FiSch blog

Universities for the Cultural Mandate

As part of our series on the idea of a Christian university - and in these tense times of academic "industrial action" - I want to share a review of "What are Universities For?" by Stefan Collini (Penguin, 2012). 

The appearance of a Penguin paperback about the purpose of universities indicates considerable public interest in academic scholarship. Indeed this book's second part comprises a series of polemical newspaper pieces produced in response to various initiatives of recent UK governments to modernize the university sector.  But it is in the first half of the book that Stefan Collini's main argument is developed: an argument against the modern obsession with finding economic utility in universities. I find in it important echoes of a biblical view of culture.

In a brief opening survey of the status quo provocatively headed “The global multiversity?”, we find Collini's central theme: the perennial debate between those who ask how universities are practically useful and those who ascribe them intrinsic value. The central thesis then comes in Chapter 3, which engages with John Henry Newman’s classic work The Idea of the University. Collini’s treatment is critical – and not just because he does not share Newman’s religion. He suggests that this work has attained its classic status as a defence of the university against political and economic demands for utility not only by its literary accomplishment but also by its lack of specific content as regards the actual subject matter of university study. This defence shows a breathtaking lack of proportion in suggesting that, as Collini puts it, “three years spent in some particular course of study in one’s late teens” can produce such glorious social and personal fruits as “cultivating the public mind”, “purifying the national taste”, “facilitating the exercise of political power”; and then personal eloquence, perspicacity, force of argument, perfection of judgment, adaptability, empathy, camaraderie, tact, and so on. Collini suggests that such grandeur is typical of those who advocate universities for their own sake, as if hyperbole is in the very nature of their argument! 

I find it fascinating how expansionary spatial metaphors abound here: “enlarging” the mind to avoid “one-sidedness” and take in “wider perspectives” from “fields” within a broad “framework”. It seems as if the university stands as the gateway to exploration of an unlimited conceptual cosmos. Perhaps, indeed, the overweening vision of some advocates actually represents an innate tendency of academic work itself to expand indefinitely, ranging and drifting as one question elicits another. This is partly why the arguments over the usefulness of universities recur in each generation, and governments may sometimes succeed in reigning in academic work to what is more obviously useful. But what strikes me here is the idea that universities should stand as gateways and pointers – however incipiently and inadequately – to an infinite universe of discovery. And this reminds me of the tenor of Genesis 2, where the river running out of Eden leads to vast scope for discovery and civilisation.

Collini’s idea of a university and its raison d’être turns out to be a purist one. Humans have an innate desire for understanding, and universities are an important expression of this – rather as are galleries and museums, each in their own way. Universities “provide a home for attempts to extend and deepen human understanding in ways that are simultaneously disciplined and illimitable”.

While teaching does not at first glance seem central to this vision, Collini actually questions the distinction between teaching and research in a crucial way. He argues that the modern concept of research does not do justice to endeavours in such disciplines as history, literature and classics, especially when divorced from teaching. Scholars in the humanities are always addressing an audience, and in so doing they may cultivate new understanding no matter how naive that audience is, while simultaneously being engaged in education, no matter how learned the audience. Indeed, a reformational philosopher might observe that teaching and research are both forms of innovative formation engaging human freedom and creativity – the formation of students together with the formation of culture. This suggests another characterisation of the university: a community of endless cultural formation.

Universities, then, are a basic cultural institution to be justified by their contribution to human understanding. Clearly the public funding they should be allocated and the ways in which they serve other needs such as the training of professionals remain important questions. But, Collini argues, the university must continue to transcend utilitarian demands from governments, religious institutions and businesses – to name some of the historically most demanding – even while it helps shape each society’s understandings of religion, politics, economics, science, engineering and whatever other aspects of reality may be uncovered. In a reformational Christian perspective, universities exist as part of humans' response to God's calling to create and build wise understanding of the created order. As each student develops their own understanding, the cumulative heritage of human understanding is developed and displayed in new ways, to the glory of God. This is the sense in which universities are for everyone, and point beyond themselves to Christ the coming king.

