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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Theological Engagement with California's Culture: An Interview with Fred Sanders and Jason Sexton

The Theological Engagement with California Culture Project (TECC) is a new multi-institutional, inter-disciplinary endeavor that merits attention and contributions from Christian philosophers at a variety of levels (see below). Please note their Call for Papers and their upcoming session at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Francisco, California. 

I recently interviewed Fred Sanders and Jason Sexton about TECC's unique endeavor. Both Fred and Jason are members of TECC's core group. Fred is Associate Professor of Theology in Biola University's great books program, the Torrey Honors Institute in La Mirada, and is a Faculty member for the Los Angeles Bible Training School. Jason is the Project Coordinator of the TECC Project and he is presently Researcher in Systematic Theology at St. Mary's College, The University of St. Andrews, specializing on contemporary evangelical theology while nearing completion of the PhD on the role of the doctrine of the Trinity in Stanley J. Grenz's writings.

What’s the basic objective of the TECC Project?

Jason: The TECC Project is a collaborative academic venture endeavoring to engage the most pressing issues in California’s recent history, providing interdisciplinary theological engagement in addressing its research questions. We’re basically setting out to develop theological accounts of the phenomenological development of (1) specific cultural entities within CA’s setting and (2) California’s culture as a whole. In other words, we’re asking, “According to theology, what is California?” And furthermore, “What’s underneath it all?”

How did this Project come about? Why California?

Fred: The basic idea developed from a summer class that I taught a couple of times over the past decade. I teach in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, where we read the great books, from Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante and Calvin and Flannery O'Connor. I wanted to apply that great books approach to California literature, about which I knew very little. I just had an instinct that the perennialist approach, in which we read the proven classics, "the best which has been thought or said" in the history of the western world, would benefit from a little dose of localism, where we investigate a regional heritage and get to know our own surroundings.

For a summer class with undergraduates, that project took the form of picking a few classics of California literature. The standard list includes novelists like Jack London and John Steinbeck, poets like Robinson Jeffers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayists like John Muir and Ambrose Bierce, and a few outsiders like the polish-lithuanian writer Czeslaw Milosz who lived in Berkeley for decades and thought hard about the spirit of the place. The class worked really well, because even though California hasn't exactly produced its own Homers, Platos, or Dantes, we do have an interesting and thought-provoking little literary heritage.

I could go on and on about California literary regionalism, and the unique challenges of selecting great books from a state that has such a short history of literature. In fact, I did go on and on about it, in blog posts and such. That's when Jason Sexton got hold of the ideas and helped turn them into a project.

Jason: As a fourth-generation Californian having grown up in Northern California but having lived in a number of places throughout the State, I often found myself trying to make sense of so many issues related to the State’s identity. Having spent a number of years working in a couple different churches in Central and Southern California, and as a church planter, I constantly faced a host of issues on the ground that I felt myself constantly needing to give theological accounts of in order to make any sense of. These included the range of phenomena in CA and its recent history—for example, activist issues like workers’ rights, unions, business, the marriage-debate and human sexuality, racism, immigration, politics, demographic shifts, economics, work, poverty, education, industry, entertainment, recreation, agriculture, drugs, gangs, prisons, religion etc., along with the church’s unique role in these and many other issues, and in cultural development.

When I began PhD work in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews with a theological faculty that places high value on biblical-theological analysis, interdisciplinary engagement, and cultural assessment, I remained constant in seeking to identify ways that theology might serve to give an account for these dynamic and often contradictory features in CA’s setting. I have observed and been encouraged by Fred’s work and approach to the theological task for a number of years, and when I saw him sketching lines for an account of (read: theology of) CA, I thought we had perhaps found a way to do this. So I approached Fred and began an ongoing conversation about how to pull together a collaborative project that could begin asking questions that many folks are addressing in ways that failed to give the coherence that only theology can bring assessing the shape CA’s culture.

During my time in the UK, where theology is a much more mainstream academic discipline than in the US (and especially CA!), I have seen a number of projects that have successfully isolated regional locations for the sake of interdisciplinary empirical analysis and theological reflection. And so we’ve borrowed a format from some others to begin putting the Project together for the sake of serving to advance our understanding of CA by employing the tools of our discipline as a means of making sense of what’s happening around us.

What are some of the Project aims?

