Scholars as Disciples at Advent

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Reflecting on what Advent might mean for my work, I ended up looking at the connection between teaching and research. About half of this Advent wraps up my first semester of teaching (in a job I recently began), and the other half will give a little more time to pursue research tasks until Christmas is fully here.

What strikes me is the following analogy between teaching and research. Both are about forming new knowledge: teaching is forming new knowledge in the lives of students, whereas research is forming knowledge that is (we assume) new to everyone. Seen that way, it should be no surprise that each can enhance the other, to the benefit of both lecturer and student.  Moreover, the new understanding that a student gains from a good education can be a microcosm of the historic novelty of a great advance; indeed it can be today's preparation for tomorrow's breakthrough.  The light-bulb moment is not so different from the eureka moment.

Advent, like many other religious festivals, is the re-living of an ancient epoch, where we appropriate a historic moment for ourselves.  As we see Advent candles lit or open doors on a calendar, we are in some ways students of our faith, reliving a historic breakthrough in microcosm.  Indeed, most of us are students revising the story of Christ's nativity for the umpteenth time, perhaps with little hope of learning anything new this year.

But Advent is unlike other festivals in a very important respect.  It has historically been a time for the faithful to prepare themselves for Christ's second coming.  This is little mentioned except in the most traditional of liturgies.  "May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting!" goes a line in the Advent carol service of my undergraduate college, juxtaposed with that stirring hymn "Lo! He comes with clouds descending"[1].  Observers of Advent, it turns out, have long been attentive to the future return of Jesus to claim his kingdom. This is partly why it has traditionally been a time of fasting.  Candle by candle, and now chocolate by chocolate, we are drawing nearer to the return of the one whose birth we're about to celebrate.

This means we're not merely to study the past but to watch out for something new.  All we really know about Christ's return is that it will be unexpected and novel: a breakthrough of cosmic proportions.  The Bible portrays it as a historic event, ushering in "the life of aeons" (perhaps a better translation than "eternal life") in which God will at last dwell with his people in the person of Jesus Christ.

In writing this, then, I sense the urgent call of God upon our academic work.  The perspective of "aeons" dignifies our scholarship in whatever we're studying, teaching or researching because the Lord of creation will eventually take his rightful place here with an act of judgement that will purify human culture and open the gates to the glory and honour of the nations forevermore (Rev. 21:24-27).  Reigning with Christ (Rev. 22:5) will presumably entail ongoing creative research and teaching!  The popular notion that when we meet Jesus he could tell us everything there is to know seems to me to assume a very shallow idea of the structure of creation, and certainly rings hollow when it comes to humanities and arts research.  Our research really is research; it isn't simply learning from a great teacher in the sky... nor 'reading the book of God's works', as has been suggested about the natural sciences[2].

In view of all this, surely there is suggestive understatement in what Paul says at the end of his longest discourse on Christ's return, "Therefore... give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58).  Come, oh come, Immanuel!

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[1] A musician friend showed me the other day how the third verse of this hymn, ending "With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars", can be sublimely set off with the tune from "When I survey the wondrous cross" as a counter-melody - reminding me how crucially Easter connects Christ's first and second comings.

[2] A critique of this suggestion is offered by Keith Sewell in Pro Rege 30:15-17

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