Life, Faith and Philosophy: In Conversation with Kristi Mair

Many people at Solas know Kristi Mair’s voice from PepTalk podcasts, have heard her speak at a Confident Christianity conference –or read one of her articles on our website – but may not have any idea who she is! So we caught up with Kristi and talked to her about her life, faith, philosophy, and student ministry – amongst other things!

Solas: So Kristi, tell us – what do you get up to when you aren’t doing all these things for Solas?

Kristi: My life is incredibly varied! I work full-time as a Research Fellow in philosophy, ethics and apologetics at Oak Hill Theological College, in London. I teach, and provide pastoral support for the full-time female students in the college. I’m pursuing a PhD alongside that as well. Then in my own time I get to do university missions, team days for UCCF, evangelistic events for businesses, and help other organisations such as Solas; I have writing opportunities, for people like Crosslands apologetics, and Union School of Theology. So I have a whole host of things going on, writing, speaking, training, putting books together, authoring academic modules, lecturing, evangelism and studying.

Solas: How long will it take do complete your PhD?

Kristi: I’m 4 years into the programme, and was on track to submit my thesis in my 5th year, but with all the interruptions of Covid, I don’t think that is going to happen. I found studying under lockdown much harder than I’d expected, and so I anticipate another couple of years.

Solas: I assume that lockdown/Covid has affected not just your PhD work, but all those different areas you work in such as university missions, teaching, using research libraries etc?

Kristi: Well one of the joys of teaching at Oak Hill is that all the full-time residential students have stayed. So some things have continued, but on the other hand because of the regulations they’ve had to stay in their flats, so I haven’t seen that many people! With university missions, they’ve actually all gone ahead, but all moved online, and it has been a real joy to be involved in that. Other groups such as Passion for Evangelism, have done loads of events online too. We’ve done, “Jesus, Race & Gender”, and “What is the value of women?”. Oak Hill has done lots of online vents as well, that I’ve been involved in on things such as “Where is hope in a time of Covid?”, which I did with a lawyer and a medical doctor.

In some ways evangelistic opportunities have opened and broadened; and for my own friends there are more events that I can invite them to which they are happier to engage with – without having to leave their home. So Nigel Halliday’s event on ‘Christmas in Art’, using the history of art to tell the Christmas story is something I can invite friends to. With CU carol services, there have been some provisions in law for religious gatherings, so some of those are going ahead – in a limited form. So I am going to Durham Cathedral, where they will record the carol service talk, then broadcast it the next week. So even though we can’t be gathered together in the cathedral, I can go there and speak. I’ll record the Birmingham University CU carol service talk on my laptop at home and send it to them.

I feel the poverty of how the restrictions have impacted us in communities and as individuals too. On the other hand I’m thankful for the ways it has helped us to find new ways of reaching people.

Solas: Do you think that the higher numbers of non-Christian people engaging with gospel content online during this period has been offset by lower traction, accountability etc? People might have done a whole course in person, but then might dip in selectively to bits of an evangelistic course online..?

Kristi: Yes, without physical commitment, there’s little opportunity to establish good relationships in which, even if you disagree with what’s being said, you’ll go along because the person who invited you is great to hang out with.  And then there is the lack of the really important conversations afterwards.

Solas: So you are involved in all this Christian thinking, communicating, evangelism now. But where does that all start? Where did Christian faith begin for you?

Kristi: I can’t really pinpoint it. Some people have this amazing transformative event on a particular day, but for me it was slow – and it was a process. I moved to the UK when I was 6 or 7 with my Mum. She remarried, and he adopted me. She was a committed Christian and she would pray with me in the evening, but she worked so much and didn’t really know what it looked like to disciple a child in the ways of The Lord – because she was raised under communism. She came away from the Catholic Church and established an underground church in communist Eastern Europe – (it’s actually an amazing story!). This took place in the era of Ceaușescu and they were involved in Bible-smuggling, and all sorts of things! But to me, God was like an abstract idea, or an absent Father-figure or one who you might go to if you were naughty. But God was not someone who had any real impact on my life, day-today. Then, when I was ten, my adopted Dad went out one day to post a letter, and died of a heart attack. It was completely unexpected and I remember my Mum saying (in our living room, surrounded by the paramedics, a GP and a couple of neighbours), “don’t worry darling, Daddy is with Jesus now.” And for me that was decisive, because if Jesus is who he says he is, then he won’t only impact my life now – but will for all eternity too.

