posted January 19, 2009

Lyra Pitstick of Religion Faculty Receives International Award

Dr. Alyssa (Lyra) Pitstick of the Hope College religion faculty is one of only 12 young scholars worldwide to receive a 2009 "John Templeton Award for Theological Promise."

The recipients are recognized on the basis of their doctoral dissertations related to the topic of God and spirituality, and chosen by an international and inter-religious panel of 25 judges.  Each recipient receives an award of $10,000 plus an additional stipend of up to $10,000 for two years to support giving public lectures at the invitation of academic institutions.

The award program is a cooperative effort of the Research Center of International and Interdisciplinary Theology of the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the John Templeton Foundation of Pennsylvania.  The winners will be honored during an awards ceremony and also participate in a colloquium at the university in May.

Two of the award winners are from Holland and teaching at institutions with Reformed Church in America ties.  The honorees include Dr. J. Todd Billings, who is an assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary, for his work "Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ."  The international mix of scholars includes six based in the U.S.; three in Germany; and one each in Denmark, Scotland and Norway.

Pitstick wrote her dissertation while completing her doctorate in sacred theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy, in 2005.  In 2007, it was published by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company of Grand Rapids as "Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell."

Both before and after its publication, her critique of von Balthasar has been the subject of vigorous debate.  After an intense exchange in several issues of the journal "First Things," its founder, the recently deceased Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, called Pitstick "a first-rate theological talent."  More recently, she responded to a scholarly panel on her book at the annual meeting of the Karl Barth Society.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss priest and religious scholar who saw Christ's descent into hell following his crucifixion as at the "absolute center" of the Christian faith.  In her work, Pitstick draws on multiple sources to consider how von Balthasar's perspective, in differing from traditional teaching on Christ's descent into hell, jeopardizes essential Christian doctrines on God, Christ and salvation.  Her work thus ultimately has implications relevant to the spiritual, liturgical and practical lives of Christians of all denominations.

"New Blackfriars" praised Pitstick's work:  "An impressive book.  Pitstick has had the courage to challenge a major theological reputation head on, and has done so with great skill.  The result is the most sustained and detailed criticism of Balthasar's theology yet published in English, and a work of acute argument in its own right."  John Saward of OxfordUniversity noted that "Pitstick's book is a challenge to those who regard Balthasar as an entirely trustworthy theologian, ranking with the greatest masters of the Tradition.  She subjects his understanding of Christ's descent into hell to a searching critique and shows it to be seriously at odds with the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church."

Pitstick joined the Hope faculty at the beginning of the current school year.  Besides her doctorate, she holds degrees in philosophy and mathematics.  She presently teaches an introduction to Catholicism and a course called "Dracula Meets the Pope:  Classic Horror Fiction and a Catholic Christian View of the Human Person."  She continues to pursue research on topics related to Christ's Descent and, more recently, the Book of Job.

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science through a rigorous, open-minded and empirically focused methodology, drawing together talented representatives from a wide spectrum of fields of expertise.  Founded in 1987, the foundation annually provides more than $60 million in funding on behalf of work in human sciences and character development, science and theology research, as well as free enterprise programs and awards worldwide.  The John Templeton Award for Theological Promise was first announced in 2005.