Thinking Faith blogs

A Christian philosophy of science

Diagram of "particulars" (and classes of particulars) in diverse "relations" over "time"

For the key to the icons, see this post.

We're beginning a series exploring the outlines of a Christian philosophy of the sciences. Not, I hasten to add, the Christian Philosophy of Science (as I know there's a tendency for the tag "Christian" to evoke a sense of dogma!).  Rather, I want to develop, aided by some guest bloggers and hopefully lots of comments and feedback from readers, a philosophical framework that could provide insights into what the sciences are, where they come from, and how we who are scientists can better go about our research.  This series is also written with an eye to the next phase of Church Scientific.

Here I pick up from the Triune view of reality articulated by Jeremy Ive that I described last year, with input from Hendrik Hart's "Understanding Our World" and the writings of Danie Strauss - although it is of course my own interpretation.  Suppose we accept that the created world of our experience can be summarised as "things in relation over time": how does scientific thinking apply?

Our starting point is that scientific thinking does not concern the uniqueness of things so much as classes, properties and behaviours that can be observed across multiple individuals or situations (universals).  In French, scientific knowing is generally savoir, not connaître, distinguishing knowing about generalities (or that something pertains) from knowing particulars (like people, pets and places). In English the distinction is simply between intransitive vs. transitive verb forms, but the contrast remains.  If I asked a zoologist friend, "How well do you know the alligator?", I'd probably be asking about a particular alligator - unless I were using an old-fashioned idiom whereby species are taken as particulars (echoes of platonic realism... of which more later!).  My zoologist friend's professional interest would be in knowing about alligators in general: how they live. Or if we turn to the Bible for a moment, we may note that while most of the canonical material is about particular people, places and events (though not pets), the wisdom literature (e.g. Job, as magnificently explored by Tom McLeish) dwells extensively on generalities and might be seen as proto-scientific.

Many scientific fields have their origins in taxonomy: describing and classifying types of rocks and stars, species of organisms and diseases, personality types, family structures, etc. And thus the sciences proliferate concepts for types of particular things within a certain domain of interest. Developing sciences then take increasing interest in assessing temporal processes and interactive relationships: sedimentation, gravitation, reproduction, infection, development and geographical prevalence, for example - mostly using quantifiable variables.  This is not metaphysics; rather these characteristically scientific interests concern conceptual abstraction. And modally-specific abstraction is perhaps the best single characteristic of "science".  

But for all the celebration of science as a source of empirical knowledge, the empirical basis of abstraction is rather obscure.  How do we come to see that this truffle and that truffle are both truffles, or to classify rocks - despite the fact that every single specimen is unique?  Biologists may fall back on the biological species concept - but this is more of an ideal than a useful tool.  If we seek refuge in nominalism and pretend we just made up the types for convenience, then the taxonomic elements of our sciences lose their appeal.  But just as problematic is the abstraction of variables relevant to scientific processes and relationships - like mass, temperature, lifespan, fecundity and relatedness.  How do scientists form these concepts and then discover theoretical relationships and formulate laws - merely from unique data?  We'll return to the problems of inference another time, but it's hard to deny that scientific knowledge is a strange kind of empirical description of invisible​ kinds and nonexistent variables: abstract projections of our experience that open up windows into another realm of reality.

This brings us to the diagram above. The particular things we directly experience (the white shapes) provide the "hard" data for scientific reasoning, and subjects for scientific prediction, but the abstract kinds (white patches) and diverse relations (the rainbow aura) are perceived in a different way.  Hart describes them as conditions and laws. As such, he says that they are real but do not exist; instead they "apply" or "hold". Turning again to the Bible (especially the Psalms), this also seems to be the sense in which God's word is real without being a creature. And here lies a key reason why this framework has a particular claim to being Christian.

For now, lots of intriguing questions could arise - e.g.:

  • How do scientists actually relate data (particulars) to theory (abstract generalities)?
  • Can a study of star constellations be scientific?
  • Does history count as a social science, or is it just about unique particulars?
  • Can theology be the science of God?
  • "Word of God" actually has several meanings - how do they relate to science?

These must be addressed in future posts in this series, which we plan to resume in the new year. 

Listening in relationship

“He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …”

Mark 4.2

“Give ear and hear my voice, Listen and hear my words.”

Isaiah 28.23

The third part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In my previous post I noted how Jesus’ disciples responded to the parable of the sower by being both imaginative and studious, and suggested that these are vital principles for Christian scholars.  In this post I look at a second principle that we can learn from these disciples’ approach to learning and listening.

