FiSch blog

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective

In the first of our occasional series of perspectives on the creation/evolution controversy, Abigail Motley reflects on the growing harmony between her faith and her ecological research.

'Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.' Undergraduate biology lecturers love referring to this quote, the title of an essay written by Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Personally, I am always moved that it was proposed by a Christian.

I am an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, studying for a DPhil in Oxford. I’m also a Christian. I have loved nature for as long as I can remember (as a child, my bedroom was littered with jars of creepy crawlies, collections of sea shells, and I saw no reason why the family guinea pigs couldn’t take part in my annual nativity plays). Growing up, I saw my passion for the natural world as a gift God had given me to try and address the exploitative behaviour of humanity towards the life on earth. However, as I plunged deeper into my Oxford biology degree, I increasingly felt like I had to choose between biology and faith. For some time, I chose biology.

By God’s grace, in the last year I accepted Jesus and moved to the evangelical Protestant tradition. In doing so, I have been astounded by the distrust and even animosity with which my discipline is received amongst some evangelical Christians. Concomitantly, I am still confronted by the staunch atheism of some scientists, including colleagues. Often when teaching biology undergraduates, I hear the argument “evolution helped us disprove there was a creator” (they’re always slightly taken aback when I challenge them on this!). Despite this, I believe God has placed me in this position for a reason.

However, I am not always strong in this conviction. Am I just blindly ignoring what God teaches us in the Bible and rebelling against Him? Something I have found incredibly helpful is Dennis Alexander's suggestion of looking at creation through two lenses: God’s Word and God’s Works. Science should never be superimposed upon the Bible. Doing so risks concocting “God of the Gaps” arguments that may become nullified as science progresses. The Bible teaches us theology and how we should treat other human beings and God’s creation. Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not give scientific details about the makings of the universe. However, God gifted Homo sapiens unique abilities – consciousness, free will, moral law, and language – that allow us to know Him and, through cumulative advances, understand his creation through science.

In a recent conversation with Dr Bethany Sollereder, a specialist in the theology of evolution and suffering, I came to realise that even young earth creationists will accept certain scientific views. She pointed out that many creationists will accept heliocentricity, that the earth and planets orbit around the Sun, and yet this is not the picture by which Genesis is written. Accepting heliocentricity means accepting a scientific theory to explain God’s creation.

I find this incredibly reassuring. Some in the church were (understandably) hostile when Galileo proposed heliocentricity, and yet now it is widely accepted. When Darwin published the Origin of Species, much of the clergy in the Church of England eagerly accepted his theory of natural selection. They recognised that science does not have to undermine faith, but rather, can truly enhance it. What greater privilege is there than understanding just a small part of our Creator’s great works in all their glory?

Granted, there is still debate in biology as to the exact nature of evolutionary theory. Certain parts of On the Origin of Species are incorrect (as are certain parts of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene). Biology is an intrinsically uncertain science, simply because ecological and evolutionary systems are so complex. However, the nature of science is such that a theory can’t garner such strong academic support unless there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific data behind it. Dobzhansky was right: evolution is currently our only credible explanation for the sheer diversity of life on earth.

A knowledge of biology has deepened my faith in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible. God is not absent from science – He is at the centre of it. Evolution is a natural process that, along with all natural processes, was created by Him. Studying just a tiny part of that creation is an incredible privilege that I give thanks for every day.

 Abigail Motley is a DPhil student in Plant Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oxford. She is a regular member of St Ebbe's Church and on the 2017-18 cohort of Christians in Academia

Listening when others won't

Mark Surey writes on the importance of listening:

I have seldom met a scholar who is not fascinated by and excited about his or her field of study. That level of interest, combined with the God-given capacity to contribute, to a large extent forms the basis for a call to scholarship. It really helps if we both want and are able to do something.

Then, as well as a desire to research the field, there is also a desire to teach it. A scholar who is fascinated by their field wants both to acquire knowledge about it (research) and to find an opportunity to transmit knowledge to those who want to hear and/or learn (teaching). So if either is blocked, there is frustration - although the nerdy among us may develop contentment with specializing in research, and the ideologically obsessive likewise with teaching!

