"Giving speeches to our cultured despisers"

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I thought of adding this post under the “why bother” thread that was already created some time ago. But then it would also have fit under the “gospel, science … and worldview hegemony” thread. And now most recently, it would also fit inside the McGrath book review “Why we can’t stop talking …” It could go with any of those, so I did the natural thing and started yet another topic.

The phrase itself I quote from a Catholic Father (now Bishop) Robert Barron, who himself is discussing this thought as it came from the German theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. And it is his [Barron’s] talk recorded on a youtube video [here][1] at a Catholic conference that provokes these thoughts (and the opening topic quote --about 36 minutes in). NOTE: this video is a couple hours long covering other speakers at this Catholic conference. I recommend Barron’s talk from about 15 minutes in when he arrives at the podium and gets past introductory remarks to about 55 minutes. And even the first part of Barron’s presentation flies through some necessary groundwork and oversimplifications of Luther and others which some might find wearisome. But after about 34 minutes in I think you will begin to be rewarded.

Earlier this week we had a missionary from Africa describing her work to our Sunday school class. It was full and vibrant work helping to meet the nutritional and spiritual needs of communities in Benin. Later that day she joined a few of us in a small group that evening, and we had promised her that she was not going to be held responsible to be in charge of that discussion but could just rest and we would carry on. And so we did just that … in fact watching part of the very video referenced above (only the first part of Barron’s talk unfortunately), stopping to discuss as necessary. Our guest had nothing to say, and it seemed these topics made no connection with her. I finally leaned over and commented, “these things we westerners worry over don’t register much in an African Christian setting, do they!” (or something to that effect). And she nodded … (when you’re worrying about where your next meal is coming from …).

And that exchange is causing me to reflect on how much time I/we spend here, and to wonder who or what audience we actively pursue. Is the whole Biologos project but one more manifestation of “giving speeches to our cultured despisers”? Whether those skeptical eyes are the ones peering into a microscope or over the top of a wine glass, are we merely chasing after the approval of these people? That’s a cynical way to ask, and I don’t think we are to ignore anybody. But we should be asking how much we let them set our agenda (…again, watch Barron’s video on this).

I was depressed in thinking about this given how much time I do spend here and in reading on these sorts of topics that seem to have no direct connection to feeding the hungry or doing what Jesus did (though he did spend time in the temple listening and teaching, to be fair).

The only response I think I can make to my African missionary friend (and it may simply be dangerous self-justification) is to acknowledge that pulling drowning victims out of a rushing river is indeed blessed and necessary work. But there may be good warrant to investigate a bit upstream to see who/what is throwing all these people into the river in the first place. And that too, I should think, must count as blessed work. So whenever I start thinking of theology or philosophy as impractical, I remind myself that actually it is the ultimate in practicality. One could learn plumbing skills or carpentry and it would be possible to never use those skills again. But no living adult can ever stop using philosophy/theology. Whether aware of it or not … one spends their life accordingly, either contributing towards tossing people into raging rivers, or to prevent the same and help pull them out.

If anybody else does watch that Barron piece, I would love to hear reactions.
[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VT6NnlJvxg

(Brad Kramer) #2

I didn’t listen to the presentation, but I have some thoughts on what you say here.

First of all, although we do hope that our work gives “cultured despisers” a fresh look at Christianity, this is not our primary audience. We’re trying to reach the folks who feel trapped between faith and science, who are mostly conservative protestant Christians—particularly young ones. To use your own metaphor, we’re trying to rescue the ones being thrown into the river by the evangelical rejection of mainstream science. And we’re also trying to move the church away from the whole business upstream as well.

If you want to read what “cultured despisers” think of BioLogos, go read Jerry Coyne’s blog. If our goal is to win approval from such folks, we’re not doing well.

But if, in the process of showing how Christianity and science can enrich each other, some of these “cultured despisers” see the faith in a new way, that’s great! And I think it’s a good goal.

I have a friend who serves as a missionary in a war-torn part of Africa. She’s one of the most amazing people I know. What I do here pales in comparison to her witness. I’m OK with that. This is where I’m called to be. I see this work as the messy process of casting a better vision of Christian faithfulness in our times.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

Thanks, Brad; that is reassuring (you’re whole response --so I won’t try to pick just one quote from it). I think people used to have (and too often still have now) the impression that TE/EC folks are only out to appease these cultured skeptics, letting them drive the agenda.

But the number of western Christians in distress (or perhaps putting others into distress) is itself a full warrant for what you do here. And your mission statement does make clear who your intended audience is. I’ll take your word that Coyne & Co. still show nothing but contempt for all things they identify as religious. And that may be a good sign (though that shouldn’t drive the agenda either.)

I still encourage anybody who can spend 30 minutes or so to listen to the latter half of Barron’s part in the video. It was time well-spent for me, and Catholic as he is, he is also catholic in all the best senses of that word.