FiSch blog

Review: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Brazos Press, 2016)

From time to time at FiSch we review books that might either help you with the task of integrating your particular work with your faith, or which themselves are the result of that integration. This book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, falls into the second category. Written by Wheaton professor Chris R. Armstrong, it aims to counter the unhelpful assumptions and generalisations often made about medieval Christianity by evangelicals, and to open up some of the riches which this age of the Church can offer today.

As a doctoral student researching medieval religious literature, of course I’m somewhat biased when I say this book is important! Centrally, though, I think the book is a helpful (though not perfect) example of historical work done for the church, in a way which is well-grounded and researched but still accessible to the non-specialist Christian. Armstrong is explicit, even polemical, in his belief that ‘we must derive lessons for today from the study of history’, and he’s convinced that the view of the medieval Church current in modern evangelical circles, as well as being lacking in historical accuracy, is preventing us learning valuable lessons.

The book begins with a methodological chapter which is perhaps its most academic section. Armstrong discusses (from a chiefly US-based perspective) the reasons why the medieval period gets such short shrift from many modern Christians, taking us through a brief history of the developments that led to the impression, rife among evangelicals, that real Christianity essentially slept between the early church and the Reformation (or even until the eighteenth-century revivals). He also diagnoses the problems caused by the widespread ‘immediatism’ of today’s church – its desire for novelty, for simple solutions to present problems, its reliance on the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture, and its emphasis on knowing God without mediation.

The body of the book is dedicated to exploring how aspects of medieval theology and practice can speak productively to these problems, describing key figures and institutions as well as lucidly explaining sometimes alien theological and social concepts. The topics covered are:

  • Respect for and use of tradition
  • Commitment to integrating reason with faith
  • Precision when talking about virtue and vice
  • Valuing the works of mercy
  • Honour for and interest in the physical world
  • Emotional engagement in religion
  • Emphasis on understanding humanness through the Incarnation

I haven’t got space to go into all the interesting and edifying themes included here, from the invention of the hospital to the intense emotional practices of later medieval devotion: the book covers lots of important ideas, and for me Armstrong is largely convincing in his appeal for their rehabilitation, though you can make up your own mind!

The aspect I haven’t mentioned so far is the use Armstrong makes of C. S. Lewis. The second chapter discusses Lewis as one of the author’s heroes, and as a ‘modern medieval man’ who studied and loved medieval philosophy, theology and literature. Throughout the rest of the book, the material on the medieval period itself is intermingled with examples of Lewis’s understanding and uses of it in his writing and thinking.

This is part of Armstrong’s attempt to make his topic accessible and attractive to the average Christian reader, and to some extent it works, bridging the gap to the strangeness of the medieval world with the familiarity of Lewis’s popular theology and fiction. Personally, however, I found it distracting: the description and interpretation of Lewis often falls into uncritical idealisation (so common in evangelical circles), and I usually felt that Armstrong was more engaging and discerning when talking about his medieval subjects than about Lewis. The cynical part of me says that this aspect of the book was mostly intended to get sceptical readers on board with the main topic, but it doesn’t add much to the argument and makes the mistake of taking Lewis’s self-identification as a ‘medieval’ too seriously.

On the whole, however, I would recommend Medieval Wisdom to anyone interested in how the modern church can do its history – explicit and implicit – better. The book concludes with a chapter calling for the cultivation of a more thoroughly incarnational spirituality, countering the gnosticism of modern Western culture with medieval and other resources for integration of the whole person, and perhaps more controversially for the recovery of some kind of monastic ideal for the contemporary church. These are much debated topics today and Armstrong’s book is a readable and thoughtful contribution to that discussion, as well as a good introduction to parts of church history you or your church family may have overlooked.

Knowing as We Are Known: The Transactional Approach to Science (3)

Richard Vytniorgu completes his survey of the transactional approach to science.

In my previous post I explored the dynamics of the transactional view of reality and how this relates to scientific inquiry. In this post, I want to draw out some implications of the transactional view – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey, whereby, to quote the American educator Parker Palmer, we come to know as we are known.

            Palmer’s bestselling book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (1983) begins from the same premise as transactional philosophy. It critiques objectivist epistemologies by referencing the work of the philosopher Michael Polyani. As Palmer writes, ‘[Polyani] shows that both the individual scientist and the community of scientists are subjectively interested in every discovery of scientific fact’. Put another way, scientists are part of their own dynamic, transactional ecosystem. However, Palmer offers a scathing attack on objectivism because it has a faulty understanding of truth. Objectivism, writes Palmer, ‘begins by assuming a sharp distinction between the knower and the objects to be known. These objects exist “out there,” apart from and independent of the knower. They wait, passive and inert, for us to know them’. Only scientists are the active agents in the paradigm of objectivism: ‘we attempt to observe and dissect the objects by means of empirical measurement and logical analysis’. In short, in the objectivist worldview, truth ‘consists of propositions or reports that conform to the canons of evidence and reason, reports that can be reproduced by other knowers operating by the same rules’. Palmer is right to critique objectivism; he argues that even though philosophers have shifted their views on how knowledge is arrived at (such as the transactional approach), old ways still linger in institutionalised practices. Deeper change happens at a more personal level, where transactional epistemology is given an ethical mandate.

            Instead of objectivism, Palmer seeks to elaborate on his belief that to know in truth is to face transformation: ‘truth is not a statement about reality but a living relationship between ourselves and the world’. Palmer argues that etymologically, truth means to become betrothed to someone or something, and that to be in obedience to the truth means to submit oneself to listening to another, be it another person or one’s ‘subject material’. ‘The deepest calling in our quest for knowledge’, writes Palmer, ‘is not to observe and analyse and alter things. Instead, it is personal participation in the organic community of human and nonhuman being, participation in the network of caring and accountability called truth’. The transactional stance requires a shift in our understanding of how knowers engage with what is known. Whereas objectivism seeks mastery over one’s material, a personalist, transactional approach seeks mutual transformation, a willingness to see oneself in a horizontal relationship with what is known, rather than a vertical one, with the knower standing imperiously over the known.

            A final implication of the transactional approach concerns the nature of disciplines. Objectivism seeks insularity within a walled-in discipline. The transactional paradigm envisages a dynamic, inclusive ecosystem. To remain locked within the confines of one’s discipline is to close oneself to transformation. As Palmer writes, ‘To know a subject too well, and not to venture into others, is to risk becoming closed to fresh insight in favor of familiar facts. But when a teacher [or scientist] is continually exploring alien, unchartered territory, humility and openness to grace are cultivated’. Engaging in ever-new transactions with our environment and with our subjects, we move into spaces where truth emerges as a transformative force for the good. We learn to know as we are known.

A Christian Philosophy for Science

I'm pleased to announce that the Church Scientific project, which began in Leeds in 2016, is beginning a new phase this month with a series of six workshops about Christian philosophy for scientists.  These will improve on the course that was delivered last year - thanks to input from last year's participants and a number of philosophers of science.

Church Scientific is an independent project with links to FiSch via myself, Dr David Hanson and Prof. Andrew Basden, three of this year's tutors; it also owes a great deal to the reformational philosophy tradition espoused by Thinking Faith Network. So I thought it might be helpful and interesting to preview some of the planned content of the Church Scientific curriculum here, and to bring it into dialogue with other readers and contributors of FiSch.  For example, we're currently part-way through a series by Richard Vytniorgu on the transactional perspective on science, which resonates well with the Church Scientific perspective and may well influence that project.  We also have an ongoing series on Christian perspectives on evolutionary biology, an area that was purposely avoided by Church Scientific last year but may be a little more visible this year.  And the new course will also draw upon Christian philosophy in diagrams - probably prompting some additions to that series.

