June 2015‎ > ‎

4. Philosophy in a Church Basement

Ever since I have been involved with and supportive of the vision of a Christian university in Canada (I go back as far as the study conferences of 1959 to 1967 when I at times served as registrar) the Institute for Christian Studies as it is now called has been struggling to locate itself somewhere between its support community and the academic world with which it wants to interact.

Senior Member Robert Sweetman acknowledges that struggle in his Week Forty-four reflection in Changing to Stay the Same when he says that institutions like ICS "seem turned away from [their support community] because they are turned toward the wider world."

Earlier this year, Senior Member Shannon Hoff turned toward a segment of the ICS’s support community as a way of acknowledging that the support community also deserves its day in the sun. She led a four-part seminar at Jubilee Fellowship Christian Reformed Church on four Wednesday evenings. “The idea behind the seminar was to explore and discuss the different kinds of things that are central to human life, like family, other people, politics, religion and conscience,” she wrote in an email. “My goal was simply to have us talk about these things collectively, drawing our attention to things that define us but that we often fail to appreciate.”

The seminar was well attended by about 20 members of the church. The readings were from Socrates, Plato, and Sophocles, as well as from Bonhoeffer and Buber. The curriculum looked as follows:

Week One: God and Other People. Reading: I and Thou (selections) by Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher.

Week Two: Law and the State. Reading: Crito, a dialogue by Plato, the Greek philosopher.

Week Three: Conscience. Reading: “What is Meant by Telling the Truth?” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian.

Week Four: Other people, law and the state, and conscience. Reading: Antigone, a play by Sophocles, the ancient Greek tragedian.

Appropriate Scripture passages were listed along with the readings.

The seminar was something quite new to Jubilee Fellowship. The study of philosophy in the basement of an ecclesiastical edifice more used to theology and Bible study? Yes, and it was that philosophical focus that attracted many of the participants.

Sue Ristow, a youngish middle-aged member of Jubilee, said that she really appreciated the group discussion. “It was fun and an interesting work-out for the brain to examine reality, truth, laws and society. Shannon Hoff did an excellent job of presenting high-minded ideas and grounding them into our every-day lives, encouraging us to ask questions about how we are to live.” Questions indeed. Whereas theology and Bible study seem preoccupied with discovering certainties, philosophy allows for probing and questioning and searching for new paths.

A youngish older member of the church, Arien Vlaar, wrote that “through the timeless voice of the Bible, the ancient voices of Socrates, Plato, and Sophocles and the more recent voices of Bonhoeffer and Buber, we wrestled with questions surrounding such themes as “Individual Identity,” “Truth telling,” “Ethics,” and “The Dichotomy of State/Law versus Love and Mercy.” Arien concluded by saying, “I for one was sad to have the seminar come to an end and look forward to the possibility of more to come.”

I guess the recipients of the seminar were not the only ones who felt positive about this ICS journey into its support community. Shannon herself said that presenting the seminar was enriching for her. “I believe that philosophy doesn’t belong just in the classroom…. Participants had a lot to contribute to discussions.” She found it rewarding to deal with a different kind of audience than she usually does. “University students can often take for granted the kind of experience they have in the classroom, losing sight of the fact that what is at stake is the way that they live and the shape their lives take, whereas the participants in this seminar seemed intrinsically motivated to be there and discuss the issue we were discussing.”

Of course, I, too, was a participant and “intrinsically motivated.” My motivation goes back as far as the lectures I followed by H. Evan Runner at Calvin College many years ago. Henk Hart was in my graduation class of ’59. A lot has happened since then. A lot of the triumphalism of the early days has faded away. Today we strive for a wee bit more humility as we seek to learn from other traditions and as the gentle light of Christ shines on the world he loves so much. With Shannon’s help we could see how ancient pagan philosophers were extremely high-minded. And by studying them we could affirm the good life we are called by Christ to live.

So, after this episode, I won’t mind so much when the ICS turns its back on me again for a while and engages a world still under the cultural mandate to see all things in the light of God’s revelation. I take comfort in the fact that ICS takes on the risk of encounter, as Sweetman explains, and I like his statement that it does so, “relying on the good and ongoing formation of the community of faith, on the resources available in its reformational scholarly tradition and in the Christian tradition as a whole, and finally on the presence and providence of the Holy Spirit.”
Bert Witvoet was at one time a member of the Board of Trustees at ICS. He has been a teacher, vice-principal and principal before he became the editor of Calvinist Contact, now known as Christian Courier, of which he is a contributing editor. Bert was also editor of Christian Educator's Journal and columnist for Vanguard. He and Alice live in St. Catharines, Ontario.​