FiSch blog

Studying a life of faith

Anchoress

Anchoress (courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Notice the cat(?)

Alicia SmithYou should not keep any animal except a cat… Anyone who wishes may sleep in leggings… They should not snack between meals.

These are a few of the more specific instructions given in the medieval treatise for religious recluses now known as Ancrene Wisse, ‘A Guide for Anchorites’, which was the focus of my master’s dissertation.

These rules offer a fascinating and often charming insight into a very alien way of life, but my particular focus is on the Guide’s highly detailed instructions on prayer. Anchorites, who enclosed themselves in cells to lead lives of prayer and contemplation, followed the Hours (the prayers offered by monastic orders at seven fixed times daily) and a sprawling structure of other prayers to God and the saints. The Guide instructs them on the proper posture, words, and alignment of heart for this daily work, and their intercession before God is seen as uniquely powerful, a heroic act of devotion and an ‘anchor’ to the Church.

This is the spirituality and way of life which I plan to spend the next three years studying – but if I’m honest, this is also where I get impostor syndrome. More often than not, my academic work on the value of prayer for these medieval people throws my own prayer life into uncomfortable relief. I often struggle to pray at all, let alone commit my whole life to it. I am used to thinking and writing theoretically about the power of prayer, but in practice, I find this difficult to believe, at least to the extent that it becomes a discipline in my life.

This isn’t a practical problem, exactly: plenty of academics study religion without any faith of their own. My writing about medieval anchorites and their connection to the Divine doesn’t need to be matched by a living connection of my own in order to fit into the literary academy’s way of doing things.

And it’s not as if I would want to emulate the exact kind of prayer life which the Guide recommends – I’m a modern, Protestant evangelical living in a world which is almost unimaginably different from the high Middle Ages, so praying to the saints and mortifying the flesh as a means to more effective prayer are not concepts which really register.

But my literary interests aren’t arbitrary. I find anchorites, medieval liturgy, and models of prayer interesting precisely because of my faith, and the mismatch between the spiritual and academic spheres of my life feels more acute because of this basic connection. Maybe you’ve felt the same thing: your faith is supposedly a part of your work, and you know that faith and scholarship can and should be integrated, but this ideal is the exact point at which your own inadequacy is most pressing.

For me, the crucial question is how I can write with integrity about the transcendent, unifying power of prayer in these medieval texts, while being honest about the limitations on all human efforts to pray – especially my own. I often think of the anchorite’s lifestyle as obedience to the Biblical command to ‘pray continually’, and this is perhaps a place to start: even the recluse’s extreme devotion does not involve literally continual prayer, but their life as a whole is seen as an act of intercession and worship.

It’s impossible to know for sure how medieval anchorites themselves felt about their lives, but I imagine they must have felt the gap between the high calling of their life and their own human capabilities, and I hope that they were able to balance this with the mercy of God. This is something that academics need to be able to do too: to resist the combination of perfectionism and fear (which can come from both church culture and academia), knowing that we don’t need to add up our good works to a sufficient whole, but instead receive overflowing grace from the only true Person of integrity. Only this grace allows us to live a life of true worship.

Alicia Smith recently completed her MPhil and is about to begin doctoral studies in English literature at Oxford University, at Queen’s College. She is originally from Leeds.

Two kingdoms?

The True Contrast

Last week, I summarised the first part of the first talk Andrew Fellows gave at the Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference in June. We saw that our calling as Christian scholars is rooted in the creation mandate and the mission mandate. But how are the two mandates related?

Richard Niebuhr, in his influential book Christ and culture, lists a number of ways in which the two mandates can be related to each other:

Christ against culture: Christians can separate themselves from the surrounding culture and create a ghetto, a new Christian culture that has nothing in common with the dominant culture. The drawback of this is that it impoverishes the Christian mind.

Christ of culture: trying to be relevant, to fit in. This results in the loss of distinctiveness of the Christian mind.

Christ above culture: culture is seen as valuable only as far as it engages with the ‘supernatural’. This entails a devaluation of other cultural expressions.

Christ and culture: this idea is currently experiencing something of a revival in the ‘two kingdoms’ idea: that God has an earthly kingdom of law as well as a heavenly kingdom of grace. This leads to dualism.

Christ transforms culture: all of life can be spiritual, because grace touches all of creation. Christ’s work as Redeemer is related to His work as Creator, and this is seen in the transformation that occurs when redemption touches our life: we see a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that academic work also can be spiritual. As Christian scholars, therefore, we are committed to be transformers of culture, and especially transformers of thought patterns (Rom. 12:1-2).

Thanks to Brian Watts at the King’s Community Church

The evangelical church is still often committed to model 4, also known as the ‘secular vs. sacred’ model. However, this is not the crucial antithesis, indeed it is not an antithesis at all!  So how does the kingdom of God relate to cultural institutions?  There is an absolute antithesis between the kingdom of light and heaven and the kingdom of darkness and this world: you can only belong to one of these kingdoms. These kingdoms are not geographical, not reducible to a social entity or institution. They are invisible realities that seize the core of an individual’s personality: our heart. The diagram here is based on one in Al Wolters’ classic book Creation Regained.

The Kingdom in Church and Academy

God makes the invisible reality of the kingdom of God visible through incarnation. He did this first and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ, but He continues to do this in the local church. The church is an institution with its own authority, and has the function of promoting the values and truths of the invisible kingdom. Furthermore, incarnation happens where ’two or three are gathered in His name’ (Matt. 18:20). The kingdom can work itself out in many other social entities, movements, structures and networks whose specific aims are kingdom purposes, with an ultimate commitment to the kingdom of Christ. These have real integrity to exist alongside the local church. Their commitment can be worked out in multiple and multifaceted ways. As Christian academics, we manifest Christ’s rule in the academy. In an increasingly secular society, we need to be creative in gathering in communities where two or three gather in His name. Why not seek out other Christian postgrads in your university to meet up with, to further the purposes of His kingdom in your university, in your subject area?

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Two mandates

From 17-19 June, this year’s Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference took place in the usual, beautiful location of Ilam, Derbyshire. One of the main speakers was Andrew Fellows, the Director of Christian Heritage in Cambridge, who also spent many years working for L’Abri UK in Hampshire. During the conference, he gave two talks, which I will summarise here over the next few weeks (any misunderstandings of Andrew’s message are obviously my fault). We hope you will be blessed as you read them!

During the lifetime of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Roman Empire was in decline, and Rome fell to the ‘barbarian’ Visigoths in 410 (Augustine wrote a thick volume, The city of God against the Pagans, to help his fellow Christians to come to terms with this). During our own time, we can see a similar trend at work. Europe is at an ‘Augustinian moment’, so to speak. Our culture has abandoned the Judaeo-Christian worldview and its values, and it is a legitimate question whether Europe can survive this loss. The question posed in Psalm 11:3, ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ is very relevant for today.

One of the things we as Christian scholars can do, is to be ‘doorkeepers of civilisation’, by thinking great thoughts: high-level thoughts that are firmly rooted in our Christian worldview and values. The church should recognise the importance of this, and encourage and support her intellectuals and scholars. This calling, to provide a solid foundation for Christian living, is rooted in the two mandates that God’s people are given in the Bible.

The two mandates are the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15) and the mission mandate (Matt. 28:19-20, Mk 16:15). They are really two sides of the same coin: both are commands that show us the purpose of our life with an imperative behind them. At the same time, all humans function on two stages: the stage of nature, carried along by natural laws, and the stage of culture, the realm of the inner life, the mind, the will and intentionality.

In the cultural mandate, we are commanded to have dominion, to add dimensions to creation, to ‘open up’ creation using our culture-making abilities under Christ’s lordship. This is part of the glory of human beings, and one of the ways in which we image God and His creativity. In the mission mandate, we are commanded to go to the ends of the earth to bring people under Christ’s lordship.