Jason: The Project plans to hold a series of gatherings between 2013 and 2015, bringing together theologians, historians, social-scientists, and others to explore specific issues that can be identified as part of the particular cultural make-up of the Golden State. We want to involve as many of the best thinkers as we can to address and begin a serious dialogue over what is right and wrong with the State, over what is broken while pointing to solutions that are embedded in our descriptions of the issues. In this way, I would hope that we might be able to give accurate accounts of all reality that we set out to address, perhaps even having some short or long-term influence on public policy issues within the State, in encouraging dialogue amongst younger and established theologians and their academic counterparts within the other academic disciplines.

To show all my cards up-front, I would love to see California wake up to the relevance of theological import for addressing all of reality, which most of the world is already aware of. I.e., that human beings act on the basis of what they believe and that our State has been deeply affected by a diverse range of ideologies, which theology more than anything else aids in reckoning with. Theology is as comprehensively relevant to human existence as it gets, and so it seems of utmost importance that theology both learn from in dialogue with the other academic disciplines making assessments of the State’s situation, as well as sharing key insights harvested from theological investigation. 

Fred: The shortest description I've come up with for the overall intellectual task is that it's somewhere between "A Theology of California" and "Theology from California." Those would be the two bumper stickers. The former indicates that we're bringing theological reflection to bear on this entity which is California, to offer a theological account of its existence and character. The latter indicates that we're doing theological reflection about the usual subjects (God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption, eschatology) in this particular location, intentionally cultivating resources that are Californian.

Why are you personally enthused by this Project?

Fred: It would probably be in bad taste to belabor a Gold Rush analogy, but I think that California as a theological subject is resource-rich and under-explored. I just started poking around a little bit in the area of California literary regionalism as an amateur investigator, trying to solve the small-scale problem of "what are the California great books I should assign?"  What I discovered is that there's been some really good work done on that subject by real literary scholars. But when it comes to theologians, we just haven't done enough with California. As soon as I started using the tools of my own trade and asking theological questions, I found vast stretches of unexplored intellectual territory. I may not have cried "Eureka," but I am sending out the word that there's work to be done here for many hands.

Jason: I concur with Fred. But additionally, it seems that California is almost perpetually (perhaps increasingly) in a state of crisis—economically, politically, ethically, etc.—which, ironically, is perhaps part of what has yielded so much of our cultural creativity. We’re going about this because we love our State and think that theologians, in conversation with historians, social-scientists and others can help make sense of the issues that are addressed in ways that will benefit not just the church, but all humanity, if indeed Jesus is Lord of all reality, as Christians have always confessed.

Who all is involved and how for the organization of the Project?

Jason: The Project is made up of a steering committee comprised of Fred Sanders, myself as project administrator, and Sarah Sumner. Sarah is the Dean of Tozer Seminary in Northern California, was an administrator at Azusa, has contributed significantly to the women-in-ministry debate, and a number of other social issues in CA. Each of us is trained in biblical exegesis as much as we are in theology, and so, even though we each come from different ecclesial backgrounds we’re all on the same page about the primacy of biblical-theological analysis for our ultimate analysis, although as Fred has stated, the degree of orientation to theology’s traditional loci will be high. We are also currently in the conversation stages of determining who the other players are going to be that will serve with us on the steering committee.

In addition to this, we have an advisory team made of thinkers from outwith the State, for whom theological engagement with culture is nothing new. The team is currently made of Paul Metzger and Luke Bretherton. Paul teaches Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah University, and directs The Institute for the Theology of Culture in Portland, Oregon, while also editing the journal, Cultural Encounters. Luke is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Politics at King’s College, University of London, part of the Centre for Theology, Religion & Culture and Convenor of KCL’s Faith and Public Policy Forum. We’re in the conversation stage with some additional members of this advisory team, including one of the nation’s leading social-scientists, a leading ethical-theorist, and perhaps one or two others, maybe a historian and a theologian.

Everyone involved in official capacity will be giving a paper at some point. We’ll have invited papers and selections from different “calls for papers,” ranging from senior to junior scholars and postgraduate students. Beyond this, the players will be those who come out and attend the conferences, take the time to dialogue about the issues as we try to get our minds around the things about CA life that affect us all at different levels.

As an interdisciplinary venture focused on theological cultural reflection, can you say a little more about how you see theology working with other bodies of knowledge on this endeavor?

