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CPRSE Inaugural Address

Living at the Crossroads:
Ethical Scholarship and the Common Good
 
 

Inaugural Address by Lambert Zuidervaart, Founding Director
Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics
Institute for Christian Studies
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
 
 

Delivered at a gala banquet launch on October 24, 2011
at the Faculty Club, University of Toronto
 
 

Living at the Crossroads: Ethical Scholarship and the Common Good

Lambert Zuidervaart (October 24, 2011)
 
 

        When Joyce and I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1985, we bought a house in an area called Eastown. We lived just a block and a half from the six-way intersection that forms the heart of this area. Because two main roads cross there at an unusual angle, many visitors missed our little street, called Norwood Avenue, and had to detour to get to our house.

        Five years later we adopted our first dog, a Golden Retriever/Labrador mix we named Rosa. Every afternoon Rosa and I walked up Norwood Avenue, across the six-way intersection, to a neighborhood park where she loved to romp with other dogs. One day after playtime Rosa and I were walking back to the house. We had just navigated the crossroads and were on the home stretch, or so we thought. I was lost in some deep philosophical puzzle, and Rosa was absorbed in the scents and sounds of the neighborhood, trotting happily along, her big tail waving. Both of us forgot that the pathway here was narrow because parking meters had been planted right in the middle of the sidewalk. Looking sideways at something else, Rosa walked full tilt and head first into a parking meter. Clunk!

        From my perspective, this looked like a rare case of doggy absent-mindedness. But that’s not how Rosa saw it. No, the parking meter had viciously attacked her, without either provocation or warning. Following the ancient canine wisdom of “once bitten, twice shy,” she considered it an enemy for life. From then on, whenever she and I walked down that side of Norwood Avenue, she would veer as far away as possible from the hostile parking meter. Much later, after we had lived on a different street for eight years, I walked Rosa back along Norwood to visit our former neighbor Frances Wiley. Sure enough, Rosa still steered well clear of her adversary—the only meter in Grand Rapids that had ever attacked her.

        I learned from this that living at the crossroads can be a challenge. To live at the crossroads we need to look ahead, trying to detect where our paths lie blocked. We must recognize dead ends. We need to say, without hesitation, “We cannot go on like this.”

Society at the Crossroads

        This is true of society as well. Many of us see that the worldwide financial collapse in 2008, in whose aftermath we now live, was not an accident. It resulted from our going in unsustainable directions, hitching our personal and collective futures to a potential landslide of bad debts. We know we cannot go on like this. Economically we need to find a better way.

        Many of us also have heard the alarm bells of an immense environmental crisis. They have been ringing constantly for fifty years, ever since Rachel Carson published her eloquent book Silent Spring (1962). We cannot continue to charge deafly down the fossil-fueled road, destroying the earth and its most vulnerable inhabitants for short-term gain. Some of us have tried to head in another direction. Collectively, however, we have not mustered the resolve, either nationally or globally, to find a different path.

        That failure reflects poorly on our elected governments. Despite widespread recognition of economic and ecological dead ends, our governments seem unable to help us go in a different direction. They seem more concerned to cut taxes than to protect the environment, more committed to backstopping large banks and corporations than to pursuing public justice for the poor and oppressed. The voices of ordinary citizens are largely ignored, and the changes needed in culture, education, and health care are mostly deferred. We appear to be headed toward a political dead end.

        Meanwhile, civil society, where most of us lead our daily lives, threatens to become less civil. This tendency is obvious in the United States, where public debates have become ideologically turbocharged, and in Europe, where economic anxieties have fostered anti-immigrant attitudes. Yet in Canada, too, the multicultural mosaic seems to be shattering under the competing blasts of individualism and intolerance. We have not found a viable path toward intercultural inclusion.

Unsettled Universities

        Where at these societal crossroads do our universities stand? Their location is unsettled, I would say, for at least three interlinked reasons, namely, muddled missions, external pressures, and entrenched patterns. First, the missions of our universities have become muddled. One would think that universities should be centers within civil society for dialogical learning, critical inquiry, and creative exploration, and that these activities should make a significant contribution to human flourishing. Yet several factors have made this less obvious: consumerist attitudes have taken hold among students and their parents; institutional costs have soared; and governments have cut back funding. In response, universities have refocused their activities toward vocational training, fundable research, and corporate appeal.

