FiSch blog

Lecturing in God’s Kingdom

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).

The month to come will be a busy one for universities across the UK. Much attention will doubtless (and deservedly) be focussed on the numerous young people who are preparing to make what is often the most significant journey of their lives to date, leaving their family home and starting new lives as students, sometimes a long way from everything that is familiar to them. They won’t be the only ones facing the new term with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, though. Many lecturers around the country are right now busy getting ready to meet an entirely new group of students, thinking about ways to inspire and challenge them, perhaps even preparing to teach a module or course for the first time. I know, because I’m one of them!

This moment thus seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the value of university teaching specifically within the wider vision of Christian scholarship. What does it mean for us as scholars to ‘teach for Christ’ at a university level? Here’s a few thoughts which have encouraged and challenged me recently:

Teaching is a powerful means of dissemination. Serving Christ in the academic sphere means seeking (like all scholars) a platform to pass on our ideas to others. Publication is an established way of communicating with peers, but it’s far from perfect: it can be slow, narrow in its reach and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding. In teaching, by contrast, ideas can be tested out immediately, with instant feedback and the chance to rectify errors and misunderstandings, and the audience is (often) much more diverse, providing greater opportunities to have influence beyond our own immediate sphere. If our scholarship is rooted in the desire to honour Jesus, this can feed through powerfully into the ideas we communicate in our teaching.

Teaching challenges us to engage with new ideas, in new arenas. It is pleasing to feel like an expert, and research cultures tend to encourage scholars to pursue their own individual fields of expertise, alongside fellow-scholars who are largely sympathetic. Any lecturer, however, will sooner or later be faced with the prospect of teaching a subject they know next-to-nothing about, or communicating with students who are dismissive of or resistant to their course materials. Uncomfortable though these experiences may be, they are important opportunities to test out the value of the truths we affirm – about the value of scholarship to God, and the need to be willing to engage with even hostile audiences as we communicate it – in the crucible of real and challenging experience. In the process, we may see God’s power and Lordship all the more clearly.

Teaching is a chance to demonstrate God’s grace. I am delighted here to link to the best article I’ve ever read about university teaching, by the American mathematician Francis Su. Su presents a vision of teaching whereby students can learn not only information, but also a sense of identity which is built around grace, God’s free gift of acceptance and love. When we communicate to those around us that they are valued regardless of their intellectual standing, we are showing them grace. Su argues that this is evident in lecturing both in the way we approach material (with freedom to experiment, take risks and celebrate the joy of discovery), students (not giving more time or attention to higher-achievers), and even assessments (as judgements on the value of a piece of work, not of the student who produces it). It is a lifelong challenge to pursue this vision of grace in teaching, but I think it provides a powerful chance to witness to the grace shown to us through Jesus.

Report on the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial Conference: Marriage, family and relationships

Marriage, Family & Relationships - title page

Over the summer I attended the Tyndale Fellowship Quadrennial conference on Marriage, family and relationships. It was fantastic.

I have been to many Tyndale Fellowship conferences before. The Tyndale Fellowship conferences are normally comprised of several separate groups that meet at the same time and venue but never attend each other’s talks (well, unless you dare). These separate groups are subject specific. For example, there’s a New Testament group, a Systematic Theology group, and a Philosophy of Religion group (the one I attend). Every four years, however, we break out of our groups and have a conference of a slightly more interdisciplinary flavour. Our keynote sessions are mixed (we’re all together) and they all focus on a single theme. This year it was ‘Marriage, family and relationships.’

The conference opened with Dr. Onesimus Ngundu providing a fast and furious history of Marriage. His talk entitled ‘Glimpses of Some Interesting Elements of the History of Marriage’ was both thrilling and enlightening. I learnt the etymology of the words ‘honeymoon’ and ‘best man’ (I won’t relieve you of the joy of doing the research yourself). I was challenged over whether or not the utterance ‘who gives this woman to be married to this man?’ was really biblical (my wife and I subsequently disagreed on this point, but not in the way that you may think!).

