Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Scholarship as a Way of Life

[On April 14 I was asked to give a brief opening address to the West Michigan Honors Conference hosted by our own Honors Program here at Calvin College.  The conference was an opportunity for students from several colleges and universities to share the fruits of undergraduate research. These are my notes for the talk which might be of interest to others. (The talk was more conversational, so these points were more developed in the oral version.) I hope this might also address the misguided but persistent impression that somehow my recent work is "anti-intellectual."]

It's a Saturday morning, late in the semester, and you're here for a scholarly conference?  I love you guys!   Welcome to the club of freaks and geeks who pursue scholarship as a way of life.  

I hope that's a club you want to join (granted, there are Woody Allenish worries in the ballpark here).  I hope you're here contributing to the conversation because curiosity gives you an adrenalin rush, because generating new knowledge makes your heart sing.  Because the life of scholarship is not something that should be instrumentalized for other ends; nor should it be reduced to a particular profession; scholarship is a way of life--one I hope you'll pursue in your years ahead even if you never go to grad school or entertain becoming a professor or professional "scholar." 

The scholarly life is its own reward: it is a good life--it is the sort of reflective pursuit that has been valorized by the ancients.  It is also the sort of life that is increasingly difficult to sustain in a sound-bite culture of perpetual distraction.  In the age of the Kardashians and iPhone Twitter feeds, finding joy in the slow-food of scholarly reflection is a counter-cultural pursuit.  

Let me highlight three joys of scholarship as a way of life.

The Joy of Finding: Seeing New Corners of the World

The scholarly life is its own reward: joys of being a perpetual student (cp. my own continued experience of the joy of discovery, e.g., in returning to Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will this past semester; I love teaching what I don't know!).  

Don't let initiation into the guild beat that out of you.  Build habits that will continue to propel you into new arenas in your future.

The Joy of Making: Unpacking the Potential of the World

We might be wrongly tempted to think of scholarship as a very passive way of life: observing, analyzing, describing, criticizing.  But in fact scholarship is a fundamentally creative way of life: it certainly requires us to be attentive and attuned to the world--to texts that are in front of us, to slides under the microscope, to data generated by experiments, etc.  Scholarship makes us accountable to a world.  But if we are really doing scholarship, then we are not just passive consumers of information, nor are we merely passive observers.  By posing questions and confirming hypotheses and arguing with the literature and making an argument, we are making.  We are unfurling more of the potential that is latent in the world, unpacking new possibilities.  Scholarship is a mode of poiesis, of making, creating.  It is a generative way of life.  Good scholarship is not unlike good craftsmanship: there is a special joy in the product of our labor.  

And let's remember: you don't have to be in a lab or a studio or a library to be doing this.  The best entrepreneurs are some of our best scholars.  A scholarly way of life contributes to culture and the common good.

The Joy of Collaborating

You might be tempted to picture scholars holed up in their offices or studios or laboratories, sequestered from the world, hunched over as they work in isolation. But the scholarly way of life is richest and most innovative when it is pursued collaboratively, through "wisdom networks" and in life-giving teams.  Ideas percolate communally.

-Jon Gertner's new book about Bell Labs, The Idea Factory, who shows us that "most sustained feats of innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenuous inventor.  They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferable in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters" (Isaacson).  This has found expression in recent architecture for research facilities (Per Paul Goldberger's analysis in "Laboratory Conditions," New Yorker, Sept. 19, 2011, pp. 88-89).

This week I've had two wonderful interactions: with Jim Olthuis, my advisor through my master's degree and long-time mentor; and with Nathan Sytsma, a former student who worked as my MacGregor Fellow.  As a scholar, there is a unique joy in being both a "son" and a "father." 

A scholarly way of life is fundamentally collaborative--fostered in a community of friendship.  So remember your mentors and pay your debts: build into the lives of others; contribute to a team; mentor someone, explore and think and create alongside others.


To say that scholarship is a way of life is to emphasize that it is characterized by certain habits--of reflection, exploration, creativity, and collaboration.  These are habits that you have already learned and valued (you're here on a Saturday morning, for goodness sake!).  As move beyond your undergraduate education, resist the siren calls that would lure you away from this way of life.

