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Resilience and Resisitance

Resilience and Resisitance

   Resilience and Resistance

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What difference can Christian faith make in academic science?

By Peter Clarke (neurobiologist, retired) – October 2012

The following reflections are based on a talk I gave a few years ago in Paris to the Réseau des scientifiques évangéliques, entitled “Le chrétien peut-il être neutre au laboratoire?” (“Can a Christian be neutral in the lab?” I focus on the difference that Christian faith can make to a research group leader with teaching responsibilities, because that has been my situation for most of my career (in the University of Lausanne). I retired this year (2012), so I write partly in the past tense.

I think most of us would agree that the science we do as Christians is not very different from the science done by atheists or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews. We are all working to understand the same phenomena, ruled by the same natural laws. We use the same techniques and concepts, and we publish in the same journals.

Admittedly, Christian monotheism played an important role in getting science underway in the 16th and 17th centuries, as has been argued by numerous historians including Hooykaas, Jaki, Brooke and Harrison. But nowadays, the ship is afloat. Scientists no longer need belief in a noncapricious God to encourage them to seek for reliable laws of nature. Nor do they need the Bible to free them from a pantheistic worship of nature that would discourage science, or from Aristotle’s conception of a cyclic history ruled by the stars. Biblical faith contributed in numerous ways to the scientific revolution, but it is not so clear how it contributes to the practice of science today.

So what difference can our Christian faith make to our science? Several of my scientific Christian friends have told me that their faith makes a difference to the extent that they do it for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31), working hard and with rigorous honesty. And that’s it. They don’t talk about their faith, because that would be inapproriate in a secular environment. They live it, by hard, honest work.

I am not satisfied with such an answer. Not that it’s totally wrong. Of course we should be hard-working and honest! But so were most of my atheist colleagues. If they, or we, didn’t want to work hard, we would have dropped out of science. And even if a few of my unbelieving colleagues didn’t share my belief in the importance of honesty before the tax authorities, they all upheld academic honesty as a top priority. I think that working hard and honestly, exactly like most of our nonchristian colleagues, cannot be the main difference that our faith makes.

No Christian would doubt that, in most areas of our lives, our faith must make an enromous difference. The New Testament teaches that “we are from God and that the whole world lies under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), and we clearly have to rely on God’s help as we struggle against the pressures of this fallen, Satan-dominated world in numerous situations: by witnessing courageously, by giving generously, by refusing pressures to be dishonest or lazy, by showing costly love to those around us, by resisting sexual temptation, and in many other ways. So, if Christ lives in us, what difference should that make in our academic setting? In my opinion, there are at least six areas where we can and should be different.

1. By agape-love in our relationships.

In my experience, academic scientists are often competitive, critical of colleagues, mildly obsessional and coldly analytical. This is hardly surprising. The academic system forces us to compete, and competitive motivation is one of the drives that keeps us working 60-hour weeks, sometimes for poor pay. Critical thinking is essential for good science, but it can spill over into the criticism of colleagues. And people who are gifted at logical analysis do not always shine by their empathy and warm-heartedness. Furthermore, the long hours we spend correcting papers down to the minutest details can make us even more obsessionally analytical than we were before. I’m no exception. I’m not by nature a “people person”. But we have a Saviour who is Love incarnate, and who lives in us by his Holy Spirit. This doesn’t magically transform our personalities overnight, but God’s plan for us is "to be conformed to the likeness of God's Son" (Romans 8:29), and we can cooperate in this process as we repent and pray for our colleagues, and as we ask God to open our eyes to see their needs and help us to love them in the Jesus way.

