This is the transcript of Tim Laurence’s address at the inaugural conference of the Association of Christian Postgraduate Groups within IFES Europe’s Postgraduate Initiative, ‘Good News for the University’, delivered from Cambridge by Zoom on Saturday 22 May 2021.
II. Practical Outworkings
This is a wonderful, exciting moment for us and we're going to think through some outworkings, or some examples, showing that building an intellectual foundation - and our Association - around the gospel gives us a better story or a better answer to some of the challenges that we see in our secular academic context. So we’re going to look at three particular contemporary challenges as foils for three ways in which the Christian account gives us something to celebrate and which we can embody in our postgraduate groups.
Outworking 1: Our Common Purpose, or Mission
Our first consideration is our purpose as Christians within the university, and how this might contrast with a less clear sense of purpose that offered by secularism.
What is the purpose of the university? This is a question causing a lot of confusion and discussion in some circles at the moment so let's back up a bit and begin by thinking about a simpler question.
The joy of research
What do you love about research? To think about this, take a pause. Forget the Augustinian superstructure we've just been discussing. Just think about the fact that you’re a PhD student or postdoc, and that you love research. Just think about your Monday morning, with your desk next to the window, the computer purring nicely, maybe your Spotify account is about to kick into action and you've got a whole week ahead of you with no meetings, no interruptions. Maybe you've got your email ‘out-of-office’ on, and you're just going to do some serious research and you're loving it.
Now why is it that you're loving that? What is it that you're enjoying? What is it that we love? Is it perhaps that you love following a trail, and just going wherever the data takes you? Is it the fact that nobody in the world yet knows the thing that you’re about to discover at 11:00 o'clock this morning?
This joy of research is something that God has given us because he's made us as rational human beings and placed us in a knowable universe so that we can investigate it. And that's true whether we're Christians or non-Christians.
King Solomon knew this. He was an extraordinary polymath. He may not have had a Spotify account, but he enjoyed his research. Not only was he an expert philosopher, he was also a judge of human motivations, and he was also a remarkable early ecologist. 1 Kings 4 reads like this:
‘Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.’ (1 Kings 4:32-34).
It's with the authority of Solomon’s personal experience that one of his proverbs reads:
‘…it is the glory of kings to search out a matter’. (Prov. 25:2)
So one reason we enjoy our research is because it gives us a sense of being a little king. Why does the verse refer to kings specifically? Certainly, in the Ancient Near East, it was kings who had the freedom and the leisure and the means and the education to undertake research. But there is a sense in which all of us have a kingly role over God’s creation, because God gave us dominion over the earth, to care for it, and for that we have a royal stewardship (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15). There is a sense of freedom as God’s agents over it. Integral to humanity’s kingly role, to care for creation and to pursue its flourishing, is the need to understand how it works. This remains true beyond the garden of Eden: if you put petrol in a diesel car, or vice versa, you don't help your car to flourish. You need to understand your car to pursue its flourishing. So as academics we're analysing and understanding creation so that we can help it to flourish. This is part of our human creation (or culture-building) mandate.
So our research leaves us feeling the joy and the privilege that God has made us kings in his creation. There’s a thrilling sense of intellectual dominion over your subject area. You pose the question for yourself, you undertake the necessary research, you creatively begin to pull together some hypotheses or models. No one's done that for you. As an intellectual king you have the freedom to do it as you judge best.
And so that principle of academic freedom is one that we can celebrate with our non-Christian colleagues. We can share with them the commitment that the data must drive the exercise, that we should have the freedom entailed by research and that if we are being told by a communist political authority, or even by today's grant making bodies, what the answer should be before we've done the research, then we have a right to push back, as then we don't have academic freedom.
This is the glory of being an academic researcher, that all the world’s powers and authorities can't change the facts if you discover something that they don't like. The freedom of your intellectual work, your own mind, is something that can't be chained. Each of the intellectual disciplines have developed their own mythical stories of an individual intellect overcoming authoritative paradigms or working in the face of a major authority. We can think of Copernicus for instance, or even how Einstein overcame perceptions about Newtonian mechanics. In literature there is a subgenre called prison literature, where the power of the pen has been greater than the power of the sword or the prison walls. For example, John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while locked up in Bedford jail being denied freedom of religion - but his writing has inspired believers across the world. Or Nelson Mandela, who wrote letters about political freedom from within prison, before following those letters beyond it.
Absolute intellectual autonomy?
So far so good. But there are also some negative examples. Have you noticed how we are sailing very close to the wind as we emphasise our intellectual freedom? After all, within prison literature, Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ from Landsberg prison. Another problematic counter-example is given by John Milton’s Satan within Paradise Lost. At the beginning, the rebellious Satan is cast by God from heaven into hell. But Satan there seeks to use his intellectual freedom to redefine his reality, telling his demonic associates that:
‘...the mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven...’ (Paradise Lost, I.253f)
At first we don't know whether to celebrate that statement or criticise it. After all, Milton was writing this masterpiece from within the prison of his own blindness. But what Satan is doing here is saying that if we have absolute intellectual autonomy, we can seek to overturn reality as it really is, and undertake a campaign of revenge against God.
This means that to pursue the glory of Christ in our research is going to require having a clearer sense of purpose than merely a contemporary secular understanding of absolute intellectual freedom - where we see around us a set of individuals pursuing their own research goals in their own way, in their own discipline and with each faculty having very little in common with the other faculties. This has resulted in a shift away from our academic work as a discovering of God’s world and has moved toward a sense of total intellectual autonomy, ending up in fragmentation – the fragmentation of the modern world, where egocentric individuals are pursuing competing visions of what that autonomy can look like. It means that the humanities and the sciences are working on totally different assumptions of what it means to be human, for instance.
Context: re-introducing our intellectual context
So what are we going to do with all of that? Our recovering the glory of Christ at once entails a re-introduction of the context for our work. We're going to see that it gives us a clearer, united sense of our purpose in the university and that this can unify us, not only as group leaders, but in our postgraduate groups as well.
For instance, look at the prior context - that is, the first half - of Solomon’s proverb that we were looking at earlier - so we can see the whole of it:
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
but it is the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
So there's actually a context to our research. We might say that we're ‘going wherever the data takes us’, but when we're finding our data, what we’re finding is data that God is already hidden for us within his creation to find. As Johan Kepler said, ‘we are then thinking God’s thoughts after him’. Remember, in Genesis 2:11-12 there is this wonderful comment that there is gold in the land of Havilah, and ‘the gold of that land is good’. God has put gold in the earth asking for us to dig it out and to make beautiful things with it.
‘Going where the data takes us’ - already has a God-given direction
If we started by thinking that academic freedom is simply going where the data takes us, we can now see that, actually, the data has been given to us in a prior context for a prior purpose. It has a given and inbuilt direction within it. So when we're following the data we’re actually tracking its God given direction.
And where does the data take us? We've seen in the glory of Christ from Colossians 1 that everything exists ‘from him’, ‘through him’ and ‘to him’. As we consider that everything is ‘from him’ - including our own privilege as researchers within humanity’s role as God’s royal stewards - we see that we will be drawn into understanding our data so that we can be better equipped to care for God's world on his behalf. But as everything is also ‘to him’, it also means that we'll be seeing signposts within the data, within creation, which point us back to glorifying and praising God for the totality of the picture: that everything exists from God and for God.
In other words, our tracking of these patterned prepositions (Col. 1:16 paralleled in 1:19-20; see also Rom. 11:36) is more than just the fun of a literature student having a whale of a time. They are theologically very significant, as Colossians 1 indicates: they help us coordinate the doctrines of creation and redemption around the person of Christ.
Creation as Context: ‘from him...to him’, and the role of humanity
In terms of creation, ‘from him’ means that everything created is not self-existent but is creaturely and dependent, within a prior context; and hence ‘to him’ means that creation points back to his glory as our ultimate goal and end. We can illustrate this with a few arrows (see slides/diagrams).
This context of glory and creation is very significant for understanding our roles as humans - anthropology, if you like.
Psalm 8 - chiefly concerned with God’s glory - says we have been placed ‘over the works of your hands’ (Ps. 8:6). Humanity is located in between God and the rest of creation with a particular role as ‘rulers’ (Ps. 8:6). So as we consider the downward arrow we remember our role as royal stewards, whose command is to help creation to flourish and to have dominion. That’s why in our creation-ward vocational work we’re pursuing the common good, we're here to help the European culture to flourish, to serve people, to do good. But then Psalm 8 also observes our Godward function: though in comparison to the starry skies we are as insignificant as ‘babes and infants’, nonetheless from humanity he has ordained priestly praise. Only humans can communicate linguistically and can bring back the glory of an non-verbal creation, verbally, to its creator. So that's the doctrine of creation.
Christ as Context: ‘from him...to him’ - Jesus’ earthly mission and ascension
But the fall meant that this dynamic becomes even more clearly Christian, because we now look at Christ's first mission as a man. Given the significance of humanity’s role over creation, and our falleness, Christ came in the first case specifically to sinful humankind (1 Tim 1:15). He came from God as a servant King, and he returned in his ascension after his death, as our high priest, bringing us back to God. So Hebrews is all about this isn't it, picking up the way Psalm 8 foreshadows Christ’s exaltation on our behalf and clearly identifying this with Christ’s priestly role for us in his own atoning death (Heb. 2:6ff). So he brings us with him as one of his own people back to God, saying ‘here I am, and the children you have given me’ (Heb. 2:13), as we, with Christ, ‘sing [God’s] praises.’ (2:12).
Church as context: ‘from him...to him’ - our role on the earth
So, the ‘from him’ and the ‘to him’ movement is in-built to creation and it also characterises Christ’s first mission. But, bringing the two together, it's now shapes the mission of the church and so this is where we will ultimately land our role in the university.
The New Testament teaches that as we are ‘in Christ’ the beginning of our conception of what it means to be Christian is that we are considered relationally or, positionally, with the exalted Christ at God’s right hand (Eph 1:3, 2:6; Col. 3:1f). But our bodies are not yet there because we have work to do before he returns. We have been sent back towards God’s world. Not just in our human role and responsibility to care for God's creation, doing good as royal stewards, but also as royal ambassadors as we bring people to reconciliation with God, as we come and bring God's gospel proclamation (2 Cor. 5:20). In other words, as the church is the next phase of redemptive history - in which, ultimately, heaven and earth unite, the cycle of the church recapitulates both the original role of humanity, exalted from the earth, and also the original mission of Christ, humbling himself from heaven.
Similarly, as we bring the praise back to God in our priestly capacity, we're bringing our colleagues and our friends with us on the way too, incorporating the nations with us in our return journey of worship to God. As we praise God for our research and in our lives, we draw them into the church community with us, who will one day meet him in the air (Rom. 15:16, 1 Pet. 2:9; 1 Thess. 4:17). The universal church has this cyclical eschatologial dynamic. And so in everything we are ‘from God’ and ‘to God’.
Colleagues as context: ‘from him...to him’ - our local opportunity in the workplace
In the context of the workplace, we can be more specific (see diagram below). Though sent by Christ the supreme Lord of all, this is an age of reconciliation before he returns in judgment, so he asks us to submit to the authorities that we've been given to work under. So in our context in the university the formal paid job given to us as a ‘creation-ward’ researcher or post-doc does not include our broader responsibility for evangelism. It is more limited: although we draw on our Christian motivation and biblical insights, we're being paid not to point to Christ but to promote the good of creation.
However, there is more to being human - and Christian - than the formality of our paid job. So outside it and around it - as we are meeting with our colleagues at the cafeteria, or talking about why we love our subject, and how we make ultimate sense of our discipline - we do verbally and persuasively begin with our common experience as colleagues but then bring all the praise back to God. We can say ‘actually my discipline comes from Christ and it exists for Christ’. For example, if I’m in jurisprudence, I can ask: where do human rights come from? Well, what makes a human special and unique? It is because he's been created in the image of God. But in the Bible these aren’t rights to flaunt for ourselves - Christ the ultimate image of God laid down his life for us on the cross, etc. So outside of my formal paid employment, we’re able to give a wider context, and give all of the glory in public back to the Lord Jesus, which will draw people in. That is part of our evangelistic mission, which, within the workplace, will be grounded in the shared reality and rationality of God’s creation.