        External pressures have increased the sense of dislocation. Politically, governments, which still hold significant purse strings, increasingly demand measurable outcomes, thereby constraining the type of learning permitted or encouraged. Economically, as universities become more dependent on corporations, they steer research toward commercial applications. Technologically, universities are under pressure to stay ahead of the digital curve, channeling creative exploration into innovation for its own sake.

        A third reason for the unsettled location of universities is entrenched patterns of specialization and certification. Many universities today give lip service to the value of interdisciplinary research and teaching.1 But their structure and how they promote and reward the work of their faculties put a premium on specialization within established disciplines. They expect faculty members to burnish their credentials within disciplinary professions more than they encourage faculty members to engage in interdisciplinary projects or to be public intellectuals.2

        Hence our universities have an unsettled location at the crossroads of society. Indeed they are themselves at a crossroad, pulled in different directions and unsure where to go: for example, toward dialogical learning or toward vocational training? critical inquiry or commercialized research? technological innovation for its own sake or genuinely creative exploration? disciplinary expertise or interdisciplinary and public scholarship? Such uncertainty clouds the contributions universities can make to human flourishing.

A Different Path

        Given this brief diagnosis, I think it is time to take a different path. It is time to pursue ethical scholarship for the common good. By “ethical scholarship” I mean teaching and research that consciously pursue social responsibility and continually orient themselves to the common good.3 I have stuffed a lot into this definition, more than I can unpack during a brief talk. But let me briefly itemize some contents in my academic travel bag.

Social Responsibility

        First, with the term “social responsibility” I want to indicate that university-based scholars have something important to offer in society, and that they can offer this because of the gifts, training, and professional standing they have received. Because of what they have received, scholars have an obligation to be trustworthy, accountable, and responsive in their work: trustworthy with respect to the tasks of learning, inquiry, and exploration; accountable for the significance and worth of their contributions; and responsive to the opportunities, issues, and contexts that deserve their attention. Although nonacademic institutions cannot prescribe what this means for any individual or group, socially responsible scholars will acknowledge the obligation to be trustworthy, accountable, and responsive, and they will constantly ask whether they are meeting it in their work.

The Common Good

        Second, I have said that ethical scholarship continually orients itself to the common good. What do I mean by “the common good”? That’s not an easy question to answer. The topic is complex, and talk of the common good meets with suspicion and resistance in the academic world.4 Let me simply say that I have detected a deep desire in contemporary culture, maybe a spiritual hunger, for connection and community. This desire has surfaced within responses to sociological studies of isolation and alienation such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Ten years ago many of us experienced it in the unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and good will from around the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Recently I recognized it again in the public commemorations of Jack Layton’s life and work. I hear talk of “the common good” as a response to this shared desire for connection and community, rather than as merely an ideological ploy to ignore differences or to cover up violence.

By “the common good” I mean the interconnected flourishing of all earth’s inhabitants, despite and amid the many ways in which we destroy the earth and oppress other people. I also mean societies whose organization and ongoing development promote rather than hinder this interconnected flourishing. The common good is a condition where, for example, people enjoy substantial solidarity with one another across their differences; where the earth’s resources are tended carefully and everyone’s basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing are met; where the demands of justice are fulfilled, especially for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Pioneering Efforts

        To say even this much, one must appeal to thickly textured notions of what is good, notions that we can best explore together rather than announce by fiat. But perhaps I have said enough to indicate what I mean by “the common good.” My underlying point is this: Universities at the crossroads should foster dialogue and debate about what is good. They should not avoid it. They should encourage their students and faculty members to give these topics priority and to see this as a matter of social responsibility. We need ethical scholarship for the common good.

        The need for ethical scholarship has not gone unnoticed. The Jackman Humanities Institute at this university, for example, has chosen “Food” as its main topic for collaborative research next year. The Centre for Ethics, the Joint Centre for Bioethics, and the Centre for Environment all encourage scholars to address issues of the common good. The Toronto School of Theology supports programs in Islamic and Jewish studies that can enrich the dialogue among Catholics and Protestants on such issues. Liberal arts schools such as Redeemer University College in Canada and Dordt College in the United States emphasize questions of purpose and value throughout their curriculums. I could multiply such examples many times over. The standard understandings and practices of university-based scholarship need to catch up with these pioneering efforts.

The Mission of CPRSE

        Building on what others have done, the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, whose founding we celebrate tonight, aims to articulate and demonstrate a vision of ethical scholarship for the common good. Because we are a research centre at an independent graduate school, let me say what this vision means for the research we sponsor. As our name suggests, the Centre plans to foster scholarship that is philosophically informed, religiously attuned, and oriented to questions of social ethics.

