FiSch blog

Christian postgrad groups in action: Nottingham

This week we return to our series on local Christian postgraduate groups with a contribution from the Nottingham group. This group has been running for quite a number of years, with ups and downs. Alison Woodward and Esther Mokori tell us what they are up to at the moment:

Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) is a Student Union society at the University of Nottingham which serves postgraduate students, but has also had a fourth year language student and post docs/visiting academics attending in the past three years. We meet weekly during term time, with some holiday socials. Our meetings are open to all.

We openly discuss various topics and we build a Godly support network for each other based on our common study and open minds. Although we all go to different churches and have different cultural and academic backgrounds, that makes us a more open-minded group and we don’t set limits on each other or the Spirit of God. We are more of a family than a small group.

When GCF members reached turning points in their lives, we organised seminars to benefit them, such as our ‘I Do’ night, which discussed marriage and parenthood, and was a great evening of sharing and discussion. We have also hosted talks on whole-life discipleship and discipleship in our research.

We also aim to reach out to non-Christians. We host an International Food Night every year where we serve food from our cultures to postgraduate students for free and host a world-themed quiz. From that, we have had two people seek God at GCF, one coming to our Bible studies on Ephesians every week. We also hosted the Pais Project, who came onto campus and reached out to students with the message ‘Because You’re Loved’.

It is great to hear of the diversity of local groups, but looking back at previous posts (see here and here), some patterns are emerging. One of these is the importance of fellowship with others who are pursuing research to the glory of God. Although your church may be very supportive of your PhD studies and your daily life as a Christian, there may not be anyone who can really enter into the joys and struggles that you face. Being part of a local group makes you realise that you are not on your own. You can share these joys and struggles with others, and you can encourage and challenge each other.

Two years ago at our Faith-in-Scholarship leader’s conference, one of the speakers suggested that local groups could play a role in marking special occasions, like the Nottingham group has done with regard to marriage and parenthood. But maybe the defining PhD rites of passage are submission, the viva and graduation. Maybe we could think about a way of celebrating these in our local groups?

Speaking of the FiSch leader’s conference, there is another one coming up in February…

Are you a Christian postgraduate but not in a local group yet? You can find out if there is a group in your city. And if there is no group yet, why not get something going? We would be more than happy to support you! Do get in touch!

Category errors and ontological confusion

Our series on “good scholarship” has so far considered the logical and lingual aspects of reality.  Here I want to explore a particular kind of offence against principles of both logical distinction and lingual clarification.

Category errors arise when things are referred to in ways that imply they belong to a category of things to which they do not.  They were proposed by Gilbert Ryle in “The Concept of Mind” (1949).  He was concerned about the juxtaposition of “mind” and “body” as two comparable entities.  But the notion proved broadly applicable – and indeed is approached by other philosophers too.

What do category errors look like, and why worry about them?  First consider a harmless metaphor. “This book shines new light on our question”, if taken literally, would be absurd (unless it refers to a genuinely luminescent book) but unlikely to mislead anyone.  Metaphors can liven up our language and also help create terminology: think of electromagnetic “waves”, biodiversity “hotspots” or mental “breakdowns”.  It shouldn’t be difficult to agree that light waves don’t go up and down, biodiversity can’t have a temperature, and minds are not machines – so we needn’t see category errors here.  Next, what about statements?  If someone analysed this blog post, I hope they would allow my opening sentence, “Our series… has so far considered…” to pass as a harmless case. But sometimes category errors are revealing.

In reviewing a paper I once queried a phrase along the lines of, “The threat of extinctions may reduce biodiversity in this region,” because threats are mental perceptions: clearly it was the extinctions that could reduce biodiversity, not the threats.  The authors’ meaning was clear enough – but this kind of subtle category error is commonplace (not least in some student work I read).  In most cases it suggests slightly careless writing: linguistic short-cuts.  Or is it confused thinking?  Either way, I believe it’s a carelessness that can breed problems.  See what you think about the following:

  1. “The brain recognises a threat and responds accordingly”
  2. “A gene for homosexuality”
  3. “Our data reveal…”
  4. “Society expresses its disapproval”

My contention here is that our ways of phrasing ideas can reveal a lot about our worldview: especially what kinds of thing we consider able to affect each other.

