Thinking Faith blogs

Anti-materialist spiel

So you don't believe in God (Psalm 14:1)? Does that mean you are a materialist then? I used to believe that malarkey but it made me so miserable and grumpy. I thought about it and realised that if everything I do is programmed by hidden physical stuff then murdering my wife and kids is not my fault and even plotting to kill them is not my fault. Both my thoughts and my actions are beyond my control. What a nightmare for my family!

 

The Triune Structure of Experience

Last Saturday Faith-in-Scholarship hosted a workshop about Christian philosophy with Dr Jeremy Ive. Having asked what “Christian philosophy” might be, I’m now going to share the basics of a proposal concerning the structure of our experience. For now this framework is presented in Jeremy’s thesis awaiting publication… so remember, you heard it here first!

Three Transcendental Conditions

Does reality have a structure that humans have to acknowledge? Let’s start with an example from geometry. If we reflect on what reality feels like spatially, one of the obvious things is that there are three dimensions. You really can only find three mutually-perpendicular axes of space, and we can’t (as far as I know) imagine space any other way. Emmanuel Kant proposed that the human mind actually imposes the basic structures of time and space that we experience, in outlining his doctrine of transcendental idealism. But wherever they come from, there clearly are constraints (“transcendentals”) for the ways we can conceive reality.

It may be argued that a more fundamental set of conditions is necessary for us to have any experience at all. There are things, there are relations, and there are events. “Things” are just the items we recognise, like rocks, people and companies; they don’t have to be detached, tightly bounded or universally recognised. Although as babies we may have had a stream of consciousness without distinguishing people/things at all, we don’t remember that, and it probably wasn’t “experience” as we know it. Secondly, there are relations among things. This covers the sensations we have in perceiving a thing: we stand in relation to it as we conceive its location, colour, potential behaviour, economic value, etc. Thirdly, there are events. Our sensations are dynamic, giving rise to the sense of continuity and the possibility of change. Each of these three limiting “Ideas”, as Jeremy calls them, reveals a transcendental, as shown in the diagram below.  We’re playing thought experiments again: can you imagine a situation or state of affairs without conceiving of things, relations and events?

Ive's triangle

So the three transcendentals of particularity, relationality and time are supposed to lie behind our basic ideas of people/things, relations and events. The diagram also indicates three “descriptive views” (blue circles) in which we can begin to analyse reality. Lived experience comes to us in a rich, dynamic flow of consciousness, but undisturbed reflection allows us to focus, abstract and attempt to describe the world. The structural, life-history and evolutionary perspectives (my terms!) probably come up in most academic disciplines, for example, although there will often be a focus on just one or two.

This may appeal to you if you like big, unifying schemes, and believe that philosophy should start from common sense. The epistemology in play here (of which more another time) puts great weight on the phenomena we experience. And that’s where this proposal departs from that large body of the Western philosophical tradition that posits some kind of unfamiliar “substance” (e.g. matter or spacetime) behind the appearances we observe. The “substance” approach is unlikely to be either realistic or fruitful, Christians might suspect, because, originating in non-theistic cultures, the “substance” idea is suspiciously similar to an impersonal notion of what is divine.

Jeremy’s triangular proposal is actually a synthesis inspired by the notion of perichoresis in Trinitarian theology. It’s not meant to be natural theology (drawing inferences about God from nature), or evidence for the Trinity. The main source, in fact, is the 20th-century Dutch philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd. These brothers-in-law are said to have hit on their big idea one day when one (or both?) of them took a walk along the coastal dunes near Amsterdam. But that’s a story (and a diagram) for another time!

You can read more about Jeremy’s work, including his thesis, at www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/ive.htm.

Useful Christian philosophy

What is Christian philosophy? Is it a kind of theology? Is it apologetics, like proofs for the existence of God? A blinkered form of philosophy where the answer has to be “Jesus”? Or could it be a school of thought that envisages philosophy set free to be more fruitful, more useful and more real than ever before?

This Saturday brings a special FiSch event to Leeds with a world-class Christian philosopher. Jeremy Ive has PhDs in theology, history and Christian philosophy, as well as polymathic knowledge of culture – and a profound vision for unifying our understanding of reality in the light of God’s revelation. We hope that Christians with all kinds of academic interests will find this event stimulating and immensely useful for their work.

In the afternoon we will have a workshop looking at how a Christian framework for reality can enrich academic work in all disciplines. In the morning Jeremy will talk about  his involvement in peacemaking initiatives, such as the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. Those who like concrete examples will find the morning particularly interesting, while those of an academic bent are encouraged to come to both sessions.

