Researching for Shalom

I had the hardest time coming up with paper topics during my undergrad years. The more freedom I had, the harder it was to choose. As a result, I ended up writing a number of lackluster essays for classes simply because I had to. Ironically enough, many of these classes were doing a lot to shape my thinking about the shape of my life and what I wanted to spend my days doing, but little of this bled into my academic writing. In retrospect, the fundamental problem was obvious: I lacked a way to understand and articulate how the work of academic writing and research fit into a world in which the kingdom of God was near.

There are a variety of different research projects which drive academic research today. From the transhumanist vision of technological utopia to the dream of liberation promoted by advocates of critical theory, differing conceptions of how the work of research connect with the broader fabric of human society inform the academic enterprise. Increasingly, the demand for “qualified” workers turns the academy into a factory of sorts producing technically trained workers who are able to “think critically” for the workforce. For Christians, however, the drive to academic work and research ought to be driven by the Biblical imperatives of image-bearing and witness-bearing: humankind’s creational calling as well as the Messiah-people’s redemptive calling.

Earlier this month, I spent two weeks with the amazing folks at Yale’s Rivendell Institute (yes, that Rivendell) where, among other things, we talked about how one might think about the Christian motivations for the academic life. What Manna has accomplished using the language of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glory, Rivendell does with the dual-tasks of image-bearing and witness-bearing. Simply put, for Christians, there are two categories under which to subsume all of their activity, one associated with creation (and its fall) and one associated with creation (and its renewal): the cultural mandate and the Great commission.

Image-Bearing

For the uninitiated, Genesis 1:28-30 has often been referred to by Christians as the “cultural mandate”:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

This is, as it were, humanity’s mission statement: to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it. Lest the word “dominion” sound too much like “domination”, it would do well to remember that the kind of rule to be exercised was best exemplified by God himself in Jesus – he who wishes to be great must be the slave of all.

What does this dominion look like? The second chapter of Genesis gives a closer look: it looks like taking care of a garden. One episode stands out for special attention: God brings the animals one by one to Adam and has him name them. Naming. The cultural task par excellance. One discovers a particular pattern of organization in the world that God creates – i.e. the awe-inspiring coordination of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen into proteins and cells and organs that we know as animals – and we give it a designation, a place and a role in human society.

This is, I suggest, is the primary task in which academic research is involved. Researchers look at the world looking for patterns of activity – natural and social – which they attempt to name, describe, and embody [1]. It is by no means a benign act, for naming is fraught with social-political implications. Whether one calls a particular phenomenon the act of a freedom fighter or a terrorist makes a world of a difference. Even the seemingly apolitical work of research in math or physics has potentially groundshaking social consequences in the technological implications it makes possible.

For a long time, we have operated with a view of “science” drawn from the Enlightenment and positivist philosophy. Under this scheme, things having to do with “subjective” human opinions and decisions such as politics, economics, and religion were excluded from the halls of science because they failed to exemplify the kind of “objective” inquiry that was supposed to characterize scientific endeavors. (Note: This did not stop various humanities and social “sciences” from trying to claim the status of “science” by means of trying to increase the amount of quantitative analysis used in the field.) This, combined with the crisis of Western civilization post-World Wars, led to a kind of technological optimism that strongly emphasized the benefits of “scientific” inquiry while yet remaining ignorant of its social costs. Before that, intellectual activity tended to be characterized by the classical ideal in its various forms – whether disengaged contemplation of Truth/God as the ideal human activity or Stoic meditation of one’s place in the larger scheme of things – which also tended to minimize its world-formative dimensions.

It is these world-formative dimensions, however, that allow us to see and understand the ways in which our acts of “naming” might be concretely implicated in the effects of the fall. Instead of being true to the imago dei implanted within each of us, humans have turned from glorying God to glorying self. Romans 1 puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Shrewd commentators have noted how the curses of the Fall correspond exactly to the blessings of the Creation. The call to subdue the land and multiply one’s seed is met with a curse of the land and a curse in childbearing. And interestingly enough, when God turns to Abraham to jumpstart his redemptive plan, the very things that man was created for and had lost – the land and the seed – are the very things that he promises. Whereas at Babel, humanity tried to make a name for itself and was scattered, now God was going to make a name for himself.