I knew that what my Mum said to me was a big thing, but that I didn’t quite understand it. Then I went through a really angry phase, thinking, “If God is good – then why suffering. If God actually exists, then why did that happen?” I’d also push back to my Mum, saying “you need God, because you can’t handle the reality of how awful this is, so you need a psychological crutch of a ‘daddy’ in the sky, so that you can sleep better at night.” I didn’t mince my words!

Solas: How old were you at this stage?

Kristi: I was very precious, eloquent and 10!

Solas: I thought you were going say 15, or 16!

Kristi: My anger boiled until I was about 15 or 16 though, getting more and more intense.

Solas: And have you calmed down now?

Kristi: Just about!! (laughs!) But I’d get really annoyed about the good-God / suffering dilemma. Because I’d go along to Alpha events at the local church, or talk to a Christian – and they either wouldn’t listen to my question – or just not answer it. Or they’d answer it and I’d think, “that just doesn’t make any sense, that isn’t logical.” It was actually worse when people fudged an answer rather than saying, “I don’t know, let me think about that.” So I concluded that these people didn’t even know much about what they believed, and it didn’t make belief attractive. My reaction to all that was to become increasingly angry, and it was my Mum who was the main influence on me at that time. We had long, long conversations at the kitchen table, and she was incredibly patient. In all the questions, she would always help me to see something new and true about Jesus. Sometimes I’d be moved to tears by what I learnt – but then the anger would come back my eyes would glaze over. It was as if I could see something, but then it was hidden. So I started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I just loved reading, I was an only child in a house with lots of books! I also really appreciated discovering William Lane Craig, as someone with two doctorates, at the top of his game philosophically – who was a Christian. I wouldn’t commend every aspect of his approach, but it was helpful for me at that stage to discover someone with faith, really grappling with these questions with some credibility.

So, all these influences were helping me in my thinking. Then I remember my Mum saying to me one day, “What are you going to do with Jesus?” An extract from my Mum’s diary from that time (which I have only just seen!) said, “Kristi was up all night reading Mark’s gospel”, and I don’t remember that at all! My Mum pointed out that indecision was in fact a decision – a negative one by default, but that you can’t sit on the fence indefinitely.

Then one day as I was walking I realised that Jesus was my Lord and Saviour – and that I needed to do something about that. So I got confirmed in the local Anglican Church. The confirmation classes with an older couple called Len and Meg were really significant too. They weren’t ‘famous Christians’ like CS Lewis who I could never meet, and they weren’t my Mum – and they were ‘catechised’ me into the faith. They influenced me, not just by what they taught, but with their deep love for and joy in Jesus and by sharing wonderful cakes! So I both understood the structure of my faith better – and saw something of Jesus in those two lives.

Solas: So now having lived as a Christian since then… what do you most love about being a Christian and what, I suppose, are the harder challenges?

Kristi: What a question! Well in Psalm 40, which I was reading with a friend here at Oak Hill this morning, it says that The Lord does not delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, but that The Lord wants to write His law on our hearts – a broken and contrite heart is what He wants. So I am most thankful to Jesus that He wants the whole of me, my heart – and while it is easier to focus on the externals, and give something, (just burn something in the temple), He goes beyond that and wants to capture my heart.

At the same time, that is also what is most challenging, because while He wants all my heart, I don’t want to give the fullness of myself to Him. And there are parts of my heart, or things I withhold from Him because, ‘What if He isn’t good after all?’ What if He crushes me? And that is the life of the disciple, learning to give the fullness of your heart to him, and as I walk with Him I see that He is not content to only have part of me.

Solas: So moving from the inner spiritual life, to your practical expression of that. Can you tell us about some of mission work you’ve been involved with? How you got involved, and how it’s changed..