Soli Deo Gloria

J.S. Bach often scribbled Soli Deo Gloria at the end of his music: glory to God alone. His humble dedications are beautiful—and striking because of his genius—but they have always left me with niggling questions. We are all called to dedicate our work to the glory of God, but what if we don’t have any glittering keyboard suites on hand? What if all we have to offer just…isn’t great? After all, it doesn’t seem quite the same typing Soli Deo Gloria on an under-baked thesis as it would writing it at the end of a masterly cantata…

It would be lovely to do something brilliantly and be able to make God a ‘big’ offering, but I am aware that pride lurks here. Am I wanting to ‘do God a favour’? To impress him with a splendid gift? I am reminded of David’s offer to build God a temple in 2 Samuel 7: David thought he’d do something great for God, to give him glory and honour. But God’s response was surprising to both David and the prophet Nathan: ‘No.’ God answered, ‘I don’t need your gift. I will do something great for you instead...’

God didn’t need David’s fine architecture—or Bach’s talent at an organ keyboard, for that matter. So why would he need my skill at a computer keyboard? As a Christian, I am called to cast my crown at the feet of Jesus (Revelation 4:10), but when I do so, I shouldn’t be worried about how much it weighs. That would be the very opposite of humility!

Christ has accomplished all, and I can add nothing. Wonderfully, he has freed me from having to build my own portfolio of excellence, because that isn’t where my identity was in the first place. God wants my all and my best: but miraculously, he needs nothing else…not even a fugue or an extraordinary dissertation.

Humanly, I find Bach’s humble dedications remarkable because I consider him to be great; they would be pleasing to God, however, only because Bach didn’t consider himself to be great. Bach’s relationship with God was never dependent on his performance—moral or musical. As with the widow giving her two pennies (Mark 12:41-4), it was not the size of his gift that mattered, but the humility with which it was tendered.

There is freedom here. Soli Deo Gloria.


Georgina Prineppi is a doctoral student at Oxford studying popular music in Britain. Her previous post is here

Review: Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy

This review is reprinted with permission (and some additional material) from The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (issue 30, Spring 2018). See other selected articles and more information about the journal and Group here:

Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy (Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Singapore, 2017) 

This short book aims to encourage and equip Christians in a variety of academic fields - in particular undergraduate students, but there will be interest here too for those further on in their own disciplines, as well as accessible introductions to the issues relevant to other fields. An introduction by Vinoth Ramachandra, the IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement, is followed by ten chapters, each contributed by a Christian academic or professional and reflecting on their experiences of and framework for living and thinking as a Christian in their field. These range from Denis Alexander on biology, to Priyan Dias on engineering, to Grace Koh on social work.

The rest of this review concentrates on the chapter most relevant to my own field, but of the other chapters I particularly enjoyed Wee-Liang Tan on business - hearing how a Christian thoughtfully and prayerfully navigates an environment very unfamiliar to me was challenging and interesting. Joy L. K. Pachuau's chapter on history was also stimulating and an excellent introduction to the challenges and opportunities available to Christians who study the past.

Maithrie White contributes Chapter Eight, 'Faith and Literature: A Journey'. Like several of the contributors, she reflects on the process by which God formed and guided her into her studies. The journey she describes will be familiar to many Christians who have studied literature: the initial, passionate 'rush of adrenaline' of undergraduate study and the joy of creativity, tempered by challenges such as the darker history of Christianity revealed in postcolonial literature and anxieties about Scriptural interpretation engendered by deconstruction and postmodernism.

'Literature confronted my faith, and turned my world upside down.' White recounts a conversation with a Literature major friend who unashamedly partitioned off these two parts of her life - 'they had nothing in common, she said, so it didn't matter'. Dissatisfied with this neat dismissal, she goes on to describe the struggle and joy of getting to know the Bible's story, of wrestling with the multiple perspectives of literature and theory, and of working towards a personal integration in which 'love of literature was part of my love for God'.

White writes engagingly about the experience of wanting to do full justice to both theological commitments and literary study, and her definition of this endeavour as a 'spiritual discipline' is a helpful one. She mentions several thinkers and writers who have been helpful to her in developing the necessary framework for this discipline - Nicholas Wolterstorff and Carolyn Sharp, among others. While she acknowledges the familiar shortfall between her formation in church and the challenge of academic thinking, she emphasises how the vocational aspect of literary work can and should serve the church. All these aspects of the essay make it a stimulating and challenging read, both for those within the literary academy and those with a non-professional interest, and perhaps especially for undergraduate and early postgraduate students who are beginning to grapple with what it means to integrate faith and understanding in this area.

'My study of literature and encounters with people at university led me to rediscover awe in the mystery of God, who is revealed in Christ.' Literary study is, indeed, uniquely formative of the capacity to appreciate mystery; as White says, while the academy may often be atheistic, literature itself is not, and this useful essay will encourage and inspire those who read it to deepen their understanding both of literary work and of the God whose Word underwrites it.

On IPBES and ecosystem valuing frameworks

Last year a FiSch working group that I led published a paper entitled "Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable", which we hope will be part of a trend towards more transparent approaches to environmental policy. So we were excited when a paper appeared last month that echoes our primary concerns - coming from a much more prestigious organisation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was founded in 2012. It currently has 128 member states, as well as a large number of participating observers (NGOs, conventions, etc), and several thousand individual stakeholders, ranging from scientific experts to representatives of academic and research institutions, local communities and the private sector.

As its web site explains, IPBES' "mission is to strengthen knowledge foundations for better policy through science, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development." This is a welcome aim, even if it bears the hallmarks of being written by committee. As a research ecologist and a Christian concerned about humankind's poor performance in nurturing the whole creation, I'm pleased we now have IPBES. 

I was, however, a little disappointed when I first heard that this initiative, a kind of ecological version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was enshrining the term "ecosystem services" in its name. It was uneasiness with the notion of ecosystems delivering services to humans that led to our FiSWES project, which has as its crowning achievement so far the publication of an article critiquing the ecosystem services framework and outlining an approach to assessing how a full range of stakeholders may appreciate particular natural places. In that article we argued that "ecosystem services" is not well defined - so liable to misunderstanding and misuse - and dangerously vague about who is served by ecosystems - so liable to result in further oppression of marginalised people.

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of weeks ago, an article appeared in the journal Science from an IPBES team laying out the initiative's framework for assessing human interactions with the natural environment - and "ecosystem services" was no longer to be used as a term. In its place, this framework will be considering "nature's contributions to people" (NCP). It was as if the IPCC might have declared that "climate change" was no longer a helpful term! More significant, however, is the fact that the IPBES team's reasons for their change of terminology resonate strongly with the perspective of our FiSWES group. All human benefits from natural systems, they point out, are mediated through human culture, and indeed "nature" and "human" need not be taken as distinct categories. The new framework goes on to distinguish a "generalising perspective" from a "context-specific perspective", which appears to be a scientific versus what we might call a pre-theoretical attitude and gives more space for the insights of local belief systems to be incorporated. It also reminds us that particular stakeholders can experience negatively what others perceive as positive "contributions".

I and my colleagues are quietly pleased with what we see as an important move in a wise direction. Are we disappointed that this Science article doesn't cite ours? I confess I am - but perhaps I should rejoice to think that our shared views may have come to the two teams independently.  Do we feel our work has been duplicated? Not at all - we remain, I think, healthily critical of elements of the new IPBES framework and intend to offer enrichment by publishing a comment om it. 