Jeremy’s most recent scholarly work has focused on resonances between trinitarian theology and reformational philosophy. The latter has been touched on in many previous blog posts here, while the former needs no specific introduction – but Jeremy’s thesis reveals intriguing relationships between the two traditions. Reformational philosophy has been called the “discipline of the disciplines“, which hints at the way that Christian philosophy is intended to be a servant for all areas of scholarship. Meanwhile, the peacemaking work and Jeremy’s collaboration with the Jubilee Centre bear out the practical value of this grand vision.

Jeremy is a philosopher, historian and pastor who shares the oversight of an ecumenical parish in Kent with his wife, Pamela. The parish church of All Saints, Tudeley is noted for its complete set of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

To book tickets for Saturday’s event, go to www.thinkfaith.net/events/philosophy16.

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Lecturing in God’s Kingdom

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

The month to come will be a busy one for universities across the UK. Much attention will doubtless (and deservedly) be focussed on the numerous young people who are preparing to make what is often the most significant journey of their lives to date, leaving their family home and starting new lives as students, sometimes a long way from everything that is familiar to them. They won’t be the only ones facing the new term with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, though. Many lecturers around the country are right now busy getting ready to meet an entirely new group of students, thinking about ways to inspire and challenge them, perhaps even preparing to teach a module or course for the first time. I know, because I’m one of them!

This moment thus seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the value of university teaching specifically within the wider vision of Christian scholarship. What does it mean for us as scholars to ‘teach for Christ’ at a university level? Here’s a few thoughts which have encouraged and challenged me recently:

Teaching is a powerful means of dissemination. Serving Christ in the academic sphere means seeking (like all scholars) a platform to pass on our ideas to others. Publication is an established way of communicating with peers, but it’s far from perfect: it can be slow, narrow in its reach and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding. In teaching, by contrast, ideas can be tested out immediately, with instant feedback and the chance to rectify errors and misunderstandings, and the audience is (often) much more diverse, providing greater opportunities to have influence beyond our own immediate sphere. If our scholarship is rooted in the desire to honour Jesus, this can feed through powerfully into the ideas we communicate in our teaching.

Teaching challenges us to engage with new ideas, in new arenas. It is pleasing to feel like an expert, and research cultures tend to encourage scholars to pursue their own individual fields of expertise, alongside fellow-scholars who are largely sympathetic. Any lecturer, however, will sooner or later be faced with the prospect of teaching a subject they know next-to-nothing about, or communicating with students who are dismissive of or resistant to their course materials. Uncomfortable though these experiences may be, they are important opportunities to test out the value of the truths we affirm – about the value of scholarship to God, and the need to be willing to engage with even hostile audiences as we communicate it – in the crucible of real and challenging experience. In the process, we may see God’s power and Lordship all the more clearly.

Teaching is a chance to demonstrate God’s grace. I am delighted here to link to the best article I’ve ever read about university teaching, by the American mathematician Francis Su. Su presents a vision of teaching whereby students can learn not only information, but also a sense of identity which is built around grace, God’s free gift of acceptance and love. When we communicate to those around us that they are valued regardless of their intellectual standing, we are showing them grace. Su argues that this is evident in lecturing both in the way we approach material (with freedom to experiment, take risks and celebrate the joy of discovery), students (not giving more time or attention to higher-achievers), and even assessments (as judgements on the value of a piece of work, not of the student who produces it). It is a lifelong challenge to pursue this vision of grace in teaching, but I think it provides a powerful chance to witness to the grace shown to us through Jesus.

Is the Duke of Edinburgh a god?

There are people on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific Ocean who worship Prince Philip, the gaffe-prone husband of Queen Elizabeth as a god. The duke once shocked a student during a visit to China by saying: "If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes." Tragically many of the islanders living on Tanna used to worship Jesus but they have exchanged the Prince of Peace for Phil the Greek. Do you think that the Duke of Edinburgh can forgive your sins, grant you eternal life and save you from the perils of hell. It's worth thinking about.

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Report on the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial Conference: Marriage, family and relationships

Marriage, Family & Relationships - title page

Over the summer I attended the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial conference on Marriage, family and relationships. It was fantastic.

I have been to many Tyndale Fellowship conferences before. The Tyndale Fellowship conferences are normally comprised of several separate groups that meet at the same time and venue but never attend each other’s talks (well, unless you dare). These separate groups are subject specific. For example, there’s a New Testament group, a Systematic Theology group, and a Philosophy of Religion group (the one I attend). Every four years, however, we break out of our groups and have a conference of a slightly more interdisciplinary flavour. Our keynote sessions are mixed (we’re all together) and they all focus on a single theme. This year it was ‘Marriage, family and relationships.’

