FiSch blog

People who are free

I've spent much of the last two weeks at academic conferences. Now, while I take a few days off to recover (!), I'm reflecting on some of the challenges of the scholarly environment that can be exposed with particular clarity at this kind of event. 

I should say up front that in general I really enjoy conferences, and the two I've just attended were no exception - one was relatively small, for specialists in my particular research area, and the other was a huge medievalist congress that draws people from all over the world. At both I met old friends and made new acquaintances, heard eye-opening research papers, spoke to leaders in my field, and presented my own work to engaged audiences. I'm worn out, but I had a great time.

Various observations and discussions, though, had me thinking back to something I heard a few months ago from Sarah Williams, who spoke at the Humanities stream of the Developing a Christian Mind event. She said in her talk then that institutions, funding, and all the rest are useless without 'people who are free'. All too often, academics - especially young or early career scholars - can feel anything but free.

This can come out in the formal context of the panel, where the presence of a forbidding name in the seat next to you or in the audience can have you hedging and downplaying your work, or even overstating it in compensation. It might be the subtle jockeying over institutional class or seriousness of scholarship that comes up in question time. For many of us it's the mix of fear, embarrassment, resentment, and competition that bubbles below the surface during any conversation about the academic job market.

It can be easy to feel trapped by expectations - whether your peers', your supervisor's, or your own. And people who are trapped rarely think, or act, well.

Christians, however, are called to freedom. 'Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.' This instruction gets to the heart of the gospel freedom that comes through Christ: not total independence, but living in the service of God. Knowing that he is our highest authority, and the reason we do our work, can free us from the urge to prove ourselves, and to do so by stepping on others along the way. It can shore us up against the anxiety which, in the precarious academic world, seems to consume the lives of so many: if I have served God, then the details of my career are in his hands.

Reflect on how you interact with others in academic settings. What difference would it make to remember that Christ has set you free?

For an alternative perspective on this topic, see the latest Cambridge Paper by Tom Simpson.

Knowing truth: statistics and faith

Andi Wang considers how academic modes of thinking interact with knowing through faith.

I have always loved solving problems. Even as a four-year-old child in primary school, apparently my teacher once remarked to my parents that I was a “deep thinker”. Throughout my schooling I was naturally drawn to mathematics, and found deep satisfaction in solving problems carefully and systematically. As an undergraduate I pursued a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, and specialised in probability and statistics. Today, I am a PhD student in the Department of Statistics in the University of Oxford where I (try to) rigorously prove useful mathematical properties of statistical algorithms.

Growing up I also had the privilege of being raised in a largely Christian home and as such have considered myself a Christian for a long time. As I matured and began to seriously consider the beliefs I dogmatically accepted as a child, my default mode was to use my analytical and unashamedly logical mind to think things through “objectively”. At that time I stumbled across the field of Christian apologetics, and found satisfactory reasons justifying Christian faith, although the reasons I (continue to) follow Christ presently are very different from those I would have given then.

And today, as a theologically-interested lay-Christian, I continue to find great intellectual satisfaction in pondering and discussing the big questions of faith. What does it mean to “believe” in something? How did those in ages past see themselves in relation to God? What does it mean for the Bible to be “true” today?

Such problems are undoubtedly important and relevant for the church today. They are particularly appealing to me as interesting problems to ‘solve’ or as phenomena to ‘explain’. However, as a result I often find myself falling into the trap of an overly intellectualised mindset with relation to my faith. The temptation that creeps in is to see elements of my faith as primarily intellectual or conceptual — as if being a Christian could be reduced to merely understanding and assenting to a set of ideas. This reductionism forgets entirely that ultimately, belief and faith are manifested in actions and deeds, not ideas. The epistle of James bluntly reminds us that faith without works is dead.

Jesus himself in John’s gospel tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life. If we take this seriously this means that truth, fundamentally, is not abstract and propositional, as if all truth could be reduced to precise mathematical theorems with accompanying proofs. Fundamentally, truth is embodied and relational. After all, if you claim to “know” or “believe” something, but it doesn’t change the way you live, do you really know it?

For instance, knowing the definition of dyothelitism and the fact that spirit in Hebrew is ruakh is useful for my Christian life inasmuch as it helps me to better live out my calling to be a bearer of the divine image and a redeemed servant of Christ. Christ is far more interested in whether or not I am growing in humility and thankfulness than whether or not I understand the Ancient Near East setting of Old Testament Israel.

In Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov the pious young Alyosha finds himself unable to defend his faith in light of his brilliant brother Ivan’s savage intellectual assault. As the conversation ends Alyosha — meek and humbled, having admitted intellectual defeat — rises and kisses Ivan on the cheek. Perhaps in this touching moment Dostoevsky is also trying to remind us that genuine faith is manifested in action, not ideas.

If you are a person of faith within the academy, then you almost certainly will have a proclivity for ideas and wrestling with difficult problems. As someone who spends most of the day with my head in the highly-abstract, infinite-dimensional mathematical clouds, I certainly need to be reminded from time to time that my faith is not another problem that I need to ‘solve’. Wrestling with difficult elements of faith and thinking things through carefully is clearly necessary, but it is only one facet of becoming more Christlike and growing in wisdom and character. It is certainly not a substitute.

For reflection:

1. How does your discipline train you to think? Does this interact with how your Christian community expects or encourages you to think?
2. Are you sometimes tempted reduce growth in Christlikeness to ‘understanding more’ or solving problems?
3. How can rational engagement with ideas form part of our growth in wisdom and character, rather than overwhelming or invalidating it?

 Andi is a DPhil student in the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, conducting research to the mathematical properties of Monte Carlo algorithms.

Ideas for government policymakers

The FiSWES project began in 2015 by taking a critical look at the ecosystem services framework for nature conservation, and the ideas developed by that small Christian working group are now bearing fruit in a new context. I began a fellowship last year with a group called the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), where I've been developing the ecosystem valuing framework for use in policy evaluation.  My fellowship is about "putting values into evaluation", and I want to tell you how it's going.

CECAN's unwieldy name means "we develop ways to evaluate policies for complex problems". The idea behind this cross-university project is that many government policies address complex situations at the "nexus" of challenges to provide water, energy and food security.  Evaluating the success, or likely success, of such policies is difficult because the challenges are so diverse and interconnected, each having a global context.  Simple evaluation methods that assess a policy's success against different criteria independently will tend to overlook the significance of side-effects and trade-offs, when what is needed is "win-win" approaches that simultaneously improve different aspects of the same situation.

Last week I had the privilege of leading a workshop in London with a group of civil servants in environmental policy appraisal.  Here, along with my colleagues Ian Christie and Adam Hejnowicz, I presented what we're calling a pluralistic evaluation framework.  The basic idea of this is that "goodness" can be refracted into many kinds of value that should be considered during the design and evaluation of any policy. We're talking here about values assigned to things and situations (beauty, efficiency, etc), rather than people's value-orientations (integrity, honour, etc.).  A "good" policy might mean one that is likely to foster innovation, beautify landscapes, grow the rural economy, enhance social justice, or increase levels of volunteering: it could be "good" in many different ways.  So if a policy pledges - as does the Government's 25-Year Environment Plan - "to leave the environment in a better state than we found it", we might ask: what does "better" mean?

Classic consequentialist ethics would try to use a simple metric of goodness to decide which of a number of courses of action should have the best consequences.  If "good" refers to the sum total of human happiness, for example, then although this might be difficult to measure, in principle it provides such a metric.  Some scientist might even propose a scientific definition of happiness, allowing the decision to be made on purely objective grounds!  (This scientist would be captive to an implausible notion of objectivity, but that's another topic.)  But sooner or later someone might point out some ways of increasing the sum total of human happiness that are in other respects deplorable - or that not all humans consider happiness to be their own ultimate good - and the problems of this naive consequentialism would become evident.

A Christian approach should be important here, and I hope that the pluralistic evaluation framework is more consistent with a biblical worldview.  This is because it provides a tool for considering a very wide range of kinds of goodness - wider, indeed, than people normally think of.  The map of meaning proposed by Herman Dooyeweerd and developed in the tradition of Reformational philosophy outlines a sequence of aspects in which all of reality is meaningful, in each of which we might recognise better and worse ways of functioning.  This is the basis of the framework I presented last week, and will be presenting again in York in a few weeks' time.  The bottom line of this framework is that wise judgment is ultimately needed for assessing the overall goodness of a policy, or any other situation.  The classic art of good governance will surely never be superseded by any scientific tool or technique.