Most importantly for now, I'm pleased to know that the IPBES analyses and advisory work are set to proceed on the basis of a recognition that humans really are part of nature (part of creation, we'd say as Christians), that it's not helpful to construe nature as "serving" us (Psalm 104 gives a wonderful picture of all kinds of creatures serving each other), and that humans are inherently cultural beings, our cultures always shaping how we experience other creatures (even when we simply eat them). On that last point hangs a whole theology, for culture, in a Reformational view, is our invaluable yet imperfect response to God's word in creation, the context of salvation history, and ultimately the inheritance of Jesus Christ.

Seeking the good of the seminar: how to ask questions well

As part of our ongoing series on academic skills, today’s post is about the skill of asking questions well in an academic seminar (or similar setting). For many postgraduate students and researchers, especially in the humanities and social sciences, seminars focused on a particular interest area are the main way we interact with others in our discipline around academic topics.

Conferences are an intensive forum for this kind of interaction, so most of what I look at below is relevant to that setting too. But the context I have most in mind is a regular, institutionally-based meeting of generally the same group of people, gathering to hear one or two speakers and then discuss their ideas.

So is there a distinctively Christian way to participate in this kind of setting? First of all, I want to highlight the way I’ve framed the topic: ‘asking questions well’, rather than ‘asking good questions’. The latter phrase, I think, focuses on the content of the question – which will vary widely between subjects – and can lead us either to pride or anxiety depending on our grasp of our field. Instead, let’s concentrate on how we ask questions: our motivations and practice, which can either build up or tear down speakers and others in the room.

We’ve all had the experience of being in a seminar where someone asks a question badly:

  • The question is too long and/or vague for the speaker to properly engage with
  • The contribution is framed as a question, but is really a comment, leaving the speaker little room to respond other than agreeing or disagreeing
  • They are clearly using the opportunity to speak to demonstrate their own broad(er) knowledge, or pivot to something which isn’t really the topic at hand
  • They disagree aggressively with some point, sometimes with implicit or explicit ad hominem attacks (this is rare in my experience, although this can depend on the culture of a particular discipline or institution).

At their best, the question times in seminars can be really beneficial for the whole group: they open ideas up to multiple perspectives, clarify and expand the material for the audience, and help the speaker refine their argument. But too often they can be the place where the academic ego is on show at its worst.

How can we, as Christians, ask questions well – for the glory of God, and the benefit of our institutions and colleagues?

  1. Listening to and respecting others. We’ve heard before on FiSch about the importance of listening properly to others – and asking questions properly is a complementary skill. To ask a question which opens up something new, you need to pay attention to what the speaker has actually said and what they meant by it.
    This flows out of an understanding that every person is made in the image of God: they are worthy of your respect in engaging honestly with their work, even if you end up disagreeing with them.
  2. Being sensitive to institutional and situational norms. This includes not taking up more than your fair share of time – both in your initial question, and in the case of follow-up questions (no more than one!). It’s also relevant to the comment-in-disguise type of question: generally, comments are more suitable if framed clearly as such, allowing the speaker to respond in the right way and leaving more time for genuine questions which take advantage of their expertise.
    This flows out of the ideal of ‘seeking the good of the city’ (Jeremiah 29:7) in our academic institutions. When we model appropriate and respectful behaviour, we help foster better understanding and better work as well as encouraging and affirming those around us.
  3. Practising humility and unselfishness in our questions. Resist the temptation to ask the question that does little more than spotlight your own expertise or wrench the topic around to your own. This doesn’t mean never making links between your sphere of knowledge and another, but often more specific or personal queries are better made one-to-one.
    This flows out of the New Testament command to ‘think of others more highly than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). Humility is often counter-cultural in today’s academy, but it’s at the centre of our imitation of Christ and our growth in holiness.

These are only a few ideas and basic principles for Christians who want to honour God intentionally in this area of their academic lives. Feel free to add ideas and thoughts in the comments – questions and comments are both welcome!


