JACKSON, Tenn. – May 9, 2013 – Speakers at Union University’s “Salt and Light in the Public Square” conference examined the legacy of Charles Colson and how future Christians should engage with the cultural issues about which he regularly engaged.
According to President David S. Dockery, Colson was encouraged by Union University’s Christ-centered approach to education. Colson passed away April 21, 2012.
“Chuck Colson was a great friend of this university; a wonderful banner-waver for what we were trying to do,” said David S. Dockery, university president, who in 2001 gave Colson an honorary doctorate from Union. “He was impressed with Union's commitment to rigorous academics grounded, without apology, in the best of the Christian intellectual tradition.”
Video of all conference addresses is available at https://new.livestream.com/uu/saltandlight.
Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, gave the homily at Colson’s funeral. His friendship with Colson began years earlier. In 2009, they, with Robert George, drafted the Manhattan Declaration. The document, signed by more than half a million Christians, supports life, affirms biblical marriage and seeks to protect religious freedom.
In his conference address, George focused on the sanctity of life, an issue he said Colson saw as crucial. Though many religious people uphold the sanctity of life, George asked, “Does the church of Jesus Christ have anything to say about this issue that no else can say?” George answered in the affirmative, noting the incarnation and Jesus’ entry to earth as a baby as two of Christianity’s distinctive promotions of the sanctity of life.
“(Christ) has come among us as a baby in a manger; as a man on the cross,” George said. “By doing so God has put his stamp of approval on every human life as inherently worthy: worthy of dignity and full respect by all persons everywhere. And it is from these fundamental, theological Christian convictions that there emerges inevitably, invariably, an ethics of hospitality that begins when life begins. ... It doesn’t end when birth happens, but continues to be embracing and welcoming of all of God’s children.”
A third Manhattan Declaration drafter, Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison program in American ideals and institutions at Princeton University, followed Timothy George on Thursday night. He spoke about the third subject addressed in the Manhattan Declaration: liberty. To examine a person’s source of freedom, Robert George examined John Stuart Mill’s confidence in the progress of mankind and John Henry Newman’s freedom of conscience theory, siding more with the Christian, Newman.
“Newman is cognizant of both the need for restraints on freedom — less men to send into vice and self degradation,” George said, “and the supreme importance of central freedoms as conditions for the realization of values that truly are constitutive of the integral flourishing of men and women as free and rational creatures— creatures whose freedom and rationality reflect their having been made in the very image and likeness of the divine ruler of the universe.”
Garland Hunt is the president of Prison Fellowship, the prison ministry Colson established after becoming a Christian himself soon before serving time in jail for his involvement for the Watergate scandal. Hunt took the position only a short time before Colson passed away. This year, he and other Prison Fellowship leadership continued Colson’s tradition of visiting with prisoners on Easter Sunday. Hunt spoke about caring for “the least of these,” referring to Jesus’ sermon recorded in Matthew 25.
“Sometimes, the least among us, God’s hand is on them,” Hunt said. “Sometimes, men can make bad decisions ... so you too at some point in life pay the price for successive bad decisions, but that does not mean that God’s hand is not on their life. I’m talking to you about this overall because I’m saying to you: it takes effort to reach the least among us. It’s not a pretty ministry.”
Russell D. Moore, the president-elect of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke about reclaiming a marriage culture that some evangelicals fear is being lost. Moore said marriage is both much more resilient and much more in peril than evangelicals often presume it to be. He discouraged the tendency among some evangelicals to think about marriage as moral majority, as well as evangelicals’ reactionary tendency on the subject of marriage.
“We also need to recognize that we are not the losers in anyone’s culture war,” Moore said. “We do not address our neighbors (in the role of) losers who need to clamor for their attention. ... We have already been vindicated by our resurrection in the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not have anything to prove. That means that we ought to be able to speak without a sense of frantic defiance of the people around us.”
Robert A. J. Gagnon, an author and associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, spoke about the subject of his book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Because American Christians live in a country in which they can have a say in the government, they have an obligation to do so. It’s not just a question of imposing our particular Christian views on nonbelievers, Gagnon said. Natural theology and science support Scripture regarding sexual intercourse taking place only between a man and a woman who are married to each other, Gagnon said.
“Christians, then, need to get engaged in the public square,” Gagnon said. “God is the Creator, and as the Creator he is not just the God of us who are in the church, he is the God of his whole material creation. ... it would be unloving on our part not to bear witness to what is for the health and vitality of the human race.”
Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science and dean of instruction at Union University, spoke about the younger Colson. During his political career, loyalty to a political figure was Colson’s gospel, Baker said. Even as a loyal aid, Colson was lonely, until he prayed in a car to God, “Take me.”
“Colson had to exchange a highly pragmatic and worldly faith — the one that had taken him a long way - for a new faith, one with extensive claims upon the whole of his life,” Baker said. “He recalled Bonhoeffer, who wrote that ‘to stay in the old situation make discipleship impossible.’”
C. Ben Mitchell, Union’s Graves professor of moral philosophy, shared an interest in biotechnology ethics with Colson, even serving with him on a biotechnology council. Since World War II, people around the world have invoked the term “human dignity,” Mitchell said. The merging of the human with technology is the goal of many biotechnology scientists, Mitchell said, examining individual biotechnology fields of study, such as robotics, eugenists and transhumanists.
“In the past, it was the human who applied the technology to ... other environments,” Mitchell said. “Today, we are offered the opportunity for the technologist to become the technology.”
Gregory A. Thornbury, professor of philosophy and dean of the School of Theology and Missions and Vice President for Spiritual Life at Union, addressed the history of evangelical philosophy about evangelical engagement in his session. Evangelicals have not agreed on how to engage culture; not everyone in the early 2000s appreciated Colson’s conversations about culture change, Thornbury said. Though opinions continue to vary, the history of affecting culture began with the early church, he said. Christianity has moved from a rag-tag religion at its beginning to the leading religion of the modern world, by Christians rising to positions of influence in their societies after living out their faith in challenging times, Thornbury said.
“If we believe in the same supernatural power that animated those early Christians, friends, it is not overly optimistic to believe that it could happen again,” Thornbury said.
Of all the conference speakers, Hal L. Poe, Charles Colson professor of faith and and culture at Union, was the first to know Colson. During his address, Poe recounted his time on the same committee as a then-amoral Colson in South Carolina to reelect President Richard M. Nixon. Though Poe resigned from the committee before the Nixon scandal broke, he said he connected several times with Colson after Colson’s conversion. As a Christian, Colson examined how the gospel answered his culture’s challenges, and that should be the goal of every Christian, Poe said.
The gospel is the message of what and who Christians believe, in every culture, place and time, Poe said.
By Samantha Adams (’13)