In general we want to be listened to, and to have a responsive forum for what we want to communicate to others about our field of study. And it's annoying when our hearers don't seem to really listen - whether it's apathetic undergraduates, unresponsive peer reviewers, or even that yawning boy in Sunday school. Why do they not understand the significance, or indeed the actual content, of my pearls of wisdom? What is wrong with them? Should I repeat what I have already said? Say it louder? Perhaps I'll say it slower so that they can get it more easily? Maybe go back to the basics again, so that they have all my assumptions? But this risks boring them further, if they can't or won't listen to you, because what you say is either detached from their previous experience, or seems irrelevant to their life or interests.

I am sure this is a common experience for us all. So how do we go forward?

Basically, before we want other people to listen to us, we must be willing and able to listen to them. And that listening has to be active. I have met so many Christian scholars who have had to adjust to either a class that does not understand their material (although they ought to be able to), or a rejected research proposal which was put forward optimistically, or simply uninterested colleagues. And their stance has been not exactly subtle: YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS! But the louder the shout, the greater the switch-off.

We simply need to listen to others before we expect them to listen to us. This is so simple but not always easy. Why is it hard? Simply because our starting position is our obsession with our own research and teaching. We get it - so why don't they?

Not because there is something wrong with them - but because they are not us. Each of us has specific and different things which matter to us in particular, and this is valuable. 

Therefore, maybe I should listen to what matters to them before I expect them to listen to me.  Experience shows that this actually works. Think about your own life: after someone has listened to you, are you then more inclined to listen to them?  As Christians, we are called to a counter-cultural unselfishness.  And aren't we supposed to share material, to expand teaching and research as scholars?

I should listen to the experience and worldview of my hearer, before I expect them to listen to mine. This is so important in funding applications and impact statements. To be successful, you need to see your material not from your perspective but theirs! They are primarily giving to you, not you to them, so let's not be arrogant!

My experience is that teachers and researchers who can step sideways and look at their work through the eyes of outsiders, actively listen, and start looking at their insight through the eyes of others, are the ones who manage to communicate the significance of what matters in their scholarship. The class listens. The funding comes. The peers review.

Dr Mark Surey is Travelling Secretary for the Christian Academic Network. You can read a previous post by him here.

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Pride and peer review: taking criticism as an academic skill

We’re aiming to write about various academic skills on FiSch over the next few months. Aside from the narrow, subject-specific skills we all acquire in our fields – from paleography to coding to titration – there are many more general skills academics need to thrive in our work, and through which Christians have the larger goal of serving our Lord as well as those around us.

Bruno Medeiros has provided several helpful posts on the skill of listening, and the skill I want to talk about is related: taking criticism. This is something I am not very good at, so I won’t be offering specific recommendations! But I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the processes of criticism in academic contexts and how we as Christian academics can respond in ways which are godly and productive.

I’m still a graduate student, and so feedback and (usually constructive!) criticism are an important part of my current academic life. My experiences so far have often reminded me how poor I am at responding well to criticism, however. One example of this (which still stings) was the written feedback on my MPhil thesis: while it had several positive points, the assessor questioned my command of the language of the text I’d analysed and suggested I was using the translation as a crutch. I found this incredibly frustrating and it played on my mind for weeks. Perhaps you can relate to the resentment even a small piece of criticism can provoke.

I had to come to terms with the pride at the root of my frustration: I was overprotective of my work to the extent I found it difficult to admit any flaw in it. But my pride wasn’t productive – it wouldn’t help me move from my finished and definitely flawed Masters project to more ambitious, complicated doctoral work. What’s more, if I couldn’t take on board the criticism of this specific piece of work, then how would I work with a supervisor whose job is to critique and improve my thinking, much less benefit from the long process of transfer, confirmation, and defence of my DPhil?

The Bible obviously doesn’t have anything specific to say about academic evaluations, peer review, or supervisory relationships – but pride is a recurring theme in Scripture, and it’s very often pride which prevents us benefiting from the processes of criticism which make academic work better. Ecclesiastes instructs, ‘Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools’, and James that ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’. For me, this cuts right to the heart of the proud, resentful anger I can be tempted to feel when my work is criticised. Proverbs reminds us that ‘wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’. Things which are hard to hear often benefit us if we accept them, while an academic who never hears anything but flattery will inevitably become the most unbearable of colleagues!

