FiSch blog

Art, the scholar, and the self

Today I want to talk about a poem.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), trans. Stephen Mitchell (see the original German)

I read this poem in my first year of literary study and was struck first and foremost by the stark insistence of the last line: ‘You must change your life.’ At first it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the poem – a meditation on the strange living power of a damaged piece of art. (The technical term is ekphrasis, a verbal description of visual art.) But the bluntness of that last phrase is designed to make us consider its relevance to the rest of the poem.

A demand

The experience which Rilke describes here is not inspiration, pleasure, or quiet reflection – any of the states of mind we might want to associate with looking at art. Instead, it is obligation. You must change your life – it is required of you, even inevitable. We are not looking at the statue: it is looking at us. ‘Here there is no place/ that does not see you.’

How can a damaged statue of a pagan god require anything of us? I have been thinking on and off about this poem ever since I read it, and it has become something of a challenge to me as I have pursued my literary studies. As with all good ekphrastic poems, the technique of describing a piece of (usually visual) art allows the poet to explore the nature of his own art as well. Reading the poem, we don’t physically see the archaic torso, but Rilke conjures it for us, depicting in his own medium the life and ‘brilliance’ he describes. He then demands a response. He demands we consider ourselves in the light of the statue and of the poem which revives it for us.

A challenge

The challenge, I think, is to take art seriously, and act accordingly. Rilke forces us to recognise the living power of an object centuries out of its time, jolting us out of our self-centred preoccupation with the present moment. Art can do this if we let it: push us out of ourselves and remind us of the existence of a world beyond us, of wild beasts and legends and stars, or simply of the inner lives of others.

Apollo (the god of the arts) is not an especially comforting figure here. All the poem’s metaphors are full of contained energy, the sense that all at once there may be an explosion of movement, in what direction we don’t know. The demand for us to change our lives is the natural extension of the realisation, inherent in all good art, that there is powerful agency outside us in the world, and so human self-sufficiency is only ever partial and temporary.

Academics in particular have good reason to heed this truth, given the strong temptations towards idolatry of the self in the pursuit of knowledge. I regularly face the danger, as a literary scholar, of denying the agency of the writers I read by focusing only on what I want to find, rather than accepting what they have to say on their own terms. You will know your own specific temptations, from abstract problems of methodology to the everyday desire to hoard credit and resources for yourself.

The Christian scholar seeks, above all, to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world. Art like Rilke’s can help us to look away from ourselves long enough to do so.

Faith and Knowledge

Reasoning

Our “Christian philosophy in diagrams” series began with an ontology: things in relation over time. After ontology (what there is), philosophy typically looks at epistemology (how we know). This week I want to share a proposal based on the following diagram:

The oval represents what goes on in my mind, and it’s tightly bound to the green surrounding, which represents my experience. We’re looking at a common-sense, realist view of mental content here – and not just beliefs: the purple area on the right represents tacit knowledge, which was formally introduced to epistemology by Michael Polanyi. His phrase “we know more than we can tell” nicely evokes this sector of mental content. I know how to communicate, how to recognise certain faces, how to ride a bicycle, and so on – without necessarily being able to explain this knowledge.

We’ll leave tacit knowledge aside now to consider propositional knowledge (although Polanyi showed that tacit knowledge plays a central role in scientific research). So the central column indicates how knowledge that I might express by saying “I know/believe that…” can be arranged from what I find self-evident to what I hold most tentatively.  This is where things get interesting. I owe much of the following to Roy Clouser, whose book “Knowing with the Heart” takes its title from a quote of Blaise Pascale: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Knowing God is Real

Does the Bible tell us to have faith that God exists? Biblical writers never even seem to countenance that big question of our humanist age. Instead, we’re supposed to find it obvious that the creator God is real, and put our faith in Him. (Indeed, says Clouser, the authoritative texts of other religions make similar claims.) And I hope that is our experience – once we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in daily life and perhaps through visions or other special experiences. So that bottom layer of the blue column is for all basic beliefs that are obvious to me – about the reality of my friends, the accuracy of my vivid memories, etc – and also that God is real and loves me. The arrow from “Special Revelation” indicates one of the important influences – along with many other forms of testimony – on what I may come to see as self-evident.

