How My Mind Has Changed — Part 3


I always have reading and research projects either in progress or brewing in my head.  Half (or more) of what I dream up, as you can probably imagine, I never get around to.   Generally speaking, though, I’ve got four things either going or percolating in my brain right now.  My systematics course in the fall raised a lot of questions for me about Reformed theology.  The Campbells, Scott, and Stone were all Presbyterians.  My questions are these: How did that leave its mark on them and how did they consciously (or unconsciously) transmit their Reformed framework to the generations that came afterward?  How have the structures of Reformed thought left their mark on us in terms of how we read Scripture, how we understand the Lord’s Supper and sacramental theology more generally, and how we understand worship?  I’m trying to brush up on Reformed liturgics and (to a lesser extent) systematics, so as to get a better handle on this.

Secondly, since last year I’ve been doing research on John T. Lewis in anticipation of a possible M.Div. thesis.  Lewis, the patriarch of the Churches of Christ in Birmingham, AL, interests me on a number of levels: as an example of John Mark Hicks’ “Tennessee Tradition,” as an example of an alternative way of thinking about the institutional issues of the 1950s, and as an example of Stanley Hauerwas’ dictum that we come to understand the Scriptures through the lives of the saints.  We in the Churches of Christ forget about people like Lewis at our peril.

Thirdly, philosophy.  A few years ago it became clear to me that there is an unavoidable connection between philosophy and theology.  Yeah, I know, it’s late to be recognizing that (do I get any grace by referring to Socrates’ recommendation in The Republic that the study of philosophy be delayed until one’s thirties?).  So I’ve been playing catch up.  I was 18 when I slept through an Intro to Philosophy course during winter term of my freshman year of college.  So…let’s just say that my foundation is not very strong.  John Mark Hicks made me read large quantities of Locke and Kant in Historical Theology.  An eye-opening experience.  On my own, beginning in graduate school, I read most of Plato’s major dialogues, as well as Hobbes’ Leviathan.  Last summer, I read Diogenes Allen’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, which has been very helpful in giving me an overview of other periods.  With this help, I was able to work through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, albeit by reading many of the early chapters twice.  I’d like to work up to being able to read and profit from some larger works: MacIntyre’s later works (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory.  These are probably all a few years down the road, but one can dream. 

Fourthly, science.  My interest in science has always outpaced my capabilities.  A nasty experience with math (beginning as far back as middle school and climaxing with the diagnosis of a learning disability in college) pretty much disqualified me from going much further than high school biology, although I’ve always been intrigued by astronomy.  Because of this, I’ve mostly limited myself to occasional readings in the history of science (most recently, Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read, a history of the afterlife of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium).  Beyond this, I pretty much try to stay out of creation/evolution debates knowing that I’m out of my depth.  I’ve decided that I can no longer use this as an excuse.  To that end, I have a small stack of books dealing with science and religion issues that I’d like to work through later, perhaps over the summer.  I’m very intrigued by Conor Cunningham’s just-released Darwin’s Pious Idea, which seems to be set to have a real impact.  Like the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I’ll probably have to do quite a bit of pre-reading before I can tackle it, though.  I’ll keep you posted…

What are the motivations for these projects?  First, they bring together quite a few of my concerns: history and identity of the Churches of Christ, sacramental theology, and the intellectual defense of Christianity (not quite apologetics, but I am interested in understanding the issues attendant to the debates surrounding the New Atheism and the advance of secularism in the West).  There’s also the personal need to be broadly read outside of history and theology (the areas that I have most lived in since college).  That’s a really narrow description of several complex factors, I realize.  In future posts, I’ll try to go into more detail.


11 responses to “How My Mind Has Changed — Part 3

  1. Chris, I like your approach to reading projects, including the idea of pre-reading to work your way up to a book you want to read. I need to learn from your example there (but I’ll probably have to wait until I’m done with grad school). I know there is more than you can tackle, but as long as you keep reading, that’s the important thing.

    • It has taken me a while to accept the idea that I might have to read A, B, and C before I can make my way through D. When I dream up these big projects, this really forces me to slow down, take a deep breath and realize how long it will all take.

  2. Of the volumes on your “to read” list, I’m a huge fan of Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” Whenever you do get around to it, you may appreciate a blog James K. A. Smith set up for teaching the book as an undergraduate senior seminar: .

    The other volume that you mentioned that caught my eye Milbank’s classic work. I was a double major in religion and philosophy — and I would add that “History of Philosophy I and II were two classes that were invaluable in all my graduate work — nevertheless, I find Milbank and essentially all of the Radical Orthodox crowd obnoxiously, unnecessarily, and unhelpfully dense in their writing. I can understand them because of my academic background in philosophy and theology, but I find them arrogant, pretentious, insular, and ultimately not worth my time.

    • I really wish I had more formal training. I had Tom Buford’s Intro course. I still have the books, in fact (Descartes’ Discourse on Method and The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico). I just wasn’t at all ready for it at the time.

      Anyway, are you familiar with Frederick Copleston’s multivolume History of Philosophy? I’d like to work through the first couple of volumes of that next and then read some Aristotle (Politics and Nicomachean Ethics). I was able to read Plato in a reading group and I expect to be able to work through these in the same group, which helps.

      As for Milbank, I really can’t imagine ever having read enough to be able to get through Theology and Social Theory. One of his RO associates, Phillip Blond, I do really find interesting. Blond, though, who went into politics in the UK (he’s the founder of the “Red Tory” movement) is considerably less impenetrable in the things of his that I’ve read. Here’s a link to a David Brooks’ piece from a year ago.

