On Being a Christian Academic
Talk: Oxford GCU, 13 October 2008
There are just two things that you need to know about me, which provide my credentials for speaking to the title ‘On being a Christian academic’. The first is that I came to Oxford in 1966 as a student to study for the M Phil in Economics, and four years later I was elected to a Fellowship at Jesus College and appointed to a University position.
For the next thirty years I researched and taught in Economics, and was involved in a minor way in the development of public policy. It was an enormous privilege – there was a freedom to pursue my own research, and the students I taught were highly intelligent, and for the most part, industrious.
Sabbatical leave took me to live in Brazil on two occasions, and in the late 80s and early 90s I was involved in a research programme that took me to China for extended visits. The second thing you need to know is that I came to academic life as a committed Christian, seeking to integrate my faith and my intellectual life.
The Challenge of Christian faith
Early on in my academic career I was challenged by two passages in the New Testament, both of which are to do with the use of our minds.
The first challenge comes in the teaching of Jesus in Mark 12: 28-30. Jesus is teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, and engaging with Jewish teachers. One teacher of the Law comes to him with what appears to be a genuine question: ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus responds:
‘The most important one is this ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’.
This is the Shema, drawn from Deuteronomy 6: 4, which was recited twice a day by pious Jews as a confession of faith. The four elements – heart, soul, mind and strength – are different dimensions of a single unified Christian character. The interesting addition is the word ‘mind’. The Greek word describes the thinking or cognitive aspect of what it is to be a human being: our capacity to think rationally about things. This suggests that the life of the mind should also be exercised as part of our commitment to serve Christ. This is of course for every Christian, but it has a particular significance for academics whose particular calling is to the life of the mind.
The second challenge comes in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. After his powerful and detailed exposition of salvation in the first eleven chapters, the apostle turns to application, beginning the new section of the letter, as he often does, with the word ‘Therefore’ (Romans 12: 1-2): ‘Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’
Once again the emphasis is on our capacity for rational thought, but the context in the letter suggests that it is moral or ethical evaluation that the apostle has in mind here. The life of the mind is to affect very practically the way in which we live our lives, including in verse 3 an injunction to humility and soberness in our selfevaluation, and an exhortation to give ourselves in service to others (verses 6-8).
A third challenge came to me later in my career, and it is from the prophecy of Jeremiah. In Chapter 29, God’s people are in exile as captives in Babylon, and their preoccupation is how long their captivity will continue as they long to return to their homeland in Judah. Their hope is that it will be, at most, a temporary sojourn in an alien location and culture, so they are making little effort to settle and to establish their lives in Babylon. Jeremiah addresses them in a very surprising letter from Jerusalem:
‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those who I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down…… Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’
‘Peace and prosperity’ translate the Hebrew word ‘shalom’: a single word translation might be ‘welfare’, giving the sense ‘Seek the welfare of the city’. We belong to the kingdom of God, which is already present in the world in the community of those who accept the lordship (rule) of Christ, but the kingdom will only find its fulfillment when Christ comes again. In the meantime the church is present in the world as if it were a people in exile, living in cultures with very different goals and values. The implication is that we too should seek the ‘shalom’ of the community in which we find ourselves. The challenge for the Christian academic is how to seek ‘the welfare of the city’, both in its manifestation in the university and research institutes, but also the wider culture in which those academic institutions are located both geographically and intellectually.
These three challenges may be summarised as the pursuit of a Christian mind, a Christian worldview which controls our thought and living, which can be put to the service of the city in which we find ourselves. Intellectual activity cannot be divorced from service.
The Christian Mind and the Academic Vocation
But why do we need a Christian mind in our academic activity? The first reason is the requirement that we should be consistent in our Christian discipleship. Too often Christians live in two separate worlds: the world of faith involving worship and service in the Christian community, and the world of work which absorbs much, if not all, of our time and attention during the week. The danger is that we become guilty of hypocrisy in its original sense of thinking and behaving differently depending on the context. Our Christian activities can become ‘leisure pursuits’, just as others might play golf or enjoy music or theatre in their time off. The challenge of Jesus is that we should be faithful to him in every aspect of our lives, including our academic lives.