Common Knowledge

Then we have the blue arrow labelled “Proof; discourse”, leading from self-evident knowledge to what I’ve called “common knowledge”. The claim here is that we tend to be less certain of things that have to be proven or explained to us. Much confusion is generated when beliefs that are easily shared and agreed upon get passed off as the only real knowledge – leaving everything else as mere belief or opinion. If we buy into the widespread “objective vs. subjective” dualism, we’ll be urged to refer to “knowledge” only when reiterating beliefs shared by lots of boffins! But this notion is completely unworkable, as Clouser shows. The history of ideas (not least science) readily shows that “objective knowledge” routinely changes. Moreover, it only takes a little post-modern awareness for us to suspect that, in many discourses, the use of words like “objective”, “proof” and “fact” owes more to their effectiveness in silencing dissenting points of view (“subjective” “beliefs” and “opinions”!) than to any real infallibility. More needs to be said about analysing how reliable a belief is, as distinct from how firmly I currently hold it.

So we’re left with the term “faith”. There’s a popular view that this is about believing in things without evidence. But biblical faith is more like extrapolating beyond evidence. “I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” Lots of teachings come in this category for me, like the belief that God will heal a loved one, or that Jesus will return. So I’ve put “faith” part-way up the column of uncertainty – having already parked my basic Christian convictions along with my most certain knowledge.

Try reading John 9 for a fascinating insight into the convictions of someone gradually coming to faith in Jesus. Then perhaps compare it with the way Jesus became real to you. Or pray and ask Jesus for that reality, if you’re not sure about it!

Modern music and faith

Music snippet

A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.

The image shows a (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It's music, Jim, but not as we know it...

My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).

For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?

The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.

For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!

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Everyday Apocalypse: From Antichrist to Zombies

Detail from Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

A guest post from David Parry.

A report from the Christian Literary Studies Group Annual Conference

The Christian Literary Studies Group gathered at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Saturday 5th November for our annual day conference, which this year had the theme “Shaping Ends: Aspects of Apocalypse”. Current world events were not in view when we chose the theme months before, but they added a certain resonance to our discussions.

Opening reflections by CLSG Secretary Roger Kojecký reminded us that humans tell stories to find patterns of meaning in life, and that they need “the sense of an ending” to make sense of those stories. The papers that followed ranged widely through literary history, but a common theme was the popularity of apocalyptic themes today. One speaker reported that his online research had led him to a product advertised as “zombie repellent spray”! (Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, reviewed by Alicia Smith in the forthcoming issue of the CLSG journal The Glass, explores apocalyptic in popular culture from a Christian perspective.)

Modern fiction and apocalypse

A keynote presentation by Andrew Tate (Lancaster), spinning off from his forthcoming book Apocalyptic Fiction, addressed the recent genre of ‘climate change fiction’, novels that depict a world after ecological catastrophe. After hailing the nineteenth-century writer and artist John Ruskin as something of a prophet of environmental disaster, Andrew examined novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood, observing that, though depicting a post-apocalyptic world, these writers (even those hostile to Christian faith) tell stories of the survivors that suggest some kind of hope for humanity on the other side of catastrophe.

Simon Marsden (Liverpool) looked at how Christian ideas of apocalypse and the afterlife surface in unexpected forms in contemporary Gothic horror novels – he referenced the TV show The Walking Dead, in which a zombie apocalypse survivor remarks, “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.” Although Gothic horror is often sceptical about organised religion, depicting a nihilistic universe or a bleak afterlife, the recent novels of Peter Straub and Justin Cronin depict a kind of redemption. For instance, in Cronin’s Passage trilogy, the “viral” race of vampire-like humans is redeemed by the messianic Amy, who overcomes the virus progenitor Zero through sacrificial love. (The A to Z names are not coincidental).

Antichrists and apocalyptic hope

Victoria Brownlee (National University of Ireland, Galway) helped to give the long view by looking at how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants saw the pope as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as the scarlet woman foretold in Revelation, exploring how this belief is expressed in texts such as Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Though this sounds like an extreme fringe belief to most Christians today, it was a pretty mainstream view amid the interweaving of political and theological conflicts of that time. Historians have long observed that periods of crisis give rise to apocalyptic thinking, and Christians have often been tempted to play the game of “pin the tail on the Antichrist”.

However, two further papers reminded us that the original sense of “apocalypse” is not disaster but rather unveiling/revelation, which for Christians is a revelation of an ultimate hope beyond catastrophe. Tom Docherty (Cambridge) drew from his PhD research on the poet Geoffrey Hill, looking at how the form (e.g. rhyme scheme and line endings) as well as content of Hill’s poems expresses a longing for a completion that remains unresolved in this life.