Three key distinctives of Church Scientific were outlined in a post this time last year, but one of them deserves special emphasis here.  We are attempting to build a Christian philosophy of science, for scientists.  In denial of the memorable view that scientists need philosophy of science as much as birds need ornithology, we assume that scientists can benefit from a kind of philosophy that provides a framework for scientific activity.  This kind of philosophy might be seen as "meta-science": an analysis of what the sciences are and how they seem to work. And it's important to seek a Christian philosophy of science, linked to good theology, because if Jesus Christ is lord of the cosmos which is upheld by the word of God's power, then aligning our thinking with His wisdom should help us better understand its structure and workings.

The validity of this approach will be seen in whether it actually helps any practising scientists with their work.  So - if you know any scientist Christians in Leeds, or you are one yourself, here's an opportunity to be part of this investigation (see the web site for details).  The course overview is as follows:

  1. Workshop 1: Christian Faith, Worldview and Philosophy of Science: What is science and why pursue it?
  2. Workshop 2: Introduction to Aspectual Relations (an Ontology): What is there to know? How can we understand the complete dependence of the created order on God?

  3. Workshop 3: Theorising and its Limits: “Theory” originally means “seeing” - but what can we hope to see without a God's-eye view? What's wrong with reductionism?

  4. Workshop 4: Scientific epistemology and methods: What is scientific knowledge? What approach will align us with Lady Wisdom rather than the rebellion of Eden?

  5. Workshop 5: Norms and Ethics So what is good science? After all, only God is good...

  6. Workshop 6: Communicating christianly: How can we talk about scientific work and scientific beliefs in ways that promote harmony, mutual understanding and fellowship?

We'd welcome comments, connections and ideas about this plan. Further detail is available upon request! 

A Dynamic Ecosystem: The Transactional Approach to Science (2)

Richard Vytniorgu continues his series on the transactional view of scientific development. 

In my first post exploring the transactional approach to science, I explained how twentieth-century transactional philosophy developed out of dissatisfaction with a Newtonian understanding of human existence and inquiry. Human beings don’t stand apart from their environment or their inquiry; humans shape and are shaped by their activity in the world. In this post, however, I explore the transactional approach in more detail, particularly in relation to language.

            In 1949 the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley created a new epistemology which complemented developments in Einsteinian subatomic physics. As the literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt wrote in her 1994 essay The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing, "Even the physicists’ facts depend to some extent on the interests, hypotheses, and technologies of the observer. The human organism, it became apparent, is ultimately the mediator in any perception of the world or any sense of 'reality'”. In Knowing and the Known, Dewey and Bentley used the term ‘transaction’ to “imply unfractured observation of the whole situation”, meaning that the scientist’s inquiry must be seen in a broader context.

            Such a broad context is filtered all the way down to the nature of experience itself. The pragmatist philosopher William James is perhaps best known among some for coining the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ to denote a new perception of the mental activity of individuals. Modernist novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously perfected the stream-of-consciousness method in works of the 1920s such as Ulysses and To the Lighthouse. But James also developed a theory of ‘selective attention’ which, to quote Rosenblatt, denotes the way individuals are ‘constantly selecting out of the stream, or field, of consciousness’ – a phenomenon which thinkers sometimes refer to as the ‘cocktail party phenomenon’. Selective attention means that human beings are active in having an experience, at the subliminal level in the case of the mundane, and in big experiences, at a more conscious level. The transactional paradigm posits experience as something dynamic rather than fixed. Paintings such as Édouard Vuillard’s series, L’Album (1895), capture the transactional view of reality very well. In these images women peer over an album and arrange flowers, but the figures deliberately flow into one another; the activity of reading is seen as part of a ‘total situation’. There are few sharp lines. Instead, the curves create a journey for the eye, a dynamic to-and-fro between different individuals and activities happening simultaneously. The stretched nature of these paintings, moreover, adds emphasis to the panoramic effect.

