FiSch blog

Christ at the centre of good scholarship

Norms ring

Our series “What is good scholarship?” has examined nine aspects* of God’s created order in which we can discern norms – different kinds of “goods”. We believe these norms are recognised to varying degrees by everyone, thanks to God’s grace.

At the same time, Christians know that pursuit of goodness does not automatically please God; it can still lead us into sin if not done in faith (cf Rom 14:23) and love (cf 1 Cor 13).  Christians are traditionally conscious of the dangers of idolising such goods as reason, progress, beauty and pleasure – but the ascetic path isn’t for most of us (it certainly sounds like bad news for scholarship!).  We may say that believing in Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit is the answer – but we’ll still need to work it out in practice, using our minds.  So what might it look like to pursue what’s good without idolising particular aspects of goodness?

I believe it’s about balance. Jesus’ sinless life was fully human and did not eschew good things: he ate, drank, slept, reasoned, invented stories, socialised, laughed (no doubt), prioritised, righted wrongs, loved and trusted. His goodness clearly involved doing each of the above at the right time and in good balance with the others. His life was at least as full of challenges, trials and constraints as are ours; he was tempted in every way yet without sin.

Jesus wasn’t an academic, but we academics might benefit from thinking analytically about how his life balanced competing norms. For we live in the same created order, and like all humans, must navigate and negotiate among norms that are often in tension as we seek to do what’s best.  So let me briefly recap the norms covered in our series on good scholarship, asking what dangers of idolatry lie in each.  I hope this will help illuminate what it might mean to learn from Jesus in our academic work, and to seek that all-round goodness known in biblical Hebrew as shalom.

  • Logicality: All disciplines rely on good reasoning, but rationalism may easily become an idol. We should also respect the intuitive, imaginative and other thought processes on which ideas depend, and have compassion in our dialogue and debates.
  • Progress: The good of innovation drives academia, and is also surely an idol of Western culture. Genesis 1 and 2 do clearly envisage a history of civilisation and development – so can we balance progress against such goods as contentment and wisdom?
  • Clarity is worth a lot in scholarly communication but may need weighing against economy of words, the value of humour, etc.
  • Social norms and influences are perhaps more often demonised than idolised in academia. Although such norms vary among cultures, we pay the price when they are ignored in our computer systems, architecture, pedagogy – to name but a few areas.
  • Economic idolatry is notoriously damaging in any sphere of life. But getting value for money rightly drives a lot of what we do, as do time-efficiency, resource-use efficiency and wise choices in general.
  • Harmony: There are obstacles to getting much excitement or beauty into our publications, but we should take them seriously in external outputs – and inject them into conferences!
  • Justice: perhaps too often relegated to ethics committees!  In pursuing righteousness, we might consider what is owed to all kinds of parties: organisations and animals as well as fellow-humans.
  • Generosity, and its endpoint in self-sacrifice, is sometimes held up as the central Christian virtue. But it can’t stand alone, and it can even jeopardise other norms. Read about the faithful godly αγαπη love extolled by Paul in 1 Cor 13 and see how it enriches all kinds of goodness!
  • Faith encompasses many kinds of conviction. In its special Christian sense of ‘right relationship with God’ faith is, of course, the key to true goodness. But even this faith must be revealed in other virtues, as James’ letter reminds us.

What do you think? In what ways are these norms part of your work?

_____________

* Our list was based on Herman Dooyeweerd’s framework of modal aspects, in which characteristic norms are supposed to pertain to all aspects from the analytical aspect onwards.  It isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of virtues, simply to give good coverage to the breadth of human experience. Some virtues, like truth and love, cut across these categories; others may be related to ones we’ve covered (e.g. hope relates to faith).

Scholarship in good faith

In this post I want to show how faith lies at the heart of scholarship – perhaps in some ways that we hadn’t thought of before. I also want to explain why faith comes as the final virtue in our series ‘What is good scholarship?

