FiSch blog

God with us (in the lab)

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. Some ways of reflecting on the nativity leave us wanting to escape our earthly lives. Jesus comes to this world to rescue us from it and to take us back with him to heaven. And the angels only add to the effect. In Cecil Frances Alexander’s words,

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned,
All in white shall wait around.

The problem here is not the ‘waiting around’ (though modern versions of ‘Once in royal’ understandably alter this!), but the longing to flee this ‘poor lowly’ place to be with Jesus in an ethereal paradise. How can you want to return to your monotonous research after such a glorious vision?

But this is to completely miss the point of the Christmas message.

First, the angels. Their message was not, ‘It’s really nice up here; come and join us!’ On the contrary, they spoke of peace on earth. Edmund Sears expressed it well:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Second, that word ‘Immanuel’. This appears in Matthew’s account (1:22–23):

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).

It’s easy to miss the point of this. It’s not simply ‘God and us together’. Nor is it some aberration, contrary to God’s usual behaviour. No, this is God continuing his movement from heaven to earth, to rescue his creation, and to fill it with his glory.

‘God with us’ is a theme that returns in the last book of the Bible. Christopher Wright makes these connections in his book, The God I don’t understand: reflections on tough questions of faith:

[A]t the end of [Revelation, John’s] picture is not of our going ‘up’ to watch what God is doing, but God coming ‘down’ to live among us and make his presence intrinsic to all that we are doing. Not us with God in heaven, but God with us on earth. …

Immanuel means ‘God with us’ — and that’s how the Bible ends. God coming to be with us (repeated three times in Rev. 21:3), not us going off to be with God.

So as you return to your research next week (or whatever you are doing, and whenever your holiday ends), don’t dream of going ‘home’ to God in heaven. But rejoice that the Word has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, and that one day he will return to be with us eternally. Joy to the world indeed!

I will close with a familiar verse by Phillips Brooks:

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Book review: "Engaging God’s World"

One of the things we are aiming to do through Faith-in-Scholarship is to direct Christian postgraduates (and others) to helpful resources and initiatives. This week I wanted to draw your attention to a book that helped me understand the academic task from a Christian worldview. This book is Cornelius Plantinga’s “Engaging God’s World: A Christian vision of faith, learning and living”.

Engaging God’s World is essentially a Bible overview split into the three aspects of God’s plan for the world: creationfallredemption, before finishing by demonstrating how these three aspects affect our vocation.

What’s important about Plantinga’s book, and what sets it apart from other Bible overviews, is that it doesn’t just retell the story of the Bible but invites the reader to think about what effect the Christian worldview should have on his/her life.

To share one particularly apt conclusion, Plantinga writes, "Learning is a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with."

Plantinga reminds us that the academic life (and, indeed learning more broadly!) can be a calling: something that God wants us to do. Not only this but, Plantinga points out, investing time in understanding God’s world means that we will have more opportunities to show off God’s creation for what it is: God’s.

I found Plantinga’s invitation to academia so compelling I started an MA and now PhD – but it also came with a stark warning. Plantinga writes:

“Christian students on secular campuses may expect to stand against these ideas without caving in to them and without hardening into pious anti-intellectuals. If so, they expect a lot. And if they expect to develop a mature Christian philosophy of life without the help of their professors – in fact, with the hindrance of some of their professors – they expect even more.”

Plantinga, as such, encourages Christian students and scholars to be seeking to be actively engaged in some Christian organisation or institution that will help them develop a Christian philosophy able to correctly steer the young Christian academic toward developing a rigorous Christian worldview that will enable them to be better disciples for Christ. A central aim of Faith-in-Scholarship.

So I thoroughly recommend this book for those who are about to start out on the road of learning, whether undergraduate or taught graduate study or those of you who are engaged in high-level graduate or academic research, Plantinga’s book offers a must-read apologetic for knowing and developing a thorough Christian worldview for anyone in the academy.

No square inch... Abraham the Great

When I moved from the Netherlands to the UK, I discovered that many British Christians knew the names of two Dutch Christians from the past: Corrie ten Boom [1] and Abraham Kuyper. However, though many had read some of Corrie ten Boom’s books, they did not know much about Abraham Kuyper other than that he said ‘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!’’[2] So who was he, and how did he come to this statement?

