By / Mar 29

Amidst the constant distractions and shallowness on social media, reading a book can serve as a reprieve from the onslaught of information and as a way to challenge yourself to go deeper than 280 characters. Social media draws us in because it leads us to think we are staying connected with others, keeping up with what is going on around the world, and often takes less concentration than picking up a book. But these tools are constantly discipling us to seek expediency over the long process of learning and variety over sustained concentration. And with each click, scroll, or flick of the thumb, we are usually only being exposed to ideas that fit our preconceived beliefs about the world.

However, picking up a book that you know you will disagree with can help you understand another’s perspective and clarify why you hold to another position. This doesn’t mean that you run to just any book, but as you grow more comfortable with ideas, you can expose yourself to contrary positions in order to strengthen your own.

Understanding your neighbor

As part of my doctoral program in ethics, I recently picked up a copy of Peter Singer’s classic work Practical Ethics. This was the first time I read Singer’s work myself, but I was familiar with his line of argument for a particular form of ethical evaluation called preference utilitarianism. Singer has made waves in ethical and philosophical circles for decades, often making controversial claims about the nature of personhood and abortion, animal rights, and embryo experimentation. Originally published in 1979, the work has been reprinted countless times. Singer released two updated editions in 1993 and 2011. The book has become a staple in ethics courses across academic disciplines and has influenced countless readers, shaping their approach to ethics and morality.

As one who hopes to teach and continue to study in this field, I am behooved to be aware of these classic works and to be intimately familiar with their arguments. In so doing, I am able to better understand those around me and the true nature of the debates surrounding complex ethical decisions about the rise of technology, medicine, economics, and other social issues. Regardless of whether or not you plan to specialize in a field of study, being exposed to seminal works across a variety of disciplines can open up a world of ideas and a comprehension of your neighbors that is more than worth the time and effort.

One of the most devastating effects of the culture wars happening all around us, especially on online platforms like social media, is that we are often told that we need to be protected from the world of ideas or that reading something outside of our own beliefs might lead us down a path of destruction. While this is understandable to some extent, this siloing effect is dangerous to the life of the mind and treats the very concept of understanding our neighbors as a bridge too far.

Do we really think so little of our ability to think and reason that we cannot engage divergent positions or even allow them in the public square? Frequent examples of this are seen in our society such as Amazon delisting a book on transgenderism because it deviates from the secular orthodoxy on sexuality and the derision of entire concepts out of fear of being brainwashed. This happens on both sides of the political aisle. But one of the simplest things we can to ratchet down the tensions with our neighbors and seek to love them as ourselves is to put down our phones, pick up a book, and have an honest and humble conversation with someone who disagrees with our position on a particular topic. Living in a constant cycle of outrage shapes us into more cynical people and prevents us from growing in our faith. I am not saying that all ideas are equally valid, but regardless of what you take away from a book, it is worth the time and effort to comprehend your neighbor’s beliefs and engage them on their own terms.

Understand why you disagree

One of the joys of reading is growing in knowledge about the world around us, including those to whom we are called to minister and share the hope of the gospel with. But a second and extremely important reason behind reading things we disagree agree with is for our own personal growth. Over the years, I have found that I grow more by reading books outside of my own tribe than only reading those with whom I mostly agree. This is because when we are challenged in our own beliefs, we often dig deeper as we wrestle with various ideas and beliefs.

When reading or engaging the world of ideas, I am often reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16 (emphasis mine):

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Reading books that you do not agree with or believe to be true can help sharpen your own ability to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Not only will it push you to understand your own beliefs better, but it will also equip you to engage those around you in good conscience and faith.

Recently, I was reading a work by evangelical scholar Carl F.H. Henry and was struck by how he talked about divergent ideas. Henry was quick to give credit to various thinkers when they picked up a thread of truth. In his classic work, Christian Personal Ethics, he wrote that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this.” As I read his examinations of those ideas, it became clear that he was not afraid to engage ideas contrary to his own. Not only did this equip him to better understand the world around him, but it clearly helped strengthen his own convictions about the nature of truth, morality, and even the gospel itself.

So go grab a book, a cup of coffee, and a friend to dialogue with as you engage the world of ideas and grow in your ability to interact with contrary positions, all for the sake of loving others and sharing the transformative truth of the gospel message with your neighbor.

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By / Mar 4

What is the nexus between the topic of the life of the mind and the issue of Christian formation? Brad D. Strawn, Evelyn and Frank Freed Endowed Chair of the Integration of Psychology and Theology (Fuller Theological Seminary), and Warren S. Brown, professor of psychology (Fuller Theological Seminary), seek to answer this question in Enhancing Christian Life. Strawn and Warren argue that through adapting philosopher Andy Clark’s ideas about Supersizing the mind, Christians can embrace their connection with other believers as part of the local church community. Simply put, the Christian is enhanced through the community they are a part of locally. The Christian faith is not primarily a private matter but a communal one. 

The work is broken up into three sections. Section one gives a broad introduction to the issues addressed, mostly dealing with the philosophical problems of memory, the mind, the body, and the soul. The authors argue for a holistic view of the human person, which sees the body, soul, and mind as an inseparable whole. Strawn and Brown argue against René Descartes’s concept of dualism, which treats the body/soul as individual mechanical parts that can be separated and function as individual entities (i.e., a brain in a vat). 

Section two further developed their view of embodiment and holism. In this section, the authors introduce readers to an array of authors and challenges of those who embrace a body/soul dualistic view (40ff). The authors maintain that dualism is rejected by modern neuroscience, philosophy, cognitive science, and many Christian theologians over the history of the church (42). Although the authors do not delve deeply into the reasons for rejection of dualism, they provide some reasons for embracing a view of holism. The primary reasons are that humans are embodied souls and how neuroscience has argued that the body/mind are material parts that are inseparable (45–50). 

Finally, in the last section, the authors argue how the embodied and holistic view of body/mind works out in the Christian life through extension in the local church. The Christian’s spiritual formation is both about individual growth and further enhancement through life in the body of the church.

Holistic nature of the Christian life

Strawn and Brown are right to emphasize the holistic nature of the Christian life. The church is usually referenced in Scripture in the plural form, which means, when God addressed the church, he addressed the whole body of believers rather than simply individuals. The Christian life is not solely about what the individual does or does not do. While individual responsibility is present in Scripture, this does not negate the church’s corporate reality as the body of Christ (i.e., Rev. 2). 

Another strength of this work is its emphasis on embodiment. Much of the current techno-science (i.e., Philip Hefner, Rodney Brooks, Ray Kurzweil, etc.) focuses on the possibility of extending human life and function beyond the present body and its limitations. This view often prioritizes the mind over the body. Much of the anthropology of techno-scientists is based on views of materialism and/or Darwinistic evolution. Thus technological enhancement of the body becomes about escaping death (i.e., immortality) or providing technological upgrades that only a select few may have access to which can lead to a greater disparity throughout our society (i.e., CRISPR gene-editing technology). 

