FiSch blog

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.

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?

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