2. By our attitude to those who depend on us

This is related to point one, but I think it’s so important that I prefer to make it a separate point. When I first became leader of a research group, I thought my greatest duty to my doctoral students was to be available for discussion and to give good advice as well as encouragement. As the group grew, with the addition of technicians and postdocs, it became important to take care of other matters as well that influenced the overall dynamic of the group, but I still thought that dispensing my own scientific wisdom to the team members was the key. Most of the group leaders around me had a similar attitude. I think I got the emphasis wrong because, even though I didn’t say it out loud, I inwardly focused on my own intelligence, wisdom and experience, not on the abilities of my team. With time I came to see that, even though my team members respected my advice and ideas, what really motivated them was testing their own ideas and proving their own intelligence. My advice was still needed, but this was not the key. I needed to take note of Paul’s words to the Philippians (chap 2, v3): “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

3. By our scientific commitment

Even though our scientific commitment is not going to be the main difference that our faith brings to our science (since most of our unbelieving academic colleagues are also dedicated to their work), we can pray to God for passionate enthusiasm for the work that we do ultimately for Him. As Paul wrote: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” (Col. 3:23).

4. By relativising our thirsty ambition

Commitment and enthusiasm are right and proper and necessary for science, but they can snare us into putting ourselves in the centre of the picture. Our entire lives should be acts of worship, lived for God and His kingdom and His glory, not ours! That includes our science.

All too often I have noticed, with something of a shock, that my real motivation has shifted to the establishment of my own “kingdom” and my own glory. This danger is particularly great in academic science, because our publish-or-perish situation forces us to be competitive and focused on our own success. We see our papers quoted, we are (justifiably) pleased when our discoveries are appreciated, and we can even look up in Web of Science the number of times our papers have been cited. We live for this. We pat ourselves on the back for our successes and thirst for more. Our hearts are where our treasure is, and the treasure we seek is success. Just as, in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum was diminished and destroyed by the ring, so scientists can be humanly diminished and emotionally destroyed by the all-consuming thirst for success. This can happen to any ambitious scientist, and contributed to the suicide of one of my colleagues. It’s a form of idolatry, because it involves putting ourselves and our own success on the throne instead of God. But a Christian who repents daily, who seeks first the Kingdom of God, and whose treasure is in heaven is wonderfully protected, because academic success is no longer the be-all and the end-all.

One result of de-throning success is that we are better able to appreciate, and rejoice in, the success of our colleagues. Most scientists appreciate good research by colleagues, and are glad when their friends succeed, but the pressure of competition can dampen our enthusiasm if we are worshipping our own success. Putting God first frees our hearts so that we can recoice in the success of our colleagues.

A related issue is the danger of treating team members as tools for our own advancement. We are pleased when we get a grant and can hire people to advance our project. That’s normal and right, but if the love of Christ is shining in our hearts, the success of these people will be as important to us as our own success. And they will notice this without our needing to tell them!

5. By our witness

We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, and even though our lifestyle is crucial for this, we are also called to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. But verbal witness can be difficult in a secular academic setting where we could be accused of using our position abusively for proselytism. Our response to this dilemma will depend very much on the details of the situation. In my own, I made a clear distinction between witnessing to students in formal teaching situations, encouraging Christian students, and witnessing to group members and colleagues on a more personal basis.

Formal teaching. Over the last 15 years I gave series of lectures each year (on neuroscience or anatomy) to several different classes of students ranging in number from about 70-450. I had little contact with most of them individually, and found it very difficult in this situation to witness openly. But I wanted to let them know that I was a Christian, because silence may give the false impression that all the university teachers are atheists or agnostics. My solution was to state simply, at the start of each series of lectures, that I was a Christian: “I came to Switzerland from England 30 years ago, I’m married, we have two daughters, I’m a Christian.” This seemed a bit odd, because, in Switzerland even more than in England, religion is considered a very private matter, so the students always roared with laughter. However, I think they reacted positively, because they usually applauded at the end of the lecture. At least the students knew that there was a Christian among their teachers.

Encouraging Christian students. With the committed Christian students it was of course easier to make contact. My wife and I invited the Christian medical students to dinner occasionally to hear a talk from a medical missionary or a Christian doctor, and tried to encourage them in other ways.