So phrase (1) reminds us of the concerns of Ryle, on the grounds that minds are the locus of thought, whereas brains are body organs.  (2) stands for the widespread general denigration among biologists of hypothesising “a gene for X” – partly because  most traits aren’t simply determined by genes (or even alleles).  (3) is one that greatly interests me and needs working out elsewhere: suffice to say for now that no data have ever placed a conclusion in front of me, or spoken to me!  (4) raises the question of what we mean by “society”.

The intriguing question behind all this is, what categories ought we to distinguish?  Why are some ontologies better than others?  While Ryle was concerned with the mind/body dualism, his examples imply many other categories besides.  I’m particularly interested in the Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd's approach to causality. Dooyeweerd proposed that scientific causal accounts (those based on abstractions) should restrict themselves to a single aspect of created reality.  His “aspects” are a set of fifteen categories for types of abstraction and of laws.  More needs to be said about this – but let me end by pointing out that our series on “What is good scholarship?” is based on these aspects, from the analytical aspect onwards.

Clarity as an intellectual virtue

Have you ever thought of clarity as a virtue? In the last post, Roy Clouser started our series on intellectual virtues by explaining the importance of the ‘logical’ or ‘analytical’ aspect of reality for scholarship. Clarity is a norm (a kind of goodness) that presupposes the norm of distinguishing logically; once we have good distinctions, we should seek to communicate these clearly. But why should Christians have anything to say about these basic norms?

It is interesting that the first specific task God gave to Adam, the naming of the animals, (Genesis 2:19–20) was both an analytical and a linguistic operation. Before you can give a name to a species, you’ve first got to identify what makes it different from the other species around it, and this means making generalisations from one animal to a whole group (I don’t think Adam was calling one sheep ‘Bob’ and another ‘Margaret’!). One aspect of the creation mandate for humans to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ is the idea that we work to bring it under our mastery and into our understanding; as part of this, we need to use our God-given analytical faculties to shine a light on the logical interactions and relationships of the world around us.

What does this mean for us as Christian researchers or postgrads? I think there’s a few key principles here:

  • Analysis is not a neutral act. When we attempt to make abstractions, we’re not just jumping through intellectual hoops, nor are we opening up heroic new vistas for human independence. We are doing what God designed and commanded us to do: exploring, examining and explaining His world. If we remember this, it can give us a sense of purpose in our daily work. If we forget it, we risk distorting the vision He set before us.
  • Clarity is not the same as simplicity. Thinking clearly does not mean ignoring the world’s complexities, which are testament both to God’s rich creativity and also to the chaos our sin has wreaked on our environment. The opposite of clarity is not complexity but confusion. As we approach the world analytically, through our different disciplines, we are working with its complexity, not against it – working to engage with and harness this complexity as part of our act of intellectual worship and service. We can help the church to be confident, and not fearful or suspicious, when faced with complicated truths and situations.
  • Researchers can be servants. The ability to find and describe the relationships between different aspects of reality is a gift, given by God for the common good. Our job is not to make things as complicated as possible, however much that might validate our abilities to ourselves and the academy around us; our job is to engage with complexity for the sake of our broader community, just as Adam gave names to the animals as a first step to domesticating them. Wherever possible, we should be open to ways (however unexpected!) in which our studies can bless our church family.

The Logical Aspect of Reality and Thought

Roy Clouser starts our series on good scholarship with a look at the logical aspect of reality.

We often speak of an idea or plan as “logical” using that as a term of praise. What we usually mean is that the idea makes sense or the plan appears a good way to proceed. But the term “logical” is used in philosophy and the sciences to name a specific kind of properties and laws. According to Reformational Philosophy these properties and laws form a distinct aspect of all creation. Let’s start with the most basic laws of logic, the fundamental logical axioms.

