FiSch blog

The death of an idea: dealing with failure

Research is an adventure into the unknown. As such, it’s risky business. What happens when things go wrong? Sometimes a project you’ve been working on for long hours turns out to lead nowhere. You’ve poured your energies into a big plan, only to find it doesn’t work. You may even suffer the blow of being pre-empted in publishing something that was your ‘baby’ – your big idea to show the world. At such times it’s easy for scary questions to enter our minds: Am I a waste of time? Am I not good enough to be an academic?

If such questions are really debilitating, they may indicate that we’ve started to idolise our research.  But, of course, it’s quite natural to be hurt by frustration. How should we think about these ‘failures’ as Christians? How should we cope with the death of an idea? I will suggest a few thoughts.

 1) Love the Lord your God

First, remember that you were not first called to academia to be successful. Jesus primarily calls his creatures to love and serve him as their Lord. What’s the first commandment from which the others flow? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20). First and foremost, even as academics, we are to be Christians serving God.

 2) Faith in scholarship = faith in God

Second, this means that we can have faith in scholarship. If we find ourselves in the position of undertaking a PhD or working as a post doc or faculty member, we should remember who put us there. If God has put us there, we can trust in him for the furthering of our thought. This means even when we fail, this should direct our attention to God. We should trust that God is still working out His good purposes in scholarship, despite this failure.

3) Free to fail

The Bible tells us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28). This means that when an idea dies, that’s okay! It may be because of sin that you fail… not reading the text with due care and attention, wanting to dominate in an argument even when you’re wrong. It may be that your line of enquiry is a dead end. But if we remember that we’re first to be serving God, including trusting Him with our work, then when we fail for any reason, we can trust that God is using that failure. Demonstrating a false line of reasoning can be progress; perhaps it will make us better academics; perhaps it will even challenge an idol in our lives. I don’t suggest you try immediately to work out what God was doing through your failure but if He is truly the author of all things then you can trust Him that He will work His good purposes though it.

Contrary to our culture’s attitude, this means that we’re free to fail. Most people in our culture have no assurance that God works though failure; it has no purpose but to hinder their prospects. But Christians should not be thinking ultimately about their own prospects, but about God’s kingdom. 

4) Fail in community

This is hard to remember in our individualistic culture, but failure is not purely a personal matter.  We should, I suggest, be meeting with other Christian academics on a regular basis. This way we can remind each other about the true and ultimate work of God and about failure’s place within his plans.

Why Faith-in-Scholarship? (1) for Christians

The European Reformation of the 16th century clarified the distinction between Christianity and the Church.  The believer’s primary allegiance, claimed the Protestants, was to Jesus Christ, and church congregations were an essential expression of this rather than providing salvation itself.  At this time came a renewed emphasis on Christ’s lordship over every area of life: all kinds of work were to be seen as vocations to pursue in service of Christ the coming King.

The Reformation in societyThe political legacy of the Reformation included a separation of church and state in both Protestant and Catholic cultures: God called His people to participate in politics as Christian citizens rather than by bringing states under the sway of the church.  However, this separation was increasingly misinterpreted as excluding religious motivations from politics.  How did this happen?  One answer is that, while churches themselves pursued reformed (and counter-reformation) agendas, Christians failed to pursue their work as vocation – so that, within society at large, Christianity continued to be seen under the umbrella of the church.  This problem was to prove serious not only for politics.

Arguably the most calamitous point at which the reforming vision was lost was in education and scholarship.  Under medieval Scholasticism, man’s natural light of reason was supposed to be fully able, for unbeliever as for believer, to understand and interpret the order of Nature.  Christian (i.e. Church) intervention was needed concerning matters of grace: doctrine, ethics, church affairs, while theology, as queen of the sciences, might examine theories of natural philosophy to point out anomalies with regard to Christian revelation. But this dualistic worldview denied a foundational role for faith in scholarship.  Autonomous reason could be left to its own devices, it was thought.

Faith in Scholarship?

Some of the Reformers did envisage the reformation of scholarship.  Calvin’s concern for this is revealed in his Institutes, even while he is most remembered for political reforms.  But within the universities, the strongest proponents of the Reformation remained committed to the scholastic framework for philosophy.  And so the project of Christian scholarship was forlorn.  The challenge of how to think christianly about the whole cosmos as the creation of God, under the cloud of the Fall, and in the light of its redemption by Christ, was at best an undercurrent.