To reach the fulfilment of the mission mandate, it must be linked to the cultural mandate: we are not saved out of creation, but we are restored to live out the cultural mandate. One of the main weaknesses of the contemporary church is that it often fails to link the two mandates in a fruitful way. As a result, the Biblical view of vocation is compromised. Every believer shares the same calling: we are called by God, to God and for God with all of our life (Rom. 11:36). Every secondary calling (to be say, a pastor, a scholar, a plumber or a stay-at-home-mum) under this is sanctified by the first calling, with no hierarchy of callings. Creation and redemption are not in opposition to each other. Instead, redemption restores us to be the servants and developers of creation that we were made to be. In the academic calling, the cultural mandate is highly concentrated, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that Christian scholars use their God-given gifts to bring restoration to this part of creation and culture, but we must also keep the mission mandate in view.

Next week, we will continue with the second part of the talk, which asks the question of how the two mandates are related to each other.

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Why FiSch? (4) For the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of GodRight now postgrads are working particularly hard. In the UK, masters students have about a month left to submit dissertations, and many PhD students will be working to submit 2nd-year reports, trying to complete before funding runs out, or facing that final deadline. But the urgent can be the enemy of the important. Even if you have a deadline looming, read on… the Kingdom of God needs you!

When Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,”[1] he reinforced an important biblical notion for thinking about what we should do with our lives. Throughout the Bible God is represented as a sovereign ruler, and Jesus appears as a king qualified, by his unique life, death and resurrection, to rule the whole world in the age to come. A number of Jesus’ parables portray the Son of Man as a king or an employer who will hold his servants to account for their work [2]. Surely, then, it would be foolish for us to pursue our education and careers without realising that we are subjects of the world’s true King?

It seems to me, however, that this is what we typically do. Those of privileged to study at university are likely to have chosen a subject that interested us and/or was likely to give good job prospects. If we’re now pursuing more academic work, is this because we realised that we could best serve our King in this way? I hope it is, but we’ve no doubt encountered fellow-believers who struggle to appreciate this possibility. That’s because a prevalent view of how the work of believers and of non-believers stands in God’s eyes is often like that illustrated in diagram (1). In scholarship, as well as in education, business, finance, arts, media, government and so on, we easily accept the secularist dogma that religion is an inherently private matter that can only bring disruption in the public square. In religiously-neutral areas, believer and unbeliever will work in the same way, achieving the same results. Any notion of a Christian work ethic is essentially the same as what most unbelievers advocate: honesty, duty, respect and the like.

Serious young Christians are therefore encouraged to enter an area of work where everyone agrees that believers are uniquely qualified: the mission of the Church. Diagram (2) represents Christians’ prowess in such areas as evangelism, biblical studies, musical worship, youth ministry and apologetics. Theology and counselling might be more contested by the non-Christian, but they are widely taught in Bible colleges and seminaries in response to demand.

In fact, this dichotomy also reflects two streams of Christian thought. If you put every area of work – including biblical interpretation and theology – into scheme (1), you may be “liberal”. If you put every area of work – including scientific theorising and government – into scheme (2), you’ll probably be labelled “fundamentalist” sooner or later. So the easiest way to eschew these extremes is to follow a division of work like that outlined above: just be a dualist!

Is there another way? At FiSch we believe there is. Diagram (3) is meant to apply to every field of human endeavour – none of which is neutral. It represents the possibility that people who are entering the Kingdom of God – and Jesus’ parables make clear that we can’t be sure who they are – may please the King by all kinds of work done in His service. It recognises that not only today’s non-believers but even those who may never enter God’s rest can do work that honours and pleases the King (remember what God says of Cyrus[3]?). How much more should we who believe work and pray that our reasoningour theorisingour critiques and our creativity be inspired by the Spirit of the God who might one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? [4]

[1] Matthew 6:33.   [2] e.g. Matthew 18:23ff, 20:1ff, 25:14ff, 25:31ff.  [3] Isaiah 44:28.  [4] Matthew 25:21.

Whole-life worship

I grew up in a Protestant church on the Continent, where we sang from the Genevan psalter (in a translation). The psalms cover a wide range of human emotions and situations, from the deepest depths to the highest heights. Of course some of the most jubilant psalms overflow with the praise of God (e.g. Ps. 150). But it is striking to see how even some of the darkest psalms tend to encourage the singer to put his trust in God, who protects us and is worthy of praise (e.g. Ps. 13, 42). The final chapter of Antony Billington and Mark Greene’s book ‘The whole of life for Christ’ focuses on praising God.

