FiSch blog

What are we confessing when we seek academic qualifications?

Bruce Wearne presented this paper at the Faith-in-Scholarship Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference in Leeds, February 2014

For it is not the one commending himself who is accepted, but the one whom the Lord commends.

2 Corinthians 10:18

Let’s engage our imaginations for a minute with respect to the event at the end of your search for academic qualifications. What is to happen? What has been the purpose of all this striving?

Pause to consider your own institution’s certificate. Then consider another possibility, this imagined citation on the testamur of a fictional “Christian” institution:

This qualification, from this Christian university, indicates that, as a trained Christian student,

HENRIETTA DUBB

is henceforth qualified for the service of Jesus Christ as a graduate who, in wholehearted love for God, will seek the benefit of His people.

This certificate is presented in the confident hope that Our Father in Heaven will answer our prayers and richly bless the service of this qualified student enabling her to serve with all her strength to honour the student vocation, in whatever sphere she serves, striving with all the energy God gives her, to encourage wisdom and maturity among her neighbours, our neighbours, so that they too may find the blessedness that comes from adhering to God’s will for all of life (Col 1:28-29).

This imagined inscription of a “Christian piece of paper” seeks to give voice to a biblically-driven vision about graduation. It assumes that academic credentials and qualifications have their own place in God’s Kingdom.

But why limit our imaginations to a “Christian” context! What about the “secular university” context in which so many of us find ourselves working away at our degrees? The Bible teaches us of a Messiah in whose pierced hands all authority resides (Matthew 28:18-20). It reiterates this by saying that everything makes sense and maintains the Creator’s purpose through Him (Colossians 1:17). It would seem that we Christian students are called to confess that our qualifications are granted to us by God’s Son! We carry these letters with us throughout our life.

But as we think about graduation ceremonies, we are faced with a task, a task that requires formation. How are we, in our rituals, to faithfully give thanks to God for what He grants to us in our academic work? Academic rituals may be somewhat ancillary to the hard slog of laboratory or fieldwork, of writing reports and re-reading difficult theoretical texts. But are we not also called to find ways to creatively celebrate our graduation by confessing together that Jesus Christ has given us this “piece of paper”. And can we form such events in ways that are wide-awake in our academic work to the intellectual atmosphere in which we have been called to follow Christ? That is the challenge.

This is more than a reaction to some of the secularised-mechanical graduation ceremonies we witness. And yes, this does mean confronting what is called the “commodification” of learning with an intellectually healthy response. There is a task here, as a community of students bound together by the love of Jesus Christ poured into our hearts, to celebrate by coming together to give thanks for God’s blessings upon us in our scholarly work and especially at those times when we are rewarded for our efforts. If, in response to “do not neglect coming together” (Hebrews 10:25) we join in intellectual discussion about our post-graduate projects, then surely we can also come together when our course has been completed to give thanks and praise for God’s mercy to us in our studies.

Wherever diplomas are given they should be respected on their merits. The dominant pragmatism may induce us to view this artefact as a lever, but to accept the diploma at the end of the course will only make Henrietta Dubb into a pragmatist if she has been won over in her heart to that view. To reject pragmatism’s misplaced pride in the ability of educated people to “move on”, and become “movers and shakers”, means that we are instead taking a path that is thankful to God for this “piece of paper”, this symbol that points us to our responsibility as qualified students under heaven. Our study is of God’s world, the world He loved so much that He gave His Son.

Qualifications are not levers of self-interest, and we thank God for these pieces of paper, these testimonies to our hard work. We are Christian. Getting the piece of paper can never be all-important. But in Jesus Christ, who is supreme for us, even the “piece of paper” makes sense. It is a necessary help to us as we further explore how the service He calls forth from us defines our lives. Our certificates challenge us as symbols of our calling to life-long thankfulness.

Read Bruce’s articles at AllOfLifeRedeemed.

The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship

This is the title of a book by George Marsden – and it’s also the title that David Hanson took for his talk at the recent FiSch leaders’ conference.  In this and the next few posts, we’ll share some of the things we heard at this conference, which took place in Leeds on 31 Jan – 1 Feb.