  3. I’m not particularly familiar with Copleston, but I just looked him up on Amazon, and I think I can recall seeing them book covers on store shelves — and he’s a a Jesuit, which is a good indication that he knows of what he writes.

    Reading groups definitely help since that’s essentially how I got through some of the major works: taking classes in them. From the first History of Philosophy, I really benefited from reading the Pre-Socratics and Plato in particular — also, of course, we also read Aristotle, Aquinas, and others. Then in part two, we picked up with the moderns, beginning with Descartes — and focusing especially on the Rationalists and Empiricists — but ending in the 1800s. I picked up some other good background in three classes with Edwards: “Philosophy of Religion,” “20th century Philosophy” and “Nietzsche-Foucault.” I also really appreciated the Eastern perspective of Shaner’s class. The one class I wish I had taken was on “19th century Philosophy.” Alas, so much to read and only so much time!

  4. To me, one of the big ideas Campbell brought with him was presbyterianism — that episkopoi, presbyteroi, and all of the others terms referred to the same office. Unfortunately, I’m already in over my head.

    “Science and religion” would make for a great reading group topic. Torrance would be an interesting selection, maybe also Solzhenitsyn. I’d just as soon avoid the creation/evolution debate. A lot of noise from both sides, and little sense.

  5. I should stop chiming in, but I’m really enjoying the themes, authors, and books. I did quite a bit of reading back in 2009 for the first chapter of my dissertation on the religion/science dialogue. One book that stood out to me was John F. Haught’s “Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Theology in Global Perspective Series)” — a Roman Catholic theologian.

    And at the risk of tipping my hat as a liberal (in case that wasn’t already transparent), I was even more impressed with Philip Clayton’s “Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action” which has Whiteheadian influences. I will say, however, that part of my interest in this blog is not only my friendship with Chris, but also that my liberalism is tempered by strong doses of writings from post-liberals like Hauerwas, Agrarians like Wendell Berry, as well as my formation by both Anabaptists and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

    • Haught’s book looks interesting. Here’s what’s on the list so far:

      Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson. Do you happen to remember, Carl — I think it was our freshman year — when Larson came to Furman to speak? I seem to remember us going to that together (CLP credit?) and me buying the book that I never subsequently got around to reading.
      Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, Gary Ferngren.
      Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth Miller.
      The Language of God, Francis Collins.

      Glad to hear too that our respective intellectual pilgrimages have been influenced by some of the same folks. Makes for good discussion, I think. You’ve anticipated me a bit: my next post is going to be discussing influences.

  6. I don’t remember Larson — although maybe I was there. I certainly went to an large number of CLPs, finishing the graduation requirement sometime Sophomore year, I think. I’ve also heard some interviews with Collins over the years.

    As for anticipating influences, I like to keep things proleptic 🙂 Seriously, though, in my dissertation I made the following attempt to trace some of my intellectual debts — as well as a nod to some of their interrelationships:

    James C. Edwards, whose basic position is recorded in his book “The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism” (1997) challenged me to reflect critically and philosophically, and I began to conceive of a religious response to postmodernity under the tutelage of the contemporary Renaissance man Albert L. Blackwell, whose position can be found in his 1999 book “The Sacred in Music .” As a seminarian, my major mentor was Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, who is also my dissertation advisor.

    Turning to those who have influenced me solely through their writings, I am grateful for William James and his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson; Walter Rauschenbusch and his grandson Richard Rorty; as well as Stanley Hauerwas, Wendell Berry, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Sallie McFague, Rita Nakashima Brock, Paul Bradshaw, and Philip Clayton. As the 12th-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres said, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size” (Shapiro and Epstein 2006: 57).

  7. Regarding the influence of Presbyterianism on early restorationism, it would be interesting to think about that background’s role as a sort of foil as well. How were the early emphases of the restorationists shaped as movements away from perceived distortions in that particular tradition? I suspect those points came to overshadow and obscure the elements of the presbyterian background which remained.

  8. Hey Steven,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Regarding Presbyterianism as a foil to restorationist thinking, I think you’re right. Stone and Campbell were always louder about what they were rejecting than about what they continued to accept. In the circles in which I grew up, their rejection of five-point Calvinism was what was remembered, rather than the ways in which we tend to look suspiciously Presbyterian.

    There’s probably still work to be done there. At this point, though, the question of continuity is more interesting to me. IOW, in what ways did Campbell, Stone, Milligan, et al. remain (consciously or unconsciously) Presbyterian/Reformed in their thinking? Polity comes to mind, of course. But of greater interest to me are the stowaway Reformed influences in Campbell and Milligan’s (and Scott’s) understanding of the Lord’s Supper (and the process by which those emphases were lost in the Movement by the end of the 19th century).

    Jason Fikes and Richard Harrison have pointed out that AC’s Reformed Eucharistic doctrine got filtered through his reading of Locke. Even so, if you read him with Reformed ears, you can still hear some of that coming through, even if it’s a bit muffled. Fikes says that over time the Lockean rationalism won out (among Campbell’s followers). That — combined with an influx of Baptists into Churches of Christ in the late 19th century (who brought with them a Zwinglian understanding of the Supper) — contributed to the situation that obtained in Churches of Christ throughout the 20th century (wherein we have awkwardly maintained a sacramental view of baptism alongside a Zwinglian and defiantly non-sacramental view of the Supper).

    This realization has been important for me and has drawn me to look closer at Calvin’s understanding of the Supper as a healthier (and more biblical) alternative to the stale Zwinglianism that predominates in our thought about the Supper.

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