Enhancing Christian Life reminds the believer and the Christian community that life is not merely about the individual but also the congregation. Life is about being bodily present to help the community see the glory and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Especially in Western cultures, there is a desperate need to be reminded that being human and being made in God’s image is about fulfilling the cultural mandate. This means in one’s treatment of themselves and of others, there is a responsibility to promote dignity and value; how one lives matters, what they consume matters, and the products of their work matters. 

Engaging dualism

Strawn and Brown could have engaged with substance dualism in more depth. J.P. Moreland (Talbot School of Theology) has written extensively on this problem (see Body & Soul) and argues dualism has been the historical view of the church. Moreland shows there is nothing in neuroscience, cognitive science, or word studies of the Old and New Testament that entails “dualism is not tenable” as the authors of this work argue (43). At a minimum, the presentation made by Strawn and Brown is a simplistic treatment of a historically enigmatic subject. For example, how does a rejection of the possibility of disembodiment affect the idea of life after death and the future resurrection of the dead? 

Another issue in their work is the integration of the philosophy of Andy Clark into their hermeneutic. Their approach seems to read their premise and philosophy (i.e., Clark) into the Bible rather than back up their claims with detailed biblical exegesis. Criticism aside, this work does bring to light the importance of discussing embodiment and how both philosophy and science are now realizing its importance. While the work claims to be for pastors, students, and laypersons, one should engage the book with discernment. Some of the arguments and presentations of dualism and holism’s philosophical problems potentially misread the existing literature surrounding the body/mind or body/soul issue. 

By / Nov 5

Ever since Adam’s rebellion plunged mankind under the curse of sin, humans have sought to answer the question of how to live full and flourishing lives. Historically, individuals known for providing answers to this question have been given the distinction of philosopher. At the thought of this title, most will recall thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, but one influential figure typically left out of such a company is Jesus Christ. This exclusion is probably unsurprising to most. After all, both Christians and non-Christians agree that he was primarily a religious figure, one concerned with making humans right with God. This project seems to be in an entirely different category than the philosophical pursuit of happiness in this world. 

In his new book, New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington (Reading the Gospels Wisely, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing) charges that though this vertical, religious view of the person and work of Jesus is correct, it only tells part of the story. He argues that the Holy Scriptures are concerned with more than simply how to get to heaven when we die—they also present us with an ethic for the Good Life. By walking through the big ideas presented throughout Scripture, the Christian approach to emotions, relationships, and other themes, Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher provides a rich and relevant guide into how the Christian gospel gives a whole-life philosophy that makes possible a flourishing existence in the here-and-now. 

Summary

Pennington begins with the observation that modern evangelical Christianity often presents a truncated picture of Jesus’s message that is bereft of his philosophical whole-life wisdom. He argues this has resulted in four key problems:

  1. Our faith has become disconnected from every other “non-religious” aspect of our lives.
  2. We turn to alternative sources for wisdom for the Good Life.
  3. We fail to seek from Scripture its answers of how to live rightly in the world.
  4. Our inability to confront these questions has limited our witness to our neighbors (10).

To address these problems, Pennington builds his case for seeing Jesus as a philosopher, beginning with a survey of whole-life teachings in the Old and New Testaments. He then explores three different issues and presents their Christian solutions. These issues include educating emotions, which involves liturgically shaping (not coldly disregarding) them in accordance with Scripture (104). Next is a discussion on restoring relationships with both individuals and broader society in which the local church is the central “worshiping polis” (168). To conclude, Pennington asserts that the goal of the Holy Scriptures is to return mankind to a life of happiness by “reshaping humanity into the image of Christ” (204). In this manner, he shows that the Christian faith is a philosophy that not only presents answers to the religious questions, but also a whole-life ethic that gives instruction for the Good Life.

A philosophy the world needs

Jesus the Great Philosopher is a welcome and well-reasoned rediscovery of the full scope of biblical teaching. It speaks to a multiplicity of issues that encompass human life, highlighting areas often thought to be separate from that to which the Word speaks. While the breadth of topics Pennington addresses is wide, the reader never gets the sense that he has overstepped his bounds. His insights are broad yet concise, informative yet nourishing.

The recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

It is also a timely and important work given the tumultuous state of affairs of the past year. For a time in which people are more isolated, angry, and confused than anything in recent memory, Pennington’s book demonstrates that Christianity addresses these issues by offering salvation through faith and the instruction that makes possible a full and abundant life (John 10:10). 

Thy kingdom come

Jesus the Great Philosopher also speaks directly to the belief often implicitly held by modern evangelicals that the redemption offered by Christ merely affects our individual souls rather than creation in its entirety. Its commentary challenges the common American anticipation of an eschatalogical departure from the physical realm to a heavenly existence. Indeed, Pennington’s work helps remind us that the redemption Christ brings isn’t an escape from this world. Rather, “It is the message that God reigns and he is now finally bringing his kingdom from heaven to earth—through Jesus himself” (165)!

This kingdom-focused mindset prompts us to defy a detachment from this world and adopt a God-and-neighbor focus that allows us to embrace and enjoy life to the full. As such, the human experience and its enjoyment are dependent on a right view and ordering of our emotions. While it is important to recognize the necessity for contentment in all things (Phil. 4:10-14) and to model the Lord’s impassibility, to imitate our Savior means to reflect him as he was: “fully emotional, but in a way that was always harmonious, not imbalanced, inappropriate, or disordered” (111). A biblically-informed shaping of our emotions helps us to rightly order the objects of our love such that the Good Life is made possible. 

This right ordering of our desires finally gives us the capacity to delight in this world as God intended. This is not to say that we enjoy such blessings apart from the One who gives them. On the contrary, we delight in them through him. But the recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Pennington writes that the Christian philosophy emphasizes “an honest assessment of the brokenness of life that is always oriented toward a sure hope for God’s restoration of true flourishing to the world” (218).

Overall, Jesus the Great Philosopher is a clear and enjoyable text that presents an important rediscovery of the broad and robust message of the Holy Scriptures. Pennington effectively addresses a wide range of issues with a skillful yet conversational tone, providing the reader with an active and engaging text. Timely and relevant, this book gives Christians the important reminder that our Lord and Savior is also our Philosopher who gives us not only redemption and salvation, but also the tools necessary for the Good Life.

By / May 3

Western Christians have long lamented their loss of influence in the public square. As secularism continues to take root in Europe and the United States, Christianity appears ill-equipped to combat many of the claims made by secular moralists and atheists, who argue that universal morality, benevolence, and human rights are achievable without the aid of a religious framework or a higher deity, while simultaneously arguing against the existence of God on the basis of science.

Of course, there are exceptions for every absolute. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, is one such exception. In his concise polemic against what he calls “new atheists,” Smith refutes, rather unflinchingly, what he considers to be instances of intellectual overreach by many of the movement’s leaders. What makes Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver unique, and perhaps more persuasive than other books on the subject, is Smith’s intellectual honesty about the limits of the arguments advanced by these new atheists. In the book’s introduction, Smith makes it clear that he’s not attempting to “show that atheism as a worldview is fundamentally right or wrong” (3), but rather, that many of the leading arguments put forth by new atheists go too far, risking intellectual dishonesty. “Atheism, in many of its current expressions,” Smith argues, “is overreaching” (4).

