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Science, Philosophy and Belief
January 30, 2007

Western capitalism has made big inroads in China in the last two decades. But the philosophical foundations of western society have been less explored.

A new grant to Calvin College from the John Templeton Foundation hopes to change that.

Calvin has received $2 million from Templeton for a project called "Science, Philosophy and Belief: A Program for Chinese Scholars."

The effort will include a three-year partnership between Calvin and the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). It is being managed by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin.

Kelly Clark, a Calvin philosophy professor who is directing this project, says its goal is "to produce a sophisticated ongoing conversation about philosophy, science and belief in China that will equip scholars, strengthen teaching at Chinese universities, and sustain and deepen this line of inquiry in China."

He says Chinese intellectuals are very interested in how philosophy, science, morality, economics and religious belief have interacted in the West.

"The West, once regarded in China as the source of all that was exploitive and decadent, has now become the object of great intellectual fascination," he says. "Some of this interest in Western culture is simply intellectual curiosity, stoked by decades of enforced isolation. One of the most powerful drivers of this interest, however, is Chinese intellectuals' sense that their nation urgently needs to find ways to integrate culture and provide society with public norms so that China can withstand the enormous economic and social changes it is now experiencing."

Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute at Calvin, agrees.

"The roots of this project," he says, "go back about 13 years to some of the first conferences held in China by the Society of Christian Philosophers. But really for the Chinese their interest in Western philosophy stretches back even further. During the Cultural Revolution anything to do with the West was purged. But now we are seeing a classic generational change with the current rising generation of Chinese intellectuals and scholars very eager to understand Western culture."

Clark says Chinese philosophers' turn toward the West has taken a variety of institutional forms, but one of the most effective in recent years has been their relationship with the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). To build bridges between that burgeoning interest in the West and Western philosophers Calvin's Templeton-funded project will include six major lines of action:

  • A program involving 24 visiting Chinese postgraduate students and nine postdoctoral scholars at Baylor University, the University of Notre Dame, Hope College and Calvin College
  • A book distribution plan that will offer 10,000 volumes in this realm of thought to Chinese scholars and university libraries
  • A series of lectures and seminars in China taught by two dozen visiting SCP scholars
  • An intensive seminar at Calvin College in the summer of 2008 for 24 selected Chinese scholars, in conversation with some of the leading Western experts in this field, such as the British physicist and theologian Sir John Polkinghorne, former Calvin philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich
  • A major academic conference at Peking University in the summer of 2009, at which 150 Chinese scholars and SCP members present and discuss fresh work
  • A volume of essays drawn from the conference, to be published by Peking University Press and widely adopted as a textbook

Says Clark: "By the end of this three-year period of activity, a cadre of accomplished Chinese scholars working on aspects of science, rationality and belief will emerge. They will begin to advance and sustain a community of inquiry, including a growing body of publications. Western scholars with an interest in this field will be better informed about the state of thought on the topic in China. They will develop ongoing collegial relationships with Chinese scholars that will support this field of inquiry.

"And by means of all this teaching, publishing and guest lecturing, hundreds of Chinese university students will become acquainted with the questions regarding philosophy, science and belief. We expect that once Chinese intellectuals have become better acquainted with the Western discourse about science, rationality and belief, they will make some powerful and unique contributions of their own in the years to come."

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is "to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity."

Says the Templeton Foundation: "Our vision is derived from John Templeton's commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The Foundation's motto 'How little we know, how eager to learn' exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries."