FiSch blog

Cross-cultural teaching

In my work as a lecturer over the past year, I've had the privilege of working particularly closely with students from a number of different nationalities and cultures. This has been especially exciting for me because it fits into a lifelong love for other languages and other places. As a student I loved being part of the meetings of international students at my university Christian Union, and seeing how people from very different parts of the world (and with wildly contrasting life-stories) could come together in worshipping Jesus and encouraging one another.

Now I'm working on the other side of the chalkboard (so to speak) as a lecturer. Part of my job is to help communicate the ideas and tasks required of the syllabus to the students so that, regardless of where they're coming from (figuratively or literally), they'll be able to make sense of them and put them into practice. This isn't always totally straightforward, as I'm sure you can imagine – but it can be very rewarding! Whilst there have been many occasions where a student response has suddenly revealed that we've been talking at cross-purposes for some time, there have been many others where I have come away from teaching feeling hugely excited because of a breakthrough of some kind, a moment where a bridge has been built between our cultures and there's been an instant of mutual understanding – or, equally, when I have been suddenly awoken to some aspect of a student's culture that throws my own into sharp relief, or indeed puts me to shame. 

I believe that a touchstone for our attitude as Christians towards those of other cultures is found in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. Not only did this momentous event mark the birth of the church and the arrival of the Holy Spirit as a universal anointing for God's people, but it also presented a tantalising reversal of the curse of Babel. Where in Genesis the multiplication of language had brought chaos and division, here the Spirit's gift of tongues united seekers of God from many nations in worshipping Him and hearing the truth about Jesus. This is a foretaste of the new creation, where peope from every tribe and tongue will come together to worship the Lord; those of us working across cultures in an academic context have a unique opportunity to show this same unifying love and power in our own attitudes and actions. Here are a few things I'm trying to remember as I teach in this context:

  • God's love cannot be culturally constrained. As the world enters a period of increased tribalism, some voices wish to draw Christianity into the orbit of a particular cultural group – either to claim ownership of it, or to outlaw it. But from the beginning, the message of Jesus was radically anti-tribal (to an extent that caused friction among all the cultural stakeholders in the early church). We need to be very careful that we don't conflate our own culture with God's calling.
  • We need the Holy Spirit. God deeply desires to break down divisions between people-groups, especially those with a long history of hostility. What He did at Pentecost He is still doing now, through the power of the Spirit. As we serve across cultures at university, we need to ask for His help not just to overcome language barrier, but to reflect His genuine love for and interest in all the people He has made.
  • All Christians are cross-cultural. Paul called the Philippians to see themselves as citizens of heaven, living as ex-pats in their earthly world. We should be able to understand something of what it is like for a student in an unfamiliar culture, because we are all in that position to some extent – 'foreigners and strangers on earth', in the words of the writer to the Hebrews. Let's not get too comfortable, but take every opportunity to reach out across cultures, as God has reached out to us.

The Laws of Ecology?

Green landscape

It was thanks to a conference called "Laws of Nature, Laws of God?" that I had the invitation to join a project of the International Society for Science and Religion about holistic biology - where I was to bring expertise in the science of ecology.  So perhaps it's no surprise that my main contribution to this project so far has been a paper exploring what kind of laws there might be for ecology.

Many people I talk to about "ecology" think of the ecological ethic: sustainable lifestyles and the Green movement.  But that's not my subject here: my professional interest is in the science of how living organisms interact with each other and the rest of their environment.  And I'm especially interested in the philosophy of ecology, because that is where I think we may detect hints of the worldviews that ground the discipline. And worldviews are part of religious (and 'anti-religious') traditions.

A few weeks ago I described what makes this ISSR project so stimulating.  An added bonus was that participants were invited to write papers for a special issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. So now I'm pleased to say that the special issue has appeared, and in it a paper entitled "Laws in ecology: diverse modes of explanation for a holistic science".  As its title page shows, it enjoys the company of a number of other intriguing articles.

First page of the article by Gunton & Gilbert

But what could be "Christian" about exploring what kind of laws there might be in ecology?  Perhaps nothing too explicit - it isn't a matter of talking about salvation through Christ alone!  On the other hand, we are talking about an aspect of this creation that is God's temple.  And some ways of scientifically interpreting the created order may be more befitting our status as fallen creatures than others.