Kristi: Well I worked for UCCF for eight years, and was assistant team leader in the East Midlands for the last five of those. Then before that I was a student worker for an Elim church in Birmingham, alongside working for Friends International – so that really got me into student mission – especially learning to how best care for international students and give them an opportunity to hear about Jesus, sometimes for the first time ever. Some came from countries where the Bible was banned, and they were really keen to read something that was not allowed at home. So I loved students, and then UCCF gave me enormous opportunities to work more with them – working very closely with University Christian Unions. I loved helping Christians to engage more fully in what Christ has done for them, and then to help those who do not yet know Jesus to see that he stands up to scrutiny. University life is a great opportunity to explore these questions – never again will you have those 2AM discussions in halls.

When I started work at Oak Hill, I still had really good relationships with the CU’s and by the Lord’s kindness, continued to be asked be involved in student ministry, leading events weeks, speaking on campuses, Q&A’s, lunch bars, carol services – all those things!

Solas: And how far do you travel doing this?

Kristi: I’ve been to Dundee! And as UCCF is part of IFES, with them I have been as far as Switzerland, and Germany – doing student conferences with people from across the continent.

Solas: And how has student ministry changed in the fifteen years you’ve been doing it?

Kristi: When I was first involved in student missions on campus, it was in the heyday of militant atheism – so the questions were very different and were really heavily influenced by the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. But then that soon that lost its intellectual credibility – when for example Dawkins would intellectually justify rape, as the logical outworking of his atheism.

Solas: Because categorical moral evil doesn’t exist, as it has no place in naturalism..?

Kristi: Yes, and so rape is as arbitrary as growing a sixth finger, he said in one interview. If we really are just DNA, then good and evil don’t actually exist. Then of course, Peter Singer and the whole ‘post-birth abortion’, argument as well. And so on campuses (where rape-culture is such an issue) people needed to distance themselves from those arguments. But what was left was a bit of as spiritual vacuum, and something of a hunger and thirst for transcendence; for beauty, truth and goodness.

So now I think we are in a period when students are really hungry for transcendence. But most of them have not heard a rational, cogent presentation of the gospel which meets their intellectual as well as existential desires. So the questions have moved from those of credibility, to those of desirability. Now, if you address the desirability question well – it will move to the credibility question. So it’s “I want this…. Is it true?” rather than, “you should want ithis because it’s true”. So, that’s the kind of shift we’re seeing at the moment.

In postmodernity there is the whole question of the “instrumentalisation of knowledge”, where people will only want to learn something if they can then use it in some defined way. From which you can get ‘therapeutic moral deism’, in which people want things such as the comfort that Jesus brings. The problem is that if you’ve come to him to use him in that way – once you’ve used him for that you can just as quickly discard him.

Solas: So then you’ve written a book and edited one too! Tell us more..

Kristi: Well, More > Truth came about because IVP approached me to write for them in their ‘More’ series. I had just done a talk on the campus at Durham on the whole ‘post-truth’ phenomenon, entitled, “Is truth possible in 2016?”, so it was just after Trump had been elected so people were asking, “has this really just happened?” and were questioning the whole area of fake-news. So, I jumped onto that cultural moment, because the whole question of truth, (what is truth, and how do we know what’s true) is of huge significance to Christians. So More > Truth is aimed at Christians and is designed to help them think through (at an accessible level), what it means that Jesus said he was “the way the truth and the life”. It’s a topic I’d love to explore again in a different way in the future sometime.

Then, Healthy Faith came about in quite a different way. It was early in the first lockdown, and Michael Green had just passed away, and I was chatting to my mate Luke Cawley. And the question was raised, about how Michael might have responded to lockdown and global pandemic. The answer was obvious, he’d want to encourage Christians and share Jesus! So we asked lots of people to write a short chapter on aspects of life under Covid. IVP loved the idea, and agreed to publish it. Our heart and desire was to give Christians biblical reflections to encourage them in a difficult time, and to focus on different areas of life (singleness, parenting, facing death, loneliness) – but with the hope that it would interest non-Christians too. It made it into the Top-10 on Amazon’s “Infectious Diseases” chart!

Solas: And then you’re doing PhD research, tell us more!