            Rosenblatt applied the transactional view of reality to English education because she sought to emphasise the ways in which reading is an active process. Texts require individuals to transact with textual symbols in order to create meaning, either in an aesthetic way, by paying more attention to the private, sensuous, and affective aspects of words, or in an ‘efferent’ way, by seeking to extract information from a text which can be verified publicly. Any text can be read aesthetically or efferently, with most readings happening around the middle of the continuum.

            The transactional theory of reading takes a broad epistemological paradigm shift and applies it to one sort of inquiry. In science, the transactional approach envisages a dynamic ecosystem, whereby scientists and their ‘material’ are part of a generative process of continuous transactions, each taking into account previous ones in order to move forward.

            Those with Christian sympathies will find the transactional approach especially pertinent. Not only does it seek to describe human experience and the process of inquiry, but it also seeks to alter it. In the final post I shall talk about the relationship between the knower and the known – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey. 

Christmas reflection: Waiting for Joy

This is an adapted and abridged version of a sermon I gave at evensong in the chapel of Hertford College, last February on the feast of Candlemas.

‘Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. […]

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years… She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.’ (Luke 2)

Christmas is almost upon us – but today let’s skip ahead a little in the narrative we retell at this time every year. After Jesus was born, Luke tells us, his parents took him to Jerusalem to be presented at the Temple: the equivalent, perhaps, of a christening or a dedication, the important but routine introduction of a child into the religious customs of his community.

This might have been a fairly unremarkable event, but in God’s perfect dramatic timing, we are given a beautiful, strange, startling account of joy: not just the happiness of new parents or a special family event, but the joy of two people, Simeon and Anna, who have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting – and realise that what they have been waiting for is finally here.

Hope deferred

Anna is in her early eighties, and Simeon also seems to be nearing the end of his life. They are expecting the arrival of the Messiah – the ‘consolation of Israel’, the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ – and have been doing so for some time. Anna has been praying and fasting for most of her life, a way of life which implies expectation. Simeon has received a promise from God which he is waiting to see fulfilled, but time seems to be running out.

Their hopes must have seemed hollow at times. The Jewish people had been promised God’s consolation hundreds of years before, but were under an oppressive empire with no prospects of getting out. Simeon and Anna must have felt disappointment, impatience, even doubt over the years, when they saw no sign of what they were longing for.

This is what we have to keep in mind when we see Simeon taking the child in his arms, and breaking out into poetry; when we see Anna rushing off to tell others, praising the God she had waited on all her life. This is the very heart of what it means that Jesus was born on earth: a ‘turn’ from disappointment and expectations long unmet, to contagious joy and unexpected blessing.

No tale ever told

One of the writers who best captured this kind of gracious turn was J.R.R. Tolkien – medievalist, Catholic, and founder of the modern fantasy genre. His idea of eucatastrophe, in particular, informed all his work and his sense of its integration with his faith.

Tolkien coined this word to try and describe the quality of the best kind of happy ending:

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending… the sudden joyous 'turn'… a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; [but] it denies… universal final defeat… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Tolkien believed that the stories he loved, and the literary work he was called to, were not just good in themselves, but pointed to a greater longing, and a more magnificent happy ending. He goes on:

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving… and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe… The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.

'Behold, I am doing a new thing!'

When Simeon and Anna recognise the baby Jesus, we see him through their eyes, as the fulfilment of hopes long deferred - a turn from the relentlessly grim repetitions of history to something new.

This is a consolation which is not just temporary soothing, but a promise of ultimate healing: tender words to us from a God at work for our good. It never pretends that pain isn’t real and hardship won’t come. Simeon prophesies about Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion even as he praises God for the Incarnation.

But Anna and Simeon, two people at the end of their lives, recognised that the story they were part of was just beginning. They caught the first glimpse of a narrative arc whose end would be Joy beyond the walls of the world. How do our lives, this Christmastime, fit into this story? How can our work call us forward into joy?

For further reflection, read Walter Chalmers Smith’s hymn ‘Earth was waiting, spent and restless’, and T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘A Song for Simeon’.

Self and World: The Transactional Approach to Science (1)

billiard balls in motion

Richard Vytniorgu introduces a way of thinking about scientific work by rooting it in its social context.

