FiSch blog

Jesus, virtue and the university

In the third and final post on the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017 (you can find the first and second posts here and here), I'll summarize the talk that Joanna Collicutt gave. She drew on her expertise in both psychology and theology to help us consider how we can be Christ-like in the university, using the concepts of virtue and character.

Most of us have heard of the seven deadly sins, but in church tradition these are counterbalanced by the seven virtues: temperance, prudence, justice, courage, faith, hope and charity. This strand of thinking starts early in Christian thought, with Ambrose of Milan, and found its most eloquent and extensive expression in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Many of these virtues are recognized in modern positive psychology as habits of mind and practice that enable human flourishing. However, in the gospels we do not see Jesus speak much about virtues. Partly, this is because we tend to focus on Christ's soteriological role rather than his life and teaching, and on his divinity rather than his humanity. We'll come back to this, but first let's look at bit more at how modern psychology thinks about virtue.

Edward Burne-Jones: Faith, Hope and Charity. Stained glass windows in Christ Church, Oxford

Our world is not perfect, and humans are fallen creatures. We are therefore faced with a world that is out of kilter, and our own fallible nature which, as Paul says, makes us 'do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing' (Rom. 7:19). How you make compromises between what is and how you would like things to be says a lot about what you base your identity on. Identity is 'telic': it is about goals and purposes. There are usually a number of different kinds of goals, and how well you manage to integrate these will impact on your flourishing and the amount of stress you experience.

What does all this have to do with Jesus and virtue? First of all, the goals we pursue have implicit theological roots. As Christians we believe that life is going somewhere, and that people were made to live in community. Secondly, we long to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). We want our life to be Christ-like, to form our habits into his character, with the help of the Spirit and within Christian community so we can help each other to express the life of Christ. This takes the form of Christ-like virtues, like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The practice of virtue leads to the building of character. Character is a concept that is halfway between personality traits and aptitudes. Character is embodied virtue, virtue become habit through long practice.

We can express virtue and character in our scholarship by being intentionally goal-directed rather than problem-focused. In our work, we should consider what we are living for as more important than task performance on its own. Learning as a vocation should take precedence over advancing professional and institutional agendas. We should also seek true interdisciplinarity, not just multidisciplinarity, to do justice to the multifaceted nature of reality.

You can probably sense that there was more in this talk than can easily be summarized in one blog post! The audio and slides of the talk will soon be available on Transforming the Mind's website, so do follow the TTM facebook page if you want to be kept updated!

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Welcome to the University of Babylon!

Following on from the first post a few weeks ago, here's the second of three posts summarizing the talks from Transforming the Mind 2017. This week we're looking at Mike Clifford's talk, which took the experience of Daniel and his friends in Babylon as the starting point.

Daniel was a young man who was taken away from his country and his family and moved to a new culture with different rules. There he was enrolled in a three-year course of study in 'every kind of learning', and especially language and literature. Feels familiar to some of you? Maybe you have moved away from your family and friends, and even your country, to pursue your course of study, although I suspect most of us did this by free choice rather than under duress! Daniel and his friends were fully immersed in everything the culture of Babylon had to offer. Some of the things they learned were good and useful, but other aspects of their programme of study may have deliberately aimed to assimilate them into the culture of Babylon, to change their worldview. What would their families have thought about that? Likewise, Christians in academia can feel caught in the middle: on the one hand there is the pressure to conform to the secular mould of society, and on the other hand there can be pressure from a Christian subculture that does not always value learning. Still, Daniel and his friends embarked on this course of study, and God used them not only to witness to the king of Babylon and his court, but he also helped them to develop the gifts and talents they had been given (Dan. 1:4). How are you using your gifts in your studies? How do you explain the importance of your studies to your church family? And how can you serve in your society without losing your identity in Christ?

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; © Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In this Babylonian environment, Daniel and his friends made sure they stayed in contact with God. Despite losing their home and even their names, through their distinctive diet (ch. 1), worship (ch. 3) and prayer (ch. 6) they not only survived but thrived (Dan. 1:15). What helps you to survive and thrive in your academic environment? What practices help you to keep in touch with God and his calling on your life in the midst of your research?