Review: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Brazos Press, 2016)

From time to time at FiSch we review books that might either help you with the task of integrating your particular work with your faith, or which themselves are the result of that integration. This book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, falls into the second category. Written by Wheaton professor Chris R. Armstrong, it aims to counter the unhelpful assumptions and generalisations often made about medieval Christianity by evangelicals, and to open up some of the riches which this age of the Church can offer today.

As a doctoral student researching medieval religious literature, of course I’m somewhat biased when I say this book is important! Centrally, though, I think the book is a helpful (though not perfect) example of historical work done for the church, in a way which is well-grounded and researched but still accessible to the non-specialist Christian. Armstrong is explicit, even polemical, in his belief that ‘we must derive lessons for today from the study of history’, and he’s convinced that the view of the medieval Church current in modern evangelical circles, as well as being lacking in historical accuracy, is preventing us learning valuable lessons.

The book begins with a methodological chapter which is perhaps its most academic section. Armstrong discusses (from a chiefly US-based perspective) the reasons why the medieval period gets such short shrift from many modern Christians, taking us through a brief history of the developments that led to the impression, rife among evangelicals, that real Christianity essentially slept between the early church and the Reformation (or even until the eighteenth-century revivals). He also diagnoses the problems caused by the widespread ‘immediatism’ of today’s church – its desire for novelty, for simple solutions to present problems, its reliance on the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture, and its emphasis on knowing God without mediation.

The body of the book is dedicated to exploring how aspects of medieval theology and practice can speak productively to these problems, describing key figures and institutions as well as lucidly explaining sometimes alien theological and social concepts. The topics covered are:

  • Respect for and use of tradition
  • Commitment to integrating reason with faith
  • Precision when talking about virtue and vice
  • Valuing the works of mercy
  • Honour for and interest in the physical world
  • Emotional engagement in religion
  • Emphasis on understanding humanness through the Incarnation

I haven’t got space to go into all the interesting and edifying themes included here, from the invention of the hospital to the intense emotional practices of later medieval devotion: the book covers lots of important ideas, and for me Armstrong is largely convincing in his appeal for their rehabilitation, though you can make up your own mind!

The aspect I haven’t mentioned so far is the use Armstrong makes of C. S. Lewis. The second chapter discusses Lewis as one of the author’s heroes, and as a ‘modern medieval man’ who studied and loved medieval philosophy, theology and literature. Throughout the rest of the book, the material on the medieval period itself is intermingled with examples of Lewis’s understanding and uses of it in his writing and thinking.

This is part of Armstrong’s attempt to make his topic accessible and attractive to the average Christian reader, and to some extent it works, bridging the gap to the strangeness of the medieval world with the familiarity of Lewis’s popular theology and fiction. Personally, however, I found it distracting: the description and interpretation of Lewis often falls into uncritical idealisation (so common in evangelical circles), and I usually felt that Armstrong was more engaging and discerning when talking about his medieval subjects than about Lewis. The cynical part of me says that this aspect of the book was mostly intended to get sceptical readers on board with the main topic, but it doesn’t add much to the argument and makes the mistake of taking Lewis’s self-identification as a ‘medieval’ too seriously.

On the whole, however, I would recommend Medieval Wisdom to anyone interested in how the modern church can do its history – explicit and implicit – better. The book concludes with a chapter calling for the cultivation of a more thoroughly incarnational spirituality, countering the gnosticism of modern Western culture with medieval and other resources for integration of the whole person, and perhaps more controversially for the recovery of some kind of monastic ideal for the contemporary church. These are much debated topics today and Armstrong’s book is a readable and thoughtful contribution to that discussion, as well as a good introduction to parts of church history you or your church family may have overlooked.

Knowing as We Are Known: The Transactional Approach to Science (3)

Richard Vytniorgu completes his survey of the transactional approach to science.

In my previous post I explored the dynamics of the transactional view of reality and how this relates to scientific inquiry. In this post, I want to draw out some implications of the transactional view – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey, whereby, to quote the American educator Parker Palmer, we come to know as we are known.