This is the first in a series of three posts in which I introduce the transactional approach to doing science – an approach which encourages us to position scientific work within a broader matrix of beliefs and values. Although I’m not a scientist, my work in literary theory has brought me into contact with the transactional approach via its American advocate in literary studies and English education, Louise Rosenblatt.

For Rosenblatt, the transactional philosophy of science developed by the twentieth-century American philosophers John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley represented an important shift in beliefs about how humans engage with the world, including how they do science. Away went static conceptions of human life and naïve ideas about objectivity, and in came a vision which saw the knower affecting the known. In other words, a certain element of relativism and social constructionism was admitted as part of the scientific method. Beliefs and values were seen to actively shape what was ‘discovered’.

In this first post, I’m going to outline why the transactional approach came to be seen as a valuable alternative to what went before it. The second post will explore the dynamics of the transactional approach, and the third and final post will look at some of its implications, particularly for people of faith in science.

In philosophy the transactional approach was properly developed for the first time in 1949 by Dewey and Bentley in their book, Knowing and the Known. In this work these thinkers tried to present life as dynamic, shifting, and generative. Human beings were not fixed entities which interacted with the world like billiard balls bouncing off each other, unchanged by the interaction. And scientists certainly didn’t look at the world as impartial observers. What was needed was an admission and exploration of the ways in which we as humans change and are changed by our transactions with our environment, including with our various inquiries. Because if experience and inquiry is seen to be dynamic and something which impacts us more than we previously thought, then our ideas about life and our scientific ‘conclusions’ have to be treated as provisional rather than final. Indeed, we ourselves as persons have to be treated as provisional too, subject to change.

For Dewey especially, the provisional and tentative nature of inquiry was absolutely important to stress. Society only grows and humans only change if the provisional and tentative is seen to be at the crux of life. In light of such a reality, people would need to talk with one another more about their inquiries, to be ready to revise opinions based on new knowledge. Only such a way of life would guarantee the maintenance of a democratic system.

Dewey of course worked out his thought in a secular context; for him democracy was effectively positioned as a secularised Kingdom of God – the ideal to work towards. The transactional approach was developed at a time in history when democracy was threatened by authoritarian regimes which repudiated a dynamic view of life and inquiry. By emphasising the transactional alternative, Dewey and Bentley were pushing the human into the foreground. According to Rosenblatt, along with Einsteinian theory, the transactional approach ‘opened the way to increasing recognition that the observer must always be taken into account in any observation, that human beings are the mediators in perception of their world’. This meant that when coming to consider scientific inquiry, the human beings involved in transacting with their world would have to be considered much more seriously. Who were they? What did they believe? What were their assumptions about life, the world, the process of scientific inquiry, and so on?

In the past these questions were superfluous. Now they weren’t. They were crucial. Scientific inquiry was much more than an interaction between impartial observer and a stimulus. Scientific inquiry is in fact a transaction between the knower and the known – a dynamic process in which the human’s mediation is crucial. This transactional process will be the subject of the next post.

In pursuit of Christian scholarship (2)

Rudi Hayward completes his review of "Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship" by Robert Sweetman (Wipf & Stock 2016).

The first part of this review ended with the paradox that either Christian scholarship is understood as so integrally Christian as to endanger the sense in which the Christian and non-Christian are engaged in the same enterprise at all, or else the shared standards and results of scholarship are elevated so much that identifying anything distinctively Christian is embarrassingly difficult. Sweetman points out the difficulty by noting that theoretical results, once articulated and made accessible to others, are open to all. Christians can, do, and should make use of the scholarly findings of non-Christians, and vice-versa. As an illustration, Sweetman uses the example of Andrew Basden’s work in information systems, which employs the uniquely Christian claims and methods of Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy. Yet Basden has many non-Christian collaborators who have found his Dooyeweerdian framework helpful for their own scholarly practice. Sweetman draws from this the conclusion that we must reject the Aristotelian inquiry into a "Christian difference” grounded in some stable set of claims and/or methods that are intrinsically if not uniquely Christian.

