Do you know what is most shaping your desires and beliefs? This quick exercise can help you find out… and change it

In a recent post we briefly discussed the way in which the media we consume shapes to a significant extent what we desire, what we think, and how we feel about ourselves and our society. The issue merits further reflection for Christians studying or working in an academic setting. Christian academics are, so to speak, professional consumers and interpreters of ideas and theories, and so a proportion of our working life is taken up, quite rightly, with reading and assimilating our disciplinary “media”.

Now, if our beliefs are formed in large part by habit and custom, then those ideas to which we are most frequently exposed will, mutatis mutandis, assimilate themselves into our own thinking about all of life, not just our academic discipline. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that per se, but it does pay to be aware of what influences are most actively shaping our view of the world, whether we may be aware of it or not.

So here’s a brief exercise to raise our awareness of how our minds, feelings and dispositions are being shaped…

Pie person - you are what you readThink back to everything you have watched, everything you have listened to, and everything you have read over the past fortnight (if we make the timeframe any longer it becomes hard to remember). Include everything: radio in the car, the daily newspaper, music on public transport, books you have read, websites you’ve looked at, films and TV shows: everything. Now imagine that all the media you have consumed during the past fourteen days is represented in a pie chart which comprises the following four categories[1]:

  1.  Non-Christian entertainment. Media not explicitly offering a Christian view of the world, which you have consumed in order to relax or be entertained.
  2. Non-Christian uni-related. Media not explicitly offering a Christian view of the world, which you have consumed as part of your courses at university or as part of your research.
  3. Christian uni-related. Media produced with an explicitly Christian view of the world, which you have consumed as part of your courses at university or as part of your research (perhaps one of the books on the reading list on this blog that is relevant to your studies, or a book exploring through a Christian approach to your discipline).
  4. Christian non-uni-related. In this category, put all you “devotional” reading and any additional Christian books, music or other media you have consumed in the past two weeks.

It can help to make a list of titles (films, books, albums…) for each category. When you have the list, estimate the time you spent on each title, and then draw your own pie chart, either in your head or on paper. Look at the chart, and reflect on the relative proportions of the four categories. Here are some questions to help you analyse the data:

  • According to the pie chart what, in terms of brute hours, is the greatest influence on your view of the world, your desires and your thinking?
  • To what extent are you actively seeking to develop a Christian understanding of your discipline?
  • If the great majority of your Christian reading is related to your academic discipline, are there any conclusions to draw about the general health of your walk with the Lord?
  • If the “Christian uni-related” category is blank, what are likely to be the long-term effects on your general spiritual well-being?
  • What would be the ideal proportion of non-Christian entertainment for someone in your position? Are you not relaxing enough or—which is more likely—is this category greedily consuming time that could be much better invested in one of the other areas?

Now you have thought a little about your current habits, draw another pie chart to represent the “ideal” proportions you would like to have for each of the four categories. Be ambitious, but also be realistic.

Now ask yourself: where is the single greatest difference is between the “actual” and the “ideal” charts?

Shrinking that single greatest difference is where you can profitably focus your efforts over the next fortnight. Decide what you will (or will not) read, watch or listen to over the next two weeks, to bring the “actual” chart closer to the “ideal”. The reason for choosing only one area to work on is that trying to change everything at once can quickly lead to discouragement and a sense of failure. Changing one thing at once feels much more achievable, and gives an encouraging and motivating sense of accomplishment much more quickly.

After two weeks, repeat the exercise, once more working on reducing the greatest difference between the two charts.

Exercises like this can be more effective when undertaken in pairs or in groups. Why not get together with another Christian at your institution and share your two-week plans with each other? If you don’t know of anyone at your institution, drop us an email at thechristianscholar [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this post and we will do our best to encourage you along the way 🙂

 

[1] The four categories suggested in this post are necessarily somewhat arbitrarily divided, but although the divisions between them may not always be hermetic they nevertheless provide a helpful schema for the purposes of the present exercise.

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Let’s read Pascal (22): Don’t underestimate the power of habit in shaping what you believe

Let's Read Pascal

There is a website that will tell you how many days of your life you have spent watching particular TV series.

According to “statistics brain”, in 2013 the average American watched 5.11 hours of television per day, or nine full years over a lifetime (though the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to think that in 2012 it was 2.8 hours per day; either way, it’s quite an investment of time). According to the same site, the average American youth spends 900 hours a year in school, and 1200 hours a year watching TV, consuming 16000 thirty-second TV commercials over the same period. In 2005 the Guardian calculated that the average London commuter would see 130 adverts in a 45 minute journey through the capital, and in a day we are “exposed to” around 3500 advertising messages, though of course we cannot recall them all and we do not notice many of them consciously.

How many of those TV hours and how many of those adverts reflect a life that is lived, to quote Don Carson, with “eternity’s values in view”? Some, perhaps, but the overwhelming majority do not.

On a daily basis, we are enculturated (habituated, indoctrinated, evangelized, proselytized, brainwashed: choose your verb as a function of how insidious you find the situation) subtly and repeatedly into viewing the world and ourselves in a certain way. We are enculturated into wanting certain things (whether those “things” be objects, lifestyles, values or character traits) and, by default, into not wanting other things that are simply absent from the ambient enculturation.

What does this have to do with Pascal? The link is in the importance of recognising the role that habituation has in shaping who we are. The reader need not worry: this post will not turn into a tirade against capitalism or the marketing industry. I do however want briefly to explore how belief formation functions, both in relation to marketing and more broadly. In reading through the Pensées again this year, one of the book’s themes that has given me most pause for thought is Pascal’s insistence on the importance of custom (enculturation, habit) in the way we form beliefs. Here is one example from, pensée 252:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.)

Pensée 252 continues with Pascal stressing the importance of custom not just in arriving at beliefs, but at maintaining the beliefs we hold:

Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that out soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus. (“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!”, Psalm 119:36)

 

I feel that it would take a whole book to tease out the consequences (and to question some of the assumptions) of what Pascal says here, but let me just touch on just one point in this post. It flows from the sentence “It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary”. In other words, we try in vain to believe something that cuts against the grain of our habits. This is why what we believe will always, ultimately, be linked to how we behave or, to put it another way, this is why epistemology is rightly understood as a branch of ethics. Our beliefs follow our behaviours as much as our behaviours follow our beliefs, and the cognitive/behavioural dissonance engendered by claiming to believe one thing while living as though the opposite thing were true will eventually resolve itself by either a change in belief or a change in behaviour.

This, I think, is the sense behind Pascal’s much maligned and almost always spectacularly misquoted advice to the skeptic to “Kneel down, say your prayers, and you will believe”, as if Pascal were goading us to pretend to have faith. Let me quote the relevant pensée (250) in full:

The external must be joined to the internal to obtain anything from God, that is to say, we must kneel, pray with the lips, etc., in order that proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature. To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride.

First of all, this pensée is not only talking about the unbeliever coming to faith, but about any prayerful encounter with God, whether by believer or unbeliever. Secondly, Pascal explicitly states the limits of the thought’s application in its final sentence: ‘To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride’. If I seek the Christ who did not come to be served but to serve, the Christ who made himself nothing, and the Christ sent by the God who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), if I seek this Christ in a spirit of intellectual or moral pride then we will most likely not find him, however acute our reasoning powers. The whole person must come to God, not just the mind. Another way of putting this is that lifestyles and habits generate plausibility structures and restrict our freedom to believe certain things, regardless of whether those things happen to be true or not.

I don’t think there is anything more controversial here than saying that, if we are exposed to n hours of TV and n commercials per day, enculturating us into particular habits of mind and behaviour, our desires will increasingly reflect a proportion of the choices offered to us, rather than other choices that happen not to be offered (after all, the companies do not pay for advertising for disinterested aesthetic reasons). Similarly, we are likely to find ways of living not reflected in this enculturation to be alien and implausible.

These Pascalian reflections raise an interesting set of questions for Christian academics to ponder:

  • Are there any lifestyle choices, values or character traits that “fit” particularly well with my discipline?
  • If there are, why do they fit well? What do they reflect about the discipline itself? How, in turn, is the discipline formed by them?
  • How do these choices and values predispose the discipline to holding certain truths, and how do they make other truths seem implausible?
  • Is there any point at which my discipline and people in it are professing to believe one thing but behaving/writing as if a contrary thing were true?
  • Where does an enculturation into my discipline resonate with an enculturation into the values of God as revealed in the bible, and where is there the greatest dissonance between the two?