Conclusion: our twofold calling within the university
So that means that we can summarise what we're doing from two points of view. We are doing our formal research work for the good of creation, under Christ’s Lordship, and under the authority of our employer. This means we can share our temporal goals with our right-thinking non-Christian colleagues - seeking to serve creation’s flourishing as humans who are God’s royal stewards. But we also have an extra advantage: as we have been sent from Christ we have the added insights Scripture to draw upon as inspiration and guidance. And then, around our work, we’re turning our expertise to verbal worship and evangelism: speaking of how everything points back to God.
It’s helpful to realise, particularly for the sake of our postgraduate groups, that we have this twofold task as Christians. Sometimes in our experience these tasks can seem to polarise each other. There might be a familiar voice that says: ‘our calling is all about evangelism and I don't really mind what you're studying - and I don't even know why you're at the university cause you could be working for your church but okay...’. Maybe you’ve come across that sort of argument, which has no real place for the work of the university. But then, in contrast, you have those who are so concerned not to be identified as the former voice, and who say that we glorify God primarily by contributing to the common good and getting on with doing our work well, and contributing to cultural flourishing. But then what's happened to our speaking of Christ, and they fact his glory is shown most in the gospel?
But as we have seen from the integrated vision of Christ’s glory in creation and redemption, these two things actually fit together – they are distinct, but interdependent. They are part of the same intellectual system but, teleologically (that is, in terms of purpose), they’re two different activities, and can be helpfully identified through our twofold orientation. Vocationally, we are orientated towards God’s creation for its flourishing. This doesn’t mean we don’t operate under Christ’s Lordship - of course not - we have a creationward orientation because we are coming to it ‘from him’. So we draw on our background including our biblical insights. Of course, in some disciplines it won't seem that what we're doing is very different to what a non-Christian would do but even then we understand that we're doing it as God's servant and have a clear purpose to benefit his creation. Conversely, as we bring all the glory back to him - and speak evangelistically from the starting point of shared human experience, and the signposts of our field - it is essential that it is the person of Christ and not his creation, which is the final object of our attention and the goal of our conversation.
So this sense of our shared mission, or purpose, as Christians within the university, serves as a long worked example as to how the comprehensive supremacy of Christ yields a sharper clarity to why we're here in the university. In contrast to a secular vision, it means we're not here simply to celebrate an absolute academic autonomy, leading to individual clashes of egos and the fragmentation of the disciplines and fractured relationships. No, we can work together across disciplines within our postgraduate groups, where all of us as Christians share the same basic sense of a twofold calling, as to what we're doing in the Academy. It means that we're working from Christ to our research serving the common good as Christians, drawing on all that we know of reality through Christ and his scriptures. And as we do this, we're going to be pointing people from our research to Christ - to the one from whom it all came, and the one for whom it exists, and so we have that evangelistic goal as well. Clearly, in terms of cultural experiences or backgrounds, some of us will be more naturally wired toward understanding the role of a Christian academic group as being focussed more on the one or the other but together as a group we can serve each other and show that there's a place for each of our different gifts and interests.
Hence for the IFES Europe Postgraduate Initiative, ‘Good News for the University’ we have a twofold common mission:
From Christ to our research: in our academic roles we pursue creation’s flourishing, working excellently and serving the good of the university under Christ’s Lordship and in the light of Scripture; and
From our research to Christ: as we trace the way our field points to God’s glory, we praise him and seek to bring others with us, turning our expertise toward persuasive gospel outreach.
Much more briefly, we can sketch two more ways in which a vision of Christ’s glory can unite us as Christians and contrast favourably with our contemporary secular context.