Let’s read Keller (6): Digging deeper into Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Let's read Keller

In Every Good Endeavor Tim Keller draws on the wonderful Tolkien short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ to make the point that our work, to be worthwhile, does not have to accomplish all we might hope for it in this life.

There is a tree

Niggle is an artist who works meticulously on a grand painting of a tree, only one leaf of which he completes in his lifetime. Towards the end of the story, Niggle is taken on a train to a heavenly unnamed place where, to his surprise, the tree he never had time to finish during his lifetime stands complete:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally. He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.

The painting Niggle began on earth was not only unfinished but also imperfect, and yet here he sees the complete vision that he had only dimly apprehended before. Keller titles this section of his introduction ‘There really is a tree’, and glosses the Niggle story thus:

Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out.” Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.

The Parish principle: “distracting” acts of service are part of your masterpiece, not its enemy

What Keller doesn’t dwell on is that the story continues after Niggle’s encounter with his completed tree. Approaching a forest, the artist reflects that some of his most beautiful leaves “were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.” I find this sentence almost more beautiful and inspiring than the encounter with the finished tree. Mr Parish is a neighbour of Niggle’s who seems to have been distracting and thwarting attempts to work on the painting through the good deeds that Niggle perpetually seems to be performing for him. Indeed, it is through Parish that Niggle catches a cold and dies leaving his painting barely begun. And yet here the finished tree bears the collaborative marks of Parish in “the most perfect examples of the Niggle style”.

The lesson of the Parish-Niggle collaboration for Christian academics is a powerful one. Our work requires long hours of (usually) solitary or socially restricted effort to produce its miserable little “leaf”. We might see family and church commitments, helping friends and loving enemies, as so many inconveniences thwarting our real mission: to bring forth the leaf. And, indeed, in this life it might seem at times very much as if these things are inconveniences and hindrances, thwarting our “true potential” and causing us to lose our productivity, our health or even our life. But as Tolkien brilliantly grasps, that is not the full picture. The fully realised vision of our dimly imagined work bears will have borne the marks of these relationships, these acts of kindness to others, right at the heart of our signature style. So who, or what, is your Parish? Thank God for them. It is a myopic perspective on work that sees them as a hindrance to the realisation of your leaf.

Tolkien has Parish join Niggle in the unnamed heavenly place. During their neighbourly life on earth Parish had dismissed the value of Niggle’s painting, but now in a beautiful reversal of roles it is Parish, not Niggle, who cannot tear his eyes away from the Tree:

As they worked together, it became plain that Niggle was now the better of the two at ordering his time and getting things done. Oddly enough, it was Niggle who became most absorbed in building and gardening, while Parish often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree.

Helping people to see your tree when all you have to show is virgin canvas and pots of paint

A little later on, Parish is confronted by one who “looked like a shepherd” and who explains that the land they are enjoying so much is Niggle’s Country. Niggle’s companion is dumbfounded:

“Niggle’s Picture!” said Parish in astonishment. “Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He tried to tell you long ago,” said the man; “but you would not look. He had only got canvas and paint in those days, and you wanted to mend your roof with them. This is what you and your wife used to call Niggle’s Nonsense, or That Daubing.”

It would be easy (all too easy) to paint Parish as the Philistine who meets his comeuppance as Niggle is straightforwardly vindicated by the Shepherd’s intervention. But Tolkien is cannier than that, and Niggle acknowledges his part in Parish’s ignorance: ‘“I did not give you much chance,” said Niggle. “I never tried to explain. I used to call you Old Earth-grubber. But what does it matter?”‘. It matters a great deal. Niggle’s dismissive attitude toward Parish seems partly to blame for Parish’s philistinism.

So the question is posed to us: what are we doing, as Christian academics, to help the Parishes around us to glimpse our tree when all we have is the beginnings of a leaf, presuming, of course, that we ourselves have at least glimpsed the big picture of which our work is part? Tolkien writes ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think, not only to inspire Niggles, but to help Parishes glimpse the wonder of what they may hitherto only have scorned. What stories are we telling about our work to show its place in a big picture as yet unpainted? What is your elevator pitch when someone outside academia asks you what you are working on? That thorniest of questions can be answered at any number of levels; why not choose the level that Tolkien privileges in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, the big picture level of the Tree, not the detailed intricacy of the single leaf? With all due humility and without lapsing into self-promotional claptrap, we academics have a role in helping those around us to see the big picture of what we are doing, so that they might not think our canvas and paint would be put to better use mending a leaking roof.