Before looking at this principle, we should acknowledge that we are not naturally good listeners! Listening is not an easy task, and involves a deep commitment to people, communities, and the social spaces around us. As academics, the focus of our work is often narrow and intense, and we run the risk of becoming oblivious to the problems around us (especially if we are writing a thesis!) and fail to be sensitive to God’s callings to ‘seek his face’ in the routine of our lives (Psalm 27. 8). In Mark chapter 4 we are also told that the crowd resisted listening, and did not even seek earnestly the meanings of the Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus faced difficult listeners (Mark 4. 11-12). He charged that generation with ‘seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…’ (v.12). A collective refusal to listen to the word of God was at the heart of the communication problem between Jesus and those listeners.

It is interesting to note that Jesus addressed this problem not with compelling arguments that proved that his teachings were true and meaningful, but by creating a universe of meanings, illustrations, images, and questions about the nature of God, His word and our response to the divine. Listening thus relates to acquiring meaning. Therefore, speaking in parables or metaphorical speech served as the turning point in his ‘lecturing’: less interested listeners missed the opportunity to gain knowledge and meaning from Jesus’ teachings.  This leads us to the main principle I want to examine.

Jesus’ teaching invites us to develop a relational approach to listening (and learning). After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, his disciples leave the noisy crowd behind and come to Him for an intimate time of exploring, asking, and listening. And times of solitude with God and in different Christian communities (small groups or congregations) can inspire us to listen to the Spirit deeply. In the same way in learning (or conducting research), a relational approach means that we are open to our colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Research will not be the realm of the lone wolf. Cooperation instead of competitiveness, humility instead of arrogance, and dependence instead of self-sufficiency will enable us to flourish in a community of scholars in pursuit of the common good.

Moreover, the example of the disciples might help us to understand the importance of depending on God in learning and conducting our research projects. In this context, prayers and petitions (with thanksgiving) may constitute important resources in our task of learning (Philippians 4. 6-7). The academic life is full of uncertainties and intellectual problems. In my own PhD experience, the challenges of my fieldwork were invitations to prayer and trust in God’s provision for the completion of my project.

Finally, to address the question about fruitfulness (I am not saying "productivity"!) in our academic life, Jesus ends the parable of the sower with a promise of growth (Mark 4. 20). Hearing, thinking and responding appropriately to the Word will bring growth and fruitfulness to our lives. As Christians pursuing academic careers we are not only called to seek to comprehend the Creation with all its complexities, but also to deepen our understanding of our Creator and loving Father. Fruitfulness will be the result of acknowledging that learning leads us to know more His character and deeds. The knowledge of His secrets, wisdom and loving deeds are possible to those who are committed to listen.

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Christian postgrad groups in action: Oxford Graduate Christian Forum

One of the aims of Faith in Scholarship over the years has been to support groups for Christian postgraduate students – sometimes actively, sometimes through providing networks and resources. Most of the FiSch bloggers are or have been part of these groups in various universities across the country. Today I want to spotlight the group I’m currently involved in at Oxford: the Graduate Christian Forum.

The GCF is the official postgrad Christian group of the university, and came into being in 1993, making it one of the older extant groups of this kind. It’s mainly a lecture society, hosting talks each week during termtime (see the website for details of where and when). Subjects vary widely – in the last year there have been talks on everything from Shakespeare to Quakerism to beauty in science.

Our aim is to be a place of dialogue, fellowship, and inspiration, linking up Christians from different disciplines and churches. Oxford is generally a good place to be a Christian postgrad, with organisations like the Oxford Pastorate and some of the large churches’ targeted ministries working with our specific needs. The GCF aims to sit alongside these pastoral groups and help postgrads think more deeply about the links between Christian faith and all different kinds of academic work.

If you’re in Oxford (or are about to arrive) and you’ve never been to a meeting – do come along in the autumn term! Anyone is welcome, at any stage of their graduate career, and from any faith background. For readers elsewhere, you might be interested in the recorded talks which are free to listen to on our website. Some of my personal highlights from the last year:

There are talks from all kinds of disciplines, from a variety of really interesting speakers – a great resource if you’re looking for up-to-date thinking on faith and your subject.

I’ve got involved in the GCF this year and am now serving on the committee. As I go to a church which doesn’t have very many postgraduate students, it’s really good to be able to make connections to others who are balancing and integrating academic work and faith in different ways, and share the particular experiences that brings.

If you’re a Christian postgrad and not connected to some kind of specific ministry or group, can I encourage you to try one out? If you’re in Oxford there's the GCF and several other options; or the list at cpgrad.org.uk can direct you to groups in other places. Community is really important to the academic, and Christian communities with real insight into our opportunities and challenges can be a lifeline.