Developing a Christian Approach to Your Academic Discipline: The Map and the Mirror

In this post I want to explore one way that Christian academics can get to grips with the secular disciplines in which we work. I will begin by discussing two different ways in which we can understand the Christian faith and the way it shapes our work, before moving on to discuss a tool to help us think about academic disciplines in a way that opens a dialogue with the Christian faith.

The mirror approach

There are two important ways we can go about engaging with our academic disciplines as Christians. Let’s call them the map approach and the mirror approach. Most Christians are already familiar with the mirror approach: we take a verse or a short passage of scripture and we reflect the image of our studies in it. Here are some passages to which we might typically turn:

Genesis 1:26-28  Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  27  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  28  And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

 Jeremiah 29:7  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.

1 Corinthians 1:25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

2 Corinthians 10:4-6  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  5  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,  6  being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

Philippians 4:8  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Colossians 3:23-24  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,  24  knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Each of these  portions of the bible can serve as a mirror in which to see reflected our academic studies. There is nothing wrong with this mirror approach in itself; certain verses and passages do provide us with a privileged site for meditating on what it means to work as a Christian.

However, this approach cannot by itself provide us with an adequate framework for approaching our disciplines because, by its nature, it is inherently partial and incomplete. Indeed, there is a danger that, if we privilege certain verses or certain truths in our studies, those verses will turn out to be a fairground mirror, distorting a biblical approach rather than facilitating it. Let me show what I mean with two examples:

  • Say I am a Christian in the creative arts. I structure my approach to my work around the biblical truth that God is a creator and that I, in his image, have been made with the ability to create and therefore should express that ability.
  • Now imagine I am that same Christian in the creative arts, but now I reflect my work in a different biblical mirror. I know from the bible that this world is ‘fallen’ and under God’s judgment, and so I determine to have nothing to do with the culture in the world around me as I conceive and produce my art, separating myself as much as I can from all influences that would contaminate my work.

The truths expressed in these two pictures (namely that part of what it means to be in the image of God is to be creative, and human culture is, at least in one important sense, fundamentally opposed to God and under his judgment) are not incorrect, but they are partial. They are truths, but they are not the whole truth, and if I give them undue weight in my approach to my discipline I should not expect that approach to be biblical at all. Creativity does not adequately summarise what the bible has to say about working as a Christian, and neither does the truth that all that human beings do is tainted by sin. Both of these truths need to find their place as part of a bigger, balanced picture. As the history of heresy has shown us, it can be just as dangerous to hold the right truths in the wrong proportions as it is to hold the wrong truths altogether.

Mapping the Christian faith

To have a fully rounded biblical approach to our academic work we need to find a way of taking into account the whole of God’s truth. In a quotation I have used on this blog before, Don Carson sums up this imperative:

that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determinate turning points in the history of redemption: creation, fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus and the giving of the law, the rise of the monarchy and the rise of the prophets, the exile, the incarnation, the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the onset of the kingdom of god, the coming of the spirit and the consequent ongoing eschatological tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” the return of Christ and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth.

D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 81.

At first blush this might seem like an impossibly daunting task for the Christian academic. The bible contains 66 rich and varied books that each repay years and even decades of study by theologians who have more time than we do to devote to the task. How can we possibly bring the weight of all that wisdom to bear on our studies?

That is where the map approach comes in. A map does not give exhaustive information about any single elements of the landscape it represents. In fact it tells us very little about any of the features it depicts. What it does show brilliantly is how some important features within a the landscape are situated in relation to each other, giving a big picture that allows the map-reader to appreciate the landscapes’ features relative to each other, and if need be to navigate her way to them one by one.

The map approach to the bible similarly distils a great deal of biblical information into a single big picture that we can take in all at once, helping us to understand the relative size and position of each of the bible’s main truths. It is an approach that the bible itself takes on a number of occasions. Here are two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New:

  • In Psalm 78 David sketches important high-points story of Israel to help make sure that the nation’s history remains known down the generations
  • In Acts 7 Stephen explains his behaviour to the High Priest by summarising the story of the Israelite Nation from Abraham to his own day

A number of good resources are available to help Christians gain a map view of the whole bible; Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture to name but two. However, for the purposes of mapping not just the Christian faith but our academic disciplines I want to use a more visual way of distilling the bible’s core message: the “Two Ways to Live” framework.

For those not familiar with “Two Ways to Live”

For those not familiar with Two Ways To Live, let me give a brief explanation. It seeks to express the bible’s core storyline in six key truths, represented in six pictures. Like a map, it is not exhaustive; like a map, it begins to provide a good sense of the important features.

