FiSch blog

Why do a PhD? “Take every thought captive and make it obedient…”

The main reason I chose to do a PhD was, as they say in some theology schools, ‘missional’. In this post I will explain this, and also assess the strengths and weaknesses of my answer a few years into my PhD research.

I arrived to study philosophy as an undergraduate to discover that the university (well, the philosophy department at least) was full of people asking some of life’s deepest questions. But as I looked about my department I saw no one trying to answer them from a Christian perspective. That is, I didn’t find any Christians adopting the language of the philosophy department (which, traditionally, had its roots in theology) and attempting to provide satisfying (in the most full sense of the word) answers to these questions. Not only this but I saw friend after friend study philosophy or theology at university and after a few months fall away from the faith. Church was not equipped to deal with the questions that students faced in the university. I thought, ‘Something must be done.’ And so I took it upon myself to be the best philosopher I could be for Christ. Taking ‘every thought captive and making it obedient to him’ (2 Cor. 10:5). Doing PhD research was part of this: to get to know the field well and answer some of the cutting-edge questions from a Christian perspective.

I think there are two great strengths to this strategy. First, it’s realistic. This is a problem facing universities: there’s a lack of Christian engagement at a non-superficial level. Second, it does meet a calling: Christians are called to be engaged in this kind of work. We are called to, as I noted above, take every thought captive.

There are also many weaknesses to this approach, however. First, it can make one cavalier. It might give one an inflated view of oneself. Even if your aim is to take every thought captive and make it obedient, you must remember whom you are making the thought obedient to. Not yourself but Christ. Second, the academy does not, in many respects, welcome one-man armies. The academy is, first and foremost, engaged in a corporate pursuit of truth (or at least it’s supposed to be). This means that research takes a great many people a great many years.

Why do a PhD? ‘To take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ’ is a valid answer but two further things must be asked. (i) Who are we making thoughts obedient to? (ii) How can we go about doing it in a community?

New Year’s resolutions?

For most of us, particularly academics, New Year really takes place not on 1 January, but on 1 September. Term might not have started yet, but the holidays are definitely over, the inbox is starting to fill up (again), and everyone around you is getting ready for the imminent influx of students. Happy New Year!

So what better time for some New Year’s resolutions?

There are plenty of resolutions you could make in academic life: read more, write more, be more active in various ways. But I’d like to encourage you to consider making some New Year’s resolutions to support your university’s Christian postgraduate group(s).

Perhaps your university doesn’t have such a group? You’re probably in a majority if that is the case: there are only a handful of groups we are aware of, and some of those are currently dormant (if your group isn’t listed, do let us know). But even if your university does have a group, it could be that the majority of its members have vanished over the summer! In either case, now is the most important time of year to breathe a bit of fresh vitality into an existing group, or to start thinking about starting a new group.

So here are some things you could resolve to do:

  • Dream about what a Christian postgraduate group could look like in your context. In what ways would you be enabled to fulfil your calling as a Christian postgraduate if you were part of a vibrant community of Christian scholars at your university? You might like to read some of our first posts on this blog, from the start of 2014, on the why and what of Christian postgraduate groups.
  • Pray that, if God wants such a group to exist in your university, he would make it possible.
  • Plan to do something about it. Have a look at our post on the how of Christian postgraduate groups, which has some advice about setting up a group. My experiences of setting up new groups suggest that you’re likely to find lots of people who are interested. Or if you already have a group, now is the time to make sure people are aware that your group exists, and to start putting together a programme for the term. There are lots of resources out there: try the Subjects page on cpgrad.org.uk for some inspiration.

If you have any suggestions, why not leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page?

