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studies

Every so often, I want to feature a resource that I think can be helpful in assisting students to live and speak for Jesus during their time as undergraduates. I want to start with an excellent resource for a group of students who face a particular suite of challenges and opportunities: theology students.

Kelly Kapic is concerned that theology students should not embrace what he calls ‘theological detachment’ – in other words, theological study which willingly sits in an ivory tower and which does not enrich the lives of its students, the broader church community and ultimately the world. ‘A Little Book for New Theologians’, then, is what the title says it is: a short book (only 126 pages long) which acts as both guide and aspiration for those at the beginning of theological study.

The first three chapters summarise the necessity of theological study: to know God as he truly is – and, as creatures made by God, to rightly understand ourselves and the world around us in knowing him. Such knowledge touches both our understanding and our passions, and calls us to respond in faith and love. It also rightly shapes our experience of living in the world in the day to day: to, as Kapic beautifully puts it ‘know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope.’

Perhaps the strongest element of the book, though, is where it turns next: the thesis that theology can never be performed in a vacuum. Kapic refutes the premise of modern theology, which demands separation between its study and the life of the theologian. We do not approach the Bible as blank canvases, but as human beings, and so our experiences and practice in wider life both grow out of our theology and inform it. With this in mind, then, Kapic turns to characteristics of the life of the theologian that will best prepare them for theological study.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on faith and reason. Kapic rejects the ‘imaginary neutrality’ of pure reason, and instead calls for ‘faithful reasoning’ – a deep engagement in rational reflection within the context of a prior trust in God (whereby reasoning is therefore faithful to God). Elsewhere, Kapic counters the idea that Christian theologians must choose between prayer and hard work: ‘we cannot choose between prayer and study; faithful theology requires prayerful study.’

Finally, theology should never be engaged upon as a purely intellectual pursuit. Kapic has a striking chapter on suffering, justice and knowing God, which includes this sentence: ‘When we come to the question of knowing God, the Bible plunges us into caring for those he cares for, and thus into living with a concrete concern for the poor, the weak and those who suffer.’ And with that comes another exhortation to take theology out of the ivory tower and to the church and to the marginalised.

I loved this book because it refutes so many false dichotomies that theology students are so often fed, and on which they unnecessarily feel they need to take sides. The sad outcome is that theology students find that their studies either bears little or nothing in common with their Christian profession or their lives in church and CU, or that they fail to engage at all with what they are being taught. Their own discipleship is damaged, and a faithful engagement with non-believing lecturers and fellow students never gets going.

This book might be hard going reading for first year undergraduates – I wonder if it assumes a level of theological literacy that even they might be unfamiliar with – but I’m looking forward to getting it into their hands. As they are increasingly introduced to the philosophy upon which the study of theology is built in their university department, they may find themselves returning to this book and finding a mooring that encourages them to be wholehearted in both their Christian profession and in their studies.

I’m leading another session at York CU tomorrow – this time I’m meeting with students of the natural sciences. It will be great to see how they respond to think about approaching the study of science from a Christian perspective.

As part of my preparation for tomorrow’s discussion, I read this superb vision for studying science produced by Wheaton College. The article seems to be a very thorough consideration of all of the issues and opportunities for Christians in the sciences. I think it’s well worth a full read if you’re involved in either teaching or studying science. Here are a few of my favourite quotes.

On science as a vocation:

[W]e can serve the Church by developing positive rationales for how accomplished scientists who understand the remarkable advances and findings of the sciences can still enthusiastically embrace biblical faith. Hence we encourage Christian students at Wheaton College to consider the possible “call” to serve as scientists. In so doing, we provide solid moral and ethical guidance for the application of scientific findings to establish standards of honesty, charity, and other Christian virtues in the pursuit of truth in the created order. We also encourage students to pursue the types of humanitarian goals demanded by a Christian worldview and establish alternative theoretical paradigms to the prevailing naturalistic ones. In this context, we urge students to examine new empirical research programs and conceptual frameworks for interpreting the results of scientific investigation.

On science’s capability to produce wonder and worship in us:

[W]e are privileged to study and comprehend the creation to a degree unfathomable to previous generations. We also are thankful for this unique and privileged glimpse into the creation. Science has allowed us to understand more and more about God’s creation. And with such a tremendous increase in knowledge, compared to that of previous generations, we should be even more enthusiastic in directing our praise to God. Through the eyes of faith, scientists who are Christians can understand and appreciate different aspects of the creation from those outside the faith; as a result, they can affirm God’s handiwork. Most of us can see the beauty of a sunset, but not many get the opportunity to marvel at the mechanism that produces the proteolytic cleavage of proteins. Science makes that knowledge possible.

On the ‘good’ of science:

We anticipate that the study of science will help students develop their vision of the means by which to serve God. Such is the work and ministry of redemption and reconciliation, which involves diminishing the suffering of all creation. As we serve Christ and strive to counteract the evil effects of the Fall, we actually contribute to the triumph of good. The study of creation helps students in interpreting God’s revealed Word, for it contributes significantly to their comprehensive grasp of reality. Part of this study pertains to human and social realities, and a good approach to scientific study will result in a greater understanding of the self and a more robust commitment to community. Social transformation can occur when a devoted community of inquiring young scientists joins together to experience collaboration. Such efforts, conducted with mutual respect, can result in a meaningful and lasting understanding of reality. For example, the extraordinary efforts essential to steward the earth and enhance human health demand the presence and skills of Christians who are scientists. We are called to cultivate the world, to use and sustain it in service of both God and those who bear God’s image, and to maintain and seek to restore it to its full glory. Scientific studies constitute a crucial component of our labor serving God in the ongoing tasks of restoration and renewal of all creation, undertaken with earnest dedication, even as we fully anticipate that day when all things arefully and finally restored to their former state of perfection (Revelation 21:1).

Looking forward to tomorrow’s discussion!

We live in Jesus’ universe. Charles Colson apparently said that the answer to the question, “What is Christianity?” is that it is “the explanation for everything.” Of course he did not mean that everything is explained in the Bible, but that the Bible reveals the framework of truth overarching all of reality, finding its ultimate reference point in Jesus.

The folks at the University of York CU are putting on a weekly discussion to help CU members to consider what it means to approach their subject from a distinctively Christian approach. This is a vital aspect of being a Christian student, but I suspect not many students do think about their studies in the light of the Christian worldview.

The hope is that these discussions will resource Christians not only to consider and appreciate the presuppositions that their academic discipline is based upon, but also to realise the opportunities that they have as Christians in their particular context. Academic studies shape the context into which the gospel is shared, and so we’ll start thinking about how in practice Christian students can engage with the ideas they are being taught. The hope is that this introductory discussion will inspire at least some Christian students to think about what it means to study for Jesus. This week we’ll be thinking about English Literature and Linguistics, next week it’s the Natural Sciences, and we’ll continue until all disciplines have been covered.

In preparing some material to launch this week’s discussion, I found Mathew Block’s five part series on literature and linguistics very helpful. I’ve also drawn upon the Ransom Fellowship’s guide to reading fiction, Paul Cavill and Roger Pooley’s helpful article for literature undergraduates and been stretched by Peter Leithart’s essay, ‘The Devil has no stories.’ I am also indebted to Chapter 9 of James Sire’s book, ‘Discipleship of the Mind.’

I’ll try and write more about the content of the discussion after we’ve had it – watch this space!