Let’s read Keller (1): Success at work, your relational net worth and speculating on the kindness market

Let's read Keller

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging my way through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, with a particular eye out for insights that can be of help to Christian academics.

To get the ball rolling, here is a reflection on the book’s Foreword, by Katherine Leary Alsdorf,  the Founder & Executive Director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, who describes the book in this clip:

In the foreword Alsdorf relates her experience of founding an internet company that was swallowed up in the great dot come bust of the late 1990s. She describes the reaction of her co-workers to hearing that the company would have to fold in this way:

The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.

The experience causes Alsdorf to reflect on the definition of failure, and it reminded me that there are always at least two dimensions to any job: what is being achieved and the relational context within which it is achieved. The “what” of Aldsorf’s company ultimately failed, but it’s relational context was a success. Sometimes, the tables are turned: the “what” can be achieved at the cost of the relational context: I get done what is necessary to succeed, but I leave an ugly trail of relational exploitation, broken promises and resentment in my wake.

If Blaise Pascal were writing the preface to Every Good Endeavor, he might have framed the distinction in terms of  the chase and the catch, suggesting that what often matters most to us is the journey rather than the destination, the relational context rather than the ultimate ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the enterprise. The weight of biblical material related to work would point us in the same direction: God is more concerned with how we work than with what we do, and with how we treat people than whether we are ‘successful’ in stock market terms.

For Christian academics, we must ask ourselves how we measure success in our own careers: by where we end up on the pecking order, or by how we treat people along the way?

The language we use is powerful in shaping the way we think, so let’s try some new concepts on for size, framing biblical values in the sort of language that is common in many workplaces:

  • When was the last time you thought in terms of your ‘relational wealth’, or ‘relational net worth’?
  • Have you ever been excited by the thought of innovating in obedience or making a strategic investment in holiness?
  • Have you ever speculated  on the kindness market or diversified into Christ-like service?
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Let’s read Pascal (33): We have an incapacity for proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Two quotations to lay side by side, one from Pascal and one from the kohelleth of Ecclesiastes:

Instinct, reason.—We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism.

(Pensées 395)

 

He [God, Elohim] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he 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)

Plantinga and Wolterstorff: should Christian academics follow the trends of our disciplines?

For anyone with an interest in being a Christian academic, a conversation between Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff on the nature of scholarship is a five course banquet, and I recently myself to this feast from the Biola Center for Christian Thought:

After a discussion of “shalomic scholarship”, Plantinga turns at around 15.00 to his famous ‘Advice to Christian philosophers’. He confirms that there is not a great deal he thinks needs updating in the document, and suggests around 17.50 that Christian scholars should have their own projects that pursue concerns particular to Christians and the church (as well as thinking about the questions which are being treated more widely in their disciplines). Wolterstorff pushes back a little, suggesting that, if we do set our own agendas, we must do so in light of what is happening in the discipline more broadly. Plantinga concedes the point around 30.00, when he says that not addressing the concerns of the discipline at all paints the Christian scholar as the “weird uncle”.

Wolterstoff then takes the reins (around 31.00) and insists that as Christian scholars we should do our best to be persuasive, a point with which Blaise Pascal heartily agrees, and that we are being ungrateful if we refuse that there is much to be admired in non-Christian thought. It is a little disappointing that Plantinga and Wolterstorff paint Cornelius Van Til as antagonistic to this view. Plantinga get s Van Til wrong, I think, at 33.20 (or at least the digest of Van Til he came across as an undergraduate—he admits to not having read him). Van Til was explained to the young Plantinga as holding that non-Christians do not know anything. It would be more accurate, I think, to say that Van Til holds that non-Christians can generate from their own assumptions no epistemic basis in terms of which to justify the knowledge they do have by common grace, regardless of whether or not that knowledge happens to be true.

Let’s read Pascal (3): intuitive and mathematical thinking in relation to truth and beauty

Let's Read PascalThe way in which Pascal distinguishes between intuitive and mathematical thinking overlaps with (if it does not directly map onto) the distinction between goodness, truth and beauty about which I wrote in a previous post. The intuitive thinker has a keen sense for beauty—understood as right proportion, intuitive ‘fit’, plausibility—whereas the mathematical thinker arrives at judgments by a more circuitous and rigorous route:

3

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

Both in the way we engage with academic arguments and also in the way we seek to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), it pays to reflect on what sort of arguments we are dealing with: primarily intuitive or predominantly mathematical.

 

 

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.

 

I’m new to this blog: where should I start?

Hi there!

If you’ve just stumbled across this blog and are wondering where to start, first of all “welcome”! Let us offer some pointers to what might be the most useful posts to get things going.

If you’re a Christian postdoc or postgrad feeling like you are sinking without trace in academia and wondering how you ever got yourself into this mess in the first place, then welcome brother or sister, one of the main reasons we started this blog was to do our best to help people just like you. You might want to check out How does being a Christian make a difference to the work and life of an academic?, and follow up with Sir Donald Hay on Being a Christian Academic before drawing comfort from a dose of Nicholas Wolterstorff on transforming your discipline: Be patient and don’t jump on bandwagons. You might also be interested in What does a “Christian approach” to my discipline even mean? and How can I justify spending so much of my life on academic research with all the problems in the world?

If you’re a Christian and on faculty or a postdoc or postgrad student and you’re not particularly struggling to keep your head above water as a Christian at the moment, you could start by heading over to Forming a Christian Mind: What to Read and How to Read It, and follow up with The Christian academic’s full body workout.

If you’re a Christian struggling to know how to share the good news about Jesus with very clever people who come at you with lots of arguments, you could have a look at What’s the stumbling block for our colleagues: untruth or ugliness? and follow up with A Pauline model for engaging with our disciplines and Cultural analysis and the category of idolatry. Also, keep your eye on the Pascal series.

If you’re into the devotional side of the Christian academic life, kick off with The Academic prayer life and then have a look at the series on prayers and prayer life, and top up with the series on academic temptations.

If you fancy getting your teeth stuck into some meaty reading to nourish your reflections on being a Christian in academia, grab yourself a copy of Pascal’s Pensées and read along as we blog our way through it.

If you’re not a Christian yourself but wonder what some people are doing writing about being a Christian in academia anyway, then feel free to look around. Check out the about this blog post. If you want to know what we believe, head over to Christianity Explored or pick up a copy of Mark Meynell’s Cross-Examined. If you want to know why we believe it, you could do worse than start with Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées or, if you are more the narrative type, Augustine’s Confessions.

Feel free to drop us an email at [thechristianscholar at gmail dot com], or for regular updates follow us on twitter: 

 

Art, sense and concept

“we comprehend the world aesthetically, in ways that cannot be derived from other forms of knowledge and artifice.” (Paul Crowther, “Art’s making: why aesthetics matters to art history,” unpublished manuscript) […] it is the integral fusion of the sensuous and the conceptual which enables art to express something of the depth and richness of body-hold in a way which eludes modes of abstract thought — such as philosophy. — Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery, p. 27.