            Palmer’s bestselling book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (1983) begins from the same premise as transactional philosophy. It critiques objectivist epistemologies by referencing the work of the philosopher Michael Polyani. As Palmer writes, ‘[Polyani] shows that both the individual scientist and the community of scientists are subjectively interested in every discovery of scientific fact’. Put another way, scientists are part of their own dynamic, transactional ecosystem. However, Palmer offers a scathing attack on objectivism because it has a faulty understanding of truth. Objectivism, writes Palmer, ‘begins by assuming a sharp distinction between the knower and the objects to be known. These objects exist “out there,” apart from and independent of the knower. They wait, passive and inert, for us to know them’. Only scientists are the active agents in the paradigm of objectivism: ‘we attempt to observe and dissect the objects by means of empirical measurement and logical analysis’. In short, in the objectivist worldview, truth ‘consists of propositions or reports that conform to the canons of evidence and reason, reports that can be reproduced by other knowers operating by the same rules’. Palmer is right to critique objectivism; he argues that even though philosophers have shifted their views on how knowledge is arrived at (such as the transactional approach), old ways still linger in institutionalised practices. Deeper change happens at a more personal level, where transactional epistemology is given an ethical mandate.

            Instead of objectivism, Palmer seeks to elaborate on his belief that to know in truth is to face transformation: ‘truth is not a statement about reality but a living relationship between ourselves and the world’. Palmer argues that etymologically, truth means to become betrothed to someone or something, and that to be in obedience to the truth means to submit oneself to listening to another, be it another person or one’s ‘subject material’. ‘The deepest calling in our quest for knowledge’, writes Palmer, ‘is not to observe and analyse and alter things. Instead, it is personal participation in the organic community of human and nonhuman being, participation in the network of caring and accountability called truth’. The transactional stance requires a shift in our understanding of how knowers engage with what is known. Whereas objectivism seeks mastery over one’s material, a personalist, transactional approach seeks mutual transformation, a willingness to see oneself in a horizontal relationship with what is known, rather than a vertical one, with the knower standing imperiously over the known.

            A final implication of the transactional approach concerns the nature of disciplines. Objectivism seeks insularity within a walled-in discipline. The transactional paradigm envisages a dynamic, inclusive ecosystem. To remain locked within the confines of one’s discipline is to close oneself to transformation. As Palmer writes, ‘To know a subject too well, and not to venture into others, is to risk becoming closed to fresh insight in favor of familiar facts. But when a teacher [or scientist] is continually exploring alien, unchartered territory, humility and openness to grace are cultivated’. Engaging in ever-new transactions with our environment and with our subjects, we move into spaces where truth emerges as a transformative force for the good. We learn to know as we are known.

A Christian Philosophy for Science

I'm pleased to announce that the Church Scientific project, which began in Leeds in 2016, is beginning a new phase this month with a series of six workshops about Christian philosophy for scientists.  These will improve on the course that was delivered last year - thanks to input from last year's participants and a number of philosophers of science.

Church Scientific is an independent project with links to FiSch via myself, Dr David Hanson and Prof. Andrew Basden, three of this year's tutors; it also owes a great deal to the reformational philosophy tradition espoused by Thinking Faith Network. So I thought it might be helpful and interesting to preview some of the planned content of the Church Scientific curriculum here, and to bring it into dialogue with other readers and contributors of FiSch.  For example, we're currently part-way through a series by Richard Vytniorgu on the transactional perspective on science, which resonates well with the Church Scientific perspective and may well influence that project.  We also have an ongoing series on Christian perspectives on evolutionary biology, an area that was purposely avoided by Church Scientific last year but may be a little more visible this year.  And the new course will also draw upon Christian philosophy in diagrams - probably prompting some additions to that series.