Daniel did not rebel against his programme of study. During their three years of study, God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and understanding of the things they were learning – 'all kinds of literature and learning' (Dan. 1:17) – so that they outdid all the other students (Dan. 1:20). Of course we should not expect to always be the best student. After all, God placed Daniel in Babylon for a very specific purpose. But it does mean we can ask God to bless us in our research, and to help us to understand what we are studying. At times our studies may challenge our faith, but the university can also be a place where our faith is tested and refined. Like Daniel, we need to be aware of which aspects of our discipline are in tension with our faith, and seek to engage with these faithfully, following the call of God on our lives.

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Listening to God with studious imagination

"The Sower" by Jean-François Millet

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! …

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

The second part of Bruno Medeiros' series on Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline:

In an earlier post, I evoked John Stott’s theological concept of double listening:

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of “double listening”. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity (Stott 1992, p.13).

This, I suggest, is as important for those of us pursuing academic careers as for anyone else. Here I ask how we can listen to God in our academic life. Christians generally stress their communal and personal commitment to listen to, interact with and worship a Creator God, the One "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). But how can we hear God’s voice when so many voices compete for our attention? And to what extent will this have an impact on our academic careers?

To address these questions, I would like to invite us to reflect upon the interaction between Jesus and his disciples as seen in Mark chapter 4. Conscious of the need to be a more attentive listener, I believe that the disciples’ response to Jesus’ methods of teaching provides us with resources to develop an open and creative hearing of God’s word and relate it to our academic disciplines.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses a crowd of listeners with a series of parables - stories with meanings to be uncovered and constructed. The famous parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) fascinates and challenges us with its complexity. The different soils in the parable represent distinct hearts or mindsets that enable or hinder our capacity to listen to the Word. And we may learn a lot from reflecting on how different groups in Jesus’ audience responded to this parable itself.

Mark tells us that a group of studious and interested listeners approached him to inquire about the meanings of the parable (Mark 4:10). This is a striking (but often overlooked) point. This group was not happy with a superficial hearing of Jesus’ message, and by digging deeper, they were surprised by the powerful meanings attached to it. These disciples had an approach to learning (and listening) that can teach us two principles. I will look at the first here and at the second in my next post.

The first principle is to develop an imaginative and studious hearing of God’s word (and His world). What strikes me is that it was only his disciples who came to Jesus afterwards to ask him about the meaning behind the parable. Jesus was a creative and imaginative teacher, and He wanted committed followers who were keen to engage in an imaginative search for the secrets of the Kingdom (Mark 4:10-11). He invited his listeners to interact with truth and meaning in an active way. The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey emphasises that "Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. His primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than a philosopher." (Bailey 2008, p.279). Therefore, Jesus’ methods of teaching challenge us to develop a different approach to listening. Creativity, openness, and a willingness to respond to a word that may not always be immediately clear or welcome are important qualities if we are serious about listening to God (Cole, 1989). When Jesus says "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:9), he is calling us to "thought and action in response" (Cole 1989, p.147).

In a similar way, in our own disciplines, listening attentively might involve a commitment to deepening our understanding of the academic field in which we study. For instance, what are the impacts of my research on society? In which ways does our area of study reveal the character of God? How does the study of society, human behaviour, and culture enhance our knowledge of humanity as God’s creation? Are there ethical questions to be considered through our research? Our studies also might reveal something to us about the nature of our Creator God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created.

References

Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels. London: Society for promoting Christian Knowledge. (SPCK).

Cole, R. A. (1989). The Gospel According to Mark: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-varsity Press.

Stott, J.W. (1992). The Contemporary Christian: an Urgent Plea for Double Listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

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What is your calling again?

It is now becoming a tradition that each year I write up the talks from the Transforming the Mind conference so a larger group of people can benefit from them. For previous years, see here and here. This year, we had three speakers. Today I'll tell you about the final talk of the conference, and there will be two more installments over the next month or so. Maithrie White, the conference chair, talked about 'Christian mind under renewal'.

What motivates you to commit years of your life to studying? What is your calling in the university? What is your calling in the world?