Part way through the conference I was deeply moved by Dr. Elaine Storkey’s paper ‘Scars Across Humanity.’ In it she presented her research on global violence against women. She covered topics such as child marriage, female infanticide, rape and domestic abuse, among others. Her talk was not a mere documentary, however. She also challenged us to think about the role that Christianity has played in the past and the role it might play in the future. She provided compelling arguments that Christians can and do have the best true story of hope for these women and that this should move us into action.

Finally, after being jolted awake by the Rev. Dr Ian Paul’s suggestion that Jesus is depicted as having female breasts in Revelation and what that (among other things) might mean for our being sexed in heaven, we were given the treat of having two lectures, one after the other, arguing for opposing theses. First, Dr Daniel Hill (one of my supervisors) very persuasively argued that the connection should be cut between marriage and the state. Second, Prof. Julian Rivers argued (equally persuasively) that English law would not fare so well without it. Both talks were exemplary, as was the manner in which they were conducted. Both Prof. Rivers and Dr Hill engaged one another with the utmost charity and care…although Dr Hill’s argument, of course (!), won out.

Overall the conference, as I said, was fantastic. Yes, there were some blunders made because we have highly specific subject-dependent terminology (not everyone knew the difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition!), but those few blunders aside, this interdisciplinary conference was a treat. Our Lord’s creation is multifaceted and we’re to understand it in all its glory, to find new connections between disciplines and explore new avenues of research. This was encouraged by this year’s Quadrennial. I look forward to the next and hope you will join us!

From the observatory to the pulpit


A large percentage of PhD students don’t follow a career in academia … will it all turn out to have been a waste of time?

This is something of a ‘farewell’ post from me, as I’m stepping down from the Faith-in-Scholarship blogging team, in order to concentrate on my studies, as I move to Durham to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

The photo dates from May 2005, and shows me (on the left), in the first year of my PhD, on an observing trip to Hawaii. (What sacrifices we make in the name of science!) I was working on a large project to survey a significant fraction of the sky, and to catalogue many thousands of galaxies. That was followed by a few years of postdoctoral research, also on galaxy surveys, during which I gradually made the transition from astronomy to computer software, until I left astronomy completely in 2013 and started working on non-astronomical software. But during all that time I had a growing desire to pursue church ministry as a possibility, and that has taken shape in the last few years.

How on earth (or in heaven!) can a PhD in astronomy be useful preparation for church ministry? I can think of five things I picked up through being a postgraduate, which I’m sure will be useful in the years to come.

Transferable and ‘soft’ skills. This should be familiar territory, particularly for those working in the sciences, where you often end up working on big collaborative projects. But all PhD students learn a lot about perseverance: how to keep going, for a long period of time, even when you don’t seem to be making any progress. You learn to put a lot of love into your work, in faith and hope that it will bear fruit in due course. This is good training for any vocation you may end up pursuing.

Intellectual virtues. The discipline of writing a thesis inevitably moulds your character in many ways. You grow in fairness, integrity, empathy, and your ability to reason clearly. And you gain a greater sense of humility. The one thing I learned more than anything else during my PhD was how little I knew, and how little I still know!

Astronomical knowledge. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about really, really, really big things. That seems like good preparation for studying theology!

An appreciation of the diversity of human vocations. Doing something arcane and apparently useless forces you to think about why it is worthwhile. Why should Christians do obscure PhDs? Why not do something more obviously worthwhile instead? Having wrestled seriously with that question myself, I hope I will be able to support and encourage all kinds of Christians to pursue their callings and vocations as something worthwhile and God-given.

A wife. I would never have met fellow-blogger Eline had I not done a PhD!