Faith is a scholarly virtue at many levels.  First, we must have faith in the way the world is: trust in the underlying consistency of whatever we’re investigating.  Generations of natural scientists have conceived of ‘the laws of nature’ to justify their predictions and explain the accuracy of their inferences about the world.  ‘Law’ language may be falling out of favour now, but the so-called problem of induction remains, and scientists of all religious positions evidently practise what we might call ‘natural faith’.  And I’m convinced that every field of academic study assumes some kind of predictability or regularity in its subject matter: some underlying motifs, elements or tendencies that recur, so that what we write in our PhDs and papers will be relevant outside the immediate context in which we came up with it.

Library cartoonThen, of course, we need faith in our own minds.  We rely on our memories.  We seize upon problems believing we can solve them.  We immerse ourselves in the literature expecting to abstract something valuable and new from it. This leads on to the next category: faith in other people.

Like any communal enterprise, scholarship depends upon its practitioners trusting each other. If we suspected our peers and colleagues of making things up, we’d change career – but somehow the educational process by which we become scholars instills an admirable degree of professional honesty. We also need to trust in our interpretations of what others have written.Then we have faith that our area of study is worth our devotion.  This could be articulated in a profoundly personal way by every scholar, especially those whose work doesn’t seem likely to have consequences for daily life.  Why do people devote themselves to philosophyastronomyarchaeology or musicology?  Sometimes we may believe our discoveries could change the world, but often we don’t – and still less do some of our friends and family!

Christian faith in scholarship?

That’s a list of different kinds of faith in scholarship, hopefully none too controversial. But I’ve missed one, of course. As a Christian, I’m not going to forget the centrality of faith in God. We’ve had nine articles now about “good scholarship” but only occasional reference to classical Christian virtues (e.g. on social virtues, and generosity). Why this reticence?

The FiSch team believes that our ultimate faith commitments change our world.  For me, living in the story where Jesus Christ reveals how this world is meant to be the Kingdom of God colours everything.  Everything I wrote above – about faith in the world, myself, other people and my calling – is qualified by my conviction that it is God’s world, God’s creatures and God’s callings I’m thinking about – those of the transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For people living in other big stories, like a secular humanist one, ‘faith’ no doubt feels very different.  The scandal of Christianity is the claim that without knowing Jesus as Lord, people’s search for ultimate meaning fixates on something created, which ultimately cannot satisfy the demand placed upon it. And the focus of one’s faith ends up shaping not just one’s worldview but also behaviour – and hence other people’s lives too. The kind of faith we have in scholarship really matters!

How this works out needs exploring at greater length, and a final post in this series will suggest some echoes of faith in the other scholarly virtues we’ve looked at.

Generosity as an intellectual virtue

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9,11)

We return to our series on good scholarship and fittingly, as we have just celebrated God’s self-giving love in the sacrifice of His Son, this week’s focus is on generosity. Generosity means giving beyond duty. At first glance, there seems to be quite a lot of generosity around in academia. As a PhD student, I was surprised at how willing other researchers were to help me: providing access to museum collections in their care, helping out with fieldwork, or even sharing unpublished data with me. Now, as I approach the end of my second postdoc, I have become more cynical, expecting other motives to be in the background: people may expect to be co-authors on publications, or look for favourable reviews of their own publications, or seek to strengthen their reputation. And the same goes for academic institutions as a whole: when you bring in a prestigious grant, you are fêted and paraded around. But as soon as your grant runs out, expect no further investment from your institution.

Now of course I am generalising here, and I am sure many researchers do act out of true generosity, a desire to help others, and to further their field of research as a whole and benefit wider society. I am grateful for many colleagues who really have freely given of themselves to me. It seems, therefore, that generosity is primarily a matter of attitude.

As Christians, we should be keen to give freely of ourselves. When we remember whom we serve, we remember that Christ was willing to give his life for us. God so loved the world – and all people in it, including our colleagues – that He gave his only Son. And we are called to have the same self-giving mindset as Christ (Phil. 2: 5-11). So what would this look like in practice in academia?

