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"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.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Interview with Robert Sweetman (part 2)

This is the second part of an interview with Robert Sweetman. part 1 is here. His recent book, published by Wipf and Stock, is Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship  (details available here) ISBN9781498296816.

In Tracing the Lines, you identify three main approaches to Christian scholarship: complementarist, integrationist and holistic approaches. Could you briefly describe the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches?
In the book I identify two distinct sets of questions around Christian scholarship in discussions that seek to give an account of it. The first question addresses itself to the integrity of Christian scholarship. The answers given to it try to account for that integrity, i.e. the integrity of Christian faith and the scholarship produced by persons of Christian faith. I identify three generic accounts and illustrate them using prominent representatives of each account. So complementarist accounts of Christian integrality use a teleological understanding of the order at play between the various disciplines of the academy and the forms of understanding they afford the scholar. Theology and its faith-driven understanding stands in a position of finality with respect to all other disciplines and their “natural” horizon of understanding. Hence theology acts as the hidden director of all the other disciplines, their hidden ground of unity as ends or final causes are first in the order of causation, always already presupposed and formative in the elaboration of the other academic forms of understanding inasmuch as the other forms exist as it were in virtue of theological or faith-driven understanding. The strength of the tradition is its trust in the sturdiness of the creation. Not even sin and unbelief can deflect the human capacity to explore, understand and delight in God's good creation for God made his world capable of withstanding the most terrible wounding that God foresaw from before the very beginning. There is something wonderful and admirable in such trust. However, in our present environment when the position of theology is no longer acknowledged and the other disciplines have increasingly reconstructed themselves as naturalizing in ethos and horizon, the academy has come to divide into two in such a way that faith-driven and directed scholarship is restricted to the suspect margins wherein theology increasingly finds itself.

Integrationist accounts of Christian integrity allow that faith can operate in any and all disciplines, not just in theology. Faith can operate in any discipline but it needn't. The Christian scholar will want to bring her faith into her scholarship because she understands herself to be a unity. Moreover she knows that faith can add value to her scholarship when it operates properly. The advantage of this position is that it acknowledges the fragmentation of the old medieval and renaissance academy in the context of the emergence of ever more naturalizing assumptions about academic methods and claims in ever more disciplines. It has an eye for the presence of spiritual struggle within the contemporary academy and its dramatic complexification since the end of the nineteenth century. One cannot expect theologians to have the expertise to direct the course of Christian scholarly work across the disciplines. Christians must trust Christians in the disciplines to figure out what it means to bring their faith into the disciplines in an authentic scholarly way, i.e. properly. The criterion by which one confirms that faith is operating properly is that the scholarship produced receives general scholarly approbation while also being of a piece with their life of faith.  The weakness is the limit unconsciously placed on the possibility of spiritual struggle in the disciplines by the appeal to general approbation as a guide to scholarly authenticity.  In a generally secularized academic culture, general approbation will tend to be secularizing

Holist accounts deepen the sensitivity to spiritual struggle of the integrationist tradition but denying that religious identity and the faith it gives expression to can ever be held distinct from scholarly work. The question is never whether a given scholarly formation or result is suffused with religious dynamics but rather which? Christian scholarship is then scholarship suffused by the religious dynamics of Christ following. Its strength is its radicality. Since it does not recognize such a thing as secular scholarship that is religiously neutral it becomes deeply sensitive to the presence of spiritual struggle in places that integrationist and complementarist theorists do not. This is a gift to the community of Christian scholars as a whole.  Its weakness has to do with a tendency to become isolated from other types of scholars.  It tends to develop a heavily accented scholarly discourse that makes it hard for others to hear and understand its contribution to scholarly discussion and that makes it hard for holists to hear the insight into God's world that others contribute because that insight is articulated in vocabulary that triggers religious suspicions.

You mention Dooyeweerd as one who exemplifies a holistic approach. Why do you think his philosophy is not as widely known as it should be?
Partly I think it was a matter of style. He came into his own in a university context in which one's work was properly, deeply critical. One's appreciation of a thinker was manifest in the fact that one took that thinker up for discussion at all, but the texture and tenor of one's discussion was overwhelmingly negative and critical. If one thinks of the Prolegomena to the New Critique of Theoretical Thought Dooyeweerd's debt to Kant is crucial. Transcendental questions mark the proper starting point of philosophy as a theoretical practice. But one knows this only by Dooyeweerd's constant return to Kant and his way of accounting for theoretical thought. The discursive tone is overwhelmingly negative. That way of operating while widespread in the 1930s does him no favours in more irenic ages.

In the second place, the way in which the antithesis operated in his discourse made him equally critical of fellow Christians who did not see what he saw. On his own terms, he was quite ecumenical. His interactions with transcendental Thomists, for example, inspired him to speak of Christian philosophy in contradistinction to the older moniker: Calvinistic philosophy. But that does not come through so easily as I have experienced over and over when teaching an introduction to Reformational philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies. My students have often been put off and I have to do a lot of damage control in order to create space for him to be read with the empathy necessary to see what he was driving at.

And lastly, my guess is that holistic stances just because they are radical seem improbable to many. We are mostly closet “Aristotelians” more comfortable locating ourselves somewhere between positions we identify as extreme. Radicality can so easily be interpreted as extreme. I think in this context of Aquinas's discussion of what he called natural and supernatural virtue. When discussing courage or temperance or prudence for example he was all about finding the golden mean between excess and lack. But, when discussing theological virtues and especially charity or agape which he called the form of the virtues he admitted it wasn't a mean at all but indeed very like an extreme (although he also tried hard to identify a sense in which it could also be thought of as a mean). It seems to me that here too we see a Christian thinker bumping up in his way against the reality that what penetrates to the root, what is radical, is not well understood as a mean between extremes, but neither is it well understood as an extreme. Perhaps we could say that what is radical just doesn't fit on that particular map at all. And that radicality calls out to us. It calls for energy and imagination; for there are no cheats from the old discussion you can trust, and that demand, never-ending and insistent puts people off too. How exhausting; what a break on forward movement.

Do you have any advice for Christians starting out to explore what Christian scholarship might look like?
Yes, I put it in my book. Identify what in Christian faith and being it is that moves you at the deepest level and make that your anchor. It will not exhaust Christian identity by any means but you don't have to be able to contribute to or stand in judgment of Christian scholarship as a whole. You make your contribution in terms of what you see and are moved by and you count on others to do the same. It is together in mutual learning and correction that the whole community of scholars sings its theoretical praises to our shared Lord. Be prepared to give an account of what lives in your heart as it operates in your scholarship as indeed in life as a whole. Be prepared to take correction for since none of us have the all of Christian faith we can expect that others will see things we can't. Mutual witness in our scholarship and mutual correction—that is how we together build something greater than the sum of its parts.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I am trying to finish off a monograph on Thomas Aquinas on science and religion when he speaks about them as virtues moving us toward flourishing living. It is an attempt to use a monument of the Western Christian tradition to try and contribute to changing the modern discussion around science and religion. I've also an article on reading ancient and medieval philosophy after Vollenhoven that I need to get off to a journal.

What do you like to do for fun?
I like to read novels, cook South Asian and East Asian dishes, yak with friends over a decent bottle of wine, praise obnoxiously the doings of my first grandchild born this past July. Oh, and dodge all the impatient drivers on Toronto streets as I pedal my way to and from work. Never a dull moment there although I am so slow that it probably looks dull from the outside so to speak.

If you were stranded on a desert island what two luxury items would you take with you?

A Kindle reader with a really big capacity (with a whole library downloaded) and a big BBQ (a mini-crematorium really) with a sufficient supply of propane.

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