Kristi: So I am looking into the study of knowledge – ‘how do we know what we know?’ I’m looking into it because, even though I was a Christian when I got to university, I was heavily influenced by ways of knowing, that dehumanise us. I was hugely influenced by Descartes, who was saying that “I think therefore I am” – and so I saw a human being as pretty much a thinking machine, a thought generator, and that the way in which you determine what truth is, is personal and individual. And that led me to a bit of a knowledge crisis – because I thought, ‘how then can I trust other people, because I don’t know what they are thinking, I can’t see in the brain!?” And so while Descartes would say that the one thing I can trust is that I am thinking when I’m thinking which shows that I am thinking…. How can I trust that others are thinking; because I can’t know that they really are!

But there was a disconnect between Descartes and the real world, because his description was at odds with the way that knowing actually works. How do I know that someone actually loves me? How do I know that memories exist, or other minds? So I was dissatisfied with what I thought knowing was, and was intellectually curious. And that in turn affected how I read the Bible, asking questions such as “how can I know what the author’s intention was?”, and “what was the divine author’s intention here?” and “how can I know that I am reading scripture in the way that God wants me to?” Especially as I know that sin is in the way too, so how can I trust that the word is true?! So these questions, really colour the way in which as a Christian I view the Bible and God Himself.

So I prayed about this and asked The Lord to direct my reading and my footsteps to find good answers to these questions. Then I came across the work of Esther Meek, a philosopher in the States, who is writing on something called “Covenant Epistemology”, a phrase that she has coined. That is about how we as ‘know-ers” bring the fullness of our physicality and embodiment to the knowing process. While Descartes wanted to cut-off the body, and say that it is just the mind, Esther Meek says that there is a bodily-rootedness to all our knowing. Scientists might seek objectivity by not allowing their presence to affect the process of experiment and observation but Meek observes that the scientists bodily experience of life affects even which experiments to conduct and shapes the outcome to some extent.

Esther Meek was in turn drawing on the work of a former scientist turned philosopher called Michael Polanyi. His book on personal knowledge shifted our view of what knowledge is, and how we know anything. His work focusses on the way in which we know that we know something when we know that there is more to know! Modernity tries to put knowledge within a box, and say “I know that I know this, because I can give you a propositional statement”. Polanyi says it is not less than that, but, you can also know that you know it because you can now enjoy that, in previously unimagined ways. So when you learn to ride a bike, you can then enjoy riding it with all kinds of people to all kinds of places. And that applies to all of knowing. We indwell our physical body, and as we submit ourselves to clues, reality reveals itself to us.

And our knowledge of God works like this, as we submit to the clues of scripture, because while we cannot know exhaustively, we can know things truly; as God reveals himself to us. But that also applies to all knowing adventures, learning to write, baking a cake, or scientific experiments. You are submitting to the clues of that activity, and as you submit, reality breaks in and surprises you and you are then able to become a better knower because you are not in the driving seat of knowing. Rather, you ‘come to know’.

So in my PhD I am bringing all that together and applying it to the two big questions in philosophy, about the relationship between the knower and the known and how that relates to the big debates in philosophy between different schools such as ‘analytical philosophy’ and ‘continental philosophy’. The latter school has focused on the personal experience of the knower, while the former is based on what can be known, the object of enquiry, e.g. logic/propositional statements/syllogism, it’s objective and non-personal. So I’m trying to show how both fields are needed, they are poles on the same spectrum.

But this isn’t just important to that specialist field of philosophy, but also to the church and to evangelism, apologetics and discipleship.  I am aiming to draw on Polanyi, strengthen Esther Meek’s covenant epistemology, and show how that is a retrieval of historic Christianity through Augustine, and then apply it!

Solas: So then ministry-wise, once you have you the PhD completed in two years, what are your future plans for ministry?

Kristi: I will submit myself to reality and see what The Lord wants me to do. At the moment, I want to steward well what He has given me, which is this PhD programme, and then beyond that I don’t know. There aren’t many established routes for women in my position, and I don’t want to go into local church leadership or anything like that. I don’t know whether I’ll end up in academia, or in a more secular academic institution. It is also a privilege to do what I currently do at Oak Hill, and bring a woman’s perspective into the training of future church leaders. So who knows!

Solas: Thank you for talking to us – that’s really interesting. Great for Solas readers to be able to find out a little more about you.

Kristi: Thankyou!