How then should we understand and pursue Christian scholarship? Sweetman’s suggestion is that Christian scholarship is scholarship that is self-consciously attuned to the shape of the Christian heart, individually and communally.

Attuning one’s scholarship to the shape of the Christian heart means, first of all, moving away from a view of faith as assent to a set of changeless propositions, the content and guarantor of orthodoxy. Instead faith should act as a spiritual orientation towards the world which acts something like a set of reflex-like expectations. Sweetman uses the familiar triad of creation-fall-redemption as an example. This sets up “an impulse in which one approaches something open to encountering it with indications of its original blessing, its marring and consequent ambiguity, and its reception of a new and redemptive meaning by which its original blessing shines forth again and becomes redolent of new possibilities” (pp142-143). Another example he develops and illustrates is what he calls the “cubist painter’s eye”, whereby a scholar listens patiently and with humility to the analysis of the same phenomenon from very different cultural and religious perspectives. So what the Medieval monk calls “humility” the modern secular humanist calls “despair,” yet both can be seen to be describing a recognizably common phenomenon. This leads Sweetman to consider a generous humility which recognizes the ubiquity of creational goodness and redemptive possibilities, always mixed with the Fall and its effects. Thus the scholar learns to recognize in the results of other scholars that they are more likely than not almost right, yet at the same time more likely than not almost mistaken. That is the kind of twofold expectation that Sweetman believes should orientate the Christian scholar’s critical antennae.

Wanting to make these suggestions as concrete as possible, he offers an example. One thing that moves his heart, that excites him about Christian faith, is that the God we meet in Jesus is a peacemaker. And in his scholarship he seeks to image a peacemaking God, and wants to begin his scholarly endeavors with “pacific questions”. That is how he seeks to attune his scholarship to the shape of his Christian heart. Sweetman is clear that peacemaking is no scholarly master key; it is only an example. Furthermore, it doesn’t set his scholarship apart in a special category of Christian scholarship. It is something that can be meaningfully practiced in the context of the secular academy, and he believes may be just as applicable to the STEM researcher as the humanities scholar. The Gospel is expansive enough to fill Christian hearts in many different ways. So he would ask you and me a simple yet profound question. What is the shape of your Christian heart, and how could your scholarship come to be attuned to this shape?

In pursuit of Christian scholarship (1)

Rudi Hayward reviews Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship by Robert Sweetman (Wipf & Stock 2016, 177 pages)

With this book Sweetman wants to participate in, and take forward, a conversation about the meaning and possibility of Christian scholarship. His starting point is that being Christ-followers should mark our life in some visible way, and that this should therefore be discernible in our scholarship. Throughout the book he raises a number of problems with how we have thought about Christian scholarship, and a number of perplexities that cause disquiet and embarrassment, even among its advocates. While he comes at the questions from the standpoint of what he identifies as the “holist account”, one of his stated aims is to uncover the “unity of Christian scholarship” that underlies three different accounts of what it might be: complementarist, integrationist and holist. For example, in a footnote on his discussion of George Marsden’s contribution he notes that at an earlier stage “I did not see the three accounts as separate accounts of integrality, rather, I only thought of what I here call a holist account as such” (p.76) - but dialogue with Marsden pushed him to make this recognition.

Three limitations of the current discussions of Christian scholarship frame Sweetman’s attempt to offer some fresh perspectives on the issue. Firstly there is a disciplinary narrowness to the discussions, with most contributions coming from scholars working in theology and philosophy or disciplines closely related. A second limitation is that the discussion is largely restricted to Christian institutions, with a failure to engage those Christian scholars who find themselves working in the secular academy. The third limitation is somewhat more abstract and not immediately obvious, but Sweetman believes that within current discussions there has been a preference for distinctions over connections. His solution to this third point becomes the conceptual key behind the positive suggestions he makes later to respond to the other two limitations.

