Back in October, professor Gregg Ten Elshof was sitting across from radio talk show host Frank Pastore, explaining his vision for the soon-to-be-launched “Biola University Center for Christian Thought” to a listening audience. As he started to describe one of the center’s aims — to encourage cutting-edge Christian scholarship by bringing world-renowned scholars like Alvin Plantinga to Biola’s campus — Pastore excitedly burst in.
“No way! You got Plantinga to come?” he said. “Folks, Alvin Plantinga is on the short list of the top two or three most brilliant Christian philosophers. … He and [Biola professor] Bill Craig, and maybe Swinburne … and Wolterstorff. Some of the brightest people around.”
Ten Elshof chuckled. As it just so happened, he said, Nicholas Wolterstorff would be joining Plantinga at the new Biola center in the spring. And Richard Swinburne was slated to come the following year.
“You’re getting an all-star team!” Pastore shouted.
“That’s the idea,” Ten Elshof said.
The Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which officially launches this February after years of planning, marks one of the most ambitious academic initiatives in Biola’s history.
At the heart of the center is a research fellowship program that will bring Christian scholars from around the world to Biola’s campus for a semester at a time (or longer) to collaborate with Biola professors and each other on some of the biggest issues for our day. Throughout each semester, well-known “visiting scholars” — such as Plantinga and Wolterstorff — will also come to the center for several days or weeks at a time to help facilitate the dialogue.
Together, they’ll work in a newly created headquarters in Rose Hall, designed to be a comfortable and inviting space for writing, research and stimulating roundtable discussions. Over the course of each year, the research fellows will produce books, articles, videos, lectures, podcasts and other resources to help address some of the questions that matter most to the church and the academy.
One of the chief goals is to “raise the game of evangelical scholarship” and to give academic and non-academic audiences alike a thoughtful evangelical perspective on significant issues of our day, said professor Thomas Crisp, one of the center’s associate directors.
“Our hope is to give an opportunity to evangelical scholars to do first-rate, distinctively evangelical scholarship in a way that has heretofore been difficult because of limited resources for this kind of work,” Crisp said. “We think we’ll be uniquely positioned to disseminate these ideas into the broader culture — and the evangelical culture, more specifically — in a way that will increase our thoughtfulness as believers.”
One of the Center’s strengths will be the diversity of its participants, Crisp said. During the first semester, research fellows include a group of professors with backgrounds in such fields as art, literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology and theology — meaning discussions will be informed by a broad range of academic disciplines.
The Center intentionally plans to bring in Christian scholars from a variety of perspectives, recognizing that a plurality of voices can help to foster stronger work, said Ten Elshof, who is serving as the Center’s director.
“This is what we all loved about graduate school,” Ten Elshof said. “We sat around a table with other thoughtful people who would challenge us on our perspectives. If we want to strengthen the evangelical voice, both in culture and the academy, the way to do it is to put it in conversation with the very best Christian scholars — evangelical and otherwise — from a variety of disciplines on the questions that matter most.”
Each year, the Center will select a single theme to explore, inviting scholars whose work and research relates to that theme. The Center’s inaugural semester, which runs from February through May, will focus on “Christian Scholarship in the 21st Century: Prospects and Perils.” Essentially, the semester will examine the role of Christian scholarship in today’s world and seek to identify issues of particular importance for Christian scholars in years ahead, said professor Steve L. Porter, an associate director of the Center.
“We thought it would be good to start with this topic because it’s the theme of what the center is going to be doing,” Porter said. “What good can Christian scholarship do in the church and broader culture? How can we help turn the tide on anti-intellectualism and help Christian scholarship become more accessible and relevant?”
Beyond its inaugural semester, the Center has announced its themes for the following three years: “Neuroscience and the Soul” (Fall 2012 to Spring 2013); “Psychology and Spiritual Formation” (Fall 2013 to Spring 2014); and “Intellectual Virtues and Civil Discourse” (Fall 2014 to Spring 2015).
In addition to its opportunities for scholars, the Center will also include a pastor-in-residence program that will be implemented this fall. The program will allow one pastor each semester to be involved in the research and weekly roundtable discussions, resulting in a publicly available sermon series. The Center is accepting applications through March 1, 2012, for the first pastor-in-residence fellowship, dealing with the theme of “Neuroscience and the Soul.” (Information can be found at cct.biola.edu.)
During the first three years of operation, the Center will be funded by a $3.03 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation — the largest research grant in Biola’s history (see sidebar). In ensuing years, the Center will continue to seek research funding from outside donors and foundations.
Over time, Crisp said he believes the Center will initiate ongoing conversations with a broad range of Christian scholars, encourage first-rate scholarship and give Biola a more prominent voice in the wider academic world. Ultimately, that is important not just for Biola but for the sake of the gospel, he said.
“One of the thoughts that’s animating this whole project is that the kinds of ideas that predominate in a culture have a lot to do with whether and how the gospel flourishes in that culture,” he said. “If you want to create a cultural climate that’s friendly to the spread of the gospel you have to influence its ideas. So why are we trying to up the level of evangelical scholarship? Because we’re trying to influence the structure of ideas in the broader culture.”