Lessons from Acton

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This week I am at Acton University in Grand Rapids. Thanks to the generosity of the Kern Foundation, I am here as a fellow, which means that I am eating and drinking really well. It is like no other conference I’ve ever seen. For starters, the diversity of Christian tradition is broader. Orthodox priests with formidable beards, crosses and cassocks, a wide range of Protestants, and, of course, plenty of Catholics are among the 1000 or so people in attendance.

Let me say, first, that Catholics are far better at conferences than evangelicals. We attend a lecture, then we break for coffee and pastry with 45 minutes to make friends and visit the book table. We learn some more, then we break for wine and cheese (for those who are inclined to enjoy the fruit of the vine, whoever they might be) with an hour to make friends and visit the book table. A plenary session over an exquisite dinner and then we convene for “hospitality” (read more fermented beverages and socializing). This differs from the typical evangelical approach, which consists of lecture, 10 minute break, another lecture, 10 minute break (if you’re fortunate, you may find a small bag of pretzels somewhere), another lecture and go to sleep before starting again early the next morning.

There are numerous lessons that I can tell you about, the importance of the prefontal cortex for public discourse (fascinating), the role of conscience development for personhood, communities, and markets, and the reason(s) why Bono and Toms Shoes tend to do more harm for the poor than good. A useless point, but interesting to me, Fr. Rober Sirico, President of Acton, is the brother to Tony Sirico (of the Soproanos). Wouldn’t you have liked to be a fly on the wall in their home growing up?

Okay, here is something meaningful. Two things, in fact. First, I have heard three Catholic lecturers use the phrase “Scripture scholars” (a typical Catholic phrase describing those who study the Bible) before qualifying it in apposition with the phrase “that is, Protestants.” Of course, they all said it tongue-in-cheek; but it’s interesting to see the widespread recognition that if Protestants are anything, we are people of the book.

I learned the second lesson yesterday morning. Dr. Samuel Gregg delivered a incisive lecture on Christian Anthropology, explaining how we are embodied, reasonable, willful, creative, fallen, social creatures. Brilliant. Then, in the Q&A, an articulate evangelical professor stood up and asked, “Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing anything about Jesus and the gospel.” D’oh! Dr. Gregg responded by explaining that his intention was to explain the philosophical dimensions of the issue as they relate to dialogue with non Christians. Fair enough. But even so, is it appropriate to talk about Christian Anthropology without explicating the gospel? One’s answer, of course, is influenced, if not determined, by whether one is a Thomist (truth can be developed and established on the basis of natural revelation alone) or an Augustinian (truth requires the illumination of the Spirit, due to the darkness of our fallen minds, and is ultimately established in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth). This, for instance, is why the gospel message is so often “assumed” by our Catholic friends, to the utter bewilderment and frustration of evangelical Protestants who expect to hear Christ at the center of our reflection and discourse.

I am an Augustinian, just for the record.

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