Smith divides Atheist Overreach into four sections, written as essays that can be read congruently or individually. While the arguments and analysis presented within each essay stand on their own, for the casual reader or curious skeptic, the essays are best read in corresponding fashion, as each chapter tends to build off of the others, despite Smith’s promise that they do not. Those with minimal knowledge of the intellectual and philosophical nuances of new atheism will find a complete and chronological reading of Smith’s work advantageous.

In his first essay, Smith asks, “Just how ‘good without God’ are atheists justified in being?” (45). While Smith admits that “atheists can be good despite not believing in God,” he argues that in most cases, atheism holds to an ethical standard that is more stringent than their corresponding humanistic morality allows (10). Working from the argument set forth in the previous chapter, in his second essay, Smith asks, “Does naturalism warrant belief in universal benevolence human rights?” (45). Smith sets out to determine whether or not those who adhere to a naturalist universe have a valid reason to believe in “universal benevolence and human rights as moral facts and imperatives” (48). If truth is relative, then it would be logical to conclude that morality – a form of truth – is also relative. Smith argues against a relative view of morality, preferring a more consistent and objective view (79). Through critical analysis, he argues that “people don’t invent these moral principles, nor do they necessarily derive from the will or character of God. They simply are what they are, just part of the fabric of our reality” (79).

In his third essay, Smith asks “Why scientists playing amateur atheology fail?” (87). Here, Smith attempts to determine “who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid” (88). For example, the constraints of the scientific method logically prohibit a definitive solution to the question of God. Science deals with the physical, natural world, and is therefore – by its own working definitions – unable to prove or disprove, even in theory, the existence of God. Theology on the other hand, which deals extensively in the realm of the supernatural, is in a better position to make such claims. For Smith:

“The bemusing irony in all of this is that the presupposition that authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and that produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not itself a scientific statement and could never, ever itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a philosophical presupposition, something not unlike a faith commitment.” (94).

Smith’s most convincing arguments are found within this chapter. While his other essays are philosophically and sociologically nuanced and engaging, they appear to leave the reader wanting. Not here. The overreach of atheism as Smith understands it is on full display in this chapter, and is effectively exposited through his high-caliber understanding and implementation of rhetorical logic.

In his fourth and final essay, Smith asks, “Are humans naturally religious?” (105). Moving beyond the “academic curiosity” (105) of the question, Smith approaches the topic in relation to its larger practical implications. Even so, he utilizes empirical data to offer an answer to the question. Ultimately, Smith posits that while “humans are naturally religious or by nature religious,” such features will not always be actively expressed (122).

Atheist Overreach, while grounded in strong sociological and philosophical arguments and analyses, does not offer a definitive solution to the subject presented within. Showing admirable humility, Smith concedes as much in his conclusion, contending that his book “is clearly not the definitive word on atheism’s prospects and limits,” but should instead be used as a propellent for “ongoing public conversations” (130). Smith’s acknowledgement of the limits of his own arguments is refreshing, given our current climate of public debate. Of course, any book which argues the overreach of certain ideas without being conscious of its own potential for overreach, ultimately fails on its own merit. Smith’s work is self-aware enough to avoid this dilemma and as a result offers a much needed addition to the ongoing debate between atheists and people of faith, that is worth consuming.

By / Sep 6

The perennial cycle of academic communities launching a new academic year has commenced. This seasonal shift is a familiar ritual repeated throughout our nation from elementary schools and home schools to university systems. For a significant part of our populace, this is a time of year that brings about excitement, stress, and for many, a time of reflection. Like birthdays and certain holidays, this time of the year marks significant milestones celebrated by pictures of students plastered on social media of children with new school clothes on their first day of kindergarten, apprehensive looking youth on their first day of high school, and young men and women with faces that reveal both thrill and fear on their first day of college. These pictures are often accompanied by wistful comments longing for life to slow down, a yearning for simpler times. I can relate. Our point in history is marked by an increasingly complex and polarized world marked by rapid change and too little time.

So begins another academic year—another milestone—in the midst of 2016 A.D., anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. The Year of our Lord. I stress this because, 2016 is a year in which many are lamenting deteriorating world conditions, the demise of civility, the dangers of extremism, terrorism, and violence, and the seemingly ubiquitous anger of the populace. Couple this with the final stages of what will surely be remembered as the most bizarre U. S. election cycle in recent history and the rise of social media (which is often nothing more than an outlet for unsubstantiated rumor), and you have a recipe for general unhappiness and widespread angst.

While social media has democratized the sharing of news and information, it has also democratized the spread of bad ideas and falsehoods. All of this feeds a restless world, much of which is just looking for a reason and outlet to justify an already locked and loaded anger. It strikes me that a host of people are angry—at everything and at nothing in particular.

And yet, this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. Jesus reigns. His sovereignty and control is not diminished in 2016 any more than it was in the days of World War II, any more than in the brutal days of our own nation’s slavery, any more than in the days of Genghis Khan, or the days of Nero, Caligula or Diocletian and their respective persecutions of Christ’s church.

Whether we can possibly fully understand it, as believers and followers of Jesus, we believe and hold to the assurance and conviction that all things are being worked together ultimately for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. We have this faith—held as foolishness by the world—that in spite of what may happen around us, it will all culminate precisely as a good and loving God intends, with all things made right, all accounts settled, all evil appropriately dealt, and all things made new and perfect.

Easy comes the belief that things are worse today than at any time in history. Tempting is the feeling that having been born in a different time or era or place, our lives and our work might have been simpler or better. Such thoughts are patently false however, and the Word of God is clear.

In Acts 17:24-28, as he spoke with the leading philosophers in the Areopagus in Athens, Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

God determined the allotted periods and boundaries of our dwelling place. Incredible it is to consider that God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, determined the allotted periods—that is the point of time in history—and the boundaries—that is the territory and geographical nations—of our dwelling places. God made each of us uniquely for this era, this point in history. God chose the location where we were born, chose where we were raised, and purposed where we are now. By His hand and by His will, we were made for Him, for this place, for this hour. And in Him we live and move and have our being.

In light of Christ’s reign and rule, in light of God’s sovereignty in choosing us for this place at precisely at this point in His grand story, how then should those of us who are engaged in education and particularly those of us in Christian higher education move forward as a distinctively Christian university? How should we approach this great privilege of living in community and fulfilling our potential? How should we proceed in successfully conducting our mission?

Our mission in Christian higher education is noble. As a Christian liberal arts university, OBU transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ. As crucial as is our mission so are our University’s five core values. We are: Christ centered, Excellence Driven, Learning Focused, Missional Purposed, and Community Directed. Our mission and values drive who we are and what we do, and the boundaries of our actions.

Yet, I’ve been thinking not just of our mission and core values. I’ve been thinking much lately of our purpose—the why of who we are, and how and what we do. There is within our OBU mission statement a glimpse of our real purpose. In the midst of this well-crafted statement of who we are, and how and what we do (and amplified by and through our core values), we find this gem of the why we are a Christian liberal arts university. We find the reason why we equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.

