Our annual winter conference took place in the cold, rainy evenings of mid-July Cape Town. While the weather was frosty outside, the hall heaters, freshly baked eats, and warm conversations made for a welcome contrast. It was great to be back together after the long winter vacation, and the conference proved to be a stimulating warm-up for another UCT semester.
Our topic was human flourishing, which is a phrase one hears often at the moment, and it is a key area of research in universities across the world. Particularly in view of the absence of flourishing that many experienced under Covid, with world economies under strain, and with the globe itself suffering under environmental pressures, what it means to flourish (and how one gets there) is a crucial question. Our conference asked what contribution Christianity makes to our understanding of human flourishing, and we heard Christian perspectives on economic, environmental, and technological challenges to our flourishing.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of this our second annual conference was the increased participation of our wider campus community. We have made connections with several Christian faculty members at UCT and some generously agreed to participate as keynote speakers in the evenings. We also had postgraduate students acting as respondents to the main presentations, and other lecturers from the faculties of law and health joining as audience members. It greatly enriches our community to have such people offering their expertise and diverse experiences to us, and it is a first step for us towards becoming a help and a resource for UCT faculty and staff too.
One of the main goals we have for these conferences is to maximise student engagement with the Bible and with the topic at hand. Good presentations are the raw material of better thoughts and ideas, but change only takes place when people take on good thinking for themselves. Allowing ample time for exploration, discussion, questions, and so on is an important way in which we can promote growth.
In this regard, we had a session each day in which students engaged deeply with Scripture, and we were challenged to understand how key parts of the Christian calling, specifically suffering and other-person-centredness, are essential to human flourishing, paradoxical as that might seem. The session on Day 1 was particularly special, with Sjah Ndaba from Jubilee Church leading a study of Sarah in Genesis 16 in terms of Sarah’s overlapping identities as sinner, sufferer, and saint. It was an excellent session that inspired excellent student contributions too.
We also enjoyed workshop sessions on the topic of my flourishing and our flourishing from Mbalenhle Pungula and Eden Grant, who used their training in theology, psychology, and corporate strategy to help us consider more deeply our personal and communal wellbeing.
From our keynote speeches, Day 1 was a highlight especially because of the provocative nature of its presentation. Economist Dr Phillip de Jager explained an optimistic model of economics called “Superabundance” that understands the world as a place that is generative, and not merely a static body of ever-depleting resources. He made some working suggestions for how it might better represent a biblical view of God’s creation than the usual pessimistic models, and invited further thinking on this topic. It was thought-provoking and raised excellent questions from our student respondents and the audience.
The third evening featured a presentation from Stellenbosch University mathematics lecturer and Krux organiser Dr Lieschen Venter. She spoke on the topic of transhumanism, which is the use of technology to overcome human ailments or even to augment or improve our human faculties, and she offered some useful principles to help us think through the ethics of technological self-improvements from a Christian perspective.
As with last year’s conference, we had enough applications to fill our hall, but several no-shows. As disappointing as this is, it was again more than compensated for by the high level of our students’ involvement.
Here are some of my favourite comments from the student feedback. Some were most struck by the Bible discussions that focused on the ideas of redemptive suffering and the flourishing of the body:
“[I learned that] flourishing and suffering are not mutually exclusive.”
“[I learned that] flourishing as a Christian is not limited to self but the overall success of the body of Christ.”
As an interdenominational society, we celebrate the diversity of perspectives that exist in our community, which is something that one student found the most beneficial. They highlighted:
“the importance of dialogue with people who aren’t in your daily orbit.”
And finally, so much good was captured by one’s student’s two-word-long answer to what was the main thing they learned:
We are so grateful to everyone who contributed to the success of our conference, and many thanks to everyone for the hours behind the scenes that it took to make this event possible. We’re already looking forward to next year’s conference.
Please enjoy some more pics.