Councillor Tomkins

There is a little epilogue to ‘Leaf by Niggle’. The scene cuts to a conversation between Councillor Tomkins and Atkins. The Councillor, somewhat in the mould of the earthly Parish but with a larger dose of supercilious arrogance, is a sceptic about Niggle’s art and about the man himself:

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in the communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly…”

A couple of paragraphs later on we learn that Atkins the schoolmaster takes Niggle’s one completed leaf and has it hung in the Town Museum, which burns down expunging all trace of Niggle’s work from this earth. Meanwhile, Parish and Niggle laugh until the mountains ring at the news that a corner of their new land is to be called “Niggle’s Parish”.

We cannot help contrasting the incinerated earthly leaf with the heavenly vision in which “the blossom on the Great Tree was shining like a flame”. Councillor Tomkins only has eyes for one flame: the fire that destroys, that brings to nothing Niggle’s painting. However, if he could bear to look into it intently enough he would see that it also burns away his own cherished notion of “practical or economic use”. The destroying flame brings all to naught, not just paintings. What Tomkins cannot see is the heavenly fire, the flame that shines, that dazzles and adorns. Tolkien shows us both, and as creatures of eternity in a fallen and largely unjust world we would do well to take account of both flames as we labour on yet another almost invisible detail of our laboriously constructed leaf.

Let’s read Pascal (27): when academic productivity is no different to watching television

Let's Read Pascal

One of the brilliant features of Pascal’s writing is the way that it punctures false apprehensions and causes us to see things differently through surprising juxtapositions. It is a Pascalian “bait and switch” technique that, for me, is shown nowhere more brilliantly than in pensée 139, which I quote here in extenso:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

Whatever condition we picture to ourselves, if we muster all the good things which it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion, and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy, and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.

Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after. Not that there is in fact any happiness in them, or that men imagine true bliss to consist in money won at play, or in the hare which they hunt; we would not take these as a gift. We do not seek that easy and peaceful lot which permits us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the labour of office, but the bustle which averts these thoughts of ours, and amuses us.

The effectiveness of Pascal’s reasoning here is in part due to the way he couples the familiar with the surprising. Most of us would be at ease, I suspect, with the idea that men and women engage in games and socialising in order to be amused, to be entertained, and to pass the time. But Pascal does not merely offer this conventional thought; he throws in a more surprising example: “Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after.” The surprise, for me at least, is to include “high posts” in this category. When people seek play or society to pass the time there can be, in our productive and output-driven academic culture, a tendency to look down on them; they are not, to use that most apt of words in this context, “players”. But what about when productivity itself becomes the distraction; what when peer esteem, “impact” and professorial promotion are themselves used as means to the very same “amusement” provided by play and society? To the extent that this is the case, why are the latter amusements praised and envied, while the former are scorned and pitied? What is the difference, at the end of the day (or indeed on the last day), between play and high office? Are not both merely different means to the same end of entertainment?

Whatever our final answer to these questions, Pascal’s thought at least gives us pause to examine our own hearts and motives, and to ask ourselves whether academic productivity and ambition have become, for us, no more and no less than what endless hours of television are for others.

You probably know what you are doing in your job, but do you know who you are doing it for?

As Christians in academia we probably have a pretty good idea of what we want to do: what experiments we want to conduct, what papers or books we want to write, and what ideas we want to critique. We spend quite a lot of time thinking about and planning these things. But how much time do we spend thinking about who we are doing it all for? If your experience is anything like mine, the answer is probably “very little”.

We have mentioned before on this blog the academic temptation working for ourselves and not for God. Here is a passage from D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation that makes the same point in relation to Christian service more broadly:

The Christian’s whole desire, at its best and highest, is that Jesus Christ be praised. It is always a wretched bastardization of our goals when we want to win glory for ourselves instead of for him. When we arrange flowers in the church, or serve as an usher, or preach a sermon; when we visit the sick, or run a youth group, or attend prayer meeting—when we do any of these things, and more, with the secret desire that we might be praised for our godliness and service, we have corrupted the salvation we enjoy. Its purpose is to reconcile us to God, for God must be the center of our lives, the ground and the goal of our existence. Indeed, Christ himself, the agent of God in creation, is the one of whom Paul elsewhere declares that all things were made by him and for him (Col. 1:16). Lying at the heart of all sin is the desire to be the center, to be like God. So if we take on Christian service, and think of such service as the vehicle that will make us central, we have paganized Christian service; we have domesticated Christian living and set it to servitude in a pagan cause.

Who are you working for?