I hope you will also be able to look back on your PhD years with a similar sense of gratitude. But even those years in our lives we may consider to be ‘wasted’ are never wasted in God’s purposes: just think of the years Joseph ‘wasted’ in prison, or the years Moses ‘wasted’ in the wilderness. Or think of how Paul was able to look back even on his many persecutions without regret or bitterness. All the years of our lives, whether good or bad, are heading towards that great day of Christ’s return, when all will be made new, and when all tears will be wiped away.

Studying a life of faith


Anchoress (courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Notice the cat(?)

Alicia SmithYou should not keep any animal except a cat… Anyone who wishes may sleep in leggings… They should not snack between meals.

These are a few of the more specific instructions given in the medieval treatise for religious recluses now known as Ancrene Wisse, ‘A Guide for Anchorites’, which was the focus of my master’s dissertation.

These rules offer a fascinating and often charming insight into a very alien way of life, but my particular focus is on the Guide’s highly detailed instructions on prayer. Anchorites, who enclosed themselves in cells to lead lives of prayer and contemplation, followed the Hours (the prayers offered by monastic orders at seven fixed times daily) and a sprawling structure of other prayers to God and the saints. The Guide instructs them on the proper posture, words, and alignment of heart for this daily work, and their intercession before God is seen as uniquely powerful, a heroic act of devotion and an ‘anchor’ to the Church.

This is the spirituality and way of life which I plan to spend the next three years studying – but if I’m honest, this is also where I get impostor syndrome. More often than not, my academic work on the value of prayer for these medieval people throws my own prayer life into uncomfortable relief. I often struggle to pray at all, let alone commit my whole life to it. I am used to thinking and writing theoretically about the power of prayer, but in practice, I find this difficult to believe, at least to the extent that it becomes a discipline in my life.

This isn’t a practical problem, exactly: plenty of academics study religion without any faith of their own. My writing about medieval anchorites and their connection to the Divine doesn’t need to be matched by a living connection of my own in order to fit into the literary academy’s way of doing things.

And it’s not as if I would want to emulate the exact kind of prayer life which the Guide recommends – I’m a modern, Protestant evangelical living in a world which is almost unimaginably different from the high Middle Ages, so praying to the saints and mortifying the flesh as a means to more effective prayer are not concepts which really register.

But my literary interests aren’t arbitrary. I find anchorites, medieval liturgy, and models of prayer interesting precisely because of my faith, and the mismatch between the spiritual and academic spheres of my life feels more acute because of this basic connection. Maybe you’ve felt the same thing: your faith is supposedly a part of your work, and you know that faith and scholarship can and should be integrated, but this ideal is the exact point at which your own inadequacy is most pressing.

For me, the crucial question is how I can write with integrity about the transcendent, unifying power of prayer in these medieval texts, while being honest about the limitations on all human efforts to pray – especially my own. I often think of the anchorite’s lifestyle as obedience to the Biblical command to ‘pray continually’, and this is perhaps a place to start: even the recluse’s extreme devotion does not involve literally continual prayer, but their life as a whole is seen as an act of intercession and worship.

It’s impossible to know for sure how medieval anchorites themselves felt about their lives, but I imagine they must have felt the gap between the high calling of their life and their own human capabilities, and I hope that they were able to balance this with the mercy of God. This is something that academics need to be able to do too: to resist the combination of perfectionism and fear (which can come from both church culture and academia), knowing that we don’t need to add up our good works to a sufficient whole, but instead receive overflowing grace from the only true Person of integrity. Only this grace allows us to live a life of true worship.

Alicia Smith recently completed her MPhil and is about to begin doctoral studies in English literature at Oxford University, at Queen’s College. She is originally from Leeds.

Two kingdoms?

The True Contrast

Last week, I summarised the first part of the first talk Andrew Fellows gave at the Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference in June. We saw that our calling as Christian scholars is rooted in the creation mandate and the mission mandate. But how are the two mandates related?

Richard Niebuhr, in his influential book Christ and culture, lists a number of ways in which the two mandates can be related to each other:

Christ against culture: Christians can separate themselves from the surrounding culture and create a ghetto, a new Christian culture that has nothing in common with the dominant culture. The drawback of this is that it impoverishes the Christian mind.

