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In the seventeenth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Thomas Albert Howard, Professor of Humanities and the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics, Valparaiso University. Tal, as he is known to his friends, also serves as a Senior Fellow with the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities (until recently, the Lilly Fellows Program). Howard begins by talking about the role theology played in the research university and the ways the German research university and, more recently, the American research university influenced one another. Howard then builds upon those observations concerning theology and the research university as ways of framing his observations about the challenges and opportunities faced by scholars grappling with the relationship shared by faith and learning. Howard’s critically acclaimed writing related to ecumenical and interfaith relations forms the middle of the conversation. Ream and Howard then close their conversation by exploring the virtues that prove most critical to the exercise of the Christian academic vocation.    

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Thomas Albert Howard, Professor of Humanities and History and holder of the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. Tal, as he’s known to his friends, also serves as a senior fellow with the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. Thank you for joining us.

Thomas Albert Howard: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, Todd.

Todd Ream: The Lilly Fellows Program’s postdoctoral fellowship seeks to renew and enrich the intellectual and professional lives of the fellows it serves while they prepare for careers in Church-related institutions of higher learning. As someone who began his career in that program, in what ways did that season impact your understanding of the Christian academic vocation?

Thomas Albert Howard: The short answer to that, it was a wonderful experience. I finished my graduate work at the University of Virginia in ’96, and I actually had a tenure track job at a small liberal arts college, but this postdoc became a possibility. It’s a two-year postdoc for recent PhDs interested in teaching in Church-related higher education.

And neither my wife, who’s also an academic, or I had that much experience in the Midwest nor with Lutheranism for that matter. So to come to Valparaiso University and immerse yourself in the Midwest and Lutheranism was a wonderful experience. 

Um, it’s a teaching postdoc that gives you a chance to prepare classes but also, probably one of the most important things for me was the weekly colloquium, which I now find myself directing, actually, with other postdocs and their faculty mentors here at Valparaiso University, where we read works of literature, we read philosophy Martha Nussbaum John Henry Newman, Mark Noll, George Marsden, and thought about just the larger questions of Church-related higher education, where it is, where it’s going and the Christian academic vocation.

I did not have a background into the type of schools sponsored by Lilly, what’s being called the Lilly Network now. So probably I had a lot of what many people call compartmentalization, where you have your academic life in one, one part and your, your church or faith life in another.

So to have these two years to, to reflect on the relationship between the Church and the academy, while I’m getting my feet wet teaching and trying to turn my dissertation into a book. It was a wonderful, kind of leisurely opportunity. 

And then maybe the last thing I’ll say is just some of the people I encountered here, like the theologian Gilbert Meilaender or Mark Schwehn, who’s the founding director of the Lilly program. He was my mentor so in addition to the colloquium, we met on and off over the years. I mean, those two years, I especially remember discussions with the philosopher reading Charles Taylor together, together and Alistair McIntyre. 

So, bottom line, it was just a wonderful, very enriching time. Almost like another graduate experience, if you will.

Todd Ream: As a senior fellow now who, as you just mentioned, leads the colloquium, what do you hope to offer the next generation of our colleagues?

Thomas Albert Howard: Well, in many ways, it’s just to give back what I’ve received. I and, and my wife, Agnes Howard, who as senior fellows in the program, our main responsibility is directing the, the weekly postdoctoral colloquium. Sadly, I must say, it’s on hiatus this year, but there, we have um, been green lighted to bring postdocs in next year.

You know, some of the same texts, actually, that I was familiar with when I was a postdoc, we use, but also it’s just to continue to help them think about their vocation. Give them feedback on teaching. Like I went to a number of postdocs classes and just observed them and, and we’re able to talk about that and, and just some of this, the often arcane world of publishing and that type of thing. 

Um that’s sort of what we’re here for is to be senior fellows, to lead the colloquium, and be resource people for these wonderful, wonderful young scholars who are thinking about vocations in Church-related higher ed.