Within our mission, and guided by our values, we find the essence of our real purpose both at our institution, but also in distinctively Christian higher education as a whole. We transform lives. Now our purpose is fuller than this, and in drafting a purpose statement a college or university may choose to enrich the language. But, as I’ve been thinking and praying about the start of a new academic year, I am struck with the importance of daily reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

Professionally and in the context of our mission and core values at OBU, why do we do what we do? But more so as an individual, why am I here? Not what or who am I, or how or what do I do, but why am I here personally? How our purpose is carried out can be found in the classroom as well as behind the scenes. For example, helping to organize our university’s formal convocation, to prepare the stage, to have all things ready for our official start to the year are scores of individuals who worked tirelessly without the pomp and circumstance. They physically labored to move equipment in, to have the turf outside mowed, and to have the air conditioning, electrical systems, and sound equipment in order. These electricians, and plumbers, carpenters and HVAC professionals are skilled and certified for the job that they do.

So why do they do what they do at a Christian university? They use their skills and abilities, their talents and vocations on college campuses because they share and are committed to the mission, values, and purpose of distinctively Christian higher education. With all who labor in our cause, whether in accounting, secretarial offices, admissions, academic services, or on the faculty, they help fulfill the mission of equipping the students for lives of purpose. They choose to invest their talents and work in Christian higher education because they love God, and they love knowing that they are helping to change the world through the ones educated and sent out. They labor because they love students and get just as misty-eyed and full of satisfaction when students successfully complete their courses of study and graduate as the faculty do and as I do. Not a commencement goes by that I do not see a man named Dave Gilmore, our HVAC specialist, holding doors open for students and faculty, pitching in to help with all of the extra details, displaying a broad smile and brimming with pride as each graduate marches by. He has a job to do, but he serves a greater purpose.

The one who fixes the plumbing late at night, who shovels the snow off the sidewalks in bad weather, and the one who rides the mower that we barely notice—their work matters because they are helping to transform lives. Each of us has a mission that defines who we are and what we do. Each of us has a purpose. Our purpose can be fulfilled a number of different ways. Careers and jobs and positions and roles may help describe our mission—who we are and how and what we do. But our purpose gets to the heart of why.

Once we discover and then develop our purpose, we can find satisfaction in a multitude of careers, jobs, situations. Because our purpose exists and continues whether or not our job or career or location or platform changes. Our purpose exists and continues regardless of current economic or social trends and conditions. Our purpose exists and continues regardless of shifting morals and political winds of change.

To faculty; you are engaged in the heart of our mission. Our mission is most directly fulfilled through your work with our students. To equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ is the responsibility of every employee; but central to our academic identity is your investment in the classroom. We rise or fall, succeed or fail upon the faculty’s work of educating and preparing the student not simply to make a living, but to make a life. Faculty, how you teach, mentor, and model matters. How you fulfill your purpose on Bison Hill, and what you do with your calling to prepare each of these students for his or her calling matters. In equipping our students to be men and women who are able to lead and serve, much rests on your shoulders.

To our office and administrative staff, support personnel, and facilities management staff, our mission and our purpose of transforming lives depends upon your faithful service. Your own modeling of hard work and dedication, your own examples of serving others and living the Christian life matters. Your word of encouragement, your prayer, your support and engagement with our students is life transforming. Your work matters. Our mission in Christian higher education depends upon you fulfilling your purpose, which enables our students to fulfill theirs.

Students, you are at the heart of both a Christian university’s mission and purpose. Yet, even you are here to discover, prepare, and begin to fulfill your personal purpose. You are certainly in college to receive an education, obtain a degree, and prepare for a career. But these goals get at what you are doing and what you are becoming; these get at the who and how of your preparation. Critical, yes. But think deeper. Think about the “Why?” In other words, if you are preparing to be a teacher, a professional, an artist, scientist, go into medicine, music, or missions, come to understand that those are the means by which you fulfill your purpose. Science is your platform. The arts are your platform. Your profession is your platform. Your purpose is the reason why you have a platform.

During your time and preparation in college, you will be equipped for service and leadership using that platform. You will be equipped to pursue academic excellence, because as a Christ follower we are to strive for excellence in the areas and platforms we are entrusted to serve and lead. You will be equipped to integrate faith with all areas of knowledge because we believe that all knowledge and truth is God’s truth, and like Augustine, we give faith a priority in the relationship between faith and reason. You will be equipped here to engage a diverse world, because God loves the world, because other people matter, because you must better understand the world in order to be more effective in your calling and in fulfilling your purpose. You will be equipped to live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ, because those around us need our witness. Because we are called by God to a such a great salvation and hope, and because we are called by God’s Word as a royal priesthood, we should walk as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Our collective efforts in distinctively Christian higher education, are focused on coming alongside students at this marvelous moment in life to accomplish the worthy mission of equipping you. My challenge to students is to think more deeply than just vocational calling, to think more deeply even than about your mission—that is, who you are and what you do. Use your time here to explore your purpose, and think about how you are going to steward your career, your platform, and how your will steward your time and preparation in college.

Students, you are in college for such a time as this. I pray that for the world you are inheriting and soon will lead, that you will become as sons of Issachar. Following the death of King Saul and his sons by the Philistines, all of Israel began to gather at Hebron to join with and proclaim David as King. Mighty warriors gathered to him there and among them were the chiefs of the Tribe of Issachar. We read in 1 Chronicles 12:32a: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…”

Students, you are chosen for this hour of history to prepare for life in the service of a greater King than David—that is the eternal Son of God, Jesus. You are divinely appointed for this hour to prepare to be equipped to lead, to be equipped to serve. You are at a specifics place, at this point in history, to be equipped as sons and daughters of Issachar—that is, as men and women of King Jesus, men and women who understand the times and know what to do.

How you prepare is vital. How you study is crucial. Whether you are to serve as an artist, lawyer, poet, business professional, musician, scientist, teacher, missionary, minister, doctor, nurse, or philosopher, you’re calling is to prepare well, to seek excellence. You are to become the best in your field. But beyond that, you are to use your careers, to use those platforms in which you serve, to fulfill your purpose.

Much sooner than any of us can comprehend, the world will be led, governed, served, and determined by today’s students and generation. The future of our churches, our institutions, our governments will be determined and shaped by you, students. Prepare well for the future. The rest of us are counting on you. Be often reminded that your purpose in life transcends any positions or titles or careers or job descriptions you will hold. Invest your time wisely. What you do while you are in college matters. Steward well your opportunities. Indeed, to all of us who follow Jesus, who have placed our faith, our lives, and our futures in Him: our work, our efforts, our words, and our actions have great consequence.

So, I’ve been thinking. Our world is lost and hurting and needs us to serve as ambassadors of Christ, as bearers of the Good News.

I’ve been thinking. In a racially and ethnically divided world, we who are followers of Christ are needed to intentionally engage in the work of reconciliation, to seek the reconciliation of others with God through Christ, and to lead the efforts for racial and ethnic reconciliation both here and abroad.

