FiSch blog

Studying at Easter?

For many of us, Easter has strong associations with studying. The Easter holiday is the one you won’t really get if you’re coming up to big exams, because Easter term is exam term. Easter also comes when preparations for end-of-year performances and summer sporting events step up a gear. In some of the most intense years of our lives, Easter can seem to be brushed aside by ambition.

Meanwhile, in the traditional church calendar, Easter brings an end to the self-examination of Lent as Christians celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. At Easter we declare God’s victory over the evil that has infested the whole creation, including each of us, because the Jewish Messiah wonderfully took that evil upon himself. We rejoice in God’s grace that brings what was dead in sin to life. No dead creature can work towards its own redemption or resurrection; God does all the work!

Is there any connection between these two sides of Easter? Can there be good news for our studies, revision and research? Are we ever tempted to stop working for success and just trust God to give us results? But the followers of Jesus know that faith and good works belong together, both granted by God in God’s mercy and grace.

So what about studying in the light of Easter?  The grace of God brings us to new life, but it certainly doesn’t lift us out of the creation, nor ever will. On the contrary, we are God’s creatures, dependent on His provision in the rest of creation, and God has revealed that there will be a created order for ever (Isa 66:22, Rev 22:5), where Jesus will live with his redeemed people. Now scholarship may be one of the deepest ways we can engage with this created order, both moulding our minds to understand its structure better, and using our skills to develop it. In both regards, a lot of changes may lie ahead, as Christ’s victory overcomes the world as we know it.  But just as it was worth learning many things at school that we may now have forgotten, so it’s surely worth excelling in that exam, honing that PhD thesis or making that article really crisp even if we can’t see how these things might fit into God’s eternal redemptive purposes.

Easter shows that death is not the end of life; what we do now may have consequences for ever. That excites me as I follow Jesus: the journey will never end, every day counts, and my reward depends on how I build (1 Cor 3:12-15). Perhaps the really Christian scholar is the one who has faith in the eternal significance of his or her work, even without knowing what its value will be. There’s a thought to ponder as I crunch my data and tweak my text!

See how Paul finishes his longest discourse on the resurrection: “But thank God! He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakeable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be worthless.” (1 Cor 15:57-58, The New Testament for Everyone)

Faithful scholarship in action

For many people, “academia”, “PhD” and “scholarship” suggest intellectual pursuits, far removed from real life. If you want to change the world, don’t go and hide in an ivory tower! And some Christians would readily take Paul’s warnings against “the wisdom of this world” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:19-31) to be dismissive of learning in general, except perhaps for certain kinds of approved theology. So people who feel called to scholarly work – especially at postgraduate level – are sometimes seen as lost from the cause of the Church. The university may be a mission field, but why make your home as an academic in some obscure science, philosophy or sociology department where worldly wisdom is enthroned and conversions to Christianity seem very rare?

One of the talks at the recent Faith-in-Scholarship conference told a very different story. Our speaker left his Pacific island home to be schooled in Australia and then pursued early studies in a seminary in Sydney. Next he took a range of jobs without finding a clear calling. But he was fascinated by justice and the social order, and read widely in his spare time. He found two lines of Christian thought regarding politics: one told him to stay away from it, since it was corrupt and belonged to this “transient” world. The other told him to step up to the challenges of injustice and ask what Jesus would say and do to bring life and healing – and this was the message that rang true in his heart. So he pursued academic studies in sociology, gaining a PhD and eventually becoming a lecturer at an Australian university. His teaching and research on different views of society, the church and its denominations, government and justice proved to be a preparation for what was to happen next.

While working in that sociology department, our friend longs for greater justice in the politics of his homeland. And he has friends there, of course… so when a certain opportunity arises, some friends persuade him to come back and stand as editor of a daily newspaper. And from this platform, our speaker faces tremendous opportunities and responsibilities to speak into his culture at a time of political instability – indeed, a time when history is being made. I had a host of questions and followed the gripping story carefully. What should a newspaper editor do and not do in such fraught circumstances, where every action is likely to make enemies as well as friends? What is the role of the media in that particular culture and situation? What would justice actually look like, and how could newspaper articles and editorials bring it any closer? Supposing the ‘powers that be’ are overwhelming, so that even (dare I say?) a journalist’s ideals cannot be realised, and the newspaper itself is forced to fold, what then? What could have ever prepared our friend for such formidable challenges?

At the conference here in Leeds, far from where these events unfolded, what impressed us was his humility and the steadfast faithfulness he demonstrated in his responses to questions. He made no claim to have done the right thing at every step, notwithstanding what sounded like acts of great courage. What stays in my mind is his commitment to a patient, daily pursuit of such justice as was revealed to him by God, in the midst of considerable tension and ambiguity. Surely it’s not only in Bible study and fellowship, but also in careful reflection and faithful scholarship, that we may effectively rise to the challenges of our times in the sure knowledge that Jesus is the world’s true king (Revelation 11:15).