What kinds of things do you praise God for? Often we tend to praise God for the big events in our life: a friend becomes a Christian, or we get that grant that we applied for, or we finally submit our thesis. In the Bible, we often see people praising God for big things, but especially in the psalms, we also see God at work in the details of their lives. Take, for example, the ‘creation psalm’, Ps. 104.

It lists many things God does in nature, and how He takes care of us and all other living creatures. Or take Ps. 139, which lyrically describes the intimate involvement God has with our every move. Or, in the words of Jesus, ‘Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:30).

This series on ‘the whole of life for Christ’ started with a study on Col. 1:15-23, which covers the sweeping scope of God’s reconciliation of all of creation through Christ. In the psalms we discover that this grand scale of salvation is worked out in the lives of individuals. And in Rev. 4 and 5 we see several ‘psalms’ that bring the praise of all of creation to God in one great act of worship. How do you see God at work in your daily life? Do you praise him for the little things as well as the big things? For that experiment that worked this time? For the sunlight through the window? For that conference presentation that you were able to give? For the beauty of your object of study? And if you’re struggling at the moment, why not turn to one of the ‘darker’ psalms? Or join in with Habakkuk, who, in the face of terrible judgment and the threat of war and destruction prayed ‘…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.’

If you have found this series helpful as you live all of your life for Christ, why not meet up with a few other Christian postgrads and go through the studies in the book?

Whole-life hope

It’s easy to be gloomy as an aspiring academic. Will I ever finish my thesis? Will I ever get a lectureship? And even if I do, will I end up spending my entire life chasing arbitrary citation statistics and student satisfaction ratings? Will my research and teaching make a real difference? Do I have anything to look forward to?

‘We all need hope,’ say Antony Billington and Mark Greene in The Whole of Life for Christ. ‘Jesus did. After all, it wasn’t just his love for the world that helped him through his terrible sufferings on our behalf; it was because of “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). The hope of his glorious future helped him through his earthly agony’ (p. 49).

How can a biblical hope help us through the periods of academic agony?

The passage chosen for this study is 2 Peter 3:3-14. The ‘scoffers’ saw no reason to be optimistic about the future: ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ (v. 4).

What then is the antidote to this cynicism? Surprisingly, the answer is to think about God’s judgment, which ‘will bring both destruction (3:7, 10, 12) and renewal (3:13)’ (p. 51). This gives us something to look forward to, even when we think about our lives here on earth:

For what’s described is not the end of the earth itself, but the earth in its current state. Our hope is not for the annihilation of the world, but for a remade world, as God’s created order is renewed through the fire of purifying judgment. The parallel to the flood confirms this. Just as the destructive power of the flood did not completely obliterate the world, so the fire of judgment will cleanse the earth for a new beginning – ‘a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’ (3:13, p. 79).

What difference does this make for academics? I suppose that all areas of academia, in their different ways, are seeking to make the world a better place: more like the promised ‘new earth, where righteousness dwells’. Is this worth the effort, in the light of the coming judgment? Billington and Greene address the question of creation care:

If a new, better earth is coming, is there any need to take care of the current one? The argument is sometimes made that environmental action is unnecessary and possibly even a distraction from more important matters. In fact, however, if God’s plan is to renew the world, then our own efforts to preserve, recycle and live simply are in line with his designs (p. 80).

Could the same be said about your academic discipline? How do your research and teaching fit in with God’s plan to renew the world? Does this give you hope that it might be worth the effort after all?

Christian life with a PhD: real knowledge?

“A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, ” goes the saying [1], “until he knows everything about nothing.”  There were times during my PhD studies when I took heart from the first part of that quip, and times when the second half seemed all too realistic.  Nine years on (I submitted on 6 July), I’m reflecting on what doors the PhD has opened to me, and I hope my reflections will be helpful to readers seeking God’s guidance for their career.  I’ll first consider how a scholarly career can be justified, then give some examples of scholarly and non-scholarly work in my own case.