Chapters two and three cover a wide range of Christian thinkers on the idea of Christian scholarship, although they do all fit snugly into the narrow disciplinary framework already identified as a limitation in the current discussion. We find here clear, careful and generous discussion of the authors chosen and the three accounts identified. It is important groundwork, but will require some patience from those coming to the book agreeing with Sweetman’s diagnosis of the limitations and wanting to see his positive suggestions.

Chapter four is where Sweetman’s original contributions start to get going. He believes that the preference for distinctions over connections has been the natural way of putting the issue because of approaching the problem in Aristotelian terms. Put simply: scholarship is something shared amongst believers and non-believers alike, so Christian scholarship must add something stable and identifiable to make it a distinctive form of scholarship. We need to identify a clear something, that turns scholarship into Christian scholarship. This is where embracement creeps in. Sweetman gives two contrasting examples. In the first place an emphasis on Christian difference which is thorough and integral can lead down a line of argument where the Christian scholar and the secular scholar share nothing in common. Here the Christian character of scholarship is maintained, but the shared scholarly task is undermined. On the other hand a genuine search for the results or methods of scholarship that can be ascribed exclusively to the influence of Christian faith very often end up with nothing substantial to offer. The shared task of scholarship is maintained, but the Christian difference goes missing.

In the second part of this review I will outline Sweetman’s proposals to overcome this apparently irresolvable paradox.

The idea of a Christian university

university graphic

Christians hold a wide range of views about what kinds of Christian organisation should be created.  At one extreme, the Church is seen as the primary or even the only Christian organisation, its ordained leaders merely lending their authority to a limited range of other Christian initiatives - which thus have a denominational character (at least if you're Protestant) and fall under clerical control. Perhaps a next step is to allow for independent initiatives like Christian unions, workplace fellowships and theological colleges directed by laypeople. But it's quite a lot further along the spectrum that we find autonomous Christian schools, colleges and universities, in which a broad curriculum is available for study. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions have these - yet in the U.K. they are surprisingly rare and, in some circles, controversial.

I'm part of a working group looking at the idea of a Christian research institute for the U.K. - as part of the broader vision of a Christian university for the U.K. This is an idea close to the heart of Faith-in-Scholarship's parent organisation, Thinking Faith Network - which was founded in 1986 as the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies. So we're going to have a number of posts looking at the idea of a Christian university - starting with this one.

What's the idea of a Christian university?  My boldest answer would be that it's simply the ideal of the university. "University" comes from Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which meant a community of teachers and scholars: the "universitas" bit seems to refer to the unity of a group devoted to a common aim - implicitly that of building and sharing knowledge and understanding. And the term was initially used in European cultures pervaded by Christian worldviews where the object and guarantee of all knowledge was the order of God's creation itself, elucidated by the Christian Scriptures. Indeed a quick survey of university mottos suggests that in the British Isles, most of the earliest universities had biblical mottos ("Dominus illuminatio mea", "Via, Veritas, Vita", "Initium sapientiae timor domini", etc). If we also endorse more modern mottos such as "all truth is God's truth" and "He shines in all that's fair" and the notion of the common good, we might hold that a Christian university is ideally everything a university should be. And perhaps some of today's universities that don't label themselves Christian are not so far from that ideal. Indeed, there are a number in the U.K. that retain reference to Christian foundations: some members of the so-called Cathedrals Group of universities do so somewhere in a "mission and values" page deep within their website, while Liverpool Hope University more boldly claims to be "Europe's only ecumenical university" (referring to its joint Catholic and Anglican elements).