The second reason is that Christian faith is under attack. At one level this is evident in the highly-charged critiques offered by Professor Richard Dawkins and the other ‘New Atheists’. But there is a much deeper level at which faith is undermined in our disciplines. We need to be very alert to the underlying presuppositions of our academic disciplines.
For example, we need to be alert to both naturalism and scientism. Naturalism claims that human beings are no more than a part of the physical world: they are indeed part of the physical world, but they are much more besides. Scientism is the claim that only the scientific method can provide understanding and truth about the natural world and humanity, excluding all other sources and methods of enquiry.
In the humanities we need to be aware of the claims of post modernism that all ‘truth’ is relative, depending on our particular point of reference: there is no objective truth out there to be discovered by academic enquiry. These issues need us to understand our faith in a deeper and systematic way, to enable us to recognise the presuppositions in the first place, and then be ready to develop our own critique.
Apologetics is not an optional extra: the Christian academic needs to defend his or her position on issues like creation, theodicy, and human nature.
Ethics and values are the other area where Christianity is under direct attack, most notably in sexual mores, issues concerning the beginning and end of life, and the environment. We need to be sure of what we think in these and other areas. But once again there are deeper agendas that inhabit our disciplines, such as the prevailing utilitarianism of the social and applied sciences, and the unwillingness to express moral judgements in the humanities.
Where do we begin?
The starting point is a systematic understanding of Christian thought. We need to translate our faith into a system of thought that is capable of dealing with the intellectual and ethical issues that we confront in our disciplines.
Bible knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for this purpose. We need a worked-out theology, which sustains our faith in the intellectual environment. Very generally we can think of a theological system in terms of a triangle of relationships. At the apex is God, and at the other two vertices we have the natural order and humanity. The relationship between God and the natural order is that he is the creator and the sustainer. The natural order is therefore law-governed and intelligible. It is also purposeful and good: so we need to value it for its own sake, and not just for what humanity can make from it.
The relationship between God and humanity is expressed in the fact that we are made in the image of God. On the one hand that implies that we are not just clever animals, and on the other hand it draws attention to our responsibility to be God’s vicegerents in the natural order, following the mandate in Genesis 1: 28-30. We are responsible, not just for ourselves, but also for the natural world and other people. But we are also fallen, denying our dependence on God, breaking our relationship with him. The consequences are that all our relationships are fractured – with other human beings (the exercise of power over others displacing service to neighbour, lust replacing love in sexual relations), and with the natural order (exploitation and destruction rather than stewardship).
Application: how do we know things?
What are we looking for in our academic endeavours? Presumably we are seeking true understanding and knowledge. For the Christian it cannot be the case that ‘anything goes’, so long as it is sufficiently ‘clever’ and well presented. We believe that God has made the world purposeful and ordered: this is our reason for accepting the assumption of uniformity of causes in the natural sciences, and stable patterns of behaviour in the social sciences. For this reason we cannot accept the position that knowledge is simply an artefact of the human mind: on the contrary there is metaphysical objectivity, an intellectual order that can be discerned and which it is our responsibility to understand. The scepticism of Hume about the possibility of objective knowledge in physical and social science is a mistake, and so is the post modernist view in the humanities that there is no objective truth about literature or history.
So if there is objective truth to be discovered, how do we set about it? The first step is, rather obviously, to use our powers of reasoning. Christians, especially those pursuing academic enquiry, should rejoice in our Godgiven capacity for reason. We should also give thanks for it, as a constant reminder that it is a gift, and to avert the temptation to pride in our intellectual skills. We should also trust our reasoning powers: they are a good gift, and are part of human nature in the image of God. Second, we need to recognise study, research, and teaching as a vocation. Academic endeavour should be pursued with a commitment to discovering and communicating truth.
Our values will inform our choices about what we research, and we will want the fruits of our study to be useful to others.
The third element is recognition of human fallibility. We are all too capable of being self-deceived or muddled, so our findings will never be more than provisional. We must be open to correction, and sufficiently humble to acknowledge that we may be wrong. Christian academics will therefore look for methods of enquiry that genuinely allow for our findings to be challenged or our conclusions constructively criticised.