Finally, Roger Pooley (Keele) probed New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann’s assertion that “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology”, exploring both ancient apocalyptic texts, parallel with the Bible, and literary works by Yeats and Bulgakov, with Russell Hoban’s sci-fi novel Riddley Walker cited as another literary representation of post-apocalyptic hope. Roger encouraged us to be open to “everyday apocalypse”: we do not have to wait until the end of time for God’s hope-filled future to be revealed to us.

Most of the conference papers will appear in revised form in the Spring 2017 issue of the CLSG The Glass (along with several book reviews). CLSG membership is open to any
one interested in the intersection of the Christian faith with literature, within or beyond academia. We would be delighted for you to join us.

David Parry teaches English literature for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, and his research focuses on early modern / Renaissance literature.

The importance of a Christian mind (2)

Last week, I summarised the first part of a talk given by Andrew Fellows at this year’s Transforming the Mind conference. We saw that setting up faith and reason against each other is not a fruitful approach, neither for the church as a whole, nor for Christian scholars.

A second option, which attracts many Christian academics, views faith and reason as each having a separate function, with faith being the more important. To get from reason to faith, a mystical leap is needed, and the two are not integrated. For Christian academics, this may seem to solve perceived conflicts between faith and reason. It also fits well with the current culture of secularism where religion is pushed into the private realm to create a ‘naked’ public space. However, both the academy and the church need heart and mind engaged. Separation of the two leads people to experience a cognitive dissonance, and ultimately to a diminishing role for faith.

Thus we finally come to the third option, which seeks integration. On this view, there is no real conflict between faith and reason. Both function under the lordship of Christ. Our motivation for seeking the integration of faith within the life of the mind is threefold:

The life of the mind is substantiated and grounded in God the creator. God is a person and he is rational (see e.g. Ps. 92:5 and many similar passages). This is why there is a correspondence between the human mind and the rest of creation. Without this grounding, reason has no foundation, and we have no reason to trust our mental capacities to produce knowledge.

It affirms the link between Christ and creation. Christ is the ‘logos’ of creation. ‘Logos’ cannot be reduced to rationality alone, but all things do find their coherence in Christ (Col. 1:17). The Incarnation shows that there is an affinity between thinking and Christ, who created reason. Christ provides a rationale for rationality.

The life of the mind is a path to spiritual maturity (Rom. 12:1-2). If you do not engage your mind in spiritual growth, you become conformed to the pattern of this world, the futility of reason without faith. Instead, in the way of Christ we are ‘made new in the attitude of our minds’ (see Eph. 4:17-24).

I hope this helps you to understand how the life of your mind fits in with your life of faith. What a great motivation not only to seek the life of the mind, but to do this as faith-ful Christian scholars! What drives you to pursue the life of the mind? And how can you help others (fellow Christian scholars, your church family) to value the life of the mind and to overcome the separation of faith and reason?

The importance of a Christian mind (1)

A while ago I summarised a talk Andrew Fellows gave at this year’s Transforming the Mind conference. He called on us to further the purposes of Christ’s kingdom in our universities. In his second talk, Andrew focused on the relationship between faith and reason, and how this has been viewed in the church over the past 2000 years. 

Andrew FellowsWhat business does a Christian have with the knowledge enterprise? This is a question we are sometimes asked by our fellow Christians. Behind this question often lies the assumption that the academy is a secular institution, and that faith and reason are at odds with each other. However, this is a relatively recent view, going back to the Enlightenment. John Locke famously held that faith falls short of knowledge, and unfortunately, the church has often uncritically accepted this view.

In fact, there is no such divide. Many key Biblical figures, such as Moses, Daniel and Paul, were towering intellects with a first-class education. Throughout church history, God has used rationally-gifted people to achieve his purposes. Examples abound: Boethius, Augustine, Erasmus, Calvin and Luther, to name just a few. The early church father John of Damascus wrote that it is spiritual to cultivate the life of the mind. The reformers encouraged a questioning mind, not just for the elite, but for the masses. For this reason, they made the Bible available in the vernacular and contributed to the democratization of learning. One might even say that Europe is a thinking civilization because of the church.

