Thinking Faith blogs

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!"

Two kingdoms?

The True Contrast

Last week, I summarised the first part of the first talk Andrew Fellows gave at the Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference in June. We saw that our calling as Christian scholars is rooted in the creation mandate and the mission mandate. But how are the two mandates related?

Richard Niebuhr, in his influential book Christ and culture, lists a number of ways in which the two mandates can be related to each other:

Christ against culture: Christians can separate themselves from the surrounding culture and create a ghetto, a new Christian culture that has nothing in common with the dominant culture. The drawback of this is that it impoverishes the Christian mind.

Christ of culture: trying to be relevant, to fit in. This results in the loss of distinctiveness of the Christian mind.

Christ above culture: culture is seen as valuable only as far as it engages with the ‘supernatural’. This entails a devaluation of other cultural expressions.

Christ and culture: this idea is currently experiencing something of a revival in the ‘two kingdoms’ idea: that God has an earthly kingdom of law as well as a heavenly kingdom of grace. This leads to dualism.

Christ transforms culture: all of life can be spiritual, because grace touches all of creation. Christ’s work as Redeemer is related to His work as Creator, and this is seen in the transformation that occurs when redemption touches our life: we see a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that academic work also can be spiritual. As Christian scholars, therefore, we are committed to be transformers of culture, and especially transformers of thought patterns (Rom. 12:1-2).

Thanks to Brian Watts at the King’s Community Church

The evangelical church is still often committed to model 4, also known as the ‘secular vs. sacred’ model. However, this is not the crucial antithesis, indeed it is not an antithesis at all!  So how does the kingdom of God relate to cultural institutions?  There is an absolute antithesis between the kingdom of light and heaven and the kingdom of darkness and this world: you can only belong to one of these kingdoms. These kingdoms are not geographical, not reducible to a social entity or institution. They are invisible realities that seize the core of an individual’s personality: our heart. The diagram here is based on one in Al Wolters’ classic book Creation Regained.

The Kingdom in Church and Academy

God makes the invisible reality of the kingdom of God visible through incarnation. He did this first and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ, but He continues to do this in the local church. The church is an institution with its own authority, and has the function of promoting the values and truths of the invisible kingdom. Furthermore, incarnation happens where ’two or three are gathered in His name’ (Matt. 18:20). The kingdom can work itself out in many other social entities, movements, structures and networks whose specific aims are kingdom purposes, with an ultimate commitment to the kingdom of Christ. These have real integrity to exist alongside the local church. Their commitment can be worked out in multiple and multifaceted ways. As Christian academics, we manifest Christ’s rule in the academy. In an increasingly secular society, we need to be creative in gathering in communities where two or three gather in His name. Why not seek out other Christian postgrads in your university to meet up with, to further the purposes of His kingdom in your university, in your subject area?

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Two mandates

From 17-19 June, this year’s Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference took place in the usual, beautiful location of Ilam, Derbyshire. One of the main speakers was Andrew Fellows, the Director of Christian Heritage in Cambridge, who also spent many years working for L’Abri UK in Hampshire. During the conference, he gave two talks, which I will summarise here over the next few weeks (any misunderstandings of Andrew’s message are obviously my fault). We hope you will be blessed as you read them!

During the lifetime of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Roman Empire was in decline, and Rome fell to the ‘barbarian’ Visigoths in 410 (Augustine wrote a thick volume, The city of God against the Pagans, to help his fellow Christians to come to terms with this). During our own time, we can see a similar trend at work. Europe is at an ‘Augustinian moment’, so to speak. Our culture has abandoned the Judaeo-Christian worldview and its values, and it is a legitimate question whether Europe can survive this loss. The question posed in Psalm 11:3, ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ is very relevant for today.

One of the things we as Christian scholars can do, is to be ‘doorkeepers of civilisation’, by thinking great thoughts: high-level thoughts that are firmly rooted in our Christian worldview and values. The church should recognise the importance of this, and encourage and support her intellectuals and scholars. This calling, to provide a solid foundation for Christian living, is rooted in the two mandates that God’s people are given in the Bible.