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), in the Netherlands also known as ‘Abraham the Great’, must have been a man with an enormous amount of energy. Here are just a few things he did in his life… He studied literature, philosophy and theology at my alma mater, Leiden University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. In 1863 he became a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1872 he founded a newspaper. In 1874, he was elected a member of parliament, but he had to step down only a year later because of health issues. In 1879 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party and was its leader for the rest of his life. In 1880 he founded the Free University of Amsterdam where he became a Professor of Theology, Professor of literature and rector magnificus. The ‘square inch’ quote comes from the lecture he gave at the inauguration of the Free University. In 1886, he was one of the leaders of a split from the Dutch Reformed Church because he thought the church had become too liberal. Kuyper returned to parliament in 1894 and was an important influence in debates around universal suffrage, speaking up for the ‘little people’, the common people. In 1898 he was invited to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. From 1901 to 1905 he served as prime minister of the Netherlands. In the midst of all this, he was a prolific writer, mainly on theological and political topics. He remained politically active until his death, serving as a member of parliament, then as senator.

Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism led him to see God at work in all aspects of everyday life. Christians should serve God in all they do, and that includes things like family life, education, business and so on. He saw a divide between politics based on the Christian faith and the sovereignty of God and politics based on other worldviews, such as the sovereignty of the individual or the sovereignty of the state. He called this the antithesis. This also led him to affirm the diversity of organisations, such as schools, businesses, newspapers, hospitals. This is called ‘sphere sovereignty’: each of these organisations has its own authority and responsibility in its own sphere of activity. The distinction between these ‘spheres’ originates in the creation order and its historical development. God created things ‘after their own kind’ and this does not just hold for living organisms, but also for human organisations.

In a nutshell, these are Kuyper’s most important and influential ideas. In a future post, we will consider how they relate to scholarship and academic institutions – after all, Kuyper, besides being a pastor, journalist and politician, he was a scholar and employee of his own university!

[1] Note that this is not pronounced as some kind of explosion, but as ‘Bome’

[2] Inaugural lecture, Free University, Amsterdam, 1880.

Why Faith-in-Scholarship? (2) for everyone

Academic scholarship prides itself on rigour and objectivity. Science is considered the most reliable body of rational knowledge about the natural world, while the arts and humanities pursue unbiased investigation of social phenomena, penetrating what it is to be human. Let the life of the mind flourish, and truth will prevail!

Or is that all spin and nonsense? Let me come clean: I wrote that first paragraph tongue firmly in cheek! Does scholarship really have pride in itself? What’s all that impersonal drivel about “science is considered” and “the arts and humanities pursue”?  In the whole paragraph no human being comes into view at all – as if academic work has a life of its own! What’s “the mind”, after all, and how can it have a life?

Let’s try an alternative view of scholarship. As limited and fallible people, we teach, learn from and engage with each other in making sense of our complex selves and the mysterious world we inhabit. From shared experiences, we develop systematic ways of understanding real patterns and regularities in many different aspects of human experience. So mathematicians can invent and test theorems about numbers, space and movement. Scientists hypothesise about stars, chemicals, plants, animals and human experience itself. People in the human sciences theorise about societies and their languages, history and economics. There are the “arts” exploring culture, law, ethics and religion. And there are disciplines that cut across these: archaeology, geography, town planning, medicine, classics, etc. No discipline has yet taken over the whole university!

Aspect images
Different academic disciplines focus on different aspects of our multi-faceted reality.

My first paragraph was meant to evoke a kind of “objectivist” humanism. It was a caricature, but bits of it might be heard in lecture halls, textbooks and university prospectuses. Human autonomy (and that “mind” that all rational people are supposed to share – woe betide you if you don’t!) was set over against “Nature” – a foreign physical world that we look upon like Olympian gods.  Meanwhile, my last paragraph was an attempt at something more organic, humble – and respectful of real diversity: the diversity of people’s experiences, and a diversity of aspects of reality which colour those experiences. If I analyse the wavelengths of light in a sunset while my neighbour explores its cultural connotations, who’s to say that one of us is any closer to understanding reality than the other?

