Last weekend in Oxford saw the second of this year’s Developing a Christian Mind conferences – an annual pair of events inviting postgraduate students to consider and deepen the intersection of their academic work with Christian faith. ‘Seeking Wisdom’ is split into multiple disciplinary streams (this year, Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Philosophy & Theology) to enable more specific conversations to take place on how Christians think and work in particular academic fields.

This was my third year taking part in the Humanities stream, and as always I was challenged and encouraged by our speakers – this year, classicist Teresa Morgan, modern historian Sam Brewitt-Taylor, and Old Norse specialist Siân Grønlie – and by the lively discussion and fellowship in the room. I’ve written before about the importance of Christian friendship and encouragement within your discipline: this conference has consistently been a rich source of that for me.

Part of the reason I came to Oxford for my DPhil was because I knew there were unique resources and ministries which would help me refine the integration of my faith and work. Sure enough, this effort has been a huge part of my journey – from the yearly DCM conferences, to the ‘Christians in Academia’ programme run by the Oxford Pastorate, to simply growing friendships with other Christian postgraduates who have made me think, expanded my theological and academic horizons, and encouraged me in many different situations.

I’m praying that will be the case for many who were at the conference this year. It’s not only for University of Oxford postgrads – we had participants from various other universities, in Oxford and beyond, including postdocs and academics. Even more excitingly, this year we were joined by a parallel conference on ‘Catalysing Postgraduate Ministry’, at which delegations from multiple cities in the UK and Europe came together to discuss possibilities for developing and improving postgraduate Christian ministries and networks. FiSch blogger Richard was one of the participants and we hope to have a more detailed report on the blog soon. Postgraduate numbers are growing rapidly, and yet many Christians on this path are left feeling isolated, with the impression that their faith doesn’t matter in academia and their work doesn’t matter to the church. I can say from experience that there’s so much joy and purpose to be had when all these things fruitfully combine – so I’m excited to see the desire to support such work growing.

One of the most consistently encouraging parts of the Humanities stream is how academic concerns are balanced with the creative, joyful side of the humanities – the sharing of poetry, music, and beautiful creations of all kinds, as they shape and encourage us through our lives. Our discussion this year of the introduction to Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry introduced me to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Rain Stick’, which I wanted to share with you:

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies,
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

What the rain-stick does is what poetry does: takes ordinary things – dry seeds, gravity and sound, language – and makes them strange and beautiful again, bringing us a music we never would have known to listen for. Similarly, it’s been my experience that the stuff of my everyday academic life, which can grow dry and silent in its very ordinariness, can be brought back to life by the dynamic, catalysing presence of others, especially other Christians, when we talk through what’s important and hard and unique about our discipline.

Is that something you need at the moment? How could you begin to look for the evidences of God’s presence and grace, ‘through the ear of a raindrop’ – through even the most mundane part of your work?

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.