Let’s read Pascal (15): Is your professional seniority making you a knowledgeable fool?

Let's Read Pascal

We take it for a granted that, as a general rule, gaining increased seniority in our chosen profession betokens a deeper knowledge. Postdocs know more than doctoral students; lecturers know more than postdocs; professors know most of all. Though in most cases this is undoubtedly true, there is also a concomitant danger that accompanies seniority. I will let Pascal explain it in his own words:


Hence it happens that if any have some interest in being loved by us, they are averse to render us a service which they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.

So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

The higher we climb in academia, the less likely it is that, in our own group or department, people will speak to us the hard truth that helps us at the expense of injuring them. I don’t just mean the truth about the ideas for which we argue in our papers: anyone can critique those, and to challenge someone’s ideas can often be a way of affirming their competence and dignity, not questioning it. I mean the way we treat our “inferiors” in the pecking order, the way we run our labs, the time we take to complete those tasks that do not directly benefit us but help others in the field. It becomes less likely that we are challenged about those aspects of our behaviour. In other words, I am talking not about knowledge but about wisdom. As we rise in the academic hierarchy we will be more knowledgeable, but it will also be easier for us to survive unchallenged as knowledgeable fools.

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.

Biola Center for Christian Thought: Plantinga and Wolterstorff on the academic totem pole

Biola CCTBiola University’s Centre for Christian Thought is a great resource for Christian postgrads and academics who want to deepen their thinking about how to serve Christ in secular academia.

Here’s a taster to whet your appetite: Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga on how to deal with the academic totem pole.

Plantinga’s insight is spot on and also piercing: you can tell a huge amount about someone by how they treat people below them on the totem pole.

Wolterstorff follows up with another Christian academic attitude of fundamental importance: the Christian academic will never demean anyone. As Don Carson puts it in A Call to Spiritual Reformation, the only time a Christian should put someone down is on their prayer list.

Let’s read Pascal (9): Would you rather know something about everything, or everything about one thing? The pitfalls of expertise

Let's Read Pascal

The intense specialisation and consequent fragmentation of the contemporary university is well documented. Fields of specialism are constantly shrinking and anyone who wishes to keep their job is required to become an “expert” in smaller and smaller parcels of knowledge with each passing decade.

While this trend certainly has its reasons (not least that we know more information about more objects of knowledge than we have ever known before), it comes at a cost that we are sometimes slow to count. Consider this pensée:


Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge.

Would you agree with Pascal? If you could only choose one of the two options, would you rather know a little about everything, or everything about one thing? With tongue just a little in cheek, we could frame the choice in this way: would you rather be a public intellectual or an academic?

In an age when the language of choice to refer to university employees is increasingly “experts” (just google “the university expert” and you’ll see what I mean), the species formally known as “dons”, “professors” or even “academics” now serve the public good by injecting off-the-shelf snippets of “expert” information into the “real world” when we are so bidden.

What we lose in the race to know everything about smaller and smaller areas is the wisdom (let’s use that word) that comes from a broad understanding, the balance that one disciplinary outlook and one set of disciplinary presuppositions can bring to another set, and the explosive arcing that comes when disparate areas of knowledge are brought into contact with each other. It also cements disciplinary group-think and the internal feedback loop of affirmation that can beset any closed group.

What we most risk losing, perhaps, is more serious than any of these disciplinary peccadilloes. We are in danger, in becoming too identified with our specialty or “expertise”, that our identity is first, foremost and foundationally as God’s creatures and forgiven sinners saved by grace who will give a final account of our lives to God alone. Why is this important to remember? One reason is that it ensures against one of the great academic temptations: to think that the expertise which we have the privilege of developing at the taxpayer’s expense in some way enhances the quality and worth of our souls. Now I know that to put it like that sounds ridiculous, but is there not a sense in which we are tempted to consider ourselves just that little bit elevated as people by virtue of our “superior knowledge and wisdom”? Elevated as academics: quite possibly; elevated as people: to think so would be spectacularly to misunderstand the very heartbeat of both the Old and New Testaments.

In his Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones musing on the trajectory that leads a person away from humanity and into to expertise: “there are many whom I have had the privilege of meeting whose tombstones might well bear the grim epitaph . . . ‘born a man, died a doctor.'”

God grant that it may never be said of us: “born a human being, died an expert.”

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).

The academic life and paying taxes to Caesar

In this post I want to think about how academic study fits in with the rest of our lives. I will suggest two defective models, and propose a more adequate model.