In the competitive environment of academia, there are many opportunities to practise generosity. Acknowledge other researchers’ contributions to your work, and welcome them to take ownership of joint work. Strive particularly to reach out to researchers from places without as much access to libraries, expensive journal subscriptions, and research facilities. Help those who are less advanced in their studies to develop their ideas and take initiative in their research. If you are teaching, make yourself available to students, whether brilliant or struggling. Give back to the people who fund your research (often the taxpayer!) by taking part in outreach activities.

I must admit to a struggle in this area, however. Maybe some of you who read this can offer your own comments. I personally have a rather limited energy store. So whilst I would love to say ‘give sacrificially of your time and strength’, I know that if I put that into practice, it would probably negatively affect my health, and thus, in the long term, my ability to give to others. In the same vein, there are jobs that I might sacrificially offer to do that I am not actually very good at. So we need to prayerfully consider what we can and cannot do, and what our gifts are. But let us be willing to serve others out of love for Him who loved and served us.

Common Good and Kingdom of God: Implications for Christian Scholarship

This post is the third of a short series summarising the three main talks given by Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin at the Faith-in-Scholarship conference in February. (Summary of Jonathan’s first talk. Summary of Adrienne’s first talk.)

To finish the conference Jonathan and Adrienne gave a joint talk entitled ‘The common good and the kingdom of God: implications for Christian scholarship’. Jonathan began by reflecting that Christian scholarship seeks the common good of society. As we find in the book of Jeremiah, God’s people are told to ‘seek the peace of and prosperity of the city’ (29:7). We can be a part of this as Christian academics. We can aim, together with our non-Christian colleagues, to be engaged in the same pursuit of truth, advancement and dissemination of knowledge and culture.

There is, however, perhaps obviously to many Christians, a striking problem with this. In our pluralistic society we have no shared vision of sources or content of truth, or definition of reliable knowledge, or even understanding of what is valuable in culture. We have a plurality of perspectives partly overlapping, partly diverging, contending with one another.

What are we to do about this problem? Jonathan suggested that we may uphold a ‘principled pluralism’. We should honour deep differences arising from different worldviews. We should have respect for freedom of conscience and its public expression as far as possible and protect the university from resistance to this. On the face of it, however, this may cause some Christians to kick back. Promoting pluralism is not seen as beneficial by many Christian groups because they realize that there is only one truth and not a plurality. Jonathan was insistent, however, that ‘principled pluralism’ should not be mistaken for ‘relativist pluralism’ or ‘pragmatic pluralism’: relativist pluralism being an acceptance that truth is plural, and pragmatic pluralism (I take it) meaning that we, together, can aim towards finding the most appropriate truth for our society at the current time.

Jonathan concluded from all of this that we should not, therefore, cultivate ‘Christian’ scholarship or institutions merely for their own sake, but to work for the common good. This, of course, does not preclude the exercise of Christian critique of our culture, but Christian scholarship should not fundamentally mean providing Christian critique. Rather, as Jonathan notes, ‘Christian scholars should be ready to bring their authentic perspectives on common goods to bear in public debate in academy and society over many issues’. These authentic perspectives are inspired by ‘a transformative vision of [the] kingdom of God’.

Adrienne and Jonathan then helped us to see what this might look like on the ground. The applications were far reaching, and go beyond the scope of this short post, but I will mention one application here. This is that we, as Christians, should be entering existing debates within our prospective fields. We need not give a critique of that field straight away; rather we can first seek to find answers to recognised problems by drawing upon certain aspects of the Christian worldview. Adrienne, for example, mentioned that she was told by her PhD supervisor not to use biblical reasoning when engaging in the topic of her PhD. She was, however, able to use the resources of her Christian worldview to enrich her work nonetheless. In doing so she was able to further debates in her field from the perspective of a transformative vision of kingdom of God.

Faith, truth and experience in art and scholarship

This post is the second of a short series summarising the three main talks given by Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin at the Faith-in-Scholarship conference in February. (Summary of Jonathan’s first talk.)

