Questions that Matter: Gregg Ten Elshof and Thomas Crisp on Christian Thought
Dane Sanders interviews Gregg Ten Elshof and Thomas Crisp, founding directors of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, about the importance of careful thinking about questions that matter, the work of CCT, intellectual virtue and civil discourse, and the goals of Christian scholarship.
It’s interesting to me that we have a chance to be up here. We have a little bit of a history. We happen to … I should also mention there’s a third director who’s not here today, Dr. Steve Porter. But these guys are going to represent. We go way back. We had the experience of spending some time together at Talbot Seminary here at Biola, years ago, before you went on to Notre Dame and USC. I’m wondering if you guys could share just a little of your journeys because you’re academics, you didn’t set out to start a Center for Christian Thought at Biola University, and yet, here we are. So could you, in brief, just share a little bit of your academic journey that led to where we are today?
Should I go?
All right. Hello. Welcome back from lunch.
My mic is not on?
I think it is now. It’s slowly …
Am I on now?
Coming back? All right.
Test, test, test. Yes.
Let’s see, so I was enrolled as an undergraduate person at Westmont College in the 90’s. I say an undergraduate person because I wasn’t yet a student. I didn’t care much about learning. I was there because that’s what you do after high school if you want to make decent money somewhere down the road. And it wasn’t until my senior year in college, sitting in on the philosophy class that everybody has to take at Westmont, where I saw the professor of that course and a professor from the History Department, who was sitting in on that course, fight. [laughs]
They would spend every class session in vigorous disagreement about these big questions. But it was clear to all of us in the room that all of this vigorous disagreement had behind it a deep and long-lasting friendship. For me, that was absolutely compelling. For the first time, I fell in love with learning. I caught a vision for myself as a scholar.
And so I went to graduate school largely for the purpose of engaging big questions and hopefully in the context of friendships. So fast forward longer than I care to admit, the Center for Christian Thought now is a place where we’re trying to do that. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where we can pursue big ideas and disagree with one another vigorously in the context of budding and growing intellectual friendships. That’s a quick shot of my journey.
That’s great. Tom?
My story is similar. I was an engineering major as an undergraduate here in the LA area. I am a voraciously curious person. I loved engineering and I loved the problems of engineering. But somewhere during my study of engineering, someone introduced me to philosophy, they gave me a book about philosophy, which I devoured. And I caught a vision for the beauty of the big ideas, the big questions. What is goodness? What is justice? What is it to treat someone with dignity, with respect?
These big questions gripped me. And so I came to Biola in the mid-1990’s to study philosophy, to wrestle with these big questions. And I found a community of people who were committed to being good friends to one another, who wanted to pursue the big questions together in friendship. And that gripped me even further. And so the rest of my academic life has been trying to find a group of friends to pursue the big questions with. And that brought me back to Biola to teach with Greg and others.
And when we had the opportunity to start the Center for Christian Thought, our vision was let’s create a context where people can cultivate friendship while pursuing the big questions. And so this really animated me. It still does.
I’m hearing some common themes. I’m guessing you guys are too. Big ideas, big questions, and in the context of community. And one of my favorite phrases that I’ve heard come up consistently in our conversations around the CCT is coming up with non-trite conversations, responses, answers, those sorts of things, around life’s big questions.
And embedded in that kind of summation of what we’re trying to do at CCT, it strikes me as a bit of a corrective. Like there’s a hope that CCT would offer something unique that in our particular culture we don’t see enough of. I’m wondering if you guys could comment just a little bit on what you were hoping CCT will offer that maybe our Christian Evangelical culture, in particular, could really benefit from.
So for me, for as long as I’ve been a scholar, now I’ve moved in two worlds. I’ve moved in the church world, and I’ve moved in the world of scholarship. And increasingly, I’ve been worried about a disconnect between those two worlds. So when I’m at church, I find I’m with people who have to settle for trite and shallow answers to some of the biggest and most important questions of human existence. Sometimes, because they don’t have the patience or interest in pursuing things more deeply. But other times, and more disturbingly, because they don’t think there’s anything better out there.