In the 19th century, a key pioneer of reformational thinking for the whole of life came in the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper argued powerfully for the adoption of a comprehensive reformational worldview by Christians – one that would embrace the diversity and complexity of the whole created order and bear fruit in politics, family life, business, the arts – and scholarship.  He was followed in this project by the deeply original Christian scholars Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, whose “reformational philosophy” framework enquires about the origin, coherence and diversity of the cosmos and the many kinds of laws that seem to structure it.

We call this tradition “reformational” to emphasise its open-endedness: reformation must be ongoing, and no creed, policy or theory is perfect.  Indeed, we surely never will have perfection, for what can the return of Christ mean but deeper opening up of the created order for understanding by His people,  with the obfuscations of sin removed?  What is certain is that Christ’s lordship can ultimately leave no part of human life untouched, and we must work hard to discover what this means in our own callings.

Some spheres more reformed than others: While church structures were opened up to the priesthood of all believers, scholarship remained largely unreached by a vision of Christ’s total lordship. Did the reformation project collapse prematurely into the “public/private” divide we now live with?

Spotlight on… C-A-N-: the Christian Academic Network

One of the things we are aiming to do through Faith-in-Scholarship is to direct Christian postgraduates (and others) to helpful resources and initiatives. We’re planning to ‘spotlight’ a few of these over the coming months.

First up is C-A-N-: the Christian Academic Network.

C-A-N- was launched in 2003, with support from Agapé and UCCF, to support the Christian academic community in the UK. Its two aims are

  • ‘to encourage the integration of Christian faith into academic life’, and
  • ‘to support and equip University and College staff and those academics working in research as witnesses for Christ in their workplace’.

I first encountered C-A-N- back in 2009, in York, at one of their conferences. (At the time I was doing research in astronomy at Sussex University, which is nowhere near York, but one of the reasons I was willing to travel so far is now my wife!) The conference was a workshop entitled ‘Practical Steps in Shaping Our Disciplines’. This was led by Professor Andrew Basden, who has been an influential figure within C-A-N-. We took time to reflect on our disciplines, and how we might like to see them shaped for Christ.

C-A-N- holds conferences most years, and I can warmly recommend them. Sometimes they take the form of a workshop, as in 2009; sometimes the focus is on contributions from delegates; and sometimes there are significant invited speakers, such as Alister McGrath or James K.A. Smith. Details of past conferences are on the C-A-N- website.

A notable recent development has been the appointment of Mark Surey as C-A-N-‘s Travelling Secretary. Mark has been supporting and encouraging early-career academics in various universities, both informally and through a series of workshops on ‘Shaping our disciplines for Christ’, co-led by Andrew Basden.

Why not sign up to the C-A-N- email list for periodic updates, or check out some of the many resources on their website?

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What do we learn in the university?

‘Dream, plan, achieve’… That is my university’s motto. I must admit that I cringe a little whenever I see it on our website or on headed paper. Of course we all have dreams and plans, but having those things does not guarantee achievement. The motto seems to tap into the belief that you can do anything as long as you dream big and plan for it. As such, it sits comfortably with a subtle shift that has been taking place over the last few decades: the university is no longer the place where you learn to think, but the place where you obtain the skills that will allow you to get a high-paying job.

What are universities for? Not many postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers will place teaching at the top of their priority list, and many lecturers and professors moan about their teaching loads (often rightly so). However, teaching has always been at the heart of the university. Some of the first universities were created by students demanding quality teaching from professors so that they would be well prepared for the job market in law or medicine. Indeed, the idea of the university combining teaching with research is a relatively new one, pioneered by the 19th-century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. And although most postgraduates do not teach (if you get the chance: take it!), they are learning and being trained.

Maybe we should therefore reframe our topic from teaching to learning. What exactly do we learn in a university? Of course there is the subject matter of our chosen course. Alongside gaining knowledge of our chosen subject, we are also trained in a range of skills: logical and critical thinking, abstraction and theory formation, laboratory or interviewing skills, statistics. However, this all takes place within a larger context. Studying for a degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, is a highly formative experience. Our minds, our worldviews, our behaviour and practices are formed by the things we learn in our studies, by the ways of thinking we are surrounded by, and by our experience of the university environment, from the classroom to the student accommodation and from the pub to the library.

As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). So how should we approach this process of formation? ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord’ (Col. 3:23). We are to pursue our work wholeheartedly. And yet we need to be aware of those aspects of university life that will form us in a way that is not according to God’s will. That includes not just God-less theories, but also selfish ambition and drunkenness. What is forming you in your studies? Are you being formed into the likeness of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3)?