Another problem with my first paragraph is the claims of disciplines being “reliable” or “unbiased”. Reliable for what purposes? Unbiased with respect to which points of view? We may like to set up ourselves or our disciplines as if they have an authoritative “view from nowhere” – but of course there’s no such utopian vantage-point. I understand that literary theorists have long pointed this out, yet the critique is too little aired in the competitive world of modern academic research and teaching. This is all the stranger when deep controversies (past and present) are rarely far beneath the surface of any academic discourse.

Every student must have some kind of “faith” that their discipline gives insight into the way the world is, and these “faiths” may have radically different foundations. My suggestion is simply this: let’s examine and discuss our paradigms, perspectives and ideologies more openly, so that we may better appreciate and respect both the diverse nature of reality, and the experiences of our fellow-humans who study it with us. There surely is a kind of faith in scholarship, and the academy is poorer if we ignore it.

The 2015 Christian Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference

13-14 February 2015 will see the 3rd Christian Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference take place in Leeds.

One of our goals at Faith-in-Scholarship is to support leaders of local groups for Christian postgraduates. This kind of group exists at a good number of universities, but the groups are often small in number, fragile, and struggle to find resources or to make an impact. And there are far too many universities where no such group exists at all.

Are you involved in leading one of those groups? Are you keen to start one at your university? If so, then this conference is for you!

We’re very excited to have Professor Tom McLeish, FRS, as our keynote speaker this year. Tom is a professor of physics at the University of Durham and author of Faith and Wisdom in Science. He has a great deal of experience as a Christian in academia, and a lot of insight into the connection between faith and research.

In addition, there will be sessions looking at practical aspects of leading Christian postgraduate groups, as well as plenty of time to get to know people from other universities, to learn from each other, to encourage each other, and to pray together.

The conference lasts from 7pm on the Friday until 4pm the following afternoon.

The venue is Outwood House, on the edge of Leeds.

The cost is £20 residential, or £15 non-residential. Places are limited, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

Environmental sciences: creation, fall, redemption

Although I was trained as an archaeologist, over the years I have slowly moved towards research that can more accurately be described as palaeoecology or palaeoenvironmental science, i.e. ecology and environmental science applied to the past. As with archaeology, one of the things that attract me to environmental science is its multidisciplinarity. I here take environmental science to mean the study of the abiotic (non-living) environment of living creatures: the air, the water, the soil. (For the biotic side of things, see Richard’s post on ecology). This multidisciplinarity primarily lies in the application of methods from other sciences, such as physics, chemistry, information science, to the object of study: the environment. Furthermore, environmental studies often have clear implications for policy making. An environmental scientist is therefore often forced to consider not just the abiotic aspects of his research, but also the biotic (how does this affect plants and animals) and social, political and juridical aspects, thus avoiding reductionist tendencies.

For Christians, this area of study should be of particular importance. When God created human beings, he gave them a specific task: to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:28). A faithful environmental scientist is fulfilling part of the creation mandate.

It is also clear that the environment is groaning under the effects of the fall. The ground is cursed because of mankind’s sin. The prophet Hosea describes how the wickedness of the children of Israel affected the land: ‘Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away’ (Hos. 4:3; for similar passages, see Isaiah 24:4-6 and Micah 6). Much environmental research tries to solve the mess we make of our environment: pollution, climate change, soil infertility.

But as Christians, we also know that one day the creation will be redeemed from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-22). And then, as the Psalmist poetically expresses, the sea will roar, the rivers will clap their hands, and the hills will sing for joy, together with the world and those who dwell in it (Ps. 98:7-8). What a day will that be! But as we wait with eager expectation for that day to come, as Christians in the environmental sciences we should strive to be the best stewards of God’s seas, rivers and hills we can be.

Suggested reading:

  • Moo, J.A. & R.S. White, 2013: Hope in an age of despair, The gospel and the future of life on earth, Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham.
  • White, R.S. (ed.), 2009: Creation in crisis, Christian perspectives on sustainability, SPCK, London.
  • Various authors, 2005: A Christian approach to the environment, The John Ray Initiative.

The death of an idea: dealing with failure

Research is an adventure into the unknown. As such, it’s risky business. What happens when things go wrong? Sometimes a project you’ve been working on for long hours turns out to lead nowhere. You’ve poured your energies into a big plan, only to find it doesn’t work. You may even suffer the blow of being pre-empted in publishing something that was your ‘baby’ – your big idea to show the world. At such times it’s easy for scary questions to enter our minds: Am I a waste of time? Am I not good enough to be an academic?