Todd Ream: How do you understand the Christian academic vocation then, today? 

Thomas Albert Howard: To put it in a definition, I would say something like seeking the truth of real things in this complex world, but doing it in dialogue with Scripture and in the community of the Church, and also in dialogue with just the broader Christian intellectual tradition.

Um, I think that I could say that’s another thing that the Lilly program helped me is to think- I come out of a Baptist Protestant background but to think ecumenically about the tradition and those nuggets of wisdom and insight, over the past 2,000 years to see, to see that as a real asset in thinking about what one’s worth, both in the world of teaching, teaching and, and scholarship.

Todd Ream: You just mentioned your Baptist Protestant background then, in what ways is your understanding the result of church communities that you experienced, and perhaps now have also experienced in terms of the Lutheran tradition as it animates Valparaiso?

Thomas Albert Howard: I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Alabama. Probably for many people of Alabama that, that will conjure certain images, um that maybe not sometimes are too kind to the life of the mind, but the church I grew up in when I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the seat of the University of Alabama. You know, a number of faculty at the university were involved in the church. 

I think of this one engineering professor, Dr. Gene Carden, in particular, was just a wonderful role model. Even when I was little of someone who took his faith seriously, but was involved in the uh, the work of the university and there were a few others. 

Yeah, I was very fortunate that my graduate school environment at the University of Virginia, now probably many of your listeners might know James Davison Hunter, the sociologist, or Kenneth Elzinga, the economist there, who went to my church. Um Ken Elzinga especially was just a very close personal mentor to me. We’re still, we’re still in touch. 

Um, the Christian Study Center there, I mean, of late, there’s been this movement to Christian study centers at many of the larger research universities. But the one there was founded by Drew Trotter, who has been involved in the spread and network of Christian study centers. Those are very helpful to my vocation. 

I could continue, I don’t want to go on and on on this question, but I spent 17 years at Gordon College where my wife and I worshiped at an Episcopal and Anglican church. And many of my fellow colleagues, one I think of right now, but a beloved so, Malcolm Reid, who was a professor of philosophy, but also a regular homilist at my church.

Uh, so I, bottom line, I think I’ve been very blessed by mentors at various stages of my professional career. You know, and as they say a lot of vocational, sometimes it’s caught more than taught and I think that’s, that’s very true in my own life. I think that bears witness to that.

Todd Ream: Thank you. In what ways then, if any, do you think our understanding of the Christian academic vocation and Church-related higher education has increased over the course of your career?

Thomas Albert Howard: From where I sit here at Valparaiso University and in the context of the Lilly Fellows Program, the Lilly Network it seems there’s just been a lot of good literature produced in the past 10, 20, 30 years reflecting on Church-related higher education. And a number of funding endeavors, not from the Lilly Endowment, but from other sources, the Templeton Foundation and others that have allowed Christian scholars in various sectors of the academy, Church-related or secular research universities or liberal arts, to create something of a republic of letters you know, where they’re in touch with one another. Not just with their academic guilds and specialization but with other people who share the faith. They’re trying to do good work and in, again, various institutional locations. 

When I was in grad school and in my early career, this was right after George Marsden wrote his important work on the secularization of the American university and Mark Noll had written The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. 

And I mean, of course, there are works prior to these two, but those were much of the discussion in my, in my circles at that time, and it seems like they have begotten many, many descendants who are continuing to think about the Christian academic location broadly, broadly understood.

Todd Ream: What challenges do you think that sense of understanding has incurred over the course of your career?

Thomas Albert Howard: In that question, I think of the postdocs. It’s a very challenging job environment right now. Um, I wish there were positions like the one I hold or position I had at Gordon College open to many, but just given some of the cutbacks in higher education and cutbacks in the humanities, I think that’s just the enormous economic strain that many, many Church-related higher education institutions have right now. 

I mean, another big thing between my time as a postdoc and my time now is just the internet revolution and the social media revolution. I think that has created many opportunities but also some problems as well, I would say. 