The first logical axiom is the law of non-contradiction. It says that nothing can both be and not-be in the same sense at the same time. Most people employ this law without ever having articulated it to themselves. They know that if someone owes them money, it can’t be true both that the money has been repaid and that it has not been repaid. They know that it either was or wasn’t repaid, and that it can’t be both, because of that law. The second logical law is called the law of excluded middle. That means that it must be true that either the money was repaid or it wasn’t, so it can’t be true that it was neither repaid nor not repaid. Finally, there is the axiom of identity. This law says that a thing is itself and not something else. So applied to the money owed, it says that either it is true that the money was repaid and false that it was not, or it is true that it was not repaid and false that it was.

These laws sound so obvious that at first most people think they must be trivial or simple. In fact they are anything but trivial or simple. They can be used to formulate more specific rules that can be applied to arguments in a rigorous way to determine whether arguments are valid or not.

There are also logical characteristics or “properties” that things can possess. Most views of logic think that the only things that can have logical properties are propositions and arguments, and that the only properties propositions can have are being consistent or inconsistent, and the only properties arguments can have are whether they are valid or invalid. This impoverished view is the result of missing the fact that properties can be possessed passively as well as actively. For example, the statements “The money was repaid” and “The money was not repaid” are actively inconsistent. The term “active” means that they have that property whether anyone knows it or not. But they also have such passive properties as being distinguishable and being analyzable – properties that depend on someone to distinguish or analyze them. In this same way all objects of experience, as well as all the kinds of characteristics they exhibit, can also have such passive properties as being able to be distinguished, abstracted, analyzed, and conceptualized.

For these reasons the Reformational philosophy insists that everything in creation has logical properties and is subject to logical law – not just thoughts, ideas, concepts, and theories, but also things, events, persons, relations, and states of affairs in the world around us. On the other hand, this philosophy clearly restricts the scope of logical laws to creatures. Since God is the creator of the logical aspect of the cosmos as well as all its other aspects, those laws may not be applied to Him to prove His existence. Attempting such a proof is subjecting God to the laws He has imposed on creatures, and thus lowers God to creaturely status by subjecting Him to the laws of the cosmos. Thus whatever can be proven would thereby not be God.

What is good scholarship?

Is academic work a kind of perfectionism? Single-minded focus certainly goes a long way in scholarship. But we must also be circumspect, not forgetting the constraints on our time and resources, our health and the need to make concessions to our audiences when communicating discoveries. All-round perfection will be an elusive goal. So what really is good scholarship, in God’s eyes?

We’re about to begin a series on this theme by looking at a whole suite of kinds of “good”. What do a good argument, a good method, a good speaker and a good deed have in common? Perhaps it’s not so easy to say. The reformational perspective that motivates FiSch relishes the challenge of pursuing different kinds of goodness together – someone has called it “the simultaneous realisation of norms”.

Now, in our academic work we sometimes bump into a thing called research ethics. Perhaps an ethics committee needs to approve your project, and this seems like a bind, concerned with extraneous ethics. But, just as the law no longer feels like constraint when it’s internalised in us, and we need have no fear of rulers if we obey the law (Rom 13), I would argue that there are many types of “good” that we’re already used to considering in our work. We know the importance of good ideas, of getting good value from limited funds and time, of using good reasoning, and of obtaining good outcomes from a project. And we’re trained to keep these “intrinsic” goods in view. Virtuous scholarship is a multifaceted challenge.

All-round goodness

You may remember how the psalmist proclaimed, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3) – and how this is echoed in Jesus’ claim, “No one is good – except God alone” (Mk 10:18), and Paul quotes it in Romans (3:12). Where does this leave that desire for excellence? This is where it’s important to distinguish different spheres of meaning. The biblical writers clearly assume that we can make valid arguments, build houses to withstand storms and care for animals well. So the bold claims cited above must be concerned with something more. Yes: they refer to righteousness in the eyes of our Creator. This is indeed not something we can just work up. If we don’t love God, good scholarship will clothe us only in filthy rags in His eyes (Is 64:6) – although it surely remains good, in His common grace, for God’s purposes in the world at large. But, conversely, the goodness granted to us when we truly know and believe in Jesus Christ is not only to our eternal benefit. Here and now it will integrate every area of our lives, growing as we work out our salvation (Php 2:12). “Be perfect,” said Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect*” (Mat 5:48).