Adrienne’s talk, on ‘Faith, Truth and Experience’, drew in particular on her own expertise in the field of aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The starting point was an exploration of what function the concepts of truth and meaning might serve in the context of artistic experience. There is a tendency in Western thought to view truth as something that is inextricably bound up with language; each of the dominant philosophical theories of truth (including the correspondence theory, the coherence theory and the consensus theory) is based on the assumption that ‘truth’ is something communicated through clear, grammatically correct and unambiguous sentences that relate to real situations in the world. From this viewpoint, truth is not something that can be conveyed through art, music or poetry, or through non-linguistic dimensions of experience such as the emotions.

This stance, however, is a departure from the etymology of the word ‘truth’ itself, both as an English term and in its Biblical cognates. ‘Truth’ stems from the Old English word ‘treowe’, which conveys faithfulness in a much broader sense, much as we might talk about a ‘true friend’. The term most often translated as ‘true’ in the Old Testament is אֱמֶת (emeth), which again suggests faithfulness or steadfastness – for example in Psalm 36:5: ‘Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies’. Here, truth is bound up not with linguistic correspondences but with trustworthiness, with faithfulness to an established relationship.

In the New Testament, the Greek term ἀλήθεια carries similar resonances, but it also means literally unveiling or disclosure; it is the negation of λήθεια, which means something hidden or forgotten (it is the root of our word ‘latent’). In the Bible, the ultimate example of truth as disclosure is Jesus: he is the Word made flesh, and he reveals the Father to us, not just through his teachings but through the totality of his life. Truth is thus not just about statements that correspond to reality, but rather about  lived experience.

God’s disclosure in creation is the precondition of all human knowing. Different kinds of scholarship build on this in different ways. Science uses careful observation to go beyond appearances and reveal more about a certain aspect of the world. By contrast, art engages directly with these appearances, and its focus on the totality of our experience of the world rather than a specific aspect. It is a kind of imaginative disclosure that involves all our senses.

This poses a challenge. Christian views on art have often stressed its effectiveness as a way of transcending the senses: for example, the idea that visible beauty can point us towards the invisible God. Where its sensory qualities have been acknowledged, they have often been seen as immoral or self-indulgent; this all shows the impact of mind-body dualism upon Christian thought. But if we reclaim the multi-sensory nature of art, we find that it can serve as a powerful form of intimate contact with the world. It teaches us to see things as they really are; it feeds our imagination, and as a result nurtures our empathy; it gives a voice to affective experience; and, ultimately, it can disclose truth.

Scholarship: a Christian and human vocation

At the recent Faith-in-Scholarship conference, ten participants spent an intensive 22 hours with the six FiSch Fellows and two guest speakers: Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin. This post is the first in a short series giving you a flavour of the three main talks.

The first talk was by Jonathan on ‘Scholarship as a Christian — and a human — vocation’. Jonathan is a specialist in Christian political thought, and is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), which is based at Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Christian scholars should view their work as a ministry given to them by God. This could be because it provides opportunities for evangelism, or because Christian scholars can serve the church. But it would be wrong to see those as the principal purpose of Christian scholarship. Christians ought to approach scholarship, first and foremost, as a shared, human vocation.

Before returning to that theme, it is worth considering the context in which this scholarship (usually) takes place: the modern university, which is the site of a contest between modernity and postmodernity.

The project of modernity started out as ‘faith seeking understanding’ but ended up insisting that faith was strictly inadmissible in all disciplines except theology. Now, although there is a proper ‘differentiation’ of knowledge into distinct disciplines, which will (rightly) lead to a distinction between theology and other areas of knowledge, the dominant reason for excluding faith considerations from scholarship was more an attempt to assert the primacy of ‘objective’ knowledge over ‘subjective’ faith. However, modernity failed to produce universal knowledge, and instead gave rise to numerous warring paradigms.

The very notion of ‘objective’ knowledge has been radically questioned in postmodernity, according to which all knowledge is ultimately particular and contingent. So, while modernist scholarship remains deeply suspicious of any attempt to allow a religious faith to shape it from within, there are now some postmodern ‘cracks in the secular’. These reveal a new openness to faith-based commitments and to a diversity of standpoints, including Christian perspectives.