And maybe this shows my age, I’m well in my fifties now, but there does seem to be this sort of a lot of commentary on all kinds of topical events of the day that sometimes might detract from doing sort of enduring spending the time necessary to produce enduring works of scholarship and the thought and leisure that that takes. 

But at the same time, I don’t want to be a Luddite. This revolution has created many opportunities of new types of media, new types of connection. Even the podcast that we’re doing right now, that’s something that really wouldn’t- it would take place under different circumstances if you went back to the 19th, 1990s.

Todd Ream: You know, one of the things I’ve been thinking for junior faculty members who are beginning their career is providing them with some sense of guidance, understanding of how to leverage the power that social media platforms afford them, while also avoiding some of the challenges that can come and things that can be invited by using them and being aware of that and using it as much to their advantage, their guilds’ advantage and their institutions’ advantage, so yeah. 

Thomas Albert Howard: No, it’s probably a matter of whether or not, whether it’s good or bad, but how to steward it prudently and wisely. And you master it and not let it master you. 

Todd Ream: Your area of expertise is European intellectual history. And if I may, your first two books, Religion and the Rise of Historicism, and then, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University, did more to shape my understanding of the German research university’s impact on American iteration of such a model of education than any other books I’ve encountered. 

As descriptions of American culture have migrated from the secular to the post-secular, in what ways has the influence of the German research university persisted in the DNA of the American research university, and perhaps dissipated from its DNA?

Thomas Albert Howard: You know, I’m coming aback to some of the themes that I dealt with in one of the books that you mentioned, the Protestant Theology and the The Making of the German University and a book I’m working for now with Princeton University Press on modern Christian theology and intellectual history.

But on and off over the years, I have been involved, especially in the scholarly sense, with thinking about the university in the modern, post-enlightenment period. 

Um, but the German research university in particular I would say many of the conventions and forms that we have today from just the doctoral degree, the PhD, the drive towards specialization specialized journals, professional societies I mean, they weren’t necessarily all invented whole cloth by the German university. But I would, I would say kind of in the 19th century, they came on their own and we’re very well-funded. And even today many fields, when you look back at the early field, you’ll often find 19th century works of German scholarship that have seeded many specializations. 

And some of our research universities like Johns Hopkins or Cornell or Michigan were founded by people explicitly trying to imitate or emulate the German model.

I mean, in the United States though, it’s always been something of a hybrid higher education. Certainly the German research university but also the British collegiate model of the college. Uh those are two important seeds that we have.

You know, probably one of the big differences, though, in the, in the, in the German session, it was much more of a statist and state phenomenon, where in the United States private funding and philanthropy have been much more part of the, of the, of the DNA.

And even today, just some of the student services and sports and all the kind of donor cultivation and everything that goes on in the American university, that’s quite foreign to a number of university systems and the Germans. Although they are probably another big reversal is that in Europe today, they’re often looking at the American universities, the model today, where in the 19th century, it was more Americans looking at the German model. 

And this is a little bit tangent, but this has been taking place in the sciences for some time, with people in European universities writing their dissertations or their works in English. But even in the humanities field, sometimes you will see German universities, people writing in English to try to have a larger, global audience given the relative decline of the German language as a scholarly language compared to English today. 

Todd Ream: Yeah. Perhaps tapping into a little bit of your current project then, in what ways do you think the practice of theology in the research university impacts our understanding of the relationship that faith and learning share?

Thomas Albert Howard: This project again, I’ve been slogging away at this for a number of years. I think I finally see light at the end of the tunnel. It has six chapters and I’ve written five. I have one more to go. I keep hoping my editor doesn’t contact me and ask me how I’m doing, but I think I’m beginning to be able to tell him good, good news and I see an ending for this project.

Theology was considered the queen of the sciences in the medieval university and that persisted through the Protestant Reformation so on both sides of the confessional divide in Europe and certainly in the United States the study of theology occupied a very important position.

