Thinking Faith blogs

From Prince Philip to Jesus (article in the Baptist Times)

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published another article by me on creative, storytelling evangelism. Here is how the article begins....

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Years ago I tried to tell a non-Christian friend, Derek about my Christian faith. I was walking along a road in Bishopston, Bristol talking football and suddenly I blurted out: "Derek, you need Jesus." Derek said nothing. He just gave me a withering look. We went back to our conversation about Bristol Rovers and their bitter rivalry with Bristol City.

I've spent a lot of time since then pondering my abject failure to communicate my faith to my friend. How could I witness in such a way that the conversation would flow naturally and engagingly? Without evoking that cold contempt....

https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/516481/Recapturing_joy_in.aspx

       

Ideas for government policymakers

The FiSWES project began in 2015 by taking a critical look at the ecosystem services framework for nature conservation, and the ideas developed by that small Christian working group are now bearing fruit in a new context. I began a fellowship last year with a group called the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), where I've been developing the ecosystem valuing framework for use in policy evaluation.  My fellowship is about "putting values into evaluation", and I want to tell you how it's going.

CECAN's unwieldy name means "we develop ways to evaluate policies for complex problems". The idea behind this cross-university project is that many government policies address complex situations at the "nexus" of challenges to provide water, energy and food security.  Evaluating the success, or likely success, of such policies is difficult because the challenges are so diverse and interconnected, each having a global context.  Simple evaluation methods that assess a policy's success against different criteria independently will tend to overlook the significance of side-effects and trade-offs, when what is needed is "win-win" approaches that simultaneously improve different aspects of the same situation.

Last week I had the privilege of leading a workshop in London with a group of civil servants in environmental policy appraisal.  Here, along with my colleagues Ian Christie and Adam Hejnowicz, I presented what we're calling a pluralistic evaluation framework.  The basic idea of this is that "goodness" can be refracted into many kinds of value that should be considered during the design and evaluation of any policy. We're talking here about values assigned to things and situations (beauty, efficiency, etc), rather than people's value-orientations (integrity, honour, etc.).  A "good" policy might mean one that is likely to foster innovation, beautify landscapes, grow the rural economy, enhance social justice, or increase levels of volunteering: it could be "good" in many different ways.  So if a policy pledges - as does the Government's 25-Year Environment Plan - "to leave the environment in a better state than we found it", we might ask: what does "better" mean?

Classic consequentialist ethics would try to use a simple metric of goodness to decide which of a number of courses of action should have the best consequences.  If "good" refers to the sum total of human happiness, for example, then although this might be difficult to measure, in principle it provides such a metric.  Some scientist might even propose a scientific definition of happiness, allowing the decision to be made on purely objective grounds!  (This scientist would be captive to an implausible notion of objectivity, but that's another topic.)  But sooner or later someone might point out some ways of increasing the sum total of human happiness that are in other respects deplorable - or that not all humans consider happiness to be their own ultimate good - and the problems of this naive consequentialism would become evident.

A Christian approach should be important here, and I hope that the pluralistic evaluation framework is more consistent with a biblical worldview.  This is because it provides a tool for considering a very wide range of kinds of goodness - wider, indeed, than people normally think of.  The map of meaning proposed by Herman Dooyeweerd and developed in the tradition of Reformational philosophy outlines a sequence of aspects in which all of reality is meaningful, in each of which we might recognise better and worse ways of functioning.  This is the basis of the framework I presented last week, and will be presenting again in York in a few weeks' time.  The bottom line of this framework is that wise judgment is ultimately needed for assessing the overall goodness of a policy, or any other situation.  The classic art of good governance will surely never be superseded by any scientific tool or technique.

Wisdom is of course an important biblical theme as regards governance.  Graeme Goldsworthy* points out that King Solomon's wisdom is portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind that was consonant with the Law of Moses yet beautifully integrative: Solomon knew how to act decisively for good in his kingdom.  Centuries later Jesus, "one greater than Solomon", urged his disciples to "seek first the Kingdom of God", evoking the prophetic vision of a reign of shalom where every kind of goodness would prevail.  Now that would be a worthy vision for policymaking!

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* Goldsworthy, G (1995) Gospel and Wisdom: Israel's Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life

Neymar 100% Jesus?

It's World Cup time - so some thoughts on Neymar, the Brazilian superstar.   