I’ve been thinking. In a world fraught with social ills, followers of Christ are needed to stand up for the downtrodden, defend the defenseless, help free those enslaved by human trafficking, and love the ones who finds themselves alone and marginalized, and to do so consistent with the teaching of God’s Word.

I’ve been thinking. In a world that values monetary success and power structures, Christ followers are needed to show a more excellent way, a way of leading by serving. May we demonstrate the counterintuitive model of putting others before self and leading with humility and love.

I’ve been thinking. In our own country as we enter the final stages of a political season and presidential election, we who follow Jesus are needed to show that no political party dictates, owns, or fully represents the Christian perspective or vote. Whatever our leanings, may we recognize that we are made one, not by political party, but in Christ. May we remind ourselves that no political ideology, movement, or candidate will solve the great challenges facing our nation and world. Only God can change hearts and minds and only God can heal a nation.

I’ve been thinking. In an age when the loudest, angriest voices in the room demand the most attention, let our quiet dignity, actions, and words, as well as our love, gentleness, patience and self-control define us. Let our winsome witness drown out the madness. May we be found keeping Christ’s Great Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I’ve been thinking. In a time of diminishing religious liberty around the world, let us lend our voices and efforts to the cause of those who are persecuted, marginalized, mistreated, tortured, and martyred because of their faith.

I’ve been thinking. In an era where it is tempting to think that the world has come unhinged and that the challenges ahead are too daunting, let us be reminded that this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. Jesus reigns. And we have work to do. We have a mission. We have a purpose to fulfill.

By / Mar 23

Philosophy, my graduate field of study, has taken hits in recent months. Who knew philosophers would be pitted against welders and subjected to assault from pop culture personalities? I chose philosophy well before such hubbub, but now seems as good a time as any to revisit why I did such a thing. Why did I, having been in the employ of a Southern Baptist entity for over a decade, choose to study philosophy?

1. Worldview reconnaissance

At the time I was considering graduate programs, I sought counsel from a host of people I trust. My interest was to continue work at the intersection of Christianity and the public square, with the nuance that I have particular interest in doing so directly among people who don’t necessarily share a Christian worldview. American culture continues to become more diverse in every way imaginable: religiously, ethnically, ideologically, politically. It is clear, then, that American Christians will increasingly interact with people who have no Christian memory. This is true whether you coach little league or petition Congress.

Most of the ideas the ERLC contends with in the public policy realm emanate from some kind of philosophy. This is true whether elected officials, government staff and advocacy groups are aware of it or not. Some of those ideas harmonize with Christian ethics while others—many others—do not. Thus, I decided I wanted a glimpse “behind the curtain” to see where these policy ideas come from. Consider it a kind of “worldview reconnaissance.”

2. Professional skills

Once I had some clarity about the theme of my professional interests, Barrett Duke suggested I consider philosophy. He said it would give me access to the ideas that become worldviews and would help me develop the inherent skill set necessary for worldview engagement, like argumentation and writing. He was correct. (And wow, was there writing.) As a bonus, the program forced me to write more precisely. (Yes, I’m a work in progress.) Further, the task of philosophy made me comfortable discussing both big, oversimplified concepts and nuanced specifics. Mainly, it helped recognize the difference between the two and learn to communicate appropriately.

3. Appreciation for original sources

During my particular track of study, I spent a good deal of time reading the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. I was also exposed to Jewish and Islamic scholars, along with some Christian authors I’d not previously read. The writings of all of the above influence our current public policy debates in one way or another, though well “upstream” from legislation and political pundits. I learned that a philosopher’s popular reputation is often different than the actual text. This led to a greater particular appreciation for engaging original sources.

For example, David Hume supposedly dispelled with rational belief in miracles. But a reading of On Miracles reveals he didn’t accomplish that task, at least not in that essay. Immanuel Kant supposedly disproved the existence of God. Yet a reading of Critique of Pure Reason shows that he too still believed, with “certainty,” in a deity. But I didn’t learn any of that from a wiki entry. I had to read the original texts.

I have since found that requesting a fair reading of original texts resonates in debates over ethics and policy. Whether responding to questions about the Bible, an SBC resolution or an ERLC policy position, I find it immensely useful to simply say, “Let’s look at the original source.” This cools what otherwise might be a contentious conversation and often corrects the record.

4. Confidence in my faith

In my program of study I was a minority with regard to worldview, and that was OK. Given a firm foundation in Scripture in advance, having your beliefs challenged can be a fruitful exercise. It helped me refine how I communicate about my faith. It provided confidence that the historic, orthodox Christian faith can withstand philosophical scrutiny. A familiarity with the likes of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul helped in recognizing presuppositions in philosophical arguments. (However, while such familiarity with Christian thinkers helps, it does not exempt a student from the deep-in-the-weeds work of academic philosophy.)

It became evident that secular philosophies have no substantial refutation of religious belief in general, nor Christianity in particular. No philosopher to date has found any silver bullet that takes down all religious belief, though many assume they have. I found many fellow students hadn’t actually read much of the Bible, and few approach it with even a neutral academic posture they would other ancient texts. There just isn’t anything I’ve seen that provides the materialist worldview a one-two punch against Christianity.

5. A focus on Christ

However logical, creative or absurd a philosophy, even a philosopher must do something with the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma has been accused by some philosophers of failing to “prove” Jesus is God. But that is to misunderstand the task of the trilemma. The only thing the trilemma accomplishes is to remove the fourth option, the claim that Jesus was merely a “great moral teacher.” In this philosophical exercise, He might still be a lunatic or liar. But if we affirm the existence of the man called Jesus (a question of history, not science or philosophy), and we read the Bible (the most original source we have about him), then only three options remain: He is either who he says he is (Lord), or he is a liar or lunatic.

Studying philosophy focused me on the person of Christ because I quickly saw how human efforts are, still, “striving after wind,” and “if Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (Eccl. 1:17, 1 Cor. 15:14). And by God’s grace, I still call him Lord, even after a philosophy degree.

By / Mar 15

Bill Nye is not a professional scientist, but he does play one on TV. You could even consider Nye a method actor, given how seamlessly he can disappear into his “science guy” alter ego. He does it so well, in fact, that he has flawlessly picked up on a lesser known trait of contemporary professional scientists: A dismissal of philosophy.

Nye’s skill was on display recently. Nye took to YouTube to answer a question from a philosophy major, who asked for Nye’s opinion on the discipline and on the disparaging comments made about it by some of Nye’s colleagues. Nye initially responded by saying that his colleagues haven’t actually disparaged philosophy, before going on to, well, disparage it himself.

Nye’s response wasn’t particularly impressive, and others have detailed his answer’s incoherence and deficient understanding of the actual disciplines of philosophy. But Nye shouldn’t be singled out in this regard. He is really just the latest in a long and distinguished line of scientific commentators to display skepticism at philosophy’s worth.

As Nye’s questioner pointed out, Stephen Hawking, arguably the most famous scientist in the world, recently declared that philosophy was “dead” and that science had killed it. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge,” Hawking declared, adding that science alone would “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the feverishly popular host of the recent Cosmos reboot, likewise has gone on the record about philosophy’s uselessness, labeling it an unnecessary “distraction” in the pursuit of knowledge. And of course, the anti-philosophy vanguard has been dutifully held for quite some time by biologists and New Atheist raconteurs Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.

