Whole-life mission

What is the mission of the church, and, by implication, of Christian believers? And how does that mission shape our everyday lives? These are the questions that Antony Billington and Mark Greene focus our attention on in the next chapter of their book ‘The whole of life for Christ’.

Right at the start of His three-year period of ministry, Jesus calls the twelve disciples and commissions them: ‘“Come follow me”, Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men”’ (Mat. 4:19). Over the next three years, Jesus taught them, through His preaching, through building relationships with them, through sharing His life with them. After His death and resurrection, He continued to teach them, until they understood that He had to suffer and rise from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sins could be preached to all nations (Luke 24:44-46). Only then were they ready to receive what is known as ‘the Great Commission’ (Mat. 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-20).

The first thing to note about the great commission as recorded by Matthew is that it starts with Christ: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mat. 28:18). To be a disciple is not just to be converted, but to live your life under the rule of Christ. Since we have so far lived our lives under the rule of sin and Satan, this is a lifelong process of growth and transformation. Slowly we learn to obey all that He has commanded us (Mat. 28:20), realising that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mat. 11:30). We are re-created in the image of the new Adam: Christ Himself. In this process of re-creation we become part of the new humanity in Christ, commissioned with the task of bringing creation under Christ’s rule, of calling other people to submit to His reign, and to disciple them in turn.

But we do not need to do this on our own. Jesus promises that He will be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mat. 28:20). By His Spirit, He gives us wisdom, produces fruit and transforms us into His likeness.

So what does this all mean for Christians in academia? Does it mean we need to tell our colleagues about Christ and then our work is done? Of course it is important that more people submit to Christ’s rule. But our task does not end there. The converts must become disciples, learners, who grow in love and understanding. And Christ’s rule is not limited to people either – the gospel must be proclaimed to ‘every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23), and all of creation must submit to him (Col. 1:16, 20). So our research itself is part of fulfilling the Great Commission! How would your discipline look different if Jesus was recognised as the One who has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’? And how can you contribute to this transformation? Are there any students (undergraduate or postgraduate) whom you can help grow as a disciple? And is there someone (such as a more mature Christian academic, or other Christian postgraduates) whom you could approach for wisdom and encouragement?

Faith-in-Scholarship currently offers the opportunity for Christian postgraduates to receive mentoring from more experienced Christian academics. If you are a postgraduate and interested in forming such a mentoring relationship with someone in your field, do get in touch with us and we will try to put you in touch with someone who can help you be a faithful follower of Christ in your area of study.

Culture, Pluralistic Knowing, and Mutual Understanding

‘Culture’ is a notoriously difficult word. For some it refers to art galleries and piano concerts; for others it refers to something faintly bacterial; while for others still it refers to the entire realm of human activity and life. Broadly speaking, in the arts and humanities, culture seems to refer to specific elements of human existence: processes of personal and social development and transformation; aesthetic experience; and basically, the institutional outworkings of everything that concerns the ‘growth’ (or lack thereof) of the individual in his or her society.

Culture, then, has an intimate relationship to knowledge, to an understanding of social codes and conventions, lively engagement with the arts, and the development of critical abilities. The twentieth century witnessed a sea-change in the way philosophers understood knowing. No longer was the individual a separate, impartial entity interacting with the stimulus of the world, after the manner of Descartes. Instead, she became a ‘personal knower’ (Polanyi), whose observational activity profoundly affected the nature of what was observed (Einstein). The knower and the known were inter-fused (Dewey and Bentley).

Not only is this a more honest description of how human beings know, it is also extremely liberating. There are certain implications if we understand that knowing is an embodied, partial, and transformational experience.

Firstly, as researchers, we must be very careful about how we present our own activity to others, as professional ‘knowers’. Are we affirming a personal, incarnate model of knowledge, or do we hold ourselves aloof from the interface between ourselves and our subject? The revised notion of knowing is not initially intuitive, and many will continue assuming that their understanding of a given issue is unaffected by themselves as human agents in the world. Their prejudices, blind spots, and vested interests may remain veiled to them, and such talk may threaten what they wish to do with this so-called knowledge after they have lodged it safely in their minds. We want to help as best we can those who are not professional knowers.

Secondly, an exploration of personal modes of knowing eventually brings us to a gap, an absence which can only be filled by listening in humility to others, and revising our own understanding of things in light of their experiences, insights, opinions, recognising of course that other people are also limited in their apprehension of life. We all see through a glass darkly.