There’s a lot more that could be said on this subject: how do we respond if criticism is unjustified or overly personal? How should we think about the systemic biases of university cultures, which often tip the balance of critical feedback more heavily in the direction of certain types of people?

I haven’t got the space here to discuss all these complexities. In these areas of academic life, as in all of life, however, our example must be Christ: who ‘emptied himself… and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. Jesus’s profound humility throws our academic pride into sharp relief. Let’s pray for the grace to reflect it a little more each time criticism comes our way.

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Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

Some people might think the very first topic for a "faith in scholarship" blog to address would be the notorious controversy around evolutionary origins for living organisms and especially for human beings.  But this blog has run for nearly four years without the word "evolution" appearing at all*!  To some extent this is deliberate.  We wanted to show how a Christian perspective can shed light on all areas of research in arts and sciences, while steering clear of what is all too often a flashpoint where Christians fail to understand each other.

But the time has come to touch that tricky topic!  We're planning some occasional posts around this issue with the aim of garnering insights and ideas for other areas of scholarship as well as biology.  Now, there is of course a broad scientific consensus that the paradigm of evolution by natural selection provides an adequate scientific explanation for the origins of all kinds of living organisms from a common ancestor.  Among Christians and Muslims, however, there are small communities of researchers working with opposing paradigms consistent with Special Creation (divine creative acts for different kinds of organisms) and in some cases a young earth (<10,000 years old), and indeed there are also scientists not professing religious faith who are skeptical of the consensus paradigm. We should also note that, while most research biologists can readily situate their work within an evolutionary framework, very few actively study historic or contemporary processes of evolution themselves.  That's the sense in which evolution may be called a research paradigm.

What have I to say here?  I'm an ecologist trained in biology, and a committed Christian since childhood, so I've had plenty of time to reflect - and my conclusion may surprise you!

While many Christians holding to the scientific mainstream position clearly find it embarrassing that so many fellow-believers - with trained scientists among them - might reject it, and these in turn may be ashamed of the first group, I personally see this stark situation as a fantastic educational opportunity.  An opportunity, that is, to learn about the rationales behind divergent views and seek to understand how intelligent, faithful fellow-believers come to hold them.  And if you don't believe there's sophisticated, convincing reasoning in the minority view, you need to read more**!  After all, next Sunday I might sit down in church next to someone who believes the age of life on Earth to be a factor of half a million different from what I believe.  This phenomenon has inspired many surveys and studies, but it's also a great challenge - indeed, it's probably the main reason I began studying history and philosophy of science.

The next thing to point out is that there's a lot more than two contrasting paradigms out there.  Alongside the mainstream biological consensus (which is itself evolving!) and a contrasting view where all kinds of organisms were created within four days or so (I hope you've read Genesis 1 recently?) some 6,000 years ago (if you've analysed Genesis through Chronicles in the right way!), there are other non-consensus views concerning timescales and mechanisms, many of which attempt to reduce the apparent gulf between the extreme views.  Then of course there is plenty of divergence within the biological consensus concerning histories and mechanisms of evolution. 

That last area is particularly interesting to me.  The tradition from which FiSch comes doesn't find "supernatural" a helpful category for thinking about God's work (more of that in another post), so I want to look christianly at theories that are fully biological.  And some theoretical emphases may be more plausible within a Christian philosophy than others - especially if they avoid reductionisms.  For example, Danie Strauss has argued that Darwin's theory itself is too physicalistic to explain biotic evolution, and Uko Zylstra suggests that the Intelligent Design movement points beyond itself to the need for biotic laws.  Simon Conway Morris sees some kind of physiological laws in the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, and Robert Ulanowicz advances a model where self-organising processes are the foundation of biological diversity.

I'd go so far as to suggest that in the evolution controversy, God calls His people (1) to learn how to appreciate rationales very different from our own, and (2) to recognise the role of faith in the development of scientific ideas.  That is, we must be able to overcome scientific dogma; after all, if the majority were always correct, science would have no history.  If we read the forthcoming posts with such an attitude, I trust they will yield much fruit.

  

*except in reference to the journal "Trends in Ecology & Evolution".

**The most helpful book I've found for appreciating diverse positions on evolution is "Mapping the Origins Debate" by Gerald Rau (IVP, 2012).