Some of the themes of our series may surprise you.  We’ll begin with a guest post by philosopher Roy Clouser on the goodness of logic and move on to the goodness of progress.  Later we’ll reach more social (“ethical”) dimensions, and eventually end up in good faith. I hope you find the journey stimulating!


*The Greek teleios in this context suggests whole, perhaps impartial, rather than perfection as an ideal.

An epic 24hrs: the FiSch Leaders’ Conference 2016

In just under four months the 2016 Fisch Leaders’ Conference will be taking place in Leeds. It’s going to be epic; a crucial moment under God’s grace for this cohort of Christian postgraduate leaders.

Fundamentally it promises two things (with a money back guarantee): you will enjoy a time of rest and encouragement as you are fed in a community of Christian scholars; and you will be challenged to grow in your thinking and leadership as you share your experiences and listen to others.

As well as peer-to-peer group discussions, in 2016 our lectures will be provided by the Christian philosophy power couple Drs Adrienne and Jonathan Chaplin. Dr Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto) and now works as an independent writer. She works on the philosophy of art, has written and lectured globally on aesthetics and art and is co-author of Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Dr Jonathan Chaplin is the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and has written widely on politics, political theory, ethics and Christianity. He is currently a member of the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge and has previously held positions at VU University (Amsterdam) and the Institute of Christian Studies (Toronto).

Over recent years the FiSch Leaders’ Conference has been a wonderful event. We’ve seen local postgraduate group leaders share their struggles and plan new opportunities and we’ve seen new leaders grow in their passion for encouraging others to consider scholarship under Christ’s Lordship. The FiSch Fellows are committed to encouraging and supporting you, this generation of leaders, as Christians in the postgraduate world.

Perhaps however you don’t see yourself as a leader. Well you’re amongst kindred thinkers here, but just to help you out our definition of leadership might be of interest: “taking responsibility for encouraging and supporting Christians in postgraduate education and research”. If that describes you, then you fit, we’re here to help you in your work and this conference is for you.

In under 24hrs expect to make new contacts, develop relationships, enjoy good food, rest in a beautiful home, critique your role in encouraging Christians, be challenged in your thinking, enjoy an inter-disciplinary community, and praise God together for His works. Put the date in the diary now (19th-20th February 2016), and get ready to book your place soon – it’s going to be epic.

FiSch research goes to Rome

The Faith-in-Scholarship working group on ecosystem services is starting to have an impact! Twelve of us started meeting back in February to work on a challenge in conservation science (read about the basic rationale). Now we’ve presented some of our work at an ecological conference in Rome and are working on journal articles. We want to substitute ‘ecosystem services’ with ‘ecosystem values’: read on to find out why.

Two of the themes being pursued are now bearing fruit. The first was a theological one that involved writing an ecological reflection on Psalm 104: this has been done, and we hope to publish it soon on another blog (watch this space for news!). The second theme is more ambitious and philosophical: to critique and enrich the ecosystem services framework. And this is the work that took us to Rome last week.

Environmental conservation is intrinsically an ethical concern: people believe that the destruction of wild places, species and ecosystems by the activities of humans is a bad thing and we want to find ways to minimise these losses. All scientific work has normative foundations – despite the tradition of pretending otherwise – but in conservation science and much of ecology these are sometimes more obvious. So we’re proposing to replace the idea of ecosystem services – an economic metaphor – with that of “ecosystem values”.

We’re offering a scheme for identifying different kinds of ways in which people value wild places, together with some ideas for measuring them. This scheme is based on the non-reductive framework for Christian philosophy that motivates FiSch. I won’t say more while we’re still writing up our work, but we have had interest from a prominent journal in publishing our proposal. Again – watch this space for news!

So what happened in Rome? I had the privilege of representing our group at the conference of the European Ecological Federation, and although I’ve attended many ecological conferences before, this was the first time I’d had “West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies” on my name badge.