On this blog, we often talk about our 'calling' as Christian scholars. These are important questions that I hope you have thought about at least briefly before starting your degree. And it is helpful to return to these questions regularly. After all, most of the world around us does not think about pursuing studies in terms of a calling. But as Christian scholars, what should motivate us to study is not just love for the subject or a desire for an academic career (although these are also important and good). As humans, we are called to be God's image in the world. We are co-workers with God, and He loves all of his world.

The university can be holy ground if we worship God there by studying what He has made.
But what does it actually mean to live out that universal human calling in the university? What is God asking us to do?

1. Develop a Christian mind. God is calling us to 'be transformed by the renewal of your mind' (Rom. 12:2). Like Jesus in the transfiguration, we are called to reflect the love of God to the people and the world around us. We are called to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), to see the world from God's perspective. We do this by engaging deeply with Scripture, and by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Note that we are active in this: Paul doesn't say 'let Christ transform you', but he uses imperatives: 'do not be conformed… be transformed'. Christ works in us, but we are not completely passive.

2. Dialogue with the university. God calls his people to be a people of truth and justice (Micah 6:8), who speak prophetically to the surrounding culture. Let us hold fast to God's vision for our world passionately. A world where justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24). 'God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (…) gave us the ministry of reconciliation: (…) God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ' (2 Cor. 5:18-19). God is calling us to be part of this process of reconciliation! It is a privilege to study. But do you ever ask yourself what you will give back to the world? And I don't just mean 'impact' – although that is part of it. Whom can you serve through your calling as a scholar?

These questions are certainly worth pondering regularly. Let us in humility respond to God's calling on our lives, serving his purposes as we study.

A Christian academic booklist

Whatever stage of research we're at, we can benefit from a masterly overview of how everything fits together.  And we're sometimes asked what introductions to Christian thinking we can recommend for academics. 

First, there are some general principles that can guide and inspire us, and that's where a reading list ought to start.  So here are some introductory books on Christian thinking recommended by current and former FiSch bloggers:

  • Sire JW (2010) The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. InterVarsity Press (5th edn)

  • Wolters AM (2005) Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Eerdmans (2nd edn).

  • Middleton R & Walsh BJ (1984) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview. InterVarsity Press

  • Smith JKA (2006) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Baker Academic.

  • Kok JH (1998) Patterns of the Western Mind: A Reformed Christian Perspective. Dordt College Press

Next, here are some books that go deeper into ideas of Christian philosophy:

  • Bartholomew C & Goheen M (2013) Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. Baker Academic

  • Crisp TM, Porter SL & Ten Elshoff GA (2014) Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils. Eerdmans

  • Clouser RA (2005) The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Beliefs in Theories. University of Notre Dame Press (2nd edn) - reviewed by Anthony

  • Ouweneel W (2014) Wisdom for Thinkers: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. Paideia Press - reviewed by Eline
  • Plantinga C (2002) Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living. Eerdmans - reviewed by Thom

You may be spotting a disproportionate number of Dutch names!  This reveals our connections with a tradition of Christian philosophy that began in the Netherlands with Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, building on insights from the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper. This reformational movement, as it is called, is of course just one place to find Christian scholars, but it does probably host some of those with the strongest conviction that scholarship cannot be religiously neutral, and that every discipline investigates a real facet of God's eternal creative word.  That is, we believe that an academic's work bears traces of his or her deepest convictions about the origin, nature and meaning of the world, yet is somehow constrained by the real given order of creation.  For more on this, see "What is this reformational philosophy framework?" on the About page, browse the ongoing "Christian philosophy in diagrams" series, or head off to www.allofliferedeemed.com

Now, occasionally I find a book that casts fresh light across a whole area of research I'm pursuing.  On one occasion, it was a book offering a Christian framework for statistics* - which gave me ideas I'm still working with.  Whatever your discipline, for an example of a more specific introduction to Christian scholarship, you might try one of the following (approximately arranged in order of Dooyeweerd's aspects):

