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Displaying all posts by James K.A. Smith.
The Election is Over: Long Live the King!
November 8, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
The Election is Over: Long Live the King!
The morning after an election can be a difficult time for Christians, no matter who is elected.  Inevitably, there will be some who are elated, others who are dejected, and if Facebook or Twitter are any sort of barometer, the relation between the two is not exactly a model of Christian unity. Locked in the echo chambers of our fragmented "tailored-for-me" society, we too easily tend to assume that brothers and sisters in Christ share our partisan loyalties, and thus become shocked--shocked!--when we hear a fellow Christian who seems to disagree with us.  It turns out that what seems a straightforward relationship between our Christian confession and our political leanings is not so straightforward after all.  And our inclination is to then call into question our sister or brother's Christian faith! There is, of course, another option on the table here, which is to perhaps reconsider the supposedly straightforward overlap between our Christian confession and particular partisan loyalities. It doesn't take too much imagination to realize this case of political division within the body of Christ is analogous to the "party lines" that often separate us when it comes to matters of faith & science, creation & evolution.  And addressing such divisions is exactly why The Colossian Forum was launched. While we don't often articulate this, in fact The Colossian Forum is called The Colossian Forum because we believe Paul's letter to the Christians in Colossae diagnoses a situation similar to our own.  The factions and divisions that beset the church in Colossae were a result of Christians allowing secondary matters to trump the primary conviction that all things hold together in Christ.  You might say their problem was disordered allegiance: they had let their allegiances to particular parties and factions--which emphasized certain "positions" on matters of secondary concern--to effectively trump their common and core allegiance to the risen Christ who was to "have first place in everything" (Col. 1:18).  Instead of "holding fast to the head," the Colossian Christians were clinging more tightly to partisan identities (Col. 2:8-23). Into this situation, Paul wrote his letter, admonishing the Christians in Colossae to find their center--their primary allegiance--in the One who is "before all things" and in Whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17).  That's the admonition--and invitation--that The Colossian Forum wants to bring to the contemporary church in North America.  And it's a timely word when our partisan loyalities--whether political, or positions on origins--threaten to trump our common confession in Christ. I had opportunity to be reminded of this on election night this past week.  On November 6, 2012, the day of the presidential election, I  was at St. Andrew's Church in Mount Pleasant, SC.  I had been invited to speak on the theme of the church and the sacraments at the Ridley Institute, their marvelous venture to equip the body of Christ through sustained theological reflection in the local church.  The invitation came a long time ago, and as we were a couple of months out it dawned on me: they had scheduled this for the night of the election!  I emailed Rob Sturdy, associate pastor and overseer of the Ridley Institute, to see if this had perhaps been an oversight.  "Did you realize," I asked, "that you've asked me to come to speak on the night of the election?"  "Yes," he replied, "it shouldn't be a problem."  OK, I said, a bit intrigued. On the evening of the election, as polls were closing and first returns would begin to stream in, I was amazed: here were 200 parishioners at church on election night, eager to learn about ecclesiology, baptism, and the Lord's Supper.  What kind of place is this?, I asked myself. Rob then stood up to introduce me, but first began with this announcement: "I know it's election night, and I have some very important news that you'll all be interested to hear: Jesus is still the risen King!"  Brilliant.  And true.  And just the kind of centering confession the body of Christ needs to hear in fractious times. My lecture, as I said, was on the sacraments.  Following St. Augustine, I emphasized that the sacraments are really the "civics" of the City of God; they are the school of charity for citizens of the heavenly City.  This is why The Colossian Forum is committed to the centrality of worship as that practice which trains us to keep the ultimate ultimate, and the penultimate secondary.  It is in worship that we are re-centered in our primary allegiance to Christ, which should trump all secondary, partisan loyalties.  In the disorienting animosity that can follow an election, it is good to be reminded that all things--even nations--hold together in him.
