FiSch blog

Why disciplines are better together

It has been said that a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less … until he knows everything about nothing!

When working towards a PhD it is very tempting to try to become that sort of a specialist. Your aim is to become the world’s expert in that very specific area of knowledge which is the subject matter of your thesis. It may seem obvious that, in order to achieve that aim, you will need to focus almost exclusively on that narrow topic, to the exclusion of all others (as long as you both shall live). And, if you are anything like me, you may well have grown up having just a small number of intense interests anyway. But there are good reasons to resist the temptation to over-specialise.

First there are reasons that most people around you would agree with. If you are going to be an expert in one specific thing, you need to know how that one thing relates to everything else. If you are going to be creative in how you approach your specialist topic, your mind will need to be filled with all sorts of ideas from all sorts of areas, so it will always be worth exploring new things. So you should try not only to grasp something of the breadth of your own discipline, but also to become acquainted with the full breadth of what goes on in your university. (That’s the whole point of having a university, isn’t it?)

But there are also some distinctively Christian reasons to maintain wide interests.

Eline mentioned reductionism in a previous post: the idea that something is nothing but something else. For example, biology is nothing but physics, physics experiments are nothing but the experienced sensations in the minds of the researchers, sensations in our minds are nothing but neurological signals, and neuroscience is nothing but a social construct! We can all think that our own discipline is the only discipline that really matters, and look down on other disciplines. A better appreciation of God’s creation as being multifaceted and wonderfully rich can help us to avoid reductionism. It will lead us to appreciate the value of other disciplines in their own right, as legitimate ways of looking at other aspects of all that God has made.

This more “democratic” way of appreciating different disciplines might help us to realise that, when it comes to real world problems, it is rarely the case that one discipline alone can provide the solutions. As we think about turning our theory into practice, we need to consider working together with researchers from other disciplines. This may, for example, be as simple as applying your discipline’s techniques and methodology in the context of another discipline. Or it may be a matter of political and natural scientists working together on tackling some of the big issues of our time.

What has been your experience of interdisciplinary research?

A Christian worldview (4) Your kingdom come… in the university

A few weeks ago, we saw that redemption is the way in which God, in the person of Jesus, stepped into his creation to gain the victory over the punishment for and consequences of the fall. However, at present we still live in the ‘in-between’, knowing that we are forgiven now, but that the full revelation of God’s kingdom is yet to come. We are taught to pray ‘your kingdom come’. But how do we live in the light of this coming kingdom?

It could be argued that our primary calling in this world is to call people to repentance and faith in Christ. And of course this is important. One reason why we find ourselves working in a university might well be to shine the light of the gospel in the dark places of the academy and into the lives of the academy’s people. But there is more.

Besides the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom, there is the ‘now’ of the kingdom. Christ is seated on the throne, and he must reign until ‘the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power’ (1 Cor. 15:24). Like Abraham, we live as strangers in the land which we will inherit. So besides praying for the kingdom to come, we can also assert that ‘the kingdom of God is amongst [us]’ (Luke 17:21). Christ is Lord over all of his creation, and we as his people are called to take captive every thought that still rebels against his rule (2 Cor. 10:5), to follow in Christ’s footsteps in proclaiming good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18). As scholars and intellectuals, we have a particular calling to bring our understanding of the world and our place in it, and the ways of thinking of our society to obedience to Christ. We are well-placed to influence the powers of this world to bring about justice and we have the capacities to invent technologies that improve people’s lives and our environment.

Will we first seek the kingdom of God? Will the building we construct on the foundation of God’s work in our lives last (1 Cor. 3: 12-15)? Will it be saved through the fire, and will we bring ‘the glory and honour of the nations’ into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26)?

How do you seek God’s kingdom in the university? How do you live as subject of Christ the king in your research? If you have any stories or examples to encourage us, we would love you to tell us about them in the comments section!

Christ as Lord: Philosophy

Having “Christ as Lord over x” has been extensively discussed in recent posts. We have seen that explaining what this means within whatever sphere of life or study we find ourselves in can be difficult but also rewarding. Philosophy is no exception.  Christian Philosophy[1] began to make a comeback some thirty years ago, and  the Evangelical Philosophical Society has an ongoing project devoted to the topic of clarifying what it means to do “Christ-shaped philosophy”. Since the project is so vast and this blog post so short I shan’t offer an answer to this. But I can offer some guidelines.