On the other hand, when I’m in the world of scholarship, I often find I’m with people who are interacting with questions that have no real bearing on the real lives of people in the church. And so then I think it’s not so surprising that folks in the church don’t want to hear from us, because we’re interacting with questions that they don’t care about. And so, for me, there’s been this disconnect that’s been a bummer on both sides. It’s a bummer for my friends in the church because they’re having to settle for these trite answers to big questions.
And it’s a bummer for people who are in the world of scholarship who could be spending their time on questions that really matter for people outside the academy, but instead, they’re spinning their wheels on questions that don’t have much bearing on real life and the church. So I feel like there’s a cost on both sides of that equation for the disconnect between what’s happening in the world of Christian scholarship and what’s happening in the church.
Yeah, one of the things that we’ve become convinced of is that the Christian intellectual tradition is a treasure trove of resources for dealing with life’s most important questions. For how to think about issues of justice and questions about reconciliation, and questions about what it is to treat the others with dignity, and how to think about suffering and the problem of evil, and so much more besides.
These are real questions that affect our daily lives and the Christian intellectual tradition has all kinds of fascinating and helpful and beautiful things to say about it, and we’re really energized by the project of empowering Christian scholars to think and write on these things and then finding ways to get it into the pews so that it’s translated into a language that isn’t just for specialists. This is something that we’ve come to think is deeply important.
So maybe that’s a helpful segway. This event, this table conference, is in many ways our efforts to get things from the scholarly conversation to the popular conversation, at least one manifestation of that idea. Maybe you could share, just in brief, a little of the bigger picture. Like how does the table conference fit into the bigger picture of what we’re doing at CCT? What’s going on in that building over there that these folks might not know about?
Yeah, so there are these two dimensions of what we’re doing. On the one hand, we’re trying to resource Christian Scholars to produce their very best work on the questions that animate them. So every year we have a chosen theme for the year. And we have eight research scholars, some from Biola, some from universities abroad, and we meet together several times a week for the purpose of presenting work in progress, bouncing ideas off of each other, arguing together, and in the context of that, we become friends.
And the hope there is that we’ll resource folks to be publishing work in their field in the most respected journals and publishing houses that they can. So this is an attempt to reach out with Christian scholarship to the broader academic world. At the same time, we want to be, as I said before, connecting Christian scholarship with the church. And so we have a website loaded up with resources that are aimed at thoughtful, non-academic, non-specialist audiences. We hold conferences like this to bring scholarship into conversation with the church.
We have a pastor in residence every year who sits in on all of the round table discussions and helps us to see how what we’re doing has a bearing on or doesn’t have a bearing on the real needs of the church and the lack of that.
Anything you want to add to that?
Yeah, so this part of what we’re up to then is we want to bring in speakers who speak well, non-technical language, about things that deeply matter. And so, the folks we’ve brought in this time really, really exemplify that virtue.
No doubt, yeah.
Thoughtful speakers who can communicate about deep, important, hard issues in a way that we all just instantly latch onto and say, “Yes, I get it.”
And not just in a theoretical, kind of abstract way, but in a very, what I’m getting these last couple days, is just a real practicality too. Like I can see boots on the ground in response to this that maybe a pure academic conference in our current age might not deliver. Is that a fair way to put it?
Yeah, and our themes each year are chosen with that in mind, so we try to pick themes and questions that are both interesting to Christian scholars and things about which they could publish in their professional journals, but also questions that are of pressing importance for the church and for culture more broadly.
I’m just curious, for you guys who are listening, is that a … this is a bit of a setup, and it’s unfortunate because I’m just … I’ll say it as a statement instead of a question. I’m so impressed with the people that are here, and I’m wondering if that is mirrored in your own experience, that the folks that are presenting, that you’re having that kind of vibe as well. Is that accurate?
[background talking and clapping]
I’m seeing nodding heads, but yeah, that’s helpful.
And I guess what I would want to highlight or illuminate is that not only are these couple days significant, but one person who you’ve had a chance to see a fair amount on stage is Evan Rosa. And Evan Rosa works tirelessly in creating stuff that you and your friends can consume at home that are in concert with this kind of a gathering, that I would really encourage you guys to pay attention to.