What a Young-Earth Creationist and an Evolutionary Creationist Would Like to Hear from Each Other
October 27, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
What a Young-Earth Creationist and an Evolutionary Creationist Would Like to Hear from Each Other
I'm often asked just what The Colossian Forum is all about. I'm thankful that now, in addition to pointing people to our mission, vision, and values, I can also point them to a concrete example of the sort of conversation we want to foster: serious, respectful, charitable interaction between young earth creationists and evolutionary creationists, embodied in recent articles by Todd Wood and Dennis Venema. But let me back up a bit. The Colossian Forum on Faith, Science, and Culture was launched to foster a "new kind of conversation." Unlike some other Christian organizations working at the intersection of faith and science, The Colossian Forum is not an advocacy group. We don't represent any particular "camp" when it comes to the creation/evolution debate, nor are we trying to convince everyone to hold a particular position on human origins or stem cell research or global climate change. It's not that we're agnostic about these matters, or that we think they're unimportant; it's just that we think Christian convictions on such matters need to nested, and sort of relativized, in light of more fundamental convictions about the Gospel. So what we do advocate is the central conviction that all things hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17). And we believe this makes a difference for how Christians have a conversation about matters that threaten to divide us. This is why The Colossian Forum is focused on the spade work needed to help the church be able to have such difficult conversations. Our task is not to provide information to settle a debate; instead, we want to foster formation in the requisite virtues of compassion, patience, humility, and charity so that the church can be a people who have such debates well--so that we can grapple with potentially divisive issues in a way that does not compromise the unity of the body of Christ, especially since our witness is tied to our unity (John 17:23). This is also why The Colossian Forum places such an emphasis on worship and prayer: we believe these are the Spirit-charged practices by which we learn to "put on Christ," and thereby put on love. That doesn't make our disagreements go away.  But it does place our disagreements in a new light. It's with all of this in mind that we extended two invitations. First, Todd Wood, a widely-known young earth creationist who teaches at Bryan College (you can learn more about Todd in a recent Christianity Today profile) shared "What I Would Like to Hear an Evolutionary Creationist Say." Notice the posture here: it's not, "What I Would Say to an Evolutionary Creationist," but rather an expression of what he would like to hear. Of course, he has heard all sorts of things from evolutionary creationists--and trust me, not all of them have been edifying. Todd is used to hearing that he is backward, anti-intellectual, ignorant, and more. And in other contexts, no doubt Todd has defended himself, sought to win the argument. But in his article for The Colossian Forum, we were inviting him to something different: to place himself in a posture of receptive listening, while at the same time expressing hope. Laying aside intellectual weapons sharpened for battle, Wood's gambit is surprising: "As a young age creationist, let me take this opportunity to follow my own advice and publicly express my ignorance." That's not a very promising opening if you're hoping to win an argument. But Wood is after something else here: you might say he hopes to win a brother. And so he continues: How can this confession of ignorance ever hope to resolve the deadlock over science and theology? If you’re looking for one side (yours) to prevail over the others, then confessing ignorance is a guarantee of defeat. In an intellectual battle, you’ve got to have answers, right? Admitting that we don’t have answers just makes us look weak. Opponents will never concede that we’re right if can’t answer their questions! Maybe that’s the point. Recall that the Apostles argued amongst themselves about which was the greatest. Undoubtedly, part of that argument must have entailed which Apostle had the most theologically correct understanding of Jesus’ teachings. What was Jesus’ response? He got up and began washing their feet, just like a slave would do. The time for words was past. In that final, living parable, Christ showed us what it is to be great.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. To be great, become the slave of all. When it comes to the origins fight, maybe the key is to follow Christ’s example. Maybe the only way we’ll ever resolve the war is through surrender.  Maybe in surrender, we’ll find out what real victory is. Maybe we’ll find that confessing ignorance is the first step towards finding God’s truth. Maybe we’ll discover that asking for wisdom is just what God wanted us to do all along. Most important of all, maybe we’ll find that we can humbly ask for wisdom together, and in doing so, the world really will see something different about us. This is the sign of a new kind of conversation. So our second invitation went to Dennis Venema, a geneticist and evolutionary creationist at Trinity Western University who has been a longtime contributor to Biologos. Dennis offered a similar reflection: "What I Would Like to Hear a Young-Earth Creationist Say." Now trust me, it's not like Dennis has never heard from young-earth creationists before. No doubt he regularly receives angry emails in his inbox from YECers who have been all too happy to tell him exactly what they think of his faith and about the very status of his salvation. But once again, Venema adopts a different posture: not one of defense, but rather a stance of supplication. As Venema frames it, what he really wants to hear is not just a litany of agreements on scientific data: the most important thing I would like to hear a YEC say to someone of my views isn’t a scientific statement at all – it’s a statement of unity in Christ. It’s the simple “brother” or “sister” that says – “we’re both part of the same family.” Even if we disagree on the mechanism of creation, affirming our unity in Christ needs to be the starting point for the conversation. The Colossian Forum exists to foster space for just such a conversation. Ideally, we believe this is best pursued in spaces of embodied communication, which is why we are committed to hosting forums that provide an opportunity to "practice" the virtues necessary for a new kind of conversation. But since Todd and Dennis have already demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief (and practice!), it might actually be possible to have charitable conversations via the web, we hope this venue might be a place for them to continue the conversation--to engage each other first-hand. And so we've opened the comments below, inviting both Todd and Dennis to respond. But we're also opening the conversation to YOU: so take a look at our Forum Etiquette, and with the goals above in mind, join this new kind of conversation.