Christ of culture: trying to be relevant, to fit in. This results in the loss of distinctiveness of the Christian mind.

Christ above culture: culture is seen as valuable only as far as it engages with the ‘supernatural’. This entails a devaluation of other cultural expressions.

Christ and culture: this idea is currently experiencing something of a revival in the ‘two kingdoms’ idea: that God has an earthly kingdom of law as well as a heavenly kingdom of grace. This leads to dualism.

Christ transforms culture: all of life can be spiritual, because grace touches all of creation. Christ’s work as Redeemer is related to His work as Creator, and this is seen in the transformation that occurs when redemption touches our life: we see a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that academic work also can be spiritual. As Christian scholars, therefore, we are committed to be transformers of culture, and especially transformers of thought patterns (Rom. 12:1-2).

Thanks to Brian Watts at the King’s Community Church

The evangelical church is still often committed to model 4, also known as the ‘secular vs. sacred’ model. However, this is not the crucial antithesis, indeed it is not an antithesis at all!  So how does the kingdom of God relate to cultural institutions?  There is an absolute antithesis between the kingdom of light and heaven and the kingdom of darkness and this world: you can only belong to one of these kingdoms. These kingdoms are not geographical, not reducible to a social entity or institution. They are invisible realities that seize the core of an individual’s personality: our heart. The diagram here is based on one in Al Wolters’ classic book Creation Regained.

The Kingdom in Church and Academy

God makes the invisible reality of the kingdom of God visible through incarnation. He did this first and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ, but He continues to do this in the local church. The church is an institution with its own authority, and has the function of promoting the values and truths of the invisible kingdom. Furthermore, incarnation happens where ’two or three are gathered in His name’ (Matt. 18:20). The kingdom can work itself out in many other social entities, movements, structures and networks whose specific aims are kingdom purposes, with an ultimate commitment to the kingdom of Christ. These have real integrity to exist alongside the local church. Their commitment can be worked out in multiple and multifaceted ways. As Christian academics, we manifest Christ’s rule in the academy. In an increasingly secular society, we need to be creative in gathering in communities where two or three gather in His name. Why not seek out other Christian postgrads in your university to meet up with, to further the purposes of His kingdom in your university, in your subject area?

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Two mandates

From 17-19 June, this year’s Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference took place in the usual, beautiful location of Ilam, Derbyshire. One of the main speakers was Andrew Fellows, the Director of Christian Heritage in Cambridge, who also spent many years working for L’Abri UK in Hampshire. During the conference, he gave two talks, which I will summarise here over the next few weeks (any misunderstandings of Andrew’s message are obviously my fault). We hope you will be blessed as you read them!

During the lifetime of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Roman Empire was in decline, and Rome fell to the ‘barbarian’ Visigoths in 410 (Augustine wrote a thick volume, The city of God against the Pagans, to help his fellow Christians to come to terms with this). During our own time, we can see a similar trend at work. Europe is at an ‘Augustinian moment’, so to speak. Our culture has abandoned the Judaeo-Christian worldview and its values, and it is a legitimate question whether Europe can survive this loss. The question posed in Psalm 11:3, ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ is very relevant for today.

One of the things we as Christian scholars can do, is to be ‘doorkeepers of civilisation’, by thinking great thoughts: high-level thoughts that are firmly rooted in our Christian worldview and values. The church should recognise the importance of this, and encourage and support her intellectuals and scholars. This calling, to provide a solid foundation for Christian living, is rooted in the two mandates that God’s people are given in the Bible.

The two mandates are the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15) and the mission mandate (Matt. 28:19-20, Mk 16:15). They are really two sides of the same coin: both are commands that show us the purpose of our life with an imperative behind them. At the same time, all humans function on two stages: the stage of nature, carried along by natural laws, and the stage of culture, the realm of the inner life, the mind, the will and intentionality.