Musicology in surround sound: avoiding aesthetic reductionism

This is another post in our occasional series considering what it means for us to acknowledge Christ as Lord over our different academic disciplines. Briefly put, my own scholarly activity consists of listening to pieces of recent music; trying to understand how it works and its connection to the rest of the musical world; and using my findings to help others engage with the music. Like any discipline, musicology has its own ideological tensions, which any new scholar is expected to learn to navigate. It’s in dealing with some of these tensions that I’ve found it especially helpful to remember Jesus’s lordship over my study. Today I’m going to focus on one tension that’s been central to my own work, which has to do with the attempt to avoid reductionism in discussing musical experience.

The danger of reducing reality to one of its aspects is a central theme in reformational philosophy (it’s cropped up a few times before in this blog; see for example ). In the field of musicology this danger comes through particularly in the way that scholars discuss the aesthetic aspect of reality. Some (particularly older) musicological scholarship can tend focus on music as a purely aesthetic phenomenon – writing about works as if they were perfect Platonic forms, accessible to anyone equally regardless of context, independent of their historical or performance situation, and so on. This is seen in the popular idea of the masterpieces of Bach or Beethoven as somehow perfectly manifesting some timeless, inevitable aesthetic law. In reaction against this approach, much late-twentieth-century musicology has gone in the opposite direction, attempting to dispense with the idea of the aesthetic as a distinct category of experience. Instead, it reduces musical works to other dimensions: the socio-cultural circumstances of their composition, or particular philosophical or linguistic elements which are seen as standing behind them. Discussion of ‘the music itself’ is seen as a sleight-of-hand to avoid talking about the ‘real’ contextual questions music raises.

What difference does Christ’s Lordship make here? When I affirm that He created all facets of our experience, it puts these other approaches in their right perspective. The first is a kind of idolatry, ascribing transcendence to something that is not God. If a work like Bach’s St Matthew Passion seems timeless, it is not because the work itself is immortal or somehow detached from the circumstances of its composition. Bach’s works were written by a human for specific circumstances; they are wonderful, but they are not perfect. The sense of timeless wonder I experience in listening to them arises because God in His grace has created a real, physical world in which such aesthetic sensations are possible, under the right circumstances – in order to inspire wonder and yearning in our hearts for Him, who truly is transcendent and immortal. On the flip side, because these experiences of aesthetic wonder are so central to the value of music, we cannot and should not simply explain them away as merely artefacts of context – that would be to forget that all of creation declares God’s glory.

In response, as a Christian musicologist, I want to value the power of the pieces I study, whilst acknowledging the root of this power in God’s common grace on His creation. As I learn more about each piece I study, and share that with others, my intent is to reveal more about the wonder of God’s creative works.

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Why do a PhD? Decision making under uncertainty

If you’re weighing up whether to do a PhD or not and have got this far in the “Why do a PhD?” series, you will have already considered your motivations, skills and the honour brought to Christ by studying his creation. But, you may also be trying to decide if it is worth spending 3-5 years more researching.

In this decision, a Christian deals with the duality of both an open and closed future, at least from their perspective. Whilst there is certainty in all of God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20), they do not know precisely how their efforts of obedience and delighted action will pan out in the PhD research.

One of my main interests is the application of behavioural economics to land and property research. The preeminent question in behavioural economics is: how do people make consumption decisions when they are so uncertain about what the future will hold?

The question really hinges around risk, which can be attributed to the benefits, but also to the costs of consumption. Choosing to do a PhD is (much more than, but not less than) a decision about consumption. It will take time, money (often someone else’s) and energy. Will it take you away from family? Will it take you away from church meetings? The benefits are also unknown. Will my research benefit society? Will it facilitate a career? Will I enjoy being called ‘Doctor’ (but then be embarrassed when medics think I understand what they’re saying)? No one can know with certainty the answer to these questions, or even if they should be the prime risks considered when weighing up the decision. However, we can make some educated guesses about them.

Given the uncertainty on both sides of the equation we need to recognize that, without Christ’s direct guidance, the decision cannot be certain: we are not privileged to make the decision with that information. Undertaking a PhD involves risk. Not doing one also involves risk. Remember though that each decision is framed within the certainty of God’s promises in Christ.