Scholarship is a shared human vocation, because all scholars are part of the same creation. In the Bible, ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ are about being aligned with the created order. And the particular kind of reasoning involved in scholarship is one route to wisdom.

But the creation we are investigating is now a fallen one. We do our scholarship with a certain blindness to the true order of creation, and we are prone to lapse into all kinds of intellectual and ideological distortions. Thus there is an ‘antithesis’, not between Christians and non-Christians, but between truth and falsehood.

This leads us to the theme of scholarship as a Christian vocation. There is a promise of redemption for the fallen creation. Christ was present at the origin of creation as well as in its redemption (see Colossians 1:15–17; Hebrews 1:1–3), so in pursuing faithful scholarship we will always be moving towards Christ. And this is the deepest basis for the dignity of the Christian and human scholarly calling.

Finally, what is the goal of scholarship? It is not just about intellectual transformation: scholarship is intended to serve society and humanity.

In summary, Christian scholarship may be described as: ‘a transformational vocation to acquire critically-oriented systematic rational insight into, and to disclose truth about, some facet of created, fallen and redeemed reality, in the light of an intellectual framework responsive to the fullness of biblical revelation, in critical dialogue with others, and in service of humanity’.

Justice as an intellectual virtue

The fact that Christians put a strong emphasis on justice is nothing new. At my church we’re currently working through Amos in our home groups. Amos surveys the surrounding lands and finds great injustices occurring there. He notices that injustices are occurring in (i) the law courts (Amos 2:6), (ii) the market place (Amos 2:7), (iii) the bedroom (Amos 2:7) and (iv) religious temples (Amos 2:8). They’re all areas where justice is not being done; areas that God, so it seems, cares equally about but where His good standards are not being applied.

How does the good of justice apply in academic life? I want to suggest that it affects us in two ways: content and culture.

First, consider the content of our research. If we’re to be imaging God (Gen. 1:27) then we are to be concerned, like Him, with doing justice (in the doctrinal and social sense) in every aspect of our work. We are to be agents in His world bringing justice to those who are oppressed (Rom 13:3-5). Given God’s concern with all areas of life as demonstrated in Amos we must see all of the issues (doctrinal and social) as important. I was recently at a talk by Charles Taliaffero (a Christian philosopher) who defends a similar position to me with regards to the question ‘What are we?’ This talk was a particularly useful rebuke on this issue for me. At this talk I expected him to give a defence of the doctrinally orthodox Christian view we both share. But, instead, he called philosophers concerned with the above question to consider a more rounded intellectual strategy. Not just be concerned with defending the propositional statements they find most attractive but be concerned with thinking hard about the ramification of these positions in society.

Second, consider the academic culture. It’s no secret that the academy is rife with injustices. People take more credit for their work than they’re really due. We all live by the mantra ‘publish or perish’ and this means that people publish papers that are, let’s admit, not furthering a particular area of research but simply reinventing the wheel. People get jobs because of who they know and not because they’re the best candidate. The university wants departments to make more money – not to be seeking truth. All of these things seem to be injustices to me. How are we to be agents of justice in the culture of the academy? I daresay just not doing the above is not good enough. We need to be seeking ways to minimise injustices. In practice how might this be done? I don’t know the precise answer. Will encouraging open access be one step in the right direction? Will making use of blogs be another (they can encourage fruitful dialogue that can be hindered by the peer review process)? What I do know, however, is that there are injustices and we cannot sit idly by. Given God’s concern for justice and our imaging Him it’s surely something we can be thinking about more often.

Harmony as an intellectual virtue

Rainbow

What role does the aesthetic aspect of reality play in everyday life? As a musician, this question is obviously close to my heart. Herman Dooyeweerd identifies the intellectual virtue associated with the aesthetic as ‘harmony’, while Calvin Seerveld, an thinker in the same tradition who wrote extensively on art, prefers ‘nuance’ or ‘allusiveness’. Whichever term you use, this virtue draws our attention to the richness of God’s creation and the perfection of His works, in a way that goes beyond rational understanding and into awe, enjoyment and peace. Andrew Basden talks about a ‘delight that seems non-necessary’, which is a great summary of this virtue; a harmonious life is saturated with an awareness of God’s grace, which gives us not mere existence but life in abundance.