Having said that, we do need intellectual discernment to navigate what is happening around us, especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture. There is a wide range of options in Christian thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. As I already mentioned, many Christians, as well as much of the culture around us, think that faith and reason stand in opposition against each other. Historically, this Enlightenment idea was influential in pietist movements, and it remains an undercurrent in many evangelical churches. On this view, reason is seen as weakening spiritual experience, and hence a vision of the Christian life emerges that celebrates anti-intellectualism. To be moderately anti-intellectual can seem to be taking the moral high ground, emphasizing simplicity in faith to avoid pride. Thinking is seen as a kind of ‘theology of works’: working towards our own understanding of God’s ways in the world. Instead, people say, we should leave the difficult questions to God’s sovereignty and leave space for mystery.

Three things happen as a result of this:

Knowledge is reduced to the pragmatic. Knowledge is only required when it is useful, and this is also applied more widely to the knowledge enterprise as a whole. This fits well with the new ‘epistemology of numbers’ that is more and more prevalent in academia: knowledge must yield good results, measurable outcomes, not ideas or certainty. However, ideas, like art, have intrinsic value: beauty, truth, goodness, intellectual satisfaction, delight.

Faith is reduced to the volitional. This trend has a long history, starting with William of Occam’s move from the universal to the particular, moving away from ideas. In the Reformation this trend was amplified as faith became more exclusively linked to salvation and an act of the will to accept Christ.

Faith is reduced to the affective. Feelings and personal preference become the new criterion for truth.

The problems of this view are a mental carelessness, a church that is trying to be relevant but becomes populist, and a worldly ethic – because sincerity is seen as more important than wisdom.

It seems clear that this view is not particularly helpful or productive for Christian scholars. Next week we will continue our discussion with two further options that may be more fruitful.

Honesty in humanities research

Library with chair by window

I’ve just come to the end of the second official week of my DPhil. In between all the library inductions, research workshops, and meeting new people, I’ve been doing some thinking about where I want my research to go: the kind of questions I want to ask, and work towards answering, about medieval recluses’ prayer.

Defining a topic

I enjoy the freedom in the humanities, particularly in literature, to define my own topic. But I’m beginning to see that this has its dangers as well. I was struck, during a recent talk at the Oxford Graduate Christian Forum, by some advice which the speaker quoted from the physicist Richard Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.  You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.[1]

My initial reaction was that this wasn’t very relevant to me. My subject is a long way from experimental science! I don’t have to produce and reproduce measurable results, so the temptation to “adjust” them into more publishable material isn’t likely to be an issue.

I can see, too, how someone who’s invested in their research could end up convincing themselves that they’ve produced the outcome they want, whether or not the numbers bear it out. But in a field like mine, where general orthodoxy is that a text is whatever the reader makes of it, surely this call to honesty has little to say to literary scholars.

(I don’t mean to say that no literary critic or historian has ever so wanted to prove an argument that the evidence has become twisted. In fact, there’s an example from the critical history of the medieval text I wrote about in my last post.  That text is anonymous, so many people have tried to identify its author. In the 1970s one critic, E. J. Dobson, claimed to have established his identity and that of the original audience. Unfortunately, it later became clear that a key piece of his evidence was based on a mistake – he had misread a manuscript abbreviation for fratres, brothers, as sorores, sisters.[2] Dobson seems to have wanted his idea to be true so badly that this fairly unambiguous distinction got lost.)

Constructing a narrative

The more I think about this, however, the more it seems like I need Feynman’s advice. I probably won’t have much chance to falsify results, but I’m aware of a temptation to romanticise and generalise when I talk about medieval religion. It’s all too easy to downplay the misogyny, doctrinal differences, and sheer cultural alienness, in an effort to construct the narrative I want: one where prayer, both then and now, has the power to make genuine transhistorical connection possible. I don’t have a well-thought-out conclusion either way as yet, and I have to be careful about how I get there.

Honesty, both to oneself and (the ‘conventional’ sort) to others, is a virtue specially necessary for academics, as Feynman warned. For Christian academics, it must characterise all our work, as we seek to glorify the God whose word is Truth.

 

[1] Richard Feynman, ‘Cargo Cult Science’ (1974) http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm [accessed 15/10/16]

[2] See E. J. Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Oxford, 1976), for the original argument; and Sally Thompson, Women Religious: the Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1991), p.34 n.126 for the correction.

Does business matter to God?

A guest post from Dr Xia Zhu.