The two mandates are the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15) and the mission mandate (Matt. 28:19-20, Mk 16:15). They are really two sides of the same coin: both are commands that show us the purpose of our life with an imperative behind them. At the same time, all humans function on two stages: the stage of nature, carried along by natural laws, and the stage of culture, the realm of the inner life, the mind, the will and intentionality.

In the cultural mandate, we are commanded to have dominion, to add dimensions to creation, to ‘open up’ creation using our culture-making abilities under Christ’s lordship. This is part of the glory of human beings, and one of the ways in which we image God and His creativity. In the mission mandate, we are commanded to go to the ends of the earth to bring people under Christ’s lordship.

To reach the fulfilment of the mission mandate, it must be linked to the cultural mandate: we are not saved out of creation, but we are restored to live out the cultural mandate. One of the main weaknesses of the contemporary church is that it often fails to link the two mandates in a fruitful way. As a result, the Biblical view of vocation is compromised. Every believer shares the same calling: we are called by God, to God and for God with all of our life (Rom. 11:36). Every secondary calling (to be say, a pastor, a scholar, a plumber or a stay-at-home-mum) under this is sanctified by the first calling, with no hierarchy of callings. Creation and redemption are not in opposition to each other. Instead, redemption restores us to be the servants and developers of creation that we were made to be. In the academic calling, the cultural mandate is highly concentrated, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that Christian scholars use their God-given gifts to bring restoration to this part of creation and culture, but we must also keep the mission mandate in view.

Next week, we will continue with the second part of the talk, which asks the question of how the two mandates are related to each other.

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Simeon Stylites in 60 seconds!

Simeon Stylites was a laugh a minute. He lived 37 years on a sixty foot pillar 1400 years ago! He wanted to be spiritual and get closer to God! Unfortunately the hermit had misunderstood the message of the Bible! He believed that the earth and the body were evil and to be shunned. One day a fly landed on one of his pus-filled wounds caused by the inclement weather. He spoke to the fly thus: "Eat what God has given you." He inspired thousands of people to follow his 'pillar' lifestyle. There are four ways of looking at this story.

1) Simeon! Come down from your pillar and have a beer!
2) Simeon! I so admire your authentic faith…..
3) Simeon! Too easy mate. Why not find a taller pillar and suffer a bit more?
4) Simeon! Your body is a gift from God. You are living in the wrong story. Read the book of Ephesians and find out about God’s grace.

Why FiSch? (4) For the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of GodRight now postgrads are working particularly hard. In the UK, masters students have about a month left to submit dissertations, and many PhD students will be working to submit 2nd-year reports, trying to complete before funding runs out, or facing that final deadline. But the urgent can be the enemy of the important. Even if you have a deadline looming, read on… the Kingdom of God needs you!

When Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,”[1] he reinforced an important biblical notion for thinking about what we should do with our lives. Throughout the Bible God is represented as a sovereign ruler, and Jesus appears as a king qualified, by his unique life, death and resurrection, to rule the whole world in the age to come. A number of Jesus’ parables portray the Son of Man as a king or an employer who will hold his servants to account for their work [2]. Surely, then, it would be foolish for us to pursue our education and careers without realising that we are subjects of the world’s true King?

It seems to me, however, that this is what we typically do. Those of privileged to study at university are likely to have chosen a subject that interested us and/or was likely to give good job prospects. If we’re now pursuing more academic work, is this because we realised that we could best serve our King in this way? I hope it is, but we’ve no doubt encountered fellow-believers who struggle to appreciate this possibility. That’s because a prevalent view of how the work of believers and of non-believers stands in God’s eyes is often like that illustrated in diagram (1). In scholarship, as well as in education, business, finance, arts, media, government and so on, we easily accept the secularist dogma that religion is an inherently private matter that can only bring disruption in the public square. In religiously-neutral areas, believer and unbeliever will work in the same way, achieving the same results. Any notion of a Christian work ethic is essentially the same as what most unbelievers advocate: honesty, duty, respect and the like.