Wisdom is of course an important biblical theme as regards governance.  Graeme Goldsworthy* points out that King Solomon's wisdom is portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind that was consonant with the Law of Moses yet beautifully integrative: Solomon knew how to act decisively for good in his kingdom.  Centuries later Jesus, "one greater than Solomon", urged his disciples to "seek first the Kingdom of God", evoking the prophetic vision of a reign of shalom where every kind of goodness would prevail.  Now that would be a worthy vision for policymaking!

___

* Goldsworthy, G (1995) Gospel and Wisdom: Israel's Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life

A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

A theology for science

Diagram linking God's word to scientific research via the entities subject to it

"Science" means "knowledge" according to its Latin root, and that is what the pursuit of science is popularly supposed to deliver. But a little reflection shows that scientific knowledge is of a certain kind - powerful but with some peculiar limitations.  The diagram above attempts to illustrate from a Christian perspective what scientists are doing.  It could be the starting point for a Christian account of scientific work.  At Faith-in-Scholarship we want to supplant traditional questions about "science and faith", "science and religion" or "science and theology".  As Tom McLeish argues, the problem in this traditional framing is the "and" - because "science" has no direct comparability with faith, religion or theology.  To see why this is so, we need a theological definition.

Much has been written on "theology of science" and "scientific theology", but rarely do people recognise the simple yet profound connection between the word of God and laws of nature. As used in the Bible, "word of God" has three important senses. There is the word of God as Scripture itself, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and the word of God that commands and upholds the created order. Bible - Jesus - Word of Power

That last sense is crucial, yet often overlooked*. From the first "Let there be light!" to the indication in Hebrews 1:3 that God "upholds all things by the word of His power," the Scriptures contain many references to God's word as agent of natural processes (e.g. Ps 147:15-20), and there are important analogies between God's word and God's law (e.g. Ps 19).

So I propose a simple working definition of scientific research as "the search for the refraction of God's word that structures the created order."  That is to say that scientific work aims at articulating structural universals in the cosmos that emanate from God's word of power.  The natural sciences focus on laws of nature, structures and functions, classifications and principles; if we look as far as the Germanic concept of Wissenschaften (scholarship), we can also point to the identities and theorems of mathematics in one direction, and to the typologies, theories and frameworks of the humanities (even theology) in the other. This range of analytical phenomena is represented by the bottom tier of the diagram, which shows how we create scholarly artefacts by reference to "data".  All this is part of the "fact-side" of the created order: the concrete entities, situations and phenomena that we can experience - all, like ourselves as human beings, subject to God's creative word.  That word has been likened** to a radio broadcast permeating the cosmos, to which every creature tunes in on some wavelength. The scientist attempts to describe the radio waves themselves.

These scholarly artefacts thus refer beyond the fact-side of reality to the law-side (top tier of the diagram). People don't have to accept God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ in order to probe the structure of creation, God's "general revelation". But we can see natural laws, types and norms as the refraction of God's word into the diverse coherence of the order of creation, structuring the created order.

This definition of the sciences has important implications for how we relate scientific ideas to our daily Christian living and thinking. For example:

  • Starting from Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can know God through His word in all its three senses, before engaging in any scholarship (even theology).
  • The Bible generally refers to facts: specific events,  relationships, and persons and their acts (including God's self-revelation). Some regularities are of course described, such as God's faithful covenantal behaviour towards creatures - but these are still facts, not scholarship. Arguably the Bible is no more a theological textbook than a scientific one.
  • Scientific work does not produce "facts" (these are its data) but "artefacts": e.g. hypotheses, laws and theories. Hypotheses may refer to particulars (like the date of Jericho's fall), but "facts" is better reserved for beliefs founded on people's direct experience of particulars (like that event as witnessed by Joshua).
  • There's no privileged access to the lawlike refraction of God's word of power, but scientific training, insofar as it conforms our minds to the structures of the created order, can help us perceive it - and increasingly as we submit to the diverse, meaningful interconnectedness of that order.
  • Scientific knowledge is thus a kind of beliefs about the law-structure of the cosmos that are always subject to revision, although they may be highly reliable and - for all we know - approximately correct.

There's lots more to explore here. In a future post I shall probe some implications of this view for philosophy of science more generally.

___

*Probably the best introduction to this theme is Gordon Spykman's "Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics" (1992, Eerdmans)

** by Dr David Hanson, Faith-in-Scholarship advisor.

What is a University Club?