  • James Nikel (2000) Mathematics: Is God Silent? Ross House Books
  • *Andrew M. Hartley (2008) Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference. Wipf and Stock
  • Tom McLeish (2014, 2015) Faith and Wisdom in Science. Oxford University
  • Magnus Verbrugge (1984) Alive: An Enquiry into the Origin and Meaning of Life
  • Willem Ouweneel (2014) Searching the Soul: An Introduction to Christian Psychology. Paideia
  • D.C. Schuurman (2013) Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology. InterVarsity - reviewed by Anthony
  • Andrew Basden (2008) Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. IGI Publishing
  • Jay Green (2015) Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. Baylor University
  • Eric O. Jacobsen (2012) The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment. Baker
  • Albert Weideman (2011) A Framework for the Study of Linguistics. Paideia
  • Henk Aay & Sander Griffioen, eds (1998) Geography and Worldview: A Christian Reconnaissance. University Press of America
  • Craig Bartholomew (2011) Where Mortals Dwell. Baker
  • Jeff Van Duzer (2010) Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed). IVP Academic - reviewed by Xia Zhu
  • Elaine Storkey (2000) Created or Constructed? Paternoster
  • Doug Blomberg (2007) Wisdom and Curriculum: Christian Schooling After Postmodernity. Dordt College
  • Hilary Brand & Adrienne Dengerink (2001) Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Piquant
  • Jeremy Begbie (1991) Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. A&C Black [on music]
  • David Koyzis (2003) Political Visions and Illusions. InterVarsity
  • James Skillen (2013) The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction. Baker
  • Michael P. Schutt (2007) Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession. InterVarsity

There's nothing here about classic areas of Christian involvement such as ethics or theology, because of the sheer volume of books available (perhaps we should have left out education and art too!). But we hope the above suggestions are helpful to our friends whose colleagues assume that Christian faith could only be a hindrance in their work.  Far from it!

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." (Col. 3:17; cf v23)

    Are we called to be academics?

    ‘Calling’ or ‘vocation’ is something we mention fairly often at Faith in Scholarship. In modern English it’s mostly used, in both secular and church contexts, to refer to profession: often to a certain kind of demanding, valued profession, such as medicine or pastoral work. Many Christian thinkers have (rightly) reclaimed this kind of value for all kinds of work, pointing out that God can be glorified in anything from retail to programming to construction to academia.

    Calling in the Bible

    But is ‘calling’ the right way to talk about the value of work? I recently noticed an interaction on Twitter between two Christian writers whose work I love – Jen Pollock Michel, author of the excellent Teach Us To Want, and Bethany Jenkins, who runs the Gospel Coalition’s ‘Every Square Inch’ initiative on faith and work:

    Michel’s initial tweets had me nodding and agreeing – but Jenkins’ corrective fit with some reading I’ve been doing recently as part of a group here in Oxford (‘Christians in Academia’, a programme run by the Oxford Character Project). Ahead of our discussions about ‘vocation’, we read the first chapter of a book by Gary Badcock, The Way of Life, in which he pointed out much the same as Jenkin’s second tweet above. The call of God in the Bible is almost never connected directly to profession or work as such. Instead, we’re called to repentance (Mark 2:17), salvation (1 Cor 1:2), and holiness (2 Tim 1:8-9).

    Work and identity

    None of this is to say that the ideas behind ‘faith and work’ thinking are wrong! The value and holiness of work done well for God, using our given gifts and circumstances, is undeniable. But we can unintentionally, and unbiblically, narrow our thinking by linking vocation – the call of God – too closely with our work or role in society (paid or not).

    God calls us as whole people, in every part of our lives. This is something I’ve been taught ever since I can remember. But it’s dangerously easy to use the idea of God’s calling to make the label of ‘academic’ (or teacher, or researcher, or scholar) into my central identity. First and foremost, God has called me to be his child, his disciple.

    Maybe it’s better to talk about profession and calling using verbs, not nouns. I am called to love God: in my professional context right now, I do this by reading, thinking, analysing, teaching. In the future those particular ways of loving God may be different, but my calling will be the same. This mindset guards against the potential to spiritualise over-reliance on professional achievements or labels.

