STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/09/2013

FEATURE | A Timely and Important Conversation

For Tal Howard, noted scholars Mark Noll and James Turner were "American reincarnations of the (irenic, erudite) Protestant reformer Philip Melanchthon and the (irenic, erudite) Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus." So he invited them both to campus in the fall of 2006 to see what would happen.

A Timely and Important Conversation
by Thomas A. Howard

This book grew out of a dialogue held on the campus of Gordon College in 2006, hosted by the Jerusalem and Athens Forum. That such a dialogue on such a topic between a leading American evangelical scholar and a leading American Catholic scholar would take place at an evangelical college in the heart of New England reflects changes that have been and remain afoot.

The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue is one of several projects at Gordon that have sought to foster dialogue and understanding across the unhappy divisions of Christianity. In recent years, for example, Gordon College has begun a relationship with neighboring St. Anselm's College--a Benedictine institution--for the purpose of shared fellowship and intellectual exchange. Faculty members at St. Anselm's and Gordon have cooperated on several conferences: one on evangelical and Catholic approaches to the "liberal arts idea"; another on "Christians in Unity, Not Uniformity," which brought scholars, clergy and laypeople together to reflect on ecumenical possibilities, not just in the theological heights but
in the pew and on the street. The College recently hosted a conference entitled "Highly Favored: A Symposium on Mary across Christian Traditions," a discussion among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox representatives on the place of the Virgin Mary in theology and worship.

Some of these endeavors, including the current volume, were supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment on the Christian idea of vocation, which we titled "Critical Loyalty: Christian Vocation at Gordon College" and for which I serve as the overall project director. The title of the project says it all. "Critical Loyalty" reflects a conviction-driven, tension-filled dual sensibility felt by many at the College: a desire to remain fiercely loyal to the special gifts (proclamation of the gospel, concern for the needy, soulful hymnody, devotion to Scripture, among other things), found abundantly in the evangelical tradition; at the same time, a recognition that some contemporary manifestations of evangelicalism, especially in relation to the life of the mind and engagement with Christian tradition, have left much to be desired. In responding to the current shape of evangelicalism, the College recognized that "evangelical higher education now finds itself at a crossroads" as it seeks to address three constructive criticisms in particular:

• That evangelical Christians all too often have been inadequate stewards of the mind.
• That while evangelicals have placed great emphasis on individual study and application of Scripture (worthy goals in themselves), they have sometimes done so at the expense of knowledge of and participation in the broader tradition of Christian thought and reflection.
• That evangelicals have stood aloof from ecumenical engagement.

In many respects the current volume, and the conference from which it derived, touch upon all three of these issues: intellectual engagement, tradition and ecumenism. The basic idea behind the project was to bring to Gordon's campus a leading American evangelical scholar and a leading American Catholic scholar, both familiar with their own tradition, with one another's tradition, and with the general landscape of "Christian learning"--understood to mean that which goes on at actual institutions of higher education, as well as the broader world of academic scholarship. Once this goal was formulated, two names quickly leapt to mind: Mark Noll and James Turner--scholars whom I have long suspected might be American reincarnations of the (irenic, erudite) Protestant reformer Philipp Melanchthon and the (irenic, erudite) Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Indeed, the pairing seemed perfect, for not only were both highly respected scholars able to meet the aforementioned criteria, but they taught at institutions that (at least to a considerable degree) reflected some of their deepest theological commitment--Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame, respectively.

As one will see, punches were not withheld but neither were any thrown below the belt. And while much ground was covered, it should be clear at the outset that neither interlocutor presumed the impossible task of speaking for the whole "evangelical tradition" or "Catholic tradition." Rather, both self-avowedly represent a particular voice within these traditions at a particular moment of their development. Their words here ought to be interpreted as a snapshot, interpretative summary of a fast-moving story of Tolstoyian complexity, the contours of which suggest broad implications for the shape of Christian higher education, for the future of ecumenical relations, and for American intellectual and religious life generally.

From the "Introduction" of The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue (Brazos Press, 2008)

Thomas A. (Tal) Howard, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum.

Jerusalem and Athens Forum

A Mended and Broken Heart: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi

I am asked regularly why I--a Protestant--wrote a book about Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint. The answer is complicated, but in short it is because Francis captured my imagination by dint of his complete humanness.

Did Francis love Clare? In the course of writing my book, I was asked this question more than any other.  It is impossible to understand Francis without understanding his relationship to Clare. The answer is yes, he loved her, and she him. I assert that they were "in love" prior to their respective religious conversions. Some then asked if this compromises their standing as saints. Rather than compromise it, the power of this love--which they renounced in deference to a higher allegiance--only magnifies the heroic nature of their commitment to the penitential movement of the age. People ask, "Why didn't they simply get married? Why did they have to go through all those renunciations?" The answers are in the book. Theirs is a poignant, wrenching love story.

Wendy Murray is a journalist, author and visiting faculty member of the Gordon in Orvieto program.



The Future of Christian Learning by Tal Howard
Tal Howard
Book- Life of Francis Assisi