Guests on Volume 101: James Davison Hunter, on how the most prominent strategies of Christian cultural engagement are based on a misunderstanding about how cultures work; Paul Spears, on why Christian scholars need to understand their disciplines in ways that depart from conventional understanding; Steven Loomis, on why education needs to attend more carefully to non-quantifiable aspects of human experience; James K. A. Smith, on how education always involves the formation of affections and how the form of Christian education should imitate patterns of formation evident in historic Christian liturgy; Thomas Long, on how funeral practices have the capacity to convey an understanding of the meaning of discipleship and death; and William T. Cavanaugh, on the distinctly modern definition of “religion” and how the conventional account of the “Wars of Religion” misrepresents the facts in the interest of consolidating state power.
“‘We need to make worldviews more Christian’ is the idea here, that ‘if we just do that with enough people and if we get them to take the Christian nature of their worldview seriously and act on it, then we will change the world.’ The problem is that perspective is almost completely wrong.”
— James Davison Hunter
Sociologist James Davison Hunter challenges reigning paradigms of cultural change and criticizes their influence on the life of the Church. He talks about how three main groups of Christians have sought to change culture but have failed because they operated under a flawed theory of grass-roots change. Not only have they failed to change culture in meaningful ways, he argues, but those very politicizing populist strategies have served to undermine the sacred character and witness of the Church and the very plausibility of a holy, transcendent God. Hunter argues that because social institutions are central carriers of culture, the abandonment of social institutions (with authority and hierarchy) due to a populist impulse both undermines cultural change and remakes the Church in the image of secular, popular culture rather than the reverse. Hunter argues that the way forward for the Church is by an incarnational “faithful presence” that enters the world not only as individuals, but as institutional communities of people.
“Students are pursuing the academic life not because humans are rational but because they need to get money. And that pretty quickly sours on every human person because there’s something intrinsic in all of us, foundational in all of us, that says ‘That’s not it’ and a third-grader knows that.”
— Paul Spears
Educator Paul Spears discusses ugly trends within education and how a fuller understanding of human beings can aid Christian educators in fostering learning environments that do justice to students. Spears argues that humans, as rational created beings, are meant to develop their minds in pursuit of God’s redemptive purposes for the world, including but not limited to individuals. Spears discusses how various educational pedagogies can train students to deny inevitable failures rather than to learn from them and to see education merely in terms of making money, thereby fostering a sour cynicism and despair.
“All of those value-based sources of knowledge are very costly to a system that wants to economize through scale.”
— Steven Loomis
Co-author with Paul Spears, Steven Loomis, discusses how a technical managerial ethos imported from the secular business world reduces education to a flat, standardized set of procedures which ignores the context and the fullness of truth. Education thus follows the rest of secular culture in its drive for efficiency and ease at that cost of messy values and non-quantifiable wisdom. Loomis believes that resisting this tendency within education is a singularly important task for educators who seek to make wise disciples of Christ.
“There is a kind of know-how that is embedded in the practices of Christian worship that can inform my thinking about human flourishing in ways that don't just deduce from theological formulations.”
— James K. A. Smith
James K. A. Smith talks about the links between desire, worship, education, and cultural formation. Smith argues that education is and always has been formation of the whole person, involving mores and morals and not just minds, affections and imaginations not just intellects. Smith draws on an earlier Reformational and Kuyperian tradition which understands worldview as more than merely a collection of Christian ideas and propositional content, but instead an entire point of view, a way of thinking of and feeling and experiencing the world that involves more, though not less, than true propositions. It involves true emotions and dispositions and relations as well. Education is formation, formation is discipleship, and discipleship is the mission that Jesus gives his people.
“The best therapy for grief is not psychological comfort; the best assessment of grief is for the loss to be placed in the framework of meaning, and the ritual that acts out what does death mean, what is the future of the dead in Christ, to act that out in a ritual fashion, places our psychological loss in a grand structure of Gospel meaning, and that’s what finally gives us the deepest comfort.”
— Thomas Long
Thomas Long paints a picture of historic Christian burial practice and discuss both the meaning embodied in the formal ritual and how the practice shapes the people who participate in it. Long then describes how what is done in the Christian funeral has shifted over time to reflect a different portrait of what is going on in death and how the congregation relates to the deceased. He discusses the differences between the historic and contemporary models and argues that while the benefits and goods embodied in the newer model are there and can be learned from, the historic model captures best what is going on in death and the destiny of the dead in Christ. In so doing, the historical model brings comfort to the grief-stricken by placing death within the Gospel narrative in place and time through movement and song.
“[T]his is not just the way things are: the myth of religious violence is a deeply ideological way of looking at the world and is not, by any means, some kind of neutral description of what’s actually out there.”
— William Cavanaugh
Theologian William Cavanaugh examines the emptiness of the myth of religious violence. He begins by illustrating how the idea of “religion” as modern people understand it was an invention of early modern European thought meant to divide ways of life into the public and the private so as to allow the modern State to isolate, truncate and control the newly-invented private sphere, henceforth called “religion.” This development arose out of centuries of struggle between ecclesiastic and civil authorities in Europe for power; when civil authorities gained the upper hand, Cavanaugh argues, they redefined the jurisdiction of the Church to be the newly-constructed private realm while taking the public realm for itself. As the dominance of the modern State grew over the past three centuries, their public political role and the Church's private religious role came to be solidified. Cavanaugh shows that this division between politics and religion has its own creation myth in the so-called “wars of religion” in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a myth that is belied by an examination of the warring parties in that period. He points out that the very fact that Catholics fought other Catholics, Protestants fought other Protestants, and that Protestants joined Catholics to fight other Protestants and Catholics indicates that there was something more going on than warring over theological disputes. That something was the beginning of a centralizing, homogenizing modern State that sought to exert control and bring uniformity over the diverse plurality of medieval locales and provinces, whether Protestant or Catholic, which resisted the growing centralization of the State, whether under Protestant or Catholic control. Cavanaugh argues that the deeply ideological separation of religion and politics has never been neutral but instead reflects a largely Western ideological conceit that is facing growing challenges centering on what is, at best, a tension within the division, and at worst, an incoherence.