In the cultural mandate, we are commanded to have dominion, to add dimensions to creation, to ‘open up’ creation using our culture-making abilities under Christ’s lordship. This is part of the glory of human beings, and one of the ways in which we image God and His creativity. In the mission mandate, we are commanded to go to the ends of the earth to bring people under Christ’s lordship.

To reach the fulfilment of the mission mandate, it must be linked to the cultural mandate: we are not saved out of creation, but we are restored to live out the cultural mandate. One of the main weaknesses of the contemporary church is that it often fails to link the two mandates in a fruitful way. As a result, the Biblical view of vocation is compromised. Every believer shares the same calling: we are called by God, to God and for God with all of our life (Rom. 11:36). Every secondary calling (to be say, a pastor, a scholar, a plumber or a stay-at-home-mum) under this is sanctified by the first calling, with no hierarchy of callings. Creation and redemption are not in opposition to each other. Instead, redemption restores us to be the servants and developers of creation that we were made to be. In the academic calling, the cultural mandate is highly concentrated, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that Christian scholars use their God-given gifts to bring restoration to this part of creation and culture, but we must also keep the mission mandate in view.

Next week, we will continue with the second part of the talk, which asks the question of how the two mandates are related to each other.

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Why FiSch? (4) For the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of GodRight now postgrads are working particularly hard. In the UK, masters students have about a month left to submit dissertations, and many PhD students will be working to submit 2nd-year reports, trying to complete before funding runs out, or facing that final deadline. But the urgent can be the enemy of the important. Even if you have a deadline looming, read on… the Kingdom of God needs you!

When Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,”[1] he reinforced an important biblical notion for thinking about what we should do with our lives. Throughout the Bible God is represented as a sovereign ruler, and Jesus appears as a king qualified, by his unique life, death and resurrection, to rule the whole world in the age to come. A number of Jesus’ parables portray the Son of Man as a king or an employer who will hold his servants to account for their work [2]. Surely, then, it would be foolish for us to pursue our education and careers without realising that we are subjects of the world’s true King?

It seems to me, however, that this is what we typically do. Those of privileged to study at university are likely to have chosen a subject that interested us and/or was likely to give good job prospects. If we’re now pursuing more academic work, is this because we realised that we could best serve our King in this way? I hope it is, but we’ve no doubt encountered fellow-believers who struggle to appreciate this possibility. That’s because a prevalent view of how the work of believers and of non-believers stands in God’s eyes is often like that illustrated in diagram (1). In scholarship, as well as in education, business, finance, arts, media, government and so on, we easily accept the secularist dogma that religion is an inherently private matter that can only bring disruption in the public square. In religiously-neutral areas, believer and unbeliever will work in the same way, achieving the same results. Any notion of a Christian work ethic is essentially the same as what most unbelievers advocate: honesty, duty, respect and the like.

Serious young Christians are therefore encouraged to enter an area of work where everyone agrees that believers are uniquely qualified: the mission of the Church. Diagram (2) represents Christians’ prowess in such areas as evangelism, biblical studies, musical worship, youth ministry and apologetics. Theology and counselling might be more contested by the non-Christian, but they are widely taught in Bible colleges and seminaries in response to demand.

In fact, this dichotomy also reflects two streams of Christian thought. If you put every area of work – including biblical interpretation and theology – into scheme (1), you may be “liberal”. If you put every area of work – including scientific theorising and government – into scheme (2), you’ll probably be labelled “fundamentalist” sooner or later. So the easiest way to eschew these extremes is to follow a division of work like that outlined above: just be a dualist!

Is there another way? At FiSch we believe there is. Diagram (3) is meant to apply to every field of human endeavour – none of which is neutral. It represents the possibility that people who are entering the Kingdom of God – and Jesus’ parables make clear that we can’t be sure who they are – may please the King by all kinds of work done in His service. It recognises that not only today’s non-believers but even those who may never enter God’s rest can do work that honours and pleases the King (remember what God says of Cyrus[3]?). How much more should we who believe work and pray that our reasoningour theorisingour critiques and our creativity be inspired by the Spirit of the God who might one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? [4]

[1] Matthew 6:33.   [2] e.g. Matthew 18:23ff, 20:1ff, 25:14ff, 25:31ff.  [3] Isaiah 44:28.  [4] Matthew 25:21.