There is a very powerful contrast in the film Chariots of Fire that brings out the dangers of an defective model of any vocation, and it applies well to academia. Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell are both Olympic-class runners. But Lidell knew Jesus, and Abrahams didn’t, and that made all the difference to the way they ran. There’s a scene in the film where Abrahams is getting ready for the Olympic 100 metres final, during which he says:

“And now in one hour’s time I will be out there again.  I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But WILL I?”

Running defines who he is, and so he needs to prove himself again and again. Because it’s never enough. And if we live for our studies, however glittering our career is, it will never be enough. And it will rob God of the glory that should be his.

But these are Eric Liddell’s words:

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

I love this quote, because it avoids the two opposite dangers that Christians can fall into.

  • The first danger is to live for our work, like Abrahams, and thereby destroy ourselves.
  • The second danger is to try and be super-spiritual by saying: my academic work is only tent-making. My real work is evangelism, and my academic work is only a pretext for evangelism.

That ALSO robs God of the glory that should be his. We are commanded to make disciples of all nations. We are also commanded (Colossians 3:23), whatever we do, to work at it with our whole hearts, as for the Lord.

And so Liddell says 2 things.

  • First, he says: “I believe God made me for a purpose”. My work is not everything about me. And indeed, after winning Olympic gold, Liddell gave up athletics and went to become a missionary in China.
  • He also says “but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure”. I’m not running for the sake of my identity, because my identity is in God. And I’m not just running for something to do. I’m running for God: using the gifts he has given me in a way that pleases him.

To ground this idea biblically, let’s look at the moment in Jesus’ life when he is asked about paying taxes.

So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.  22  Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”  23  But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them,  24  “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.”  25  He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  26  And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:21-26)

It seems it was the same for Jesus as it is at most academic conferences: the nastiest questions always start with the kindest introductions! “I want to start by thanking for you for a really thought-provoking paper that raised a lot of interesting questions, but… have you stopped beating your wife?”

That’s the sort of question we’ve got here: Do you support the regime, Jesus, in which case you’re a traitor to your religious principles, or do you rebel against the pagan authorities you live under, and so incur the wrath of the occupying power? Have you stopped beating your wife, Jesus?

Rephrased for our context, it might read: do you try to do your secular job really well? (in which case you’re not a really keen Christian), or do you just use it to fill in time before you can do Christian things in the evenings, and if you say yes, we’re going to tell your supervisor.

As we know, the key to the exchange is verse 24: “whose likeness and inscription does it have?” The word for likeness here is eikon, the same word the New Testament uses for humankind being in the ‘image’ (eikon) of God. (1 Corinthians 11:7). So there are two ‘images’ in this passage: the one on the coin, and the one holding the coin in his hand. And Jesus’ principle is: you give the object to the one whose image it bears.

This means that giving Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s are not two equal and opposite gestures, such that we could say ‘over here is what is Caesar’s’ and ‘over there is what is God’s’. The reason is that the coin is an image of an image. The coin is in the image of Caesar, and Caesar himself is in the image of God.

So my giving to Caesar is caught up in my giving to God. Paying taxes is a giving to Caesar, but it is also at the same time a giving to God: part of my Christian duty (Romans 13:6-7). I am to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but in a way that recognizes that everything–including Caesar and my very self–is God’s. The second gesture, giving to God what is God’s, gathers up the first giving in its own transcendent offering. Part of offering my whole self to God is, under God, to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Another key point here is that my work cannot make ultimate demands on me. Caesar never owns me. He can righly demand my taxes, but he has no right to my very self. So we don’t live for our work. God, on the other hand, can rightly demand of me my very self, because I my self am in his image. And so what I give to Caesar must only ever be a subset of what I give to God, and must always be concordant with what it is right to give to God, because God demands everything, even my very self.

Giving to God doesn’t cancel out giving to Caesar, or make it a defunct category. It just transfigures it into a moment of a much greater and much more meaningful giving. And this is a liberating truth for Christian academics, I think, because it means that there is no sacred/secular divide in our lives. It is not that we do our work for the university, and then we give our Sundays to God. Our work should be part of our worship, part of our ministry, and part of our obedience to God’s commands (though not its full extent: skipping church meetings for work reasons is not being a good Christian academic).

We cannot say: ‘my work is my worship, therefore I don’t need to come to church or help lead a bible study’ or whatever, but neither can we say ‘the only thing I do that has significance for God’s kingdom is the bible study I lead’. Of course, that sounds great in theory, but the way that this works out for each of us will take more thinking than this rather theoretical and abstracted post can provide. Over to you…