Fred: Theology is going to have to run to catch up here, because several other disciplines are well established in California studies. Or to say it collaboratively instead of competitively, theology has a lot of partner disciplines that it can call on as it begins the investigation. I've already mentioned literature, which is significant on two levels: first, that distinctively Californian literary art has been produced, and second that a body of criticism and commentary has been devoted to that art. There are important spiritual elements embedded in the literature (first level) which need to be explored by critics (second level) using doctrinal categories and paradigms which theologians can help provide. A parallel situation exists in the visual arts, where there are important schools and movements of, for instance, California painting. I don't know the field of music well enough to comment on the resources there, unless you look at pop music where of course a characteristic Californianism is easily discerned. Another discipline that has a lot of synergy with theology is history: There was once a dominant narrative of American history that said we started on the east coast (pilgrims!) and spread westward (pioneers!). But California-centered historians have long since demonstrated how much that narrative needs to be juxtaposed with our Mexican past, our Russian connections, our Pacific Rim realities: factors which understandably have played a lesser role in an east-coast version of American self-understanding. Theology, partly through church history, has much to learn and much to teach here.  Not  to leave any disciplines out, but sociology is also a field that is doing a good job staying alert to surprising realities that are available for study here in California.

Jason: Fred is right on all counts here, but I will venture a slightly more reflexive route. Theology is an underrepresented voice. I have been encouraged to notice that a few of the State’s major universities do have theologians in their religion departments. But, if I’m not mistaken, the California State University and University of California systems seem to have greatly contributed to the under-representation of theological engagement in the academic arena. Most religious studies faculties that I am familiar with in principle resist the presence of theologians. Or, if there are any, they will often not be Christian theologians. Of course, evangelical institutions have had no problem compensating for this under-representation in some of the large universities. Their institutions have not only survived but have excelled in producing bright thinkers, leaders in every sphere of society, and many shapers of CA culture. Indeed, one historian in the State will be contributing an essay to the TECC Project on the influence of evangelical higher educational institutions on California's culture.

And yet, it seems that things might be changing amidst our pluralist marketplace of ideas. This month the University of California Press just launched a fascinating journal, Boom: A Journal of California, which not only seems to be addressing a number of the similar issues that have been on the TECC Project’s radar, but they also seem to be open to conversation at interesting points with theologians. While perhaps seeming to be a radical step for some, this approach simply is consistent with representing California, its makeup and people. And so it seems to indicate a new awareness of the role not only that religion has played in the State, but also the leading thinkers and those articulating key tenents of particular theologies. One research school, University of Southern California, hosts the Center for Religion and Civic Culture which has also made significant strides to assimilate intelligent theological voices that have contributed to the development of global movements. It seems that these developments give some indication that the TECC Project is right on track, and right on time.

How might Christian philosophers help to think theologically about TECC’s endeavor?

Fred: Any time you've got an interdisciplinary project going on, you need philosophers on hand to help sort out the issues that emerge at the boundaries, to bring clarity to the way terms are used in different contexts, and occasionally to push everything to a higher level of abstraction. As you know, just about every scholarly discipline opens up to a highest theoretical level called "the philosophy of" that discipline. Without violating the operative methodologies of other disciplines, it's the philosophers who can make the connections at the most general level. Christian philosophers will be especially alert to those issues as they impinge on religion and on theology.

Jason: Christian philosophers excel at the apologetic task, so it would be wonderful to have some philosophical accounts that astutely bring this feature to bear, providing coherent and true accounts of the reality within the State, interpreted under Jesus' lordship and understood via biblical-theological analyses. We would love to see apologetic emphases (in all our papers, really!) that grapple with issues regarding what “California” means, and philosophers could assist by narrowing their focus toward assessing California while simultaneously articulating finer points of Christian belief and its positions before a watching world. Further, apologetic effort quite naturally spills over into the task of Christian mission, which has often been misunderstood and misapplied by so many. That Christians have a mission in the world has always been acknowledged, and it seems like philosophical apologists can best assist the TECC Project by aiding our public effort (especially in the final event) of giving detailed explanations of all reality as interpreted through the lens of the Christian gospel, which the TECC Project intends to repeatedly articulate because it’s inherent to robustly theological accounts of culture.

How might the TECC Project contribute to Christian philosophers in their work? How might it help Christian philosophers to pay attention to the social-cultural environment in which they “do philosophy”?