Three key distinctives of Church Scientific were outlined in a post this time last year, but one of them deserves special emphasis here.  We are attempting to build a Christian philosophy of science, for scientists.  In denial of the memorable view that scientists need philosophy of science as much as birds need ornithology, we assume that scientists can benefit from a kind of philosophy that provides a framework for scientific activity.  This kind of philosophy might be seen as "meta-science": an analysis of what the sciences are and how they seem to work. And it's important to seek a Christian philosophy of science, linked to good theology, because if Jesus Christ is lord of the cosmos which is upheld by the word of God's power, then aligning our thinking with His wisdom should help us better understand its structure and workings.

The validity of this approach will be seen in whether it actually helps any practising scientists with their work.  So - if you know any scientist Christians in Leeds, or you are one yourself, here's an opportunity to be part of this investigation (see the web site for details).  The course overview is as follows:

  1. Workshop 1: Christian Faith, Worldview and Philosophy of Science: What is science and why pursue it?
  2. Workshop 2: Introduction to Aspectual Relations (an Ontology): What is there to know? How can we understand the complete dependence of the created order on God?

  3. Workshop 3: Theorising and its Limits: “Theory” originally means “seeing” - but what can we hope to see without a God's-eye view? What's wrong with reductionism?

  4. Workshop 4: Scientific epistemology and methods: What is scientific knowledge? What approach will align us with Lady Wisdom rather than the rebellion of Eden?

  5. Workshop 5: Norms and Ethics So what is good science? After all, only God is good...

  6. Workshop 6: Communicating christianly: How can we talk about scientific work and scientific beliefs in ways that promote harmony, mutual understanding and fellowship?

We'd welcome comments, connections and ideas about this plan. Further detail is available upon request! 

A Dynamic Ecosystem: The Transactional Approach to Science (2)

Richard Vytniorgu continues his series on the transactional view of scientific development. 

In my first post exploring the transactional approach to science, I explained how twentieth-century transactional philosophy developed out of dissatisfaction with a Newtonian understanding of human existence and inquiry. Human beings don’t stand apart from their environment or their inquiry; humans shape and are shaped by their activity in the world. In this post, however, I explore the transactional approach in more detail, particularly in relation to language.

            In 1949 the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley created a new epistemology which complemented developments in Einsteinian subatomic physics. As the literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt wrote in her 1994 essay The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing, "Even the physicists’ facts depend to some extent on the interests, hypotheses, and technologies of the observer. The human organism, it became apparent, is ultimately the mediator in any perception of the world or any sense of 'reality'”. In Knowing and the Known, Dewey and Bentley used the term ‘transaction’ to “imply unfractured observation of the whole situation”, meaning that the scientist’s inquiry must be seen in a broader context.

            Such a broad context is filtered all the way down to the nature of experience itself. The pragmatist philosopher William James is perhaps best known among some for coining the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ to denote a new perception of the mental activity of individuals. Modernist novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously perfected the stream-of-consciousness method in works of the 1920s such as Ulysses and To the Lighthouse. But James also developed a theory of ‘selective attention’ which, to quote Rosenblatt, denotes the way individuals are ‘constantly selecting out of the stream, or field, of consciousness’ – a phenomenon which thinkers sometimes refer to as the ‘cocktail party phenomenon’. Selective attention means that human beings are active in having an experience, at the subliminal level in the case of the mundane, and in big experiences, at a more conscious level. The transactional paradigm posits experience as something dynamic rather than fixed. Paintings such as Édouard Vuillard’s series, L’Album (1895), capture the transactional view of reality very well. In these images women peer over an album and arrange flowers, but the figures deliberately flow into one another; the activity of reading is seen as part of a ‘total situation’. There are few sharp lines. Instead, the curves create a journey for the eye, a dynamic to-and-fro between different individuals and activities happening simultaneously. The stretched nature of these paintings, moreover, adds emphasis to the panoramic effect.

