Friday, October 19, 2007

Philip Bess in Princeton

Protestants, I'm afraid it fair to say, either don't engage the secular academic world, or "engage" it by slowly, often quickly, capitulating to its premises. One could argue this is because Protestantism has jettisoned the theological resources necessary for proper engagement, such as the analogia entis and virtue ethics. By forsaking the first, Protestants may please themselves with their internal consistency, but they lose the perspective that permits a distinctly Christian book to begin by suggesting, "I have started with an argument from natural rather than supernatural premises." As to the second, virtue ethics permits someone to make charitable sense of the gifts of their secular peers, enabling a book's dedication to a colleague, "who in seeking goodness and beauty also seeks God."

While many Christians in academia can be found fueling today's fragmentation ethos, other wryly resist it, declaring "I am obviously not uninterested in comprehensive narratives, most especially true ones." Why is it so rare to see a Christian academic who, rather than cutting a deal, just cuts to the chase?
Architecture schools today are largely though not exclusively divided between embracing critical theory and embracing sustainability as the ideological "next best thing." In some instances, critical theory presents itself (usually implicitly, but always ironically) as the best foundation for sustainability; and sustainability in turn sometimes presents itself as a kind of critical theory. Critical theory, however, by its own logic - e.g., its views of the primacy of the will-to-power, and of the "constructedness" of nature - is notoriously poor soil for a theory of sustainability or, for that matter, of a just social pluralism, each of which is arguably better grounded in traditional Western religious views of the created character of man and nature and their relationship to each other and to God.
Perhaps other Christian academics don't write paragraphs like that for fear - a legitimate one - of earning the disdain of their colleagues. And Philip Bess, the author of all the above quotations, admits as much:
My allegiance to [the Aristotelian-Thomist] tradition - my happy participation in and defense of the religious and metaphysical realism of Western culture - makes me in most schools of architecture today practically unemployable, and almost certainly untenurable.
Yet Bess did recently find a place as Director of Graduate Studies at Notre Dame's School of Architecture. If you're in town, he's coming to Princeton this Monday October 22nd, and will be giving a talk at 5pm in Murray Dodge.

Of course, there are Protestants who would protest my dim portrayal of Protestant academic engagement, insisting that one can have a properly mitigated analogia entis, virtue ethics, etc. while remaining Protestant - and thank God for them. Fortunately, our era of "plate-sharing" ecumenism permits a Protestant to do just that, leading perhaps to more courageous academic engagement. I have not read The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, which is apparently an excellent book. I was, however, amused by a Stanley Hauerwas quip I once overheard in relation to it, which serves as a playful chastisement to Christians in academe: "Not nearly outrageous enough!"