Defending the scholarly life

The ambiguity of the above quip, which is also said of academics in general, resonates with the ups and downs of my PhD.  Was my real-world knowledge increasing during those months of ecological experimentation, or was it merely ‘academic’ (in the popular derogatory sense)?  Generally I sensed growing knowledge when in the company of fellow students and academics, and the fear of insignificance when I socialised elsewhere.  “Get a real job, where you can submit your invoice at the end of a good day’s work,” advised one relative!  I do think it’s a healthy concern that our studies might be so abstract as to be of little earthly value.  After all, even the most fastidious of scholars can only research a fragment of what God has made, and in theoretical terms invented by humans.  And I don’t think the offer of a grant or salary makes the job in question worthwhile in God’s eyes.

But I do think there’s a broad range of Christian arguments for work in all kinds of disciplines.  CS Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time” eloquently offers a number of robust justifications for scholarly study.  To these I would add, for the believer, the possibility of nudging one’s discipline into more fruitful directions and of being able to teach future generations of students in ways that honour the Creator.  But to be more specific, let me turn to my own story.

The Christian scholar in God’s Kingdom

In the final year of my PhD I asked an older trusted friend with similar background what path he’d advise me to follow and he said, “Go and work overseas.”  He urged me to experience a different culture so that my worldview might be challenged and my outlook broadened.  A year’s post-doctoral work in a South African university did this for me in some ways, and a year in a research institute in France did it in others.  But I’d actually begun each of these posts before the previous one had finished, so upon returning to England, I delayed job-hunting while writing up a couple of papers – and now (after one longer post-doc) I’m in a similar position again.  This mix of academic contracts and ‘freelancing’ has proven productive, if not as lucrative as a regular academic path might have been.  The main opportunity it gave me was to work for two Christian charities.  Futurekraft is a consultancy serving community-focused charities, where my data-handling expertise has enabled me to oversee community surveys and help develop and raise funds for social projects with local churches.  And Thinking Faith Network is the charity which launched FiSch, where I’ve recently found opportunities to research the ethics and philosophy of ecology with a more explicit Christian orientation.  Now I’m looking for lecturing positions that may allow me to continue pursuing some of these ideas.  I feel I’ve been working for God more than for any employer.

GraphTo the mathematician in me, there’s an assumption of eternity in the quip with which I began.  I see ‘depth of knowledge’ increasing continuously while ‘breadth of knowledge’ decays exponentially – so the latter tends to zero only as time tends to infinity…  But in case I’m taking the joke too seriously, I’ll end with a biblical expression of hope concerning communal knowing.  In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul concludes his exhortation for love to be worked out in practice with his vision that, in the end, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  And there’s no reason to qualify this as ‘spiritual’ knowing – but that’s a topic for another time.

__________

[1] An Internet search suggests multiple sources for this quote, but one that sounds authoritative is William J Mayo. The Yale Book of Quotations attributes to Mayo, via Reader’s Digest (Nov 1927): “A specialist is a man who knows more and more about less and less.”

Whole-life mission

What is the mission of the church, and, by implication, of Christian believers? And how does that mission shape our everyday lives? These are the questions that Antony Billington and Mark Greene focus our attention on in the next chapter of their book ‘The whole of life for Christ’.

Right at the start of His three-year period of ministry, Jesus calls the twelve disciples and commissions them: ‘“Come follow me”, Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men”’ (Mat. 4:19). Over the next three years, Jesus taught them, through His preaching, through building relationships with them, through sharing His life with them. After His death and resurrection, He continued to teach them, until they understood that He had to suffer and rise from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sins could be preached to all nations (Luke 24:44-46). Only then were they ready to receive what is known as ‘the Great Commission’ (Mat. 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-20).

The first thing to note about the great commission as recorded by Matthew is that it starts with Christ: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mat. 28:18). To be a disciple is not just to be converted, but to live your life under the rule of Christ. Since we have so far lived our lives under the rule of sin and Satan, this is a lifelong process of growth and transformation. Slowly we learn to obey all that He has commanded us (Mat. 28:20), realising that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mat. 11:30). We are re-created in the image of the new Adam: Christ Himself. In this process of re-creation we become part of the new humanity in Christ, commissioned with the task of bringing creation under Christ’s rule, of calling other people to submit to His reign, and to disciple them in turn.