So why seek to establish anything else?  Let me intimate an answer - together with a critique of our university sector as I currently see it - by suggesting three ways in which a Christian university would ideally not turn out. First, on the sphere-sovereignty principle, it would not be run as a business. While it should seek financial sustainability, a mission of seeking and inculcating wisdom beginning from the fear of Yahweh would be the guiding consideration.  Second, it would not be a collection of academic departments unified principally by their adminstration. Interdisciplinarity would be promoted via a focus on a Christian philosophy articulating the coherence of all academic disciplines and through an emphasis on cross-disciplinary communication. (Joint honours degrees would not come from the widespread pick-and-mix approach: integrative modules would be required.)  Third, it would not give special status to theologians, nor burden chaplains or clergy with the requirement to uphold its Christian character. While theological study would be encouraged for all faculty and students and a good chaplaincy would no doubt be an asset, all faculty would be expected to give some account of their work within a Christian worldview framework.  A corollary to all this is that faculty would be appointed on the strength of their ability to relate their academic work to a Christian framework and philosophy, broadly defined. 

A final point needs to be made: that no such selection criteria would be applied to students. One of the most striking things about my visit to a L'Abri centre was how there was no questioning of the faith or morals of students like myself who turned up to study there. We had already selected ourselves, and the community we joined was permeated by Christian orthodoxy and liturgy to such a degree that the experience was transformational.

There is lots more to say, of course, and for me personally to work out. That's why this is just a first post on the topic - and why the Christian university project must be born out of a deep fellowship. 

Critical engagement and academic citizenship

Image 'Citizenship' by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

For the next in our series of posts on skills for Christian academics, I wanted to revisit one aspect of last week's excellent post by Will Allchorn on 'engaging in debate and controversy'. Will presented Dr Andrew Basden's LACE framework for Christians engaging in academic debates – Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich. The emphasis this places on a necessary balance of affirmation and critique – which together engender an attitude of encouragement and community rather than competitiveness – reminded me of an experience from the early days of my own academic apprenticeship. It's rather embarrassing for me to bring it up again now, since it doesn't paint me in a good light, but it taught me a very important lesson about Christian scholarship, so I thought it might be worth sharing with you!

It all began when I was in the process of writing my MA dissertation. Having thrown myself into close reading, I'd quickly discovered that there were only two or three other scholars writing about my chosen topic (not a particularly unusual situation in the study of contemporary music, it must be said). Much of the teaching I'd received regarding research over the previous years had stressed the importance of a critical approach to all existing scholarship, and certainly I'd lapped up the idea that I could make a contribution just as valuable as others who'd been working in an area much longer than I; so with all this in mind, and seeing an opportunity to make an original contribution, I set to work on these existing sources. In order to carve a space for my own interpretations, I took every opportunity to point out holes in the reasoning of the other texts I'd read, to undermine aspects I found unconvincing, and to underline the ways in which my viewpoint was so much more substantive, so much more cohesive. Throughout this it never really occurred to me to think of the authors of these texts as people with lives of their own; they were ciphers, meaningful primarily for the source-material they provided for my own intellectual display.

A year or so later, I had the privilege of meeting one of these scholars at a conference. And it was a privilege! When they heard about my interest in their area of research, they absolutely bent over backwards to help me out – sending me useful documents, arranging for me to attend relevant study days, inviting me to participate in a conference that they organised subsequently. It's no exaggeration to say that I owe some of the most formative experiences of my PhD to them. When I look back on the way I handled their own ideas in my MA work, I am heartily embarrassed. (I'm also extremely relieved that I didn't seek publication for that work, and thus they can't have read it!) It's clear to me now that I had barely even begun to think then about what it might mean for my academic work to think of myself as a Christian scholar; after all, I'd fallen at the first hurdle, that of doing to others what I would have them do to me (Matthew 7:12).

What this brought home to me was the constant need for all acts of critical challenge to be grounded in a broader vision of responsible academic citizenship. I thought the academic life was all about an impersonal quest for originality; but focussing instead on the academy as a living community – with its concomitant demands of encouragement, support and generosity – opens up a much richer and more welcoming concept of scholarly activity, and one which is much more in line with our calling as Christian scholars. I want to explore this concept of academic citizenship further in a future post, but for now I'd invite others' comments on their own experiences of this area: do you have any examples of academics acting as generous and responsible citizens (perhaps even as they respond critically to some of your ideas)?

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