Why does Athens have such a long and distinguished list of adversaries? The men mentioned above are not, after all, obscure professors at research universities. Hawking, Tyson, Dawkins, and even Nye are celebrity scientists, whose influence is felt in pop culture well beyond the halls of academia. What could unite these cultural educators in a common cause of putting philosophy back in its place?

One answer is that the scientific disciplines, especially at elite levels, have been hijacked by a nefarious worldview called scientism. Scientism is not a scientific method or even a particular approach to doing scientific research. Instead, scientism is a belief that scientific categories, such as biochemistry and neuroscience, can fully explain all phenomenon in the universe. According to scientism there is no human or cosmological experience that isn’t ultimately knowable as a process that can be subjugated to scientific observation or hypothesis.

Over the last few decades there has been an explosion in popular and academic scientific literature that attempts to use cutting edge scientific discoveries to “map out” reality. Everything, from sex and education, to art and religion, has been examined in light of neuroscience research, cognitive theory, and evolutionary biology. This trend has trickled down from classrooms into living rooms over the last decade via TED Talks, popular sermon-like lectures that often pin their most crucial observations and arguments on contemporary social science and cognitive research.

Of course, most normal audiences don’t consciously cultivate antipathy towards philosophy through “I Love Science” memes or “How Stuff Works” videos. But the reality is that science now serves as a kind of absolute cultural currency, in much the same way that philosophy and religion had functioned for thousands of years. Even a mere mention of “science says” conveys a sense of authority, an authority reasonable people shouldn’t question. The prevalence of this attitude in Western society can make discerning healthy confidence in the scientific method from the neo-materialism of scientism difficult. But it’s a distinction that matters.

As Oxford professor Roger Scruton has explained, scientism is an attempt to describe transcendent realities with only material or biochemical language. Thus, rather than marveling at the sense of delight and joy that great art can evoke, scientism reduces the artistic experience to neurological factors, taking away the mystery and spirituality of our experience of beauty. Scientism, according to Scruton, is a “refusal to adopt the posture that is inherent in the human condition, in which we strive to see events from outside and as a whole, as they are in the eyes of God.”

Given scientism’s aims, it’s not difficult to see why philosophy would be considered “dead,” or an “unnecessary distraction.” If there is no reality outside the things that can be measured by science, then philosophy’s historic questions about meaning, time, knowledge, the good, and God are merely babble. But from the Scriptures, we know that there are indeed transcendent realities that cannot be seen or even fathomed by man’s material mind. Not only is this the way God has set up the world, it’s good news: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Christians can and will continue to discuss and disagree about scientific questions. This is right and healthy. But we ought not disagree about the importance of asking questions and seeking truth beyond what scientific research can give us. We worship, after all, one literally joined heaven and earth together in his own flesh. What God has joined together, therefore, let not scientism separate.

By / Apr 4

Editor’s Note: This week, we’ll be running a three-part interview series featuring Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A 2009 New York Times profile labeled him the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” He’s the author of such works as Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism; and Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, both necessary guides for discerning our times. Though I’ve never had the privilege of studying with him formally, Robert George has been an academic mentor to me from afar, one whose thinking has been immeasurably impactful.

ATW: It seems increasingly likely that the Supreme Court is being primed to decide whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. On the assumption that the Supreme Court errs in its ruling and fiats same-sex marriage across the nation, what becomes of the pro-family movement, or what are our next steps? Should religious conservatives accept living as outsiders within our own country?

RPG: Well, one already sees religious freedom and the rights of conscience being attacked in the name of “anti-discrimination” principles. So this is not going to be easy.  The days of comfortable Christianity in the United States are over. It is going to be uncomfortable to be a Christian—increasingly so. We’re going to get a little taste of what Jesus meant when he said that to be his disciple one must take up one’s cross and follow him.  We’ll see how many self-described Christians are going to be willing to pay the price—usually a non-financial one—Jesus had in mind when he told the rich young man to “go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come and follow me.”  I suspect that a lot of Christians will be like that young man who, as you recall, “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”  They will not be willing to place at risk reputation, social standing, professional opportunities, and the like in order to bear witness and remain faithful to Christ.  We Christians and our fellow believers are already being labeled as “bigots” and “homophobes”; the next step will involve outright discrimination and the imposition of disabilities in domains such as employment, licensing, accreditation of institutions, and government contracting. This is going to be rough sailing.

But let me quote two men who were great friends and, as it happens, both dear friends of mine.

Chuck Colson:  “Stay at your post and do your duty.”

Richard John Neuhaus:  “Never weary, never rest. Stay ever faithful and trust God for the victory.”

My message is the same:  Stay strong. Stay faithful. Bear witness. Do not yield. Remain on the field of battle. Organize. Cooperate. Encourage one another.  Fight in the domain of ideas. Fight in the arena of politics. Fight in every nook and cranny of the culture.

And, as Fr. Neuhaus said, “trust God for the victory”—which will come on His terms and in His time.

ATW: At present, religious conservatives have their backs against the wall. What gives you hope or optimism about the future?

RPG: That’s an easy question.  First, Christ won the victory on Calvary. So we know how the story ultimately ends—and it is not with a victory for the devil over the dignity of human beings and the great principles of morality and justice that protect human dignity.  Second, how can I not have hope when I think of the courage and brilliance of those young people we discussed earlier—hundreds of them even in the small pool of my own students at Princeton and Harvard?

ATW: You’ve been an advocate for Natural Law ethics in your academic career. Many protestant Christians see the value of Natural Law, but view its efficacy with suspicion—that man’s capacity for honest and rational thinking has been corrupted by sin. What would you say to protestant thinkers that would accuse Natural Lawyers as having an anthropology that’s too optimistic?

RPG: I think the Augustinianism that is so strongly felt in the Protestant community is a healthy thing. In the end, our hope is in Jesus, not in any mere human power, including the power of reason.  One of my favorite hymns beautifully captures the basic thought:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;

I’d rather have Him, than riches untold.

I’d rather have Jesus, than houses or land;

I’d rather be led by His nail-scarred hands.

Than to be the King of a vast domain,

And be held in sin’s dread sway.

I’d rather have Jesus than anything

This world affords today.

So Jesus is the alpha and the omega; the beginning and the end.  But God has shared with us the gift of intellect.  And, in my judgment, he desires and expects us to use it—not only to defend truths that are revealed in sacred scripture, but to more deeply understand those truths and to ascertain truths that are not themselves among the data of revelation. Now, this is not to deny that reason, like everything else about us, has been damaged by the fall. That tragedy results not only in the weakening of the will, but in the darkening of the intellect as well. So it is folly, not to mention hubris, to suppose one can rely on one’s own wits to figure out all the important existential truths. Fortunately, God has seen fit to give us the Bible and the Church as our guides.