But we do not need to do this on our own. Jesus promises that He will be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mat. 28:20). By His Spirit, He gives us wisdom, produces fruit and transforms us into His likeness.

So what does this all mean for Christians in academia? Does it mean we need to tell our colleagues about Christ and then our work is done? Of course it is important that more people submit to Christ’s rule. But our task does not end there. The converts must become disciples, learners, who grow in love and understanding. And Christ’s rule is not limited to people either – the gospel must be proclaimed to ‘every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23), and all of creation must submit to him (Col. 1:16, 20). So our research itself is part of fulfilling the Great Commission! How would your discipline look different if Jesus was recognised as the One who has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’? And how can you contribute to this transformation? Are there any students (undergraduate or postgraduate) whom you can help grow as a disciple? And is there someone (such as a more mature Christian academic, or other Christian postgraduates) whom you could approach for wisdom and encouragement?

Faith-in-Scholarship currently offers the opportunity for Christian postgraduates to receive mentoring from more experienced Christian academics. If you are a postgraduate and interested in forming such a mentoring relationship with someone in your field, do get in touch with us and we will try to put you in touch with someone who can help you be a faithful follower of Christ in your area of study.

Culture, Pluralistic Knowing, and Mutual Understanding

A guest post from Richard Vytniorgu.

‘Culture’ is a notoriously difficult word. For some it refers to art galleries and piano concerts; for others it refers to something faintly bacterial; while for others still it refers to the entire realm of human activity and life. Broadly speaking, in the arts and humanities, culture seems to refer to specific elements of human existence: processes of personal and social development and transformation; aesthetic experience; and basically, the institutional outworkings of everything that concerns the ‘growth’ (or lack thereof) of the individual in his or her society.

Culture, then, has an intimate relationship to knowledge, to an understanding of social codes and conventions, lively engagement with the arts, and the development of critical abilities. The twentieth century witnessed a sea-change in the way philosophers understood knowing. No longer was the individual a separate, impartial entity interacting with the stimulus of the world, after the manner of Descartes. Instead, she became a ‘personal knower’ (Polanyi), whose observational activity profoundly affected the nature of what was observed (Einstein). The knower and the known were inter-fused (Dewey and Bentley).

Not only is this a more honest description of how human beings know, it is also extremely liberating. There are certain implications if we understand that knowing is an embodied, partial, and transformational experience.

Firstly, as researchers, we must be very careful about how we present our own activity to others, as professional ‘knowers’. Are we affirming a personal, incarnate model of knowledge, or do we hold ourselves aloof from the interface between ourselves and our subject? The revised notion of knowing is not initially intuitive, and many will continue assuming that their understanding of a given issue is unaffected by themselves as human agents in the world. Their prejudices, blind spots, and vested interests may remain veiled to them, and such talk may threaten what they wish to do with this so-called knowledge after they have lodged it safely in their minds. We want to help as best we can those who are not professional knowers.

Secondly, an exploration of personal modes of knowing eventually brings us to a gap, an absence which can only be filled by listening in humility to others, and revising our own understanding of things in light of their experiences, insights, opinions, recognising of course that other people are also limited in their apprehension of life. We all see through a glass darkly.

I have recently been travelling in the corner of the world I originally came from, and sitting in Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Eastern Europe, I feel touched by witnessing an expression of Christian faith alien to my now Western, Protestantised eyes. Office men in L’viv come into church at lunchtime and sign themselves with the cross, bowing on the ground, kissing icons. Having read more about Orthodoxy – my baptised expression of faith – for these Ukrainians faith is a physical, habitual performance that helps to make them daily aware of God’s merciful, immanent, and passionate yearning in their lives.