Bruce C. Wearne encourages students to reflect upon institutional relationships in academic life and the effect of higher education reform.

I first developed the above diagram as a part of my response to what was happening at Chisholm Institute of Technology (CIT) in Melbourne back in the 1980s. CIT was part of the “binary system” of higher education in Australia, in which the Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Advanced Education were considered a “cheaper but equal” alternative to universities.

     These institutions provided courses leading to degrees and diplomas and their characters were often similar to those of the universities. They were regularly monitored by qualified university scholars and academics, and the qualifications were indeed “cheaper but equal”. These institutions were venues of significant student involvement in a healthy culture of local and national networks and associations. Clubs manifesting the political, religious and cultural commitments of students had federal links, and by the mid-80s such networks could exercise considerable public clout and made significant contributions to institutional culture. A considerable number of under-graduates from the 1970s and 1980s at universities, Techs and CAEs can recall involvement in these networks stretching from Perth to Sydney, from Hobart to Townsville. They were evidence of a renewed sense of being part of a national polity, a commonwealth.

          Much more can be said about such networks and how they have been significantly transformed and diminished by the “unintended consequences” of political and legislative changes initiated by “economic rationalism”, the forerunner of “neoliberalism”. “Higher education” is now viewed as an industrial sector. This is not just a quibble about nomenclature: it is an issue of how governments consider the work of students.

          After 1987, at the behest of the federal government, wholesale mergers occurred in “higher education". Institutes of Technology could remain as part of multi-campus operations called “universities”.

          The “University triangle” was published before Chisholm’s “merger” with Monash. My article “What kind of a Community is Chisholm?” appeared in the student newspaper protesting the action of the CIT Council that unilaterally changed the constitution of the student association. The student association had oversight of all registered student clubs, and no consideration was given to how this constitutional change would impact student life. As a result of CIT Council's pre-emptive actions the student association leadership were left asking themselves why students had been treated as if they were "the enemy". This occurred at an early stage of what was to become a nation-wide Federal government effort to remake higher education into another industrial sector and do it by means of mergers that gave multi-campus "universities".

          But if I was to offer support to the “student association” (and student clubs), I needed to identify the character of “higher education”. This I did with the above triangle: academic-student, academic-academic, and student-student. This diagram attempts to redefine academic management as a supporter of the academy’s work by holding these three relationships together in “an ethic of mutual trust developed from a love of learning for training in science".

          The reigning ideology, however, is that a graduate from a “management school” is best fitted for such work. This ideology assumes that the surrogate science of management is the science of science education, the discipline of disciplines. That is the “economic rationalist” dogma that gave birth to “neoliberalism”. It was alive and well in the 1980s at CIT and lay behind the effort to destroy the self-management of CIT’s student association. Over time, student associations have come to be viewed as industrial unions and are thus no longer considered to be members of the academy’s corporate body. Students are customers and the vital student-to-student interaction and culture has been diminished under State decree. Universities have been transformed into commercial enterprises selling degrees and students must now pay for this.

Eternal progress: how to find fresh ideas

(Photo under a Creative Commons Zero public domain licence, via Dreamstime.com)

"Of making many books there is no end..." (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

There is a point of view from which it looks implausible that research in any field could continue indefinitely, century after century, endlessly discovering new things about reality.  Part of the classic fin de siècle phenomenon was the suggestion that there might not be much left to discover. But at least since Augustine[1], many Christians seem to have imagined that cultural development will be terminated (or even destroyed) on the Last Day when Christ returns - as suggested by the term 'consummation'.  But this isn't necessarily a biblical perspective. Christ's kingdom will never end (Luke 1:33), and there's a case to be made that cultural development, finally freed from sin, will continue forever under His reign. Might not the created order, once more fully disclosed in the New Creation, be worthy of ongoing scholarly research into eternity? 

Be that as it may, there seems to be no slowing down in the rate of scientific progress at present.  And what we believe about the potential for ongoing research may affect how we approach our scholarship from day to day.  So, continuing our scholarly skills series, I want to share some thoughts on how to find original questions and fresh perspectives on a topic.  These were originally prompted by the simple challenge of asking good questions after a talk, but they also apply to thinking up new research projects for ourselves - or our students, if we're at that stage.