To my mind, the primary role of the Christian intellectual, including the natural law theorist, is to assist the Church in the project of proclaiming the Gospel by clarifying and deepening our understanding of saving truths—such as the truth about marriage as a one-flesh union. This is a good example of how the philosopher—and in particular the natural law theorist—can serve the Church. Apart from careful philosophical—natural law—analysis, one might be tempted to interpret the reference in Genesis 2 to marriage as a one-flesh union as some type of metaphor, something implying an especially intense but merely emotional bond between husband and wife. After all, how can two separate individuals become “one” in a bodily way? But philosophical reasoning enables us to see that such unity is indeed possible, and that what scripture is here proposing is meant literally, not merely metaphorically.  Having said all that, the Christian intellectual must also be guided by the Church and submissive to its authority as the mystical body of Christ. The intellectual—of any stripe—who believes in his own infallibility is in grave error and deep trouble.

ATW: A Southern Baptist ethics professor wanted me to ask you: “Do you believe there is an inherent moral limit to ‘rights language’ in the public square.

RPG: Yes. Not every true proposition about morality—or even justice—can be translated meaningfully—or at least not painfully awkwardly—into the language of rights.  That doesn’t mean rights language is bad or useless, only that its usefulness is limited.

ATW: Who and what are you reading on a daily basis?

RPG: I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, and these are wonderful occasions for Bible reading. I make it a habit not to bring my own Bible.  Most hotel rooms still have Gideon Bibles in the night table drawers, and when I’m in a hotel that does not allow them to be provided, I make it a point to call down to the main desk and ask why. I want them to know there is a demand. They usually manage to produce a Bible by the way.  Recently, I was in a hotel in Washington, D.C. that didn’t have a Bible.  Every room had a yoga mat, though.

I am a faithful reader of quite a few periodicals—First Things, Touchstone, National Review, the Weekly Standard, National Affairs, Commentary, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Criterion, Human Life Review, Foreign Affairs, the American Interest, the Atlantic.  I love British and American literature, so I often have a novel going.  It might be anything from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh.  I like biographies, too.  Because I serve on a number of boards and am chairing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I have lots of reports to get through—I’ll confess that reports are not my favorite reading.

ATW: Do you have any book projects in the works?

RPG: Patrick Lee and I will soon have a book out on the philosophy of marriage entitled Conjugal Union.  It is being published by Cambridge University Press.

ATW: If you could build your “perfect day,” what does Robby George do to unwind and relax?

RPG: Play the banjo. Then after doing that for a while, I’ll pick up a guitar and do my best Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed impersonations. If I’ve got a picking partner or two, I might spend a little time on the mandolin. I grew up in the hills and hollows of West Virginia, so Appalachian classical music (which you might know as “bluegrass”) is part of who I am.  I might then fire up YouTube on my computer and listen to some old fashioned Nashville or Bakersfield country music.  If I find a video of an especially good performance (by, say, Porter Waggoner or Kitty Wells) I’ll send the link to my pal Russell Moore.  He’s a true connoisseur and my musical soulmate.

To read part one, click here; part two, click here.

Robert George
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. You can find him on twitter at @McCormickProf.

By / Apr 2

Editor’s Note: This week, we’ll be running a three-part interview series featuring Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A 2009 New York Times profile labeled him the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” He’s the author of such works as Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism; and Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, both necessary guides for discerning our times. Though I’ve never had the privilege of studying with him formally, Robert George has been an academic mentor to me from afar, one whose thinking has been immeasurably impactful.

ATW: Within the conservative movement, you’re known to be as much as a coalition builder as you are a thinker of great repute. Why have you devoted much of your energy to coalitions?

RPG: It seems to me that the future of our civilization depends on whether a coalition can be formed to protect its foundational principles—otherwise they will surely be abandoned. They are obviously under severe assault today, especially in elite sectors of the culture, and a great deal of ground has already been lost. We live at a time, I believe, when the fundamental divisions are not between the different traditions of religious faith, as perhaps they once were.  Rather, the basic division is between those who hold to the basic moral code shared by the various traditions, and rationally defensible as a matter of natural law, on the one side, and those (including some who continue to self-identify as Christians or people of other faiths) who embrace liberal secularism and have jettisoned traditional beliefs, such as belief in the sanctity of human life and the idea of marriage as a conjugal union, in favor of a “new morality.” I am a Catholic, but I feel a much stronger kinship with, for example, my Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim friends, than with liberal Catholics who have—not to put too fine a point on it—sold out on abortion and are now selling out on assisted suicide and euthanasia, not to mention on the conjugal idea of marriage and fundamental points of sexual morality. So I am delighted—and proud—to stand alongside my comrades in arms of many different faiths, to work with them, to be inspired by them, and to learn from them.

ATW: You’ve also been an academic mentor to friends of mine like Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson. Can you talk about the importance of academic and worldview mentoring, especially as younger thinkers and scholars emerge?

RPG: Among the greatest blessings of my life are the brave and brilliant young men and women who have studied with me at Princeton and Harvard. Each one is a precious gift from God. You mention Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, who are my co-authors of the book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. What an extraordinary pair those two are! I marvel at their intellectual depth, profound faith, and personal courage. I can scarcely claim to have taught them or even been a role model for them. The reverse is closer to the truth—I have learned and been inspired more by them than they by me. And the same is true of so many others—Micah Watson, David Tubbs, Ramesh Ponnuru, Hannah Smith, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Melissa Moschella, Ted Cruz, Daniel Mark, Cassandra Hough, Jose Joel Alicea, Adele Keim, Fr. Michael McClane, Caitlin Seery, and on and on. I could name hundreds of them now, in fields ranging from politics and journalism to academia and religious life. If I may quote Yankees baseball legend Lou Gehrig, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”

Young intellectuals such as those I’ve mentioned face a tougher job than those of my generation did—in large part because of our failures and delinquencies—but they are more committed and intellectually stronger and better equipped than we were. The task may well be Herculean, but in people like Sherif and Ryan we have our Hercules.

ATW: What advice would you give to young Christians that desire to have a career within the secular academic guild?

RPG: Go for it. Do not be afraid. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by the hegemony of liberal secularism in the academy. If you’ve got what it takes—and if you are willing to work hard to meet the higher standard that will be demanded of you—you can have a successful and fulfilling career and you can advance the cause of learning and thus serve the cause of Christ in a profoundly important domain of our cultural life.

The natural tendency of aspiring academics who dissent from the left-liberal orthodoxy is to lay low, hide their views, and steer clear of controversy. The plan is to get the doctorate, get an academic job, get tenure, and then perhaps “hoist the Jolly Roger.” I warn my graduate students that this is a mistake. Such a strategy is likely to have a bad effect on the character and personality of people who pursue it, and it probably won’t work anyway. So I advise them to make no secret of their dissent. Indeed, in many cases I suggest making a point of it. There are few things more impressive than a display of brilliance by someone courageous enough to express disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies in places like colleges and universities—institutions that flatter themselves with the myth that “there are no orthodoxies—no sacred cows—here.” I’m certainly glad that I did not personally pursue the strategy of hiding my convictions. Doing the opposite of that forced me to produce better work and, I believe, enabled me to earn the respect—if, in some cases, grudging—of many of my liberal secularist colleagues.

