Thinking Christianly, Redeeming Secularity

Conference held at jointly with Centre For Contemporary Ministry
at Westminster College, Cambridge

13-15 September 2006

Twenty-five men and women, most whom are currently involved in academic life in a wide variety of disciplines, met together for two days to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus in the academic and intellectual worlds and to seek to understand more of what that means for them and their academic work, personally and with others.

There was a buzz about the place. We discussed together in small groups giving and listening to presentations on how Christianity related to our particular disciplines. We ate together, worshipped and prayed together morning and evening in the College chapel, and enjoyed free time in Cambridge on the middle afternoon.
Our plenary sessions set the tone for the conference: John Wolffe, Alan Storkey and Ard Louis presented perspectives from the humanities, the social sciences and the physical sciences, while Tony Lane, as an academic theologian, gave responses first to John’s paper and later by way of review to the conference as a whole. The two final plenary sessions gave opportunity for reporting back from the groups, first on Key Issues and Ideas and secondly on Practical Ways Forward.

Key Issues and Ideas:
There are both benefits and limitations of an interdisciplinary approach: looking at issues from different disciplines can aid understanding (e.g., identifying and resolving issues by locating causes / roots more accurately), but there are language / culture issues when we meet across disciplines (especially between the humanities and the sciences). As Tony Lane commented in his review, we can prove to be incredibly naïve in other people’s disciplines, while sophisticated in our own. Ard Louis emphasized the importance of humility in relation to our views and those of our discipline: we need a community of scholars that can criticize each other, while still loving one another.

  • As disciples of Christ, we can see our studies in part as recognizing the worth of God’s creation. This feeds into worship.
  • Kantian ‘autonomy’ can be challenged, and also the public / private (secular / sacred) divide.
  • The ideas of sin (=dysfunction) and judgement (=accountability) need to be repatriated in some of our disciplines.

There is an open door to Christian views, which in our current cultural climate are recognized as having a place alongside other views. Christians can (now increasingly) contribute biblical faith-based thinking research and scholarship both in and across the academic disciplines and also to the professions having academic bases (it was good to have representatives of the medical, legal and teaching professions with us at the conference).

Recognizing and putting forward distinctively Christian views in the academic and wider intellectual worlds is a learning process for Christian academics and their Church and University communities. Many of us feel we are not well equipped to bring a Christian view to our discipline, partly because it can be hard to find a way into the tight intellectual structure of some disciplines. This is where an interdisciplinary approach can help, and it is vital too that we work at this with others, not just on our own.

It is helpful to have input from Christian philosophy (including an engagement with world views) as well as from biblical and systematic theology. However, Alan Storkey encouraged us that forming Christian theory in relation to areas at the centre of our disciplines can be ‘fairly simple’, and many of us do this informally – it is important that the process is made explicit, but we must recognise that our contributions are correctible. Our views should be presented as work in progress. They can never be complete or all-encompassing.

While neutrality in our academic work is an illusion, we can and should cultivate impartiality and critical judgement in our work. When we are working outside our own field, we need to value the expertise of those in other disciplines, not uncritically but with humility, being willing for our own ‘discipline egos’ to be dethroned. Overall, as Christians, we can contribute a sense of the unity of God’s creation, seeking to give glory to Him in our shared work as academics.

As academics, we are not only involved in research, but also in teaching. If our research as Christians can be linked to our worship, our teaching can be linked to our witness, by showing when we have opportunity that our disciplines are compatible with a Christian viewpoint. In some cases a spiritual dimension can be affirmed. In the longer term it is important not to be double-minded (holding one view in the church and another in the university), although Tony Lane reminded us that this can be a necessary short-term strategy, for example when Christian undergraduates are first introduced to secular assumptions in their chosen subject. The presence of Christian academics in the same discipline can be of great help here, by their writing or speaking and also sometimes by personal contact and example.
Practical Ways Forward:
The consensus on a framework of broad aims (set out in ‘Key Issues and Ideas’) is seen to be a call from God. It is important not merely to continue to listen to that call (although others will need to hear it and we may need to be reminded of it) but to take action.

