Posts by Richard Gunton

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?

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.

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.

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.

Field experiment

I started applying for PhD projects mainly because I didn’t want to abandon ideas I’d been developing during my earlier studies.  I had a blue-sky, rose-tinted, starry-eyed view of academic research.  In my final undergraduate exams I may have lost precious marks by trying to work out my own odd ideas instead of focusing on the breadth of existing scholarship that my lecturers had imparted.  So here was an opportunity to redeem myself: I could do a PhD and work everything out in a thesis!

I’m excited to tell you about a FiSch research project.  The Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES) draws together fourteen Christian thinkers (mostly academics) to explore new perspectives on a specific problem.  We’ve already had two meetings in Leeds this year, with a third one planned.

I’m struck by the richness of St Luke’s account of the first Easter. I always find it fascinating how the Gospel writers juxtapose the elements of their accounts, especially Luke: how one episode sheds light on the next once I ignore the chapter breaks. And the passion narratives are especially rich for their compilation of different people’s perspectives. There’s something here that reminds me of academic diversity – as I shall explain anon.

XKCD cartoon

Last week I had the privilege of several coffee breaks with Christian friends doing PhDs in different areas.  Each time I came away excited by a fresh glimpse of how big God’s world is.  One friend is doing a PhD on a certain grammatical obstacle for Kurdish speakers learning English, and also preaches at a local Arabic-speaking fellowship.  Another is looking at how to embed an ethic of caring for the earth into church teaching in east Africa.  Another is trying to find the best way of freeze-drying blackcurrant juice without losing anthocyanins – and praises God for the nuances of physical chemistry.  Totally different topics – but let me tell you: the delight of engaging with someone else’s research, just for half an hour, is like nothing else!

The following is my summary of a sermon preached by Tom Wright in the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge some years ago. As an undergraduate, I was gripped and inspired by this vision for my calling as a student. The main text was Revelation 5 [1], and there were also illuminating references to Job 29 and Psalm 8, the other texts for that particular evensong. The image above is my diagram illustrating his sermon.

Academic scholarship prides itself on rigour and objectivity. Science is considered the most reliable body of rational knowledge about the natural world, while the arts and humanities pursue unbiased investigation of social phenomena, penetrating what it is to be human. Let the life of the mind flourish, and truth will prevail!

Or is that all spin and nonsense? Let me come clean: I wrote that first paragraph tongue firmly in cheek! Does scholarship really have pride in itself? What’s all that impersonal drivel about “science is considered” and “the arts and humanities pursue”?  In the whole paragraph no human being comes into view at all – as if academic work has a life of its own! What’s “the mind”, after all, and how can it have a life?

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