Why do a PhD? If you’ve considered your skills, motivations and enthusiasm and are still keen to do one, then one part of the answer is because you’ve considered the risks (both the upside and downsides) and you still think that doing it is an expression of love for Christ.

The whole of life for Christ – Keswick 2015

This summer marked the 140th Keswick Convention. The Keswick Convention is a three-week long meeting of Christians in the Lake District with a history of Bible-centred teaching alongside practical seminars. It’s for all ages and interests and of course set in one of the most awe-inspiring parts of the British Isles.

I am a leader on the 19-24s programme and so was excited when I learnt that the theme of this year’s convention would be ‘The whole of life for Christ’. It would encourage us to

grapple with the challenge of living the whole of life for Christ: our work, our leisure, our place in the community, our homes, our role in public life, our responsibility to care for creation, and so much more.

This is a topic that challenges many 19-24s leaving their parental home and casting out into the world. It is also close to the first aim of FiSch: ‘to foster discussion that recognises Christ’s authority in all things, including academic work’.

Having now been to Keswick, I can offer my reflections on some of the things we learnt. I thought I’d focus on 2 Samuel 6:1-15. It seems to me that this passage neatly encompasses two approaches towards living one’s whole life for Christ – one better than the other.

1. Doing what you’re told

God, being the creator, sustainer and Lord of all, made a covenant with his people. The Ark of the Covenant was a sign of this: a box containing the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone. These are the marriage vows, as it were, between God and his people. God promised to be who he was and God’s people promised to live by his commands.

One outworking of those promises was that the Israelites were to carry the Ark of the Covenant with rods. This way it remained holy: untouched by human hands. But, as we discover in 2 Sam 6, God’s people were not sticking to their side of the bargain.  The Ark was being carried on a cart; the oxen stumbled, the cart slipped and a man called Uzzah went to catch the Ark. He touched it, and was struck dead by God.

Now there is one obvious way in which this kind of problem could be prevented. God’s people could obey God’s commands better. They could do as they’re told. Part of the problem was that they were living like the Philistines – who had carried the Ark on a cart.

2. Being motivated by God’s grace

But I don’t think this passage is teaching a brute ‘do what God commands or else.’ Rather, it is a wake up call for God’s people to love the Lord their God with all their mind, soul and strength. You see, God could have let the Israelite people go their own way and become more and more like the Philistines around them, but he didn’t. In his grace he called the Israelites back to radical obedience. Instead of blindly following God’s commands he, their holy but gracious God, wants their hearts.

Wanting to live our whole lives for Christ, we often focus on what we need to do instead of on him: who he is and what he does for us. It seems that this should be our motivation. Indeed in my academic work I am often driven to think about how I might be better doing it for the glory of God (which is, in many ways, a good thing). But what really motivates me to be a better academic? I think it has to be, first and foremost, realising who God is and what he has done for me.

Why do a PhD? Embracing God’s gifts

I have wanted to be an academic since I was about 8 years old. I loved learning new things. In my free time and over the holidays, I would pursue what I in retrospect call ‘little research projects’, trying to learn as much as possible about a topic to advance my understanding. If I did well in school it would not be a problem to get into a good university. This is the good side of my life’s story.

There is also a bad side though. I found school boring, so boring that at times it made me physically ill. I found it difficult to connect with my classmates, and was often on the receiving end of jealousy. In short, although I found much joy in developing the mind God had given me, I found it difficult to be really grateful for this gift, and saw it as a burden. The only thing that kept me going at school was the prospect of going to university.