What do I have in mind? Well, for one thing I think that we scientists ought to be open-minded towards a range of different models of anything we study, including to models offered by different disciplines.  Within any discipline, models come and go, as do theories, and entire research programmes.  In ecology, it it can be seen that some theories have shifted their attention towards greater spatial scales over recent decades - and, most strikingly, that a range of quite different research programmes (or perhaps 'paradigms') is happily coexisting.  The multi-aspectual perspective of reformational philosophy suggested a way to describe and distinguish four different paradigms of contemporary ecology - which is perhaps the main insight that Francis and I offer in our paper.  And these - which we call the "population", "macroecological", "trait" and "ecosystemic" paradigms - each focus on different kinds of measurable quantities, which means they can, potentially, offer rather different kinds of scientific laws.  We make it clear that by 'laws' we mean something like 'robust quantified generalisations', not wanting here to engage in debate about how laws relate to causation.  Encouragingly, a paper appeared shortly before ours whose bold title made clear that we were not the only ones using the term "laws" for the natural relationships that ecologists seek to quantify.

Working on this paper gave me a tremendous sense of perspective on my discipline and an ability to appreciate the differences among the many different visions and projects that I come across in academic ecology.  Francis and I hope to pick up dialogue with fellow ecologists about the idea of the four paradigms and to pursue some more quantitative research ourselves on the topic - as well as to inspire similar investigations in other sciences.  And for my part, I hope that we've shown how a Christian philosophy of science can reveal more of the rich cultural diversity of the scientific enterprise itself - as well as the rich diversity of the natural world that scientists study - and all to the glory of God.

Sisyphus' Labour: Remembering Who(se) We Are (a holiday guide)

The labour of Sisyphus

I’m supposed to be on holiday. And on holiday we (sometimes) relax: we take stock of our lives and ‘where we are right now’. Relaxation and recuperation are implied in this word, ‘holiday’.

But when we start to relax and recuperate things can get a bit messy. We’re no longer submerged in our workaday lives, and some things which seemed like important activities and tasks are unmasked as distractions which conceal truth from us.

Driving down Spain last week I found myself thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his labour. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was King of Ephyra (Corinth) and was punished by the gods for his wrongdoing and forced to roll a boulder up a hill until it would fall down to the bottom and he’d have to do it all over again, for all eternity. In contemporary imaginations Sisyphus is connected with labour that is unrewarding, irrational, and de-humanising. 

Yesterday I was able to connect Sisyphus and my holiday because I received a(nother) journal article rejection. In academia we are told to treat rejections like a wet-weather forecast – nothing out of the ordinary. But the thing is that we’re taught to normalise an awful lot of things in academia which, once we take a step back from the environment, may be better treated as harmful: things such as competition, individualism, elitism, snobbery, exclusivity, overwork, shaming – and the list goes on.

Feeling twisted and confused inside, I texted a friend about my periodic disillusionment with the academic world. A sense of bondage – of being enslaved to someone else’s idea of who I should be – always carries with it the calling card of negative spiritual forces. We come to feel like Sisyphus – condemned to the irrationality of futile labour which serves nobody else but that (and those) which act against Christ. We become the person held upside down by the devil in one of Jędrzej Wowro’s sculptures, being ‘what we know not’. So my friend reminded me that I was on holiday, and to remember not only who I am, but whose I am.

Before I left for my holiday I had to complete an end-of-year report which helps my funders write their annual report showcasing all their students’ achievements. As academics we spend a lot of time writing monitoring reports like these. But how often do we write alternative reports, or at least consider their equivalent in more positive spiritual terms? The ‘world’ (for want of a better word) wants to value us for one set of qualities, whereas our Lover is far more concerned about who and where we are as unique persons, seeing the end from the beginning, yet expectant of the unexpected in between. I don’t think He sees us primarily as ‘academics’. Our professions are only an incidental way of helping us fulfil our vocation(s) in life: they help us to bring forth fruit from the talents God gave us.  

