Thinking Faith blogs

Parable about the Church of Maradona

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published my parable about the football genius Maradona.      

Picture it. We are enjoying Sunday lunch with friends and the conversation turns to football. It could be Brexit but it isn't. Before you know it, the diners are debating that pressing question. Who is the greatest footballer of all time? Jackie plumps for Pele. Frank is a Johan Cruyff fan. Susan urges us to consider Cristiano Ronaldo. Roy puts in a kind word for George Best. The conversation is noisy and passionate.

Do you go and do the washing-up or do you remain at the table and engage in bespoke evangelism? Bespoke evangelism begins with everyday conversation. You find out what people naturally enjoy talking about, what they find enthralling, and then you build bridges into this delightful chat zone.

To read the full article go to -

https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/532300/The_Parable_of.aspx

 

 

Science, philosophy and religion

Where does science come from?  Historically, the predecessor of what we now call the sciences was natural philosophy, which was, evidently enough, a branch of philosophy.  But when we study science at school and university, it's rare to hear much mention of any continuing dependence on philosophy.  We seem to study lots of scientific "facts": about the universe, the solar system and the earth, about impacts and reactions, about microbes, plants and animals, and about humans and society.  We gradually get introduced to experimental methods as ways of testing hypotheses and perhaps to demonstrate the tentative nature of scientific conclusions (after all, school science experiments rarely give textbook outcomes!).  Eventually we're told about scientific models and sometimes even about some controversies.  Some of the "facts" are confusingly known as theories.  But philosophy?  That seems to be just a sideshow - at best a defunct predecessor.

There is another view.  My philosopher friend Richard Russell argues that all of the content of science curricula is dependent on philosophy.  Learning about underlying laws, patterns and structures in the cosmos on the basis of specific data is fundamentally a philosophical problem, raising questions about what these underlying universals might be like and how our specific perceptions can relate to them.  Then there are also questions of error, fallibility, bias and so on.  Philosophy should not be merely of historical interest for scientists!  And Christians should be interested in this view, because of where philosophy comes from.

Where does philosophy come from?  Historically, one answer is that the Western philosophical tradition arose in ancient Greece as a competitor to the prevailing pagan religion.  Now, in some philosophy courses there's even less discussion of religion than there is of philosophy in science courses.  But once again, there's a hidden dependence. Philosophical arguments may invoke concepts like substance, abstract objects, minds, reason, justification, freedom and so on.  And many of these turn out to encapsulate clear or hidden notions of how reality is constituted and where it comes from, what a human being is, what persons are, and so on.  So religion should not be merely of historical interest in philosophy.  In fact there is the possibility of building a Christian philosophy, for example, on the basis of a biblical worldview.  That is what this series of posts is intended to display, albeit rather haphazardly.

The diagram below, conceived by Richard Russell, illustrates two views of the relationships among these areas of thought.  First is the Enlightenment view, in which religion is superseded over time by philosophy, which is in turn superseded by science.  Below that is a view that's characteristic of streams of neocalvinist thought like that pioneered by Herman Dooyeweerd.

The first option makes the challenge of being a scientist look simpler and less susceptible to controversy.  But the second one is arguably far more realistic.  We'll look more at how this ongoing dependence works in a subsequent post - with another of Richard's diagrams.

A Reflection in Puddles: Distinctiveness in Academia

It’s a rainy day outside and my mind has wandered to puddles. Puddles are commonplace (in England especially!) without much beauty or substance, but they can do one great thing: they can reflect what’s above them.

I’ve been pondering distinctiveness in academia lately, asking: how does being a Christian affect how I navigate the academy? This has been a convicting exercise but a very helpful one. Below, I’ve jotted down a few ways I think I can reflect God better in academia, and I hope my own thoughts might inspire similar personal reflections in others.

Support students

I teach a lot of tutorials. I’m not the best teacher and I’m not the most knowledgeable. This is unlikely to change, but I can choose to care about my students. Like everyone else, I'm quite busy, but finding time to run a quick review session or meeting up to discuss an essay is a great way to support and care for my students. Time taken to serve others is a sacrifice, but it is certainly not wasted!