That is, of course, one of the strengths of the classic exposition of the scientific method: in other fields of enquiry, the process of challenge and correction cannot be so clearly delineated, but Christians should be alert to the dangers of methods that are not open to critique on a reasonably objective basis.
Application: how should we evaluate?
Evaluation requires us to respond to both the challenge of Paul and the challenge of Jeremiah: we must be renewed in our minds so that we can apply appropriately Christian ethical requirements, and we must seek the ‘welfare of the city’. That requires us to be alert to the ethical values implicit in our research, and to any ethical issues that may arise either in the research itself, or in its application in society. The latter is very important.
Despite the accusation that academics live in ivory towers, the fact is that ‘ideas have legs’, and very often the concepts and values that dominate the public space are developed in universities and other intellectual circles.
Utilitarianism has triumphed in the public arena in the development of public policies, whether they are economic, social, or technology policies. In some areas, adding up the costs and benefits may be a perfectly sensible basis for policy decisions, but it should not be universally applied. For example, it will be sensible to use it to evaluate the returns to building a new bridge or railway, but it should not be applied unthinkingly to the allocation of health care resources or to issues at the beginning and end of life.
Scientists, and particularly physical scientists, are prone to believe that the work they are undertaking has no ethical dimension. That may be the case, but at the very least they have an obligation to consider the possible uses of their discoveries in technologies. A colleague in physics worked on a technique that had very clear military applications, and indeed he received funding from US military sources. He never questioned the use to which his research findings might be put, and indeed was quite adamant that the issue was irrelevant to his research. That cannot be an acceptable stance for a Christian researcher.
Graduate work is not, for every student, the pathway to an academic career. A masters course, particularly, can equally be the foundation for professional life. The motivation for a Christian should therefore be the challenge of Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city. Graduate work should involve a consideration of how to seek the welfare of the city in the chosen field. That should include a careful evaluation of the ethical bases implicit in policy and action, and endeavouring to establish a Christian set of values to inform professional work.
Personal Conduct in Academic Life
This section is rather different from those which preceded it, with a focus on attitudes and conduct. There are two particular vices to which academics are prone, and Christians embarking on a course of study need to be alert to the dangers.
The first is that of self-promotion and intellectual pride. Academic life tends to be competitive, and there is always a temptation to promote one’s own achievements and belittle the achievements of others. Such behaviour does nothing to seek the welfare of other students or staff in the department or faculty in which one is studying.
Thankfulness for one’s own ability can easily turn into pride, and pleasure in discoveries can become an obsession with personal cleverness.
The second vice is ‘workaholism’. Academic study at graduate level is demanding, both in terms of intellectual challenge and in terms of the amount of work that is required to cover the reading, to complete the experiments, or to write the thesis or dissertation. The pressures can be so great that the student effectively ceases to lead a normal life, and becomes self-obsessed. There is definitely a need to establish an ordered lifestyle, with time for other people, for personal recreation, and for involvement with other Christians.
There is a great deal to be said for keeping a regular sabbath, to include time for God, for friends, and for relaxation. To have one day a week when one does no academic work at all gives a rhythm to one’s life, and helps to put the other six days labour in perspective.
1. Why are you undertaking postgraduate study? Do you see academic study as a vocation, or as a means to further other long term career plans?
2. Is your understanding of the Christian faith on an intellectual par with your understanding of your academic field? If not, do you think it matters?
3. What do you think are the main intellectual challenges to Christian belief within your academic discipline? Do you feel well prepared to defend your faith in these challenges?
4. What do you think are the main ethical or value challenges to Christian belief that arise in your academic discipline? Do you feel well prepared to defend your faith in these challenges?
5. How can self-absorption and ‘workaholism’ be avoided in your graduate studies?
* The natural setting of Rio harbour is outstandingly beautiful; but the city is one of the most violent in the world, with huge disparities between rich and poor, along with enormous social and environmental problems. This image reminds us of the relationship of Jesus Christ to both the natural world as Creator and Sustainer, and to the world of human affairs as its Redeemer and Lord. The Developing a Christian Mind programme will let us challenge each other to think more profoundly about these two relationships in the context of our academic endeavours.
originally posted on https://dcmoxford.org/article/2017/9/25/donald-hay-yztwb-re8gh
Cover photo byon Unsplash