Volume 1, Number 5
Faith: Discerning a Narrative Unity for Christian Life
Dante Alighieri, caught up into the heights of heaven in his Divine Comedy, tells of his cross-examination by St. Peter: “Good Christian, speak, show yourself clearly: what is faith?” In response, Dante could do no better—and could have done much worse—than to recite Scripture: “faith is the substance of the things we hope for and is the evidence of things not seen.”
Following the writer of Hebrews, Dante thus expresses the essence of faith. But the author of Hebrews does far more than offer a mere definition of faith. After so describing faith, Hebrews 11 discerningly delineates faith’s character by locating it within the lives of a great host of witnesses, all of whom are marked by their roles within a story that transcends their individual lives. Here, the Scripture recalls for us the story of creation. It reminds us of the stories of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. It offers a prolonged reflection upon Abraham’s story—his promise from God of a land and an heir, his willingness to wander as a stranger and sojourner in search of a home, and the trial in which he is called to sacrifice his only son. Hebrews, giving further concrete examples of faith, reminisces about Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, the fall of Jericho through the help of Rahab the harlot, and entry into the Promised Land. And, absent time to elaborate, we are told about:
When we receive faith as the gift of God, we gain assurance for our hope and certainty of what we do not see. But in so doing, we also gain a story, and a role in that story, that is not entirely of our own making. That is, part of the gift of faith, first among the theological virtues, is that it provides a transcendent narrative center and unity for Christian life. Faith offers Christians the means by which to understand their roles within the narrative unfolding of God’s providential plan for all of creation.
“The narrative unity for Christian life that faith might provide for us is ever susceptible to being torn asunder . . .”
Precisely in this sense, faith accords Christian scholars tremendous opportunity to ground our understanding, convictions, and affections in a narrative that centers and unifies our lives within academe. By locating ourselves within God’s story, we can find our intellectual labor rendered significant and our academic judgment humbly guided by principled commitments. By making the Christian story definitive for lives that we entrust by faith to God, we gain the clarity of self-understanding and truth that puts everything else in proper order and perspective. By accepting by faith God’s story and God’s storytelling as authoritative for ourselves, we acquire a knowledgeable sense of the role that we must play, even in the academy. By taking up through faith our roles as God’s players, we also come to recognize the mutual interdependence of the gathered community, the church, wherein we must act together for the sake of relating to ourselves and the watching world a story that transcends the limits of any single one of us.
Yet alas, the truth is that we face a culture opposed to regarding the Christian story as definitive for all of life, as we in faith do. The narrative unity for Christian life that faith might provide for us is ever susceptible to being torn asunder, and the difficulties we face in general are all the more challenging within the contemporary academy. For we live in a day and a time called post-Christian. If by that is meant anything, it means that the unity of life provided by Christian categories, concerns, narratives, and practices of remembrance no longer holds general sway. For the movers and shakers of modernity and postmodernity, Christianity is an artifact, a relic, a curiosity, an antiquated myth to be gotten over, or beyond, or simply forgotten. In some quarters, the Christian narrative we accept in faith is not merely passé and quaint, but is anathema, an oppressive way of life the end of which cannot come too soon.
Moreover, we Christians for the most part do little more than pay lip service to God’s story of our lives and the world, seldom living or thinking as if it were a “comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central” narrative for life, to make use of Paul Griffiths’ well-chosen terms. As a hymn I learned from childhood puts it, we “love to tell the story of unseen things above, / Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love”—so long as we are in church and in Christian company. But while we may say we “love to tell the story, because [we] know ’tis true,” and though we may end the verse by ardently singing that “It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do,” we neither accept it as true in a way that bears on what we think nor as satisfying in a way that bears on what we do. We call it a true and satisfying story, but fail to see how if it is, it necessarily must reorder all of life. That is, Christian faith for us too often is partial, incomplete, and tangential, failing to provide a definitive account within which to frame all of life and thought.
So, while we receive through faith in Christ a story within which to locate and understand ourselves and all of life, we live in a post-Christian milieu that in varying degrees neglects, marginalizes, rejects, and sometimes opposes the scandalous, all-encompassing claims of that story. The theological virtue of faith, then, is generally absent in the high places of our culture, and is certainly in absentia from the ivory towers of the academy.