A Christian philosophy of science

Diagram of "particulars" (and classes of particulars) in diverse "relations" over "time"

For the key to the icons, see this post.

We're beginning a series exploring the outlines of a Christian philosophy of the sciences. Not, I hasten to add, the Christian Philosophy of Science (as I know there's a tendency for the tag "Christian" to evoke a sense of dogma!).  Rather, I want to develop, aided by some guest bloggers and hopefully lots of comments and feedback from readers, a philosophical framework that could provide insights into what the sciences are, where they come from, and how we who are scientists can better go about our research.  This series is also written with an eye to the next phase of Church Scientific.

Here I pick up from the Triune view of reality articulated by Jeremy Ive that I described last year, with input from Hendrik Hart's "Understanding Our World" and the writings of Danie Strauss - although it is of course my own interpretation.  Suppose we accept that the created world of our experience can be summarised as "things in relation over time": how does scientific thinking apply?

Our starting point is that scientific thinking does not concern the uniqueness of things so much as classes, properties and behaviours that can be observed across multiple individuals or situations (universals).  In French, scientific knowing is generally savoir, not connaître, distinguishing knowing about generalities (or that something pertains) from knowing particulars (like people, pets and places). In English the distinction is simply between intransitive vs. transitive verb forms, but the contrast remains.  If I asked a zoologist friend, "How well do you know the alligator?", I'd probably be asking about a particular alligator - unless I were using an old-fashioned idiom whereby species are taken as particulars (echoes of platonic realism... of which more later!).  My zoologist friend's professional interest would be in knowing about alligators in general: how they live. Or if we turn to the Bible for a moment, we may note that while most of the canonical material is about particular people, places and events (though not pets), the wisdom literature (e.g. Job, as magnificently explored by Tom McLeish) dwells extensively on generalities and might be seen as proto-scientific.

Many scientific fields have their origins in taxonomy: describing and classifying types of rocks and stars, species of organisms and diseases, personality types, family structures, etc. And thus the sciences proliferate concepts for types of particular things within a certain domain of interest. Developing sciences then take increasing interest in assessing temporal processes and interactive relationships: sedimentation, gravitation, reproduction, infection, development and geographical prevalence, for example - mostly using quantifiable variables.  This is not metaphysics; rather these characteristically scientific interests concern conceptual abstraction. And modally-specific abstraction is perhaps the best single characteristic of "science".  

For all the celebration of science as a source of empirical knowledge, the empirical basis of abstraction is rather obscure.  How do we come to see that this truffle and that truffle are both truffles, or to classify rocks - despite the fact that every single specimen is unique?  Biologists may fall back on the biological species concept - but this is more of an ideal than a useful tool.  If we seek refuge in nominalism and pretend we just made up the types for convenience, then the taxonomic elements of our sciences lose their appeal.  But just as problematic is the abstraction of variables relevant to scientific processes and relationships - like mass, temperature, lifespan, fecundity and relatedness.  How do scientists form these concepts and then discover theoretical relationships and formulate laws (often mathematically-beautiful ones) - merely from experiencing unique particulars?  It would seem that humans actually engage with the law-side of creation.

This brings us to the diagram above. The particular things we directly experience (the white shapes) provide specific data for scientific reasoning, and subjects for scientific prediction, but the abstract kinds (white patches) and diverse relations (the rainbow aura) are perceived in a different way.  Hart describes them as conditions and laws. As such, he says that they are real but do not exist; instead they "apply" or "hold". Turning again to the Bible (especially the Psalms), this also seems to be the sense in which God's word is real without being a creature. And here lies a key reason why this framework has a particular claim to being Christian.

For now, lots of intriguing questions could arise - e.g.:

  • How do scientists actually relate data (particulars) to theory (abstract generalities)?
  • Can a study of star constellations be called scientific? Or the discovery of a new planet, or of an underwater volcano?
  • Does history count as a social science, or is it just about unique particulars?
  • Can theology be the science of God?
  • "Word of God" actually has several meanings - how do they relate to science?

These must be addressed in future posts in this series, which we plan to resume in the new year. 

Listening in relationship

“He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …”

Mark 4.2

“Give ear and hear my voice, Listen and hear my words.”