The overall theme was “Ecology at the Interface”, meaning an emphasis on interdisciplinarity – which our approach suited well. The conference attracted perhaps 600 delegates from all around Europe and beyond, with nearly this many presentations crammed in to six parallel tracks. Most of these were 15-minute talks – such as ours. When I stood up to speak in one of the final sessions of the week some 35 people were present, and at the end of my talk there were a number of appreciative and helpful questions and comments. I came back with plenty of additional ideas and quite a few useful connections. The next challenge is to explore a virtue ethics approach to our ideas.

Overall, our working group has been tremendously encouraged by this. The work we presented wasn’t explicitly Christian; rather, it draws upon our Christian background (and we represent a broad church). While it will be for each reader of our work to see whether this foundation is evident, we’re confident in our objective of showing that a Christian starting-point can lead to good fruit – even in the sciences.

Thanks to the Marsh Christian Trust and Yeadon IP for funding

‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ in research

Dr Xia Zhu describes the role of Christian academic groups in her faith:

I was brought up and educated in a system which believes in no god and claims that the reason why so many gods look like men is because they are simply human illusions. Ironically, it was in order to understand a different culture that I was encouraged to read the Bible by a professor from my undergraduate studies. 

My journey with the Lord started in a small Chinese Bible study group: studying Genesis for a whole year, wrestling with the ideas of creation, who Jesus is, and how Christianity is different from other religions. This group really helped me in exploring these questions (not necessarily always with satisfying answers). I continued with the books of John and Romans, exploring questions about ‘sin’, ‘repentance’ and the meaning of the cross. The study of the word of God led to a point where my misconception of the Bible being a book of fairy stories was corrected, and I was enthused with a passion for Christ, to walk His way and please Him.

As much as I enjoyed my PhD – the satisfaction of solving problems and finding reasons behind a phenomenon – I have to confess that I spent much of my time and energy in church-related activities (Bible study groups, sermon translation, theology classes, etc.). These certainly all appear to be ‘godly’ and I was enthusiastic about sharing the gospel (it still thrills me when I see people come to the Lord). PhD and research (as well as other non-church areas), were somehow – I’m not sure when – labelled as ‘secular’, ‘second class’, and not surprisingly ‘of secondary importance’ in my life.  That’s until I met a group of researchers in the Postgraduate Christian Forum (PCF). My first PCF meeting was rather disturbing, as it made it very clear that this group was not about evangelism. This challenged my restricted mindset of gospel sharing, changing people’s hearts and deepening our faith in Christ. This group was grappling with the theme of God’s purpose in each research discipline – and I continued attending.

The wrestling process has been rather rewarding: it has not only opened up my mind, challenging my preset thinking about ‘God’s work’ and ‘God in the workplace’, but also helped me to rediscover God’s purpose and value in research and to re-examine what is ‘secular’. PhD work is not merely satisfying intellectual activity by solving problems, nor just a key to the door of academia. Research is not an instrumental tool for gaining academic recognition and career progression. It is thinking God’s thoughts after Him and truly acknowledging that He is the lord of all (including research!).

The plaques in the old Coventry Cathedral say the following:

‘Hallowed be Thy Name in Industry, God be in my hands and in my making’,
‘Hallowed be Thy Name in Arts, God be in my senses and in my creating’,
‘Hallowed be Thy Name in Commerce, God be at my desk and in my trading’,
‘Hallowed be Thy Name in Government, God be in my plans and in my deciding’
‘Hallowed be Thy Name in Education, God be in my mind and in my growing’.
‘Hallowed be Thy Name in the Home, God be in my heart and in my loving’.

May we also pray:

‘Lord, Hallowed be Thy Name in research, God be in my projects and in my thinking.’

Christian postgrad groups in action: York

I came to the UK in 2006 to start my PhD at York University, not knowing anyone. Thankfully, in my first week there, the Christian Union distributed a leaflet in the college accommodation where I was staying, and I quickly became involved in the CU’s postgraduate small group. It was great to meet people who were also pursuing research, and together we grew in our faith and made small steps towards understanding the place of our scholarship within the larger picture of God’s kingdom.