Thankfully, university did not disappoint. I finally found the freedom to dive in deeply, and besides my degree courses I took courses in various other departments. So pursuing a PhD was the logical next step. However, although I graduated cum laude, initially I did not find a PhD position in my own country (The Netherlands). So I parked myself in a variety of relevant short-term jobs: working as a field archaeologist (digging and coring), as a librarian and in the planning of archaeological projects. But although the work was interesting, I found that I only needed about half of my brain to carry out the tasks I was given to do, and after a while it started to really get me down. So, even though I am not adventurous at all, I began to look for a PhD position in another country – Britain or Germany. Within a few weeks, everything started to fall into place. It was as if God had been preparing things for when I was ready to take the plunge.

So I am probably one of the few people who absolutely loved every second of their PhD. Yes, there were times when I was measuring bones for weeks in museum basements without windows, or that summer trying to learn statistics while everyone was on holiday. But I just love doing research, to find out more amazing things about God’s creation. I have learned to see my mind as a gift, and have a desire to use it to the full. That is still what drives me now as a postdoc, and what keeps me in academia.

I realise this is a highly personal story and won’t resonate with everyone. But my point is this: if God has evidently gifted you intellectually, you have a responsibility to use that gift for his glory. Of course that does not mean that every smart person should strive to become an academic. The use of such gifts with a servant attitude is just as much needed in government, business, hospitals and any other part of society. But if you are gifted, and feel drawn to do a PhD, go for it, and trust that God will show you how you can bring glory to him. That might be directly through your research, through your interactions with colleagues, through using your knowledge and skills for the benefit of the church, or maybe through a role in a local postgraduate group or ministry.

What gifts have you received? Are you able to be thankful for them, even through the hard times?  How can you glorify God?

“Engaging the university” – in Mexico with IFES

The International Federation of Evangelical Students (IFES) is a truly cosmopolitan community. When its member organisations meet every four years, delegates come from up to 150 countries. This year’s World Assembly is currently taking place in Mexico, and its highlights include the welcoming into membership of evangelical student groups in Greece, South Sudan and several other countries. Excitement and celebration among the 1000 delegates were palpable as we joined in worship of the God of all nations – whose Son is to receive their glory and honour.

I had the privilege of joining the first few days of this congress near Mexico City to participate in the “Faculty and Research Students” track. Here 75 of us – academics, postgrads and IFES staff – came together to explore the challenge of influencing the university as a whole. Our focus was the research, teaching and administrative activities that together constitute the life of a university.

So the opening talk focused our minds with the strapline: “Changing the conversations that change the world” (acknowledging Princeton University Press!). Given a rich understanding of the Gospel, an evangelical students’ group should surely not be content with seeking to win converts while ignoring the culture-shaping work with which university members are concerned.

But positive responses to this challenge were harder to articulate. Clearly we weren’t simply asking “How can we have conversations about the Gospel with non-Christians?”  Rather, we asked how Christians can engage fully in the “conversations” that constitute research, appreciating God’s common grace in enabling all kinds of people to make valid, good and beautiful contributions to scholarship and its applications. All truth is God’s truth! Let’s avoid isolation and polemics, and take challenging questions as stimuli to broaden and develop our thinking.

A Christian Mind?

A more profound response advocates the development of “a Christian mind” – for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Advice to those who would be Christian scholars“. Surely this suggests much more than being able to harmonise between one’s worldview and mainstream academic thinking. Shouldn’t “a Christian mind” be one that positively enriches scholarship, helping it develop further, faster or even in different directions than it might otherwise have done? Wolterstorff and the speakers in our group seem to think something like this so far as the development and application of social sciences for matters of justice are concerned.  But it was (and is) rarer to hear suggestions that such a contribution is possible elsewhere. “There can’t be a Christian mathematics,” goes the common retort.

I am a natural scientist, and what excites me is the idea of not just Christian minds, but communities of Christian thinkers together enriching and shaping their disciplines in ways that glorify God more than would happen if God’s people were absent from the academy. Can we make contributions to scholarship that become widely appreciated? After all, the very nature of the sciences means that theories are discarded, controversies settled, paradigms overturned – as history documents. Might we not hope and pray that, in faithful communion with the Lord of this cosmos, Christians may be found less often on the wrong side of history, and indeed making a disproportionate contribution to the progress of good scholarship? After all, Christ is the one “in whom all things hold together” (Col 1:17), and “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

Who needs faith in scholarship?