If such questions are really debilitating, they may indicate that we’ve started to idolise our research.  But, of course, it’s quite natural to be hurt by frustration. How should we think about these ‘failures’ as Christians? How should we cope with the death of an idea? I will suggest a few thoughts.

 1) Love the Lord your God

First, remember that you were not first called to academia to be successful. Jesus primarily calls his creatures to love and serve him as their Lord. What’s the first commandment from which the others flow? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20). First and foremost, even as academics, we are to be Christians serving God.

 2) Faith in scholarship = faith in God

Second, this means that we can have faith in scholarship. If we find ourselves in the position of undertaking a PhD or working as a post doc or faculty member, we should remember who put us there. If God has put us there, we can trust in him for the furthering of our thought. This means even when we fail, this should direct our attention to God. We should trust that God is still working out His good purposes in scholarship, despite this failure.

3) Free to fail

The Bible tells us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28). This means that when an idea dies, that’s okay! It may be because of sin that you fail… not reading the text with due care and attention, wanting to dominate in an argument even when you’re wrong. It may be that your line of enquiry is a dead end. But if we remember that we’re first to be serving God, including trusting Him with our work, then when we fail for any reason, we can trust that God is using that failure. Demonstrating a false line of reasoning can be progress; perhaps it will make us better academics; perhaps it will even challenge an idol in our lives. I don’t suggest you try immediately to work out what God was doing through your failure but if He is truly the author of all things then you can trust Him that He will work His good purposes though it.

Contrary to our culture’s attitude, this means that we’re free to fail. Most people in our culture have no assurance that God works though failure; it has no purpose but to hinder their prospects. But Christians should not be thinking ultimately about their own prospects, but about God’s kingdom. 

4) Fail in community

This is hard to remember in our individualistic culture, but failure is not purely a personal matter.  We should, I suggest, be meeting with other Christian academics on a regular basis. This way we can remind each other about the true and ultimate work of God and about failure’s place within his plans.

Why Faith-in-Scholarship? (1) for Christians

The European Reformation of the 16th century clarified the distinction between Christianity and the Church.  The believer’s primary allegiance, claimed the Protestants, was to Jesus Christ, and church congregations were an essential expression of this rather than providing salvation itself.  At this time came a renewed emphasis on Christ’s lordship over every area of life: all kinds of work were to be seen as vocations to pursue in service of Christ the coming King.

The Reformation in societyThe political legacy of the Reformation included a separation of church and state in both Protestant and Catholic cultures: God called His people to participate in politics as Christian citizens rather than by bringing states under the sway of the church.  However, this separation was increasingly misinterpreted as excluding religious motivations from politics.  How did this happen?  One answer is that, while churches themselves pursued reformed (and counter-reformation) agendas, Christians failed to pursue their work as vocation – so that, within society at large, Christianity continued to be seen under the umbrella of the church.  This problem was to prove serious not only for politics.

Arguably the most calamitous point at which the reforming vision was lost was in education and scholarship.  Under medieval Scholasticism, man’s natural light of reason was supposed to be fully able, for unbeliever as for believer, to understand and interpret the order of Nature.  Christian (i.e. Church) intervention was needed concerning matters of grace: doctrine, ethics, church affairs, while theology, as queen of the sciences, might examine theories of natural philosophy to point out anomalies with regard to Christian revelation. But this dualistic worldview denied a foundational role for faith in scholarship.  Autonomous reason could be left to its own devices, it was thought.

Faith in Scholarship?

Some of the Reformers did envisage the reformation of scholarship.  Calvin’s concern for this is revealed in his Institutes, even while he is most remembered for political reforms.  But within the universities, the strongest proponents of the Reformation remained committed to the scholastic framework for philosophy.  And so the project of Christian scholarship was forlorn.  The challenge of how to think christianly about the whole cosmos as the creation of God, under the cloud of the Fall, and in the light of its redemption by Christ, was at best an undercurrent.

In the 19th century, a key pioneer of reformational thinking for the whole of life came in the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper argued powerfully for the adoption of a comprehensive reformational worldview by Christians – one that would embrace the diversity and complexity of the whole created order and bear fruit in politics, family life, business, the arts – and scholarship.  He was followed in this project by the deeply original Christian scholars Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, whose “reformational philosophy” framework enquires about the origin, coherence and diversity of the cosmos and the many kinds of laws that seem to structure it.