There may still be some way to go in that faraway island before freedom of the press is fully restored, but surely those sociology degrees have a lot to answer for!

Christian postgraduate groups: how?

So far in this series we’ve looked at the why and the what of Christian postgraduate groups. Some of our readers will already be involved in such groups. But there are plenty of universities in the UK where no such group exists at all. The site has been around for years, and has a list of Christian postgraduate groups. There may be some gaps (do leave a comment here if you notice any), but most of the established groups are probably there, and it’s not a long list!

Perhaps you are one of the isolated Christian postgraduate students at a university that isn’t listed, wishing that there was a group you could join, but not sure how to get one going? If so, this post is for you!

The three of us writing this short series of posts (Eline, Thom and Anthony) found ourselves moving to the Liverpool area last autumn. We’d recently taken up our roles as three of the five Faith-in-Scholarship fellows, and we were keen to do something to support Christian postgraduates in Liverpool, where there wasn’t an existing group. What follows is a brief description of the strategy we adopted, and which has led to the formation of the Liverpool Postgraduate Christian Forum (PGCF)—still in its early stages, but going well so far!

  • Gather a core team. We started meeting each week to discuss our ideas for the group, and we committed to praying for God’s guidance and blessing. It’s much easier to do this as part of a small team, rather than on your own.
  • Chat with lots of people. We put together a list of people to meet up with: chaplains, lecturers, postdocs, postgrads, church workers, etc. We wanted to discuss our vision for the group, find out about any existing groups, learn about the church scene, get lots of ideas and make contact with plenty of people.
  • Preliminary ideas. Sooner or later it will become clear how best to proceed. For our situation, we were offered a suitable venue in the heart of the university, and it seemed that meeting on a weekday from 5-7pm would be a good thing to try.
  • Have a trial session. We invited the people we had made contact with to come together, meet each other, and discuss ideas for the group. We found plenty of enthusiasm, and had a good number at our first meeting
  • More planning/discussion sessions. People were keen to meet again, and we’ve been continuing to lay foundations for the group, and to share ideas for publicity and what to do in the meetings.
  • Plan a term’s programme. It’s definitely worth getting beyond the “What shall we do next week?” way of functioning and to have a more structured programme.
  • Have an “official” launch. It needn’t be anything big, but having a guest speaker and making it into a special occasion can be a good stimulus to publicising the group. There will always be lots of Christian postgraduates out there, and a bit of a “splash” can help you to discover some of them!

If you’re trying to get a group going in your own university, do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

Christian postgraduate groups: what?

In the last blog post Eline wrote that the main aim of Christian postgraduate groups is “to help each other to live out our calling as Christian postgraduates,” explaining that “As a Christian postgraduate, you are called to carry out your research in a way that is faithful – filled with faith, and faithful to God’s purposes.”

But what does this look like for our groups? What should we do in our meetings in order to encourage one another to carry out our research in a way that is faithful – filled with faith, and faithful to God’s purposes? I want to suggest seven ways in which this might be done.

  • Bible. As Christian postgraduates we want (i) our work and (ii) how we work to be faithful to God’s purposes. God speaks clearly to us through his word about these two things. So being faithful to God as postgraduates means listening to him by reading the Bible together.
  • Prayer. Through prayer we recognize that we need God’s help for postgraduate study to carry out our research in a way that is faithful. Especially since we live in a world that is so prone to do otherwise.
  • Support. Life as a postgraduate in general can be lonely. You’re no doubt working on a niche research topic that few people understand and few people are willing to understand. Not only this, but Christian postgraduates can feel even more isolated when they’re working in research groups that adopt an undergirding secular philosophy. Christian postgraduate groups offer a welcome home for those in this situation. Postgraduate Christian groups will have people who are not only willing to learn about God’s creation from your perspective (perhaps in simpler language) but also willing to help you tackle some of the assumptions held by your secular colleagues.
  • Mentoring. One great way in which this support can be given is by meeting other Christian academics that have been through the struggles we face. Christian postgraduate groups are a great way to find Christian academics that are able to do this.
  • Discuss. In many areas of postgraduate study it’s not immediately clear how our Christian faith impacts our research; a postgraduate group is the perfect place explore how one’s faith impacts one’s research.
  • Share. Sharing with one another why, as a Christian, we’re doing research is extremely valuable. It primarily helps us to see how our research fits with God’s plan for our work. The interdisciplinary nature of Christian postgraduate groups can also help shed new light on our areas of research.
  • Evangelism. It’s important that we, as Christians, engage those around us with the good news of Jesus Christ. As Christian postgraduates we’re particularly suited to sharing the gospel with other postgraduates and academics.

