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Philosophy Meets City Hall
May 15, 2006

It's not often a college-level philosophy course makes it to city hall.

But Philosophy 390 at Calvin College - called Seeking the Welfare of the City - is no ordinary offering. For example, it is funded in part by a grant from the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, whose mission is "to significantly increase our knowledge of unselfish love through scientific research, education and publication."

So, how does that fit into a course at Calvin and what does it have to do with city hall? For the last three-plus months students in Calvin philosophy professor James K. A. Smith's seminar class have been wrestling with just such questions.

They've been reading articles by folks such as Jonathan Edwards and Pope Benedict XVI and Francis Cadinal George on such topics as charity, racism and urban renewal.

And they've worked on their own projects for improving community and care in the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids. With the help of city commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, Smith arranged for the projects to be displayed in the main lobby of city hall from May 16-23.

On May 16, from noon to 1 pm, students will meet members of the city commission to discuss their projects, which range from increased student use of public transit, partnerships for community gardens, commercial proposals for the Wealthy/Jefferson corridor and design partnerships between students & neighborhood associations.

Smith says the class is a good fit for Calvin's mission as a Christian college.

"When Jesus summarizes the greatest commandment," he says, "it is a two-fold obligation that hinges on love: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It is intriguing to note that when Jesus points to the centrality of love, he also invokes a metaphor which is not familial or ethnic, but almost geographical: we are to love the neighbor. We tried to take that seriously and think about what it means to love our city and our neighbors."

The goal of the new course, Smith says, has been to introduce students to an engagement between philosophy, science and theology focused on the way architecture and urban planning fosters or frustrates "altruism," or other-regarding concern.

"We have grappled with both social scientific literature, in such areas as geography, sociology and urban studies," he says, "as well as high-level philosophical and theological texts from across the Christian tradition. Our theoretical and empirical analyses, however, are aimed at concrete practice."