The conference opened with Dr. Onesimus Ngundu providing a fast and furious history of Marriage. His talk entitled ‘Glimpses of Some Interesting Elements of the History of Marriage’ was both thrilling and enlightening. I learnt the etymology of the words ‘honeymoon’ and ‘best man’ (I won’t relieve you of the joy of doing the research yourself). I was challenged over whether or not the utterance ‘who gives this woman to be married to this man?’ was really biblical (my wife and I subsequently disagreed on this point, but not in the way that you may think!).

Part way through the conference I was deeply moved by Dr. Elaine Storkey’s paper ‘Scars Across Humanity.’ In it she presented her research on global violence against women. She covered topics such as child marriage, female infanticide, rape and domestic abuse, among others. Her talk was not a mere documentary, however. She also challenged us to think about the role that Christianity has played in the past and the role it might play in the future. She provided compelling arguments that Christians can and do have the best true story of hope for these women and that this should move us into action.

Finally, after being jolted awake by the Rev. Dr Ian Paul’s suggestion that Jesus is depicted as having female breasts in Revelation and what that (among other things) might mean for our being sexed in heaven, we were given the treat of having two lectures, one after the other, arguing for opposing theses. First, Dr Daniel Hill (one of my supervisors) very persuasively argued that the connection should be cut between marriage and the state. Second, Prof. Julian Rivers argued (equally persuasively) that English law would not fare so well without it. Both talks were exemplary, as was the manner in which they were conducted. Both Prof. Rivers and Dr Hill engaged one another with the utmost charity and care…although Dr Hill’s argument, of course (!), won out.

Overall the conference, as I said, was fantastic. Yes, there were some blunders made because we have highly specific subject-dependent terminology (not everyone knew the difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition!), but those few blunders aside, this interdisciplinary conference was a treat. Our Lord’s creation is multifaceted and we’re to understand it in all its glory, to find new connections between disciplines and explore new avenues of research. This was encouraged by this year’s Quadrennial. I look forward to the next and hope you will join us!

Yin and Yang in 60 Seconds

We've all heard it! We need a bit of yin and a bit of yang. We need harmony between polar opposites. You have to have balance. Good needs evil and evil needs good. Hitler has his place just like Mother Teresa.

According to ancient Chinese philosophy, in the beginning was the Tao, silent, dark and impersonal. But the Tao separated into the two principles, yin and yang, and from the many combinations of yin and yang everything else that is in the world has emerged. Truth be told, the Tao is responsible for wars, famine and terrorists as well as picnics, families and squirrels. The Tao has made it all.

We've all heard it! We need a bit of yin and yang. We desperately need harmony and balance in our world.

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From the observatory to the pulpit

Hawaii

A large percentage of PhD students don’t follow a career in academia … will it all turn out to have been a waste of time?

This is something of a ‘farewell’ post from me, as I’m stepping down from the Faith-in-Scholarship blogging team, in order to concentrate on my studies, as I move to Durham to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

The photo dates from May 2005, and shows me (on the left), in the first year of my PhD, on an observing trip to Hawaii. (What sacrifices we make in the name of science!) I was working on a large project to survey a significant fraction of the sky, and to catalogue many thousands of galaxies. That was followed by a few years of postdoctoral research, also on galaxy surveys, during which I gradually made the transition from astronomy to computer software, until I left astronomy completely in 2013 and started working on non-astronomical software. But during all that time I had a growing desire to pursue church ministry as a possibility, and that has taken shape in the last few years.

How on earth (or in heaven!) can a PhD in astronomy be useful preparation for church ministry? I can think of five things I picked up through being a postgraduate, which I’m sure will be useful in the years to come.

Transferable and ‘soft’ skills. This should be familiar territory, particularly for those working in the sciences, where you often end up working on big collaborative projects. But all PhD students learn a lot about perseverance: how to keep going, for a long period of time, even when you don’t seem to be making any progress. You learn to put a lot of love into your work, in faith and hope that it will bear fruit in due course. This is good training for any vocation you may end up pursuing.

Intellectual virtues. The discipline of writing a thesis inevitably moulds your character in many ways. You grow in fairness, integrity, empathy, and your ability to reason clearly. And you gain a greater sense of humility. The one thing I learned more than anything else during my PhD was how little I knew, and how little I still know!

Astronomical knowledge. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about really, really, really big things. That seems like good preparation for studying theology!

An appreciation of the diversity of human vocations. Doing something arcane and apparently useless forces you to think about why it is worthwhile. Why should Christians do obscure PhDs? Why not do something more obviously worthwhile instead? Having wrestled seriously with that question myself, I hope I will be able to support and encourage all kinds of Christians to pursue their callings and vocations as something worthwhile and God-given.