So in an alternative dimension, these might be some of the areas to think about:

  • How would I draw an arc of my life (not just my career) thus far? Are there any pivot points, especially beyond my career?
  • What would the last year of my life look like if I drew it terms of a circle, or in fits and starts, rather than a linear progression (as our monitoring forms require)? 
  • To what extent do I feel a slave to my profession’s ‘expectations’ of me? How might I overcome these or replace them with more profound expectations? 
  • How closely do I align with my profession’s understanding of success? Is there a healthier vision?
  • Are there any areas of my life that I feel are perhaps unnecessarily squeezed out because of my work? Am I identifying personal value with professional esteem?
  • Am I thinking of my academic career in the long-term, or making concessions for short-term security? In other words, have I sufficiently subordinated my day job to my deeper vocational journey, which may take me in unexpected directions?
  • Am I at risk of burying my talents, personal and vocational, in order to be ‘safe’?

Answering questions like these is a hard exercise because the academic world in which we live tends to operate by a compass starkly at odds with the values of the Beatitudes and the seemingly upside-down world of the parables.

I am realising more and more that to be renewed in our minds is a lifelong task, beset by obstacles within and around us, but mostly within. And still the Gospel signals freedom; there is a way out, even though it be long and winding. Writing this on Pentecost, I am further reminded that we have a Helper. Together we can ask Him – free us from the labours of Sisyphus; turn us the right way up!

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

Richard Middleton on God's glory and his image bearers

Last week, I discussed the first half of a talk Biblical scholar and philosopher Richard Middleton gave for FiSch a few weeks ago. I will pick up where we left off. This week I've included quite a few Biblical references, because his talk linked a lot of concepts and elements of the overarching storyline of the Bible together. I would encourage you to take some time to study these, and pray this would deepen your understanding of God and your role in his creation.

We saw that God created the cosmos as his temple, and that we as his image have an important task in developing his creation. But a question immediately arises.  Why does God dwell only in part of creation - i.e. heaven and also, when it was there, the Temple? Why does he not dwell on earth, and why is the eschaton, the fulfilment of all things, sometimes described in the Bible as a time when God's glory 'will fill the earth' (Is. 11:9, Hab. 2:14, Rev. 21:3, 22-23)?

The answer is as obvious as it is stark: it is because of human sin. Instead of filling the earth with God's image and glory, humans misuse the power they have been given and are filling the earth with violence (Gen. 6:13). Note, though, that humans continue to produce culture (Gen. 4), although cultural innovations are often put to the service of oppression, preventing God's presence from permeating the cosmos. Furthermore, the image of God is not completely obliterated (Gen. 5:1-3, 9:6).

Yet regardless of the destruction we have wrought, God still loves the world he has created, including human beings, and he longs to redeem it (Acts 3:12, Rom. 8:21, 23, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:19). He does this firstly by sending his perfect image, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3), into the world, to restore the image of God in us. Last week we saw a parallel with Israel as a royal priesthood. Here we find another parallel with Israel (see Ex.2): Israel was in bondage and needed to be redeemed, to be restored to their 'garden', the land of the promise. This parallel of bondage can be applied both to creation as a whole, longing to be redeemed from its human oppressors, and to human beings specifically, enslaved to sin.

And so, if we trust in Christ, he redeems us, breathes his Spirit into us once more (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Gen. 2:7) and renews our humanity so that we can become God's temple again (1 Cor. 3:16, Eph. 2:21, 4:24, Col. 3:10) - the locus of his presence on earth. We reign with Christ in the kingdom of God as his body.

The new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, and God will come to dwell with us.  Our calling as the renewed humanity, conformed to the image of Christ (Phil. 2), is to embody an alternative culture to the violence and injustice that now fills the earth. As scholars in particular, our aim is to do our work faithfully so that we will be able to bring the glory and honour of our scholarship into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26).

This is both a challenge and a great calling. How does your research aim to extend God's presence in his creation?