Whole-life worship

I grew up in a Protestant church on the Continent, where we sang from the Genevan psalter (in a translation). The psalms cover a wide range of human emotions and situations, from the deepest depths to the highest heights. Of course some of the most jubilant psalms overflow with the praise of God (e.g. Ps. 150). But it is striking to see how even some of the darkest psalms tend to encourage the singer to put his trust in God, who protects us and is worthy of praise (e.g. Ps. 13, 42). The final chapter of Antony Billington and Mark Greene’s book ‘The whole of life for Christ’ focuses on praising God.

What kinds of things do you praise God for? Often we tend to praise God for the big events in our life: a friend becomes a Christian, or we get that grant that we applied for, or we finally submit our thesis. In the Bible, we often see people praising God for big things, but especially in the psalms, we also see God at work in the details of their lives. Take, for example, the ‘creation psalm’, Ps. 104.

It lists many things God does in nature, and how He takes care of us and all other living creatures. Or take Ps. 139, which lyrically describes the intimate involvement God has with our every move. Or, in the words of Jesus, ‘Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:30).

This series on ‘the whole of life for Christ’ started with a study on Col. 1:15-23, which covers the sweeping scope of God’s reconciliation of all of creation through Christ. In the psalms we discover that this grand scale of salvation is worked out in the lives of individuals. And in Rev. 4 and 5 we see several ‘psalms’ that bring the praise of all of creation to God in one great act of worship. How do you see God at work in your daily life? Do you praise him for the little things as well as the big things? For that experiment that worked this time? For the sunlight through the window? For that conference presentation that you were able to give? For the beauty of your object of study? And if you’re struggling at the moment, why not turn to one of the ‘darker’ psalms? Or join in with Habakkuk, who, in the face of terrible judgment and the threat of war and destruction prayed ‘…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.’

If you have found this series helpful as you live all of your life for Christ, why not meet up with a few other Christian postgrads and go through the studies in the book?

Whole-life hope

It’s easy to be gloomy as an aspiring academic. Will I ever finish my thesis? Will I ever get a lectureship? And even if I do, will I end up spending my entire life chasing arbitrary citation statistics and student satisfaction ratings? Will my research and teaching make a real difference? Do I have anything to look forward to?

‘We all need hope,’ say Antony Billington and Mark Greene in The Whole of Life for Christ. ‘Jesus did. After all, it wasn’t just his love for the world that helped him through his terrible sufferings on our behalf; it was because of “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). The hope of his glorious future helped him through his earthly agony’ (p. 49).

How can a biblical hope help us through the periods of academic agony?

The passage chosen for this study is 2 Peter 3:3-14. The ‘scoffers’ saw no reason to be optimistic about the future: ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ (v. 4).

What then is the antidote to this cynicism? Surprisingly, the answer is to think about God’s judgment, which ‘will bring both destruction (3:7, 10, 12) and renewal (3:13)’ (p. 51). This gives us something to look forward to, even when we think about our lives here on earth:

For what’s described is not the end of the earth itself, but the earth in its current state. Our hope is not for the annihilation of the world, but for a remade world, as God’s created order is renewed through the fire of purifying judgment. The parallel to the flood confirms this. Just as the destructive power of the flood did not completely obliterate the world, so the fire of judgment will cleanse the earth for a new beginning – ‘a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’ (3:13, p. 79).