This week we present our first ever group post.  Some of the FiSch Fellows, plus guest Alan Chettle, each give their response to a question that we asked ourselves:

"Who needs faith in scholarship?"

Richard: "Students…"

Just by starting a masters or PhD programme, you demonstrate a conviction that it’s worth devoting time to painstaking study of something about the world – God’s world.  What’s more, we put great faith in scholars whose work we cite, often without knowing much about their deepest convictions and motivations.  Here I wonder: are we trusting in the autonomy of pure reason to produce human knowledge, or in the common grace of our Lord to enable all kinds of people to discover God’s truth?

Mark: "Popular culture…"

Big ideas often trickle down from the academy to the wider cultural mainstream, and today’s polemical article or monograph becomes tomorrow’s (or next decade’s) social truism – especially in an age where the internet makes every intellectual a public intellectual (or at least potentially so). The voice of Jesus, that two-edged sword which exposes the truth, needs to be heard in this crucible of ideas.

Eline: "God…"

Although it would be hubris to say that God needs us, throughout history God has at times used people to bring about his plans. In pursuing faithful scholarship, we rejoice in and care for his creation, and attempt (sometimes successfully) to bring healing and justice to a broken world. Faithful scholarship is part of the calling of the church to be an outpost of Christ’s kingdom, mediating God’s blessing to our university, our society, and the whole world.

Alan: "Everyone…"

A scholarship that has faith at its centre is one that is richly passionate about each of the gifts God has given us, and seeks to combine different insights, analysis and intellectual approaches so that the research done is much greater than the sum of its parts.  A faith in partnership with scholarship is one that is cognisant of modern discourse, bringing all things under Jesus’ rule by asking probing questions of our own beliefs as well as the academic disciplines. Both are complementary ways to engage with the world, and everyone benefits when they work together under God.

Alan recently completed his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Manchester. Now in Toronto, he’s about to begin an internship with the Canadian Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.  

Who else?

Please add a comment to suggest more good ideas! Alan and Richard are meeting this week at the “Faculty and Research Students track” of the IFES World Assembly, and no doubt they’ll come away with more answers to the question.

Why do a PhD? The place of Christians in academia

I was reminded (at the recent Transforming the Mind conference) of some words of Christian professor of philosophy, Nicholas Wolterstorff:

Over the years I have had many students come into my office to discuss career choices. Should they set their sights on becoming a professor or should they go into some other line of work? And if they set their sights on becoming a professor, should they go into philosophy or into some other discipline? Rather late in my career I took to putting three questions to students contemplating some particular career choice: Do you love it? Are you good at it? And is it worthwhile? I always made a point of adding that they might not find a position that satisfied all three criteria, but that is what they should look for nevertheless.

When I look back on my own reasons for doing a PhD in astronomy, I can see that I would have answered a (tentative) ‘yes’ to all three of those questions.

First, I had a love for my subject. My first degree was in mathematics, and people’s typical response when I told them what I was studying was, ‘Oh, I’m hopeless at maths!’ But when I became an astronomer, people gave the opposite reaction. Astronomy, as anyone will tell you, is a fascinating subject, and I loved finding out more about the universe. I was also very eager to think more about astronomy from a Christian perspective, and, by immersing myself in the subject, it became possible to begin to do that. But, in hindsight, I don’t think I loved astronomy quite enough to sustain a full research career. So I drifted very gradually towards computer programming after completing my PhD. (You do need to be at least slightly obsessed with your subject if you are going to devote your whole life to it, I would suggest.)