Christian postgraduate groups: why?

You’re a postgraduate with a busy research schedule, spending long hours in the lab or poring over books. You’re also a Christian, involved in a local church. You attend a church Bible study or house group, and maybe you are active in a particular ministry within the church. Why would you want to fill your precious free time with attending another group?

The answer to this question lies in what I see as the main aim of Christian postgraduate groups: to help each other to live out our calling as Christian postgraduates. As a Christian postgraduate, you are called to carry out your research in a way that is faithful – filled with faith, and faithful to God’s purposes. There are unique challenges to being a Christian postgraduate, in intellectual, emotional and relational respects. And you are in a unique position to help other Christian postgraduates to live out what that means in their particular subject area and research project. And other Christian postgraduates can help you.

Of course you can grow and mature as a Christian by being involved with your church too, and I would strongly encourage you to get stuck in. But to develop a Christian mind, it is really helpful to come alongside others who are struggling with the same issues, and to bear fruit by going through that struggle together. How might attending a Christian postgraduate group help you develop a Christian mind? Could you help others to be faithful in their postgraduate calling?

This post is the first in a series of three based on a talk presented by Anthony Smith, Eline van Asperen-Smith and Thom Atkinson at the Faith-in-Scholarship Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference, Leeds, February 2014.

What are we confessing when we seek academic qualifications?

Bruce Wearne presented this paper at the Faith-in-Scholarship Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference in Leeds, February 2014

For it is not the one commending himself who is accepted, but the one whom the Lord commends.

2 Corinthians 10:18

Let’s engage our imaginations for a minute with respect to the event at the end of your search for academic qualifications. What is to happen? What has been the purpose of all this striving?

Pause to consider your own institution’s certificate. Then consider another possibility, this imagined citation on the testamur of a fictional “Christian” institution:

This qualification, from this Christian university, indicates that, as a trained Christian student,


is henceforth qualified for the service of Jesus Christ as a graduate who, in wholehearted love for God, will seek the benefit of His people.

This certificate is presented in the confident hope that Our Father in Heaven will answer our prayers and richly bless the service of this qualified student enabling her to serve with all her strength to honour the student vocation, in whatever sphere she serves, striving with all the energy God gives her, to encourage wisdom and maturity among her neighbours, our neighbours, so that they too may find the blessedness that comes from adhering to God’s will for all of life (Col 1:28-29).

This imagined inscription of a “Christian piece of paper” seeks to give voice to a biblically-driven vision about graduation. It assumes that academic credentials and qualifications have their own place in God’s Kingdom.

But why limit our imaginations to a “Christian” context! What about the “secular university” context in which so many of us find ourselves working away at our degrees? The Bible teaches us of a Messiah in whose pierced hands all authority resides (Matthew 28:18-20). It reiterates this by saying that everything makes sense and maintains the Creator’s purpose through Him (Colossians 1:17). It would seem that we Christian students are called to confess that our qualifications are granted to us by God’s Son! We carry these letters with us throughout our life.

But as we think about graduation ceremonies, we are faced with a task, a task that requires formation. How are we, in our rituals, to faithfully give thanks to God for what He grants to us in our academic work? Academic rituals may be somewhat ancillary to the hard slog of laboratory or fieldwork, of writing reports and re-reading difficult theoretical texts. But are we not also called to find ways to creatively celebrate our graduation by confessing together that Jesus Christ has given us this “piece of paper”. And can we form such events in ways that are wide-awake in our academic work to the intellectual atmosphere in which we have been called to follow Christ? That is the challenge.

This is more than a reaction to some of the secularised-mechanical graduation ceremonies we witness. And yes, this does mean confronting what is called the “commodification” of learning with an intellectually healthy response. There is a task here, as a community of students bound together by the love of Jesus Christ poured into our hearts, to celebrate by coming together to give thanks for God’s blessings upon us in our scholarly work and especially at those times when we are rewarded for our efforts. If, in response to “do not neglect coming together” (Hebrews 10:25) we join in intellectual discussion about our post-graduate projects, then surely we can also come together when our course has been completed to give thanks and praise for God’s mercy to us in our studies.

Wherever diplomas are given they should be respected on their merits. The dominant pragmatism may induce us to view this artefact as a lever, but to accept the diploma at the end of the course will only make Henrietta Dubb into a pragmatist if she has been won over in her heart to that view. To reject pragmatism’s misplaced pride in the ability of educated people to “move on”, and become “movers and shakers”, means that we are instead taking a path that is thankful to God for this “piece of paper”, this symbol that points us to our responsibility as qualified students under heaven. Our study is of God’s world, the world He loved so much that He gave His Son.