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Service and Supervision

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:35

The relationship between a supervisor and their student is a strange one. Speaking as a student, supervisors are not our boss, they’re not our line manager, they’re not a family member (for most of us) and they’re not really our teacher (in the undergraduate sense). Working out just what our relationship to our supervisor is can be difficult because we’ve never been in such a relationship before. Not only this but the relationship changes over time! At the beginning supervisors are definitely there to teach and to guide. Towards the end, however, there’s only so much they can teach.

But, the encouragement we get from Jesus in Mark 9 transcends relationship boundaries. Jesus, speaking to a rabble of unruly and proud disciples, reminds them that, if they are to welcome Christ as their King, they mustn’t trust in their own position and their own status. Rather, after they had just been arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus reminds them that

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.

Jesus is addressing the disciples. If they want acceptance by Christ they must deny themselves and…be the servant of all. This may strike us as strange. We might expect Jesus to say “be my servant” or “have me as Lord.” But he doesn’t. He says “be…the servant of all.”

This is because understanding Jesus’ lordship has a striking normative force. If they serve the ones they are expected to serve the least then they are, in effect, recognising that they are not Lord of all but that there is one who is above them. If they’re prepared to welcome even children then they welcome Christ (v37).

It is our understanding of who Christ is that fundamentally affects our relationships; it affects all of our relationships. So, even though spelling out our actual relationship with our supervisors is difficult, one thing should be clear. We’re to serve them in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31) as serving the Lord.

This means: in meeting deadlines, being prompt to a supervision or replying to emails effectively; in doing marking for their course, helping them to help us by asking questions that we really struggle with (even if we think they’re silly) – or even making them a cup of tea – we should be serving.

Above all else, then, we’re not to see our supervisors either as a boss: the ones we need to obey because they say so, or as an instrument: the ones who just help us get a PhD… but as we see everyone: people to be served.

Sideline or Worldview: Scholarship as vocation

I’m trying to be a serious academic, but sometimes it feels that considering how my faith impacts my discipline is merely an interesting sideline to my work. It’s a subject to be confined to my Christian postgrad group and occasional books read on the sly, rather than a unifying principle in my work.

Over the past few months, this blog has posted a series on a Christian worldview. In June, Anthony Smith wrote the first blog post in our overview, discussing Creation: the role of the academic in unearthing some of the riches God has given us, and making those available for others. In July, Thom Atkinson provided an overview of the Fall, and its effect on academics, including Christian academics. He pointed out that intellectual endeavour is likely to be hard work. A month later, Richard Gunton outlined a view of Redemption for all areas of scholarship.

We’re not the only ones to be interested in this approach. Many others have found a Creation-Fall-Redemption worldview significant in their view of Christian scholarship, for example our friends at the Emerging Scholars Blog.

The question which exercises me today, is not whether there is verifiable benefit for my discipline in this approach (worthy subject though that is), but rather whether I’m justified in being selective about when and how I use it in my work.

In Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. outlines a vision for learning using the Creation-Fall-Redemption worldview. Interestingly, though, his next chapter does not seek to apply this framework to particular scholarly subjects. Instead, Plantinga embraces the subject of Vocation for the Christian looking to live well in their sphere in Christ’s Kingdom. It’s a total view, with little room for my cognitive dissonance.

My struggle is that I tend to view myself as an impartial observer, standing outside looking in, and hence able to pick up or drop a Christian approach to scholarship at will. It’s a flawed view of course: I’m part of God’s creation, which fell and has been redeemed by Christ, too. There is no vantage point in my work from which I can sideline my faith. My colleagues continue to provide insights through God’s common grace, but when I think in vocational terms I recall the antithesis of faith and find that there is a unifying principle in my work.  His name is Jesus.

Ecology: filling and subduing; listening and serving

What do you think of when you hear the word “ecology”?

The discipline of ecology may be unique among the sciences in that its name has become strongly associated with a political agenda [1]. Indeed, “ecological” has connotations of “sustainable” and “environmentally-friendly”. What we call “green” translates in many languages as “ecological”, evoking one of the dominant ethical movements of our time.

As a Christian researcher in ecology, I don’t mind this association. Like many of my colleagues, I was drawn towards the discipline partly by concern for the health of our biological environment. Also, I see ecology as one in a parade of sciences that have strong ethical dimensions because of their direct bearing on human flourishing: along with psychology, sociology, economics, political science, etc.  And indeed, surely we all have motives for working on our chosen subjects, and it’s better to let these be known than pretend to be perfectly disinterested.

