The Bryan Institute: An Interview with Director Daryl Charles

March 07, 2011
Posted by Joe Gorra

Bryan College is a leader in Christian worldview integration efforts, including the importance of philosophy to those efforts. The Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice, Directed by EPS member and Philosophia Christi contributor, Daryl Charles, is indispensable to Bryan’s institutional mission and contribution to the public. I recently interviewed Daryl about a new and exciting symposium sponsored by the Institute, which EPS members will want to attend, September 30-October 1, 2011.

The Bryan Institute Symposium, “Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation,” will feature a stellar cast of scholars in Old Testament biblical and theological studies. Who’s coming and what are you wanting to accomplish with this symposium?

The “Reading Genesis 1-2” symposium indeed will bring together a stellar cast of OT scholars whose positions on how to interpret the creation narratives together represent great diversity on the spectrum of Christian belief.

Participants include Dr. John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Graduate School, author of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP, 2009) and, most recently, Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, forthcoming); Dr. Tremper Longman III, the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and author/co-author/co-editor of over twenty books, including, most recently (with physicist Richard Carlson), Science, Creation, and the Bible (IVP, 2010); Dr. Richard E. Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages and Director of the Ph.D. program in Theological Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, co-editor (with Mark W. Chavalas and David B. Weisberg) of Life and Culture in the Ancient Near East (CDL Press, 2003); Dr. C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament in the Department of Scripture and Interpretation at Covenant Theological Seminary and author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Crossway, 2003) and Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (P &R, 2006); and Dr. Todd Beall, Professor of Old Testament and Chair of the Department of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Capital Bible Seminary and author of Josephus’ Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

The goal of the symposium is to bring together the best in OT scholarship for the purpose of serious and irenic dialogue on significant issues that emerge from the text of the Genesis creation narratives. Doubtless, how to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 and how to allow the text to inform debates over origins have been a perennial source of interest and controversy. More recently, the intensity of these debates has increased notably. The new level of interest is mirrored, for example, in the work of the Templeton Foundation in encouraging dialogue between theologians and scientists as well as in conversation and debate being generated by BioLogos. It is the vision of the Bryan Institute to foster, both within the Christian academy and the wider Christian community, charitable and reasoned dialogue on contentious issues and questions that might generate significant disagreement.

Over the years, and even more recently, there’s been lots of discussion on Genesis 1-2. For interested Christian philosophers, theologians and others scholars working at the intersection of these disciplines, how might this conference benefit them?

We are in the midst of a very exciting season of dialogue regarding the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. Recent discoveries, for example, from the ancient Near East, fresh reading perspectives of literary genre and style, and significant engagement with Second Temple and Jewish literature all provide an opportunity to “take up and read” afresh the creation account in Genesis. Evangelicals in the church and the academy are involved in a robust conversation on how to read Genesis in its ancient Israelite context.

The early chapters of Genesis are foundational in constructing the framework and contours of a distinctly Christian understanding of reality. As such, the doctrine of creation is critical as the explanation of the telos of nature and history. It provides the basis for a coherent view of the universe from beginning to end, allowing for a unified sense of truth and meaning. And it explains why the universe is intelligible at all, facilitating the ability of human beings to probe and study it as rational knowers.

Current scholarly evangelical work on the Old Testament presents challenges to the traditional reading of Genesis 1-2. Rather than assuming that Genesis presents an historical account of God creating man from the dust of the earth, that Adam was the common ancestor of all humans, and that human creation occurred in the relatively recent past, a newer reading suggests acceptance of long ages of the earth and Darwinian evolution alongside a belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture.

Interpreting the text of the Genesis creation narratives raises intriguing challenges for both epistemology and textual authority, as well as for the nexus of biblical and scientific claims. How we approach the text has implications for theology, philosophy, science and ethics. Hence, people representing a broad range of academic interest would benefit from this conversation on “reading Genesis” – a conversation that needs to take place in an atmosphere of calmness and Christian charity.