    What do you think? In what ways is the language of 'calling' as regards our work helpful, or unhelpful? 

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    Cross-cultural teaching

    In my work as a lecturer over the past year, I've had the privilege of working particularly closely with students from a number of different nationalities and cultures. This has been especially exciting for me because it fits into a lifelong love for other languages and other places. As a student I loved being part of the meetings of international students at my university Christian Union, and seeing how people from very different parts of the world (and with wildly contrasting life-stories) could come together in worshipping Jesus and encouraging one another.

    Now I'm working on the other side of the chalkboard (so to speak) as a lecturer. Part of my job is to help communicate the ideas and tasks required of the syllabus to the students so that, regardless of where they're coming from (figuratively or literally), they'll be able to make sense of them and put them into practice. This isn't always totally straightforward, as I'm sure you can imagine – but it can be very rewarding! Whilst there have been many occasions where a student response has suddenly revealed that we've been talking at cross-purposes for some time, there have been many others where I have come away from teaching feeling hugely excited because of a breakthrough of some kind, a moment where a bridge has been built between our cultures and there's been an instant of mutual understanding – or, equally, when I have been suddenly awoken to some aspect of a student's culture that throws my own into sharp relief, or indeed puts me to shame. 

    I believe that a touchstone for our attitude as Christians towards those of other cultures is found in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. Not only did this momentous event mark the birth of the church and the arrival of the Holy Spirit as a universal anointing for God's people, but it also presented a tantalising reversal of the curse of Babel. Where in Genesis the multiplication of language had brought chaos and division, here the Spirit's gift of tongues united seekers of God from many nations in worshipping Him and hearing the truth about Jesus. This is a foretaste of the new creation, where peope from every tribe and tongue will come together to worship the Lord; those of us working across cultures in an academic context have a unique opportunity to show this same unifying love and power in our own attitudes and actions. Here are a few things I'm trying to remember as I teach in this context:

    • God's love cannot be culturally constrained. As the world enters a period of increased tribalism, some voices wish to draw Christianity into the orbit of a particular cultural group – either to claim ownership of it, or to outlaw it. But from the beginning, the message of Jesus was radically anti-tribal (to an extent that caused friction among all the cultural stakeholders in the early church). We need to be very careful that we don't conflate our own culture with God's calling.
    • We need the Holy Spirit. God deeply desires to break down divisions between people-groups, especially those with a long history of hostility. What He did at Pentecost He is still doing now, through the power of the Spirit. As we serve across cultures at university, we need to ask for His help not just to overcome language barrier, but to reflect His genuine love for and interest in all the people He has made.
    • All Christians are cross-cultural. Paul called the Philippians to see themselves as citizens of heaven, living as ex-pats in their earthly world. We should be able to understand something of what it is like for a student in an unfamiliar culture, because we are all in that position to some extent – 'foreigners and strangers on earth', in the words of the writer to the Hebrews. Let's not get too comfortable, but take every opportunity to reach out across cultures, as God has reached out to us.

    The Laws of Ecology?

    Green landscape

    It was thanks to a conference called "Laws of Nature, Laws of God?" that I had the invitation to join a project of the International Society for Science and Religion about holistic biology - where I was to bring expertise in the science of ecology.  So perhaps it's no surprise that my main contribution to this project so far has been a paper exploring what kind of laws there might be for ecology.

    Many people I talk to about "ecology" think of the ecological ethic: sustainable lifestyles and the Green movement.  But that's not my subject here: my professional interest is in the science of how living organisms interact with each other and the rest of their environment.  And I'm especially interested in the philosophy of ecology, because that is where I think we may detect hints of the worldviews that ground the discipline. And worldviews are part of religious (and 'anti-religious') traditions.

    A few weeks ago I described what makes this ISSR project so stimulating.  An added bonus was that participants were invited to write papers for a special issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. So now I'm pleased to say that the special issue has appeared, and in it a paper entitled "Laws in ecology: diverse modes of explanation for a holistic science".  As its title page shows, it enjoys the company of a number of other intriguing articles.

