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August 12, 2003

Seminars Wrap

Susan Felch

The Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College are intended to bring together professors from all over the world for three weeks of collaboration and discussion about a topic in their discipline. They're intended to challenge, inform, expand and excite professors, who then return to their home institutions to pass on their new-found ideas to their students and publish articles and books that further disseminate the fruits of their research at Calvin.

Participants this summer in a seminar on natural law, led by University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski, got a little more than they bargained for when halfway through their session they spent three hours in discussion with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia was invited to the seminar by Budziszewski, who had met Justice Scalia at a conference on the death penalty at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2002.

Budziszewski, author of the recently released What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, thought that Scalia would lend an interesting perspective on the topic of natural law to the seminar.

"What makes him interesting," says Budziszewski, "is that on one hand he believes in the natural law -- but on the other hand he considers it illegitimate for judges to appeal directly to the natural law in justification of their decisions."

When Scalia accepted the invitation Budziszewski said he was shocked but elated.

For his part Scalia said he rarely does seminars such as the one at Calvin. He accepted simply because he's interested in natural law and he's interested in philosophy. The chance to spend a morning discussing both was appealing to him.

Scalia said he found the morning session with the seminar participants "stimulating."

He added: "When you participate in something like this it helps to sharpen you. And you learn a lot." In fact he began his time with the students saying: "I'm really here to learn as much as to inform."

The three-hour morning session saw seminar participants and Scalia cover a lot of ground. The wide-ranging discussion touched on, at various times, everything from the death penalty to Kant to Aquinas to Paul's gospels.

It was just the sort of free-wheeling exchange Budziszewski had hoped for.

"The discussion was absorbing," he said. "Scalia is razor-sharp, witty and honest. You can learn from him even when you disagree -- as, over some points, we did."

It also was the sort of discussion that has become a hallmark of the summer seminars at Calvin. Indeed, this summer's slate of seminars was one of the best yet.

It began with "Revisiting the Reformed Confessions: Everything You've Wanted to Know but Were Too Busy to Ask," led by professor of history emeritus Frank Roberts. "Written on the Heart: The Tradition of Natural Law" went on at the same time as "Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching," led by Calvin Seminary President Cornelius Plantinga Jr., as well as "Prospects of Historic Christian Liturgy in a Postmodern Age" and "Christian Environmentalism With/Out Boundaries: Living as Part of God's Good Earth."

One week workshops were held on "Christian Perspectives on Foreign Language Education," "A Consultation of Afro-Christian Scholars in Higher Education," "Health and Transformation in Afro-Christian Worship" and "Communicating Well for Ministry in a Technological Age." The first was led by David Smith and Calvin professor of German Barbara Carvill; the last was led by Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences Quentin Schultze and Calvin Seminary vice president Duane Kelderman.

Over the past eight years the summer seminars have brought about 500 scholars and practitioners to Calvin's campus, representing over 150 colleges and universities as well as a variety of U.S., Canadian and international locales. Those scholars have gone on to produce a wide range of scholarship: over 100 presentations, over 50 articles, almost 100 books and chapters and a dozen new courses on their campuses. The Seminars in Christian Scholarship have had a decisive impact on the recent development of the "evangelical mind" called for by such scholars as Mark Noll and George Marsden.

Calvin not only provides a hospitable academic environment for summer participants, it also takes care of the families. Each summer the apartments at Knollcrest East are filled with the laughter of up to 60 children and their parents. And participants consistently remark that this family-friendly atmosphere sets Calvin's program apart from any other in the country.

Established in 1996 via grants from the Pew Charitable Trust, the summer seminars seek "to promote a strong Christian voice in the academy by addressing issues of current debate within various disciplines and encouraging the production of first-order scholarship from the perspective of a deep Christian commitment."

The seminars have continued with the support of funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Lilly Endowment and Fieldstead and Company (which funded the natural law seminar).

This year marked the conclusion of Susan Felch's six-year tenure as director. Under her leadership the Seminars in Christian Scholarship expanded its funding and programming. The new director, philosopher James K.A. Smith, plans to continue Felch's aggressive vision, with special emphasis on representing the global character of Christianity and fostering thoughtful Christian scholarship in response to global challenges.

In September, Smith will host "Creation, Covenant, and Participation: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition," an international conference including plenary speakers John Milbank, University of Virginia; Graham Ward, University of Manchester; James H. Olthuis, Institute for Christian Studies; Robert E. Webber, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Smith.

Says Smith: "Radical Orthodoxy is a theological movement which has landed as something of a bombshell on contemporary thought. Challenging modern and postmodern notions of 'secularity,' radical orthodoxy opens the space and sets a program for an entire field of what we might call 'confessional' theory and scholarship. Such a project resonates with a Reformed vision of faith and culture. However, at the heart of radical orthodoxy is a trenchant critique of late-medieval 'nominalism' which influenced both Luther and Calvin. As such, radical orthodoxy has been critical of the Reformed tradition, and Calvin in particular."

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