Interdisciplinary Philosophy

        The philosophy pursued at the Centre, like the graduate programs at ICS, is deliberately interdisciplinary. We do not ignore the specialized work done by philosophers with a more disciplinary focus. But we are especially keen to shed light on central questions in other disciplines as well as on pivotal issues in contemporary culture and society. A good example of this emphasis is the April 2010 conference and concert called “Songs of Love and Sorrow,” organized by my colleague Rebekah Smick and co-sponsored by ICS, TST, the Royal Conservatory, and several units at U of T. The conference panel of composers and philosophers on the social ethics of music, now published in the Toronto Journal of Theology5 and excerpted in an online video,6 conveys the excitement and significance of crossing disciplinary and professional boundaries in pursuit of topics that affect all of us.

Religious Attunement

        The scholarship supported by the Centre is also religiously attuned. This means several things. First, as the founders of ICS and its faithful supporters have always insisted, religion in the sense of spiritual orientation does not lie at the outer edges of academic work but at its very core. In the words of the Hebrew scriptures, out of the heart flow the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23), including, we may add, the issues of teaching and research. Or, as Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21, NRSV). Researchers who are religiously attuned keep both ears open for questions of spiritual orientation, for questions of what matters most.

        In the second place, religiously attuned research does not buy the story of secularization that has prevailed at Western universities in the past 100 years. Although we live in a society where organized religion does not have the dominant role it once had, this does not mean the practices and institutions of faith and worship are marginal or irrelevant to the concerns of politics, economics, and civil society. Rather, organized religions have important contributions to make in these public arenas. Most fundamentally, they can help us test and rearticulate visions of the common good.7 Religiously attuned research remains sensitive to such contributions, always aware that organized religion can be a force for evil as well as for good.

        This implies, in the third place, that religiously attuned research studies and fosters interreligious dialogue. In today’s world organized religions are central to many global and domestic conflicts. They are also central to resolving such conflicts. Religiously attuned scholarship asks what the various religions can learn from each other. It asks as well how each religion can maintain its integrity and contribute to public discourse without feeding conflicts that destroy human life and undermine religion itself.

        Next April the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, joined by Emmanuel College and other co-sponsors, will host a conference on Social Justice and Human Rights. This conference illustrates what I mean by religiously attuned research. It will bring together scholars, lawyers, politicians, human rights advocates, and religious leaders to ask why human rights are important and why religious communities are internally divided on this question. The conference will feature keynote lectures by Nicholas Wolterstorff, who argues that the concept of human rights has crucial roots in the Jewish and Christian religions, and by Melissa Williams, who explores the meaning of global justice in connection with democracy and cultural differences. The conference will also spotlight a panel discussion among Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars on debates within their own communities about human rights. And it will connect the topic of human rights with the theme of social justice, an aspect of the common good over which many of the world’s religions struggle.

Social Ethics

        That brings us to the third emphasis in the Centre’s work, namely, an orientation to questions of social ethics. ICS stems from a tradition of philosophically informed and religiously attuned scholarship inspired by the social vision of Abraham Kuyper, the nineteenth-century Dutch Calvinist who founded the VU University Amsterdam. We call this the “reformational” tradition. Kuyper claimed that Calvinism is not simply a theology or an organized religion. It is, he insisted, a way of life—a “world- and life-view”—that makes a difference in all areas of society—the arts, education, mass media, labor, business, politics, and so forth.8 Following Kuyper, reformational scholars believe their research and teaching should help transform university-level scholarship. They also think pivotal issues in public life deserve scholarly attention. To do this, they try to explore and articulate the normative principles or ethical path marks that should guide public life.

        Inspired by Kuyper’s social vision, as elaborated by Herman Dooyeweerd, Dirk Vollenhoven, and others, our new research centre focuses on questions of social ethics. We ask what makes for better or worse organizations, communities, practices, and policies in all areas of public life. We reflect on how contemporary institutions such as government, business, and schooling, each in its own way, either enhance or undermine the common good. We wonder whether the current social order promotes the interconnected flourishing of all earth’s inhabitants. Inherent to such questions are both a wide-ranging social critique and an open-ended call for social transformation.

        This orientation to social ethics turns us toward others. It invites contributions from many different academic disciplines and professional fields. It also welcomes voices from diverse religious communities. Hence we want to partner with other research centres, schools, and organizations. Last spring, for example, we launched the Toronto Interfaculty Colloquium. The colloquium brings together faculty members from ICS, TST, the U of T, and other schools to discuss research that falls within the scope of the Centre’s mission. And we are planning to start a public, partnered lecture series on religion and scholarship as well as collaborative research projects on topics such as social justice, care for the earth, and intercultural solidarity.