Isaiah 28.23

The third part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In my previous post I noted how Jesus’ disciples responded to the parable of the sower by being both imaginative and studious, and suggested that these are vital principles for Christian scholars.  In this post I look at a second principle that we can learn from these disciples’ approach to learning and listening.

Before looking at this principle, we should acknowledge that we are not naturally good listeners! Listening is not an easy task, and involves a deep commitment to people, communities, and the social spaces around us. As academics, the focus of our work is often narrow and intense, and we run the risk of becoming oblivious to the problems around us (especially if we are writing a thesis!) and fail to be sensitive to God’s callings to ‘seek his face’ in the routine of our lives (Psalm 27. 8). In Mark chapter 4 we are also told that the crowd resisted listening, and did not even seek earnestly the meanings of the Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus faced difficult listeners (Mark 4. 11-12). He charged that generation with ‘seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…’ (v.12). A collective refusal to listen to the word of God was at the heart of the communication problem between Jesus and those listeners.

It is interesting to note that Jesus addressed this problem not with compelling arguments that proved that his teachings were true and meaningful, but by creating a universe of meanings, illustrations, images, and questions about the nature of God, His word and our response to the divine. Listening thus relates to acquiring meaning. Therefore, speaking in parables or metaphorical speech served as the turning point in his ‘lecturing’: less interested listeners missed the opportunity to gain knowledge and meaning from Jesus’ teachings.  This leads us to the main principle I want to examine.

Jesus’ teaching invites us to develop a relational approach to listening (and learning). After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, his disciples leave the noisy crowd behind and come to Him for an intimate time of exploring, asking, and listening. And times of solitude with God and in different Christian communities (small groups or congregations) can inspire us to listen to the Spirit deeply. In the same way in learning (or conducting research), a relational approach means that we are open to our colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Research will not be the realm of the lone wolf. Cooperation instead of competitiveness, humility instead of arrogance, and dependence instead of self-sufficiency will enable us to flourish in a community of scholars in pursuit of the common good.

Moreover, the example of the disciples might help us to understand the importance of depending on God in learning and conducting our research projects. In this context, prayers and petitions (with thanksgiving) may constitute important resources in our task of learning (Philippians 4. 6-7). The academic life is full of uncertainties and intellectual problems. In my own PhD experience, the challenges of my fieldwork were invitations to prayer and trust in God’s provision for the completion of my project.

Finally, to address the question about fruitfulness (I am not saying "productivity"!) in our academic life, Jesus ends the parable of the sower with a promise of growth (Mark 4. 20). Hearing, thinking and responding appropriately to the Word will bring growth and fruitfulness to our lives. As Christians pursuing academic careers we are not only called to seek to comprehend the Creation with all its complexities, but also to deepen our understanding of our Creator and loving Father. Fruitfulness will be the result of acknowledging that learning leads us to know more His character and deeds. The knowledge of His secrets, wisdom and loving deeds are possible to those who are committed to listen.

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Christian postgrad groups in action: Oxford Graduate Christian Forum

One of the aims of Faith in Scholarship over the years has been to support groups for Christian postgraduate students – sometimes actively, sometimes through providing networks and resources. Most of the FiSch bloggers are or have been part of these groups in various universities across the country. Today I want to spotlight the group I’m currently involved in at Oxford: the Graduate Christian Forum.

The GCF is the official postgrad Christian group of the university, and came into being in 1993, making it one of the older extant groups of this kind. It’s mainly a lecture society, hosting talks each week during termtime (see the website for details of where and when). Subjects vary widely – in the last year there have been talks on everything from Shakespeare to Quakerism to beauty in science.

Our aim is to be a place of dialogue, fellowship, and inspiration, linking up Christians from different disciplines and churches. Oxford is generally a good place to be a Christian postgrad, with organisations like the Oxford Pastorate and some of the large churches’ targeted ministries working with our specific needs. The GCF aims to sit alongside these pastoral groups and help postgrads think more deeply about the links between Christian faith and all different kinds of academic work.

If you’re in Oxford (or are about to arrive) and you’ve never been to a meeting – do come along in the autumn term! Anyone is welcome, at any stage of their graduate career, and from any faith background. For readers elsewhere, you might be interested in the recorded talks which are free to listen to on our website. Some of my personal highlights from the last year:

There are talks from all kinds of disciplines, from a variety of really interesting speakers – a great resource if you’re looking for up-to-date thinking on faith and your subject.