Here are the six pictures (images Copyright © Matthias Media 1995):

11. God is the loving ruler of the world.

He made the world.

He made us rulers of the world under him.

Revelation 4:11

 

22. We all reject the ruler – God – by trying to run life our own way without him.

But we fail to rule ourselves or society or the world.

Romans 3:10-12

 

 

33. God won’t let us rebel forever.

God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgment.

Hebrews 9:27

 

 

44. Because of his love, God sent his Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.

Jesus always lived under God’s rule.

Yet by dying in our place he took our punishment and brought forgiveness.

1 Peter 3:18

 

55. God raised Jesus to life again as ruler of the world.

Jesus has conquered death, now gives new life, and will return to judge.

1 Peter 1:3

 

 

66. The Two Ways to Live:

A. Our way: Reject the ruler—God;  Try to run life our own way

Result: Condemned by God; Facing death and judgment

B. God’s new way: Submit to Jesus as our ruler; Rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection

Result: Forgiven by God; Given eternal life

John 3:36

 

Let me sound a note of caution at this point. Two Ways To Live is a helpful framework to use but, as I stressed in the post about the Christian academic’s full body workout, the level of sophistication with which we understand the Christian faith should keep pace with the level of sophistication with which we engage with our academic disciplines. Our need is not to move on from the truths sketched in Two Ways to Live, but to deepen our knowledge of them, teasing out their implications for all aspects of the Christian worldview.
Two Pratt, Every Thought Captiveresources I can recommend for going deeper in this way are Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of the Christian Faith, and John Frame’s lecture course on “Christian Apologetics”, available on iTunesU. Both of these resources contribute to showing how the map of biblical truths richly shapes a Christian understanding of the whole of life. To take just one example, in relation to box 1 of Two Ways to Live Frame shows how the Christian understanding of God as being both personal (not an impersonal force or ‘first mover’) and absolute (not part of the universe he created) has far-reaching consequences for an understanding of ethics, the world and human life.

As we familiarise ourselves with an ever more detailed “map” of the Christian faith we will be better equipped to understand how the bible might inform our approach to our academic disciplines. But this is not the only map we need to be drawing. It is also profitable to map our disciplines themselves, and it is to this less familiar task that I now turn.

Mapping an academic discipline

Most academic disciplines do not tell a historical story in the way that the bible does, but they can still usefully be mapped.  The disciplines we work in are not just piles of facts or ideas, any more than the bible is just a pile of verses; they have their own narratives, assumptions and goals. Mapping a discipline can help us better understand the major structural themes that undergird it. It is a useful exercise for any academic, Christian or not.

I suggest that it is useful to begin mapping a discipline by taking six boxes, like the Two Ways to Live outline. Six is not a magic number  but it is a manageable number, and we need to keep in mind that the aim of the exercise is to gain an overview, not to give an exhaustive account.

The following six boxes do not map directly onto the six truths of Two Ways to Live, but they do provide a tool to distill an academic discipline into categories similar to those used by Two Ways To Live.

I invite you to complete the following exercise: In each box, summarise the way in which your discipline tends to think about the issue raised in the box’s title. Below the six boxes I have suggested some questions you might want to ask yourself in order to help you think what to write.

Six boxes for mapping a discipline

Ontology: what exists?

  • What is the first principle or beginning point in the discipline?
  • What is assumed rather than argued for?
  • What assumptions does everybody (or nearly everybody) in your discipline make, but nobody question?
  • What are the historical origins of this discipline? What is it reacting against or trying to renew?

Anthropology: what is a human being?

  • What is the implicit or explicit view of what a human being is and how we function? Possible responses might be ‘we are most fundamentally intelligent animals’; ‘we are understood as data processing machines’; ‘we are understood primarily as consumers’

Ethics: what is right and wrong?

  • What is or are the major problem(s) that my discipline is trying to fix or address?
  • According to my discipline, what is wrong with the world? What is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’?
  • What is a virtuous thing to do in my discipline?
  • What is the worst thing you could possibly say or do, academically, in the eyes of your colleagues?
  • What is the one thing that, if you said it at an academic conference in your discipline, you would get heckled and people would walk out?
  • For your discipline, who are the “baddies”?

Soteriology: what is the solution to our problems?