Witnessing to group members and colleagues. With people you speak to every day the greatest danger is probably to speak too much about one’s faith, so I have tended to be rather reserved and cautious, but have been happy to discuss or debate on the few occasions that cropped up naturally. One Christmas I gave each of the students and postdocs in my group a copy of the book “The Language of God” by Francis Collins, who was then head of the human genome project. The book is about the genome (and the human genome project), but describes also the reasons that motivated his conversion to Christianity. A few days after this, when I was talking to a visiting scientist, one of my doctoral students came up and said: “It’s very interesting to be in Peter’s group at the moment, because he’s trying to convert us all to Christianity.” She said this in a friendly way, with a smile on her face, but it confirmed the need for gentle reserve.

6. By our prayer

Should we pray for success in our work (despite what I wrote under point 4)? Yes! If we are convinced that God wants us in academic science, if are serving Him and working for His kingdom, we can and should pray for success. We should realize, however, that the success we seek is not necessarily the success God wants us to have, and so we should constantly be seeking God’s will in prayer and asking Him to conform our wills to His. But then we can indeed pray for our work. Personally, when I first arrived in my office each morning, I made a mental list (sometimes a written one) of all the things I had to do, and prayed for them all. I prayed for the success of experiments, for financial and administrative problems, for the writing of papers and their acceptance, for problems in teaching, for committees, for everything. God answered. I don’t mean to imply that prayer is a magic wand to replace thought and effort, but if we are convinced that God wants us in the job where we are, we can address our needs to Him. We are His servants, so He will answer.

Peter Clarke was an associate professor in the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, until his retirement in 2012. After training as an engineer at Oxford, he obtained a PhD in communication (experimental psychology) under the supervision of Prof. Donald MacKay at Keele (1972), and then did postdoctoral jobs at Oxford, then Washington University, St. Louis, then Oxford again, before moving to Lausanne in 1977.

Introduction

Do you, as a Christian academic, sometimes feel that the material you teach in your field is somehow inconsistent with a Christian view of the world? Do you feel that there ought to be a new paradigm in your field that is more consistent with it, but at the same time also soundly academic? Do you, as a new researcher, wish you could make a difference in your field in the Name of Christ?

Because of what Mark Green calls the Sacred-Secular Divide, Christian academics have not often shaped the content and direction of their disciplines. Where is the Christ-following Jürgen Habermas or Michel Foucault? Where is the Christ-centred Stephen Hawking? Or the Holy-Spirit-filled Peter Singer, Anthony Giddens, John Searle, Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes?

In the main, Christian academics have usually thought it enough to be 'good' people and hope to speak to people about Christ and the gospel, and do not see they have the power and responsibility to make significant contributions to their disciplines. Any contributions they make are usually in spite of, rather than because of, their commitment to Christ. No wonder the thought in many disciplines seems often to be inimical to a Christian view, if Christians have abandoned this responsibility.

But, why shouldn't Christ's people contribute to the very content, architecture and direction of their disciplines? Notice: "contribute", not "conquer" nor "conform". It is time for Christ's people to begin shaping their disciplines rather than letting their disciplines shape them. It should be done. And it can be done.

This short document is an initial 'how to' guide: how to begin shaping our disciplines for Christ. (It does not give theological reasons for doing so; those may be found in Mark Green's excellent booklet The Great Divide or on the website 'A New View in Theology and Practice' "http://www.abxn.org/nv/".) It comprises six questions that have been used to assist thinking Christians working in a discipline - academic or professional - to reflect on how they might 'shape' their disciplines by critically enriching thought in those disciplines from an avowedly Biblical or Christian perspective.