I’ve got involved in the GCF this year and am now serving on the committee. As I go to a church which doesn’t have very many postgraduate students, it’s really good to be able to make connections to others who are balancing and integrating academic work and faith in different ways, and share the particular experiences that brings.

If you’re a Christian postgrad and not connected to some kind of specific ministry or group, can I encourage you to try one out? If you’re in Oxford there's the GCF and several other options; or the list at cpgrad.org.uk can direct you to groups in other places. Community is really important to the academic, and Christian communities with real insight into our opportunities and challenges can be a lifeline.

Jesus, virtue and the university

In the third and final post on the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017 (you can find the first and second posts here and here), I'll summarize the talk that Joanna Collicutt gave. She drew on her expertise in both psychology and theology to help us consider how we can be Christ-like in the university, using the concepts of virtue and character.

Most of us have heard of the seven deadly sins, but in church tradition these are counterbalanced by the seven virtues: temperance, prudence, justice, courage, faith, hope and charity. This strand of thinking starts early in Christian thought, with Ambrose of Milan, and found its most eloquent and extensive expression in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Many of these virtues are recognized in modern positive psychology as habits of mind and practice that enable human flourishing. However, in the gospels we do not see Jesus speak much about virtues. Partly, this is because we tend to focus on Christ's soteriological role rather than his life and teaching, and on his divinity rather than his humanity. We'll come back to this, but first let's look at bit more at how modern psychology thinks about virtue.

Edward Burne-Jones: Faith, Hope and Charity. Stained glass windows in Christ Church, Oxford

Our world is not perfect, and humans are fallen creatures. We are therefore faced with a world that is out of kilter, and our own fallible nature which, as Paul says, makes us 'do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing' (Rom. 7:19). How you make compromises between what is and how you would like things to be says a lot about what you base your identity on. Identity is 'telic': it is about goals and purposes. There are usually a number of different kinds of goals, and how well you manage to integrate these will impact on your flourishing and the amount of stress you experience.

What does all this have to do with Jesus and virtue? First of all, the goals we pursue have implicit theological roots. As Christians we believe that life is going somewhere, and that people were made to live in community. Secondly, we long to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). We want our life to be Christ-like, to form our habits into his character, with the help of the Spirit and within Christian community so we can help each other to express the life of Christ. This takes the form of Christ-like virtues, like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The practice of virtue leads to the building of character. Character is a concept that is halfway between personality traits and aptitudes. Character is embodied virtue, virtue become habit through long practice.

We can express virtue and character in our scholarship by being intentionally goal-directed rather than problem-focused. In our work, we should consider what we are living for as more important than task performance on its own. Learning as a vocation should take precedence over advancing professional and institutional agendas. We should also seek true interdisciplinarity, not just multidisciplinarity, to do justice to the multifaceted nature of reality.

You can probably sense that there was more in this talk than can easily be summarized in one blog post! The audio and slides of the talk will soon be available on Transforming the Mind's website, so do follow the TTM facebook page if you want to be kept updated!

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Welcome to the University of Babylon!

Following on from the first post a few weeks ago, here's the second of three posts summarizing the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017. This week we're looking at Mike Clifford's talk, which took the experience of Daniel and his friends in Babylon as the starting point.

Daniel was a young man who was taken away from his country and his family and moved to a new culture with different rules. There he was enrolled in a three-year course of study in 'every kind of learning', and especially language and literature. Feels familiar to some of you? Maybe you have moved away from your family and friends, and even your country, to pursue your course of study, although I suspect most of us did this by free choice rather than under duress! Daniel and his friends were fully immersed in everything the culture of Babylon had to offer. Some of the things they learned were good and useful, but other aspects of their programme of study may have deliberately aimed to assimilate them into the culture of Babylon, to change their worldview. What would their families have thought about that? Likewise, Christians in academia can feel caught in the middle: on the one hand there is the pressure to conform to the secular mould of society, and on the other hand there can be pressure from a Christian subculture that does not always value learning. Still, Daniel and his friends embarked on this course of study, and God used them not only to witness to the king of Babylon and his court, but he also helped them to develop the gifts and talents they had been given (Dan. 1:4). How are you using your gifts in your studies? How do you explain the importance of your studies to your church family? And how can you serve in your society without losing your identity in Christ?