  • What is the solution to the problem identified in box 3? How are the consequences of the problem to be addressed?
  • What are we fixing? How and why are we fixing it?

Epistemology: How do we know?

  • How will we know whether the solution from box 4 has worked?
  • What is the measure of victory/success?
  • More broadly: what gets measured in my discipline? And what doesn’t get measured? (For many disciplines it is true that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t exist)

Eschatology: what is the endgame?

  • What meaning(s) does all of the above give to human history and human life?
  • What is life all about, according to my discipline?
  • If the leaders of your discipline became the leaders of the world, what would the world look like?
  • For individual methodologies or positions: what bigger story is this part of? What story is being told and what are its values and assumptions? What other stories are not being told?
  • If everything in the world went just as the leaders of my discipline want it to go, what would the world look like (what is your disciplinary ‘heaven’?)
  • If everything that my discipline fears, warns about and tries to fix came true all at once, what would the world look like (what is your disciplinary ‘hell’?)

In order to answer some of the questions, you might find it helpful to start by thinking of an explicit goal of your discipline and drawing an “assumptions pyramid” (I’ll explain what that means in a future post) to find what that goal takes for granted. However, even with assumptions pyramids and a strong cup of coffee you might well find this exercise unusually taxing. It can be difficult to unearth guiding principles and assumptions that lie below the surface, but Christians should be well placed to do that spade work. After all, Christians are used to living in a culture that does not share many of their assumptions and truths; how many people in the institutions for which you work would respond to the truths of Two Ways To Live with the reply “but of course; that’s just how I see the world too”? We are used to our Christian view being in a minority, and having to think it through and defend it from first principles, and the current exercise is merely asking us to extend the same sort of self-awareness and thoughtfulness to an academic discipline.

Take some time to work through the six boxes for your own discipline, your sub-discipline, or even one particular thinker or theoretician in your area.

So you’ve mapped your discipline. Now what?

  • First of all, well done! You’ve taken an important step towards better understanding and serving the academic community of which you are part, and towards coming to terms with that community’s deep structures.
  • As you continue reading and constructively serving in your discipline, be aware of the moves it is making, the bigger picture that makes sense of those moves, and the set of assumptions into which they fit. Understand why certain things are written about often, others seldom and some never. Understand not only what your discipline says, but why it says it (in the two senses of “based on what assumptions?” and “to what end?”). Make sure that you understand your discipline well, so that you can ‘walk in its shoes’.
  • Now that you have a map of the Christian faith and a map of your discipline, you can begin the slow and careful process of understanding the latter in terms of the former. Which features of the map do your faith and your discipline share? Where are they most at variance, and why? At what points might the map of the discipline helpfully show the way to neglected features on the Christian map, and vice versa?
  • Don’t feel you now need to go away and reinvent your discipline overnight, or start shouting about its assumptions right away. Take Nicholas Wolterstorff’s advice and let your understanding of your discipline develop slowly.

Online Lectures–Christianity and the Life of the Mind: An Introduction (Developing a Christian Mind at Oxford)

DCM at Oxford

In February 2014 the Oxford Christian Mind group held a day conference entitled Christianity and the Life of the Mind: An Introduction. The sessions were recorded and are available on the DCMOxford site, and there is also a short bibliography at the bottom of the page.

Here is the purpose statement of the conference:

What does our calling to be disciples of Christ mean for our academic vocation (whether temporary as students or longer term as a career)? What are some of the promises and pitfalls of the scholarly life? How can academics and postgraduate students serve and relate to the wider body of Christ (the Church)?

We believe that considering these questions is a matter of Christian discipleship for graduate students and postdocs of faith. Through lectures and discussion, the ‘Christianity and the Life of the Mind’ conference creates space for an academic and personal introduction to the aim of ‘Developing a Christian Mind at Oxford’.

Let’s read Pascal (14): “It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means alone, and not on the end”

Let's Read Pascal

If you are a Christian in academia, here is a question to ask about your discipline or sub-discipline: what are its goals or ends? How do people in your field justify doing what they do? There is always a rather mundane answer to this question: we do what we do so we can get a qualification that will lead to a job, or to keep our jobs so that we can put food on our family’s plates. But there are also bigger answers: in the story that your discipline tells about itself to the world, is it about improving global health, or efficiency, or knowledge?