David Dockery on the Riches of the Christian Intellectual Tradition
June 20, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
David Dockery on the Riches of the Christian Intellectual Tradition
We at The Colossian Forum are excited to see evangelicals rediscovering the riches of "the Great Tradition" of Christian faith--the orthodox legacy bequeathed to us in the rich theological resources of Nicea and Chalcedon, as well as the wise teaching of ancient and medieval doctors of the church.  One can see signs of this in the collection edited by Timothy George, Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Recovering the Apostolic Witness. George has now partnered with David Dockery, the president of Union University, to co-edit a new book series, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition, which will mine the riches of this tradition for thinking across the disciplines.  (We'll be particularly interested to see the forthcoming volume on the sciences.)  The first volume, The Great Tradition of Christian Thinking: A Student's Guide, is something of a manifesto for this project and this sensibility that finds wisdom in the past. You can read an interview with David Dockery that explains the rationale of the series and their vision for the project.
Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity
January 11, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity
When we speak about "faith and science," it is often too quickly assumed that we're only concerned about issues of "origins"--the knotty challenges at the intersection of the Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of evolutionary paradigms across the sciences. However, while those questions are important, they certainly don't represent the totality of issues and questions at the intersection of faith and science.  There are important conversations to be had about genetics, sustainability, the responsible use of technology, and much, much more. For an excellent taste of what that conversation might look like, I commend to you the thoughtful pieces that regularly appear in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.  In particular, I would highlight an outstanding symposium they've just published on "Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity."  You'll find there respectful disagreements, and perhaps matters to disagree with.  But you'll also find a very helpful history of virtue and an introduction to the basic principles of virtue ethics as they might impact science and technology. I would especially commend to you two of the contributions to the symposium: Patrick Deneen, with his usual masterful analysis and irenic prose, critically considers the intertwining of liberalism and science as an explanation for the absence of virtue in contemporary discussions.  As they summarize: Patrick J. Deneen argues that the birth of liberalism was brought about by two transformations in our understanding of science: the move away from the contemplative study of nature to the project to harness and manipulate it for desired ends, and the new belief that human behavior is itself subject to predictable material laws. Liberalism thus arose as an effort to systematically and scientifically improve society. Along the way, modern society has replaced the virtue of Aristotle’s self-governing social animals with the new virtue of the unimpeded will to mastery. Such a world has little respect for what human beings have been given by nature. As Deneen presents it, the modern view is that we are not really stuck with virtue; actually, we are not stuck with much of anything. Rather, all limitations — including even tradition and culture — are recast as forms of repression that we can eventually overcome. Robert Kraynak then points out the borrowed capital that many atheists work with, pointing our their inconsistency. Robert P. Kraynak argues that modern philosophy and modern science cannot explain why appeals to equality and dignity ought to be taken seriously. Thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker deny that human dignity has any natural foundation while simultaneously affirming well-respected common liberal pieties about the moral demands of justice and autonomy. They are, in the words of the late philosopher Richard Rorty, “free-loading atheists”: they embrace Christianity’s view of virtue even as they vehemently reject its account of who we are as human beings. The Christian Kraynak agrees with the atheist Nietzsche that it is intellectually dishonest and even tyrannical to assert the teachings of Christian morality while dogmatically rejecting the creedal formulations on which those very teachings are based. Kraynak concludes by defending the need to take seriously the Bible’s theological claims if we are to begin to understand who we really are. The whole symposium is worth your time.  And you might want to add The New Atlantis to your reading habits.