Second, I was good at it. Well, good enough, at least. I didn’t do particularly well in my first degree (at Cambridge), but I knew I had the potential to do better, and was able to try that out by doing an MSc in cosmology (at Sussex). This then opened up the door for a research council-funded PhD studentship, also at Sussex.

Third, I thought it would be worthwhile. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of the main reasons was a belief in the importance of there being Christians in academia.

Universities have a hugely influential place in Western society. Most of tomorrow’s leaders will spend some of their most formative years at university, and most of the big ideas shaping our culture have been gestated within the academic world. If we are praying that God’s will would be done on earth, and if God is giving us the opportunity to shape the world around us by pursuing an academic vocation, then why would we not take that opportunity? Can you imagine what it would be like if all Christians decided, as a matter of principle, not to be academics – if there were, all of a sudden, no Christian university lecturers at all? It would be almost unthinkable.

It was this kind of consideration that led me to pursue a PhD. Now, it doesn’t matter so much that, for me, it didn’t turn into a career as an academic astronomer. I still benefited enormously from the experience. And I was able to support other Christian academics during my PhD – and, as someone who has been a PhD student and a postdoc, I can continue to support other Christians in that situation, indefinitely.

So if you are doing a PhD, or thinking of doing a PhD, then it’s probably already the case that you love your subject and are good at it. What I’ve been wanting to communicate through this post is that it’s worthwhile – it’s not a waste of time. So keep going!

Transforming the Mind 2015 – a report

Transforming the Mind 2015

Last weekend, about 45 Christian postgrads, postdocs, early career academics and those who work with them gathered at Dovedale House in the tiny village of Ilam in the Peak District. Together we worshipped, listened to talks, ate, shared our stories, went on walks and even had a barn dance! Having been to the conference every year since 2008, every year I am amazed again by the excitement that develops from recognizing each other’s passion and struggles as Christians in academia.

Three speakers stimulated our discussions. Maithrie White, the conference chair, spoke in her opening talk about Romans 11:36 ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things.’ She spoke about the love of learning as a gift from God, about our need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2) and our calling to be a faithful presence in the university. Christian scholars play a role in creating, restoring and celebrating the world God has made.

Chris Wright gave two talks, provocatively entitled ‘What story are your living in?’ and ‘What mission are you living for?’ He showed us that the Bible is fundamentally a story, a drama in six acts that tell the grand narrative of the universe. We participate in this story, so it is important to find our where we are in this drama and what part we play. The six acts are creation – fall – Old Testament promise – Christ and Gospel – New Testament mission – new creation. Each act has its reverberations in the present. God has a mission and he has created a people through whom he is working to accomplish this mission. The mission of God is to redeem the whole of creation, with redeemed people from every culture, through the cross and resurrection of Christ. This mission is not limited to individual people, but also includes society, culture and creation. God’s intention is that the presence of his people will bring blessing to the whole world, so that one day full redemption will be realized in the new creation. During a time of discussion we were challenged to think this through for our own context. How does my discipline and the university as a whole fit into the Bible’s overarching story? Which bits of God’s good creation does my discipline deal with? How does my discipline show the effects of the Fall? Does my discipline give any glimpses of God reconciling all things to himself (see Colossians 1:20)? Where does it need to be transformed by the gospel?

The final speaker, Rhoda Hawkins, brought us back to the theme of love. So often we see in the university that ‘Knowledge puffs up’, but as Christians, instead what should be our guide is that ‘love builds up’ (1 Cor. 8:1). The insecurity, overblown self-confidence and arrogance that is so typical of many academic environments must be transformed by grace. In this way we, who been given much, will be able to rejoice in the gifts God has given us, and learn to use them to take every opportunity to show God’s love by sharing our faith, inspiring others, challenging the ethics of the university and benefitting society.

So we can pray with St. Aquinas, whose prayer ‘Ante studium’ (‘Before study’) includes these phrases:

‘Instruct my beginning, direct my progress, and set thy seal upon the finished work.’

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