Once you have an answer or answers to that question, ask again: Why is efficiency better than inefficiency? Why should everyone be healthy, and not just the rich? Why is having more knowledge better than having less? Pursue the question until you arrive at a value that cannot easily be reduced to anything more fundamental (examples might be the equality of all human beings, or human autonomy). The ends of our disciplines are informed by fundamental and often unspoken values that all successful scholars in the discipline share, but that are very rarely questioned or even discussed.

In the following pensée, Pascal highlights the way we can neglect the ends in our focus on means alone:

98

Bias leading to error.—It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means alone, and not on the end. Each thinks how he will acquit himself in his condition; but as for the choice of condition, or of country, chance gives them to us.

Similarly in the academy the final end for which a particular project or question is being pursued can emerge almost by chance, whereas the means to pursue it are poured over in minute detail and hotly debated.

What ends is your discipline pursuing? Why is your discipline pursuing them? What are the values it is necessary to hold in order to see those ends as desirable?  How do they compare to God’s ends and priorities as revealed in the bible?

Let’s read Pascal’s Pensées

Let's Read Pascal
Today I’m going to start re-reading one of the books in my personal intensive treasure trove, Pensées by Blaise Pascal. I remember the time I first read it, fourteen years ago now, after picking it up almost by accident in a second hand bookshop. That first reading was on holiday (misty forests and long walks with no-one around), which always helps to give a book the chance really to sink in. What struck me most in that first reading was how perceptive and contemporary Pascal is in his analysis of distraction and entertainment (though for him the main distraction seems to be hunting and not TV). Since then I’ve grown to love the way he parses the three orders of materiality, intellect and faith, and his searing analysis of human foibles (including my own). And then there’s the brilliant passage on The Self, which I’ll blog in a separate post once I finish this. I’ve never been a huge fan of the famous wager, but I do think most people misunderstand what Pascal is trying to do with it. What I’ve learned most from Pascal, I think, is the shape of his thinking, the way he undermines commonplaces and gets inside the heads of those he is engaging, walking in their shoes in order to show them the shortcomings of their position.Pensées First Edition

Anyway, this time through I’ll be listening along to the LibriVox version. It’s completely free and public domain, and I can listen to it on my way to work and while I’m doing the cooking. I tend to listen with a little Dictaphone close by so that I can make quick audio notes of ideas (either Pascal’s or my own in reaction to him) that strike me while I listen.

Why not grab yourself a copy and read (or re-read) along with me. If you’re reading or listening along, let me know in the comments section below. If you’re on android, you can use the nifty LibriVox Downloader. I’ll be blogging some of the best bits over the coming weeks.

 

The Christian academic’s full body workout

legs who needs 'emI’ve just started (another) physical workout regime recently, and in order to drum up some enthusiasm for the task I did some lightweight web-based research on how to train and what it takes to keep going for the long term.

One recalcitrant fact I kept butting up against is that it is little use to work out only one part of the body. Apart from the ungainly disproportion that results, it can be dangerous to have one set of strong and powerful muscles working together with another set of weak and spindly ones (pardon the lack of appropriate vocabulary; you’ll have noticed I’m no workout specialist).

Sadly, something very similar can happen to the Christian academic. It’s a fact of university life that we won’t last long in academia unless we learn to become both intensive and extensive readers in our discipline area. Almost all of this reading will likely consider our discipline from a secular point of view. Now, think of this secular disciplinary reading as like working out our arms. In time we end up with hulking academic biceps, like our colleagues.

But now imagine that the Christian reading we do is the equivalent of working out our legs. How is that going, proportionately to the curls and pull-ups we are putting our arms through? Are we putting in the leg work?

It must surely be a wise rule of thumb that the level of sophistication we bring to our understanding of the Christian faith should keep pace with the level of sophistication we bring to our understanding of our academic discipline. Otherwise we risk being academic adults but Christian babies, and Christianity may well appear simplistic or backwards to us simply because we haven’t bothered to put in the hours in the gym to get deeply enough into it.