Neymar is more than just a footballer. He is a brand and a way of life. The Brazilian star is the epitome of modern football as he travels the world with his friends in his luxurious private jet. He owns a fleet of opulent motor cars, an elegant helicopter and an Italian yacht. On a whim he once sent a private jet to fly a girlfriend to visit him in Barcelona after the pair had met in Ibiza. In a fit of splashing the cash he squandered more than £14,000 on trainers in one shopping spree. Neymar also claims to be a Christian. He declared: "Life only makes sense when our highest ideal is to serve Christ." After winning important games for club and country, he has been known to wear a headband bearing the words "100% Jesus".

Background Notes

Many of the most famous footballers on the planet own private jets. These are the role models that capture the imaginations of millions of young people today. Often these 'rich young rulers' do not comment about Jesus, faith and God. It seems to many that they live as if there is no God and that they are free to squander their vast fortunes in any way they wish. These rich, powerful men are completely autonomous (self-governing). Neymar claims to be a Christian and yet his lifestyle is just as lavish and whimsical as the other footballing superstars. How can we make sense of this fierce commitment to luxury, opulence and autonomy? It is helpful to ask a simple question. What is Neymar learning about the kingdom of God when he goes to church? Does he know and love the biblical story? Or has he syncretised the Christian faith with western consumerism? Jesus challenges all humans to forsake their false gods and to follow Him. There are so many of these idols that it can boggle the mind. There are rat gods, technology gods, fashion gods but the money god is probably the most popular deity today. Is Neymar guilty of serving Mammon, the money god (Matthew 6:24)? How will things go for him on the Day of Judgment? Why is it so easy for self-proclaimed Christians to worship these false gods? What are they learning in their churches? What are they not learning in their churches?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Neymar is doing the right thing. If everything is just physical then buying jets, helicopters and mansions makes perfect sense."

Relativist faith: "We believe that Neymar is being 'true to himself'. Congratulations!"

Karma faith: "We believe that Neymar is so wealthy because he has an excellent karma. Whatever is, is right."

Christian faith: "We believe that Neymar will be judged one day by Christ the King. He must repent, follow Jesus and become a much better steward of his wealth."

Questions

1) Why do many footballers follow the money god rather than Christ?

2) What does it mean to serve Jesus 100%?

3) Can you connect this story to the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12?

 

 

 

 

 

 

            

A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

A theology for science

Diagram linking God's word to scientific research via the entities subject to it

"Science" means "knowledge" according to its Latin root, and that is what the pursuit of science is popularly supposed to deliver. But a little reflection shows that scientific knowledge is of a certain kind - powerful but with some peculiar limitations.  The diagram above attempts to illustrate from a Christian perspective what scientists are doing.  It could be the starting point for a Christian account of scientific work.  At Faith-in-Scholarship we want to supplant traditional questions about "science and faith", "science and religion" or "science and theology".  As Tom McLeish argues, the problem in this traditional framing is the "and" - because "science" has no direct comparability with faith, religion or theology.  To see why this is so, we need a theological definition.

Much has been written on "theology of science" and "scientific theology", but rarely do people recognise the simple yet profound connection between the word of God and laws of nature. As used in the Bible, "word of God" has three important senses. There is the word of God as Scripture itself, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and the word of God that commands and upholds the created order. Bible - Jesus - Word of Power

That last sense is crucial, yet often overlooked*. From the first "Let there be light!" to the indication in Hebrews 1:3 that God "upholds all things by the word of His power," the Scriptures contain many references to God's word as agent of natural processes (e.g. Ps 147:15-20), and there are important analogies between God's word and God's law (e.g. Ps 19).

So I propose a simple working definition of scientific research as "the search for the refraction of God's word that structures the created order."  That is to say that scientific work aims at articulating structural universals in the cosmos that emanate from God's word of power.  The natural sciences focus on laws of nature, structures and functions, classifications and principles; if we look as far as the Germanic concept of Wissenschaften (scholarship), we can also point to the identities and theorems of mathematics in one direction, and to the typologies, theories and frameworks of the humanities (even theology) in the other. This range of analytical phenomena is represented by the bottom tier of the diagram, which shows how we create scholarly artefacts by reference to "data".  All this is part of the "fact-side" of the created order: the concrete entities, situations and phenomena that we can experience - all, like ourselves as human beings, subject to God's creative word.  That word has been likened** to a radio broadcast permeating the cosmos, to which every creature tunes in on some wavelength. The scientist attempts to describe the radio waves themselves.