You know, that changes fundamentally at the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, where universities were essentially treated like monasteries. Their endowment seeds shut down the Sorbonne, the University of Paris, the great symbol– Thomas Aquinas. So it was shuttered in the 1790s and universities became more specialized and a lot of the, a lot of the religious thoughts, sort of retreated to the seminaries at that time even though France did keep theological faculties until the 1880s. 

You know, but the course of the story of the 19th century is theology coming to grips with historical thinking or historicism, the natural sciences and positivism so various forms of secularization were a real challenge during what we would think of this period of intellectual secularization in the 19th and earlier 20th century. 

Todd Ream: When it comes to theology as a domain of knowledge, how does that impact faith and learning? And I guess I would ask then too now, cause we were talking there at the end about the impact of secular culture on the research university.

But now we’re talking about the transition to a post-secular culture, which we’re not sure what it is yet, but we know it is different than the previous culture. So in what ways is that impacting the practice of theology and the relationship faith and learning share? 

Thomas Albert Howard: Sort of the enlightenment paradigm where the natural sciences were the end and in all, everyone is trying to emulate them and their methodology. I think that certainly swooned and what’s often called postmodernism, but more recently, I think there’s some kind of overlap between what people call the post-modern and sometimes the post-secular.

I mean, in my mind, I associate the post-secular with a real kind of renewed interest in religion as just a human phenomenon in the past two or decades, not only, but triggered in part by 9/11 and the, just awareness of just how, how religious passions how it’s been combined with various after the collapse of the Soviet Union with various nationalist ideologies worldwide.

Uh, and then certainly in many Christian academic communities, greater attention to the global south and the majority world and the fact that the secularization model of Western Europe, which is only in part as applied to the United States does not necessarily apply to Africa and Asia and the types of Christian growth you’ve seen in these areas.

So when it comes back to theology, I think, theology has been largely sort of a Western phenomenon in the late 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The real challenge today is to try to hear these voices, how Christianity is being contextualized and taking shape in other parts of the world. 

I mean, I think another element to post secularity is just the type of pluralism that we see in this religious pluralism especially with the changing of some of the immigration laws in the 1960s. 

Um I live an hour from Chicago and you can go to Chicago and you can find Hindu temples and Sikh temples, Baha’i temples, mosques. Uh, we’ve taken some of our students locally. 

Theology has been doing this for some time but the question of religious plurality, interfaith dialogue, interreligious dialogue are, I think, much more on the agenda in the Christian academy, but even in the academy at large. I think there might be sort of more interest and openness to this than in sort of an earlier natural science paradigm or a paradigm that was heavily shaped in the 70s, 80s by various types of Marxist and Marxist-derived thought where religion was just seen as epiphenomenal and socioeconomic analysis was the important thing to do.

Todd Ream: Your work as a historian, then in what ways does your understanding of the relationship shared by faith and learning brought to bear?

Thomas Albert Howard: I guess on the one hand, I aspire to do good scholarship as defined by my guild. And for history, that’s sort of getting at the truth of the past and all its complexity and difficulty and imponderability. In that sense, I would say I just share the kind of methodology and standards of evidence of other scholars in my field. 

Uh, but I think all along, faith issues have animated the type of questions that I’m interested in, such as the fate of theology amid the rise of the research university, the relationship of religious conviction to historicist thinking and historical criticism of sacred text. 

I have another book, not the theology book, but another book that comes out that looks at the persecution of religious communities under various forms of secularist ideologies in the 20th century, principally Marxist Leninism, but not, not exclusively. 

So just the, I guess, the fate of religion and religious communities and theological questions you know, they have fructified and animated the types of historical topics that I’m interested in pursuing.

So that’s probably where I would locate it, that kind of the question that animates the work.

Todd Ream: A couple of your more recent book length projects that are in print grapple with topics such as higher education and tradition from an ecumenical and or inter religious perspective. What led to such efforts?