Scripture is full of aesthetic contemplation. It’s there in the places you’d expect, like the psalmists’ joy over God’s works, or the warmth and delight of the Song of Songs. But it’s just as present in the Law, where God’s commandments about the Israelites’ various festivals add up to rituals that encompass every sense; or in the Prophets, whose exhortations to God’s lost people draw on every metaphor available (some quite shocking!) to portray their desperate state. It’s even there in Paul’s letters, where statements about God’s character and actions are punctuated by outbursts of poetic wonder and praise.

How can we bring harmony to our lives and work as Christians in the academy? Here are a few principles:

  • Remember the limits of rationality. In a world increasingly obsessed with objective measures – league tables for schools and universities, headlines dominated by (often misunderstood) statistical judgements – it is important to remember that God’s ways are higher than ours, irreducible in their multi-dimensional richness. Alongside the pithy clarity of his teachings on subjects such as prayer, giving, or forgiveness, Jesus’ parables stand as miracles of allusiveness that bewildered his audiences and provide food for years of contemplation even today. The Pharisees, with their dogmatic insistence on the letter of the law, lost the harmonious whole. We too need to be careful not to elevate our own rationality above God’s plans.
  • Harmony is not always easy. Debates around modern art often revolve around the contrast between provocation and entertainment, with some wanting artists to break every taboo, and others seeking out aesthetic experiences as an escape from the difficulties of everyday life. This dichotomy is one that we can challenge as Christians. Jesus entered into the darkest places of the world and suffered so that we can know him in the midst of joy and pain alike. The harmony of God’s plans is not undermined by the reality of our broken world, and we do need to run from this brokenness; nor do we need to surrender to it.
  • Research can be beautiful. There are many pressures on researchers to justify the value of their work in a host of different ways, whether economic or social or ethical. Each of these is important, of course, but it can be easy for the aesthetic dimension of research to be forgotten in the scramble to be clear, to be useful, to do good. Understanding our research as an act of worship, an outburst of praise at God’s gifts and His work in creation, can give us a fresh perspective on its intrinsic value and protect us from burnout or discouragement.

Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Cambridge

CHAS

Chris Watkin, Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University, Australia, recalls the origins of CHAS:

The Cambridge CHAS group (Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) began in 2008 as an occasional and informal gathering of postgraduate students with a common interest in exploring what it means to be a Christian scholar. The “agenda” of the early meetings (a word somewhat over-formal for the “let’s get together with some friends and have a chat” vibe of the group) was a combination of prepared reflections from group members on their own research, conversations about books we had elected to read and discuss together as a group (George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was one of the first, and I think we also discussed John Stott’s Your Mind Matters), and free-form conversations about research-related issues that our non-Christian colleagues either would not understand or would not be interested in.

As I reflect back on those early days there are five main reasons why I am thankful for it:

  • At a very basic level, it kept the priority of thinking about what I was doing from a Christian point of view on the agenda, at a busy time when the pressures of completing a PhD could have been all-consuming.
  • In the context of a secular university where the idea that research in arts and humanities could be conducted from a Christian point of view would have been met by most people with incredulity or derision, it was an encouragement not to drift along with the flow, and the group formed its own modest little counterculture standing against the prevailing assumptions around us.
  • It introduced me to some stimulating thinking on what sometimes gets called the “integration” of faith and learning, both from published authors and from other members of the group.
  • It was somewhere to point Christians who were struggling with questions around faith and learning (this was a huge help).
  • Finally, though by no means incidentally, the craic was good.

David Parry, currently teaching English literature for various Cambridge colleges, continues the story:

Like many graduate student groups, CHAS has had ups and downs as enthusiastic new postgrads have got involved and key players have moved on to other places or responsibilities. En route, we have tried a wide range of formats and strategies, including at different times a weekly reading group and a seminar series bringing in academics from across the UK and visiting international scholars to provide a Christian perspective on their fields.

