Christian Academics: Is your understanding of your faith three thousand miles wide and half an inch deep?

In a previous post I talked about the difference between intensive and extensive reading, and the importance of finding a balance between the two. The same terms can be applied to our faith. It is easy to live an exclusively extensive Christianity today: our coverage may be wide, but we don’t let God’s word sink in and we don’t allow ourselves enough time in reading or in meditation to develop deep or acute reflections on it. We know what the latest books are, and we know what we think about them, but we haven’t read them. We know what the latest controversies in our denomination are, but we (I very much include myself) haven’t set aside serious amounts of time to pray about them. We read the bible and move on; we go to church and move on; we pray and move on; we do our academic work and move on…

In an article entitled “What is the Future of Evangelicalism?: Evangelicalism Now” in an edition of Modern Reformation called Evangelicalism’s Winter, J. I. Packer laments that:

It has often been said that Christianity in North America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. Something similar is true, by all accounts, in Africa and Asia, and (I can testify to this) in Britain also.

I think a good case can be made that as Christian academics we bear a particular responsibility in this respect. Not to deny that all Christians should be encouraged to be readers and deep thinkers, each to the measure of our ability, time and resources–of course not–but we academics spend much of our lives honing skills of close reading, analysis and interpretation: a luxury to which most do not have access. And “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

So, fellow Christian academic, how deep is your understanding of your faith? As deep as your understanding of your academic discipline? Is your grasp of your faith three thousand miles wide but half an inch deep? If so, you are skating on thin ice, and you might want to head over to the Christian academic’s full body workout, or become a paleolibricist.

Christian academia and the peace (שׁלום, shalom) of Jeremiah (1 of 2)

In a previous post I commented on the importance Sir Donald Hay gives to the biblical notion of shalom in his understanding of what it means to be a Christian academic. In the present post I want to think a little more carefully about what shalom is and how it is an important idea of the Christian academic.

Shalom embraces and gathers together a number of related ideas. For the most part translated ‘peace’, it can also mean to be well with somebody (i.e. ‘Is it well with him?’), or to denote being in good health; it can be used as a greeting (and still is today); it can denote prosperity, safety, peace as opposed to war, and rest, as well as favour and wholeness.

We have no English equivalent, but in the round it means something like peace, prosperity, rest, wholeness and flourishing, all rolled into one: a holistic view of economic, social and spiritual flourishing. Cornelius Plantinga explains it as “the webbing together of God, humans and all creation in equity, fulfillment and delight”, and Tim Keller has the following gloss:

When the prophets (like Isaiah) describe shalom, they assume it means spiritual conversion and true worship but also social justice for the poor and cultural products that glorify God, not ‘man.’ So God is calling believers to seek the full range of human renewal in the city—individual, spiritual, communal, social, cultural.

It is the word the ESV uses to translate ‘welfare’ in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles from Jerusalem now living in Babylon:

 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,  9  for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.  10  “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  11  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  (Jeremiah 29:4-7)


Shalom and academia: not what we can get, but what we can give

First of all, in verses 5 and 6, God’s injunction through Jeremiah is a recapitulation of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28:

  • “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” is expressing the same idea as “subdue [the earth] and have dominion”)
  • “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” is reiterating the command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.

Then, in verse 7, the exiles from Jerusalem are to seek the shalom of the pagan, godless, violent, city of Babylon, and they are to pray for the city. They are to have no compunctions about serving this godless and, quite frankly, somewhat vile culture, and working for its prosperity, though of course the basis of shalom in all its fullness is that the LORD is worshipped and obeyed as King.

Before we go any further it would be wise to establish that the biblical historical context in which Jeremiah is writing the letter, namely exile, can be read and appropriated by us as New Testament believers in more or less the terms in which it is given, though of course we will read the passage through the lens of serving Christ. Indeed, exile language is applied directly to New Testament, post-resurrection believer by Peter at the opening of his first letter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1Peter 1:1)

The ESV is correct to translate the word, parepidēmos, as ‘exiles’, but its meaning is more nuanced than that. It means ‘alien alongside’ or ‘resident foreigner’: neither someone who is just passing through, nor someone who feels completely and utterly at home where they are. As Christian academics, our relation to the culture—including the academic culture—in which we find ourselves is complex: we are not transient or hostile, spies or terrorists, and neither are we completely assimilated: we are “aliens alongside” our culture, standing shoulder to shoulder, but different and not, so to speak, at our final resting place.

And I want to suggest that this paradigm of exiled “aliens alongside”, working for the shalom of our university and national cultures, provides a further two building blocks for understanding our work in biblical categories.

First, it transforms the paradigm of our engagement with our disciplines, because we are not here for what we can get out of the academy, whether it be money or reputation or career; we are here to seek the all-round flourishing of the part of the culture with which we are engaged. We’re not here as spectators or as cynics; we’re here as servants.

