Lately I’ve been posting in How to Think mode — HTT as the tag here calls it: I’ve been writing about various common-all-too-common errors in reasoning and how they might be avoided. But I’m about to change direction for a while.
When I was a young faculty member at Wheaton College, a college that prides itself on “the integration of faith and learning,” I quickly realized that there was a fundamental mismatch between my knowledge of my academic discipline, which was fairly sophisticated, and my understanding of the Christian faith, which was woefully underdeveloped. I was only 25 years old when I began teaching at Wheaton; I had not grown up in a Christian home and indeed had only been a Christian for around five years; I had a lot to learn. But at least I grasped that point.
And I was richly blessed in my neighbors, for I worked in the same building with Mark Noll, Roger Lundin, Bob Webber, and Arthur Holmes, among others. I relentlessly peppered them with questions, and especially sought recommendations for books I could read to give me an adequate understanding of the full range of Christian thought. I did not understand that I was asking for something that I couldn’t achieve in a lifetime. Gradually it dawned on me that Christian thinking about the arts and humanities was richer and deeper and more extensive than I could have imagined; and then, also gradually, my scholarship and non-scholarly writing too became more and more informed by and rooted in that great and complex tradition.
My experience was somewhat like that of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, who when invited to teach and write about pastoral care could but draw on what little he knew about then-contemporary models of psychological counseling. It was only when he asked himself whether Christians, who had been doing pastoral care for 2000 years, might know a little bit about the subject that he began the great series of books on pastoral theology for which he is best remembered. Like me, Oden discovered that the Christian tradition in his chosen field was more extensive and powerful than he had anticipated, and he drank deeply from the well of that tradition for the rest of his life.
Well, for me one thing led to another, and I now have one of the longest job titles in the American academy: the Jim and Sharon Harrod Endowed Chair of Christian Thought and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program. The second half of that title I’ve had for a decade now; the first half is new. I am pleased and honored and excited by the prospect of becoming an official advocate for the great Christian tradition that I have been talking about in this post.
Partly because of this new role, and partly by accident, I am this semester — for the first time, in a teaching career that now exceeds forty years — teaching only Christian writers. (I have had many semesters in which I didn’t teach any Christian writers at all, though usually there’s been a mix.) I am teaching, for Baylor’s Great Texts program, a course called Great Texts in Christian Spirituality; and I am teaching a new course, one I designed to express my chief interests as the new Harrod Chair: The Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century.
The new course is devoted to exploring the extraordinary outburst of distinctively Christian creativity — in all the arts and humanities — that occurred especially in the first half of the twentieth century, but has continued in certain forms ever since. It is a ridiculously ambitious and indefensibly wide-ranging course, since we will look (sometimes briefly, sometimes in detail) at painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, philosophy, and filmmaking. Basically we’ll go from G. K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain to Marilynne Robinson, Arvo Pärt, and Terrence Malick. (Though as it happens, on Day One we’ll discuss Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.) It’s gonna be utterly insane, and also, I think, a lot of fun. I hope to learn much in this first iteration that I can apply when I teach the course again — and I hope to teach it every year, student interest permitting.
Between that course and the Christian Spirituality one — which will go from the Didache and Maximus Confessor to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm — I will have on my mind, for the next few months, an vast agglomeration of works in Christian theology, philosophy, and all the arts. There will be a lot to process, and this here blog is where I do much of my processing, so — if you like that kind of thing, then this will be the kind of thing you like. If not … well, sorry about that.