For these reasons, Christian scholars in the third millennium must recover and revitalize the varied practices of faith that integrate life in light of the comprehensive, divinely-authored narrative that faith gives us. To succeed in doing so will require our cooperation and encouragement within the community of faith called the Church and within the academy that seeks to be church-related. It will exact from us a self-critical reevaluation of the privileged narratives favored by our academic guilds, with their marginalizing tendencies toward Christian narration of the world and our place in it. And it will demand of us thorough engagement with Christian traditions of understanding and narrating human life, as well as imaginative ways of relating faith’s story to new developments within our fields. Such steadfast commitments carry with them, by God’s grace, the promise that of us, as for those of old, it may be said, “These were all commended for their faith.”
Medical Ethics Conference
With the help of a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment awarded in 2001, and with joint sponsorship from Hillcrest Health System, the Institute for Faith and Learning hosted the first Baylor University Medical Ethics Conference during October 13-15. The Center for Christian Ethics and the Medical Humanities Program joined IFL in hosting the conference.
The conference, which featured past and present members of the President’s Council on Bioethics and was well attended by physicians, nurses, chaplains, and academics, considered many of the vexing issues now facing healthcare professionals and society, with special attention paid to Christian resources for addressing those concerns. Among these issues were morally significant questions about family and patient autonomy, the relationship between medicine and the market, and the beginning and ending of life.
By all accounts the conference was a resounding success. In post
conference surveys, one conferee remarked, “I was amazed at
the quality of the speakers who were assembled for this conference.”
Another called it a “much needed challenge to think outside
of the usual ‘medical box.’” Still another said,
“I hope this will be an annual experience at Baylor.”
So do we.
On October 27-28, the Institute for Faith and Learning, the Crane Scholars Program, and the Honors College welcomed to Baylor Dr. Eugene McCarraher. Prof. McCarraher is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. During his visit, he offered two provocative public lectures: the first was entitled “Consider the Lilies: Why the Protestant Work Ethic is So Awful,” and the second was called “The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.”
IFL will be hosting Dr. David C. Schindler, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, for two public lectures November 3 and 4. On Thursday, November 3, Dr. Schindler will offer a public lecture under the auspices of the Crane Scholars Program called “Free Thinking or Freedom for Thinking? An Untimely Meditation on the Nature of Academic Freedom.” The lecture will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Alexander Drawing Room. All are welcome. On Friday, November 4, at 12:30 p.m., Dr. Schindler will address the Traditio Society in the Armstrong Browning Library. The title of his paper is “What’s the Difference? On the Metaphysics of Participation in a Christian Context.”
Pruit Memorial Symposium
The 2005 Pruit Memorial Symposium will be held November 10-12. The theme is Global Christianity: Challenging Modernity and the West. Plenary speakers include David Bebbington of the University of Stirling and Baylor, Paul Freston of Calvin College, Mark Noll of Wheaton College, Dana Robert of Boston University, Lamin Sanneh of Yale University, and Brian Stanley of the University of Cambridge. We have received a record number of inquiries and proposals, and anticipate that more than a hundred papers presented by scholars from around the world will be featured on the program. You may find up-to-date information about the program at www.baylor.edu/IFL/Pruit2005/about.htm.
Upcoming at Baylor
Upcoming beyond Baylor
"The purpose of Christian higher education would
T. S. Eliot
"Objects which are the subject-matter of different philosphical sciences can yet be treated of by this one single sacred science under one aspect precisely so far as they can be included in revelation. So that in this way sacred doctrine bears, as it were, the stamp of the divine science, which is one and simple, yet extends to everything."
St. Thomas Aquinas
"It will not do to say that the determination of character
by the structure of the DNA molecule is a fact that any child must
learn to understand, but that the determination of
"If on the other hand it turns out that something considerable is known about the Supreme Being, whether from Reason or Revelation, then the Institution in question professes every science, and yet leaves out the foremost of them. . . . [S]uch an Institution cannot be what it professes, if there be a God. . . . [I]t is very plain, that a Divine Being and a University so circumstanced cannot co-exist."
John Henry Newman
". . . there is not a square inch in the whole domain of
our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all,
does not cry: 'Mine!' That cry
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