These scholarly artefacts thus refer beyond the fact-side of reality to the law-side (top tier of the diagram). People don't have to accept God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ in order to probe the structure of creation, God's "general revelation". But we can see natural laws, types and norms as the refraction of God's word into the diverse coherence of the order of creation, structuring the created order.

This definition of the sciences has important implications for how we relate scientific ideas to our daily Christian living and thinking. For example:

  • Starting from Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can know God through His word in all its three senses, before engaging in any scholarship (even theology).
  • The Bible generally refers to facts: specific events,  relationships, and persons and their acts (including God's self-revelation). Some regularities are of course described, such as God's faithful covenantal behaviour towards creatures - but these are still facts, not scholarship. Arguably the Bible is no more a theological textbook than a scientific one.
  • Scientific work does not produce "facts" (these are its data) but "artefacts": e.g. hypotheses, laws and theories. Hypotheses may refer to particulars (like the date of Jericho's fall), but "facts" is better reserved for beliefs founded on people's direct experience of particulars (like that event as witnessed by Joshua).
  • There's no privileged access to the lawlike refraction of God's word of power, but scientific training, insofar as it conforms our minds to the structures of the created order, can help us perceive it - and increasingly as we submit to the diverse, meaningful interconnectedness of that order.
  • Scientific knowledge is thus a kind of beliefs about the law-structure of the cosmos that are always subject to revision, although they may be highly reliable and - for all we know - approximately correct.

There's lots more to explore here. In a future post I shall probe some implications of this view for philosophy of science more generally.

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*Probably the best introduction to this theme is Gordon Spykman's "Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics" (1992, Eerdmans)

** by Dr David Hanson, Faith-in-Scholarship advisor.

What is a University Club?

Bruce C. Wearne encourages students to reflect upon institutional relationships in academic life and the effect of higher education reform.

I first developed the above diagram as a part of my response to what was happening at Chisholm Institute of Technology (CIT) in Melbourne back in the 1980s. CIT was part of the “binary system” of higher education in Australia, in which the Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Advanced Education were considered a “cheaper but equal” alternative to universities.

     These institutions provided courses leading to degrees and diplomas and their characters were often similar to those of the universities. They were regularly monitored by qualified university scholars and academics, and the qualifications were indeed “cheaper but equal”. These institutions were venues of significant student involvement in a healthy culture of local and national networks and associations. Clubs manifesting the political, religious and cultural commitments of students had federal links, and by the mid-80s such networks could exercise considerable public clout and made significant contributions to institutional culture. A considerable number of under-graduates from the 1970s and 1980s at universities, Techs and CAEs can recall involvement in these networks stretching from Perth to Sydney, from Hobart to Townsville. They were evidence of a renewed sense of being part of a national polity, a commonwealth.

          Much more can be said about such networks and how they have been significantly transformed and diminished by the “unintended consequences” of political and legislative changes initiated by “economic rationalism”, the forerunner of “neoliberalism”. “Higher education” is now viewed as an industrial sector. This is not just a quibble about nomenclature: it is an issue of how governments consider the work of students.

          After 1987, at the behest of the federal government, wholesale mergers occurred in “higher education". Institutes of Technology could remain as part of multi-campus operations called “universities”.

          The “University triangle” was published before Chisholm’s “merger” with Monash. My article “What kind of a Community is Chisholm?” appeared in the student newspaper protesting the action of the CIT Council that unilaterally changed the constitution of the student association. The student association had oversight of all registered student clubs, and no consideration was given to how this constitutional change would impact student life. As a result of CIT Council's pre-emptive actions the student association leadership were left asking themselves why students had been treated as if they were "the enemy". This occurred at an early stage of what was to become a nation-wide Federal government effort to remake higher education into another industrial sector and do it by means of mergers that gave multi-campus "universities".

          But if I was to offer support to the “student association” (and student clubs), I needed to identify the character of “higher education”. This I did with the above triangle: academic-student, academic-academic, and student-student. This diagram attempts to redefine academic management as a supporter of the academy’s work by holding these three relationships together in “an ethic of mutual trust developed from a love of learning for training in science".