At creation, the mandate that God gave to humanity was for people to reflect and mirror God’s stewardship… This involves far more than religious enterprises or the church. It has to do with how we engage with scientific endeavours, how we do business, how we treat each other, how we treat animals, and how we treat the environment.

Sproul, R. C. (2016), How Should I Think about Money? Reformation Trust Publishing, p23

Why Business Matters to God coverReading from the title of the book Why business matters to God (and what still needs to be fixed), (J. Van Duzer, Madison:InterVarsity Press, 2010) we have one person’s answer to the question of whether or not business matters to God. But does business really matter to God? If we ask ourselves this question three times, do we still get a definite ‘yes’? More importantly, in what way does business matter to God? Aren’t ‘business’, ‘money’ and ‘profit’ just a few of those awkward, veiled words in a Christian dictionary?

Jeff Van Duzer is Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University and points out that the most common positive views towards business and its relationship to God’s kingdom are probably instrumental: that business can contribute to God’s kingdom by supporting mission and ministry work; and business (or the workplace) can be used as a platform for evangelism.

But beyond the instrumental value of business in relation to God’s kingdom, does business matter to God? Does business have any intrinsic value to God? Does the actual work of business have any interest to God?

Going back to Genesis, Van Duzer points out that God created a material world and the material world matters to God. The material world is a blessing to human beings and with it comes the responsibility of stewardship. The dichotomy of ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ actually contradicts the biblical account of Genesis. In the creation–fall–redemption–consummation framework, the material well-being of humanity is an integral part of God’s promises, from the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8) to the ultimate promise of the resurrection of the body (Sproul, 2016).

God’s plan of redemption is concerned about the material welfare of human beings, and this concern is also central to the Christian faith (Sproul, 2016). “If we are concerned that people don’t have any food, the most important thing to do is to produce food. If people are naked, our concern is not going to do any good unless we make clothes. Production must increase in order to alleviate poverty in physical areas…the single most important element for meeting the physical needs of human beings is the production of goods and services.” (Sproul, 2016, p.48-49). Van Duzer observes the intrinsic purposes of business: outwardly, businesses provide goods and services that create wealth, enable a community to flourish and enhance the quality of life; and inwardly, businesses create opportunities for individuals to express some of God’s given characteristics (e.g. creativity) in the performance of meaningful and creative work.

Contemplating the question ‘Does business matter to God?’ opens up further questions that need to be explored. For instance, “If the material world matters to God, are we internalizing this biblically instead of over-spiritualizing things?” “If the material world and its business matters to God, are we grappling with these as we study the word of God?” “If business matters to God, are Christians sufficiently encouraged and equipped to engage with the business world?”

Dr Xia Zhu is a lecturer in Marketing at Keele University. Her research looks at service experience in consumer and business-to-business markets. Xia’s twitter name is @zhuxia.

Church Scientific begins in Leeds

Church Scientific logo

A new space for students and researchers to grow their scientific thinking is about to appear in Leeds. Church Scientific is a project to nurture scientific thinkers in building a holistic understanding of how our insights about the world originate and develop through imagination, theory-building and experimentation. The project concerns all kinds of pure and applied sciences: not just the “natural” sciences.

Funded by a “Scientists in Congregations” grant from St John’s College Durham, Church Scientific will see a group of science students and researchers engage in workshops looking at the nature of scientific progress in theological, historical and philosophical contexts. We’ll be asking questions like:

How does scientific understanding progress?  What’s the role of people’s worldviews in the birth of new theories?

Which scientific beliefs are the least liable to revision over time?  Are laws more reliable than theories, for example?

How does “General Revelation” relate to “Special Revelation” – should we think of a “Book of God’s Works” alongside a “Book of God’s Word”?  What is the role of faith in developing knowledge?  What’s the difference between belief and knowledge?

What’s meant by methodological naturalism, and do we really need it?

What norms and values are assumed and discussed within scientific enterprises?  How do they affect the ways scientists think and live in everyday life?

How are scientific fields shaped and driven by social, economic and ideological factors?

As you can see, we’re not shying away from big issues. But the project is driven by a conviction that our own careers as scientists, and also scientific understanding at large, can benefit from a deeper understanding of how scientific thinking fits into people’s broader frameworks of belief, and the cultural beliefs that are called “knowledge”. And that will help us explore connections with our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality, the sources of knowledge, and the best ways to live – which are where philosophy meets religious traditions. Ontology, epistemology and ethics are certainly brought very close to the scientific enterprise when science writers make bold claims along the lines of “where we really came from”, “a theory of everything” or that some scientific view “leaves us with no choice but X…”  We’ll explore these hidden questions, and when the workshops are over, participants will have the opportunity to sign up to share their insights in an informal science talk in one of the café evenings that will run in the new year.