Jehoshaphat, Jihadists and Evil

Last night I delivered my presentation on Mafia and the Problem of Evil to about thirty members of the evening fellowship at St Peter's in Harrogate.

At TFN we are committed to giving Christians an opportunity to think through challenging and difficult topics. Almost every day we hear about atrocities perpetrated by IS jihadists etc. How do we make sense of these terrifying stories? In my presentation I try to help sixth formers (RB in schools) to understand five ways of looking at evil and atrocity.

1) Evil is caused by bad karma (Hinduism)

2) Evil is an illusion because nothing exists (Buddhism)

3) Evil doesn't exist because everything is just physical (Materialism)

4) Evil has to exist because it comes from God (Neo-Platonism)

5) Evil is caused by human and angelic rebellion against God (C S Lewis)

In my talk I hope to get people thinking about conflicting perspectives on evil before I outline a Christian perspective. In my experience both Christian and non-Christian people have not thought about the nature of evil.

Often they are shocked by the materialist mindset that evil doesn't exist because murderers and terrorists are just machines and have no free will. Many are startled to discover that Hindus often espouse a karmic understanding of atrocity. Rape victims deserve it because they behaved badly in a previous life. Some are surprised when I outline the pantheist view that God is responsible for evil because everything comes from God, both terrorists and Tearfund!

During the discussion I was asked if all 'bad' people are evil. An excellent question. I pointed out that the book of Kings is very helpful in answering this question. Rulers in Scripture are not just good or bad. There are degrees of both virtue and depravity. Some kings are very good (e.g. Hezekiah, Josiah) and some kings are wicked (e.g. Ahab, Manasseh). There are other kings whose faithfulness to God is a 'mixed bag'. Jehoshaphat comes into this category. In many ways he was a good king but he had a weakness for forming alliances with 'evil' kings like Ahab, Ahaziah and Jehoram.

This theme is communicated clearly in 2 Chronicles 19:1-3. Jehu, the prophet, recognises that Jehoshaphat is far from perfect but "there is, however, some good in you for you have rid the land of the Asherah poles and have set your heart on seeking God."

I find it comforting that Scripture recognises this complexity! Many of us share Jehoshaphat's status - bumbling, stumbling sinners who have set their hearts on serving God.

 

 

The gospel, the fakir and the bed of nails

An Indian fakir had been living on a bed of spikes for 18 months. Why was he doing this?

The desperate man said this: "I worship God in this way but I confess that the pricks of these spikes are not so bad as the pain I get from my sins and evil desires. My object is to crush the desires of self that I may gain salvation."

There are four ways of looking at this self-torturing fakir.

Some say: "Get off the bed of spikes and lie down on this Bonaparte French bed worth £2,700."

Others contend: "I so respect your authentic faith but I choose a different path without the spikes."

Some say: "You are right to lie on this cruel bed and thereby atone for your sins but you will need to stay there much longer!"

Paul, the apostle would say: "No need to lie on a bed of spikes. Come to Jesus. He died for you! He is the Holy One of God." (Mark 1:24)

 

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Jesus, virtue and the university

In the third and final post on the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017 (you can find the first and second posts here and here), I'll summarize the talk that Joanna Collicutt gave. She drew on her expertise in both psychology and theology to help us consider how we can be Christ-like in the university, using the concepts of virtue and character.

Most of us have heard of the seven deadly sins, but in church tradition these are counterbalanced by the seven virtues: temperance, prudence, justice, courage, faith, hope and charity. This strand of thinking starts early in Christian thought, with Ambrose of Milan, and found its most eloquent and extensive expression in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Many of these virtues are recognized in modern positive psychology as habits of mind and practice that enable human flourishing. However, in the gospels we do not see Jesus speak much about virtues. Partly, this is because we tend to focus on Christ's soteriological role rather than his life and teaching, and on his divinity rather than his humanity. We'll come back to this, but first let's look at bit more at how modern psychology thinks about virtue.

Edward Burne-Jones: Faith, Hope and Charity. Stained glass windows in Christ Church, Oxford

Our world is not perfect, and humans are fallen creatures. We are therefore faced with a world that is out of kilter, and our own fallible nature which, as Paul says, makes us 'do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing' (Rom. 7:19). How you make compromises between what is and how you would like things to be says a lot about what you base your identity on. Identity is 'telic': it is about goals and purposes. There are usually a number of different kinds of goals, and how well you manage to integrate these will impact on your flourishing and the amount of stress you experience.