          The reigning ideology, however, is that a graduate from a “management school” is best fitted for such work. This ideology assumes that the surrogate science of management is the science of science education, the discipline of disciplines. That is the “economic rationalist” dogma that gave birth to “neoliberalism”. It was alive and well in the 1980s at CIT and lay behind the effort to destroy the self-management of CIT’s student association. Over time, student associations have come to be viewed as industrial unions and are thus no longer considered to be members of the academy’s corporate body. Students are customers and the vital student-to-student interaction and culture has been diminished under State decree. Universities have been transformed into commercial enterprises selling degrees and students must now pay for this.

Why the World is Failing by Craig Bartholomew

It was fantastic to welcome Dr. Craig Bartholomew (Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) to our TFN conference Why the world is failing and what we can do about it.

Craig's first talk was focused on understanding our contemporary world. Some say that we live in a postmodern world but Craig argues that we can discern at least four different forms of secularism that shape the western world. He distinguished classical modernism (faith in scientific progress), the structural-critical worldview e.g. Marxism and the Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, the Cultural-Critical Modern Worldview e.g. romanticism and the adulation of feelings and individual autonomy as well as postmodernism and its focus on playfulness, irony and the avoidance of all commitments.

This was very illuminating and reminded me how important it is to understand the many different kinds of idolatry that plague modern Britain. Craig, in his second talk, really earthed this excellent critique by showing us how the NHS is impacted by what he calls 'instrumental rationality', the efficiency idol. In brief you are ill and you want to see a doctor but within the system you have become a number on a page. You no longer exist as a person but an 'it'. Craig opened up how the NHS is gripped by an instrumental and controlling form of idolatry.

It was also very moving to hear Craig speak about how Christians lived with apartheid. Craig, a South African, lived under apartheid and observed very clearly how born-again, Bible-believing, Holy Spirit filled Christians accomodated their racism! He unpacked this by arguing that if Christians ignore culture (not even recognising how they swim in it) and refuse in dualist fashion to engage with culture they easily become its victims. Brilliant stuff!

In conclusion I was impressed by how Craig responded to the questions he fielded. He reminded me of his friend and co-author, Bob Goudzwaard, in the delightful way he showed sensitivity and a gracious and pastoral spirit. For example, when Mike, a friend from Barnsley, told us the sad story of the Christian school in Barnsley being forced to close down because the Ofsted inspectors were horrified to find a statement of Christian faith in the school's missional documents negating what they called 'British Values'. Craig opened up the biblical theme of 'lament' and that the faithful witness of Mike's school would one day be present in the new heaven and new earth. Mike's painful story highlights the pervasive intolerance of liberalism and the desperate need for Christians to grasp Kuyper's insights into both pluralism and sphere sovereignty. Much more could be said here.

Craig is a very rare Christian. He is both a very insightful scholar and a pastorally sensitive and empathetic disciple. Thank you so much Craig for a great day.

 

 

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Conversations with Dutch teachers and students

It was very encouraging meeting up with Piet Murre who is a Professor of Education at Driestar Christian University, Gouda in the Netherlands. I met him in 2009 in Holland. He came with another lecturer from Driestar and four students who are training to be teachers.

We spent a good two hours talking about storytelling and the RealityBites pedagogy. I outlined the Mafia conference we deliver and how evil can be understood in, at least, five different ways (Hindu, Buddhist, Materialist, Pagan and Christian). I explained how a government inspector marked the conference as 'outstanding' and that the material provoked the students to ask great questions about both Jesus and the differences between Buddhism, Materialism and Christianity. They seemed impressed and wanted to know more. I then told them about my experiences of talking about the Christian faith in ways that do not activate disdain and 'shutters crashing down'. I told them how rat worship, although strange and wacky, can lead to very fruitful and enjoyable conversations about the incarnation and idolatry. I further noted that conversations about karma and reincarnation can also be very profitable. I told them a story about a guru, Yogananda who claimed to have lived in a diamond and then later was embodied as William the Conquerer. I pointed out that humour and imagination are vital in the effective communication of the Christian faith. It is easy to contrast resurrection hope with reincarnation if you have a good story.The Dutch students pointed out that belief in karma was popular in the Netherlands and that these 'speech acts' were spot on.

We then had an excellent conversation about modernism, postmodernism and new age mindsets and how vital it is to engage with these worldviews if we are to talk meaningfully and credibly about the Christian faith. Piet Murre encouraged me to produce a resource that would focus on which stories to deploy when talking to a relativist or a materialist etc. He said this would be a very helpful resource for Christian teachers in the Netherlands.

I was delighted that all the students and the lecturers bought copies of my book. Piet told me that my approach was 'novel' and this was very encouraging.