So how does my faith influence my academic ecology? Well, there are some ideas I’m still developing regarding the nature of “laws” in ecology, and how to think about the interplay of biological design and environmental randomness that seems to drive species’ adaptations to their habitats: the interface of physical and biotic aspects of reality. And coming back to the normative side of ecology, I’m keen to make the most of inter-disciplinary connections and democratic processes in questions of conservation. Ecologists can make recommendations, but the balancing of different kinds of biodiversity and ecosystem services against each other and against budgets and social concerns in order to implement fair and effective policies is surely a multifaceted question beyond the remit of our science.

A big picture

But when I look for my discipline’s place in the Bible’s big story, it’s quite easy. In Genesis 1, God commanded the fish and birds to fill their respective habitats, and then commanded the first humans to fill and subdue the earth. The ways in which species adapt, proliferate and radiate to fill habitats is one key subject of ecological investigation; another is the best means for humans to manage habitats and regulate the distribution and effects of plants (e.g. agricultural ecology, forestry, invasive species’ ecology). But in Genesis 2:15 we see Adam given another pair of commands for his relationship with the Garden of Eden, which are connate with the Hebrew for “listen to” and “serve”. So, as Adam moves on to name the animals, I may think of my ecological science as a multifarious challenge of listening to, serving, managing and naming the incredible diversity of non-human creatures that surrounds me.

[1] Perhaps “organic” has a similar story to tell: the discipline of organic chemistry has long forfeited the popular connotations of its name, rather ironically, to the organic farming movement – which actually has an element of Christianity in its British roots, as shown by Philip Conford (The Origins of the Organic Movement, 2001).

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Why disciplines are better together

It has been said that a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less … until he knows everything about nothing!

When working towards a PhD it is very tempting to try to become that sort of a specialist. Your aim is to become the world’s expert in that very specific area of knowledge which is the subject matter of your thesis. It may seem obvious that, in order to achieve that aim, you will need to focus almost exclusively on that narrow topic, to the exclusion of all others (as long as you both shall live). And, if you are anything like me, you may well have grown up having just a small number of intense interests anyway. But there are good reasons to resist the temptation to over-specialise.

First there are reasons that most people around you would agree with. If you are going to be an expert in one specific thing, you need to know how that one thing relates to everything else. If you are going to be creative in how you approach your specialist topic, your mind will need to be filled with all sorts of ideas from all sorts of areas, so it will always be worth exploring new things. So you should try not only to grasp something of the breadth of your own discipline, but also to become acquainted with the full breadth of what goes on in your university. (That’s the whole point of having a university, isn’t it?)

But there are also some distinctively Christian reasons to maintain wide interests.

Eline mentioned reductionism in a previous post: the idea that something is nothing but something else. For example, biology is nothing but physics, physics experiments are nothing but the experienced sensations in the minds of the researchers, sensations in our minds are nothing but neurological signals, and neuroscience is nothing but a social construct! We can all think that our own discipline is the only discipline that really matters, and look down on other disciplines. A better appreciation of God’s creation as being multifaceted and wonderfully rich can help us to avoid reductionism. It will lead us to appreciate the value of other disciplines in their own right, as legitimate ways of looking at other aspects of all that God has made.

This more “democratic” way of appreciating different disciplines might help us to realise that, when it comes to real world problems, it is rarely the case that one discipline alone can provide the solutions. As we think about turning our theory into practice, we need to consider working together with researchers from other disciplines. This may, for example, be as simple as applying your discipline’s techniques and methodology in the context of another discipline. Or it may be a matter of political and natural scientists working together on tackling some of the big issues of our time.

What has been your experience of interdisciplinary research?

A Christian worldview (4) Your kingdom come… in the university

A few weeks ago, we saw that redemption is the way in which God, in the person of Jesus, stepped into his creation to gain the victory over the punishment for and consequences of the fall. However, at present we still live in the ‘in-between’, knowing that we are forgiven now, but that the full revelation of God’s kingdom is yet to come. We are taught to pray ‘your kingdom come’. But how do we live in the light of this coming kingdom?

It could be argued that our primary calling in this world is to call people to repentance and faith in Christ. And of course this is important. One reason why we find ourselves working in a university might well be to shine the light of the gospel in the dark places of the academy and into the lives of the academy’s people. But there is more.