About The Questions

These questions help Christian thinkers find a way to critically affirm and enrich the thinking in their fields, rather than take an antagonistic position. Note 'critically' - it is deeply critical but not antagonistic. Why? This approach rests on the following assumptions, which we ask you to accept while reading this, though you should question them later:

  • Our disciplines are knowledge and practice in relation to God's creation, which exhibits a lot of exciting diversity.
  • Extant theories and methodologies tend to focus on only certain aspects of this diversity and ignores or suppresses others - often because of distorted presuppositions on one hand or personal pride on the other.
  • We are called to a ministry of reconciliation.
  • Reconciliation involves ideas and even whole disciplines, not just human souls.
  • Reconciliation of disciplines means deeply understanding the aspect of God's creation on which it centres its interest, and, with Christ's attitude, critically affirming and enriching current understanding of it.
  • Reconciliation is a long, hard process, but very fruitful.

These questions were originally generated for C-A-N-2007 annual conference, being used at the Workshops there, and have since been used at C-A-N-2009 and C-A-N-2010. It was part of the aim of the workshops to give participants pointers to shaping their own disciplines, together with opportunity to practice using these pointers. Participants found them a very useful way to structure their presentations and papers.

This version

  • is designed for groups, geographically together such as at a workshop, but can be extended to any group.
  • works best when all present share a single discipline.
  • is draft and has yet to be tested and refined.

Note: (a) 'Discipline' is very loosely defined, and may be thought of as involving scholarly work, including scientific or philosophical theorizing, and practical, normatively directed work. (b) The context in which these questions have emerged is that of a discipline in which there is no overtly Christian input, and so the challenge for Christians is to begin to make a start with engaging and contributing. (c) This set of questions is offered as only one approach; doubtless there are many others; for example in disciplines that bear marks of Christian influence a different approach might be more useful, but even there the following questions might prove of some use. (d) A single session of a particular group might best tackle a subset of questions and/or tackle them in a different order (e.g. start with Q4 or Q5).

Finally, a note about attitude:  Shaping our disciplines for Christ should not be seen as a way to dominate the agenda but to serve it for its own benefit by affirming, critiquing and enriching it in ways that are meaningful both to Christ and to the discipline itself.

Six Questions About the/a Discipline I Work In

Q1 Intuitive awareness

Consider the discipline in which you work and reflect upon.

Brainstorm the following questions

  • What do you like about your discipline?
  • What do you find yourself not happy about?

Answer quickly e.g. begin with two plus and two minus points, then add more. Write the ideas down and then look over them.

Purpose of question:

(a) to unlock intuitive feel about the discipline before engaging a more theoretical attitude
(b) to get participants thinking about a discipline,
(c) to provide reference points for later discussions

Q2 Perspectives

What are the main perspectives or paradigms, current or recent, that influence the discipline?

Identify the frameworks - the top-level types of concepts, the values, the unspoken assumptions - by which the discipline is understood.

Purpose of question:

(a) to set out the main self-understanding of the discipline, usually as it has been theorized over the years
(b) to identify some of the deeper presuppositions that steer the discipline towards particular types of research and practice

Sub questions:

a. To get you going: List a few of the relevant theories and methodologies that are at least respected by people in your discipline.
b. Begin to see the different perspectives: What battles are going on (or recently went on) in your discipline? Over theories, paradigms, methodologies, etc. Name them. If there seems to be no battles, then try to think about some minority views that are ignored or despised by the majority
c. Describe (summarise) the positions of the main protagonists.
d. Understand differences in perspective: What do these protagonists see as important to battle over? What assumptions does each protagonists make about …

- main types of thing or law?
- what is valued during research methodology?
- what is good and bad (quality criteria)?
- what is important to get across when teaching?

Q3 What is missing?

Is there a major issue that is meaningful in human life that is either ignored or is not given its due? And why is it missing?

Sometimes one of the minority and 'radical' perspectives is trying to indicate a missing issue. Note it (don't judge it). Then ask yourself whether both majority and minority perspectives have together missed yet another issue. 'Everyday' issues are very often overlooked.

Purpose of question:

(a) to identify how current frameworks can distort our perception of the field
(b) to reveal possible opportunities where a Christian perspective might make a real and valuable contribution.

Sub questions:

a. To get you going: Looking at the list of important issues compiled at end of Q2, ask: Try to think about everyday experience of those who practise within the discipline. Identify some such practitioners, or identify some cases.
b. Finding important issues overlooked by the perspectives. What issues are important in everyday experience in the discipline that were not listed under Q2d? List them. And give a word or two about why they are important.
c. Finding 'thin' ideas. Of the issues that are considered important in Q2d, are any of these rather 'thin' or impoverished when compared with how they might pertain in everyday experience?
d. Questioning the assumptions of the perspectives. What is it about everyday experience that makes each of the assumptions listed under Q2d questionable? State why, including reference to experience.
e. Review. Ask: which of the things from Q3b - Q3d are most important?

Q4 Possible Contributions

This question is helps us to see if there are 'friends' who already place some value on the ‘missing’ things identified in question 3

Take the most important ‘missing’ things from question 3 and then ask the sub questions below

Purpose of question:

(a) to get us thinking positively about how and where to engage
(b) to help us separate out the easier from the more difficult.

Sub questions:

a. Why is each thing or question about assumptions important, in God's economy or plan?
b. How important is each in the discipline?
c. Which ones might be welcomed by at least some in the discipline?

Q5 ‘Friends’

Who are the 'friends'? Is there any group in the discipline which recognises what is missing and makes it a topic of discourse?

'Friends' may often be found within relatively new paradigms and will tend to be a minority voice. In what way are these 'friends'? And in what ways is the friends' view problematic (other than in disagreeing with some Christian doctrine)?

Purpose of question:

(a) to expose the fact that (usually) Christians are not the only ones concerned about problems in the discipline (since all work within God's creation)
(b) to identify which groups have already explored which problems
(c) to identify which groups might be attuned to receive any contribution we might make and in which literature we might engage with.

It is useful for a Christian perspective to recognise who its 'friends' are, even though there may be differences. Often practical people are 'friends' about enrichment, while those from critical social theory (Marxists, feminists, etc.) are 'friends' about presuppositions.

Q6 Planning for Groups

How might you introduce the new ideas into the thought and practice of the discipline in a way that people will listen to and understand?

This is a long-term question, considering strategy and tactics. It might take some time to answer. And even longer to activate. Think about into which parts of the community (especially which friends…..)

Purpose of question:

To move from thinking about the discipline to planning for action (which would usually be a group activity).

Sub questions:

a. Which missing important issues might be of interest?
b. Which assumption-questions might be understood by others?
c. Are there any communities of thought in the field in which these might be fruitfully planted? (Think of 'friends'.)
d. How might these react to explicit mention of Christian thinking?
e. What aspects of Christian thinking might they react to not too negatively?
f. In what journals or conferences etc. might these ideas be disseminated?

TIPS

  • Avoid reacting against particular perspectives. (Example: Some Christians are vocal against postmodernism on the grounds that it seems to deny 'truth', but it might be that postmodernism is better treated as a 'friend' in fighting the worse error of modernism - that though is a different story.)
  • RathRather, see every perspective as offering a real insight (though limited), with which we might engage and which we might critically enrich. (Example of insights and limits: Objectivism: the insight that there is a world outside us which we can know, but it has a very limited view of what it means to know the world, and some versions deny norms. Subjectivism: the insight that human beings interpret the world freely (not as automata) and with genuine meaning and values, but it has no basis for judging one set of values against any other. Emancipatory approaches: the insight of an overriding norm, but this remains undefined and not open within the framework to being critically probed.)
  • OcOccasionally we might feel we should 'defend Christianity' when engaging with our discipline, but usually it is unhelpful and ultimately counter-productive to do so as a long-term strategy, because it not only leads to continual warfare, but the war tends to be executed at the wrong level. (Example: the creationist reaction to evolution seems to have been counter-productive.) The real problem is deeper, at the level of presuppositions, and it is by exposing these that the most helpful and acceptable critical engagements can be made; the questions above suggest how to proceed.

