I recently interviewed Gregg Ten Elshof about Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. Currently, Gregg is the Director of the Center, and chairperson of the undergraduate philosophy department and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola.
Gregg has been a contributor to Philosophia Christi, and the author of various works in metaphysics and epistemology, including more recently, the award-winning book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009).
The Center for Christian Thought (CCT) is a fairly new institutional endeavor at Biola University. It’s branded as “An important opportunity for scholars. An important resource for society.” There seems to be an interesting dynamic at work here about how Biola views the good of “Christian knowledge work”. Can you tell us about that in light of the mission of the Center?
The Mission of CCT is to be a forum where leading Christian thinkers from around the world will gather for up to a year at a time to research and discuss significant issues of our day – with the goal of making valuable contributions to the academy, the church, and the broader culture.
The idea driving the Center is that we can serve our world by creating an environment conducive to the best possible Christian scholarship on important issues and then working hard to communicate that scholarship to folks wrestling with real issues.
What sort of work will CCT do? How will it do it?
At the heart of CCT is a yearly residential Fellowship program. Each year there will be a theme and a multidisciplinary collection of residential fellows working on a set of focal questions related to that theme. These Fellows will meet weekly to present their work-in-progress and receive critical feedback from one another. This is a unique opportunity for Christian scholars from around the world to engage in sustained, collaborative multi-disciplinary work with Christians who approach things from a variety of perspectives.
Moreover, CCT will work with its Fellows to translate their work to a variety of non-academic audiences. The website will have a growing collection of “4-views” papers from Christians with different perspectives on important topics. It will collect short video interviews with thought leaders. It will host pastors’ lunches to equip Christian leaders with cutting-edge Christian thought. It will host conferences for academic and non-academic audiences. And more besides.
How has your passion for Christian scholarship been cultivated over the years? Who do you see as models for the vocation of a Christian scholar?
In my early 20’s my teachers at Biola (Doug Geivett, JP Moreland, Scott Rae and others) communicated to me a vision for careful Christian research in the context of community and intellectual friendship. They also helped me to see the power of ideas and the shaping influence of academic institutions. If we want to change the world for Jesus, we’ve got to get Christian ideas discussed and taken seriously in the institutions responsible for safeguarding, developing, and disseminating knowledge.
In my later 20’s and 30’s, Dallas Willard provided for me a model of careful philosophical work combined with penetrating analysis of the Christian life. In many ways, I learned how to follow Jesus into my vocation from Willard. I’m still learning from him. From a greater distance, I’ve been challenged by folks like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and (especially) Paul Moser who refuses to leave Jesus and the Scriptures behind – even as they have found their way in and out of mainstream discussion in philosophy.
Why this Center at Biola?
Biola is nicely situated to bring together evangelical thought and concerns with the thought and concerns of a broader swath of Christianity. Biola is a trusted voice within evangelicalism. But there is here – increasingly, I think – an intellectual environment conducive to dialogue with folks from other streams of Christian thought.
In my general estimation, there seems to be a dearth of scholarly, evangelical resources that can model how an “evangelical view” on a topic can do “work” with a) other relevant bodies of knowledge (religious and non-religious); and especially b) other “competing views” on a topic. Will the Center seek to help remedy this “problem” in some way? If so, how?
If we want to sharpen the evangelical voice – if we want to produce the very best evangelical scholarship and find an ear for it beyond evangelical publics, we must get the brightest evangelical scholars in conversation (sustained collaborative conversation – not just the sort of conversation that happens at a 2-day conference event or a debate) with their non-evangelical counterparts. Even better if we can help evangelical scholars into intellectual friendships with their non-evangelical counterparts. CCT will facilitate sustained conversation and (if all goes well) budding intellectual friendships that transcend the evangelical/non-evangelical distinction.
Let’s also talk about the rest of the current leadership team for the Center. Working with you are Associate Directors Tom Crisp and Steve Porter. I can’t help but notice that all of you have philosophy backgrounds and teach philosophy. What’s that all about? How might a philosophy background strengthen the focus and vision of this multi-disciplinary Center.
Well, we (here) are all well aware of the fact that philosophy is, at least in part, a second-order discipline. We make it our business to think about the other disciplines and how they relate. So philosophers are (or can be) naturally suited to the task of integration. But what draws this team together isn’t a common interest in philosophy. Rather, we share a vision for the kind of collaborative work that the Center tries to facilitate. It has been my privilege (I wish there were a stronger way of putting that) to be caught up in Christian intellectual friendship with Steve and Tom for a lot of years now. I can’t imagine (honestly – I’ve tried and can’t) two better people to host our Fellows and guide them into the kind of collaborative Christian thinking we’ve got in mind for the Center.
A wonderful Fellowship is in the works for 2012 with Plantinga and Wolterstoff. Tell us about that endeavor and the kind of scholars that should seriously apply for this unique opportunity at the Center.
The theme for the spring 2012 semester will be “Christian Scholarship in the 21st Century: Prospects and Perils.” Questions to be addressed include: What is Christian Scholarship? Why is it important? What are its proper aims and methods? What challenges does it face? Whom does it serve and how?
In some ways, we’re asking the question for this first semester, “What should a Center like this give it’s energies to in the years to come?” It really is going to be fantastic. Our Fellows will have the opportunity to participate in a two-week seminar with Professors Alivn Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff at the beginning of the term. Plantinga and Wolterstorff will return at the end of the semester to interact with the Fellows’ work in a two-day conference.
Scholars from any discipline whose projects intersect with our theme are encouraged to apply. Fellows will receive a $25,000 stipend and will have an office in the newly constructed space given over to CCT on Biola’s campus. They’ll have research assistants and a staff ready to help them translate their work to the variety of audiences we’re hoping to reach (the academy, the church, and culture more broadly). Most importantly, they’ll do their work in proximity with others approaching similar questions from a variety of perspectives. We’ll even spend some time in the mountains together.
Dallas Willard has written about “Pastors as Teachers of the Nations” in his Knowing Christ Today book. As you know, Dallas talks about how pastors are stakeholders of a Christian knowledge tradition (among other things) and that the church is a knowledge institution. How can pastors, churches, and other non-academic publics benefit from the work of the Center?
This question is close to our hearts at CCT. We really do want to make the best of Christian scholarship available and accessible to these pastors and teachers of the nations. Our plan is to regularly host Pastors’ lunches in order to give our Fellows and others the opportunity to equip Christian leaders with biblical perspectives on the issues that matter most to their parishioners. In addition, as you know Joe (because it was your idea), we’re considering the possibility of appointing a pastor-in-residence for each year. This will be a thoughtful and influential person in the Christian community who can be freed up to be a regular participant in the conversations and events of CCT for that year.
In at least one important respect, CCT walks a fine line. It’s not a “pure” ivory-tower think tank. It endeavors to make the very best of Christian thought accessible not only to the academy but to the Church and culture more broadly. But neither is it a clearinghouse for the popularization of existing Christian scholarship. Its residential Fellowship program endeavors to facilitate first-rate cutting-edge scholarship on the topics that matter most.
You can learn more about Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought by visiting their website at www.cct.biola.edu.