Besides the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom, there is the ‘now’ of the kingdom. Christ is seated on the throne, and he must reign until ‘the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power’ (1 Cor. 15:24). Like Abraham, we live as strangers in the land which we will inherit. So besides praying for the kingdom to come, we can also assert that ‘the kingdom of God is amongst [us]’ (Luke 17:21). Christ is Lord over all of his creation, and we as his people are called to take captive every thought that still rebels against his rule (2 Cor. 10:5), to follow in Christ’s footsteps in proclaiming good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18). As scholars and intellectuals, we have a particular calling to bring our understanding of the world and our place in it, and the ways of thinking of our society to obedience to Christ. We are well-placed to influence the powers of this world to bring about justice and we have the capacities to invent technologies that improve people’s lives and our environment.

Will we first seek the kingdom of God? Will the building we construct on the foundation of God’s work in our lives last (1 Cor. 3: 12-15)? Will it be saved through the fire, and will we bring ‘the glory and honour of the nations’ into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26)?

How do you seek God’s kingdom in the university? How do you live as subject of Christ the king in your research? If you have any stories or examples to encourage us, we would love you to tell us about them in the comments section!

Christ as Lord: Philosophy

Having “Christ as Lord over x” has been extensively discussed in recent posts. We have seen that explaining what this means within whatever sphere of life or study we find ourselves in can be difficult but also rewarding. Philosophy is no exception.  Christian Philosophy[1] began to make a comeback some thirty years ago, and  the Evangelical Philosophical Society has an ongoing project devoted to the topic of clarifying what it means to do “Christ-shaped philosophy”. Since the project is so vast and this blog post so short I shan’t offer an answer to this. But I can offer some guidelines.

1) The nature of Lordship

First, when thinking about what it means for Christ to be Lord over philosophy one need, of course, know who Christ is and what Lordship entails. I assume my reader knows who Christ is so I move to Lordship. Put simply, Christ’s being Lord entails that (i) he has the ultimate authority (i.i) in all spheres of life and (i.ii) on all matters within those spheres, including both belief and practice. This means that our fundamental beliefs (the subject of Philosophical enquiry) will be shaped by what Christ says. I contend that what he says can be found in God’s written word: the Bible. This will have a bearing on the Christian doing Philosophy in two ways; one direct and one indirect. Directly, the Bible, while certainly not a philosophical text book, does make claims that have a direct bearing upon philosophical beliefs. Concerning the furniture of the universe (metaphysics), for example, the Bible refers to angels. As such, the Christian Philosopher, in working out his or her metaphysics, will make sure not to discount angels. Indirectly, the Bible can shape one’s very thought patterns. It may suggest ways in which one should begin to approach questions about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. It does this, however, without prescribing explicitly a specific systematic – i.e. it doesn’t say “you should think like a Kantian,” “you should think like Hume.”

2) The nature of man

Second, one needs to know about the nature of man – primarily the power of his intellect. This is because (if one accepts (1)) it is human creatures that do Philosophy. Thus knowing what humans are like is essential to answering the question “what does it mean to have Christ as Lord over Philosophy?”  This is particularly pertinent to Philosophy since it is easy to fall into the belief that one’s doing philosophy is somehow not creaturely. Being aware that Christ is Lord and I am creature should act as a guide to my philosophical worldview.

3) The direction of Philosophy

Third, one needs to know what Philosophy is. I cannot answer this question.[2] Perhaps an easier question (but one that will still be useful) is “in what direction has Philosophy developed?” If one can answer this question one can then begin to see what practices and beliefs in the discipline of Philosophy are in accordance or not with both (1) and (2).

4) The danger of guidelines.

Having said all this, working out a system of guidelines to approach a question like “what does it mean for Christ to be Lord over Philosophy?” has both virtues and vices. One of its virtues is that a systematic attempt to answer a question will be more integrative than a non-systematic attempt. This integrity is virtuous not least because it reflects the revealed nature of the One who created all things. One of Its vices could be that of holding to one’s system more tightly than one holds to one’s belief that Christ, being Creator and not creature, can challenge that system.

The challenge of walking the thin line between these virtues and vices is an ongoing one for Christian philosophers. It is prevalent not only when they try to answer the question “what does it mean to do philosophy with Christ as Lord?” but when they try to answer any question.

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[1] I understand the comeback of Christian Philosophy to have begun with the demise of Logical Positivism and the establishment of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). As with all “comebacks,” however, there were years of hard work being done beforehand. Moreover, these two things did not happen simultaneously.

[2] An interesting attempt has been made in “Doing Philosophy as a Christian” by Garrett J. DeWeese

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