The logical path from personal knowing to cultural growth runs via the defence and architecture of a pluralistic society. Pluralism (Kallen) is the way in which individuals of difference create a society together in which everyone can reach forth most fully toward life. Orthodox theology would frame this as the drive toward life in God and with others rather than death, mastery, alienation, and deconstruction (Louth). Christ has brought life in the medium of the Kingdom of God (Wright). Unless I reckon with the full force of the epistemological shift: from Descartes to Einstein and Dewey, I will be locked in a redundant model of knowing that excuses me from having to listen to and learn from others.

At a time when Britain seems to be verging on the hysterical regarding European immigrants, it seems crucial that as Christian thinkers we ponder again our epistemologies, conscious that much English Christian thought is built upon historic epistemological foundations long discredited outside the (especially Evangelical) church – discredited not least because they tempt us toward isolationism, oppression, and exclusion. What will it mean for us to entertain a pluralistic way of knowing for building up an exhilarating culture, bejewelled with virtues of humility, love, and attachment? We may see through a glass darkly, but new light from others, wherever they are from, will help to patch our knowing into an exquisite, creational mosaic.

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

Whole-life purpose

Cityscape

This post is the next in our series ‘The Whole of (Academic) Life for Christ’, looking at Andrew Billington and Mark Greene’s thought-provoking collection of Bible studies.

The question of purpose is a pressing one in academia. Many who spend their hours working in universities around the world find themselves torn between an ideal (or perhaps a dream or fantasy) and reality. On the one hand, there is the ideal of the academic as someone whose work is both satisfying and meaningful – someone whose thoughtful contributions to the sum of human knowledge help society to flourish. On the other, there’s a reality that is often characterised by frustration, stress or exhaustion. For Christians in this environment, the added desire to make our lives count for God’s kingdom purposes can make this mismatch seem even more overwhelming.

Jeremiah 29, written to the exiles in Babylon in around 600 BC, addresses a group of people whose situation must have seemed far worse. They were hundreds of miles from their homeland, stuck amongst a nation whose cultural and religious practices must have engendered severe culture shock and even revulsion. They would have wanted nothing more than just to go back home; surely God wouldn’t leave them in exile more than a year or two? Surely he couldn’t want them to put down roots here, in this land, to compromise their purity by contributing to the society around them? It’s no surprise that there were so many (false) prophets among them making just this line of argument.

But Jeremiah’s letter says exactly the opposite! This is their home now; they are to settle down here, and to devote their hands and their prayers to the well-being of their adopted city. It’s in this context that we find God’s famous reassurance (probably the most-quoted passage in Jeremiah) that he has ‘plans to prosper and not to harm’ his people (29:11). Far from being a get-out clause from engaging with the world around them, this promise is a reassurance that God knows what he’s doing by leaving them in Babylon for now. It gives them the impetus they need to live in this new place as active citizens, not reluctant captives.

There’s much food for thought here as we reflect on our purpose as Christian academics. I’ll select just two things to chew on:

  • God’s plans are not just for Christians. The growth of God’s kingdom is not accomplished through Christian empires or enclaves; instead, he scatters his people like salt across the world, calling them to enrich and add flavour to the communities around them. This means engaging wholeheartedly with our environment. If the exiles had listened to the false prophets, they would have forfeited the opportunity to be God’s ambassadors to the Babylonians – and the book of Daniel shows just how powerfully God used them when they were willing to engage. Serving God in academia isn’t accomplished just by creating Christian universities (although those can of course have value), nor by sticking to theology or theologically ‘safe’ subjects. Sometimes we are called to be God’s witnesses in places we would not necessarily choose for ourselves!
  • We are bringers of peace. The exiles are instructed to seek ‘the peace and prosperity’ of Babylon: this translates the single Hebrew word shalom, which encompasses a rich communal and spiritual dimension that the English cannot convey. Even though they’ve been sent to Babylon as punishment, God wants to use them there for blessing. So their contribution is to be spiritual and relational, not just practical – that’s why they are instructed to pray for Babylon, their enemy, a concept which must have seemed repulsive at the time. As for us, we have the wonderful promise that Jesus himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14); however uncomfortable aspects of academic culture might seem to us sometimes, God wants to use us to bring his shalom here.

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