What does all this have to do with Jesus and virtue? First of all, the goals we pursue have implicit theological roots. As Christians we believe that life is going somewhere, and that people were made to live in community. Secondly, we long to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). We want our life to be Christ-like, to form our habits into his character, with the help of the Spirit and within Christian community so we can help each other to express the life of Christ. This takes the form of Christ-like virtues, like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The practice of virtue leads to the building of character. Character is a concept that is halfway between personality traits and aptitudes. Character is embodied virtue, virtue become habit through long practice.

We can express virtue and character in our scholarship by being intentionally goal-directed rather than problem-focused. In our work, we should consider what we are living for as more important than task performance on its own. Learning as a vocation should take precedence over advancing professional and institutional agendas. We should also seek true interdisciplinarity, not just multidisciplinarity, to do justice to the multifaceted nature of reality.

You can probably sense that there was more in this talk than can easily be summarized in one blog post! The audio and slides of the talk will soon be available on Transforming the Mind's website, so do follow the TTM facebook page if you want to be kept updated!

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Welcome to the University of Babylon!

Following on from the first post a few weeks ago, here's the second of three posts summarizing the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017. This week we're looking at Mike Clifford's talk, which took the experience of Daniel and his friends in Babylon as the starting point.

Daniel was a young man who was taken away from his country and his family and moved to a new culture with different rules. There he was enrolled in a three-year course of study in 'every kind of learning', and especially language and literature. Feels familiar to some of you? Maybe you have moved away from your family and friends, and even your country, to pursue your course of study, although I suspect most of us did this by free choice rather than under duress! Daniel and his friends were fully immersed in everything the culture of Babylon had to offer. Some of the things they learned were good and useful, but other aspects of their programme of study may have deliberately aimed to assimilate them into the culture of Babylon, to change their worldview. What would their families have thought about that? Likewise, Christians in academia can feel caught in the middle: on the one hand there is the pressure to conform to the secular mould of society, and on the other hand there can be pressure from a Christian subculture that does not always value learning. Still, Daniel and his friends embarked on this course of study, and God used them not only to witness to the king of Babylon and his court, but he also helped them to develop the gifts and talents they had been given (Dan. 1:4). How are you using your gifts in your studies? How do you explain the importance of your studies to your church family? And how can you serve in your society without losing your identity in Christ?

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; © Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In this Babylonian environment, Daniel and his friends made sure they stayed in contact with God. Despite losing their home and even their names, through their distinctive diet (ch. 1), worship (ch. 3) and prayer (ch. 6) they not only survived but thrived (Dan. 1:15). What helps you to survive and thrive in your academic environment? What practices help you to keep in touch with God and his calling on your life in the midst of your research?

Daniel did not rebel against his programme of study. During their three years of study, God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and understanding of the things they were learning – 'all kinds of literature and learning' (Dan. 1:17) – so that they outdid all the other students (Dan. 1:20). Of course we should not expect to always be the best student. After all, God placed Daniel in Babylon for a very specific purpose. But it does mean we can ask God to bless us in our research, and to help us to understand what we are studying. At times our studies may challenge our faith, but the university can also be a place where our faith is tested and refined. Like Daniel, we need to be aware of which aspects of our discipline are in tension with our faith, and seek to engage with these faithfully, following the call of God on our lives.

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Listening to God with studious imagination

"The Sower" by Jean-François Millet

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

The second part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In an earlier post, I evoked John Stott’s theological concept of double listening:

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of “double listening”. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity (Stott 1992, p.13).

This, I suggest, is as important for those of us pursuing academic careers as for anyone else. Here I ask how we can listen to God in our academic life. Christians generally stress their communal and personal commitment to listen to, interact with and worship a Creator God, the One "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). But how can we hear God’s voice when so many voices compete for our attention? And to what extent will this have an impact on our academic careers?

To address these questions, I would like to invite us to reflect upon the interaction between Jesus and his disciples as seen in Mark chapter 4. Conscious of the need to be a more attentive listener, I believe that the disciples’ response to Jesus’ methods of teaching provides us with resources to develop an open and creative hearing of God’s word and relate it to our academic disciplines.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses a crowd of listeners with a series of parables - stories with meanings to be uncovered and constructed. The famous parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) fascinates and challenges us with its complexity. The different soils in the parable represent distinct hearts or mindsets that enable or hinder our capacity to listen to the Word. And we may learn a lot from reflecting on how different groups in Jesus’ audience responded to this parable itself.