Heaven on Earth? A Postcard from an Important Conference
January 6, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
Heaven on Earth? A Postcard from an Important Conference
[callout title=Callout Title]As Regent students have summarized it, they feel a tension between "History vs. Mystery."[/callout]My friend Hans Boersma, J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, was one of the organizers of an important recent conference there: "Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation."  Fortunately, for those of us who couldn't be there, Daniel Treier of Wheaton College has provided an excellent report from the conference for Books & Culture.   As Treier notes, the consistent theme and question of the conference was "how to navigate apparent conflict between modern biblical scholarship and classic spiritual exegesis."  How can we read with Augustine after Harnack?  Treier well summarizes the tensions felt by contemporary students of Scripture: Courses in biblical studies and (usually) hermeneutics teach how to exegete the Bible using modern tools of critical scholarship, perhaps with a measure of discernment about the presuppositions involved in the history of those tools. Meanwhile courses in theology and (perhaps) pastoral ministry or spiritual life teach what classic churchly interpreters did with the Bible and suggest (to varying degrees) that we should go and do likewise. The challenge of discernment becomes much more difficult as a result: can the students embrace a modern approach centered on historical reconstruction of the human author's intentions, simply making minor presuppositional adjustments that uphold the Bible's historical value and theological authority? Or must students fundamentally embrace a more classic understanding of spiritual exegesis centered on pursuit of the divine Author's intentions, simply making ad hoc use of modern historical tools when these seem helpful to churchly aims? Or as Regent students have summarized it, they feel a tension between "History vs. Mystery." One would hope this is a false dichotomy--since we worship the Lord of time and history who is at the center of a mysterious Gospel: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).  But we can't just assert that as a way to evade the tension.  We need to live into the tension in order to see a way through it. Treier's entire report--and the literature he points to--is worthy of close attention.  I highlight it because I think it is precisely this tension that needs to be felt and then addressed by those engaged in the theology/science conversation.  Indeed, I'm convinced that we will not make progress on questions of Adam & Eve, a historical fall, and original sin until we have worked through more fundamental issues of hermeneutics and the theological interpretation of Scripture.  To date, neither scientists nor theologians at the center of the faith/science discussions seem either interested in or concerned with this conversation.  For the sake of the church, I hope that will change.
Study the History of Science with Oxford Professor Peter Harrison
December 5, 2011 | James K.A. Smith
Study the History of Science with Oxford Professor Peter Harrison
A common myth about modern science is what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls "a subtraction story."  According to this widespread myth, scientific enlightenment was a triumph over religious belief.  The relationship between the two is construed as dichotomous: either reason or faith; either science or theology.   In short: more science, less religion. This myth has been roundly criticized as a false dichotomy (consider, for example, Alvin Plantinga's most recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism).  More importantly, historians of science have pointed out that this false dichotomy is simply not true to how science emerged in the West.  Far from being a detriment to scientific exploration, a number of scholars have pointed out that it was precisely Christian theological concepts--and especially those that emerged during the Protestant Reformation--that propelled empirical investigation of nature.  So science wasn't a way to lose one's faith; it was Christian faith that compelled scientific exploration.  We shouldn't simply confuse the history of science with the rise of naturalism. However, the story is complicated and complex.  And no one helps us appreciate that more than Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.  A historian of science with training in philosophy and theology, Harrison has an uncanny ability to appreciate the theological nuances at stake in emergence of science in the seventeenth century--and how this was informed by theological shifts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Harrison is not content to generically speak of "religion;" he zooms in to consider the specifics of different Christian theological traditions and their impact on the emergence of what we now call "science." For example, in his masterful book, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Harrison deftly shows how it was a shift in biblical hermeneutics that gave rise to a very different way of "reading" nature that we now associate with the scientific method.  In The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2007), drawing on careful analysis of theological and scientific texts, Harrison argues that what motivated close empirical investigation of nature was a deep sense of how much how knowledge had been corrupted by the Fall. In both of these studies, Harrison goes beyond simple notions of a Creator to explore the specific theological doctrines that impacted the emergence of science in the West.  Indeed, his work has influenced us here at The Colossian Forum and we encourage folks to acquaint themselves with Harrison's work.  And in some ways, we see our emphasis on the specific riches of the Christian theological tradition for engaging science as an extension of his work. Which is why we're excited to share news of a unique opportunity: Teachers and scholars from Christian colleges and universities (along with select seminar professors and pastors) have a chance to spend three weeks studying with Peter Harrison next summer.  Harrison will be directing a seminar July 8-21, 2012 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.  The seminar, entitled "Religion, Modernity, and the Hermeneutics of Science," is an opportunity for professors who teach at the intersection of science & religion to "get up to speed" on the history of the early modern period, gaining a special appreciation for the hermeneutical issues involved.  Admittance is competitive, but scholars from across the continent are welcome to apply. There is no cost; and accommodations are provided, including accommodations for family members to join  you.  Check out the information for applicants and consider spending a few weeks in West Michigan next summer.  It's a fantastic opportunity to learn alongside one of the most important scholars in the field.

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