The Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, when asked for what purpose he had been born, is said to have replied, "To behold." In another version of the same story, recounted by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Anaxagoras answers, "To study sun and moon and heavens." Either answer would have served nicely as a motto for the conference held at Calvin College last week, September 27-29, on the theme "Christian Scholarship … for What?"

The conference—sponsored by several institutions, including Books & Culture—brought together scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines, representing an equally wide range of Christian traditions, largely but not exclusively Protestant. (James Turner, the director of Notre Dame's Erasmus Institute; Greg Wolfe, the editor of Image magazine, now based at Seattle Pacific University; and Christopher Shannon, whose brilliant new book A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity is must reading, were among those who offered Catholic perspectives.) Despite this diversity, several of the plenary speakers (and a number of presenters at the 45 concurrent sessions) arrived independently at the same fundamental answer to the overarching question posed by the conference, affirming the value of "beholding" God's creation in all its intricacy.

In the opening plenary address, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, was called upon to assess the state of Christian scholarship: "Where We've Been and Where We're Going." Mouw recalled his undergraduate years at Calvin College, when he discovered that he was actually enjoying his studies for their own sake. The discovery was both exhilarating and disturbing. The son of a pastor, Mouw was reared in an evangelical culture that valued higher learning only insofar as it prepared one to do the "real" work of God's kingdom. "You don't need exegesis," he remembered one sermonizer saying; "you only need Jesus." Another preacher scornfully dismissed "foolosophy." Yet at Calvin, Mouw found men and women who believed that scholarship was a legitimate Christian calling. He was converted to the life of the mind.

Like Anaxagoras, Mouw said, we have been created to behold: we should "love reality in its depths." That conviction, he noted, is now widely if far from universally accepted in the evangelical world, and Christian scholarship has flourished accordingly, to an extent that would have seemed inconceivable in his undergraduate days.

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Mouw's opening words provided the keynote for all that followed. The next day, Marilynne Robinson (novelist, essayist, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa) gave the conference's most provocative address: a sardonic critique of the fragmentation of Scripture under the sign of biblical studies, and a passionate call to read the Bible whole, on its own terms, with attentiveness to narrative and literary art. As guides, Robinson suggested, we have Calvin and the Reformers generally, who combined a deep appreciation for scholarship with a profound humility as readers of Scripture. And such, she added, is the model for all Christian scholarship, which must be good work, well done, and which can pursue truth with serene confidence wherever it leads.

That same night, from a very different field of study, the same conviction was affirmed yet again by John Polkinghorne, a world-class particle physicist who undertook theological study, was ordained in the Anglican communion, and has since been one of the foremost participants in the dialogue between science and religion and an adviser on science policy to the British government. There is no conflict, Polkinghorne said, between science properly understood and Christian faith. Indeed, to make sense of the world that science describes with ruthless abstraction, the "meta-truths" of faith are indispensable.

It would be difficult if not impossible, these days, to find a conference under secular academic auspices where the value of scholarship as scholarship was so strongly affirmed. Even at this Calvin gathering that view didn't enjoy unanimous support. One plenary speaker, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, professor of religious education at Claremont School of Theology, seemed to be proposing a stark choice between scholarship that is carried on in rarefied circles for the benefit of an elite and scholarship that directly serves "the people." An ordained Pentecostal pastor as well as an academic, Conde-Frazier drew on her own experience as an American of Puerto Rican descent. Although her tools of analysis, taken from the work of Cornel West and others in that vein, would baffle or alienate many evangelical congregations, one suspects that if her message were translated into their language, many laypeople would find it congenial. A strong vein of anti-intellectualism persists in the evangelical world.

But for most of the speakers, no such stark dichotomy exists. If scholarship is hermetically sealed off from the suffering and delight and aspiration of most of humanity, it will be barren at best, if not actively complicit in evil. But just as dangerous is the notion, put into practice not so long ago in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that scholarship has no value unless it serves the needs of "the people"—as decided, of course, by this or that tribunal.

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No. Whether we are studying Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or establishing a program that will allow unwed mothers to pursue an education, we'd best proceed to do the best job we can, knowing all the time that it is rarely given us to know the ultimate value of our work and its impact, however great or modest, on the world. We have plenty to do.

Related Elsewhere:

The Calvin College site has session information from this past weekend's conference.

Notre Dame's Alvin Plantinga has also written extensively on Christian scholarship.

As has George Marsden.

In 2000, a cover story from The Atlantic Monthly, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind" reported that "Conservative Christians have enlivened and enriched the humanities, political and social theory, and even empirical social science." Also read related interviews with Richard Mouw, Alan Jacobs, and George Marsden.

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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know?(Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)
Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)
The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)
Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)
Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)
Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)
Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)