Qualifications are not levers of self-interest, and we thank God for these pieces of paper, these testimonies to our hard work. We are Christian. Getting the piece of paper can never be all-important. But in Jesus Christ, who is supreme for us, even the “piece of paper” makes sense. It is a necessary help to us as we further explore how the service He calls forth from us defines our lives. Our certificates challenge us as symbols of our calling to life-long thankfulness.

Read Bruce’s articles at AllOfLifeRedeemed.

The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship

This is the title of a book by George Marsden – and it’s also the title that David Hanson took for his talk at the recent FiSch leaders’ conference.  In this and the next few posts, we’ll share some of the things we heard at this conference, which took place in Leeds on 31 Jan – 1 Feb.

When Christians do research, is it automatically “Christian research” they are doing? Surely not! Christians might be more likely to study certain topics, like Christian theology and church history – but that doesn’t seem to require the term “Christian scholarship”. We might go further and hope that the work of Christians in all fields will be honest, trustworthy, fair, and have other “ethical” qualities.  But most scholars, from all kinds of ideological backgrounds, would rate such qualities highly, so this doesn’t seem to make the scholarship itself Christian. So what kind of thing could deserve the title “Christian scholarship”? Can we make our research more pleasing to Jesus Christ somehow?

David Hanson asked members of the group what we hoped our own academic research might achieve, in the grand scheme of things. “Improved quality of life”, “appreciation of God’s creation” and “contribution to future research” were the kind of things we came up with. But would our research automatically produce benefits? Perhaps not: we can easily think of discoveries, ideas and inventions with evil applications as well as good ones. Imagine someone working to create a script for a language that previously only existed orally. This script will open up exciting possibilities – both for developing a literature and sharing it with other peoples and also for translating things into it (Bible translation is, of course, often the primary motivation) – but it also opens up possibilities for causing harm and offence in all kinds of new ways. So it doesn’t seem easy to make our scholarship “Christian” by the choice of topic, manner of engagement or intended outcomes. We can’t expect any privileged foresight into future developments, either: consider Lord Kelvin, a deeply-faithful Christian, who said, “I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning” in 1896 – only seven years before the Wright brothers’ aeroplane took off!

Let’s try a more profound approach. If we, as researchers who are Christians, believe that God has gifted and called us for what we do, we could try thinking Christianly about what scholarship is, and where it might fit into God’s own purposes for His world. Inquisitive humans seem to have been opening up new possibilities within the created order throughout history, and surely this is part of the cultural mandate given to mankind in Eden, the exercise of our own creativity as stewards of God’s creation. Now, the mandate clearly isn’t restricted to Christians, nor has its enactment been: “filling and subduing the earth” (as in Genesis 1:28), and “tending and keeping the garden” (as in Genesis 2:15), are quite good descriptions of a lot of research and development work, and Genesis 2 may also hint at prospects for metallurgy, perfumery, taxonomy and sociology! But could a well-developed Christian worldview – call it a philosophy – affect how we go about this work of stewardship, of developing and opening up the creation, perhaps giving  a distinctive, redemptive flavour to our scholarship?

So in finishing, David mentioned a book that explores how a specific discipline can be opened up in a Christian-scholarly way. Albert Weideman’s “Beyond Expression: a systematic framework for the study of linguistics” applies Herman Dooyeweerd‘s philosophical framework to look at the diverse ways in which language functions in real contexts. This isn’t seeking to trump the scholarship of non-Christians, but rather, as Andrew Basden sees it, to engage and enrich it. Linguistics isn’t my field, but it’s one that fascinates me, and I’m now planning to get hold of this book and see where it takes me. And I mustn’t stop thinking about a Christian framework for ecology, my own discipline…

Welcome to Faith-in-Scholarship!

This blog is a space where a team of us – the FiSch Fellows and some friends – will be exploring how Christian faith can affect academic work and life.  And you, dear reader, are invited to join in!

We’ll probably have more questions than answers, because Christian faith is always an adventure, and our academic work is part of that.  We’re also looking forward to hearing different points of view, because scholarship is a community project which we do, in good faith, without necessarily agreeing on everything.  So we want to engage with you, our readers, and respect your insights too.  By seeking to engage each other with compassionate sensitivity, careful analysis and clear language, we believe a lot of light can be shed on some of the world’s most complex and difficult problems.  We want to see new knowledge, ideas and skills developed and harnessed for good in a broken world.

What we as contributors have in common is a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of the whole created order.  We seek to be guided by God’s Word in the Bible, while trying to understand God’s Word revealed in the rest of creation, in service to that Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, who redeems us by the power of the Holy Spirit, for this life and the life of the world to come.  It’s bound to be an exciting journey!