Serious young Christians are therefore encouraged to enter an area of work where everyone agrees that believers are uniquely qualified: the mission of the Church. Diagram (2) represents Christians’ prowess in such areas as evangelism, biblical studies, musical worship, youth ministry and apologetics. Theology and counselling might be more contested by the non-Christian, but they are widely taught in Bible colleges and seminaries in response to demand.

In fact, this dichotomy also reflects two streams of Christian thought. If you put every area of work – including biblical interpretation and theology – into scheme (1), you may be “liberal”. If you put every area of work – including scientific theorising and government – into scheme (2), you’ll probably be labelled “fundamentalist” sooner or later. So the easiest way to eschew these extremes is to follow a division of work like that outlined above: just be a dualist!

Is there another way? At FiSch we believe there is. Diagram (3) is meant to apply to every field of human endeavour – none of which is neutral. It represents the possibility that people who are entering the Kingdom of God – and Jesus’ parables make clear that we can’t be sure who they are – may please the King by all kinds of work done in His service. It recognises that not only today’s non-believers but even those who may never enter God’s rest can do work that honours and pleases the King (remember what God says of Cyrus[3]?). How much more should we who believe work and pray that our reasoningour theorisingour critiques and our creativity be inspired by the Spirit of the God who might one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? [4]

[1] Matthew 6:33.   [2] e.g. Matthew 18:23ff, 20:1ff, 25:14ff, 25:31ff.  [3] Isaiah 44:28.  [4] Matthew 25:21.

Dr Nott and the Queen

Pete Gillions told me this delightful story about Dr Nott meeting the Queeen.

For more than two decades, Dr Nott – a consultant surgeon at three major hospitals in London and a Christian – has given up several months every year to volunteer to serve in war zones amid major humanitarian crises.

He recalled meeting the Queen at a private lunch at Buckingham Palace in October 2014 a few days after returning from Alleppo in Syria. He was sat next to the Queen and she asked him about his work there. And he was so affected by what he had seen that he could not speak. He said: "I had been coping in Syria with children that were really badly damaged and she must have detected something significant.

"I didn't know what to say. It wasn't that I didn't want to speak to her – I just couldn't. I just could not say anything.

"She picked all this up and said, 'Well, shall I help you?' I thought, 'How on earth can the Queen help me?'

"All of a sudden the courtiers brought the corgis and the corgis went underneath the table."

Dr Nott said the Queen then opened a tin of biscuits and invited him to feed and stroke the dogs with her.

He added: "And so for 20 minutes during this lunch the Queen and I fed the dogs. She did it because she knew that I was so seriously traumatised. You know the humanity of what she was doing was unbelievable." The Queen broke dog biscuits to share, and in doing so she shared a loving acceptance of his brokenness.

Whole-life worship

I grew up in a Protestant church on the Continent, where we sang from the Genevan psalter (in a translation). The psalms cover a wide range of human emotions and situations, from the deepest depths to the highest heights. Of course some of the most jubilant psalms overflow with the praise of God (e.g. Ps. 150). But it is striking to see how even some of the darkest psalms tend to encourage the singer to put his trust in God, who protects us and is worthy of praise (e.g. Ps. 13, 42). The final chapter of Antony Billington and Mark Greene’s book ‘The whole of life for Christ’ focuses on praising God.

What kinds of things do you praise God for? Often we tend to praise God for the big events in our life: a friend becomes a Christian, or we get that grant that we applied for, or we finally submit our thesis. In the Bible, we often see people praising God for big things, but especially in the psalms, we also see God at work in the details of their lives. Take, for example, the ‘creation psalm’, Ps. 104.

It lists many things God does in nature, and how He takes care of us and all other living creatures. Or take Ps. 139, which lyrically describes the intimate involvement God has with our every move. Or, in the words of Jesus, ‘Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:30).

