How can academic research glorify God?
Daniel Tracey is a DPhil candidate in Theoretical Chemistry, Balliol College, Oxford; and a member of the Christians in Academia 2016/17 Cohort
Previously, my understanding of glorifying God in an occupation was quite naïve. Considering academia, I thought it offered, for example, the opportunity to be a witness of the gospel in the university, a position of influence in society, and the flexibility to serve in church and other Christian activities. These are all good and important ways of glorifying God. But they are not intrinsic to academic work itself – the work of study, research, experiment, and thought. So how, if at all, can one bring glory to God directly through academic work?
In academic work – as in many occupations – one way of glorifying God is through serving others and doing good in the world. God is honoured when we enact love towards others around us, originating from His love to us. It is clear that this can be an outcome of academic research in a number of disciplines, such as medical sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences, and law. But it is not obvious how research in all disciplines – including in my own, theoretical sciences – helps others. Theoretical science research is a long way from any practical application (and may even never lead to any). Undoubtedly, theoretical science research can be hugely valuable, and can produce significant outcomes, as has been shown throughout history. Nonetheless, Christian researchers in theoretical science may still question whether their work really does glorify God by the means of serving others, or at least whether working in a different field may do this more effectively.
Moreover, and to the point of this blog post, there can be more to glorifying God than serving people – and so there might be some way in which academic research itself honours God. Christian academics in the past have claimed it does. Francis Bacon, in his The Advancement of Learning (1605), famously wrote that one goal of academic research should be “the glory of the Creator” (a second goal being “the relief of man's estate” – that is, serving others, as discussed in the preceding paragraph). More broadly, throughout history, understanding the world around us has been viewed by Christians – and in ancient Jewish traditions – as a ‘religious duty’ or an aspect of ‘religious worship’ (as discussed in The Penultimate Curiosity (2016) by Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs). So a question at the back of my mind for some time was, “How exactly can academic research, in and of itself, bring glory to God?” (The same question could of course be asked of many occupations.)
Much of the answer, in my opinion, lies in the way we go about our work: our attitude, our approach, our heart. In scientific research (and I’m sure in many other occupations) important attitudes include: humility (acknowledging God is vastly superior to us in creating the world we study and in His understanding of how it works), thankfulness (to God, for the world He’s created, and for giving us the ability to study it), unselfishness (not seeking understanding for purely our own sake, and not trying to ‘hoard’ knowledge for ourselves), and working as if for God (Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men …”).
At the recent Developing a Christian Mind: Seeking Wisdom conference, some scientists addressed, informally, this very question of glorifying God through research. They added a new and helpful (to me, at least) vein to the answer above: they emphasised fun, play, creativity, joy, wonder, and being ‘fully alive’ and ‘fully oneself’. The academics said that (one way) we glorify God through academic research is when we work with a playful spirit, exploring what He has made and enjoying ourselves as we do it.
How might this approach glorify God? It shows a positive interest in and engagement with the world. By extension, if we believe the world to be God’s creation, it shows an interest in God’s work and God Himself. Such an approach also shows an appreciation of the beauty and magnificence of His creation. We sometimes overlook, or even suppress, beauty. But God made us with (more or less) care for aesthetics, rather than as dry, objective machines (which is not to say that dry objectivity is not valuable in many contexts!). So embodying joy as we notice beauty might please God. God also made us with (more or less) curiosity – a desire to explore beyond the horizon, and to understand reality. These are some of the very aims of academic research. So embracing our curiosity, which carries a sense of playfulness, may likewise honour God. When we do our academic research with an attitude of wonder, we acknowledge that our study points to something greater than ourselves, greater than the subjects we study, and greater even than the natural world as a whole. We are at play in God’s world. And finally, there is nothing wrong with having fun while working; it is a great blessing if we are able to. God may be pleased when we, His creatures, are able to enjoy this blessing.
God made us all individuals. Those with an appreciation of nature’s beauty, a strong curiosity about the world, or the skills and circumstances to pursue scientific research, were given these characteristics by God. Wholeheartedly doing something in which God has gifted us makes us, in a sense, ‘fully alive’, and honours Him. Of course, some people have these characteristics to a lesser extent, and thus for them glorifying God in the above ways may be less pronounced; this is not necessarily a problem.
Let me finish with two comments. First, Christian academics may be glad that their research can glorify God, if done in the right way. But this does not mean we should focus only on our work and neglect other Christian pursuits/involvements (like those mentioned towards the start). Similarly, it should not be an excuse for us to focus on our research but not on God Himself: God should be at forefront of our thoughts and work.
Second, it is worth noting that play, joy, curiosity, and even beauty are not often associated with modern academia, in particular science; indeed, they may even be at odds with modern academia. The environment of day-to-day academic research can feel cold, rational, and professional – like an industry. This is not to say that such an approach is not valuable, in its appropriate place. But maybe it could be balanced with a little playfulness. Perhaps the lack of playfulness in modern academia is precisely because modern academia no longer has Bacon’s motivation of glorifying God (although modern academia does still emphasise, to some extent, Bacon’s second motivation of relieving man’s estate). As expressed in The Penultimate Curiosity, “it is hard to deny that money, power, and the pursuit of national, corporate, and personal advantage have become much more visible drivers [than glorifying God] of scientific discovery.”
Article first posted on OP website 05/08/2016. Reposted 06/06/2023