You’ve gotten some of those things in your swag bag with the table bulletins that have come out, but just to spend a little bit of time at cct.biola.edu. I think you’ll be impressed with what you’re going to be wooed into. I find myself listening to some of their podcasts sometimes and I have that stuck-in-the-driveway experience, like I’m listening to it, and I didn’t intend to sit in my driveway all morning, but I just can’t stop listening to Evan.
And I would encourage you to take advantage of that. And I guess, just as we turn a corner, I want to be sensitive to the time here, I guess two questions, one, how does disagree, in particular, as a theme for this conference, how does that flow out of our theme year of intellectual virtue and civil discourse? Because, in my mind, and I guess a better question would be what are the kinds of scholarship that is happening around intellectual virtue and civil discourse, which is our theme year for the whole of CCT, how did that end up trickling down into the kinds of things we’re talking about over these two days?
Yeah. Well, so, what we’re thinking about this year is what kinds of character traits do you need to have in order to be capable of engaging civilly with those with whom you disagree. What does it … and there’s this huge need for this in our day. We, in the Christian community, many times have embraced a very shrill way of talking to our neighbors, which is loveless, oftentimes.
And one of the unfortunate side effects of the internet is that it has unleashed, the anonymity of the internet unleashes this shrill loveless voice in us with which we abuse one another in really shocking ways daily on the internet. And so, there’s this terrific need to learn how to be civil with one another, given these new technologies that we’re finding our way into. And so we’re wondering what character traits ought we be cultivating in order to be civil with one another.
And if you could get a handle on that, if you could make progress on cultivating those, one of the natural side effects would be you could disagree well with love and with respect. And so we thought, okay, disagreeing well with love, with kindness, with respect, that’s something important, so let’s have a conference that focuses on that.
All of this would not have happened without the investment of the John Templeton Foundation, and it’s important to recognize their investment in this idea. Talk a little bit, Greg, about the importance of them finding alignment with this vision, because it’s pretty extraordinary what they’ve done.
It is extraordinary. For all of the reasons that I was describing earlier, it is hard to find a hearing for the urgency of connecting Christian scholarship to the church. And so, Templeton is an organization that understands the importance of big ideas. They understand that ideas trickle down into culture, that you live at the mercy of your ideas, whether you know it or not, you’ll live into the ideas that you’ve imbibed either from the broader culture or from your Christian community.
So I think it’s been wonderful to connect with Templeton because they understand the importance and the power of ideas, and that’s exactly the kind of folks we need to be connected with to do what we do.
Future themes to look forward to?
Yeah, so next year, we’re thinking about love, wondering about distinctly Christian approaches to love, wondering what an ethics rooted in love looks like, wanting to hear from alternative perspectives on what love is all about. The year after is humility.
Do you want to …
Sure, thinking about what humility is, how it’s related to the other virtues, what the costs of arrogance are, what the intellectual costs are, do we block ourselves from goods when we’re arrogant that we could have otherwise. How to inculcate humility. How do we take folks who aren’t, on the face of it, humble, and move them in the direction of humility? Asking questions like that.
And also, for us as religious people, what does religious humility look like?
What does it look like to be humble in one’s religious life, especially if you’re coming from a more conservative place as we are in our Biola tradition where we come from a more conservative brand of Evangelicals and what does it look like to do religious humility from that context.
And then maybe I’ll just mention, the year after that, we’ve got a year scheduled on suffering, and so, some people …
That’ll be a hit. Suffering. Sign up today.
But it’s not just suffering.
It’s suffering for the sake of.
Yeah, some folks suffer, and in retrospect, they see that they’ve found their way into deeper flourishing because of the suffering that they experienced, but not everybody. Some people suffer and they’re just undone by it. And so it’s an interesting question. What are the conditions under which suffering conduces to deeper flourishing, as opposed to just ruin? And so we want to think together with psychologists and sociologists and theologians and philosophers about how to bring about the circumstances under which suffering can help us and not just ruin us.
We’re all going to suffer. How can we suffer well.