This series on ‘the whole of life for Christ’ started with a study on Col. 1:15-23, which covers the sweeping scope of God’s reconciliation of all of creation through Christ. In the psalms we discover that this grand scale of salvation is worked out in the lives of individuals. And in Rev. 4 and 5 we see several ‘psalms’ that bring the praise of all of creation to God in one great act of worship. How do you see God at work in your daily life? Do you praise him for the little things as well as the big things? For that experiment that worked this time? For the sunlight through the window? For that conference presentation that you were able to give? For the beauty of your object of study? And if you’re struggling at the moment, why not turn to one of the ‘darker’ psalms? Or join in with Habakkuk, who, in the face of terrible judgment and the threat of war and destruction prayed ‘…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.’

If you have found this series helpful as you live all of your life for Christ, why not meet up with a few other Christian postgrads and go through the studies in the book?

Whole-life hope

It’s easy to be gloomy as an aspiring academic. Will I ever finish my thesis? Will I ever get a lectureship? And even if I do, will I end up spending my entire life chasing arbitrary citation statistics and student satisfaction ratings? Will my research and teaching make a real difference? Do I have anything to look forward to?

‘We all need hope,’ say Antony Billington and Mark Greene in The Whole of Life for Christ. ‘Jesus did. After all, it wasn’t just his love for the world that helped him through his terrible sufferings on our behalf; it was because of “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). The hope of his glorious future helped him through his earthly agony’ (p. 49).

How can a biblical hope help us through the periods of academic agony?

The passage chosen for this study is 2 Peter 3:3-14. The ‘scoffers’ saw no reason to be optimistic about the future: ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ (v. 4).

What then is the antidote to this cynicism? Surprisingly, the answer is to think about God’s judgment, which ‘will bring both destruction (3:7, 10, 12) and renewal (3:13)’ (p. 51). This gives us something to look forward to, even when we think about our lives here on earth:

For what’s described is not the end of the earth itself, but the earth in its current state. Our hope is not for the annihilation of the world, but for a remade world, as God’s created order is renewed through the fire of purifying judgment. The parallel to the flood confirms this. Just as the destructive power of the flood did not completely obliterate the world, so the fire of judgment will cleanse the earth for a new beginning – ‘a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’ (3:13, p. 79).

What difference does this make for academics? I suppose that all areas of academia, in their different ways, are seeking to make the world a better place: more like the promised ‘new earth, where righteousness dwells’. Is this worth the effort, in the light of the coming judgment? Billington and Greene address the question of creation care:

If a new, better earth is coming, is there any need to take care of the current one? The argument is sometimes made that environmental action is unnecessary and possibly even a distraction from more important matters. In fact, however, if God’s plan is to renew the world, then our own efforts to preserve, recycle and live simply are in line with his designs (p. 80).

Could the same be said about your academic discipline? How do your research and teaching fit in with God’s plan to renew the world? Does this give you hope that it might be worth the effort after all?

Mafia Hitmen at Emmanuel College

I was very pleased with how the RealityBites sixth form conference went down yesterday at Emmanuel College in Gateshead. There were about 150 students from two schools present and for the first time I presented two RealityBites talks. I spoke about Celebrity Culture, Human Trafficking and Responsible Citizenship before lunch and then I delivered the Mafia, British Values and Evil talk after lunch.

I was delighted that my stories about Jimmy 'the weasel' Fratianno, Giovanni 'the pig' Brusca, Toto 'the beast' Riina and Frank Sinatra captivated their imaginations. They were paying close attention when I challenged them to tell me how much a Mafia hitman charged for a murder in 2014 (£17,500). It was even better when they listened very attentively to my outline of five ways of looking at evil and suffering:

1) Evil is caused by bad karma
2) Evil is an illusion because nothing exists
3) Evil doesn't exist because everything is just physical
4) Evil has to exist because it comes from God
5) Evil is caused by human and angelic rebellion against God

In my talk I mentioned Glenn Hoddle, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Richard Dawkins, Plotinus and CS Lewis. The questions they asked were fabulous and showed clearly how closely they had been listening.