1. Individuals, pairs or trios who attended the conference (or who did not do so but support its aims) may offer to take a first step and produce to a self-set deadline an interim document on a specific academic and/or practical issue for a national or local meeting or on the C-A-N- email group.
2. There is a priority on Christians working from within their own academic disciplines to tackle specific issues in collaboration with specialists in other disciplines and professions.
3. We need to further interdisciplinarity by addressing academic and public issues not touched on in the conference groups. It is important to keep open channels of communication with the outside world. It is proposed to invite a group of theologians / philosophers to a future conference to assist in engaging in areas where there is a need.

  1. 4. There was a proposal to set up a working ‘agenda’ group to consider which issues it would be helpful to study from a Christian viewpoint. This group should have broad representation from different disciplines. It might need to meet initially, and could then proceed to correspond by email. The results could be fed into future conferences and into research programmes by individuals and groups. Please let us know if you are interested in being a part of or contributing to this group.

  1. 5. Areas of interest could be proposed for research students in theology and Christian philosophy, as well as for interdisciplinary studies. Networking is necessary with other institutions engaged in seeking a Christian Mind (e.g., the Jubilee Centre, LICC), with theological colleges and Christian research supervisors.

  2. 6. Other practical possibilities:
  3. - text books modelling Christian ways of thinking,
  4. - books defining how Christians see the history of ideas (one paragraph per idea – for the popular market),
  5. - productions of CD’s,
  6. - a working group on how to talk about the Christian faith to a colleague,
  7. - publishing a bibliography of resources on Thinking Christianly on the website (annotated bibliographies on Christian perspectives on each discipline would be very helpful, or links to where these already exist).

    1. 7. It is intended to publish the plenary papers given at the Conference on the C-A-N- website, with links from the CCM website. We would also encourage other presentations given to the groups to be submitted to the conference organizers (preferably in electronic form) with a view to their being published on the website. We appreciate however that some of the group presentations were of a provisional nature, and while very helpful and valued at the conference, may not be felt to be appropriate for wider circulation.

Wider Links
At our final session, we also appreciated hearing about links abroad and the work of other organizations. Sue Halliday and Maurice Manktelow (Chair and Secretary of C-A-N-) spoke of their visit to the National Faculty Leadership Conference in the United States, where at a similar conference to ours, there were about 400 participants. Dave Wiley (from the international leadership team of Agape, a co-sponsor of C-A-N-) spoke of a global Christian network in the academy and told us “The lay world needs academics desperately.”
The conference has been put on jointly by the Christian Academic Network (C-A-N-) as one in its series of annual conferences, and by the Centre for Contemporary Ministry (CCM), which is based at Moggerhanger Park, a Christian conference and ministry centre in Bedfordshire. Clifford and Monica Hill (Team Leader and Director of CCM) were with us for most of the conference, and Clifford spoke of CCM’s plans to be involved in the bicentenary of abolition of the slave trade, by bringing a replica slave ship to London as an exhibition centre, in March 2007. At our final meeting, Ros Turner spoke to us about the work of the Christian Workplace Forum (one of CCM’s ministries) which encourages and links together Christian workplace associations, and also encourages graduating students to get involved in these when they start work.

Ard Louis spoke to us about his work with postgraduate students and introduced Remi Tobler, who is involved in Christian ministry with postgraduates, sponsored by Friends International. There is an annual conference for postgraduates (for details see www.christianpostgrad.org.uk) and Ard has been putting together some resources specifically to help postgraduates (see www-louis.ch.cam.ac.uk/postgrad). We also had a visit from Ruth Bancewicz, who brought some literature about Christians in Science.

Back to the Beginning … and Onwards
At our first session, John Wolffe set out his aspirations for the conference:
  • To be fully Christian and fully academic.
  • To be fully participatory.
  • To be broadly interdisciplinary.
  • To be open-ended.
In his view, Thinking Christianly can put us at the cutting edge.

Following the conference, John considers we need to take this further, and we would invite ongoing comment from participants and others. Please get involved, as God calls and guides you, in some of the Practical Ways Forward.

Thinking Ahead
C-A-N-’s next annual conference, to be sponsored jointly with the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies, will be entitled “Effective in Changing Culture” and held at the University of York on 7-8 September 2007. Jonathan Chaplin, who was with us for part of this conference, and is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, based at Tyndale House, Cambridge, will be one of the main speakers, together with his wife Adrienne. Don’t miss out on this – book early!

We all need God’s help, as we seek what He wants, and so we continue to pray:

Father God, help us to think Christianly, help us to understand more how You intend to redeem the secularity around us, and help us to work with You in that task.