We call this tradition “reformational” to emphasise its open-endedness: reformation must be ongoing, and no creed, policy or theory is perfect.  Indeed, we surely never will have perfection, for what can the return of Christ mean but deeper opening up of the created order for understanding by His people,  with the obfuscations of sin removed?  What is certain is that Christ’s lordship can ultimately leave no part of human life untouched, and we must work hard to discover what this means in our own callings.

Some spheres more reformed than others: While church structures were opened up to the priesthood of all believers, scholarship remained largely unreached by a vision of Christ’s total lordship. Did the reformation project collapse prematurely into the “public/private” divide we now live with?

Spotlight on… C-A-N-: the Christian Academic Network

One of the things we are aiming to do through Faith-in-Scholarship is to direct Christian postgraduates (and others) to helpful resources and initiatives. We’re planning to ‘spotlight’ a few of these over the coming months.

First up is C-A-N-: the Christian Academic Network.

C-A-N- was launched in 2003, with support from Agapé and UCCF, to support the Christian academic community in the UK. Its two aims are

  • ‘to encourage the integration of Christian faith into academic life’, and
  • ‘to support and equip University and College staff and those academics working in research as witnesses for Christ in their workplace’.

I first encountered C-A-N- back in 2009, in York, at one of their conferences. (At the time I was doing research in astronomy at Sussex University, which is nowhere near York, but one of the reasons I was willing to travel so far is now my wife!) The conference was a workshop entitled ‘Practical Steps in Shaping Our Disciplines’. This was led by Professor Andrew Basden, who has been an influential figure within C-A-N-. We took time to reflect on our disciplines, and how we might like to see them shaped for Christ.

C-A-N- holds conferences most years, and I can warmly recommend them. Sometimes they take the form of a workshop, as in 2009; sometimes the focus is on contributions from delegates; and sometimes there are significant invited speakers, such as Alister McGrath or James K.A. Smith. Details of past conferences are on the C-A-N- website.

A notable recent development has been the appointment of Mark Surey as C-A-N-‘s Travelling Secretary. Mark has been supporting and encouraging early-career academics in various universities, both informally and through a series of workshops on ‘Shaping our disciplines for Christ’, co-led by Andrew Basden.

Why not sign up to the C-A-N- email list for periodic updates, or check out some of the many resources on their website?


What do we learn in the university?

‘Dream, plan, achieve’… That is my university’s motto. I must admit that I cringe a little whenever I see it on our website or on headed paper. Of course we all have dreams and plans, but having those things does not guarantee achievement. The motto seems to tap into the belief that you can do anything as long as you dream big and plan for it. As such, it sits comfortably with a subtle shift that has been taking place over the last few decades: the university is no longer the place where you learn to think, but the place where you obtain the skills that will allow you to get a high-paying job.

What are universities for? Not many postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers will place teaching at the top of their priority list, and many lecturers and professors moan about their teaching loads (often rightly so). However, teaching has always been at the heart of the university. Some of the first universities were created by students demanding quality teaching from professors so that they would be well prepared for the job market in law or medicine. Indeed, the idea of the university combining teaching with research is a relatively new one, pioneered by the 19th-century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. And although most postgraduates do not teach (if you get the chance: take it!), they are learning and being trained.

Maybe we should therefore reframe our topic from teaching to learning. What exactly do we learn in a university? Of course there is the subject matter of our chosen course. Alongside gaining knowledge of our chosen subject, we are also trained in a range of skills: logical and critical thinking, abstraction and theory formation, laboratory or interviewing skills, statistics. However, this all takes place within a larger context. Studying for a degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, is a highly formative experience. Our minds, our worldviews, our behaviour and practices are formed by the things we learn in our studies, by the ways of thinking we are surrounded by, and by our experience of the university environment, from the classroom to the student accommodation and from the pub to the library.

As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). So how should we approach this process of formation? ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord’ (Col. 3:23). We are to pursue our work wholeheartedly. And yet we need to be aware of those aspects of university life that will form us in a way that is not according to God’s will. That includes not just God-less theories, but also selfish ambition and drunkenness. What is forming you in your studies? Are you being formed into the likeness of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3)?

Suggested reading: