Why Academics should be Christians, or at least should want to be

If you believe that Jesus was just one more religious figure among many, you are grossly misinformed. His life was different, his claims were different, his death was different, and his impact has been different to that of any other religious leader, prophet, miracle worker, preacher or teacher.

Well, that might be controversial enough to get some peoples’ attention. Here follow some thoughts on why academics should be Christians; I’ve wandered around this question in quite a few posts, but there’s new stuff here too, so bear with…

I came to writing this after having been fortunate enough to have breakfast with a few pastors and a prominent UK-based evangelist this morning. I only got a few minutes with the person in question, but he asked me an interesting question: if I was to come and do a mission week for students, what would you like me to know about them? I didn’t have a good answer ready, but in hindsight, perhaps the main thing I’d want to say is “they think Christianity is stupid and false, and therefore irrelevant”. Thinking this somehow led to this blog post, which tries to express a thought that has occurred to me quite a bit over the last couple of years. I hope to be able to do more reading in related issues in philosophy to flesh this out more at some point.

In science, an important element of a good theory is commonly thought to be that it makes correct predictions; i.e. it makes claims which later turn out to be true, or nearly so. A related concept is that a theory is more strongly confirmed when it explains evidence which it was not originally invented to explain; perhaps think of it as the ability to sync effortlessly with new data. As a fictional example, if a theory is designed to account for the motion of the earth and moon relative to the sun, it will be more credible as a scientific explanation if it turns out afterwards to also account for the motion of other planets or other objects.

There are many myths around concerning the invention of the Christian story, and I cannot deal with them all here. The most plausible account of why there are Christians around, and likewise why the Jewish religion started and had its particular form, is that communities believed they had experienced and heard from God in a particular, concrete, way. In other words, Judaic or Christian faith, while supplemented by various other things, is founded centrally on historical claims. Christian doctrine was developed in response to the ‘Christ event’.  Perhaps it was all in the early Christians’ head, but they believed that they had good evidence for thinking that Christ was unique.

And now on to the substantive point. Christian faith is a remarkably fruitful source of academic reflection on the nature of the world. The modern consensus is of course that we can easily get past the minor blips of religiosity in our culture’s history and move on victoriously in the real work of understanding, but I emphatically challenge this. In my view, the main intellectual opponent to Christianity is naturalism, and after some consideration this view seems to me a poor foundation for research, learning, and teaching. For a side note on naturalism, see the end of this post.

Some examples of the (at least potential) fruitfulness of Christian faith as a foundation for theorising across a wide range of disciplines; some of these overlap:

Forgiveness, humility, and relationship are real and profound aspects of the universe given the Christian trinitarian world picture. The Christian faith provides a depth of ethical resources on forgiveness and humility, and makes relationship and personhood central to the universe’s metaphysical foundations rather than mere contingently emerging properties.

Political theory can benefit from considering the relational nature of ‘the Ultimate’ (God), and from the fact that human persons are endowed with real dignity, as God’s image-bearers and the object of God’s love and purposeful action.

History, on Christian theism, is not just ‘one damned event after another’, but instead has a focal point, a beginning and an expected end. The sovereignty and faithfulness/consistency of God gives us some reason to hope for the possibility of drawing coherent narratives and lessons on what is normative out of events in the past.

Ethics has a source and a standard in Jesus.

The desire for justice in law and economics is legitimated by the person and work of Jesus. Justice is no pipe-dream or comforting fantasy, but a reality expressed in part in flourishing human communities now and in full in the eschaton.

Science is considered a trustworthy, though fallible, source of true claims in light of God’s lawful sustaining of the universe, God’s functional role as the common source of all of physical reality, and our place in the universe as God’s image-bearers and stewards of His creation.

Mathematics is not a mere human invention or contrivance, but an internally consistent system of true statements, and reflection of the rational mind of the Creator.

Art is not just a quaint evolutionary artifact but carries the potential to be a window into viewing some of the splendour and majesty of the Creator, and is made possible by our nature as creative beings made in His image.

Psychology, sociology and other human sciences deal with the complexities of instantiations of the divine image, made for relationship, reasoning/understanding, and responsibility but broken in each of these aspects.

The Christian faith was not invented to explain any of these things, but there are many natural consequences of accepting it as true, which combine together in interesting ways to give a rich view of the world, human flourishing, what constitutes realistic hope, and other things. If we are drawn to accept many or all of these consequences (and academics working in the fields mentioned should be), we have good reason to consider whether the core historical claims on which they are based really do stack up, and we have reason to assign some initial plausibility to the entire network of Christian claims, given the coherency and explanatory scope seen in the consequences discussed.

While naturalism leaves us building castles in the clouds and provides only a diminished, piecemeal and sceptical view of reality, the Christ event, if genuine, helps to make sense of some things which many of us already suspect to be true and provides a framework for fruitful research, motivation to pursue understanding, and a duty of care for those working alongside us.

To end, here is a good quote from Augustine.

‎”I have read Plato and Cicero sayings that are very wise and beautiful; but I never read in either of them: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give thee rest'” (Augustine).

And now, for something completely different … or actually quite similar – a thought on naturalism. It may be said “no, dude – as a non-believer concerning your imaginary sky fairy, I’m not nearly as restricted as you seem to think – I can believe pretty much whatever I want about political theory, ethics, the metaphysical foundations of science, or whatever else you might want to ramble on about”. To this I say “well yes – and no.” Firstly, as difficult as it may be to accept, someone who does not believe in the core claims of Christianity does not thereby escape having beliefs which should be justified. In our society, most such people who’ve thought much about it and tried to sign up to a coherent worldview fit somewhere within the spectrum of ‘naturalism’, i.e. they believe that all that actually exists is natural, of the kind dealt with by everyday science, and therefore they deny that supernatural persons or other entities exist. While in a sense this is quite a thin belief system, it is also substantive, in that – if true – it rules out a lot of possible claims about the universe and makes others considerably more likely. Naturalism offers a very different picture of the world to theism, including the relationship between the world’s constitutive parts – in short, rather than being derived from a single common source, a number of facts about the world become, to the best of our knowledge, ‘brute facts’. Naturalism lacks the explanatory power and scope of Christian theism, and is therefore less satisfying. That the view is unsatisfying does not show it to be false, or less probably true – but that it is explanatorily deficient is a reason to reconsider it.

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