Thomas Albert Howard: Yeah, some of this goes back to my work at Gordon College, which, you know, I believe the Christian Scholar’s Review, didn’t it begin as the Gordon Review in the 1950s?

Todd Ream: Correct.

Thomas Albert Howard: Am I remembering that correctly? So a little shout out to my former institution there. 

I was not always pleased with the fact that Gordon and a number of evangelical schools didn’t hire sympathetic Catholics or Orthodox who would be sympathetic with the mission. 

So I, myself, kind of engineered a number of ecumenical Catholic, evangelical conversations or dialogue to bring different voices in from different sectors of the tradition to speak to our students and with a few edited books, that type of interest has uh, has come to bear in publications.

The interfaith and interreligious, I mean, it’s, it’s also related to my work at Gordon College. I found myself directing an honors program there called the Jerusalem at Athens Forum, which is not a study abroad center, as many parents think, but it goes back to Tertullian’s famous line about the relationship the academy and the Church, Jerusalem and Athens.

Um, and also I was directing a speaker series called the, the, The Faith-Seeking Understanding Speaker Series, which goes back to Anselm of Canterbury, fides quaerens intellectum.

But I was doing this in the post 9/11 period when many of our students had questions what do Muslims believe? What is jihad? And I also had a colleague, dear colleague, Marv Wilson, who really had pioneered efforts of Jewish and evangelical dialogue. So I sort of found myself sort of willy nilly orchestrating interfaith dialogues or these interreligious colloquial type thing to answer student questions. 

Meanwhile, as a historian, I’m at the back of my mind, I’m saying, where does this category come from, interfaith dialogue or inter religious dialogue? Probably if you went back several decades or centuries, these are not really terms that people would use quite the way they’re used today. And as I began to think about it and research and really look at the great proliferation of interfaith dialogue centers and statements and joint projects, a simple Google search will dredge up all these different type of interfaith apparatus that has been created in the latter part of the 20th century.

Vatican II is an important piece of the story for the Catholic Church, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the where how religious passions influence like the wars in the Balkans, for example, and then you know, certainly 9/11, you have this proliferation, but the vast majority of the literature is comes at it from like a what I would call religious studies perspective or theological perspective, or thereby by practitioners, imams, and rabbis and priests. You know, generally trying to get to know one another to get along to show a better model of interfaith engagement, but it really hadn’t been dealt with as a historical phenomenon.

So, a book that came out several years ago, it’s entitled The Faiths of Others: A History of Interreligious Dialogue, which Yale University Press brought out. It sort of attempts to answer, look at the whole phenomenon historically. How has this happened? How has it come to rise? 

And what I want to argue is this is whatever you think about it, and many people have different theological views of what’s appropriate or not in the interfaith dialogue arena, it’s a, it’s a novel historical phenomenon for human religiosity, at least in certain, certain sectors of you know, a number of religious communities who think this is, you should not always engage the religious other simply in terms of refutation or apologetics, or evangelization but some sort of peaceful dialogue to get to know one another and and that’s what, that’s what that work did. 

I’ll briefly mention, as I’ve come here to Valparaiso by the former dean of Christ College Peter Kanelos, or Pano Kanelos, who went on to St. John’s and is now the president of the new University at Austin. It was the 50th anniversary of Christ’s College, which is the Lutheran-based honors college that I teach at, here at Valparaiso. So we thought, what would be an appropriate theme for a 50th anniversary? 

And we alighted on the idea of tradition and how do you hand on the tradition, what role do academic institutions play in the handing on of a tradition. That was sort of an ecumenical and interfaith. We had a Protestant, a Catholic, an Orthodox interlocutor, but we also thought to bring in a Jewish and Muslim voice as well, because I think many of these religious traditions in our highly fluid, late modern world, wrestle with, how do you pass on a tradition?

It’s difficult. And so I, I thought that was an important point of, despite theological and religious differences and other dimensions, that’s sort of a shared problem that many traditions have.