1) The nature of Lordship

First, when thinking about what it means for Christ to be Lord over philosophy one need, of course, know who Christ is and what Lordship entails. I assume my reader knows who Christ is so I move to Lordship. Put simply, Christ’s being Lord entails that (i) he has the ultimate authority (i.i) in all spheres of life and (i.ii) on all matters within those spheres, including both belief and practice. This means that our fundamental beliefs (the subject of Philosophical enquiry) will be shaped by what Christ says. I contend that what he says can be found in God’s written word: the Bible. This will have a bearing on the Christian doing Philosophy in two ways; one direct and one indirect. Directly, the Bible, while certainly not a philosophical text book, does make claims that have a direct bearing upon philosophical beliefs. Concerning the furniture of the universe (metaphysics), for example, the Bible refers to angels. As such, the Christian Philosopher, in working out his or her metaphysics, will make sure not to discount angels. Indirectly, the Bible can shape one’s very thought patterns. It may suggest ways in which one should begin to approach questions about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. It does this, however, without prescribing explicitly a specific systematic – i.e. it doesn’t say “you should think like a Kantian,” “you should think like Hume.”

2) The nature of man

Second, one needs to know about the nature of man – primarily the power of his intellect. This is because (if one accepts (1)) it is human creatures that do Philosophy. Thus knowing what humans are like is essential to answering the question “what does it mean to have Christ as Lord over Philosophy?”  This is particularly pertinent to Philosophy since it is easy to fall into the belief that one’s doing philosophy is somehow not creaturely. Being aware that Christ is Lord and I am creature should act as a guide to my philosophical worldview.

3) The direction of Philosophy

Third, one needs to know what Philosophy is. I cannot answer this question.[2] Perhaps an easier question (but one that will still be useful) is “in what direction has Philosophy developed?” If one can answer this question one can then begin to see what practices and beliefs in the discipline of Philosophy are in accordance or not with both (1) and (2).

4) The danger of guidelines.

Having said all this, working out a system of guidelines to approach a question like “what does it mean for Christ to be Lord over Philosophy?” has both virtues and vices. One of its virtues is that a systematic attempt to answer a question will be more integrative than a non-systematic attempt. This integrity is virtuous not least because it reflects the revealed nature of the One who created all things. One of Its vices could be that of holding to one’s system more tightly than one holds to one’s belief that Christ, being Creator and not creature, can challenge that system.

The challenge of walking the thin line between these virtues and vices is an ongoing one for Christian philosophers. It is prevalent not only when they try to answer the question “what does it mean to do philosophy with Christ as Lord?” but when they try to answer any question.

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[1] I understand the comeback of Christian Philosophy to have begun with the demise of Logical Positivism and the establishment of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). As with all “comebacks,” however, there were years of hard work being done beforehand. Moreover, these two things did not happen simultaneously.

[2] An interesting attempt has been made in “Doing Philosophy as a Christian” by Garrett J. DeWeese

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I’m an intellectual, shackled by admin

As Abraham Kuyper never said: “All of life is redeemed, apart from the mundane stuff”. When Kuyper was writing the Stone lectures was he thinking about completing a bi-annual PhD progress report, doing the online fire training course again (could a fire occur in virtual space?), checking references, filing ethical permission applications, ordering paper for the communal printer or reading submission guidelines1?

How can we bring Jesus’ lordship to bear on ordinary administrative jobs2? Here our focus is on understanding the culture of administration3 to inform our response.

Attitude to the culture of administration

A Christian approach to administration takes the same theoretical form as our understanding of our disciplines. The worldview and philosophy behind the administrative framework in our universities shape the individual tasks we are asked to undertake on a regular basis and reveal something of the goals of the organisation. Admin, like scholarship, does not function autonomously; it is contingent upon presuppositions about reality.

How does administration fit into a creationfallredemption worldview? What is my response to these tasks as a culture maker? Few deny that administration plays an important role in the organization of societies and universities, and that this is its appropriate role in creation. Yet a reformed view of administration also recognizes the effects of the fall and the potential for idolatry to creep into admin (admin becoming the solution itself) as well as the redemptive potential in Christ to fulfil administration’s creation mandate.