Where This Approach Has Been Used

A line of reasoning similar to the above has been employed by the author to suggest a new 'shape' for five major areas of research and practice in information systems: human use of computers, the nature of computers, information systems development, information technology resources, and information technology as our societal environment. In each case the area has been re-interpreted and extant frameworks have been engaged with and critically enriched. This exercise is described and discussed in the author's work, e_href="http://www.dooy.info/bk/" href="http://www.dooy.info/bk/"> Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems, published December 2007 by IGI Global (Hershey, PA, USA).


Author: Andrew Basden. Crea. Created: 13 May 2007 Last updated: 1 December 2011

This can be a tall order

This can be a Tall Order

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. 1 Corinthians 318-19a NIV

This bible passage has come to me on significant occasions in the past one or two years as I have been asking the Lord how I should be wrestling between two or more different schools of thought or indeed asking the Lord how he wants to shape my discipline. For the academic this passage draws a firm line, Paul is saying we should start off as "fools" to become wise and many other translations of this passage don't put the word fool in quotes. Thus as an academic should I really always assume I know very little or nothing, yet still at the same time be thankful for the education I am so fortunate to have as well as the opportunity to educate and contribute new knowledge?

Earlier in the same chapter in verse 3, Paul is saying that the brothers in the church are still living in worldly ways, quarrelling amongst each other with regards to teachings they have heard from different leaders. Paul, however, is addressing in verses 11-12 how we should stand on the one true foundation, Jesus Christ, not laying one for ourselves. Thus to my mind, to become like “fools” is first to deny any authority in our own knowledge, seek Jesus Christ, then look at what we do know and keep asking the Lord what we are missing, by which we can testify to his shaping of our knowledge in order to use it wisely. This can be a tall order, but I do believe the Lord is saying to academics in C-A-N- that he wants us to hold the Gospel of Jesus Christ in esteem as the centre of what we do in our career, rather than being about how we can “compatibilise” our faith and our career, which would have a very different outcome. For me this brings value and purpose to the work I want to help C-A-N- with now and in the future and a way in which I seek to be changed as an academic.

Although this is a personal account of my own life as an academic I will try to draw out from these experiences some principles which just might encourage those working at present in the rather different and more demanding situations in our Universities and Colleges. Just before I officially retired from academic life three years ago, I was asked to write an article for a journal of the scientific society with which I had been much involved. The task was to look back over my own research career in the hope that this would help younger academics at the beginning of their own careers in research and teaching. My one sentence summary of my time as an undergraduate in that article was that then, ‘I fell in love and received the gift of faith’; two great life-enhancing events. Becoming a Christian, at a university mission led by John Stott in 1953, revolutionised my life and has largely determined both where I worked and how I spent my time. First, there was the determination to work overseas in a ‘developing country’ and because of this I said no to the possibility of continuing to work, after completing my PhD, in the same department. The result was my wife and I spent nine happy years in Nigeria where I was on the staff of the medical school in Ibadan. Here there was ample time for research (well equipped, air-conditioned laboratories) and the joy of teaching small classes (around thirty) of highly motivated and academically bright students from all over West Africa. There were also abundant opportunities to become involved in the work of Scripture Union and, most exciting of all, to help in the development of the Christian Union. On campus where we lived was conveniently situated to welcome students into our home (and when this became two small, our garden) for evangelistic and teaching meetings. The story of the quite phenomenal growth of student witness in Nigeria since 1958 has been documented and one of the contributory factors to this growth was the encouraging role of many Christians from Britain in the universities, colleges and secondary schools. It was a deeply humbling experience to see at first hand the work of God's Spirit and left an indelible mark on both our lives.