Even when the focus of the symposium will be hermeneutical, the fruits of the dialogue will be unavoidably and richly inter-disciplinary. To probe the Genesis creation narratives, hermeneutics, cosmology and origins of life is to stand at the intersection of biblical literature and biblical theology, theology and science, science and moral philosophy, moral philosophy and psychology; it is to position ourselves at the juncture of physical science and philosophy of science, literary theory and biblical studies, cosmology and philosophical hermeneutics. Thus, “Reading Genesis 1-2” offers a practical and critically important test-case for how we work out this inter-dependence.

You are the Director and Senior Fellow of the Bryan Institute and you’ve been a contributor to various publishing and institutional inter-disciplinary efforts. Talk to us about your passion for the integration of Christian knowledge with other bodies of knowledge.

One of the great joys of serving with the Bryan Institute is its inter-disciplinary focus. The Institute’s very reason for being is the vision of Christian liberal arts education in the widest and best sense. If the Christian educator is motivated by a vision rooted in the redemption of all things (as per Col. 1:15-20, for example), then Christian education and scholarship take on a whole new cast: within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, we are commissioned both to explore all realms of knowledge and to view the inter-connectedness of all realms of knowledge.

The founding of the modern university in the medieval period, it needs reiterating, was the fruit of a distinctly Christian vision of all of reality. Christianity insists that revealed truth is universally normative and not merely perspectival, as propounded by the cultural Zeitgeist. Given the present tendency of much higher education, even in a religious context, to relativize truth-claims, foster skepticism, denigrate any sort of creedal commitments, and substitute social and political activism for intellectual rigor on the one hand and a tendency toward fideism or anti-intellectualism on the other, the need for a renewed commitment to rigorous study of scripture and theology, ethics, philosophy and the cultural Zeitgeist is imperative. Christian liberal arts education in the best sense refuses to create or sustain false dichotomies that so often attend religious faith, whether Word versus Spirit, faith versus reason, sacred versus secular, or pietism versus activism. For this reason, one of the supremely encouraging developments of the last two decades has been the significant interest among Christians in the study of philosophy. The consequence, I would hope, is that the Christian academy is strengthened in manifold ways, giving rise to a critique of the culture that is simultaneously robust and sensitive.

What is the vision and mission of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice?

The Institute exists for the purpose of facilitating cross- and inter-disciplinary dialogue on significant cultural and theological topics of the day by means of symposia, publications, and on-campus educational activity. Symposia are designed to bring together theoreticians and practitioners who are engaged in the highest levels of scholarly inquiry in their respective academic disciplines. These “convocations,” moreover, endeavor to foster irenic dialogue between diverse viewpoints within the wider bounds of Christian orthodoxy, thereby serving as a model to both the church and the academy. In this regard, the Augustinian maxim serves as a helpful model and thus bears repeating: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things charity. Correlatively, the Institute desires to embody the unity and harmony of faith and reason that, historically, has been professed by the Christian church (as per John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, for example); only by refusing to separate these two realms can the Christian community substantially contribute to the formation of intellectual culture. Typically, the fruits of each symposium are published in a volume that will serve as a resource for both Christian scholars and thoughtful lay persons.

What are some of the past topics that the Bryan Institute has highlights? How have they been significant to the Institute’s mission?

Past topics of BI symposia include bioethics and human meaning, the nature of the church, popular culture and communication, evangelicals and global warming, the natural law, war and peace, Christian worship, criminal justice and human trafficking, Christ and culture, and the integration of faith and psychological method. These and future topics of BI symposia are reflective of the Institute’s mission, which is inter-disciplinary in its trajectory and inclusive of both theory and praxis.
How is the Bryan Institute structured within the overall organization of the college and how does the Institute reflect the ethos and values of the college?

The Institute works with the office of the VP for Academic Affairs at Bryan College and alongside the College’s various academic departments, wherever possible. For example, the “Reading Genesis 1-2” symposium of Fall 2011 will be hosted in concert with the Division of Christian Studies; the Fall 2010 symposium (“International Human Rights”) was co-sponsored with the Center for Leadership Initiatives; the Spring 2010 symposium (“Christianity and Psychology: Five Views”) was done in concert with the Department of Psychology; and the Fall 2009 symposium (“Christ and Culture”) was planned with the help of Christian Studies. Future projected symposia will involve co-sponsorship by the departments of Psychology, Communication Studies, and English Literature.