Approaching administrative tasks critically therefore is an academic calling; it requires us to understand something of the framework for the task, and to understand what that frameworks exists for. Does completing the fire training fulfil an ethical requirement to my colleagues or is this an administrative reductionism? Does achieving an above average satisfaction rating from seminars mean my teaching has been successful? Does the number of citations reveal academic rigour? Answering these questions as a Christian pre-supposes a coherent philosophical framework founded on a Christian worldview.

Could we be subversive in approaching admin, highlighting the limitations of each approach based on its worldview presuppositions? Could we also build an approach to administration that supports and serves it as it supports creational activity within the university, organising resources efficiently (effectively, ethically and aesthetically too). Such an approach, however, might require me to return my appraisal on time and with candour?

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1) This paragraph is aimed at people who are not in their third year of study for a PhD. Those who are may have found that these administrative tasks are actually the most sublime distractions. Indeed this post is acting as a welcome distraction from writing up some stats for me.

2) This post has focused on undertaking tasks as part of a wider administrative framework. A more lofty position considers administration as the organization of the earth’s resources to serve creation. This is the macro-biblical view of admin. This post focuses on PhD students’ response to individual tasks (we often feel they we are not in a position to effect change or organize the earth’s resources – although we should consider our own time and energy as part of these resources!)

3) The focus here is on critiquing the culture of administration. However, if our aim is to please Christ in all we do in his creation, then all admin should be done with this aim. Colossians 3 includes the well-known passage: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). Paul’s advice here follows his teaching to slaves. In this context our attitude towards the work outlined by our departmental managers and university-wide administrators should be as if working for Jesus himself.

A Christian worldview (3) redemption

The third key element of the biblical worldview is redemption.  That means God buying back what was lost.  And if we take the biblical accounts of sin seriously, it’s clear that the whole created order was corrupted by the Fall.  So, building on an understanding of Creation and Fall, we see that Redemption is the way that God’s original purposes for the filling and cultivating of the earth may continue despite sin.  In other words, it’s not a Plan B, but the rescuing of Plan A:

Creation Fall Redemption

How does the Bible describe the process of redemption?  The focus is surely Jesus Christ – and in the gospel narratives I see Jesus in two lights.  He’s both God’s ideal human being, and my ideal image of God.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John show Jesus as both ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’, priest and prophet, Suffering Servant and King of Kings.  Jesus’ life is a miracle from start to finish, yet thoroughly human – and that’s how I can dare to identify with him.  I’m nowhere near living such a powerful, game-changing, compassionate and healing life as he did.  But at the story of the Crucifixion, mercifully, the spotlight turns on Jesus and shows him as the second Adam who stands between Heaven and earth, bringing the story begun in Genesis to its climax, paying the incredible cost of buying back the whole creation from the grip of evil.

The focus is Jesus – and the focus is also God’s people Israel, and through them, me and all who believe – and ultimately all humanity.  We who believe are the firstfruits of God’s redemption project, redeemed sinners called by God to participate in the work of redemption under Jesus the sinless King.  That certainly gives meaning and direction to my life!  What does it mean for me at work as an academic, a student of God’s created order?

So far I have several answers to this question, and I hope to find more.  First, I work in love with Jesus and in great gratitude for God’s grace in bringing me to a place of peace and hope.  Second, I work in the knowledge that Christ’s redemptive work, rescuing God’s Plan A, makes possible good work by all kinds of people, including valid science and its application for good (common grace).  Third, I want my work to contribute to confronting the effects of sin. In my case, that may mean preserving species, habitats and ecosystems from extinction, pollution and degradation.  Fourth, I hope that the best parts of my work will somehow be part of the new creation – some of those things that may survive the fires of cleansing and be brought into the New Jerusalem (1 Cor 3:14, Rev 21:26, etc).   I’ve long wondered whether some of the very species of animals and plants that we now know may enter into the new earth – but that’s lofty speculation, of course!

Astronomy through a Christian telescope

One of the motivations for Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that Christian faith makes a difference to all areas of life. It’s not just the ‘religious’ areas of our lives that are affected, but, in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’

But what does that mean for my own discipline: astronomy?