When Christians do research, is it automatically “Christian research” they are doing? Surely not! Christians might be more likely to study certain topics, like Christian theology and church history – but that doesn’t seem to require the term “Christian scholarship”. We might go further and hope that the work of Christians in all fields will be honest, trustworthy, fair, and have other “ethical” qualities.  But most scholars, from all kinds of ideological backgrounds, would rate such qualities highly, so this doesn’t seem to make the scholarship itself Christian. So what kind of thing could deserve the title “Christian scholarship”? Can we make our research more pleasing to Jesus Christ somehow?

David Hanson asked members of the group what we hoped our own academic research might achieve, in the grand scheme of things. “Improved quality of life”, “appreciation of God’s creation” and “contribution to future research” were the kind of things we came up with. But would our research automatically produce benefits? Perhaps not: we can easily think of discoveries, ideas and inventions with evil applications as well as good ones. Imagine someone working to create a script for a language that previously only existed orally. This script will open up exciting possibilities – both for developing a literature and sharing it with other peoples and also for translating things into it (Bible translation is, of course, often the primary motivation) – but it also opens up possibilities for causing harm and offence in all kinds of new ways. So it doesn’t seem easy to make our scholarship “Christian” by the choice of topic, manner of engagement or intended outcomes. We can’t expect any privileged foresight into future developments, either: consider Lord Kelvin, a deeply-faithful Christian, who said, “I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning” in 1896 – only seven years before the Wright brothers’ aeroplane took off!

Let’s try a more profound approach. If we, as researchers who are Christians, believe that God has gifted and called us for what we do, we could try thinking Christianly about what scholarship is, and where it might fit into God’s own purposes for His world. Inquisitive humans seem to have been opening up new possibilities within the created order throughout history, and surely this is part of the cultural mandate given to mankind in Eden, the exercise of our own creativity as stewards of God’s creation. Now, the mandate clearly isn’t restricted to Christians, nor has its enactment been: “filling and subduing the earth” (as in Genesis 1:28), and “tending and keeping the garden” (as in Genesis 2:15), are quite good descriptions of a lot of research and development work, and Genesis 2 may also hint at prospects for metallurgy, perfumery, taxonomy and sociology! But could a well-developed Christian worldview – call it a philosophy – affect how we go about this work of stewardship, of developing and opening up the creation, perhaps giving  a distinctive, redemptive flavour to our scholarship?

So in finishing, David mentioned a book that explores how a specific discipline can be opened up in a Christian-scholarly way. Albert Weideman’s “Beyond Expression: a systematic framework for the study of linguistics” applies Herman Dooyeweerd‘s philosophical framework to look at the diverse ways in which language functions in real contexts. This isn’t seeking to trump the scholarship of non-Christians, but rather, as Andrew Basden sees it, to engage and enrich it. Linguistics isn’t my field, but it’s one that fascinates me, and I’m now planning to get hold of this book and see where it takes me. And I mustn’t stop thinking about a Christian framework for ecology, my own discipline…

Welcome to Faith-in-Scholarship!

This blog is a space where a team of us – the FiSch Fellows and some friends – will be exploring how Christian faith can affect academic work and life.  And you, dear reader, are invited to join in!

We’ll probably have more questions than answers, because Christian faith is always an adventure, and our academic work is part of that.  We’re also looking forward to hearing different points of view, because scholarship is a community project which we do, in good faith, without necessarily agreeing on everything.  So we want to engage with you, our readers, and respect your insights too.  By seeking to engage each other with compassionate sensitivity, careful analysis and clear language, we believe a lot of light can be shed on some of the world’s most complex and difficult problems.  We want to see new knowledge, ideas and skills developed and harnessed for good in a broken world.

What we as contributors have in common is a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of the whole created order.  We seek to be guided by God’s Word in the Bible, while trying to understand God’s Word revealed in the rest of creation, in service to that Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, who redeems us by the power of the Holy Spirit, for this life and the life of the world to come.  It’s bound to be an exciting journey!

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