Fred: It all comes down to the quality of the work done, in the sense that content is king, and ideas are the coin of the realm. I have high hopes that the scholars who do work in the TECC Project will generate ideas that are obviously interesting. I can't say anything more specific until the papers start appearing, but already at the sampler event at this year's ETS, we'll start hearing the big ideas. As for the value of attending to the social-cultural environment in which Christian philosophers work, I know it pushes against the notion that philosophers are portable brains-in-vats, creatures of pure comprehension who generate concepts that show no traces of local origin. But I think that's a flawed public image of philosophers, not the way the philosophers I know actually view themselves. Without taking a hard historicist turn, we all tend to admit that we're located in multiple ways that influence our intellectual work. My favorite example of a thinker who has reflected well on that is Charles Taylor, and one can easily imagine a really enlightening Californian gloss on Sources of the Self. To my knowledge, only Josiah Royce has attempted anything self-consciously Californian in the field of metaphysics and epistemology --and I know Royce is not exactly all the rage these days.

Jason: Come to the special introductory session we’ll be hosting at ETS this November. Along with Rich Mouw’s lead-off paper, the others selected, and the conversation that Fred and Sarah will lead afterward, I reckon that quite a lot of material will be generated that philosophers will want to benefit from as they continue to interpret the reality around them. It also seems that much of the engagement the TECC Project will conduct will quite easily overlap and flow into the worlds of metaphysics, epistemology, moral and political philosophy, and aesthetics. In fact, there is still a couple of days to submit a paper proposal in conjunction with the “call for papers” on the TECC Project website. We’d love to have a philosopher in the lineup!

Are there other theology-culture groups that TECC models itself after? If so, how?

Jason: The organization of the project comes directly from the outline of a multi-year, multi-gathering project that leading British historian David Bebbington led a few years ago, which I had the privilege of participating in. As interdisciplinary theological engagement, we are swapping the role that theologians and historians play in David’s model. With one of his recent projects, a core group of three historians in conversation with a theologian and social-scientist drove the historical research. For us, the engagement is interdisciplinary and distinctly theological, with three theologians, one historian and a social-scientist charting the course for our investigative engagement.

We’ve also listed a number of groups that we think are doing similar things on our website, and who we have and will continue to learn from, but nobody is doing exactly the same kind of distinctly theological engagement in the collaborative way that the TECC Project endeavours to do. So we think TECC is somewhat ambitious, which, if anything, is simply Californian.

There has been a growing number of “theology of culture” or “theology and social science” publications (books and journals, etc) that have developed in the last ten years alone. How does TECC “fit” and help to “expand” this trend?

Fred: I think it's right to see TECC as part of that trend or movement. The distinctiveness comes from the localist impulse of TECC, and then the uniqueness comes from the fact that California is uniquely strange and influential.

Can you say who is helping to fund TECC? How would you like to see institutional partnerships develop with TECC, whether educational, philanthropic or other institutions).

Fred: Why, do you know somebody who wants to help fund TECC? Let us know! Right now we're trying to make sure we spread the word to institutions that already have a self-understanding that includes commitment to California. Networking with those schools and projects is a big deal. The next step is to help other institutions become aware of the fact that they ought to include such reflection in their understanding. A lot of California institutions think they are nowhere in particular. If it's not too paradoxical to say it this way, one of the distinctive things about California culture is its tendency to think it is simply universal culture.

Jason: As an academic endeavor, we’re seeking support from a number of the larger grant-making bodies who have a history of supporting these kind of projects. Although we anticipate a number of folk within the CA Christian community will provide support. The funding generated for the project will enable a lot of the research we plan to conduct, including travel bursaries and scholarships for outside contributors, graduate students, venue rentals, and for our final publication aims coinciding with the Project’s conclusion.
I think that with our distinct vision on the table, we would be happy to partner with any worthwhile groups who would be interested in substantially cultivating the conversation we’ll be having. This especially goes for academic institutions in CA who could contribute to the effort. And the partnerships will range from formal to informal.

Each of your educational institutions are a “partner” with TECC. Can you say how your institutions reflect the values, ideals or even intentions of the TECC project?