A wife. I would never have met fellow-blogger Eline had I not done a PhD!

I hope you will also be able to look back on your PhD years with a similar sense of gratitude. But even those years in our lives we may consider to be ‘wasted’ are never wasted in God’s purposes: just think of the years Joseph ‘wasted’ in prison, or the years Moses ‘wasted’ in the wilderness. Or think of how Paul was able to look back even on his many persecutions without regret or bitterness. All the years of our lives, whether good or bad, are heading towards that great day of Christ’s return, when all will be made new, and when all tears will be wiped away.

Studying a life of faith

Anchoress

Anchoress (courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Notice the cat(?)

Alicia SmithYou should not keep any animal except a cat… Anyone who wishes may sleep in leggings… They should not snack between meals.

These are a few of the more specific instructions given in the medieval treatise for religious recluses now known as Ancrene Wisse, ‘A Guide for Anchorites’, which was the focus of my master’s dissertation.

These rules offer a fascinating and often charming insight into a very alien way of life, but my particular focus is on the Guide’s highly detailed instructions on prayer. Anchorites, who enclosed themselves in cells to lead lives of prayer and contemplation, followed the Hours (the prayers offered by monastic orders at seven fixed times daily) and a sprawling structure of other prayers to God and the saints. The Guide instructs them on the proper posture, words, and alignment of heart for this daily work, and their intercession before God is seen as uniquely powerful, a heroic act of devotion and an ‘anchor’ to the Church.

This is the spirituality and way of life which I plan to spend the next three years studying – but if I’m honest, this is also where I get impostor syndrome. More often than not, my academic work on the value of prayer for these medieval people throws my own prayer life into uncomfortable relief. I often struggle to pray at all, let alone commit my whole life to it. I am used to thinking and writing theoretically about the power of prayer, but in practice, I find this difficult to believe, at least to the extent that it becomes a discipline in my life.

This isn’t a practical problem, exactly: plenty of academics study religion without any faith of their own. My writing about medieval anchorites and their connection to the Divine doesn’t need to be matched by a living connection of my own in order to fit into the literary academy’s way of doing things.

And it’s not as if I would want to emulate the exact kind of prayer life which the Guide recommends – I’m a modern, Protestant evangelical living in a world which is almost unimaginably different from the high Middle Ages, so praying to the saints and mortifying the flesh as a means to more effective prayer are not concepts which really register.

But my literary interests aren’t arbitrary. I find anchorites, medieval liturgy, and models of prayer interesting precisely because of my faith, and the mismatch between the spiritual and academic spheres of my life feels more acute because of this basic connection. Maybe you’ve felt the same thing: your faith is supposedly a part of your work, and you know that faith and scholarship can and should be integrated, but this ideal is the exact point at which your own inadequacy is most pressing.

For me, the crucial question is how I can write with integrity about the transcendent, unifying power of prayer in these medieval texts, while being honest about the limitations on all human efforts to pray – especially my own. I often think of the anchorite’s lifestyle as obedience to the Biblical command to ‘pray continually’, and this is perhaps a place to start: even the recluse’s extreme devotion does not involve literally continual prayer, but their life as a whole is seen as an act of intercession and worship.

It’s impossible to know for sure how medieval anchorites themselves felt about their lives, but I imagine they must have felt the gap between the high calling of their life and their own human capabilities, and I hope that they were able to balance this with the mercy of God. This is something that academics need to be able to do too: to resist the combination of perfectionism and fear (which can come from both church culture and academia), knowing that we don’t need to add up our good works to a sufficient whole, but instead receive overflowing grace from the only true Person of integrity. Only this grace allows us to live a life of true worship.

Alicia Smith recently completed her MPhil and is about to begin doctoral studies in English literature at Oxford University, at Queen’s College. She is originally from Leeds.

Sixty Seconds on Jesus and Mr Piggy

Giovanni Brusca is known as 'the Pig' or 'il Porco' for his slovenly appearance and huge craving for Italian posh nosh – Lasagne, Barolo and olive oil. He once admitted to killing at least a hundred people and to top it all, he tortured and murdered an 11-year-old boy. He also detonated the huge bomb that killed anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three police officers in 1992. Mr Piggy is now in prison. What would you say to 'il Porco'?

"Porco – You can't help yourself because you are just a machine programmed to kill and torture. Tough on you fatty because free will is an illusion."

"Mr Piggy – Tragically both you and your victims have bad karmas. Bad luck, my son."

"Porco – All of your wicked deeds have been secretly ordained by God. In fact you are part of the divine. Well done fats!"

"Mr Piggy – Repent, resist the devil and follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This is the gospel of our Lord!"

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