Mark tells us that a group of studious and interested listeners approached him to inquire about the meanings of the parable (Mark 4:10). This is a striking (but often overlooked) point. This group was not happy with a superficial hearing of Jesus’ message, and by digging deeper, they were surprised by the powerful meanings attached to it. These disciples had an approach to learning (and listening) that can teach us two principles. I will look at the first here and at the second in my next post.

The first principle is to develop an imaginative and studious hearing of God’s word (and His world). What strikes me is that it was only his disciples who came to Jesus afterwards to ask him about the meaning behind the parable. Jesus was a creative and imaginative teacher, and He wanted committed followers who were keen to engage in an imaginative search for the secrets of the Kingdom (Mark 4:10-11). He invited his listeners to interact with truth and meaning in an active way. The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey emphasises that "Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. His primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than a philosopher." (Bailey 2008, p.279). Therefore, Jesus’ methods of teaching challenge us to develop a different approach to listening. Creativity, openness, and a willingness to respond to a word that may not always be immediately clear or welcome are important qualities if we are serious about listening to God (Cole, 1989). When Jesus says "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:9), he is calling us to "thought and action in response" (Cole 1989, p.147).

In a similar way, in our own disciplines, listening attentively might involve a commitment to deepening our understanding of the academic field in which we study. For instance, what are the impacts of my research on society? In which ways does our area of study reveal the character of God? How does the study of society, human behaviour, and culture enhance our knowledge of humanity as God’s creation? Are there ethical questions to be considered through our research? Our studies also might reveal something to us about the nature of our Creator God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created.

References

Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels. London: Society for promoting Christian Knowledge. (SPCK).

Cole, R. A. (1989). The Gospel According to Mark: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-varsity Press.

Stott, J.W. (1992). The Contemporary Christian: an Urgent Plea for Double Listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

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How Evangelism can be Fun

Very encouraged that my article 'How Evangelism can be Fun' is featured on the front of the Baptist Times. To date 15 people have made comments about my article.

So delighted that an old friend, Jeffrey Dudiak, Professor of Philosophy, The King’s University, Edmonton, Canada wrote this:

Behind the engaging silliness of Mark Roques' carefully targeted stories opens up a vista upon profound and crucial questions, an invitation to think through cultural assumptions that we often don't think about at all. His is not an evangelism with a hammer, but with a welcoming smile. Mark's stories set the stage upon which God's Word can be heard in non-threatening but still utterly challenging ways. His is an inspired, and inspiring, ministry. Thanks, mate!

What is your calling again?

It is now becoming a tradition that each year I write up the talks from the Transforming the Mind conference so a larger group of people can benefit from them. For previous years, see here and here. This year, we had three speakers. Today I'll tell you about the final talk of the conference, and there will be two more installments over the next month or so. Maithrie White, the conference chair, talked about 'Christian mind under renewal'.

What motivates you to commit years of your life to studying? What is your calling in the university? What is your calling in the world?

On this blog, we often talk about our 'calling' as Christian scholars. These are important questions that I hope you have thought about at least briefly before starting your degree. And it is helpful to return to these questions regularly. After all, most of the world around us does not think about pursuing studies in terms of a calling. But as Christian scholars, what should motivate us to study is not just love for the subject or a desire for an academic career (although these are also important and good). As humans, we are called to be God's image in the world. We are co-workers with God, and He loves all of his world.

The university can be holy ground if we worship God there by studying what He has made.
But what does it actually mean to live out that universal human calling in the university? What is God asking us to do?

1. Develop a Christian mind. God is calling us to 'be transformed by the renewal of your mind' (Rom. 12:2). Like Jesus in the transfiguration, we are called to reflect the love of God to the people and the world around us. We are called to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), to see the world from God's perspective. We do this by engaging deeply with Scripture, and by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Note that we are active in this: Paul doesn't say 'let Christ transform you', but he uses imperatives: 'do not be conformed… be transformed'. Christ works in us, but we are not completely passive.

2. Dialogue with the university. God calls his people to be a people of truth and justice (Micah 6:8), who speak prophetically to the surrounding culture. Let us hold fast to God's vision for our world passionately. A world where justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24). 'God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (…) gave us the ministry of reconciliation: (…) God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ' (2 Cor. 5:18-19). God is calling us to be part of this process of reconciliation! It is a privilege to study. But do you ever ask yourself what you will give back to the world? And I don't just mean 'impact' – although that is part of it. Whom can you serve through your calling as a scholar?

These questions are certainly worth pondering regularly. Let us in humility respond to God's calling on our lives, serving his purposes as we study.

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