Todd Ream: What do you perceive then are the strengths of engaging topics such as these in the ways that we’re discussing here from an inter-religious or an, and or an ecumenical perspective?

Thomas Albert Howard: Well, the strengths, I mean, so often the big question that comes up is, does interfaith dialogue work? Why are there so much sort of violence in the world that certainly we’re seeing this today that has, it certainly has some religious dimension. Whether it should be called religious violence is another question that I have some qualms about that.

I think Christians should be at the forefront of this. You know, again, what I’m trying to open up is maybe just sort of a little field, if you will, of exploring it historically and not, not just looking at it in theological lenses. 

And also it’s often very geographic specific. Uh, there’s not necessarily just a Christian Muslim dialogue, but a Christian Muslim dialogue in Toronto looks different than it does in Cairo. It looks different than it does in Sarajevo. And so I think learning about the religious dynamics of particular places is an important aspect.

That’s certainly something I learned. I did some traveling to think about interfaith dialogue in a number of contexts and that’s certainly true.

Todd Ream: In the moment in which we currently find ourselves living, what limitations, if any, do you perceive exist with, say, an ecumenical approach to such efforts? 

Thomas Albert Howard: Well, there’s certainly been a lot of that. I mean, my own take is that you know, sometimes these can be kind of shallow or insipid, just people trying to agree on certain basics, certain ethical norms together, what I would call a LCD, least common denominator form of ecumenism.

Um, someone that’s influenced me is Paul Murray, a Catholic scholar who wrote a work called Receptive Ecumenism and greatly simplified his argument. He says that many of the divisions that Christians face, some going back to the 16th century, some going back earlier, that these different communities have developed certain gifts or charisms that can be kind of mutually gifts, gifts to one another. 

Now, I find that a more particular, robust type of ecumenism than just the, some of the least common denominator ecumenism that is taking place in the past. 

Todd Ream: The same question, but in terms of interreligious dialogue then, the age in which we live, what do you see as some of the limitations that may come?

Thomas Albert Howard: There’s age-old limitations of this sort of fear, fear of the other or fear from drawing the other. And then even in interfaith dialogue. 

Um what I’ve tried to argue, sometimes interfaith settings have been a little more unfriendly to conservative voices in various traditions. My argument is that they should be kind of open to- I mean, so long as you’re not advocating violence or something, everyone should have a place at the table if they want it. 

And I, I think in the Christian intellectual tradition, there are some great paragons of kind of an interfaith theology. I mean, Thomas Aquinas, and he was drawing from Aristotle, he was drawing from Maimonides, he was drawing from some of the great Muslim translators and commentaries of the time.

You know, as an orthodox Christian, I, I think one always needs to be careful and not on the slide into some simplistic syncretism or just kind of, feel, feel-good, interfaith dialogue, but you know, if you believe that all creatures are you know, all human beings are created in the image of God, how they approach the Divine, how they think theologically should be of great interest to, to, to all people so that- 

You seem like your question emphasizes limitations or downfalls, and I would say limitations would just be doing this at a very shallow level or one that is really, crowded at one end of the sort of the ideological political sector but it should be a little more open to others.

Todd Ream: What advice then would you offer scholars who are interested in doing this kind of work? And what topics might you encourage them to consider exploring?

Thomas Albert Howard: I might come back to the history question as well. I think a lot is done from a the theological religious studies perspective, but I think just throughout human history to ask the question, how, how have religions, not how they’ve conflicted, but when, when there have been moments of peaceful coexistence, why, why have they happened, and, and genuine exchanges? 

So I think that’s certainly an opportunity. You know, I, I think too, the question that this is a more theological subject of how do you kind of balance the Great Commission and belief in that Christians are called to communicate the Good News or proclamation with dialogue. What type of witnesses are those? And sometimes they might conflict with one another. 

You know, here, here, I think I’ve learned a lot from the Catholic tradition at the second Vatican Council. One of the 16 documents, Nostra Aetate. Our age dealt with the Catholic Church’s relations to non-Christian religions. Um, they created an office in the Vatican that’s especially dedicated to interfaith, interreligious issues. 