If this 'call' to work in West Africa was a surprise, and I remember saying Nigeria was the last place I wanted to work in, then the call home to Scotland was even more so. I was offered a job without an interview and, although we expected to move on, we have remained in Glasgow ever since. Strathclyde University was at that time (1967) a new university although its roots go back to 1796 to Anderson's University, a private institution set up as a ‘place for useful learning’. Among its graduates were David Livingstone and John Logie Baird. The department in which I worked was newly formed and there began what was to become the routine applications for research grants and the organisation of teaching. As in Ibadan there were many Christians on the staff, I think around thirty, from all disciplines, but mainly scientists, who openly supported the fledgling Christian Union and there were many overseas students. We began in our home Christian meetings for overseas students, with the help of staff members, and these continued for ten years. Later, these were taken over by the Glasgow International Friendship Team (GIFT) and later by ISCS. My wife and I still hear from students contacted in those, now far off, days and have had long-distance phone calls from some who attended asking if these home meetings still continued as they would like their children, following their parents tradition of studying in Glasgow, to come along!

In the university the Christian staff meets fortnightly for prayer and Bible study at a Wednesday lunchtime, now made more difficult by incursions into what was once the afternoon free of teaching. These meetings have meant much to me over the years and we have talked over our academic problems from a Christian viewpoint, have prayed for colleagues, for the now strong CU and have generally encouraged one another in the faith.

I have found in my Christian life the Lord opening doors for witness and I can perhaps illustrate this best from my scientific collaborations with laboratories in other countries, particularly in Europe. These began with a letter (remember this is twenty to thirty years ago!) from people working in my field who had read my scientific papers. I have been wonderfully fortunate in my research collaborations specially with groups in Strasbourg and in Szeged in Hungary. This Hungarian experience is probably unusual for a British academic; most ‘academic traffic’ was, in communist times, westerly but following twenty years of long-distance collaborations and several visits, I decided to accept an invitation in 1988 to spend part of my sabbatical year working in the medical school in Szeged. Szeged is a city in the southern part of Hungary famous as the home of the Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, and of fish soup and paprika. Since then, with the encouragement of my own university, I have worked extensively in Szeged and this continues as a ‘visiting, honorary and permanent’ member of their academic staff. At present this is supported by a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship. In the last days of communism, and for a few years afterwards, people were very open to discuss the Christian faith and there were many such discussions, over cups of strong coffee, when the day’s research had been completed. It was a particular joy when my closest colleague ‘received the gift of faith’ and thus together to have the opportunity of praying about our work and for our colleagues. It is good too to be involved, as in Scotland, albeit in small ways, with the developing Christian work among university students (MEKDSZ, a part of IFES) through speaking and especially of encouraging the travelling staff. Good too to be part of the local (Baptist) evangelical church.

This strong Hungarian connection led, soon after the fall of communism, to the setting up of a European-wide scientific network, financed by the EU, linking research groups in Poland, the Czech Republic (and later Slovakia) and Hungary with similar groups within the EU. Not only were these collaborations fruitful, and especially helpful to those in the former Eastern Europe, but led to really deep personal friendships. At one such meeting, in Germany, I was invited by our hostess (who was the president of the International Society for Heart Research at that time) to ‘preach’ in her home to some of these friends. I offered, if those friends were in agreement (they were), to share my faith and this led to each of them accepting a copy of John's Gospel.

With the introduction of early retirement there were discussions with some of my Christian colleagues as to whether we might take the opportunity of leaving academic life and either return overseas (like me some of these colleagues had also worked overseas) or move into other areas of service. Around this time it was suggested to me, by friends in some of the churches I visited as a lay preacher, that I should consider the Christian ministry, as some of those colleagues I had worked with in Ibadan had done. I thus spent three years, part time of course, doing the Cambridge diploma in Religious Studies. After this, whilst pondering the next step, one of my university colleagues in the staff Christian fellowship invited himself to lunch and strongly counselled against such a move. He pointed out, rightly, that my frequent travels and many contacts gave almost unique opportunities for witness not open to a minister. He was right; it was after this that the opportunities in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe opened up. It seems to me looking back as though the Lord was asking me to show I was willing make such a commitment and certainly the experience and study has been beneficial to an on-going ministry.