For some reason, this brings to mind one of my favorite passages from Plato--a passage that called me to the way of life of a scholar:

"This much I ask of them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them thte same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody.  Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything.  If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also." -Socrates in Apology, 41e-42a

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Letter to a Son Who's Graduating

Our church's youth group has a wonderful tradition: as part of a retreat for high school seniors, parents are invited to write a letter to their children that they receive at the retreat (and the kids are invited to write letters to their parents).  It's a wonderful rite of passage that encourages reflection and gratitude and honesty.  The result, as you might imagine, is a lot of tear-stained letters.

Deanna and I just finished our letters to our second-oldest, Coleson.  Deanna's was absolutely gorgeous and moving--I'm still wiping the tears off my desk.

In some ways, writing mine felt like a bit of an appendix to my "Letter to a Young Parent."  I reproduce just a snippet here, only because it's a way to share this wonderful quote and metaphor from Christopher Buckley's memoir of his parents, Losing Mom and Pup.
"We haven't always gotten it right as parents (as I'm sure you'll agree).  But we've always tried our best, and our only goal has been your flourishing. So we've tried to channel you toward a good life--a life well-lived. In Christopher Buckley's memoir of his parents, Losing Mum and Pup, he talks about his father teaching him to sail. "He taught me on that trip how to navigate by the sun and the stars with a sextant. As I look back, it seems to me one of the most fundamental skills a father can teach a son: finding out where you are, using the tools of your ancestors."  Well, I didn't teach you anything as concrete (or bourgeois!) as sailing, but I hope you some day see that we have been trying to help you get your bearings with the faith of our ancestors--Abraham and Isaiah and Paul and Augustine, and above all Jesus, who is both our brother and our North Star. May you always be able to navigate where you are, and who you are, and whose you are."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Generational Blackmail?

It seems like every other day I'm told another reason why young people are leaving the church: because Christians fight too much, or because Christians are too political or anti-gay or don't care about social justice.  Millennials, we're told, are leaving the church because the church won't bless their cohabitation or provide them with contraception for pre-marital sex. They're leaving because they don't care about fights over creation/evolution or abortion or worship style or what have you.  In sum, it seems we're regularly informed that if the church doesn't change, young people are going to leave.

And what exactly are we supposed to do with these claims?  I think the upshot is pretty clear.  Indeed, am I the only one who feels like they're a sort of bargaining chip--a kind of emotional blackmail meant to get the church to relax its commitments in order to make the church more acceptable?

Could we entertain the possibility that millennials might be wrong?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

An Engagement with "Two Kingdoms" Thought

In my little corner of Reformed Christianity, there has been a notable uptick in folks who are sympathetic to "two kingdoms" (2K) theologies of culture--a model more traditionally associated with the Lutheran tradition.  There are aspects of 2K thought I appreciate, notably its robust emphasis on the church as a sacramental community as well, its critique of the idolatry of nationalism, and its goal to resist Christian accommodation to partisan politics.  There are other aspects, however, that I'm less enthused about.

I think this is an important conversation and one to which I hope to contribute over the next several years, culminating in volume 3 of my Cultural Liturgies trilogy, which will focus on political theology.  In the meantime, here's a first foray just published: "Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?," Calvin Theological Journal 47 (2012): 122-137, reprinted with permission.

"Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?," Calvin Theological Journal 47 (...

Monday, May 07, 2012

Confessions, Generations, and the Future of the CRC

Bob De Moor's editorial in the most recent issue of The Banner (the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church) is both symptomatic and wrongheaded.  But given what's at stake in this summer's Synod, perhaps a word or two is in order.

The backstory, for those not previously enthralled by synodical proceedings: our denomination historically requires officers of the church (pastors, elders, and faculty of Calvin College) to sign the Form of Subscription as an expression of commitment to our Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt--three historic confessions of the Reformed faith.  Last summer, a committee proposed replacing the Form of Subscription with a much-watered-down "Covenant for Officebearers" which effectively said something like, 'I agree that these confessions were things people used to believe.' (I'm loosely paraphrasing.)  Fortunately, the committee's proposal was defeated at Synod and sent back to committee.