Research at the Crossroads

        To do research at the crossroads is a challenge. The Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics wishes to embrace this challenge. We do not want to stroll absent-mindedly into misplaced parking meters. Nor are we comfortable with a sense of academic dislocation at the crossroads of society. Instead we aim to shed light on societal dead ends and point in new directions. We intend to pursue ethical scholarship for the common good.

Five years ago ICS awarded its first honorary doctorate. We paid tribute to someone who fully embodied a reformational passion for the common good: Gerald Vandezande. Gerald’s investment into the Order of Canada called him a “powerful and respected voice for social justice.”

Gerald died three months ago. But the words he spoke on October 20, 2006, live on. Our society is at “a critical crossroads,” he said, confronting deadly economic, environmental, political, and cultural crises. These “demand radical changes in our hearts,” he continued, for “only a fundamental change of heart and life can reverse today’s worsening ways of death.” Gerald asked all of us to be forthright about our “heart-felt faith(s) and fundamental values.” And he called us to “non-partisan yet passionate political engagement” that “advocates and practices life-embracing compassion, … justice, peace, and solidarity” in order to build “a mutually caring and sharing society. … We all must act,” he declared, “in selfless service of the common good.”9

        What better way to carry out the vision of ICS’s first honorary doctor than to pursue ethical scholarship for the common good! Such scholarship has a strong sense of social responsibility, and it promotes the interconnected flourishing of all earth’s inhabitants. Inspired by the leadership Gerald Vandezande showed in the public arena, may our new research centre place the reformational tradition in lively conversation with other voices in the academy and beyond. May we offer what the apostle Paul calls “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12.1, NRSV), ever open to the renewal of our own hearts and minds, as we seek with others to discern the paths of justice and peace. May our research help build a mutually caring and sharing society. In Gerald’s words, let all of us act “in selfless service of the common good.”

Living at the Crossroads


1 York University even advertises its “interdisciplinary approach”: “Some see a university. We see a world of possibilities. At York University, our interdisciplinary approach engages diverse viewpoints and crosses traditional barriers to create new ways of learning. Explore how at www.yorku.ca.” Taken from the back cover of University Affairs, August 2011.

2 This, despite the fact that funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) have developed significant programs to support interdisciplinary research and public scholarship.

3 Often people use the term “ethical scholarship” to refer to scholarship that shows academic integrity—it avoids cheating, treats its sources fairly, and shows respect for the rules of research and teaching. Now I think academic integrity is important. But by “ethical scholarship” I mean something broader than this.

4 Such talk seems to ignore postmodern critiques of Western metanarratives. It seems to overlook feminist and postcolonial exposures of institutionalized violence. It seems to skate too quickly past the real differences that distinguish various communities and traditions as well as the unique stories of individual lives. These are legitimate concerns. But it would be hard to address them adequately in a short speech.

5 “A Different Tenor: Songs of Love and Sorrow—Re-Engaging the Social Ethics of Music,” panel discussion edited by Rebekah Smick and Lambert Zuidervaart, Toronto Journal of Theology 27 (2011): 87-106.

6 “Songs of Love and Sorrow: Re-Examining the Social Ethics of Music,” a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded video documenting a half-day conference and music performance on the relation of music and ethics that was co-organized by the Institute for Christian Studies, the Toronto School of Theology, and the Royal Conservatory in April of 2010. The video highlights the work of three contemporary composers—Jonathan Berger, John Rea, and James Rolfe—who have responded in their music to some of the most pressing social issues of our era as it considers the character of music’s relationship to ethics. The video can be viewed on YouTube at http://youtu.be/p10V5yRcw3k.

7 I develop this conception of religion in the essay “Religion in Public: Passages from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” University of Toronto Journal for Jewish Thought 1 (April 2010), http://cjs.utoronto.ca/tjjt/.

8 The classic statement of this position is in the so-called Stone Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 and published as Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1931). For an extensive commentary, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998).

9 Gerald Vandezande, C.M., D.Litt., “Hope-Filled Advocacy for Public Justice: Love Is a Better Way” (Toronto: Institute for Christian Studies, 2006), pp. 2-3. Notes for remarks given by Gerald Vandezande on the occasion of his receiving an ICS honorary doctorate on October 20, 2006.