October 30, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

For Calvin philosophy professor Kelly Clark, it began on a lark. “I wanted to go to the exotic country of China, and our department was looking for a university in China to partner with,” Clark narrated. “I had a friend at Xiamen University, so I set up an exchange with Xiamen in 1998.” Clark went to China, along with then-Calvin, now-Yale philosopher John Hare, to teach Christian philosophy to Chinese graduate students.

Ever since his first trip, Clark has been part of Calvin’s efforts, in partnership with the Society of Christian Philosophers, to teach Western philosophy in China from a Christian perspective—and also to learn about China, the world's oldest continuing civilization. Those efforts have brought Chinese scholars to study at Calvin and other Christian institutions, sent North American philosophers to teach and hold seminars at Chinese universities, produced numerous philosophy seminars and conferences in both China and America, and deposited nearly 9,000 foundational Western philosophy texts in Chinese university libraries.

"Intellectuals in China are eager to find frameworks for managing the rise of capitalism," explained Joel Carpenter, the director of Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. "They want values that are relevant to the new kinds of commerce and global engagement that are radically changing China today. Professors and students are looking for fresh ideas, and they are very curious about how the West has thought about personal values and the common good in society."

Since 2007, those Calvin efforts in China have been funded by a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to the Nagel Institute.

Values and Virtues

Now Calvin will be expanding its educational horizons in China, funded by a three-year, $3.4 million Templeton grant to the Nagel Institute.  “It allows us to plan on a big, expansive program,” said Clark. That program, titled “Values and Virtues in Contemporary China,” has three emphases.

The first, “Evolution and Ethics,” explores the question of whether or not morality can exist in a godless universe: 

"If you think there is no God, you will start looking around for non-supernatural explanations,” said Clark. Some believe that evolution can account for morality if morality is defined as a compound of altruism and pro-social emotions, he said, adding: “We ask if this is adequate.”

The second component of the program, “The Foundations of Morality,” builds upon the first, Clark said. “We will look at various natural and supernatural accounts of the foundations of morality and assess their adequacy.” The third component, “Creating Character,” he said, is a crucial one for Chinese society: “How do you make people good? How do you teach or train people to be virtuous?”

Funding creative pedagogy

The new Templeton grant enables Calvin to continue scholarly exchanges between various Christian colleges and China and to sponsor conferences and seminars in the U.S. and China. “We are working with China's top universities: Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Sun Yat-Sen, Renmin,” Clark said. Some of those conferences will be devoted to the “Values and Virtues” program. Some will focus on pedagogy.” Chinese professors long to be more creative teachers,” he added.

"Values and Virtues” is the largest program currently administered by the Nagel Institute. “We want to do everything we can to strengthen the hand of these philosophers to make sure they can do it right,” said Nagel director Joel Carpenter. “The philosophers are really showing the rest of us how to reach out and engage scholars in the rest of the world.”

Clark is grateful that the new grant enables Calvin to offer these scholarly opportunities to former students of the exchange programs. “In China we are now able to offer and fund annual conferences for our ‘alumni,’ a kind of continuing education and building of a scholarly community,” Clark said. “Since relationships are as or more important as information, we work hard to continue relationship-building.”

A China-fied department

Those relationships have had a profound impact on Calvin's philosophers: “Nearly every member of the philosophy department has been to China, most more than once,” said Clark, who has created a popular course at Calvin in Asian philosophy.

And, he added, the food has improved: "The students have China-fied our department. You can often find Steve Wykstra (philosophy professor) with a couple of Chinese (students) outside Hiemenga Hall, chopping up vegetables, slicing tofu, and firing up his wok to cook Chinese food. Each year I buy the groceries, and then the Chinese students cook dinner with  Calvin students. We all set down to a banquet together. Last year it ended with a recitation of Chinese poetry—some in English, most in Chinese. Last year, we had tea in the Jellema room with all of the Chinese students and anyone who wished to join us. Very civilizing ritual,” he said.

Recent stories