I have recently been travelling in the corner of the world I originally came from, and sitting in Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Eastern Europe, I feel touched by witnessing an expression of Christian faith alien to my now Western, Protestantised eyes. Office men in L’viv come into church at lunchtime and sign themselves with the cross, bowing on the ground, kissing icons. Having read more about Orthodoxy – my baptised expression of faith – for these Ukrainians faith is a physical, habitual performance that helps to make them daily aware of God’s merciful, immanent, and passionate yearning in their lives.

The logical path from personal knowing to cultural growth runs via the defence and architecture of a pluralistic society. Pluralism (Kallen) is the way in which individuals of difference create a society together in which everyone can reach forth most fully toward life. Orthodox theology would frame this as the drive toward life in God and with others rather than death, mastery, alienation, and deconstruction (Louth). Christ has brought life in the medium of the Kingdom of God (Wright). Unless I reckon with the full force of the epistemological shift: from Descartes to Einstein and Dewey, I will be locked in a redundant model of knowing that excuses me from having to listen to and learn from others.

At a time when Britain seems to be verging on the hysterical regarding European immigrants, it seems crucial that as Christian thinkers we ponder again our epistemologies, conscious that much English Christian thought is built upon historic epistemological foundations long discredited outside the (especially Evangelical) church – discredited not least because they tempt us toward isolationism, oppression, and exclusion. What will it mean for us to entertain a pluralistic way of knowing for building up an exhilarating culture, bejewelled with virtues of humility, love, and attachment? We may see through a glass darkly, but new light from others, wherever they are from, will help to patch our knowing into an exquisite, creational mosaic.

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com .

Whole-life purpose

This post is the next in our series ‘The Whole of (Academic) Life for Christ’, looking at Andrew Billington and Mark Greene’s thought-provoking collection of Bible studies.

The question of purpose is a pressing one in academia. Many who spend their hours working in universities around the world find themselves torn between an ideal (or perhaps a dream or fantasy) and reality. On the one hand, there is the ideal of the academic as someone whose work is both satisfying and meaningful – someone whose thoughtful contributions to the sum of human knowledge help society to flourish. On the other, there’s a reality that is often characterised by frustration, stress or exhaustion. For Christians in this environment, the added desire to make our lives count for God’s kingdom purposes can make this mismatch seem even more overwhelming.

Jeremiah 29, written to the exiles in Babylon in around 600 BC, addresses a group of people whose situation must have seemed far worse. They were hundreds of miles from their homeland, stuck amongst a nation whose cultural and religious practices must have engendered severe culture shock and even revulsion. They would have wanted nothing more than just to go back home; surely God wouldn’t leave them in exile more than a year or two? Surely he couldn’t want them to put down roots here, in this land, to compromise their purity by contributing to the society around them? It’s no surprise that there were so many (false) prophets among them making just this line of argument.

modern city graphic

But Jeremiah’s letter says exactly the opposite! This is their home now; they are to settle down here, and to devote their hands and their prayers to the well-being of their adopted city. It’s in this context that we find God’s famous reassurance (probably the most-quoted passage in Jeremiah) that he has ‘plans to prosper and not to harm’ his people (29:11). Far from being a get-out clause from engaging with the world around them, this promise is a reassurance that God knows what he’s doing by leaving them in Babylon for now. It gives them the impetus they need to live in this new place as active citizens, not reluctant captives.

There’s much food for thought here as we reflect on our purpose as Christian academics. I’ll select just two things to chew on:

  • God’s plans are not just for Christians. The growth of God’s kingdom is not accomplished through Christian empires or enclaves; instead, he scatters his people like salt across the world, calling them to enrich and add flavour to the communities around them. This means engaging wholeheartedly with our environment. If the exiles had listened to the false prophets, they would have forfeited the opportunity to be God’s ambassadors to the Babylonians – and the book of Daniel shows just how powerfully God used them when they were willing to engage. Serving God in academia isn’t accomplished just by creating Christian universities (although those can of course have value), nor by sticking to theology or theologically ‘safe’ subjects. Sometimes we are called to be God’s witnesses in places we would not necessarily choose for ourselves!
  • We are bringers of peace. The exiles are instructed to seek ‘the peace and prosperity’ of Babylon: this translates the single Hebrew word shalom, which encompasses a rich communal and spiritual dimension that the English cannot convey. Even though they’ve been sent to Babylon as punishment, God wants to use them there for blessing. So their contribution is to be spiritual and relational, not just practical – that’s why they are instructed to pray for Babylon, their enemy, a concept which must have seemed repulsive at the time. As for us, we have the wonderful promise that Jesus himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14); however uncomfortable aspects of academic culture might seem to us sometimes, God wants to use us to bring his shalom here.