Invest in friendships

This is the one I’m the worst at—with so much going on, I find it hard to find time to invest in friendships at all, and I often end up ‘ghosting’ around my faculty because I’m too tired or lazy to invest there properly. But He’s placed me there for a reason. Friendship provides a chance to be in others’ lives, to let them into mine, to share my hope, and to build community.

Encourage each other’s growth

I happen to be at a very supportive faculty with a group of really nice researchers in my cohort, but below the surface somewhere, there lurks the truth that we are potential competitors for future jobs. Everything can seem to be a competition, but I must remember that I don’t need to enter the race. I want to congratulate others on their work, be humble and honest about my own, especially if I’m struggling a bit, because this demonstrates that no, research isn’t a matter of life and death to me. I want to make friends, support them, cheer for them. Maintaining a generosity of spirit can’t take anything from me that I need—I have all I need in Christ.

Be honest

This is a simple one, but one worth adding to the list. Truthfulness shows in one’s character in little and big ways, but maintaining truthfulness requires commitment. I find it can be easy to compromise honesty in the little things if I become lazy or lose sight of who am I and what I've been called to be! My word should be my bond.

Be dependable

We don’t usually describe Christ as ‘dependable’… the word seems far too dim for his glorious grace! But in fact, He is ultimately dependable. We screw up; He comes through. Over and over and over again. He can be relied upon to be there, to care, to help, to comfort. Do I demonstrate dependability in my own finite way at my faculty? Do I show up to meetings and tutorials on time? Can I be relied upon?

Express difficulties… but with hope!

When grad students get together, we tend to complain about difficulties in our work. Difficulties in research, in writing, with deadlines. Anything. Everything. I think it’s important to share where we’re actually at with people… that’s honest. But I’m as guilty of ‘grumbling’ as my non-Christian colleagues. By presenting my difficulties without any allusion—implicit or explicit—to the hope that I enjoy, I’m misleading them to ‘fit in’, rejecting an opportunity to talk about what really matters. I know whatever I am currently doing is not an ultimate, so why pretend that it is? I have every reason to be joyful, regardless of how my doctorate is going.

Don't speak badly about supervisors behind their backs

This relates to the one above. As a Christian, I should not be speaking about anyone behind their backs, but somehow it feels easy to make exceptions for advisors or supervisors because they are in authority over us and it would seem that not all of them are really good at supporting their students (though I’ve been very blessed with a great supervisor). It’s tempting to join in on supervisor-bashing as it allows us to connect with colleagues sharing a knowing smile and a roll of the eyes. But this is not how we are told to treat people—or those in authority. If I have a problem with a faculty member, I should speak to them directly before involving anyone else. This is hard… but we have Christ for a model!

Skip faculty events for church if you have to

There is an optional research colloquium that I have to skip every week because I lead a Bible study. I wish I could make it, but the time conflict has actually been a blessing in disguise. When faculty friends ask why I don’t make it to colloquium more, I have an opportunity to show that my faith takes priority in my life—even over professional growth or advancement.  

Be committed to work

Being a research student—at least in the humanities—can be very lonely and quite directionless. Nobody really knows how we should be using our time and therefore nobody really knows how we really do use our time. Without accountability, it can be really hard to commit to productivity—procrastination comes with the grad school territory! Diligence in work requires motivation, but when everyone is struggling to find theirs, I have a deep, unending source of it—if I dare to draw upon it. I am not working for myself or for man but for my Saviour and Redeemer!

I am a puddle: a bit grubby and dreary, finite and fleeting, but there is a sun above me and reflecting His beauty should be my chief delight and purpose!

Asking Explosive Questions about Jesus and Hitler

In this short piece I want to explore the power of crafting and asking good questions.

Picture it. I am talking to a non-Christian social worker, let's call her Susan. My wife and I are foster carers for a young man from Eritrea and so this is just part of my work life. I have already told Susan some of my stories and she has been responsive and positive.

I have been studying Psalm 110 and I ask this question. "What do you think Jesus is doing right now?" She smiles warmly and tells me: "I think Jesus is very unhappy with all the horrible things going on in the world."