Fred: Torrey Honors Institute is partnered with TECC only by virtue of the fact that I'm involved in both. Biola University hasn't committed yet to any formal relationship, but TECC will need a prominent southern California venue for one of its later meetings, and I'm hoping Biola will win the venue contest. Not that TECC is the Olympics or anything!  But Biola University has a great heritage of being self-consciously Californian. The founders of the school, as long ago as 1900, were looking to replicate the influence of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, but in what they identified as an even more strategic location: on the Pacific rim, near the border with Latin America, in a rapidly-growing urban area fed by the California aqueduct and the Panama canal.

Jason: The Faith & Public Policy Forum at KCL is pretty much Luke Bretherton, and so it’s involved in an informal way insofar as Luke is attached. As Fred has highlighted, it’s more or less the same with Tozer and Multnomah Seminary. We’re pursuing some relationships with institutions and expect to have a lot of this shored up by the end of the year, but are hopeful that the TECC Project remain not just collaborative in its interdisciplinarity, but also in its inter-institutional shape as well, and so we anticipate working with academics from a range of institutions throughout the State, confessional or otherwise, who would join and contribute to the theological assessment of issues that can be confined to California’s context.

Would you like to see the TECC Project be a catalyst for similar cultural theological engagement in other U.S. states? Other international regions? If so, how would you encourage the relevant “stakeholders” toward that end?

Fred: Yes, that would be great if TECC could model how to do this kind of theological reflection on a region's culture. But I think "region" is the more appropriate word than "state." I doubt every U.S. state could sustain very much theological and cultural analysis. State lines are usually too arbitrary to delimit significant cultural localism. Texas might be an exception, but (as with California) that's because it's so big. But once you've identified a meaningful region, I do expect that TECC's procedures and methods will be transferable. One obvious way that scholars in other regions could learn to do something like this focused on their own region is to participate in TECC itself: Study California from elsewhere, then turn around and do that for your own territory.

It strikes that the TECC Project not only has “pay-off” for theological reflection on culture – indeed, specifically, California culture - but it could also help to “color in” some of the conditions “on the ground” for knowing what might help to form individual and group action in its various social-cultural environments and networks. If so, then the “pay-off” would seem to extend to not just relevant areas of sociology, but areas of social philosophy, practical philosophy, practical ethics, practical theology, and even distinct ways of enacting Christian witness in these environments (e.g., “evangelism,” and “apologetics”). What do you think about this “positioning” of the TECC Project?

Jason: I think some of this relates to an above question and how philosophers could team-up with the TECC Project. But insofar as aspects of our project will encourage the church to be the church, and, as Stanley Hauerwas says, to help the world know that it is the world, the accountings we give of various phenomena should highlight this distinction, which flows from a thoroughly eschatological interpretation, of course. And yet a large part of that task is given to theologians, who more or less have been absent on the California scene, especially in the public sphere. As the course has run, there has been the tendency to both “marginalize” and “ghettoize” theology, although it has influenced the shape of nearly everything that is “California/n,” to one degree or another. Our claim then is that everyone is doing theology; it’s just that we’re being explicit about it as specialists trained in the discipline and eager to conduct a rigorous conversation with theologians as well as those from other disciplines, both academics and practitioners.

We want to equip the church to have confidence in its task in the world, while highlighting the resources that already exist inherent in the range of Christian theology, all the while addressing issues that are the most culturally relevant of the day. Specifically, if all reality is radically-contingent, and Jesus is Lord of all reality, how ought we to make sense of issues embedded in our everyday existence and in the makeup of California’s essential shape.

Fred: That's a very exciting, and very likely, possibility. If you look, for instance, at the kind of demographic information and cultural analysis gathered by church-planters, you can see how much overlap there is bound to be. TECC itself is going to be much more an indoor sport, focused on academic goals and generating ideas in the medium of scholarly conferences and publications. But the wall between thinking and taking action doesn't have to be a high one. Speaking at the most general level, any Christian ministry that values inculturation will be able to make use of our cultural analysis. Good preachers know their locales well, and as TECC produces insightful analysis of the culture that is California, I imagine that will help give a local accent to sermons. Apologetics also strikes me as an obvious application, as Christian thinkers seek to commend the gospel to people in this particular place and time.

Learn more about the Theological Engagement with California's Culture by visiting their website

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Blogger Sam said:

Let me just say that I, as a California native from Oakdale, who studied theology at Azusa Pacific, a current seminarian (in New Jersey, though), and hopeful church planter back in Northern/Central California, am very excited by this project and hope to be a part of it in the future.

By Blogger Sam, at March 8, 2011 at 5:44 AM  

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