Witness-bearing

One of most fascinating themes in the Bible is the theme of creation and new creation. If in Adam, humans were bound in slavery to sin; in Christ, we are bound in slavery to righteousness. If humans were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply” in the Old Testament, it is the gospel which “bears fruit and multiplies” in the New. Where in one sense, Christ comes to restore humanity to its rightful place in creation, in another sense, his followers have picked up an additional task above and beyond their call to engage culture: the call to make disciples of all nations.

This certainly has implications for intellectual life. Whereas in Genesis 2, the cultural mandate had Adam naming animals in the garden, in Acts 17, we see Paul naming on behalf of the Athenians the “unknown God” to whom they offered worship. In his speech on the Areopagus, Paul skillfully engages with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his age to show how elements within each of them ultimately point to faith in Jesus. Not only are Christian thinkers tasked with naming aspects of God’s creation, they are to do so rightly, in a way that nudges our different cultural concepts – tinged by sin – closer towards the kingdom of God. This is both a “pre-evangelistic” and an evangelistic task, both clearing the way to challenge dominant cultural conceptions in light of the truth of the gospel and translating the gospel into differing cultures.

The connection between our institutions of higher education and mission is historically suggestive: it is at Princeton, at Yale, at Cambridge that our modern missionary movement gets a lot of its impetus. In the medieval ages, it is at the universities that jumpstart a good deal of today’s monastic orders – the Dominicans, the Jesuits – that served as missionaries to China, to Japan, and to the native Americans. If one is disappointed with attempts to evangelize today, much of it is due to the intellectual currents which have gained ascendance in our universities over the past century. If the Lordship of Jesus is to be proclaimed throughout the world, the work of making the gospel plausible and understandable to all will remain one in which Christian academics necessarily play a role.

In a way, one can roughly distinguish between the image- and witness-bearing task of Christians using the age-old distinction between activities of the church ad intra and activities ad extra. At the center of the former lay the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the task of passing forth the teaching of the apostles and the celebration and maintaining of the unity and holiness of the church.  In the latter is the proclamation of the gospel throughout every land, the missional dimension to spread the light of the knowledge of Christ far as the curse is found. In all, Christian academics ought to be seeking comprehensive human flourishing in all that they do, in accordance with the Biblical vision of shalom.

These goals ought to present Christians in the academy with a barrage of potential research projects based on which to direct their inquiry. How ought Christians to respond to the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the United States? In what ways are Christians letting race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, or some other factor other than their shared new identity in Christ define their communion? What are the beliefs and practices that make faith in Christ difficult to communicate or sustain in our culture today? All these and more are questions deeply in need of Christian responses. Insofar as the academic disciplines may facilitate or hinder such research, it ought to be the Christian academic’s duty to allow his or her commitment to Christ to come first and foremost, seeking to find a way to be faithful in the place where he or she is placed.

Notes:

[1] Consider, for instance, Esther Lightcap Meek’s view of knowledge as “subsidiary-focal integration” – knowing as integrating from relied-on clues to a coherent focal pattern to which we attend and embrace (see Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology) or Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education, in which philosophy is characterized as a “general theory of description”.

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A Gospel Lens on the Brain

Greetings GWBlog readers! It’s a blessing and privilege to be able to contribute to this blog. I’m excited to share various musings and reflections with you, and I welcome any combination of questions, comments, and challenges in response to what I write here.

Now, a little bit about what I’m all about. I currently live in the verdant wilderness of the Upper Connecticut River Valley, where I am doing graduate work in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth. The field of cognitive neuroscience implements tools of modern brain imaging (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI) to understand how the brain gives rise to our thought processes and behavior. The daily grind of my work is made up of a smattering of tasks, among which include: designing and running behavioral and fMRI studies, conducting statistical analyses on data sets to measure the direction and magnitude of effects of interest, and, if those effects are noteworthy and interesting, writing up and/or presenting them at conferences and professional meetings.