 

Eternal progress: how to find fresh ideas

(Photo under a Creative Commons Zero public domain licence, via Dreamstime.com)

"Of making many books there is no end..." (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

There is a point of view from which it looks implausible that research in any field could continue indefinitely, century after century, endlessly discovering new things about reality.  Part of the classic fin de siècle phenomenon was the suggestion that there might not be much left to discover. But at least since Augustine[1], many Christians seem to have imagined that cultural development will be terminated (or even destroyed) on the Last Day when Christ returns - as suggested by the term 'consummation'.  But this isn't necessarily a biblical perspective. Christ's kingdom will never end (Luke 1:33), and there's a case to be made that cultural development, finally freed from sin, will continue forever under His reign. Might not the created order, once more fully disclosed in the New Creation, be worthy of ongoing scholarly research into eternity? 

Be that as it may, there seems to be no slowing down in the rate of scientific progress at present.  And what we believe about the potential for ongoing research may affect how we approach our scholarship from day to day.  So, continuing our scholarly skills series, I want to share some thoughts on how to find original questions and fresh perspectives on a topic.  These were originally prompted by the simple challenge of asking good questions after a talk, but they also apply to thinking up new research projects for ourselves - or our students, if we're at that stage.

What tips, then, can I offer?  My principal advice is actually rather demanding.  It is no understatement to say that the created order is inconceivably complicated, and any research programme must sooner or later open up completely unanticipated ideas.  Insightful questions, therefore, must come from some framework that provides context and helps locate contours of meaning within the overall coherence of the created order.  And such a framework is offered by the series of modal aspects of Reformational philosophy.  It's often from the categories and relationships of this grand model that I find an angle for asking questions on other people's research, and have found some of the kernels of my own research ideas.

A few specific tactics might also help:

  • Look out for reductionism.  This is actually the simplest outworking of my advice above.
  • Look at motives. Why might this person or group want to study this topic, and why might it have been funded? Why do you like the subjects you do, and why might peer reviewers and funders like your area (or not)?
  • Ask "so what?" questions.  Academics often give rather little concrete context for their ideas - perhaps because our culture prizes scientific abstraction so highly. But Christian scholars should be interested in the particular as well as the abstract.
  • Ask what tenets are best established or most likely to be superseded. The historical dimension of knowledge is likewise often sidelined - as if today's pronouncements will be subject to no further revision.

In all this, let's seek a gracious affirmation of the hard work that has gone before - as advocated by Andrew Basden's Affirm-Critique-Enrich approach and its extension, LACE. And let's pray that the way we work to answer research questions will be worthy of the age to come, a fitting tribute to Christ the king.

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[1] according to Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014): p 291ff

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Transforming the Mind 2018: early bird deadline approaching!

This year's Transforming the Mind, the annual national conference for Christian postgraduates and early career academics, will take place from 15 to 17 June 2018 in Dovedale House, Ilam. The speakers are Nick Megoran and Eline van Asperen, who will help us to think through what it means to be a Christian scholar, drawing on their own experience in UK Higher Education. 

Besides talks, this unique weekend features times of worship, group discussion, free time in the beautiful surroundings, a barbecue, and above all, much time to share with other Christian postgraduates. Coming from many disciplines, nations and cultures, we meet together to encourage each other and explore what God is calling us to be and to do in the university and beyond.

Registrations are now open online at http://transformingthemind.org/register. The cost is £89 for students and the unwaged, or £99 for others. Students who register before the early bird deadline (30 April) get a discount and pay only £79. The fee includes accommodation and all meals. A number of bursaries is available on request.

The conference has as its strapline ‘Transforming the Mind’, taken from Romans 12:1-2, which states: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

The conference was founded to encourage Christian postgraduates to fulfill the stewardship that God has entrusted to human beings in the particular context of the university. This means that God's perspective should direct our assumptions, our manner of inquiry and learning, our striving for excellence with humility. We are called to engage with God’s creation around us, whether that is by focusing on natural phenomena such as atoms, genes or ecosystems, or by studying human culture and life. Most significantly, our calling is to seek God's Kingdom. The conference helps us to think through what this may mean in practice as we follow our calling as Christian scholars.

Talks from previous conferences are available online. Many of the talks have been very helpful to my own thinking about being a Christian scholar, so do make use of this resource! And don't miss this year's event: a great opportunity to relax, make friends and take away new ideas.

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