I’d like to attempt to answer that question by putting astronomy under the microscope (or the telescope!), looking at it from various angles. I’m drawing on a set of fifteen different ways of thinking about the whole of reality, known as ‘aspects’ or ‘modalities’, which were developed by the 20th-century Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (see Andrew Basden’s Dooyeweerd Pages for an excellent introduction). I hope this approach might be helpful to you in thinking about your own disciplines.

The first few aspects are relevant to the universe.

  • Quantitative. Astronomers love to count things, whether they are asteroids, planets, stars, clusters of stars, galaxies or clusters of galaxies.
  • Spatial. As well as counting objects, astronomers love to measure how big things are and how far away things are.
  • Kinetic. There is a lot of movement in the universe, from the movement of objects in the Solar System to the expansion of the whole universe.
  • Physical. Astronomers are also interested in physical properties, such as the mass of objects and transfer of energy, not least through electromagnetic radiation.

Does Christian faith make a difference to these aspects of astronomy? I don’t think Christian astronomers think very differently about the quantitative, spatial, kinetic or physical properties of the universe—even those (few) Christian astronomers who think the universe is just a few thousand years old. The significant thing, of course, is that we don’t claim that the universe is ‘nothing but’ physical.

But is this a problem? I think not. The natural sciences rest on foundations that could already be said to be Christian. Modern science arose in the context of beliefs about the orderliness of the universe, and our ability to understand it through careful experimentation and observation (given the noetic effects of sin). I don’t think Christian astronomers need to worry too much if their astronomy is not distinctively Christian, so long as their astronomy is faithfully Christian.

The next few aspects lead us to reflect on astronomers and what they do.

  • Biotic. Astronomers are human beings. They have regular patterns of waking and sleeping (except when observing!), and their working lives rarely span much more than half a century. This is enormously important because many astronomical phenomena take place over centuries, millennia or longer periods.
  • Sensory. Astronomers rely on the sense of sight, and they have feelings and emotions. At times, the work can be quite thrilling.
  • Analytical. Astronomers love to classify things, such as different types of stars or galaxies. They also make decisions about what to observe and what to measure.
  • Formative. Astronomy is at the cutting edge of technological innovation. And when observations have been taken, the data need to be processed into a useful form. Theories are then formed to interpret the data.
  • Lingual. Astronomers represent their ideas in papers, lectures and presentations at conferences. They give celestial bodies memorable names, like Comet 81P/Wild.
  • Social. With its large international projects, astronomy is a very social discipline. Astronomers work together, mentor junior researchers, hold experienced colleagues in high esteem, and spend many hours in teleconferences!
  • Economic. Astronomers spend a lot of time deciding how best to use limited resources. If we are going to make one new telescope, what should it be designed to observe? Which projects should be given time on telescopes?
  • Aesthetic. Astronomers strive to develop elegant, coherent theories, and to reach a harmonious consensus about them.

Perhaps a Christian approach to astronomy, viewing reality as multi-faceted, will give greater significance to all of these aspects than others might? We should rejoice that we are involved in research as whole human beings, and not attempt to become ‘objective’ machines, mechanically churning out our ‘research outputs’.

The remaining aspects take our attention to astronomy in society.

  • Juridical (justice). Funding agencies decide who should receive funding. Those who have received public funding typically feel that they ought (and want) to give something back to wider society.
  • Ethical (generosity). Astronomers generally do much more than they are ‘required’ to. Data, software and research findings are often disseminated to the public, free of charge.
  • Pistic. This deals with matters of confidence, trust and faith. Society places a certain value on astronomy and decides how much money to put into astronomical research, and which areas of astronomy are worth investigating.

It seems to me that these last aspects are where the greatest difference lies between a Christian and a non-Christian approach to astronomy in the West today. Our society can have very narrow criteria for whether something is worthwhile. With our obsession about consumption and technology, something is seen to be of value only if it gives us better gadgets, health or experiences, or saves us money. In contrast, a Christian view of astronomy can recognise it as having value in its own right. God made the universe, and he wants us to look at it, learn about it, and find our lives enriched by it.

It’s rarely easy to pin down how being a Christian makes a difference to your discipline, especially in the physical sciences. But Dooyeweerd’s aspects may help us begin to think about the question, and to appreciate the many different ways in which our faith can interact with our research.

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.

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