April 29, 2006

Panel Discussion (Mere Conference 1.4)

Each of the plenary speakers from the three previous sessions were joined by Dr. Joel Heck of Concordia University and David Taylor, Arts Pastor for Hope Chapel, Austin and Artistic Advisor to the Institute for a panel discussion to end the formal portion of the conference. They answered questions that had been submitted in advance by conference participants.

I submitted the following question: "Though C.S. Lewis did not favor unity for its own sake, he did call Christians to recognize their common 'Mere Christianity.' Many of our speakers today, however, have given a great deal of attention to what makes their traditions distinct from the others. How do you think Lewis would respond to this, and how would you respond to him?" I'm betting that it doesn't get chosen for the panel...

I won't blog every response here, but I hope these will give you a feel for the discussion. I'm generally recording answers to questions asked of the panel as a whole (as opposed to a plenarist in particular).

Question: In your own life, what are your earliest memories of beauty and truth?

Responses:

  • PK: Visiting New York City at about eight years old, visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven." It was not just a difference in degree from what I had experienced in my Dutch Calvinist upbringing, but of content. "Why are their churches so much more beautiful than ours?"
  • FMG: A serving tray my parents received as a wedding gift, with a glass cover with butterflies on it. Its beauty fascinated me then and even now. "It set a standard of beauty for me...iridescence has always captivated me." "My first encounter with startling truth was an encounter with God." On the playground behind my house, I heard a voice call my name. It called to her twice, "an inbreaking of a category of truth I hadn't experienced...alerted me to the reality of overheard but unseen realities...gave me a hunger that has driven me ever since."
  • WLC: "I don't really have any early memories of beauty or truth to share [laughter]." He went on to recall coming in contact with death and his own mortality as a child. "The terrible reality of that overwhelmed me. It was only much later that I discovered so profoundly was what Paul Tillich called the threat of nonbeing." This insight is of profound importance in questions about the meaning and purpose of existence.

Question: Do you have experience of anyone's journey to God being heavily influenced by beauty?

Responses:

  • FMG: The person who encounters beauty in nature is the perfect example, but "you need something to focus your mind." Jesus embodies God for us and helps us restore the broken image of God in us. The experience of beauty in nature is good, but not sufficient. In worship, everything is directed toward God and has a didactic quality to it
  • DT: I work with 150 artists in my church community, and we constantly have a conversation about our sense that when we interact with non-Christians who we've invited to our Christ-oriented artworks, their response can be best described as an "ache," the soul and body understanding in a deep way is bent and our yearning for God is the truest thing in our nature. Art that is beautiful awakens a longing within them." Beauty is ecstatic and causes you to come outside yourself. "You must come outside and give yourself to another...ultimately only God can satisfy that ache." We need to make art so excellent that it stirs people to feel this ache.

Question: How can the doctrine of hell be reconciled with God's love?

Responses:

  • PK: God loves us so much that he gives us a free will to determine our own eternal destiny. When our parents expose us to a dangerous world that will certainly end up hurting us, they do it because they love us. Underneath the doctrine of hell is the doctrine of free will, and beneath that is the doctrine of love.
  • FMG: Has an article on Beliefnet on this. One of the Greek Fathers: "When those in hell are scourged, they feel the scourge of love." Those who love God feel his love as love; those who do not feel it as pain. (I was a little disappointed that she didn't mention Lewis here, who touches on this same idea in a number of his works.) "The love of God is light, but burning to those who reject it."

Question: How are truth, goodness, and beauty uniquely fused in the Christian faith?

Responses:

  • PK: "Jesus." "All three are incarnate in the same place."
  • WLC: "It isn't unique in the Christian faith, since its the same God who reveals himself to the Jews as to Christians." God's thought life is the paradigm for truth and falsehood. He is also the standard for what is beautiful, perhaps as the creator of objective standards of beauty (symmetry, harmony, etc.).

Question: What is the accepted basis for truth in the (secular) academy?

Response:

  • DLC: The western academy is divided on this issue; there is no consensus across the fields.
  • PK: Agrees. "The university is meant to be a mirror of the universe; thank God, it isn't!" There is an increasing love of Nietzsche. "The only other place outside the university where I find so many people who don't believe the truth is the insane asylum."
  • DT: Then how do you go about having a productive conversation with these people?
  • PK: "The university hasn't produced 'little Socrateses' as Plato thought it would"; it is a "noble failure." We can still have conversations with anyone, and conversations do no harm. Once you get to those who don't believe in objective truth at all, conversation changes and becomes therapy. "When you're dealing with the insane, you are forced to revert to psychoanalysis."
  • DLC: The best hope is to impact students, to train up a new generation of Christian philosophers who can speak boldly and rightly to the philosophical academy. "Scientific revolutions occur one funeral at a time" (Kuhn); as the old guard dies off, there is an opportunity for change. Our goal should be to remake the university in such a way that Christianity is a respected position.
  • JH: We can love them until they ask why. When they seek out our story, we may have the opportunity to tell them God's story as well.

Question: As American society changes through immigration, it becomes increasingly necessary that Christians be equipped to engage Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists that could lead to a productive discussion about Christ. What questions might we ask to begin a discussion like this?

Response:

  • PK: The Muslim already knows the God of Abraham, so in that sense this might be easier. "Who is Jesus to you?"
  • JH: I'd do everything I could to get a Bible in the hands of a Muslim. They have great respect for the written word; they read it, they have a dream in which someone tells them to read the book because it comes form God, and the Holy Spirit does his work.
  • FMG: I've heard that 2/3 of the time a Muslim comes to Christ, a dream or vision has something to do with it. Friends of hers who have worked in the field have said that it's at least 3/4. If you have the opportunity to speak with a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist about Christ, pray first that God would do his miraculous work in that person's life.
  • DT: Communicate the stories of Jesus to them in a context that is meaningful to them.
  • DLC: "Who is Jesus to you?" This puts the focus on Christ, where it belongs. He is the centerpiece of our faith and the stumbling block. Second, "How do you deal with sin in your life?"

Question: Frederica and Peter, in what way does your personal heritage in Protestant evangelical churches inform your experience now in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches?

Response:

  • PK: Evangelicalism is like a basement where you meet each other; the church is like the great cathedral above it. The foundation is important. "I'm very grateful I started with simple evangelicalism, because I have the foundation right."
  • FMG: Specifically I'm grateful to the Episcopal seminary I attended for teaching me Greek and the history of the church, even though there was much there that was, frankly, heretical. In our 15 years in the Episcopal church, there was beauty, joy, life, and energy there that form a lasting heritage.
Heh heh heh...I didn't think we'd get to my question. I'd love to posit a conspiracy theory as to why, but that would probably be unwarranted. I will say this: my disappointment with the panel discussion is the same disappointment I have felt with the entire conference. Lewis himself was mentioned no more than three times in the entire session. What makes this more frustrating is that I feel that the content of the conference was a bit askew of Lewis's own ideals and emphases. More on that later.

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