((released 2012-03-01) (handle mh-113-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 113: Steven Shapin, on whether or not there is a single thing called “science,” and whether scientists are united by a single “scientific method;" Arthur Boers, on why the ways in which technologies shape our lives should be recognized as spiritual and pastoral challenges; Christine Pohl, on why a deliberate commitment to certain shared practices is necessary for the sustaining of community; Norman Wirzba, on how attentiveness to our eating and our care of the land are central aspects of culture and of godly faith; Craig Bartholomew, on carelessness concerning embodied experience and our “crisis of place;" and David I. Smith, on how the forms of pedagogical practices ought to be crafted to correspond to the content of teaching.
“I remember sitting next to a chemist at a meeting when someone stood up and said ‘All the students at the university should know something called the scientific method,’ and the chemist turned to me and said ‘What is that?’ And the person making the statement was an economist.”
Steven Shapin, historian of science at Harvard University, talks about the qualities modern people project onto science in order to enhance its stature and the ways cultural authorities burnish its image. He describes how science is today seen by many educated persons as monolithic, when there are in fact many sciences, each with their particular histories, methods, and modes of inquiry. At one point, even the academic field in which Shapin works was considered a science along the lines of the work of Max Weber. Nevertheless, as a matter of economic and political realities, institutional forces in society perpetuate this unhelpful simplification of the sciences. Shapin notes that it is counterintuitively in the departments of philosophy, economics, political science, psychology, etc. where “the scientific method” tends to be pushed most strongly. He goes on to describe the kind of ultimacy modern people seek from a mechanical method of gaining knowledge. The problem is that in the actual practice of the sciences it is impossible for it to be mechanical. Credibility and rhetoric, for example, are non-scientific factors that are always present and always bear on the conclusions.
“The key issue about technology or our use of technology is what it displaces from our lives.”
Arthur Boers discusses the practices of focal discipline that allow practitioners to fully and attentively live in a highly-technologized world. He describes some of the experiences with both Christians and non-Christians that led him to think and write about learning to re-focus on life. Boers believes that Christians tend to suffer from the same distracted ways of living as non-Christians, and so the Church does not provide a life-giving, attractive alternative to the cultural status quo. Focal practices allow relationships to be built in communities that tend to be fragmented by technological use. Boers wants us not to abandon technology, but to understand the ways we engage it and are shaped by it so that we can live with the kind of integrity we long for.
“When you’re entitled to everything, you’re grateful for nothing.”
Christine Pohl reflects on what is required for communities to grow and thrive over the long term. Pohl describes both our incredible desire for community, but also the difficulties we have with living in real communities. We tend to want community on our terms; we want the benefits, but not the obligations that are necessary for the generation of those benefits. This tendency is compounded by the unfortunate downplaying of the actual skills necessary for communities to thrive, skills which must be developed through practices because we are embodied creatures. Many believe that good intentions or a good perspective on community is really all that's needed, and that practices are inauthentic, but this is a misunderstanding of how embodied people come to know and love each other. Gratitude and hospitality are two of the practices that Pohl discusses with respect to individuals and also in the context of communities.
“When we think about eating, we think about the act of consumption rather than the whole sweep of activity and process and production that has to happen before we could actually sit down to eat something.”
Theologian Norman Wirzba examines the relationship between food and faith. He begins by discussing the changes in the meaning of the word “culture” in the past two centuries: from expressing the link one has to the land and the process of deriving one’s life from that land with its other inhabitants, to expressing an individual’s consumption of products divorced from their earthly origins. That is, consumption in the modern world is increasingly distanced from the myriad processes that generate the goods to be consumed. Bread, for example, is reliant on many communities and cultural practices for it to be made and enjoyed. Eating depends on life and death in the world in profound ways, and modern practices can obscure the connections and significance of this truth. Wirzba turns to Genesis 2 to describe human interdependence with the very soil of Creation and man’s vocation as caretakers of the garden and of the animals originally presented to Adam. Rather than working out that vocation, he believes modern people have given themselves over to the idols of control, efficiency and convenience and created institutional structures and systems in the image of those idols that, ironically, undermine life.
“For science to really help us, it has to return to lived experience, and it’s in that returning that it can deepen it.”
Craig Bartholomew reflects on the importance of place to our humanity. He agrees with the vast volume of literature detailing a “crisis of place” in our world, from the aesthetic homogeneity of suburban sprawl to the ecological devastation in various parts of the world to the movements of refugees from their homelands. Bartholomew explains how global culture is primarily structured in such a way as to increase spending and consumption; that is, it’s built like a commercial mall. Not everyone views the diminishment of place as a problem, however. With these people, Bartholomew would agree that modernity brings many blessings, but at the same time, its destructive aspects have become evident and need to be addressed. He suggests that it is the abstraction of truth and knowledge from lived experience by (would-be) pure reason that is responsible for the damaging tendencies of some scientific pursuits, and he traces this practice of abstraction from the Enlightenment to contemporary ways of understanding the pursuit of knowledge. Bartholomew ends by reflecting on the incredible fertility of Scripture’s view of place.
“It’s not that people don't care about teaching, and it’s not that there aren’t individuals who are doing it very well and who are expending great amounts of time and creativity, but we’re still somewhat lacking in that ability to actually talk about what it is we’re doing in a theologically-informed way when it comes to teaching practice.”
—David I. Smith
David I. Smith, professor of German at Calvin College, recalls how he became a teacher of languages, asking himself what it means to teach Christianly. He believes that while the past forty years have brought significant clarity to the relationship between the Christian faith and ideas and worldviews, the vision of Christianity's significance for pedagogy itself is much murkier. Practical outworkings tend to lag our theorizing, especially in the realm of higher education. In fact, Christian universities generally follow secular schools in prizing academic research over excellence in teaching; consequentially, the practice of teaching is relatively underdeveloped. Smith draws on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to articulate the essential role of forms and practices in the building of virtues, and he gives examples from his own teaching experience to show the difference embodied practices can make in teaching.