This allows me to unpack Psalm 110. "In my view Jesus is ruling His very broken world from His HQ in heaven. He is also listening to and answering the many prayers He hears."

Susan is alert, attentive and engaged. I decide to ask another question. "So what do you think Hitler is doing right now?"

I was surprised but encouraged by her response. "I think he is probably in hell because of all the terrible evil he did."

I responded like this: "I think you are probably right but I would just like to add that if Hitler had genuinely repented, then he could have received the forgiveness of his sins and avoided the miseries of hell. In my view when anybody turns away from evil and believes in Jesus, all their sins are wiped away and they have the hope of the resurrection and will live with Jesus in the new heaven and the new earth."

Susan didn't become a Christian after this conversation but my two questions about Jesus and Hitler certainly got her thinking.

Psalm 110 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. Study it today and use it in mission. "The Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."

'That Hideous Strength' and institutional sin

In his recent post ‘Forays into finance’, Richard reflected on the challenges of institutional sin in his new context of the financial sector: an industry governed by forces which seem to tend towards exploitation of others, manifesting sin beyond the personal to the societal level.

But, of course, you don’t need to be in finance to recognise the way human institutions can be a force for evil. This concept of sin is easily recognisable to those in academia, too.

Sin in the university

The institution of the modern university – like any human construct – conditions and promotes sin in various ways. The time pressures and bureaucratic requirements of teaching lessen our capacity to treat each student as a person, made in God’s image. The competitive, driven environment of a lab or a graduate programme can skew how we treat our colleagues, and chip away at intellectual honesty. Perhaps most insidiously, the large-scale philosophical underpinnings of our disciplines draw on modes of thinking and valuing which can be deeply unbiblical and even hostile to Christian understandings of the world.

I was reminded of this over the summer as I re-read That Hideous Strength, the third book of C. S. Lewis’s idiosyncratic science fiction trilogy. I’ve written before about representations of academics in the fiction of the Inklings, and the plot of THS turns Lewis’s sharp satiric eye on a fictional English university, Edgestow, which foolishly gives a foothold on its territory – both physical and intellectual – to a scientistic, eugenicist, and eventually demonic organisation.

Corruption in theory and practice

Near the end of the the novel, one of the characters draws a clear line between sin in the academic institution and the nihilistic anti-humanism which the euphemistically named ‘National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments’ attempts to bring into being:

“One’s sorry for old Churchwood […] All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he’d have walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid.
   But all the same… was there a single doctrine practised at Belbury which hadn’t been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.”
   “I’m afraid it’s all true,” said Dimble [...] “None of us are quite innocent.”

Lewis claims in his foreword to have chosen a university setting only because of his own familiarity with it, but this seems disingenuous in light of the very specific warnings this novel gives about academic inquiry’s relationship with societal developments and norms. When an academic discipline is corrupt, Lewis argues, that corruption spreads.

What’s more, even well-intentioned academics find themselves enmeshed in these replicating structures of institutional sin: ‘None of us are quite innocent.’ As a graduate student in a literature department, hopeful of a longer-term career in the same field, another character’s reply – ‘Those who call for Nonsense will find that it comes’ – sent a chill down my spine.

Truth and nonsense

The philosophical grounds of modern literary study are highly relativistic, deconstructing meaning and intention at every turn. I continue to grapple with what it means to be committed to a God who is Truth and yet work within the norms of this field.

Deconstruction and related frameworks can, I believe, be useful tools in understanding and illuminating literature: but where do I slip over the line into the worship of Nonsense which Lewis describes? How does this relativising impulse affect wider society, and with what consequences? These are challenging questions to ponder as I develop my research. 

Recognising institutional sin in our disciplines

One of the foundations of Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that it is worthwhile for academics to identify and understand the philosophical underpinnings of their fields, and to compare them with the norms and realities of God’s world as revealed in Christ.

Would it help you to reflect on the ways your institution – your department, your discipline more widely – shapes your work, and how that work in turn shapes the communities you are part of? Institutional sin is difficult to root out, but the first step is recognising its presence.