Richard Middleton on the royal human task

A few weeks ago, Biblical scholar and philosopher Richard Middleton visited FiSch as part of a UK tour. This got me very excited, as I've read some of his work and found it very helpful, and Anthony and I managed to go along to a talk in Durham and two in Leeds. Here I'd like to share what Richard spoke about in one of the Leeds talks, as it provides encouragement and a solid theological foundation for scholarly work. The talk was entitled 'Why are we here? Our sacred calling in God's world' and was based on Richard's book 'A new heaven and a new earth, Reclaiming Biblical eschatology', which, incidentally, is a great book[1]!

Richard went back to the beginning: the first few chapters of Genesis describe the creation of the universe using building imagery. The first verse of Genesis 1 is all-encompassing: God created the heavens and the earth. Remarkably, this implies that heaven is part of creation. In a number of places the Bible says that 'God's throne is in the heavens'. God therefore chooses to indwell his creation. The creation is God's house. Indeed, it is a temple!

Humans, in Genesis 1 and 2, are not created to 'worship God and enjoy him forever', at least if you understand 'worship' to be singing God's praises in church! No, humans are created with a task, and this task is their 'reasonable worship' (Rom. 12:1). Their task is to image God by 'tilling and keeping the garden'. This is both a royal task and a holy task.

In the ancient Near East, 'the image of God' used to refer to the cult image of the God in the temple. However, besides this image of inert material, there was also a living image: the king[2]. Besides being the ruler of his people, he was usually also the high priest. In this context, it is significant that the people of Israel initially did not have a king: they were to be a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). Instead of one elite person, the entire human race is called to manifest God's lordship over the earth.

Genesis 2 explicitly states that 'God planted a garden', starting the first human cultural project. The creation is declared to be 'very good', but this leaves space for development. Creation thus has an eschatological element to it: it is going somewhere. God breathes life into the human beings he has made, so that they would be sites of God's presence in the world to prepare the world for God's eschatological filling of it. Humans have the important task to image God by 'tilling and keeping', developing his creation. Prov. 3:19-20 says that God constructed the cosmos by wisdom, understanding and knowledge. In Prov. 24:3-4 the exact same words are used to describe the human project of building a house, and in Ex. 31 these qualities are ascribed to the craftsman Bezalel, who oversaw the building of the tabernacle.

Of course this is precisely what we are doing in our scholarly endeavours! A proper understanding of creation leads us to affirm and encourage the cultural activity of developing God's creation, whether that is the non-human creation, or things that have been created by humans, such as art, literature, cities, or bridges. How does your scholarly work reflect God's work in creation? How does it develop his creation?

[1] Some of the ideas discussed here can also be traced back to his earlier book 'The liberating image: The imago dei in Genesis 1' and the book 'The transforming vision: Shaping a Christian worldview', which he co-authored with Brian Walsh.

[2] For example, the name of the famous pharaoh, Tutankhamun, literally means 'living image of [the god] Amun'.

PS there are still spaces available for Transforming the Mind, the National Christian Postgraduate Conference. Warmly recommended!

'Descent into Hell' and the value of academic work

Descent into Hell

Does academic work matter? This is a question most academics come up against at some point in their career, and in day to day life: while most of us at least started because we love our subjects, everyday work in the lab or the library can be monotonous and frustrating, sometimes seeming pointless. At the same time, academic culture often encourages us to make our identity as intellectuals into an idol, and this makes any doubt or difficulty feel like a personal failure.

Today I want to share an extract from a novel which crystallized the perils of both extremes for me: Descent into Hell, a 1937 ‘supernatural thriller’ by Charles Williams.

Descent is a very odd novel and difficult to summarise, but in brief it follows the residents (living and dead) of the fictional suburb of Battle Hill as they face supernatural interventions of various kinds. The character I am interested in here is a historian, Wentworth. He and his academic rival are introduced in the following passage:

Aston Moffatt was another military historian... and Wentworth and he were engaged in a long and complicated controversy on the problem of the least of those skirmishes of the Roses which had been fought upon the Hill. The question itself was unimportant: it would never seriously matter to anyone but the controversialists whether Edward Plantagenet's cavalry had come across the river with the dawn or over the meadows by the church at about noon. But a phrase, a doubt, a contradiction, had involved the two in argument.