And they’ve issued a number of documents out of this you know, part of the, part of the, the Vatican on balancing proclamation and dialogue. And so I think that’s it. For other Christians, I think that’s an issue to wrestle with as well. 

John Paul II is I think a great, he’s a great example of a, I think, a faithful orthodox Catholic, but he also had a real global mission to- you know, he traveled more than any Pope in human history to to try to interact both in the spirit of sharing his faith, but also in peaceably interacting as well.

Todd Ream: Thank you. If I may now, I want to return back to some of the themes we talked about at the beginning of our conversation. And in particular, in what ways do you believe the health of the Christian academic vocation is dependent upon the health of the Church?

Thomas Albert Howard: Maybe I would speak biographical here. I, I think, I mean, all churches have different forms of disease and shortcoming compared to what we’re called to be and the Gospel, but I, I think that, like my background of seeing academics that were involved in the life of the mind, but also were faithful to their local churches you know, has an ability to inspire young people just like, like myself. So there’s a great tradition and Scripture and early creeds and councils.

There’s a sort of host of normative questions and ethical questions that if you take them seriously, and then you’re trying to, as the academy does, understand the world around you, have cognitive implications and can be enormously, enormously fruitful in that regard.

Todd Ream: I’m just going to flip this question then a little bit and ask, in what ways, if any, do you think the health of the Church is dependent upon the health of the Christian academic vocation?

Thomas Albert Howard: Here I might reference Mark Noll’s book on the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I think there’s not necessarily a natural law in this regard, but I, I think closed off from the the life of the mind, the world of research, the world of Socratic questioning, church communities can, again, not necessarily you know, can take on anti-intellectual dimensions you know, being very skeptical, engaging the world only in the form of either retreat or prophetic denunciation and not, not in you know, not in cultural engagement or scholarly engagement.

So, I think that the academy again, like the Church, has its own shortcomings and diseases. You know, never necessarily living up to the Socratic ideal of questioning in a spirit of pure truth. Um, but I think at its best a type of Socratic questioning can be fruitful and health giving for the life, life of the Church. 

But I mean, this comes back to the Jerusalem and Athens question. It’s never an easy relationship, but I, I think at its best, there’s a healthy or a mutually fructifying relationship between Athens and Jerusalem that can be held up, and pursued but will always be dogged by human fallibility and the weakness of institutions. 

Todd Ream: Asking you again about your service there as a senior fellow with the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, for our younger colleagues, what do you think the opportunities and challenges will be that they’ll face that are sort of similar to the ones that we’ve encountered over the course of our careers, but maybe what are some of the ones that will also be different?

Thomas Albert Howard: I mean, even in my day, like the humanities job market was not an, an easy one, but I, I think there’s strong headwinds both demographically where our country is politically about keeping Church-related institutions keeping their doors open, keeping the lights on and having opportunities for scholarship.

I know many like Valparaiso and others, to the teaching load, some of them has just become extractive of younger individuals ,where they don’t really have time to pursue scholarship. Uh, I think that’s a, that’s a real challenge so I hope generations coming up and I hope I can offer a helpful hand.

Uh, we’ll face these challenges. Uh, the opportunity you know, whenever there’s a crisis or difficulty that does present opportunities would be imaginative leadership, visionary leadership, finding, finding places to do do and support and make the case for serious, thoughtful scholarship and, and teaching coming from a, a faith, faith perspective.

Todd Ream: As we close out our time then, I want to ask one more question about these younger colleagues and the professional development programs we afford them. 

On what intellectual, moral, or theological virtues do you think we’ll need to focus on cultivating in the coming months and years?

Thomas Albert Howard: I love just the medieval model of the seven virtues, the cardinal virtues of prudence and justice and temperance and courage and theological virtues of faith, hope and love. I think if every student and every young faculty kind of think about those virtues and where they came from, maybe not an exhaustive list of the virtues, but I think it’s a good starting point. 