What difference does this make for academics? I suppose that all areas of academia, in their different ways, are seeking to make the world a better place: more like the promised ‘new earth, where righteousness dwells’. Is this worth the effort, in the light of the coming judgment? Billington and Greene address the question of creation care:

If a new, better earth is coming, is there any need to take care of the current one? The argument is sometimes made that environmental action is unnecessary and possibly even a distraction from more important matters. In fact, however, if God’s plan is to renew the world, then our own efforts to preserve, recycle and live simply are in line with his designs (p. 80).

Could the same be said about your academic discipline? How do your research and teaching fit in with God’s plan to renew the world? Does this give you hope that it might be worth the effort after all?

Christian life with a PhD: real knowledge?

“A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, ” goes the saying [1], “until he knows everything about nothing.”  There were times during my PhD studies when I took heart from the first part of that quip, and times when the second half seemed all too realistic.  Nine years on (I submitted on 6 July), I’m reflecting on what doors the PhD has opened to me, and I hope my reflections will be helpful to readers seeking God’s guidance for their career.  I’ll first consider how a scholarly career can be justified, then give some examples of scholarly and non-scholarly work in my own case.

Defending the scholarly life

The ambiguity of the above quip, which is also said of academics in general, resonates with the ups and downs of my PhD.  Was my real-world knowledge increasing during those months of ecological experimentation, or was it merely ‘academic’ (in the popular derogatory sense)?  Generally I sensed growing knowledge when in the company of fellow students and academics, and the fear of insignificance when I socialised elsewhere.  “Get a real job, where you can submit your invoice at the end of a good day’s work,” advised one relative!  I do think it’s a healthy concern that our studies might be so abstract as to be of little earthly value.  After all, even the most fastidious of scholars can only research a fragment of what God has made, and in theoretical terms invented by humans.  And I don’t think the offer of a grant or salary makes the job in question worthwhile in God’s eyes.

But I do think there’s a broad range of Christian arguments for work in all kinds of disciplines.  CS Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time” eloquently offers a number of robust justifications for scholarly study.  To these I would add, for the believer, the possibility of nudging one’s discipline into more fruitful directions and of being able to teach future generations of students in ways that honour the Creator.  But to be more specific, let me turn to my own story.

The Christian scholar in God’s Kingdom

In the final year of my PhD I asked an older trusted friend with similar background what path he’d advise me to follow and he said, “Go and work overseas.”  He urged me to experience a different culture so that my worldview might be challenged and my outlook broadened.  A year’s post-doctoral work in a South African university did this for me in some ways, and a year in a research institute in France did it in others.  But I’d actually begun each of these posts before the previous one had finished, so upon returning to England, I delayed job-hunting while writing up a couple of papers – and now (after one longer post-doc) I’m in a similar position again.  This mix of academic contracts and ‘freelancing’ has proven productive, if not as lucrative as a regular academic path might have been.  The main opportunity it gave me was to work for two Christian charities.  Futurekraft is a consultancy serving community-focused charities, where my data-handling expertise has enabled me to oversee community surveys and help develop and raise funds for social projects with local churches.  And Thinking Faith Network is the charity which launched FiSch, where I’ve recently found opportunities to research the ethics and philosophy of ecology with a more explicit Christian orientation.  Now I’m looking for lecturing positions that may allow me to continue pursuing some of these ideas.  I feel I’ve been working for God more than for any employer.

GraphTo the mathematician in me, there’s an assumption of eternity in the quip with which I began.  I see ‘depth of knowledge’ increasing continuously while ‘breadth of knowledge’ decays exponentially – so the latter tends to zero only as time tends to infinity…  But in case I’m taking the joke too seriously, I’ll end with a biblical expression of hope concerning communal knowing.  In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul concludes his exhortation for love to be worked out in practice with his vision that, in the end, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  And there’s no reason to qualify this as ‘spiritual’ knowing – but that’s a topic for another time.


[1] An Internet search suggests multiple sources for this quote, but one that sounds authoritative is William J Mayo. The Yale Book of Quotations attributes to Mayo, via Reader’s Digest (Nov 1927): “A specialist is a man who knows more and more about less and less.”