Aston Moffatt, who was by now almost seventy, derived a great deal of intellectual joy from expounding his point of view. He was a pure scholar, a holy and beautiful soul who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact about the horse-boys of Edward Plantagenet. He had determined his nature.

Wentworth was younger and at a more critical point, at that moment when a man's real concern begins to separate itself from his pretended... He raged secretly as he wrote his letters and drew up his evidence; he identified the scholarship with himself, and asserted himself under the disguise of a defence of scholarship. He refused to admit that the exact detail of Edward's march was not, in fact, worth to him the cost of a single cigar.

This is a striking and chilling portrait of how attitudes to our work can shape character. The two figures are obviously somewhat exaggerated, but the different ways they relate to their research certainly ring true. Moffatt, we are told, truly en-joys his work: it gives him a deep and unselfish joy to know the truth about history. Wentworth's main motivation, on the other hand, is hatred for his rival. He lacks any respect for the content of his work, instead seeing the controversy as a personal grievance.

Rather than valuing historical research for its own sake, he ‘identifies the scholarship with himself’, seeing it only as a way to assert his own superiority. Throughout the novel, this angry selfishness eats away at Wentworth, leaving him eventually less than human: Williams is illustrating a vision of Hell as complete inversion into the self.

Williams was active in the academic and literary circles of mid-twentieth-century London and Oxford, including the Inklings, and he uses scholar characters in several of his novels to explore the value of intellectual work and its relationship to character. Wentworth, however, is perhaps his most alarming creation. He is given chance after chance to break free of his extreme narcissism, but rejects them all, and is eventually damned:

'If he had hated Sir Aston because of a passion for austere truth, he might even then have been saved... He looked at Sir Aston and thought, not “He was wrong in his facts”, but “I’ve been cheated”. It was his last consecutive thought.'

Descent presents, I think, a warning to academics about the temptations I’ve described: on the one hand, letting our work define us, and on the other discarding the real value of our subject beyond what it can do for our careers, our reputation, or just our self-image. It calls us to respect the dignity of God's world, and to cultivate humility in response.

Spotlight on… Transforming the Mind 2017

About two years ago I wrote on this blog about the annual National Christian Postgraduate Conference, and for several years now I and others have written up some of the talks that were presented at this conference for the FiSch blog. This year the conference will take place from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th of June, in beautiful Ilam, Dovedale, in the Peak District. You are warmly invited to join us there!

The conference has as its strapline ‘Transforming the Mind’, taken from Romans 12:1-2, which states: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

The conference was founded to encourage Christian postgraduates to fulfill the stewardship that God has entrusted to human beings in the particular context of the university. This means that God's perspective should direct our assumptions, our manner of inquiry and learning, our striving for excellence with humility. We are called to engage with God’s creation around us, whether that is by focusing on natural phenomena such as atoms, genes or ecosystems, or by studying human culture and life. Most significantly, our calling is to seek God's Kingdom. The conference helps us to think through what this may mean in practice as we follow our calling as Christian scholars.

This year’s talks will be given by the Rev. Dr. Joanna Collicutt, the Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon and Oxford Diocesan Advisor for Spiritual Care for Older People; Dr. Maithrie White, Chair of Transforming the Mind, and former lecturer in Literature, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies; and Dr. Mike Clifford, Associate Professor in Engineering at the University of Nottingham. Besides talks, the weekend features times of worship, group discussion, free time in the beautiful surroundings, a barbecue, and above all, much time to share with other Christian postgraduates.

Previous speakers have commented:

"Transforming the Mind’ is the key annual national event for Christian postgraduates who don’t want to compartmentalise their faith from their academic vocations. Fine speakers, stimulating discussion, creative worship and a great setting. Strongly recommended."

Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Director, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge.

"This is a wonderful conference. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and friendly. I greatly enjoyed speaking there myself and meeting everyone. This conference will inspire you and may change your life!"

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys (Former Chair "Christians in Science")

If you are a Christian postgraduate (masters, PhD) or early career academic, we would love to see you there! The early bird registration date has been extended to 15th May, and you can register online. We heartily recommend the conference!

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

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

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

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

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

The conference took place on 20-21 April 2017.

Perspectives on holistic biology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to the cross

Image of three crosses on sunset background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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