Forays into finance

Bank of England and Royal Exchange Panorama

For the last 18 months I've been a research fellow on a project about financial stability that's run by a small consultancy firm.  Since I was trained as a biologist and have done nearly all my academic work so far in ecology, and in universities, this has been both a steep learning curve and a great adventure.  The story of how I came to make this transition, moving from university into a business environment, will be for another time. Here I want to share some reflections firstly on my move into a new discipline and secondly, briefly, on financial economics itself.

My qualification for this new post was being a quantitative ecologist, which, as I used to say, often feels more like being an applied statistician.  I could also point out that ecology is an economics-rich branch of the biological sciences, and I'd already been taking some interest in economic arguments for nature conservation (the ecosystem services approach), and the ensuing policy debates.  But in practice the mathematical background was the most relevant qualification - together, of course, with a fascination for knowing about other disciplines.  This, I believe, has been fostered by my faith and Christian philosophical framework.

Mutual enrichment?

Moving into a new discipline has been an upheaval in some ways.  There's a whole literature to get to grips with, of course, and I'm attempting to immerse myself in it sufficiently to see where our project outputs fit.  The project was initially motivated by the 2008 financial crisis and by developments in the world of finance, with which my boss is well acquainted, rather than by outstanding questions in the literature - so that adds both excitement and some headaches to the challenge.  One the one hand, the volume of literature in any discipline is so great nowadays that even devoted scholars can barely keep up with more than a narrow specialism.  Added to that, the more one reads the more one may suspect that everything worthwhile has been done already - so perhaps there's something to be said for coming fresh to a new discipline and trying to work out a strategic, limited course of reading.  On the other hand, there's clearly no substitute for an authoritative induction into a discipline such as comes through degree courses.  At this point, helpful colleagues can be a lifeline, if they see some mutual benefit emerging from the collaboration.  The fundamental question about moving to a new discipline is whether one's freshness of perspective can complement the depth of understanding held by established colleagues. And that calls for a great deal of trust and humility on all sides - 'fellowship' might be a good word.

Faithful scholarship

So what am I doing? The aim of our project is to suggest improvements to financial regulation for the benefit of market participants and society at large.  There's a clear ethical concern, which attracted me in the first place, and then there's an expectation of drawing inspiration from mathematical ecology.  In practice it turns out to be far from trivial to find cross-disciplinary insights that go beyond metaphors (e.g. the "ecosystem of investors"), and there are obvious reasons why ecosystems don't provide complete models for finance (no analogue of money, for example).  But fruitful metrics and models can certainly cross disciplinary boundaries from time to time.

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most from this foray into finance concerns the reality of institutional sin.  The financial system we inhabit is so complex and powerful that no-one really knows how to model it, let alone manage it.  That's true of ecosystems too, but in the case of finance the agents driving the system are either highly intelligent humans or their algorithmic creations (so-called artificial intelligence), which adapt to, anticipate and exploit each other and the regulatory framework with zeal and, too often, impunity.  I believe there is much goodness in the financial system and its agents, but egregious injustices arising from it seem to confront me daily.  The Apostle Paul's comments on "principalities and powers"[1] have been interpreted by some to refer to institutional structures where sin is manifested beyond the level of individual persons, and I'm convinced that some aspects of our financial system are profoundly contrary to Christ's kingdom.  This is the unsettling side of this field of research, for me.

It will take a future post (and more wisdom than I currently have) to look at specific ideas about finance in God's purposes, and the redemption of economic systems.  Meanwhile, I maintain my passion for ecology alongside my intrigue about financial economics and hope, in God's grace, to find further fruitful insights between the two.

____

[1] This phrase occurs (in the King James Version and some others) in Rom 8:37-39, Col 1:16; 2:15, Eph 3:10-11, 6:12 and Titus 3:1.  Tom Wright has written about this theme, but I can particularly recommend Colossians Remixed by Walsh & Keesmaat.

August Francke and his Christian vision for a German city

August Francke (1663 - 1727) was a German preacher and social reformer who established an orphanage and inspired George Muller. One day he had to pay the construction workers but he did not have any money and so he prayed to God for provision. At the end of that day, the paymaster came and asked if he was going to be able to pay his men. The answer was no. Just then a student knocked on the door and reported that someone, who wished to remain anonymous, had brought a pouch with thirty gold talers. He went back into the other room and asked the foreman how much was needed for the payment of the builders. He said, “Thirty talers.” Francke said, “Here they are,” and asked if he needed more. He said, “No.”’ Francke said this incident strengthened his faith and the foreman's faith and they “recognized so evidently the wonderful hand of God.”