    First page of the article by Gunton & Gilbert

    But what could be "Christian" about exploring what kind of laws there might be in ecology?  Perhaps nothing too explicit - it isn't a matter of talking about salvation through Christ alone!  On the other hand, we are talking about an aspect of this creation that is God's temple.  And some ways of scientifically interpreting the created order may be more befitting our status as fallen creatures than others.

    What do I have in mind? Well, for one thing I think that we scientists ought to be open-minded towards a range of different models of anything we study, including to models offered by different disciplines.  Within any discipline, models come and go, as do theories, and entire research programmes.  In ecology, it it can be seen that some theories have shifted their attention towards greater spatial scales over recent decades - and, most strikingly, that a range of quite different research programmes (or perhaps 'paradigms') is happily coexisting.  The multi-aspectual perspective of reformational philosophy suggested a way to describe and distinguish four different paradigms of contemporary ecology - which is perhaps the main insight that Francis and I offer in our paper.  And these - which we call the "population", "macroecological", "trait" and "ecosystemic" paradigms - each focus on different kinds of measurable quantities, which means they can, potentially, offer rather different kinds of scientific laws.  We make it clear that by 'laws' we mean something like 'robust quantified generalisations', not wanting here to engage in debate about how laws relate to causation.  Encouragingly, a paper appeared shortly before ours whose bold title made clear that we were not the only ones using the term "laws" for the natural relationships that ecologists seek to quantify.

    Working on this paper gave me a tremendous sense of perspective on my discipline and an ability to appreciate the differences among the many different visions and projects that I come across in academic ecology.  Francis and I hope to pick up dialogue with fellow ecologists about the idea of the four paradigms and to pursue some more quantitative research ourselves on the topic - as well as to inspire similar investigations in other sciences.  And for my part, I hope that we've shown how a Christian philosophy of science can reveal more of the rich cultural diversity of the scientific enterprise itself - as well as the rich diversity of the natural world that scientists study - and all to the glory of God.

    Sisyphus' Labour: Remembering Who(se) We Are (a holiday guide)

    The labour of Sisyphus

    I’m supposed to be on holiday. And on holiday we (sometimes) relax: we take stock of our lives and ‘where we are right now’. Relaxation and recuperation are implied in this word, ‘holiday’.

    But when we start to relax and recuperate things can get a bit messy. We’re no longer submerged in our workaday lives, and some things which seemed like important activities and tasks are unmasked as distractions which conceal truth from us.

    Driving down Spain last week I found myself thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his labour. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was King of Ephyra (Corinth) and was punished by the gods for his wrongdoing and forced to roll a boulder up a hill until it would fall down to the bottom and he’d have to do it all over again, for all eternity. In contemporary imaginations Sisyphus is connected with labour that is unrewarding, irrational, and de-humanising. 

    Yesterday I was able to connect Sisyphus and my holiday because I received a(nother) journal article rejection. In academia we are told to treat rejections like a wet-weather forecast – nothing out of the ordinary. But the thing is that we’re taught to normalise an awful lot of things in academia which, once we take a step back from the environment, may be better treated as harmful: things such as competition, individualism, elitism, snobbery, exclusivity, overwork, shaming – and the list goes on.

    Feeling twisted and confused inside, I texted a friend about my periodic disillusionment with the academic world. A sense of bondage – of being enslaved to someone else’s idea of who I should be – always carries with it the calling card of negative spiritual forces. We come to feel like Sisyphus – condemned to the irrationality of futile labour which serves nobody else but that (and those) which act against Christ. We become the person held upside down by the devil in one of Jędrzej Wowro’s sculptures, being ‘what we know not’. So my friend reminded me that I was on holiday, and to remember not only who I am, but whose I am.

    Before I left for my holiday I had to complete an end-of-year report which helps my funders write their annual report showcasing all their students’ achievements. As academics we spend a lot of time writing monitoring reports like these. But how often do we write alternative reports, or at least consider their equivalent in more positive spiritual terms? The ‘world’ (for want of a better word) wants to value us for one set of qualities, whereas our Lover is far more concerned about who and where we are as unique persons, seeing the end from the beginning, yet expectant of the unexpected in between. I don’t think He sees us primarily as ‘academics’. Our professions are only an incidental way of helping us fulfil our vocation(s) in life: they help us to bring forth fruit from the talents God gave us.  