            Rosenblatt applied the transactional view of reality to English education because she sought to emphasise the ways in which reading is an active process. Texts require individuals to transact with textual symbols in order to create meaning, either in an aesthetic way, by paying more attention to the private, sensuous, and affective aspects of words, or in an ‘efferent’ way, by seeking to extract information from a text which can be verified publicly. Any text can be read aesthetically or efferently, with most readings happening around the middle of the continuum.

            The transactional theory of reading takes a broad epistemological paradigm shift and applies it to one sort of inquiry. In science, the transactional approach envisages a dynamic ecosystem, whereby scientists and their ‘material’ are part of a generative process of continuous transactions, each taking into account previous ones in order to move forward.

            Those with Christian sympathies will find the transactional approach especially pertinent. Not only does it seek to describe human experience and the process of inquiry, but it also seeks to alter it. In the final post I shall talk about the relationship between the knower and the known – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey. 

Christmas reflection: Waiting for Joy

This is an adapted and abridged version of a sermon I gave at evensong in the chapel of Hertford College, last February on the feast of Candlemas.

‘Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. […]

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years… She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.’ (Luke 2)

Christmas is almost upon us – but today let’s skip ahead a little in the narrative we retell at this time every year. After Jesus was born, Luke tells us, his parents took him to Jerusalem to be presented at the Temple: the equivalent, perhaps, of a christening or a dedication, the important but routine introduction of a child into the religious customs of his community.

This might have been a fairly unremarkable event, but in God’s perfect dramatic timing, we are given a beautiful, strange, startling account of joy: not just the happiness of new parents or a special family event, but the joy of two people, Simeon and Anna, who have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting – and realise that what they have been waiting for is finally here.

Hope deferred

Anna is in her early eighties, and Simeon also seems to be nearing the end of his life. They are expecting the arrival of the Messiah – the ‘consolation of Israel’, the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ – and have been doing so for some time. Anna has been praying and fasting for most of her life, a way of life which implies expectation. Simeon has received a promise from God which he is waiting to see fulfilled, but time seems to be running out.

Their hopes must have seemed hollow at times. The Jewish people had been promised God’s consolation hundreds of years before, but were under an oppressive empire with no prospects of getting out. Simeon and Anna must have felt disappointment, impatience, even doubt over the years, when they saw no sign of what they were longing for.

This is what we have to keep in mind when we see Simeon taking the child in his arms, and breaking out into poetry; when we see Anna rushing off to tell others, praising the God she had waited on all her life. This is the very heart of what it means that Jesus was born on earth: a ‘turn’ from disappointment and expectations long unmet, to contagious joy and unexpected blessing.

No tale ever told

One of the writers who best captured this kind of gracious turn was J.R.R. Tolkien – medievalist, Catholic, and founder of the modern fantasy genre. His idea of eucatastrophe, in particular, informed all his work and his sense of its integration with his faith.

Tolkien coined this word to try and describe the quality of the best kind of happy ending:

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending… the sudden joyous 'turn'… a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; [but] it denies… universal final defeat… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Tolkien believed that the stories he loved, and the literary work he was called to, were not just good in themselves, but pointed to a greater longing, and a more magnificent happy ending. He goes on:

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving… and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe… The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.

'Behold, I am doing a new thing!'

When Simeon and Anna recognise the baby Jesus, we see him through their eyes, as the fulfilment of hopes long deferred - a turn from the relentlessly grim repetitions of history to something new.

This is a consolation which is not just temporary soothing, but a promise of ultimate healing: tender words to us from a God at work for our good. It never pretends that pain isn’t real and hardship won’t come. Simeon prophesies about Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion even as he praises God for the Incarnation.

But Anna and Simeon, two people at the end of their lives, recognised that the story they were part of was just beginning. They caught the first glimpse of a narrative arc whose end would be Joy beyond the walls of the world. How do our lives, this Christmastime, fit into this story? How can our work call us forward into joy?

For further reflection, read Walter Chalmers Smith’s hymn ‘Earth was waiting, spent and restless’, and T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘A Song for Simeon’.