These tasks may seem stale and academic, and no doubt they can be at times. But thankfully, boredom or complacency never sets in, for I have a portal through which I’m able see my vocation in brilliant arrays of color—not unlike the refractory effects of light hitting and fanning out from a prism. This portal is my Christian faith, and it has provided a robust interpretive grid that helps me make sense of what I learn about the workings of the human brain and how it impacts behavior. The scientific method, at its core, equips human beings with vital information about the systematic regularities and laws of the universe, the “how’s” of reality if you will. It is always up to scientists to interpret and integrate new information with what is already known, and no matter which worldview a scientist explicitly (or implicitly) subscribes to, he or she will bring assumptions and biases to the task of interpreting data. So for me, my Christian worldview necessarily affects how I conduct my science, but first and foremost it requires that I approach it with competence and vigor, carefully probing the truth (inasmuch as we can perceive and measure it), and following it where it takes me (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21; Philippians 4:8).

So,  how does neuroscience inform and unpack the Christian narrative (and vice versa)? I hope to tackle this question in future blog posts. To give you a taste of what is to come, here are some overarching categories with brief teasers:

  • The interface between the spiritual realm and our physical, fleshly existence – namely, how the human brain is a mysterious and awe-inspiring example of that interface. I hope to argue that this interface is a point of contact between multiple levels and dimensions of reality. Like the 2D shapes in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland unsure of what to make of a strange-behaving circle whose diameter constantly changes, we humans are tasked with understanding how the non-physical realm bumps against the physical and acts upon the biochemical processes of the brain.
  • The implications of brain functioning on human conscious will and freedom – For this topic I wish to consider the findings coming out of drug addiction research that reveal how many of our behaviors are prone to become compulsive and automatized, and how this seems to be a general principle impacting how we think and behave. I believe the Christian narrative in this case can account for why this is true, as well as offer real hope for undoing and disarming this susceptibility.
  • The importance of matter – God deeply cares for the physical universe that He created and redeemed in and through Christ. If we are to take the historical (physical) reality of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection seriously, then it necessarily follows that “matter matters” to God, full stop. And of course that includes the 3-pound hunk of grey and white matter that’s abuzz with electrochemical activity as you read this sentence. We would do well to realize that we will have brains in the New Heavens and New Earth, but they will be gloriously refashioned to experience the full reality of eternal, intimate relationship with God and others.

I hope I’m not the only one in the room who gets giddy thinking about these topics. Whether you share my giddiness or not, I hope you’ll consider my perspective and indulge me as I take us on a wild ride across the landscape of our fearfully and wonderfully made brains.

Trusting His Provision

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write for this week’s post, and after a few attempts at different topics I decided that I wanted to share a testimony about my plans for the next year. It doesn’t particularly relate to a specific topic in architecture, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about.

For those of you who don’t know, I had a major antsy/panic period between late March to the middle of May because… well, I didn’t know what I would be doing for the next year or whether I will actually have something to do next year. In February I had finally compiled a portfolio and sent it to several architecture firms in the hopes of getting a position as an intern or a junior architect. I had asked graduate students, an alumnus, and a professional for help with everything, and I thought that the final product was decent enough to get me a starting position at a firm.

But as one rejection turned to two, and two to many more, I became  worried. I looked up jobs on job search engines and applied to whatever I qualified for; I even considered applying for a company and a position that I had never thought of and was never really interested in. I began grasping at whatever I could, becoming increasingly desperate each time a new rejection popped up in my email.

As the number of closed doors grew, I began to regret decisions that I made and didn’t make. A big one was applying for graduate school. I blamed myself for not having applied this year, as it would have saved me from all this unrest and anxiety. I found myself thinking about a lot of “should have”s and “could have”s, like I could have just balanced four courses, a thesis, and job search or I should have spent more all nighters for studio so that I had more presentable material for firms to see in my portfolio.

This inevitably led to some friction in my relationship with God. I began to accuse Him of not stopping me from making what seemed to me regrettable decisions and not providing me with a clear plan for the next year. My faith in His power to provide dwindled to a point where I no longer turned to Him for guidance. Instead I tried to fix whatever I could on my CV, cover letter, and portfolio to increase my chances of getting hired.