If I know from my academic discipline a whole raft of implicit and explicit criticisms of the Christian worldview at a very high level of sophistication, while at the same time surviving on a diet of occasional sugar candy from the local Christian bookshop and the quick spit and polish of a verse a day and a brief pray in the morning, it surely can’t be surprising if, little by little, I become just a tad embarrassed by my Christian convictions. Before I know it, those convictions become “former convictions” and I have walked away from Christ out of embarrassment, with a justification that goes something like “evangelical faith is for the young, the idealistic and the naive; thinking people move on to more sophisticated positions.” Among many other tragedies, such a position forgets that, in the paradoxical economy of the gospel, the weakness of God is in fact stronger than human strength, and the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

It is crucial for our own long-term spiritual health (not to mention our capacity positively to influence our disciplines for Christ) that we treat our knowledge of Christ and his word with the same seriousness we treat our disciplinary knowledge, and that we discipline ourselves so that the former keeps pace with the latter. If I may put it this way, how are you doing in the leg department? If you realise you need to bulk up your legs, you could begin by having a look at the reading list I suggested in a previous post.

Augustine on Christians reading pagan books

The notion that “faith” and “learning” need to be “integrated” is a slippery proposition. Sometimes it is embraced too unthinkingly; sometimes it is dismissed too hastily. One assumption sometimes latent in the claim that we need to integrate Christ and academia is that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “Christian” and “non-Christian” thought.

However, there is a rich vein in the history of the Christian church of making wise and godly use of Pagan learning, a tradition that starts at least as far back as Daniel and the wisdom literature. So for instance a proportion of the book of Proverbs is vanishingly close, if not identical, to wisdom literature circulating in other cultures, primarily Egyptian, at the time. Does that mean it’s less part of God’s word? Not at all, no more than it means that all Egyptian literature is part of God’s word.

Augustine is a great model of “integration” here. He emphasizes in On Christian Doctrine (II.40.60) that:

if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

And a little earlier in the same book (II.18.28) he says this:

we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them. Nor (because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart) ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition.

To defend Christianity is therefore not always to reject everything that does not carry a Christian label. There is much to affirm in “non-Christian” thought. Why ever would we think it otherwise, when God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and when “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.” (Romans 1:19-20)? When Paul quotes Epimenides and Aratus/Cleanthes on Mars Hill in Acts 17, he is practicing and sanctifying the principle that Augustine would later articulate.

More academic prayers

Previosuly I shared a prayer I had written that related to the ‘context’ point of the contacts-context-content triangle.

Here are two further prayers, one for each of the remaining two points:

Contacts:

Lord, thank you for the joy of working with others. Please give me grace now to rejoice in the excellence of others, not envying or despising them; please grant me to be an encouragement to colleagues, and help me to love and respect those about whom I am writing, for Jesus’ sake.

Content:

Father, I want to seek to understand this material now in a way that is true to your word and character, that does not lie or perpetuate myth, yet I cannot, unless your Spirit works in me to give me insight. So please teach me to use the gifts you have given me now, Lord, to understand and respond in a way that bears a true witness to who I am before you. For Jesus’ sake.

The academic prayer life

How should we pray about our academic work? One tool I have found helpful (though I have used it far less often than I ought) is to pray into each area of the contacts-context-content schema I described in a previous post.

Here is one prayer I wrote, related to the ‘context’ of my work. It’s not particularly well written, but it does reflect something I would love to be the case. Writing out prayers can be a great way to focus our minds and words; why not create a bank of three or four written “academic” prayers you can cycle through as you work.

Lord, I need you to prevent me taking pride in myself, and I need you to prevent me despairing of myself. Lord, I need you to keep me empty of my own sinful passions, and full of Christ. May he be precious to me in this work now. Lord, please work in and on me as I work now, and please work so that this work serves to make my heart united and not divided in my service of you. Teach me through this work now, Lord, to delight in nothing if I do not delight in it for your sake.

I can’t remember where I heard it, but someone once encouraged me to say grace before work, just like before meals. As I write this post I realise I have rarely acted on that wonderful advice, but I have got into the habit of praying as I walk from my office to give lectures. The prayers usually go something like “Lord, please help me to love and respect the students before me in this lecture, to give of my best in teaching them, and to treat them as human beings made in your image.”

One of the great resources for the praying Christian academic is the huge trove of inspiring meditations that have been written over the centuries. Here is one of my favourites, from Anselm of Canterbury in the Proslogion:

Come now, little man, turn aside for a while from your daily employment, escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside your weighty cares, let your burdensome distractions wait, free yourself awhile for God and rest awhile in him. Enter the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything except God and that which can help you in seeking him, and when you have shut the door, seek him. Now, my whole heart, say to God: “I seek your face, Lord, it is your face I seek.”

If you want to add more prayers that can be particularly useful to Christian academics, please use the comments section below.