways of thinking to reflect the Bible’s big story – and I pray that there will be effects on my creative thinking about laws of ecology or the best interpretation of data, as well as how I’ll respond to difficult co-authors, bureaucratic hurdles and opportunities to socialise in the pub.  I don’t look for scientific information in the Bible, but for better ways of conceptualising what I see of the creation, as a scientist.

Metanarratives, I know, are discredited in literature departments.  But I think there’s also growing awareness that everyone’s thinking is shaped by presuppositions and attitudes that are imbibed from somewhere – there’s no view from nowhere.  Danie Strauss says that either we “operate from a certain philosophical view of reality”, or we “are the victims of a philosophical view” [1]. There’s more to say about this, but, bluntly, being immersed in the metanarrative of Christianity doesn’t sound so bad if we can point out some of the alternatives: secular humanism, existentialism, Marxism, feminism, etc.

Sometimes the Bible is taken as a reference manual for life’s difficult moments or a source of passages for meditation.  It may provide these – but what if we so dwelt in the writings of Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul and the others, that the printed text became more of an index to ways of thinking that we had internalised?  Moreover, we keep studying the Scriptures because the Holy Spirit will never finish shaping our lives through them; we return to them again and again from new situations in our practical and intellectual lives.  Far from seeing the Bible as just one text on the shelf, we may find it to be a living library that opens a window to heaven, a doorway to the earth and and a mirror to our own lives.  And perhaps its authority is that of God’s Spirit rather than of the text itself?

Some Christians keep a copy of the Bible on the desk at work.  For me it’s more important to have a collection of Bibles in various translations, plus commentaries and concordance, prominently in my living room so that I can dwell and grow in the culture of God’s Word methodically, creatively and prayerfully.  That’s my aspiration!

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[1] Strauss, D (2009) ‘Philosophy: Discipline of the Disciplines’. Reformational Publishing Project

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