ATW: In the wake of the Arizona religious liberty bill’s veto, it seems that the cultural Left and the LGBT lobby are communicating that a “live and let live” approach to disagreement over sexuality isn’t likely. What are our tactics in combatting the hypocrisy and animus of the Left?

RPG: The best way to deal with hypocrisy of any type is to expose it. We should be relentless in doing that. And there is plenty of it to expose.  Frankly, we did not do enough or do well enough in exposing the lies about the Arizona bill propagated by the enemies of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.  Not enough people—especially religious, political, and intellectual leaders—spoke up.  People who should have been leading the battle were AWOL.  That must never happen again. As for the animus, here is the key thing—and this is my message for every Christian:  Do not be intimidated.  Fear God, not men. Stand up to the bullies. Do not acquiesce.  Do not go silent.  Bear witness—publicly.

To read part one, click here; and be sure to stay tuned for the final installment on Friday.

Robert George
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. You can find him on twitter at @McCormickProf.

By / Mar 31

Editor’s Note: This week, we’ll be running a three-part interview series featuring Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A 2009 New York Times profile labeled him the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” He’s the author of such works as Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism; and Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, both necessary guides for discerning our times. Though I’ve never had the privilege of studying with him formally, Robert George has been an academic mentor to me from afar, one whose thinking has been immeasurably impactful.

ATW: What theologians, ethicists, or philosophers have been most influential to your own thinking and why?

RPG: Although I would scarcely qualify as a Platonist, the greatest philosophical influence in my life was certainly Plato. Reading his dialogue Gorgias awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers, fundamentally transforming my attitude about ideas, arguments, and intellectual life generally. It happened in an undergraduate course in political philosophy at Swarthmore, where I was an undergraduate. Before my encounter with Plato, my views were largely shaped by a desire to be, and to be regarded as, a sophisticated person.  I tended to believe what I thought sophisticated people were supposed to believe. I was a skilled debater, so I knew how to defend my views; but I had never actually thought in a serious or critical way about most of the stances I took. Plato made me stop and rethink—or, to be brutally honest, to actually think through for the first time—quite literally everything. When I did that, I found that much of what sophisticated people thought, or were supposed to think, just didn’t hold up under scrutiny. By liberating me to reject fashionable elite opinion, Plato led me out of a kind of intellectual slavery into freedom. My debt to him is incalculable.

Substantively, my thought about philosophical matters (especially those pertaining to ethics and the social sciences) has been shaped most decisively by Plato’s student and critic, Aristotle. I do qualify, I think, as a neo-Aristotelian.  I believe that ethical reflection begins with our intelligent grasp of principles directing choice and action towards various constitutive aspects of human well-being and fulfillment—the basic human goods that provide more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for our choosing and acting—and away from their privations, and that moral norms are specifications of the integral directiveness of these goods and reasons. As that sentence perhaps suggests, the other major philosophical influence on my work is Aristotle’s great medieval expositor and interpreter, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Among modern philosophers, I’ve learned an enormous amount from Bernard Lonergan, Elizabeth Anscombe, Germain Grisez, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., John Haldane, Alasdair McIntyre, and my doctoral supervisors John Finnis and Joseph Raz.  Religious thinkers and public intellectuals whose work and witness have been important to me include David Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, Charles Colson, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Leon Kass, Hadley Arkes, Daniel Robinson, Gilbert Meilaender, Timothy George, James Dobson, Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Sacks, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Mary Ann Glendon.

ATW: One persistent concern about those involved in the defense of marriage is the complexity of the arguments, and in turn, their general inaccessibility to the general population. What advice would you offer those who think our arguments are too complex?

RPG: I myself am not good at reducing complex ideas to sound bites. Someone else will have to be put in charge of that task. But I’m not sure that the basic argument for marriage is actually all that complicated. The argument for redefining marriage as something other than a conjugal union—that is, as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership—collapses pretty quickly when one demonstrates that what Sherif, Ryan, and I call the “revisionist” account of marriage is incapable of providing a principled basis for any of marriage’s structuring norms—(1) the idea that marriage is a sexual partnership, as opposed to a relationship integrated around any of a variety of other non-sexual shared interests or activities (playing tennis, reading novels, or what have you); (2) the belief that marriage is sexually “closed” rather than “open”—thus requiring strict fidelity; (3) the proposition that marriage is the union of two people, and not three or more in so-called polyamorous sexual ensembles; (4) the idea that true marriage includes a pledge of permanence—“till death do us part”—and is not for a fixed term of years, or “for as long as love lasts.” Of course, to get an interlocutor to see this, one must first raise the curiously overlooked question in the debate—the question on which all else turns:  What is Marriage?

Believers in “same-sex marriage” almost always are people who have uncritically come to believe that marriage just is a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. They lack any sense of the historic and cross-cultural idea of marriage as a conjugal union.  So the key is to get the two possibilities out there clearly for people’s consideration. Then the question becomes, simply, which view of marriage can provide a principled basis for its structuring norms. At that point, the revisionist view is checkmated. From there, what remains is to flesh out the meaning of marriage as a conjugal (comprehensive, one-flesh) union, and answer the standard objections (such as the claim that the coitus of infertile spouses is indistinguishable from sodomitical intercourse). Much of our book is concerned with those tasks.

ATW: How would you explain the principles found within “What is Marriage?” to middle school students and younger kids? Or, perhaps I’ll ask differently: How can Christian (and non-Christian) parents equip their young children with a view of marriage that you’re promoting?

RPG: If ever there were a case when it is important to teach by both precept and example, this is it.  Parents certainly need to model true marriage for their children.  That’s because the main way we learn the meaning of marriage is by observing the marriages of others, beginning with our parents if we are fortunate enough to have married parents.  Dads need to be good dads—and husbands.  Moms need to be good moms—and wives. But given the false and destructive messages about the meaning of marriage kids are being sent by the culture, setting a good example will not be enough.  From a fairly young age children need to be taught that marriage is the relationship that brings a man and woman together in a covenantal bond as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children that may come of their union.  When teaching children about the birds and the bees, parents need to help their children understand that in the marital embrace a husband and wife truly (and not merely metaphorically) become one-flesh. Kids need to be taught that the body is not a mere instrument (as if persons were minds or spirits inhabiting “merely material” bodies), but is rather part of the personal reality of the human being. So bodily (sexual) union is truly personal union; and marital union actualizes and enables spouses fully to experience the reality and good of their marriage.

ATW: True or False: Biblical morality is human morality. Whether true or false, can you explain your view?

RPG: True. As the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgy puts it, God is the lover of man. And love is no mere feeling:  it is the active willing of the good of the other for the sake of the other.  God wills the good for man—the human good, our good. His commands are not arbitrary dictates, unconnected to our flourishing or integral fulfillment; nor are they mere tests of our obedience or worthiness of heaven. God gives us his commands, rather, so that we can have life, and have it in abundance. That is why no truth of natural law—no moral truth—is out of line with the will of God. Every such truth—like every truth of every type—is God’s truth, in line with His willing of our flourishing.

Stay tuned for part two on Wednesday.

Robert George
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. You can find him on twitter at @McCormickProf.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.