Around mid-May, I shared my concerns with a friend that I made in Hong Kong. She was working at a firm there, and suggested that I apply. I said that I would, but after so many rejections I was skeptical of receiving any good news. The friend herself was an intern and could only do so much to sway their decision to my favor, and the continued rejection had made me convinced that my portfolio would not stand a chance against local graduates who would be applying for the firm.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. -Matthew 6:25-34

So it was a surprise when I received a reply from the firm’s HR a few days after my application. What is more, within a week of that first reply they extended an offer for me to work at the firm for the next year. I was astounded by just how quickly all this took place and, more importantly, at just how little my role was in making it all happen. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was all about God and Him timing things according to His own plans, not mine. By making me wait, God exposed my dependence on my own merits and on affirmation in the form of job acceptances. He showed me that these will ultimately fail me and that it is Him who has the power to open doors and the right ones at that.

In that sense, I’ve been able to not only understand but also experience God’s provision that Matthew 6:25-34 talks about. It’s not my fussing and getting anxious about my own needs and plans that get me anywhere but absolute trust in Him. As I begin my first year outside of Princeton, it’s a reminder that even when I don’t have worldly securities, there is no reason to fret as God will always be the greatest security that I could ever have.

 

Government, sin, redemption

Almost four years of working in the Government. Why did I choose to work here? Back when I was 18, I believed it was the best way to “help” the ill, the poor and the excluded in our society. I (thought I) had great ideas for what should be changed, and signed on for a free university education, in exchange for 6 years of working for the Government. 4 years of school + 6 years of service – I’m nearly at my 4 year mark.

How has it turned out, looking back? How does the gospel impact how I see and do the work that I’ve been called to do here? The understanding of sin helps me face realities and understand my role in the government.

Face realities: men are inherently inward-looking; they elect governments to pursue their interests on their behalf. In the course of my work, I often think about a text by Hobbes – the state of nature is the state of war. As a society, we wish to be kinder, gentler, more compassionate. But when a nursing home is built right next to our apartment block, we cry foul. We want quick, cheap housing, but we frown at those who labor for hours on end in the hot tropical sun, and are only seeking some solace from the sun as they hang out at the landings of our apartment blocks. This happens so often, that we even have a term here – the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome.

There is growing distrust between government and citizens. The gist is that government consists of “rich people paying themselves highly while the rest of us suffer!” It can be demoralizing, to be honest.

How do these affect how I think about my work? I first have to realize the limits of any human institution in curbing this fundamental human nature. Then, I choose not to by cynical, but to hope. Daily, I am reminded that so much is not in my hands, nor any man’s hands (those “perfect solutions” I once dreamed of were not so perfect once I understood the range of perspectives, operational issues & sometimes, the problems of legacy and ego that get in the way. Real problems, mind you.). Only God can address the fundamental issues at play – fundamental issues of the heart.

And he does; he can. I am encouraged to see that men also have an innate sense of justice, which shapes their idea of what a country should be. Critiques of our welfare and healthcare systems come from the desire to have a society where justice prevails – where the widows, orphans, the elderly and ill are taken care of. Where we do not leave the market to assign value to people based on traits that we win through the genetic lottery. This is something to celebrate. One of the goals of government is not to shut down these critiques, but to cultivate them and create the space for people to take action together.

Knowing that we have a God who works on our behalf and cares about justice far more than we do, I’m freed up to think hard about what it is that I can do. Within my sphere of influence, can I speak up for those who do not have a voice? In my first job, it was on my heart to speak up for equality in treatment of kids with special needs (and do the analysis needed to support my proposals). I was given many opportunities to do so. I also think about what we can do to restore trust with the people – be more open about the facts, even if we don’t look so good; be vulnerable and admit that we don’t have it all solved, that some things really do take five or ten years to achieve – even in super-efficient Singapore.

It’s about creating authentic relationships between government and people, the space for us to build something together. That is, in itself, redemptive.

Let’s end with that for now 🙂