Uh probably all scholars need a dose of intellectual humility. That’s a chief cardinal not not try to absolute your own point of view, your own disciplinary standpoint, but I think for fruit, especially for fruitful interdisciplinary and ecumenical engagement, that’s something that the Lilly Fellows Program, the Lilly Network, tries to do. I think that humility is very helpful. 

One I’ve written about in a number of places is the virtue of prudence, which sadly, in our culture, sometimes just means caution. Prudence, just like you shouldn’t do something but in the medieval literature and other, the virtue ethics tradition that has kind of been revived in the past several decades prudence has a very particular meaning of brightly sizing up the world for the purpose of appropriate action, accurately, sober mindedly understanding the nature of the world and reality.

Not, not just sort of just so you understand it for the sake of understanding, but for the purpose of thoughtful action in, in the world. And I think that’s one that should be revived. 

You know, many, many schools speak of justice and social justice, and that’s important in its own right. But in the tradition, prudence and justice were very deliberately yoked and allied with one another. The idea being if you pursue justice imprudently, you will ultimately wound justice. But at the same time, if you’re only prudent and not caring about justice, that’s when imprudence becomes mere caution and inaction.

So, here the bottom line is, I think that would be very valuable for aspiring young scholars, just, just to think about the Christian virtues as they, as they have been kind of defined in the tradition, but how do they the opportunities and dilemmas and difficulties and challenges that we have today, how can they be deployed in the service of both the Church and the academy, Athens and Jerusalem.

Todd Ream: Within the context then, such as the Church-related university, on what practices do you think we could depend upon or utilize more that would be most beneficial in terms of the cultivation of these virtues?

Thomas Albert Howard: Yeah, I don’t think I have any revolutionary insights here, probably ones that many already practice. I think mentoring relationships between more senior faculty and younger faculty are very important. Uh, I also think like retreat experiences and types of study, study trips that get one, when you get out of just the daily grind, the daily email check, and all your duties. But to be able to kind of create spaces, I’ll just say kind of out of the ordinary. It can be local, it can be going to another, another place. 

Um, like I know my institution, but you know, before COVID made us restrict some things, there was the Cambridge program for younger faculty where they were taking everyone over to Cambridge University for a week to think about what does it mean to teach in a Lutheran higher education.

Uh, so I, I think I mean, that would be an example of many things. The economic challenges and COVID has led to kind of cutbacks in a number of critical places. And I think sort of the challenge is to restore these, restore these practices, create spaces of leisure. 

Um the word school comes from the Greek word of leisure. It’s a place to set aside, to think about the world, to try to understand the world. And you know, that’s why I’m a big advocate, but both for students and faculty of those types, those types of experiences.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Tal Howard, Professor of Humanities and History, and holder of the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Thomas Albert Howard: Again, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven. 

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

One Comment

  • Todd,
    These interviews are brilliant, both in the depth of content and the connectivity to the broader academy. As I looked down through the list again, and reflecting on our various discussions on this project, this is both a helpful timely series of discussions, and a repository of great minds for decades to come. Hearing Tal in the easy depth of his discipline, along with reflecting back to his Gordon days, is helpful on so many levels. Oftentimes at conferences or gatherings we can have social conversations, or hear a specific lecture, but here we get to know the depth of their disciplinary engagement. Thanks. Great questions. Prudence, and Justice, and Temperance …. great final answer on intellectual humility. You might recall Mark Schwehn spending a day at IWU on Aquinas’ virtues, and especially Intellectual Humility.
    BTW, as Associate Publisher I suggest to my CSR colleagues that we interview you for this series. Those listening or reading this comment should be aware of the flurry of books you’ve produced of late on a mélange of subjects. Besides your five books on ND’s Father Hesburgh, to our IVP series, recent The Anxious Middle (Baylor), and your various news articles (often Ft Wayne Gazette), you would offer a substantial Saturday’s at Seven interview.