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.

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.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Zombie Gospel- a review

The Zombie Gospel
The Walking Dead and What It Means to Be Human
 Danielle J Strickland
Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press
112 pages; pbk; £10.05
ISBN  978-0830843893

I have a confession to make: I am a fan of the Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. After a tentative start watching the first season, I gave up at the beginning of the second. But I came back to it, and from then on I was hooked. There are so many layers to it. It raises many philosophical, theological and sociological issues.  So, I was delighted to find this book that deals with The Walking Dead and the gospel. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

There is so much depth to The Walking Dead. It raises deep questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation? 
  • What is the right use of power?
  • What happens when power is abused? 
  • What is the role of revenge?
  • Is there a place for force and violence? 
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Are zombies human? Are we more than the physical form?
  • Can zombies exist?
  • What is the role of crime and punishment in a (seemingly) lawless society?
  • Can there be a lawless society and still be society?
  • What is family? Is it more than blood and kinship?
  • What is the role of religious belief?
  • Is there a role for the church?

Sadly, this book only scrapes the surface. Scenes from The Walking Dead are used only as a springboard to develop a moral or theological parallel, with some personal anecdotes added. Sadly, there is no attempt to get beyond the surface. That is not to say there are not some good points in the book (not least the cover design!), only that it is a missed opportunity to explore deeper the meanings in and behind the TV series. Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World is a better example of what is a Christian ‘take’ on The Walking Dead.

For someone who likes The Walking Dead and has an interest in finding out something about the Christian faith then this might be the book to get for them. However, there are so many spoilers in the book — so make sure they have seen at least the first five seasons before you give it to them, or they may not thank you!

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.