The situation in York is somewhat different to that at most universities. The CU has a small group in each college, and one of the colleges, Wentworth College, is a postgraduate college. The CU felt called to start up a small group there, just a year or two before I arrived, and have supported the group ever since, although it has always been free to tailor its meetings to the needs of postgraduate students.

The group is still going, and one of the current members, Carine Tsimba Nsangu, writes the following:

The Christian postgraduate group at the University of York consists of postgraduates at different stages in their academic careers, mature undergraduates and even post-doctoral staff. I joined the group many years ago while doing my Masters. Although I wouldn’t define myself as a postgraduate student anymore, having finished my PhD, I still belong to the group.

The York group meets weekly on a Thursday evening. Just like any other Christian group, it provides a place for spiritual support and the deepening of Christian life through informal questions, rigorous debate, or listening to the experiences of committed Christians. But this postgraduate group offers much more as you don’t just get to meet your fellow Christians, but rather you get to meet like-minded people, familiar with research, the postgraduate daily life and challenges! This unique combination is what makes the group stand out and is why it presents a clear advantage to belong to one.

The York group engages in flexible discussions that have varied widely over the years. The format of the group discussion, as well as different topics have indeed evolved and changed based on current members’ views of what the group should be! The group discussions have been for example based on article by Nigel Biggar on “What are Universities For?”, on “time management as a researcher” to topics on Christian life such as, “life in the Holy Spirit as a Christian”…

I have, over the years, met some of my closest friends and shared within the group some of my many challenges as researcher!

I can testify to that too, and although many of these friends have now moved to different countries and even continents, many are still in contact with each other. If you’re starting your postgraduate degree at York this autumn, why not drop us a line, and we can put you in touch with the group. Highly recommended!

Christian postgrad groups in action: Leeds

Leeds skyline

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I encountered a group of students meeting to discuss why Christian faith no longer seems to affect our culture as much as it did in the past. The ‘Big Picture Group’, as it was called, excited me by its sweeping worldview and its candid discussion of serious challenges. I think many of us there in Cambridge were particularly disappointed that so few of our friends were won to faith by the Christian union events we tried so hard to promote.

By the time I was starting PhD studies in Leeds, my own faith was working out in an increasingly clear way intellectually – bringing a confidence that I wished I’d had earlier. But I was missing any opportunity for serious discussions with fellow Christian students – about academic subjects, about social issues, about how the Bible relates to culture at large.

Starting a CPG

It turned out that I wasn’t alone in this, for when I found a handful of other PhD students who were Christians, it didn’t take much prompting (Transforming the Mind did the job) for us to set up a Christian postgrads’ discussion group. The chaplaincy kindly let us use a room, and we started inviting any other interested friends to our weekly chats on all kinds of topics.

The group today

That was back in 2006, so the group has been running for nearly ten years. Now it’s coordinated by Will Allchorn, a PhD student in political science. Here’s his account:

I came to Leeds in 2011 to start a master’s course and was looking for a Christian fellowship that suited my life stage. Fortunately, God provided and I was lucky enough to bump into someone who was running the Leeds Postgraduates’ Christian Fellowship (PGCF). Little did I know, however, that I would be called to lead the group four years later! Leeds PGCF is a fortnightly discussion group that meets with the aim of equipping postgraduate Christians to live out their faith in their studies and research. We invite inspiring speakers as well as fellow members to talk about challenges and opportunities they’ve found on their academic journey as Christians. This is with the aim of providing ‘living examples’ of how faith can impact one’s studies and scholarship. As hinted above, the most important aspect of the group is, however, in the name: Fellowship. We try to meet for lunch after the meeting and the act of gathering allows us to share our common experiences about being Christian postgraduates. I would recommend to any follower of Christ the fun and sacrificial act of starting or re-starting a similar ministry. With the focus of Church and University ministries centred on undergraduates, there is a glaring omission of equipping postgraduates and scholars to seek out their faith in the University. Any attempt to redress this imbalance is of serious merit for establishing the Kingdom of Christ in UK academe.