August Francke lived in Halle which is near the city of Leipzig. He was a faithful man of prayer and he had a big vision for the town he lived in. One day he was visiting a talented scientist who was dying. Francke had shown this man a lot of kindness and just before he died the brainy boffin gave Francke a recipe for some medicine. This recipe turned out to be very valuable and brought in thousands of pounds. He used this windfall to bless the city. By a series of quite incredible events he completed a huge building programme which included - a library of over 20,000 books, six schools, an orphanage with 2000 orphans, a home for destitute widows, a hospital, a chemist shop, an academy for pastors, a drop-in centre for strolling beggars, a museum of natural history, a printing house devoted to making Bibles and Christian literature available at a very reasonable price. Just like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Francke thought deeply about his city. He wasn't just concerned with church life but everything that could help people to flourish.

 

On Horses and Victory: Proverbs 21:31

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord. Proverbs 21:31

Despite the Bible’s frequent exhortations to the contrary, I often find myself reverting to stubborn independence—trying to do things my own way and in my own strength. When I came across this verse earlier in the week, I found it both convicting and comforting: the victory is not mine—but neither is the battle! God’s omnipotence is the verse's core message, but like most Proverbs, it has rich implications that are worth spending a few moments considering…

Victory

No victory will be made against God—that is certain; but I don’t believe this verse is a warning for those warring against God so much as a reminder to those warring for God. As Matthew Henry (1662-1714) said in his Bible commentary on this passage. ‘Be the cause ever so good, and the patrons of it ever so strong, and wise, and faithful, and the means of carrying it on, and gaining the point, ever so probable, still they must acknowledge God and take Him along with them.’

The verse reminds us that our battles are his battles and our victories are in fact his victories. I often think I just need to try harder to conquer that sin, or work a bit more to get that postdoc, or pray a bit longer to fix my family’s problems. All of my objectives are good enough, but I should approach these issues saying ‘God, what are You doing here and what do you want me to do?’ rather than ‘How am I going to tackle this?’ My self-reliant attitude invariably creates two problems. Firstly, it leads me to despair, because when I see a big obstacle or an enemy on the horizon, I rightfully realize that I am too weak to overcome it! Secondly, my attitude leads to pride because if I succeed to any degree against a problem, I think the victory was in fact mine! Pride follows independence; but if I engaged problems with proper humility and faith, I would be much more likely to remember who won the victory when the battle is done!

Ride with Me   

Yet this verse has more to tell us. We are unreliable servants and stumbling, stuttering messengers of the Gospel, but the Bible shows us that very often God chooses to work with us and through us despite our shortcomings. God doesn’t need us to achieve his purposes or bring himself glory: it’s not like He needed a full team to play ball and we were the last kids left in the schoolyard from which to choose. No, He doesn’t need us, but He does want to use us and so invites us to take part in his Great Plan.

That’s why I find the horse in this proverb profound: it’s a beautiful reminder that God doesn’t just leave us in camp to wait for his return. To again quote Henry: ‘Means indeed are to be used; the horse must be prepared against the day of battle, and the foot too; they must be armed and disciplined.’ God has a job for us to do.

How would understanding this change my approach to work and church and family and friends? Would I feel less scared, frustrated and enervated in sharing the Gospel, praying for friends, serving in church, or navigating academia if I understood that these are not my battles and will not be for my glory—but I am invited to join the winning side? I can ready my horse, not because I think that doing so will ensure I win the battle, but because it will mean following after the One who will.

The victories do not belong to us—but Jesus does!

Tags: 

Taking time apart: discipline and blessing

Inspired by this post from the archives of The Well (InterVarsity’s ministry to women in academia and the professions), I recently took a mini-‘retreat’ in the midst of my current summer season of being at home, preparing for a family wedding and working on my thesis in the midst of planning and errands.

