An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Interview with Robert Sweetman (part 1)

This is the first part of an interview with Robert Sweetman. Robert's latest book Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship (ISBN 9781498296816) is well worth checking out. Full details are available here. In this interview he discusses some aspects of his work and the book.

Thanks for doing this interview Bob. Could you start by telling us something about yourself and what you do?
I teach the historiography and history of philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. I have been at it since 1991-1992. I was not trained as a philosopher in the disciplinary sense. Rather, I was trained as an interdisciplinary medievalist at the Centre for Medieval Studies of the University of Toronto (PhD 1989) and the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies (Toronto—Licentiate 1984). I was interested in the mutual impact of schooled categorizations of the world on ordinary lived experience and of ordinary lived experience on the development of schooled categorizations of the world. I used university educated mendicant preachers as my “meeting point” and that meant attending to the philosophical dimensions of their theological work on the one hand, and their “accommodations” to the expectations of their hearers (and penitents in the confessional), on the other. So lots of Aristotle commentaries and Lombard commentaries but also guides to confessors, sermon collections, story collections, saint's lives and so on. I wandered in and out of philosophy, theology, and the history of religious mentalité, until I could not longer say with any certainty what side of what disciplinary boundary I was on. Of course, I did all this as a person already exposed to the Reformational tradition via undergraduate courses with H. Evan Runner at Calvin College where I did my undergraduate study and with Albert Wolters, Thomas McIntire, and Sander Griffioen at the Institute for Christian Studies. Reformational problematics around medieval Christian thought and the plurality of ancient wisdoms it appropriated were constant subtexts in my thinking. They were problematics to use to open up the spiritual depth dynamics of medieval texts but also to criticize in light of the unwillingness of those texts to conform to Reformational expectations. I have done my share of appropriation and criticism in the course of my 26 years as Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Who or what are your main influences?
I have invested heavily in understanding quite a number of medieval and ancient thinkers. It seems impossible not to have had them work their way into my thinking and speaking. The influence of Aquinas, Augustine, Bonaventure, Eckhart and a variety of mystical figures both men and women could probably be documented chapter and verse. I think I have learned a lot from Julian of Norwich's Showings to give one example. Augustine who anchors the genealogy of all traditions within Western Christianity has also bequeathed many striking turns of phrase. The extension of kenosis by analogy into social and political theology by Aquinas, Bonaventure and other mendicants has come to stay with me as has the struggle to live and speak in the presence of Mystery I have witnessed in Eckhart's sermonic paradoxes, or in the lush eroticism of Bernard of Clairvaux's Discourses on the Song of Songs. But when it comes to Reformational thought I have been most influenced by Vollenhoven as a reader of the history of philosophy. And I have been a happy colleague of first generation ICS Senior Members. I have learned immeasurably from Hendrik Hart, James Olthuis, Calvin Seerveld, George Vandervelde and my two predecessors in the History of Philosophy Albert Wolters and William Rowe. They taught me I think how to take all the historical erudition I had acquired from my first-rate graduate training and use it in service of the Reformational project of Christian philosophy.

Your new book Tracing the Lines has just been published. What are the main aims of the book? What prompted you to write it?
Around the beginning of the new millennium, ICS's Senior Member body began a project of thinking about their attachment to the Reformational tradition and its founding texts and concepts so as to reflect again on what it meant to work within a notion of philosophy as a traditioned practice of thought. In that context some remarks were made about George Marsden's then newly appeared volume The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. I wondered about those remarks; had they been fair? So I bought the book and wrote a 6 page review and presented it to my colleagues. We had a good discussion, I went back and rewrote it and ended up sending to George with an invitation to respond to it and have the exchange published in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. Then an association of Reformed colleges in North America now called the Association of Reformed Colleges and Universities put together a lectureship to help stimulate discussion on member campuses about the character of Christian scholarship. I used my Marsden discussion (much improved by his criticisms) in response to make a proposal to serve as one of these lecturers. The 6-page book review had by then become three lectures covering about 40 pages of text. John Kok of Dordt College encouraged me to put them into a publishable form. So I began to work at that in 2005-06. I also began to broaden the intended audience from a largely Reformed audience to one that included other kinds of evangelical Protestants and included Catholic thinkers as well, an audience that included students of the STEM disciplines as well as those at work in the Humanities, and one that invited into the conversation scholars working in public and other secular university contexts as well as those like me at work in faith-based institutions. I finally finished the book in 2014 and it appeared two years later in the late summer of 2016 thanks to the support of colleagues Ron Kuipers and Allyson Carr and the good people at Wipf and Stock.

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