Many academics travel extensively and the balance between attending meetings overseas and taking on industrial consultancies is particularly delicate, especially if one has a reasonably large department to chair. I became a long-term consultant with various pharmaceutical companies in the US, Japan, the UK and other parts of Europe and one of the advantages of these overseas commitments was to fit in opportunities to visit mission fields in Africa, Asia and the Middle East on behalf of the appropriate UK councils. This was at a time when it was relatively rare for members of UK and church missionary councils to visit the field. I know from similar visits by other academics how helpful these are, not least in giving inside information about the situation in the countries concerned.

As I look back, what lessons can I draw about the opportunities Christian academics have to share their faith in Christ? I am convinced it is a truly Christian calling to serve in academic institutions. This is surely true even now despite the greatly increasing demands of administration, larger student numbers, countless grant applications for financial support for research, the RAE and the incessant requests to attend often unessential meetings. Who was it who said, ‘meetings eat people and eating people is wrong’? Mark's Gospel chapter six has a great deal to teach us about such people pressures. Despite the fact that as academics we seem to be losing sight of priorities, with valuable individual student contacts and research time being continually eroded, universities and colleges remain important spheres of Christian influence. How, in practical terms, might this be done? Here are some simple, albeit obvious, suggestions:-

1. Seek out other Christians, and not only academics, in your university or college. Eat your sandwiches together and join regularly in prayer for your institution and encourage one another in God's Word. Of course, someone has to take the initiative in this. Maybe it should be you.

2. If there is an evangelical church in the locality, make contact with the leadership. We have found that the services leading up to Easter and Christmas afford opportunities to invite friends and colleagues.

  1. 3. Link with your local ISCS and UCCF staff workers. There is a great deal we can do help and encourage those in the front line of student witness. In my own experience this is really appreciated.

  2. 4. Stand behind the local CU and let them know you are there, without of course interfering. The Strathclyde idea of a joint invitation to freshers from the CU and Christian staff at the beginning of a new session to coffee, or even a meal, worked well for many years.

  3. 5.  The home, especially if near or on campus, is a really strategic place for the Lord's work in all kinds of ways.

  4. 6. We should be open to the possibility of a more overtly evangelistic approach to colleagues and post-graduate students. I do not think that my own experience of this is in any way unique. A few years ago I was privileged to have working with me a fine Ghanaian Christian post-doctoral fellow. As a result of his witness one of the PhD students in the group also became a Christian and we felt the Lord was opening the door for us to invite people to an evangelical Bible study group. After one meeting in our home we moved to my office because of two of the PhD students, who came from a country where it was somewhat sensitive to spend time in the home of a member of the university staff. This study group lasted a year and then, the next year, became a discipleship group. It was, of course, held well after normal university hours! Looking back I feel that we missed opportunities here but the experience was still valuable and there may be situations and places where such an approach is tenable. But certainly in all these the prayer support of family, church and colleagues was of fundamental importance.

Professor Emeritus Jim Parratt was for many years Professor of Cardiovascular Pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and also chaired the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. His current interests, with his colleagues in Szeged, is in the way the heart is protected by exercise, cardiac pacing and brief periods of ischaemic stress. He has two higher doctorates, one in medicine, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1986. He is an honorary graduate of the Medical University in Szeged and has been honoured by Academies and medical societies in a number of Eastern European countries.

 This article first appeared in Forum No 15 Autumn 2001, being the Newsletter of the Association of Christians in Higher Education, published by UCCF.