I was particularly chuffed when one girl asked me how I understood evil. I was able to say quite a lot about the New Testament and Jesus. I even mentioned the devil and how this relates to bombers, terrorists and Mafia hitmen.

Thanks to everyone who prayed for me yesterday!

Christian life with a PhD: real knowledge?

“A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, ” goes the saying [1], “until he knows everything about nothing.”  There were times during my PhD studies when I took heart from the first part of that quip, and times when the second half seemed all too realistic.  Nine years on (I submitted on 6 July), I’m reflecting on what doors the PhD has opened to me, and I hope my reflections will be helpful to readers seeking God’s guidance for their career.  I’ll first consider how a scholarly career can be justified, then give some examples of scholarly and non-scholarly work in my own case.

Defending the scholarly life

The ambiguity of the above quip, which is also said of academics in general, resonates with the ups and downs of my PhD.  Was my real-world knowledge increasing during those months of ecological experimentation, or was it merely ‘academic’ (in the popular derogatory sense)?  Generally I sensed growing knowledge when in the company of fellow students and academics, and the fear of insignificance when I socialised elsewhere.  “Get a real job, where you can submit your invoice at the end of a good day’s work,” advised one relative!  I do think it’s a healthy concern that our studies might be so abstract as to be of little earthly value.  After all, even the most fastidious of scholars can only research a fragment of what God has made, and in theoretical terms invented by humans.  And I don’t think the offer of a grant or salary makes the job in question worthwhile in God’s eyes.

But I do think there’s a broad range of Christian arguments for work in all kinds of disciplines.  CS Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time” eloquently offers a number of robust justifications for scholarly study.  To these I would add, for the believer, the possibility of nudging one’s discipline into more fruitful directions and of being able to teach future generations of students in ways that honour the Creator.  But to be more specific, let me turn to my own story.

The Christian scholar in God’s Kingdom

In the final year of my PhD I asked an older trusted friend with similar background what path he’d advise me to follow and he said, “Go and work overseas.”  He urged me to experience a different culture so that my worldview might be challenged and my outlook broadened.  A year’s post-doctoral work in a South African university did this for me in some ways, and a year in a research institute in France did it in others.  But I’d actually begun each of these posts before the previous one had finished, so upon returning to England, I delayed job-hunting while writing up a couple of papers – and now (after one longer post-doc) I’m in a similar position again.  This mix of academic contracts and ‘freelancing’ has proven productive, if not as lucrative as a regular academic path might have been.  The main opportunity it gave me was to work for two Christian charities.  Futurekraft is a consultancy serving community-focused charities, where my data-handling expertise has enabled me to oversee community surveys and help develop and raise funds for social projects with local churches.  And Thinking Faith Network is the charity which launched FiSch, where I’ve recently found opportunities to research the ethics and philosophy of ecology with a more explicit Christian orientation.  Now I’m looking for lecturing positions that may allow me to continue pursuing some of these ideas.  I feel I’ve been working for God more than for any employer.

GraphTo the mathematician in me, there’s an assumption of eternity in the quip with which I began.  I see ‘depth of knowledge’ increasing continuously while ‘breadth of knowledge’ decays exponentially – so the latter tends to zero only as time tends to infinity…  But in case I’m taking the joke too seriously, I’ll end with a biblical expression of hope concerning communal knowing.  In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul concludes his exhortation for love to be worked out in practice with his vision that, in the end, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  And there’s no reason to qualify this as ‘spiritual’ knowing – but that’s a topic for another time.

__________

[1] An Internet search suggests multiple sources for this quote, but one that sounds authoritative is William J Mayo. The Yale Book of Quotations attributes to Mayo, via Reader’s Digest (Nov 1927): “A specialist is a man who knows more and more about less and less.”

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