Get involved

There are various ways you might get involved with Church Scientific. If you live in or near Leeds, come to the launch event on 25 October. Dr Elaine Storkey will be asking, “Could a Christian worldview make you a better scientist?” – and we’ll hear from a number of scientist Christians about their work and faith perspectives. Then, if you’re a scientist (student or researcher), you might participate in the workshops in November; if not, there are other important ways to be involved as a mentor or organiser.  Please register your interest on the project web site and someone will get in touch!  You can also find Church Scientific on Facebook.

In the longer term, we hope that this initiative will inspire a fresh wave of Christian engagement in the history, philosophy and theology of the sciences. Personally I’ve found these perspectives stimulating and helpful, and I’m convinced that many of us who are scientists can find new insights for our work by stepping back to survey the landscape.

The Triune Structure of Experience

Last Saturday Faith-in-Scholarship hosted a workshop about Christian philosophy with Dr Jeremy Ive. Having asked what “Christian philosophy” might be, I’m now going to share the basics of a proposal concerning the structure of our experience. For now this framework is presented in Jeremy’s thesis awaiting publication… so remember, you heard it here first!

Three Transcendental Conditions

Does reality have a structure that humans have to acknowledge? Let’s start with an example from geometry. If we reflect on what reality feels like spatially, one of the obvious things is that there are three dimensions. You really can only find three mutually-perpendicular axes of space, and we can’t (as far as I know) imagine space any other way. Emmanuel Kant proposed that the human mind actually imposes the basic structures of time and space that we experience, in outlining his doctrine of transcendental idealism. But wherever they come from, there clearly are constraints (“transcendentals”) for the ways we can conceive reality.

It may be argued that a more fundamental set of conditions is necessary for us to have any experience at all. There are things, there are relations, and there are events. “Things” are just the items we recognise, like rocks, people and companies; they don’t have to be detached, tightly bounded or universally recognised. Although as babies we may have had a stream of consciousness without distinguishing people/things at all, we don’t remember that, and it probably wasn’t “experience” as we know it. Secondly, there are relations among things. This covers the sensations we have in perceiving a thing: we stand in relation to it as we conceive its location, colour, potential behaviour, economic value, etc. Thirdly, there are events. Our sensations are dynamic, giving rise to the sense of continuity and the possibility of change. Each of these three limiting “Ideas”, as Jeremy calls them, reveals a transcendental, as shown in the diagram below.  We’re playing thought experiments again: can you imagine a situation or state of affairs without conceiving of things, relations and events?

Ive's triangle

So the three transcendentals of particularity, relationality and time are supposed to lie behind our basic ideas of people/things, relations and events. The diagram also indicates three “descriptive views” (blue circles) in which we can begin to analyse reality. Lived experience comes to us in a rich, dynamic flow of consciousness, but undisturbed reflection allows us to focus, abstract and attempt to describe the world. The structural, life-history and evolutionary perspectives (my terms!) probably come up in most academic disciplines, for example, although there will often be a focus on just one or two.

This may appeal to you if you like big, unifying schemes, and believe that philosophy should start from common sense. The epistemology in play here (of which more another time) puts great weight on the phenomena we experience. And that’s where this proposal departs from that large body of the Western philosophical tradition that posits some kind of unfamiliar “substance” (e.g. matter or spacetime) behind the appearances we observe. The “substance” approach is unlikely to be either realistic or fruitful, Christians might suspect, because, originating in non-theistic cultures, the “substance” idea is suspiciously similar to an impersonal notion of what is divine.

Jeremy’s triangular proposal is actually a synthesis inspired by the notion of perichoresis in Trinitarian theology. It’s not meant to be natural theology (drawing inferences about God from nature), or evidence for the Trinity. The main source, in fact, is the 20th-century Dutch philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd. These brothers-in-law are said to have hit on their big idea one day when one (or both?) of them took a walk along the coastal dunes near Amsterdam. But that’s a story (and a diagram) for another time!

You can read more about Jeremy’s work, including his thesis, at www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/ive.htm.

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