What tips, then, can I offer?  My principal advice is actually rather demanding.  It is no understatement to say that the created order is inconceivably complicated, and any research programme must sooner or later open up completely unanticipated ideas.  Insightful questions, therefore, must come from some framework that provides context and helps locate contours of meaning within the overall coherence of the created order.  And such a framework is offered by the series of modal aspects of Reformational philosophy.  It's often from the categories and relationships of this grand model that I find an angle for asking questions on other people's research, and have found some of the kernels of my own research ideas.

A few specific tactics might also help:

  • Look out for reductionism.  This is actually the simplest outworking of my advice above.
  • Look at motives. Why might this person or group want to study this topic, and why might it have been funded? Why do you like the subjects you do, and why might peer reviewers and funders like your area (or not)?
  • Ask "so what?" questions.  Academics often give rather little concrete context for their ideas - perhaps because our culture prizes scientific abstraction so highly. But Christian scholars should be interested in the particular as well as the abstract.
  • Ask what tenets are best established or most likely to be superseded. The historical dimension of knowledge is likewise often sidelined - as if today's pronouncements will be subject to no further revision.

In all this, let's seek a gracious affirmation of the hard work that has gone before - as advocated by Andrew Basden's Affirm-Critique-Enrich approach and its extension, LACE. And let's pray that the way we work to answer research questions will be worthy of the age to come, a fitting tribute to Christ the king.

___

[1] according to Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014): p 291ff

Tags: 

Transforming the Mind 2018: early bird deadline approaching!

This year's Transforming the Mind, the annual national conference for Christian postgraduates and early career academics, will take place from 15 to 17 June 2018 in Dovedale House, Ilam. The speakers are Nick Megoran and Eline van Asperen, who will help us to think through what it means to be a Christian scholar, drawing on their own experience in UK Higher Education. 

Besides talks, this unique weekend features times of worship, group discussion, free time in the beautiful surroundings, a barbecue, and above all, much time to share with other Christian postgraduates. Coming from many disciplines, nations and cultures, we meet together to encourage each other and explore what God is calling us to be and to do in the university and beyond.

Registrations are now open online at http://transformingthemind.org/register. The cost is £89 for students and the unwaged, or £99 for others. Students who register before the early bird deadline (30 April) get a discount and pay only £79. The fee includes accommodation and all meals. A number of bursaries is available on request.

The conference has as its strapline ‘Transforming the Mind’, taken from Romans 12:1-2, which states: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

The conference was founded to encourage Christian postgraduates to fulfill the stewardship that God has entrusted to human beings in the particular context of the university. This means that God's perspective should direct our assumptions, our manner of inquiry and learning, our striving for excellence with humility. We are called to engage with God’s creation around us, whether that is by focusing on natural phenomena such as atoms, genes or ecosystems, or by studying human culture and life. Most significantly, our calling is to seek God's Kingdom. The conference helps us to think through what this may mean in practice as we follow our calling as Christian scholars.

Talks from previous conferences are available online. Many of the talks have been very helpful to my own thinking about being a Christian scholar, so do make use of this resource! And don't miss this year's event: a great opportunity to relax, make friends and take away new ideas.

Tags: 

Could a Christian worldview enhance science?

Tom Ingleby (above, left of centre) reflects on the workshops he attended at Church Scientific in Leeds

Could a Christian worldview enhance science? This was the rather controversial question which sat behind the Church Scientific project. The claim is that if Jesus is Lord of all things and the one in whom all wisdom is found, then following him ought to make a positive difference in every area of our lives – including scientific work. I attended the Church Scientific workshops this year, trying to get my head around this idea. As I attended, questions such as ‘why would knowing Jesus make a difference?’ and ‘how does knowing Jesus make a practical difference?’ sprang to mind. Over a number of weeks, these questions were tackled by a variety of speakers with great insights to share and fresh perspectives to offer. Their input has helped me to begin to think through some ways of answering the above questions.

Firstly, why would knowing Jesus make a difference to science? Science is possible because the universe behaves in a consistent way – repeating an experiment is worthwhile because we don’t expect a totally random outcome each time. Furthermore, we are capable of producing explanations for why things seem to behave in a consistent way, often using mathematics. These facts are genuinely remarkable – we can either shrug our shoulders and say ‘this is the way things are’ or seek a deeper explanation. A Christian worldview, with a God who orders and upholds His creation, provides a compelling explanation for why these two cornerstones of science are true.