A revised version will come before Synod this summer.  I think it's still a tepid document, but not as bad as what was floated in 2011.  But De Moor has suggested that this tepid version is still too much.  Instead, he says,
We need to make the Contemporary Testimony what we sign on to instead of the historic confessions.
Of course, this is accompanied by the obligatory nod toward the confessions as "historical" documents that should be "honored"--but not, of course, believed.  As you'll see his the editorial, "we" are clearly smarter and too advanced in our knowledge to ever be able to believe these historic confessions.  Anyone who has read Bultmann will be familiar with this kind of move: 'These are really quite remarkable documents, but seriously: who could believe them in an age of electric light?'

I'm going to try to curtail my disdain for this sort of posturing.  Instead, let me say just three things:

(1) De Moor is once again executing plays from the liberal Protestant playbook.  Anyone who is at all familiar with the slide of mainline denominations will recognize this rhetoric and posture.  (I'd love to recruit a student to undertake content analysis of De Moor editorials and then compare them with similar documents from denominational magazines published by the PC(USA), ELCA, and United Methodists in the 60s and 70s.)  Indeed, I would encourage folks from the denomination--and especially synodical delegates--to prepare for Synod by reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, especially the chapter on "Accommodation" and then pp. 140-141 on the creeping anti-institutionalism that eviscerates thick confessional identity.

(2) While De Moor is pointing out the supposed historical limitations of Reformed confessions forged in the 16th and 17th centuries, in fact nothing in his argument can prevent the same stance and posture toward ancient catholic confessions like Nicea and Chalcedon.  Should we also just tip our hat to those creeds, Bob, but then pledge our allegiance to an activist document written by North Americans in the 80s?

(3) I have a little hypothesis to float here, and I know it will be somewhat off-putting.  But here goes: I think this is very much a generational issue.  More specifically, I think this is a baby boomer problem.  And for the past 20 years, the leadership of our denomination has been in the hands of baby boomers who absorbed an anti-institutionalism that was in the water in the late 60s and early 70s, which they then channeled toward the faith of their forebears--particularly their immigrant forebears.  This gave us the disastrous attempts by the denomination to turn us into bland "community church" evangelicalism.  It also produced the sort of covert Protestant liberalism that De Moor and others regularly tout.

Hey, baby boomers, I want to let you in on a little secret: you don't own the denomination, though I know you've acted like you do for the past 20 years.  And I know you think that the next generation is looking to eviscerate our confessional Reformed particularity just as you've been trying to do.  But it's a lot more complicated than that.  In fact, I think you should start to realize that those opposing you are not just "old codgers" who aren't as enlightened as you, but also younger folks who have seen where this goes and are actually looking for a more ancient faith.  Some of us Gen Xers and rising millennials are not interested in your "updated" faith: we're looking for the thick, rich particularity of historic Reformed faith, understood as an expression of catholic Christianity.

(If you want just a little confirmation of this, let me ask: have you ever heard of this guy Tim Keller?  Who ministers in Manhattan? [And that's Manhattan, NY, not Manhattan, MT.] Whose network of unapologetically Reformed churches have been growing in one of the most secularized regions of the country?)

I don't want to turn this into a generation-war.  But I do want our baby boomer leaders to know that we're here, that we're invested, and that we're not going away.  So get used to it.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Situating "The Fall of Interpretation" in a Corpus

The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic was my first book, originally published in 2000.  I don't know that one would have projected from that book that I would one day write a book like Desiring the Kingdom.  This clip explores how The Fall of Interpretation--including the new second edition--fits in the trajectory of my work, particularly Desiring the Kingdom, and even the forthcoming Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Theological Interpretation of Scripture and "The Fall of Interpretation"

One of the new intersections I try to make in the 2nd edition of The Fall of Interpretation is to frame my argument--in two new chapters--in relation to the renaissance of "the theological interpretation of Scripture" we've seen over the past decade.  (This theme has also arisen in recent discussions of my review of Pete Enns' Evolution of Adam).  This brief clip introduces why I think there's overlapping concerns between the philosophical hermeneutic I'm articulating and the hermeneutical concerns behind TIS.