    So in an alternative dimension, these might be some of the areas to think about:

    • How would I draw an arc of my life (not just my career) thus far? Are there any pivot points, especially beyond my career?
    • What would the last year of my life look like if I drew it terms of a circle, or in fits and starts, rather than a linear progression (as our monitoring forms require)? 
    • To what extent do I feel a slave to my profession’s ‘expectations’ of me? How might I overcome these or replace them with more profound expectations? 
    • How closely do I align with my profession’s understanding of success? Is there a healthier vision?
    • Are there any areas of my life that I feel are perhaps unnecessarily squeezed out because of my work? Am I identifying personal value with professional esteem?
    • Am I thinking of my academic career in the long-term, or making concessions for short-term security? In other words, have I sufficiently subordinated my day job to my deeper vocational journey, which may take me in unexpected directions?
    • Am I at risk of burying my talents, personal and vocational, in order to be ‘safe’?

    Answering questions like these is a hard exercise because the academic world in which we live tends to operate by a compass starkly at odds with the values of the Beatitudes and the seemingly upside-down world of the parables.

    I am realising more and more that to be renewed in our minds is a lifelong task, beset by obstacles within and around us, but mostly within. And still the Gospel signals freedom; there is a way out, even though it be long and winding. Writing this on Pentecost, I am further reminded that we have a Helper. Together we can ask Him – free us from the labours of Sisyphus; turn us the right way up!

    Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.

    Richard Middleton on God's glory and his image bearers

    Last week, I discussed the first half of a talk Biblical scholar and philosopher Richard Middleton gave for FiSch a few weeks ago. I will pick up where we left off. This week I've included quite a few Biblical references, because his talk linked a lot of concepts and elements of the overarching storyline of the Bible together. I would encourage you to take some time to study these, and pray this would deepen your understanding of God and your role in his creation.

    We saw that God created the cosmos as his temple, and that we as his image have an important task in developing his creation. But a question immediately arises.  Why does God dwell only in part of creation - i.e. heaven and also, when it was there, the Temple? Why does he not dwell on earth, and why is the eschaton, the fulfilment of all things, sometimes described in the Bible as a time when God's glory 'will fill the earth' (Is. 11:9, Hab. 2:14, Rev. 21:3, 22-23)?

    The answer is as obvious as it is stark: it is because of human sin. Instead of filling the earth with God's image and glory, humans misuse the power they have been given and are filling the earth with violence (Gen. 6:13). Note, though, that humans continue to produce culture (Gen. 4), although cultural innovations are often put to the service of oppression, preventing God's presence from permeating the cosmos. Furthermore, the image of God is not completely obliterated (Gen. 5:1-3, 9:6).

    Yet regardless of the destruction we have wrought, God still loves the world he has created, including human beings, and he longs to redeem it (Acts 3:12, Rom. 8:21, 23, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:19). He does this firstly by sending his perfect image, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3), into the world, to restore the image of God in us. Last week we saw a parallel with Israel as a royal priesthood. Here we find another parallel with Israel (see Ex.2): Israel was in bondage and needed to be redeemed, to be restored to their 'garden', the land of the promise. This parallel of bondage can be applied both to creation as a whole, longing to be redeemed from its human oppressors, and to human beings specifically, enslaved to sin.

    And so, if we trust in Christ, he redeems us, breathes his Spirit into us once more (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Gen. 2:7) and renews our humanity so that we can become God's temple again (1 Cor. 3:16, Eph. 2:21, 4:24, Col. 3:10) - the locus of his presence on earth. We reign with Christ in the kingdom of God as his body.

    The new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, and God will come to dwell with us.  Our calling as the renewed humanity, conformed to the image of Christ (Phil. 2), is to embody an alternative culture to the violence and injustice that now fills the earth. As scholars in particular, our aim is to do our work faithfully so that we will be able to bring the glory and honour of our scholarship into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26).

    This is both a challenge and a great calling. How does your research aim to extend God's presence in his creation?

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