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; © Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In this Babylonian environment, Daniel and his friends made sure they stayed in contact with God. Despite losing their home and even their names, through their distinctive diet (ch. 1), worship (ch. 3) and prayer (ch. 6) they not only survived but thrived (Dan. 1:15). What helps you to survive and thrive in your academic environment? What practices help you to keep in touch with God and his calling on your life in the midst of your research?

Daniel did not rebel against his programme of study. During their three years of study, God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and understanding of the things they were learning – 'all kinds of literature and learning' (Dan. 1:17) – so that they outdid all the other students (Dan. 1:20). Of course we should not expect to always be the best student. After all, God placed Daniel in Babylon for a very specific purpose. But it does mean we can ask God to bless us in our research, and to help us to understand what we are studying. At times our studies may challenge our faith, but the university can also be a place where our faith is tested and refined. Like Daniel, we need to be aware of which aspects of our discipline are in tension with our faith, and seek to engage with these faithfully, following the call of God on our lives.

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Listening to God with studious imagination

"The Sower" by Jean-François Millet

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

The second part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In an earlier post, I evoked John Stott’s theological concept of double listening:

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of “double listening”. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity (Stott 1992, p.13).

This, I suggest, is as important for those of us pursuing academic careers as for anyone else. Here I ask how we can listen to God in our academic life. Christians generally stress their communal and personal commitment to listen to, interact with and worship a Creator God, the One "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). But how can we hear God’s voice when so many voices compete for our attention? And to what extent will this have an impact on our academic careers?

To address these questions, I would like to invite us to reflect upon the interaction between Jesus and his disciples as seen in Mark chapter 4. Conscious of the need to be a more attentive listener, I believe that the disciples’ response to Jesus’ methods of teaching provides us with resources to develop an open and creative hearing of God’s word and relate it to our academic disciplines.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses a crowd of listeners with a series of parables - stories with meanings to be uncovered and constructed. The famous parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) fascinates and challenges us with its complexity. The different soils in the parable represent distinct hearts or mindsets that enable or hinder our capacity to listen to the Word. And we may learn a lot from reflecting on how different groups in Jesus’ audience responded to this parable itself.

Mark tells us that a group of studious and interested listeners approached him to inquire about the meanings of the parable (Mark 4:10). This is a striking (but often overlooked) point. This group was not happy with a superficial hearing of Jesus’ message, and by digging deeper, they were surprised by the powerful meanings attached to it. These disciples had an approach to learning (and listening) that can teach us two principles. I will look at the first here and at the second in my next post.

The first principle is to develop an imaginative and studious hearing of God’s word (and His world). What strikes me is that it was only his disciples who came to Jesus afterwards to ask him about the meaning behind the parable. Jesus was a creative and imaginative teacher, and He wanted committed followers who were keen to engage in an imaginative search for the secrets of the Kingdom (Mark 4:10-11). He invited his listeners to interact with truth and meaning in an active way. The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey emphasises that "Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. His primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than a philosopher." (Bailey 2008, p.279). Therefore, Jesus’ methods of teaching challenge us to develop a different approach to listening. Creativity, openness, and a willingness to respond to a word that may not always be immediately clear or welcome are important qualities if we are serious about listening to God (Cole, 1989). When Jesus says "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:9), he is calling us to "thought and action in response" (Cole 1989, p.147).

In a similar way, in our own disciplines, listening attentively might involve a commitment to deepening our understanding of the academic field in which we study. For instance, what are the impacts of my research on society? In which ways does our area of study reveal the character of God? How does the study of society, human behaviour, and culture enhance our knowledge of humanity as God’s creation? Are there ethical questions to be considered through our research? Our studies also might reveal something to us about the nature of our Creator God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created.

References

Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels. London: Society for promoting Christian Knowledge. (SPCK).

Cole, R. A. (1989). The Gospel According to Mark: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-varsity Press.

Stott, J.W. (1992). The Contemporary Christian: an Urgent Plea for Double Listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

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