The world around us is multi-layered and requires consideration from a number of different angles. We can see this in the variety of university departments and in our everyday experience. Today I have driven from the Scottish Highlands back to Leeds. On the way I have appreciated the beauty of nature, enjoyed time with my wife, listened to the radio discussing the morality of comedy, enjoyed a meat pie, obeyed speed limits and used technology. All these things have occurred in a journey and highlight the myriad of ways we interact with our world. Church Scientific introduced me to a more formal way of thinking about our multi-layered experience of the world through ‘aspects’. These aspects are a number of irreducible, yet often interlinked, categories which provide a framework for thinking about the world. To return to my example, I was on a journey (kinetic aspect), but was engaging with the world aesthetically, relationally, ethically, juridically and with my senses. Without Church Scientific, I would not have come in to contact with a philosophical framework for thinking about our everyday experience. This framework was developed by reformed Christians such as Herman Dooyeweerd and has been practically helpful for a number of the instructors on the course.

Secondly, how does knowing Jesus make a practical difference?  One way is that the use of a reformational philosophy based on these aspects can help us to avoid reductionism. Furthermore, these aspects help us to have a broader view of our work, potentially providing new insights by helping us as scientists to think about a problem from a different angle. As well as providing new opportunities, a Christian worldview gives us realistic limits. Science is a human endeavour, and humans are fallen meaning that our scientific work will often be marred by sinful motives and practices. As we navigate the difficulties of practising science as fallen creatures in a fallen world, we need to seek to act ethically. Whilst society and government place certain ethical requirements upon us, the Lord Jesus commands us to be beyond reproach, seeking to be ‘more ethical’ than required.

Church Scientific provided a wonderful opportunity to learn a great deal from Christians involved in science and philosophy. Those who gave talks and presentations provided helpful theological, philosophical and practical insights. As well as the wisdom of the instructors, we had the pleasure of interacting with one another as participants, learning from each other. The building of this community has been another great outcome of the Church Scientific project and one which will hopefully continue to develop. I look forward to hearing from various participants at the Church Scientific café evenings over the months to come and encourage you to come and benefit too!

Tom is a PhD student working on the science of earthquakes at the University of Leeds. 

Easter reflection: R.S. Thomas, 'Suddenly'

For Easter Monday, here is a reflection on a poem which I was sent by my supervisor recently: ‘Suddenly’ by the twentieth-century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas.

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

When you’ve read this once through for its meaning, read it again, more slowly, thinking through what Thomas is saying about Christ. What part, or parts, of the Easter narrative is he illuminating in this short poem? Does any particular phrase or image resonate with what you have been thinking, singing, or talking about with others over this Easter period?

The poem both models and invites this kind of contemplative engagement: ‘I looked at him, not with the eye only, but with the whole of my being’. Not unusually for Thomas, some of it is dense and obscure, difficult to pick apart. But what caught my eye particularly was the academic simile in the second sentence – ‘So truth must appear to the thinker; so, at a stage of the experiment, the answer must quietly emerge.’

As a way of expressing the experience of beholding the crucified and risen Christ, this is, to say the least, unusual. Contemplation and analytical thinking merge into one gaze: Christ reveals himself to the speaker like the quietly climactic resolution of a train of thought, like the moment of apprehension and integration which we as academics experience only from time to time. This moment of comprehension – of ‘something understood’ – expands steadily, as the speaker looks, into the experience of ‘overflowing with him as a chalice would with the sea’.

It’s a more positive, or at least more open, metaphorical use of scientific experiment and deductive thinking than can be seen in another poem by Thomas, ‘Raptor’, which associates them with ‘making God small’. In ‘Suddenly’, they offer us a way into contemplation of Christ which is not surface-level, but embraces him with the whole self.

Layers of reality overlap dizzyingly in the last lines of the poem: Christ is at once on the cross and risen from the dead, his garment at once diced over by the soldiers and worn by him in triumph. Thomas deliberately presents us with a mystery. It invites meditation; it invites us to practise integrated thought – following Christ as he reveals himself to us, entering into the deep sea of him, looking not just with the eye but with the whole of our being.

For further reflection, contemplatively consider Roger Wagner's 'The Flowering Tree', a stained glass window at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley - another example of a portrayal of the crucified Christ with layers of reality represented.

Pages