And that is the only way to flourish as Christians in the academy, because if we’re here on the make, not just on the financial make but on the reputational make or on the research make, then we have assimilated; we are here to plunder the academy, and it has converted us. But likewise, if we are here to despise the academy, to decry its culture and scorn its triviality, if we are here only to make converts, if we’re tent-making without caring about the quality of the tents we make or the lives of those who will inhabit them, then we are not seeking our culture’s shalom either. Both these attitudes—assimilation and contempt—start with the same question: what can the academy provide for me? Assimilation answers ‘everything’ and contempt retorts ‘nothing’.

But Jeremiah 29 starts from a different question altogether: what can I give to the city, to the culture, to the academy? Both assimilation and contempt are about keeping power. Assimilation keeps power by not challenging the current norms, and contempt by teaching you to withdraw from the culture around you. But the gospel of God’s grace lavishly poured out on us through Christ’s death on the cross and the new life of his resurrection is too humbling for us to WANT to seek power, and too affirming for us to NEED to seek power over others.

Instead, we ask: What does it/would it mean for my discipline to flourish according to God’s definition of flourishing (which I don’t have time to go into now but has so much more to do with relationships than processes and structures)? For my department, or group, or faculty, to flourish? For culture to flourish? And how can I pour myself out to help make that to happen?

If we reject both assimilation and contempt and embrace the gospel, its truth shapes our perspective on our disciplines, notes Tim Keller:

 We must live in the city to serve all the peoples in it, not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find our (true) power. Christianity will not be attractive enough to win influence except through sacrificial service to all people, regardless of their beliefs.

Keller cashes out this servant attitude in this way: it’s the sort of attitude that makes people say: “I don’t believe what they believe, but I can’t imagine the city without them. If they left, we would have to raise taxes.” Isn’t it the challenge of seeking shalom for us to be the people you can’t imagine the department without, who, if we left, they’d have to get more staff in to cover the deficit? It is a huge sacrificial challenge, and only one thing can prepare us for it: an ever deeper and firmer grasp of the gospel of the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

Christian academia and the wisdom (חכמה, chokmah) of Solomon

In this post I want to consider one word from the wisdom literature in the bible. It is the word for wisdom itself, transliterated into English as  chokmah. This word is used to describe what the fear of the LORD is the beginning of in psalm 111; it is what Bezalel and Oholiab are given when they make the tabernacle in Exodus 36; it is what God gives to Solomon; and it is what Job longs his comforters would show by shutting up (Job 13:5).

In Solomon’s proverbs he counsels his son:

Get chockmah, get understanding…. Do not forsake chockmah …. chockmah is supreme; therefore get chockmah. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding…. Accept what I say…. I guide you in the way of chockmah. (Proverbs 4:1-11)

So what is the wisdom that Solomon prizes so highly and wants his son to desire? In scripture it has many facets and it is built most fundamentally upon a fear of the LORD, but it also embraces what we would call “secular learning”. Listen to the description of Solomon’s own chokmah in 1 Kings 4:

 29 God gave Solomon wisdom (chokmah) and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s chokmah was greater than the chockmah of all the men of the East, and greater than all the chokmah of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s chokmah, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his chokmah. (1 Kings 4:29-34)

 The wisdom described in these verses that of a philosopher, poet, musician and natural scientist, and this wisdom seen as a wonderful thing, which the bible commends and commands us to seek.

In addition, according to Stephen in Acts 7:22 Moses was “educated in all the wisdom (sophia, the closest NT equivalent for chockmah) of the Egyptians”. Stephen does not condemn this pagan education as evil, but, as Dennis Johnson puts it, he “concurs with the Jewish tradition’s positive assessment of Moses’ intellectual engagement with pagan wisdom.”[1] And I have already written about Daniel’s professorship at the university of Central Babylon.

The book of Proverbs describes a man who both sought and taught wisdom, and the book’s seamless blending between what we would call “spiritual” and what we would call “practical” proverbs indicates that the wisdom literature in the bible does not draw as polarised a dichotomy as we tend to do.


[1]Dennis E. Johnson, “Spiritual Antithesis, Common Grace, and Practical Theology,” inaugural address, photocopied, accepted for publication in Westminster Theological Journal 64:1, Spring 2002, 74.

Is it OK with God to devote myself to studying a secular discipline?

I have posted before on why I bother studying a “secular” subject, and I have mentioned Donald Hay’s reflections on the question (primarily in relation to Jeremiah 29).

Among the other purple passages in the bible for thinking about what it means for a Christian to undertake secular study is Daniel 1.

Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar precisely (at least as far as the court was concerned) to learn the knowledge of the Chaldeans:

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- four young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. (Daniel 1:3-5)

Daniel 1 surely teaches us that it is possible to be a believer in the one true God in a secular institution and culture, profiting from the knowledge of the day, while not compromising one’s integrity. After all, Daniel is prised in Scripture for his righteousness, not criticised for his compromise.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, it appears, with learning the ‘letters and language of the Chaldeans’, even though those letters would surely have included practices and beliefs that no Christian or Hebrew of Daniel’s time would practice and hold. Indeed, such learning, including understanding of the occult practices, superstitions and half-truths of the Babylonian society, was given to the four exiles by God:

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. (Daniel 1:17)

So: secular learning–even learning which, if held to be true and practiced, would merit God’s disapproval–is given by God. But can a Christian prosper such an academic atmosphere? Let’s read on:

 18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (Daniel 1:18-20)

The least we can say is that the Hebrews’ fervent and uncompromising faith was no handicap to their progress at the University of Central Babylon.

Now of course there will be certain subjects that some Christians should steer clear of, and there will be some intellectual atmospheres which make it almost impossible for Christians to study certain areas with integrity, but they are the rare exceptions. The very least that Daniel 1 proves is the principle that learning in a secular institution, and learning about practices some of which displease God, is not inherently evil in the state of exile in which we find ourselves (1 Peter 1:1).

Turning George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ into an academic prayer

George HerbertAs well as writing my own academic prayers I love the economy and precision of phrase in good poetry and find that it makes great prayer material as well. One of my favourite poems-cum-prayers is The Elixir, by George Herbert. It captures beautifully the spirit of Colossians 3:17 and 23-4:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  […] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Amen! The poem is also in its own right one great answer to the question ‘How does being a Christian make a difference to the work and life of an academic?


TEACH me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into action ;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake ;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine :
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold ;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

Motivated reasoning, science, and Romans 1

In an article entitled ‘The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science‘, Chris Mooney sketches the fascinating notion of ‘motivated reasoning’.

Here are some snippets:

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger […] Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology. Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.

Curious that the author should think that motivated reasoning pertains most importantly (though not exclusively) to the denial of scientific truths, a choice the motivation of which might itself be interrogated. The Paul of Romans 1:18-21 would add another crucial instance of the phenomenon:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Sir Donald Hay on Being a Christian Academic

Donald HayOver on the DCM at Oxford blog there is an excellent article entitled ‘On Being a Christian Academic‘, written by Donald Hay, retired professor of Economics and fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, former acting Pro Vice Chancellor for Planning and Resources for the university, and founder of the Developing a Christian Mind programme at Oxford.

Hay says that three passages in particular shaped his view of what it means to be a Christian academic. The first is Mark 12:28-30 in which Jesus, asked what is the greatest commandment, responds: ‘The most important one is this ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. Hay comments:

The interesting addition is  the word ‘mind’. The Greek word describes the thinking or cognitive aspect of what it is to be a human being: our capacity to think rationally about things. This suggests that the life of the mind should also be exercised as part of our commitment to serve Christ. This is of course for  every Christian, but it has  a particular significance for  academics whose particular calling is  to the life of  the mind.

The second of Hay’s passages focuses on just one word: the ‘therefore’ in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Hay glosses the passage in this way:

Once again the emphasis is on our capacity for  rational thought, but the context in the letter suggests that it is moral or ethical evaluation that the apostle has in mind here. The life of the mind is to affect very practically the way  in which we  live our  lives, including in verse 3  an injunction to humility and soberness in our  self-evaluation, and an exhortation to give ourselves in service to others (verses 6-8).

The final passage that marked Hay’s attitude to his work as a Christian is the letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Here, Hay picks up on the word ‘welfare’ (shalom):

The challenge for the Christian academic is how to seek ‘the welfare of  the city’, both in its manifestation in the university and research institutes, but also the wider culture in which those academic institutions are located both geographically and intellectually.

He summarizes these verses by saying that we should pursue a Christian mind and a Christian worldview in the service of the city in which we find ourselves. We could also sum up the three verses in terms of four verbs:

  • LOVE (God with all your mind)
  • OFFER (your bodies as living sacrifices)
  • be TRANSFORMED (by the renewing of your mind)
  • SEEK (the welfare of the city where I have sent you)

Sneaking in the extra verb “be transformed” reminds us that the task of being a Christian academic is not one more item on our to-do list, one extra job we are in control of and can dispatch in a whirl of high octane academic super-efficiency. This might go against our omni-competent, can-do mentality, but it is in truth our only hope, because we know from Romans that, in academic life as everywhere else, ‘ Those who are in the flesh cannot please God’ (Romans 8:8). So becoming a god-glorifying Christian academic is God’s work in us and through us, as we struggle in his power. It is not something we can make happen by ourselves.

If you’re like me and enjoy the way that mnemonics allow you to bring information quickly to mind in the midst of battle, then just think that in the light of these four verbs, there is certainly L-O-T-S for the Christian academic to be doing!

You could start by reading the rest of Donald Hay’s excellent article