Thinking Faith blogs

Listening to God with studious imagination

"The Sower" by Jean-François Millet

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

Mark 4:2

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

Isaiah 28:23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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How Evangelism can be Fun

Very encouraged that my article 'How Evangelism can be Fun' is featured on the front of the Baptist Times. To date 15 people have made comments about my article.

So delighted that an old friend, Jeffrey Dudiak, Professor of Philosophy, The King’s University, Edmonton, Canada wrote this:

Behind the engaging silliness of Mark Roques' carefully targeted stories opens up a vista upon profound and crucial questions, an invitation to think through cultural assumptions that we often don't think about at all. His is not an evangelism with a hammer, but with a welcoming smile. Mark's stories set the stage upon which God's Word can be heard in non-threatening but still utterly challenging ways. His is an inspired, and inspiring, ministry. Thanks, mate!

What is your calling again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teenagers are intrigued by Mafiosi and the gospel!

       

Thanks to everyone who prayed for me yesterday. I really need this prayer support. RB is a ministry that is committed to reaching out to British teenagers and during this conference there was some serious bespoke evangelism going on. Please look at previous postings if you don't understand this way of talking about mission.

I spoke to forty young people at a school in Thorne. I have not been to this school before and I had agreed to do the Human Trafficking conference in 90 minutes and then the Mafia and Evil conference in 100 minutes. It was exciting but intense! Holding the attention of teenagers for 2 ½ hours is never easy - even with a 30 minute break. The group work went very well with great comments and questions from the young people.

Here are some of the highlights of the morning. I was able to present the gospel by contrasting the consumerist worldview with the Christian faith. I told the stories of mafia hit-men, the 'beast' and the 'weasel' etc and contrasted the materialist belief that murderers and rapists are just machines with biblical teaching. I explained how CS Lewis understood evil and satan and how this contrasts with materialist, Hindu and Buddhist teachings. The students were alert, attentive and responsive, although one student did tell me off slightly for mentioning rape. She did add that she had really enjoyed the presentations.

I was then grilled by the students!

During the discussion I was asked by a very articulate student if it was fair that evil people could go straight to heaven just by repenting at the last moment. He believed that this was unjust. I reframed the question in terms of the biblical hope of the resurrection (Acts 23:6). I pointed out that those who love the Lord Jesus will be raised from the dead and live in a new heaven and a new earth. This good news could even surprise a mafia hitman if he repented at the last moment. The student was disarmed by my answer but seeds were being sown in young lives.

I was also asked to comment on my belief in the devil and I explained that when I examined all the alternative perspectives on evil - Materialism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism and Buddhism I found biblical teaching compelling, realistic and convincing. Some agreed with me. Some didn't!

The teacher who had invited me into the school told me: "It had been amazing."

It was a very encouraging morning's work. The words of Jesus in Matthew 28 kept running through my mind as I drove back to Leeds. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

 Please continue to pray for RealityBites and Thinking Faith Network.

         

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Bespoke Evangelism and Fish and Chips

 

Bespoke evangelism begins with everyday conversation. This might involve chatting about vegetarian cooking, fish and chips, the royal family, detective dramas, sport, social events, photography, poetry, travel in exotic locations, gangster films and Hollywood stars. We find out what people naturally enjoy talking about and then we build bridges into this enjoyable chat zone. We seamlessly connect Christian faith to garlic, diamond rings, the royal family and fish and chips. It's relevant, imaginative and fun!

This is how a conversation about fish and chips could help you share your faith.

What's the best chippie near you? Do you go for cod or haddock? Did you know that Plato, the Greek philosopher, taught that lazy, stupid, bad people are reborn in fish? What a contrast with Christian teaching! People live only once (Hebrews 9:27) and then are judged by how they have responded to Jesus. Those who love and follow Jesus are given wonderful resurrection bodies and will live in a new heavens and a new earth. Plato was a very clever boffin but he was lost in pagan darkness.
 

 

 

A Christian academic booklist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Are we called to be academics?

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

    Calling in the Bible

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

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

    Work and identity

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

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

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

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

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    Bespoke Evangelism: Vinnie Jones prays to his granddad!

     In 2003 football hard man and actor Vinnie Jones admitted assaulting an airline passenger and drunkenly claiming he could have a flight crew "murdered for £3,000". Jones became incandescent with rage when a fellow passenger, Stephen Driscoll told him he was being "annoying", sparking a tirade of aggressive threats from the celebrity. Jones was given 80 hours community service and fined £800.

    Despite this, Vinnie is a man of prayer. Surprised? In Vinnie the Autobiography, Vinnie explained his faith like this:

    "Yes, granddad was special. So special that, since we lost him, I've always believed he was still in touch. I am convinced he is my spiritual guide. I remember saying out loud: I'd love to be a professional footballer, granddad. A footballer. One chance. Anything, anywhere. If you can help....."

    In 1986, Vinnie scored a goal against Manchester United. This is how he prayed during the game:

    "It might seem strange, but at that moment I said another little prayer: 'Come on granddad, come on, please let it stay at 1-0.' And he did. United did bring on 'Pop' Robson, but there was nothing Captain Marvel could do to spoil my incredible day.

    How would a committed materialist respond to this story?

                "Superstitious nonsense. Spirits do not exist because everything is physical."

    How would a relativist respond?

                "If you believe it, it is true for you."

    How would a pagan respond?

                "There are many spirits, including granddads, which respond to prayer....so carry on             Vincent."

    And a Christian response would be:

                "Vinnie you need to repent of both your violent, uncouth behaviour and praying to a dead person. Unlike Jesus, your granddad, Arthur, did not come back from the dead!"

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    Cross-cultural teaching

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

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

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

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

    The Laws of Ecology?

    Green landscape

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

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

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

    First page of the article by Gunton & Gilbert

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

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

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

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