FiSch blog

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.

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*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.

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

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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.

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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.

The transcendental context of Christian academic work

Picking up my series on Christian philosophy in diagrams, I want to share an idea that really excites me at the moment - inspired by Andree Troost's "What is Reformational Philosophy?", which I've just finished reading. Perhaps not everyone finds diagrams as wonderful as I do, but they have a great ability to present complex ideas all at once, in the simultaneity of a page or screen.

This graphic represents the whole created world as having both immanent (horizontal) and transcendent (vertical) dimensions. It looks a bit like one of those spinning colour wheels you can make by pushing a pencil through a disc, and indeed that's not a bad model for this big idea of what the world is like. The horizontal disc represents the whole universe of our day-to-day experience, with all the rich, scintillating diversity of temporal things and relationships that we know. This is the reality that everyone experiences in ways we can broadly agree upon: human society and institutions, people, animals, plants and inanimate things, all functioning in many different ways (represented by the 15 symbols around the circumference). At the centre of the disc lies a heart symbol, because this is a model of how we humans experience and influence the cosmos as we look out on it. That much describes the immanent dimension of reality.

The human heart is also at the central point in this disc because the Bible reveals that humans are created as the image of God: the creatures that should image God to the rest of the creation (Genesis 1), and with whose obedience or disobedience the fate of the whole creation is tied up (Genesis 3; Romans 8:19).  And Scripture uses "heart" as a metaphor for our religious centre: the concentration point of our conscience and our will, which directs our worship either to God or after an idol.  Here, of course, we're moving beyond immanence perceptions to revealed truth about transcendent reality - which is represented by the vertical dimension of the diagram. This dimension represents what might be called cosmic time or a religious metanarrative: the all-embracing story of the cosmos from creation by God through the Fall in Adam to redemption in Christ Jesus, led by God's life-giving Spirit. This is a bigger view of time than merely clock time, stretching from the primordial creation, the religious origin in Christ, to creation's eternal destination, which is for Christ (think of Colossians 1:16). And our heart in a religious sense participates in this "depth dimension" of the cosmos: we transcend our own lifespan by yearning to participate in God's eternal purposes and to be granted eternal life at the Resurrection (as Paul does in Philippians 3:11).

The diagram above is based on Herman Dooyeweerd's model of reality. Here, every philosophical view presupposes some religious notion of reality, typically including an idea of where reality comes from (its origin), what holds it together (its coherence) and what it means (its destination). A philosophy in turn provides the framework for more specific kinds of scholarship, such as the sciences, to look at the diversity of reality. The model illustrated here posits the immanent realm as the common experience for such scientific study, while at the same time showing why the transcendent "religious depth dimension" is so important. That is, we cannot locate the centre of reality without God's revelation of its unity of origin and destination - which is Christ, the revelation of God as both transcendent and immanent. Without that special revelation, the human heart is inevitably drawn towards seeking explanatory unity in one or other aspect of created diversity - which leads to idolatry.  This is what Dooyeweerd means by "secularisation", and the dotted hearts in the diagram here represent some important idolatries of this kind that have shaped Western culture. But this is a topic for a future post.

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

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