Last weekend, about 45 Christian postgrads, postdocs, early career academics and those who work with them gathered at Dovedale House in the tiny village of Ilam in the Peak District. Together we worshipped, listened to talks, ate, shared our stories, went on walks and even had a barn dance! Having been to the conference every year since 2008, every year I am amazed again by the excitement that develops from recognizing each other’s passion and struggles as Christians in academia.
Three speakers stimulated our discussions. Maithrie White, the conference chair, spoke in her opening talk about Romans 11:36 ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things.’ She spoke about the love of learning as a gift from God, about our need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2) and our calling to be a faithful presence in the university. Christian scholars play a role in creating, restoring and celebrating the world God has made.
Chris Wright gave two talks, provocatively entitled ‘What story are your living in?’ and ‘What mission are you living for?’ He showed us that the Bible is fundamentally a story, a drama in six acts that tell the grand narrative of the universe. We participate in this story, so it is important to find our where we are in this drama and what part we play. The six acts are creation – fall – Old Testament promise – Christ and Gospel – New Testament mission – new creation. Each act has its reverberations in the present. God has a mission and he has created a people through whom he is working to accomplish this mission. The mission of God is to redeem the whole of creation, with redeemed people from every culture, through the cross and resurrection of Christ. This mission is not limited to individual people, but also includes society, culture and creation. God’s intention is that the presence of his people will bring blessing to the whole world, so that one day full redemption will be realized in the new creation. During a time of discussion we were challenged to think this through for our own context. How does my discipline and the university as a whole fit into the Bible’s overarching story? Which bits of God’s good creation does my discipline deal with? How does my discipline show the effects of the Fall? Does my discipline give any glimpses of God reconciling all things to himself (see Colossians 1:20)? Where does it need to be transformed by the gospel?
The final speaker, Rhoda Hawkins, brought us back to the theme of love. So often we see in the university that ‘Knowledge puffs up’, but as Christians, instead what should be our guide is that ‘love builds up’ (1 Cor. 8:1). The insecurity, overblown self-confidence and arrogance that is so typical of many academic environments must be transformed by grace. In this way we, who been given much, will be able to rejoice in the gifts God has given us, and learn to use them to take every opportunity to show God’s love by sharing our faith, inspiring others, challenging the ethics of the university and benefitting society.
So we can pray with St. Aquinas, whose prayer ‘Ante studium’ (‘Before study’) includes these phrases:
‘Instruct my beginning, direct my progress, and set thy seal upon the finished work.’