More recently, we have felt the need to get back to basics, fostering conversation and community over food. While Cambridge is blessed with an abundance of lectures and seminars by often eminent speakers, including many on faith-related issues, we feel that there is still a gap to fill in providing space where Christian graduate students can think through their faith and studies in a supportive peer group.

CHAS has a mutually supportive relationship with the Christian Graduate Society, which hosts weekly Bible study groups and outreach events. Although our active membership remains relatively small numerically, we believe that it is not insignificant. Taking the long view, for even a handful of people each year to catch the vision of thinking Christianly about our studies and about all of life can have abiding fruit over a lifetime. Just as in Jesus’ parable, the seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a small group of graduate students can grow into a tree that gives home and shelter to many.

Find out more from the Facebook Group…

Christian postgrad groups in action: Cardiff

Cardiff SPCF

We continue our journey around the country in search of Christian postgraduate groups, and today we are visiting Wales, where a group of Christian staff and postgraduates named ‘CriSP’ has been meeting for a number of years. Founding member Caleb Woodbridge recalls:

Back in 2009, I was working as an administrative assistant at Cardiff University, and was eager to start a Christian staff network. In church one Sunday at the start of term, I met a new PhD student, Mike Newton, who was asking around about the idea of a Christian postgraduate group. We got chatting and quickly found we had a shared vision for Christian staff and postgrads to engage the university, and advertised a first meeting to explore the idea, in the university chaplaincy as a meeting place.

With support from local churches and a few established Christian academics at the university, a group began to gather which gained the name “CriSP” (an acronym of Christian Staff and Postgraduates, sort of!). It established weekly meetings, mixing prayer, Bible studies, presentations and discussions. I went on to do a masters in English Literature, switching to the postgraduate side of things, and found the group very encouraging and helpful exploring the interface between my faith and studies.

Sarah Johnston is currently involved in the group, and she picks up the story:

When I started my PhD in 2013, CriSP was in the rather unusual position of having to start again, almost from scratch. Most of the group had almost simultaneously finished their studies and moved on from Cardiff, and some practical changes had to be made to reflect the change of circumstances (such as moving from an evening to a lunchtime meeting). We now meet for a drop-in hour on Tuesday lunchtimes, under the name SPCF (Staff and Postgraduate Christian Fellowship). Although we are independent from the Chaplaincy, we meet in the Chaplaincy building and the chaplains join with us whenever they can.

The focus of the group is fellowship, Bible study and prayer, and we seek to apply the passages we study to the university context, and to pray for events, situations, and people in the University. I have found these Tuesday lunchtimes are a sanctuary from the whirlwind of PhD life, an opportunity to explicitly bring a Biblical, Gospel perspective to academic life and commit it explicitly to the Lord. The group members come from different churches and denominations, and each bring their own perspective and experiences to bear on what we are reading and discussing.

We are at present a very small group but aim to have a visible presence on campus, and welcome anyone and everyone who would like to come. Above all, we want to seek God’s will for the group and trust Him for the future – our main purpose is to glorify Him and be ambassadors of His grace on campus.”

Christian postgraduate groups can go through ups and downs. Many groups rely on a small number of enthusiastic leaders, and run the risk of fizzling out when the leaders finish their postgraduate degree and move elsewhere. I hope the story of the Cardiff group is an encouragement to those who are struggling to keep a group going. I would advise those who are currently leading groups to be actively looking out for people who could take over leadership when you move on, and to forge links with more ‘permanent’ members of the academic community, such as members of academic or administrative staff and chaplains, who may be able to support the group through the lean times. And if your group is small, remember the promise of Christ: ‘Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.’ If you’d like an opportunity to discuss the joys and sorrows of leading a Christian postgraduate group with others in a similar position, may I remind you that there is still space on the Faith-in-Scholarship conference next month! See our News page for more information and to book online.

For updates on the meetings of the Cardiff SPCF, follow them on Twitter at @CardiffSPCF.

Pages