Despite the popular and at times wildly distorted stereotype promulgated by the film “Inherit the Wind” and caustic opponents of the Christian faith such as H.L. Mencken, the College’s namesake very much embodied a “public faith,” which made him quite progressive for his time. After all, William Jennings Bryan was a life-long Presbyterian and Democrat whose views were deemed quite “liberal,” a Congressman, a three-time Democratic Presidential candidate, and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. What’s more, Bryan is judged by historians of the era as the greatest orator of his age. More importantly, he believed that Christian faith should inform all of reality, including social reform, public policy, education, as well as care for the needy and defenseless. Above all, Bryan was a defender of human life at all stages along the life spectrum, and despite the unfortunate legacy of the Scopes trial, Bryan was not so much concerned with evolution (he was an “old-earther” by conviction) as with the social implications of Darwinian thinking, which are crowding the public sphere today with renewed vigor. (For a balanced assessment of Bryan’s career and public life, see the biography written by Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan [Alfred A. Knopf, 2006]).

In the end, it is hoped that the Bryan Institute embodies a markedly “public faith,” that it speaks with a measure of WJB’s rhetorical force, and that it embodies WJB’s commitment to defend life – across the “life spectrum” – in a day when metaphysics not infrequently masquerades as science.

For the “Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation” symposium in the Fall, what do you envision about what might be some fruitful work for Christian philosophers to consider as a result of coming to this event? What are some areas for Christian philosophers to develop as they pay attention to these chapters in Genesis?

For starters, in our time there exists among Christian philosophers a notable interest in philosophy of science, which in past generations of education has not attended the sciences or the study of the sciences. This interest is both a natural development of Christian reflection on all of reality – physical and metaphysical – and a salutary expression of a full-orbed, fully integrated approach to Christian liberal arts education.

The notion that scientific inquiry – or, theological inquiry, for that matter – can proceed as a “neutral” entity, of course, is impossible. The value of Christian reflection on any discipline – and particularly the sciences – is that it (quite properly, I should emphasize) concerns itself with ideological pre-commitments and metaphysical assumptions at work in any human endeavor, whether theoretical or practical.

Theology and philosophy, as we observe in the historic Christian tradition, work in tandem; they necessarily mirror an interdependence. In this light, “Reading Genesis 1-2” provides an extraordinarily useful test-case of one’s hermeneutic and one’s ideological pre-commitments. Recall my prior thesis: “The early chapters of Genesis are foundational in constructing the framework and contours of a distinctly Christian understanding of reality. As such, the doctrine of creation is critical as the explanation of the telos of nature and history. It provides the basis for a coherent view of the universe from beginning to end, allowing for a unified sense of truth and meaning. And it explains why the universe is intelligible at all, facilitating the ability of human beings to probe and study it as rational knowers.” If this assertion is true, then the symposium promises to illustrate the thesis.

Reading scripture as a source of knowledge of what is real (and not merely as a source of one’s religious beliefs and practices) seems to be an important feature of the symposium. If so, I wonder if you might have some further encouragement about how Christian philosophers might want to read scripture in such a way so as to make philosophical sense of it?

As suggested in prior comments, biblical theologians, biblical exegetes, and philosophers should be interacting particularly with respect to hermeneutical issues and textual interpretations that are of metaphysical value and import. Surely, the creation narratives qualify as significant – and paradigmatic – in this regard. The five symposium speakers will bring vastly differing assumptions to their reading of the biblical text. Why? What interpretive framework supports their individual convictions? And wherein are these hermeneutical commitments rooted?

Christian philosophers, if I may accentuate an earlier point, have a stake in demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason, especially in a period of ensconced epistemological nihilism as we find today. The philosopher aids the church and the academy in wedding the text to – rather than divorcing and isolating it from – broader hermeneutical considerations, ideological pre-commitments, scientific inquiry, and creedal faith.

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