As the article suggests, I got some ‘geographic space’ – simply by going to a different part of town and settling myself in a coffee shop for the morning. I took with me the novel I was reading (C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra), my Bible and notebook, and another resource from InterVarsity called ‘Taking Time Apart: Spiritual Disciplines and the Academic Life’. It’s a short booklet, which you can download for free here; it introduces the idea of spiritual discipline as integrated and intertwined with intellectual discipline, and provides several short readings, Bible studies, and guided reflection exercises.

I spent a peaceful morning alternating between reading my novel, and taking the opportunity to reflect and pray over the last year with the help of this resource. I went through a Bible study based on Luke 5:1-11, the miraculous catch of fish:

When Jesus finished speaking he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water, and let the nets down for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.

Peter’s obedience to Jesus – listening to him, letting down the nets – is necessary for the blessing of fish, and later for Jesus’ call into his service: ‘Don’t be afraid: from now on you will catch men.’ This was a particular challenge to me as I reflected on the past academic year.

It’s easy to keep the effort and discipline I put into my academic work, and the effort and discipline I put into my spiritual life, in completely separate boxes in my mind. This is the case even as I study prayer and devotion themselves: I can spend my time writing and thinking about a central part of Christian practice, analysing and theorising how it worked in the lives of historical people, and making exciting theological connections and applications – and yet lack the discipline to pray with any regularity or fervour myself.

The story of the miraculous catch reminded me that God gives us the results of our work, and calls us to new work in his service. So it’s part of good scholarly practice to listen first, and to practice obedience first, in faith that all the world is God’s and that he works through us as much in our academic lives as in church or mission. Spiritual discipline and academic work are not separate, but integrated parts of life. 

Have you had the opportunity this summer to take some time apart in intentional reflection? Consider using the resource I’ve mentioned, or another guide, to help you pray over the last year or term and hear from God in this quieter time.

Sumo Wrestling and Faith in Salt

Story

Obese but immensely strong, the Japanese sumo wrestlers of the Arashio stable were beginning to stir. A young rikishi (wrestler) tripped over camp beds and heaving bodies, cajoling his fellow wrestlers out of their sweet slumbers. Some opened listless eyes, while others ignored the young man's promptings and returned irritably to sleep. It was 5:30 am and freezing outside; what awaited the dozing wrestlers was hours of backbreaking and grueling practice in an abandoned car park in the outskirts of Osaka. Are these sumo wrestlers only in it for the money? No. Salaries of even the top sumo wrestlers are not that impressive. Is there faith in sumo wrestling?

Background Notes

Sumo wrestling is very different from professional football in England. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. This faith is focused on the appeasement of the gods known as 'kami'. The best English translation of kami is 'spirits' and the Shinto tradition declares that there are eight million kami; there are river gods, mountain gods and even boil and smallpox deities. Shinto unfolded as a religion to appease the kami in order to ensure good harvests and divine protection. Sumo, as a sport, aims to entertain the gods, appease their truculence and protect the wrestlers from both physical and spiritual harm. Christians believe that Jesus has defeated the powers of darkness (Col 2:15) but sumo wrestlers would vehemently reject this. Sumo wrestlers spend several minutes before a match lifting their legs high in the air and stomping them down in a vigorous manner. They also throw salt into the fighting zone as a Shinto ritual. This faith in stomping and salt is believed to drive away evil spirits. Even Christian people can replace Jesus with sodium chloride when they throw salt over their left shoulders in order to blind the devil. Sumo wrestlers are also known for their huge intake of food. They are also partial to beer.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that football is all about money and material enjoyment but sumo rituals are pagan superstitions."

Relativist faith: "We deeply respect the Shinto faith. It is true for those who trust in its colourful ceremonies and the many gods and spirits of Japan."

Shinto faith: "We believe that there are millions of kami and we must appease these spirits on a daily basis. Sumo wrestling entertains our Japanese gods."

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus is Lord. Worship the Lamb and do not worship demons that masquerade as kami."

Questions

1) Why do people appease the kami?

2) How does the Shinto faith encourage superstition?

3) Is it possible to be a Christian sumo wrestler?

 

 

         

Pages