I see this “avoiding the political infighting” as a sort of “Benedict option” for Christian intellectuals. The pull between “teaching-centered higher education” (Mark Schwehn) and what Mark Noll seems to be recommending here is a quite strong internal conflict for me. Truth be told, I’m inclined to teaching for “the virtues of attending to students as people.” However, I find Noll’s appeal persuasive: “the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit.”
“An even more substantial objection grows from a consideration of the modern academy. Surely evangelicals are better off avoiding the political in-fighting, manifest secularization, power mongering, and ideological warfare that so often characterize modern academic life and that have been the subject of sharp public criticism in recent years. 26 If evangelicals inhabit a brackish intellectual backwater, they are still spared the perils of a tumultuous sea upon which ships are going nowhere. A great modern university might keep the sort of inscription that still adorns Kinsey Hall on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles — “Psalm 119: 18. Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” But the reality of what occurs in the research universities often mocks the pieties of earlier generations. When this argument is made with Christian subtlety — as it has been made, for instance, in a recent apology for teaching-centered higher education by Mark Schwehn of Valparaiso University — the argument carries weight. 27 Schwehn’s case for the virtues of attending to students as people as opposed to the pursuit of research as an end in itself, for historically anchored religious conviction over ultra-chic ideological posturing, is compelling. The weight of such an argument means that an appeal for intellectual effort must be precise. In appealing for Christian scholarship, the point is not primarily academic respectability, and certainly not the mindless pursuit of publication for its own sake that bedevils the modern university. The point is rather that the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit, whether that consideration is of social theory, the history of science, other historical changes, the body, the arts, literature, or more. Christian appeals for learning should not ask for a downgrading of teaching, an elitist rejection of insights from ordinary people, or an aestheticism that excludes all but the cognoscenti. They should ask rather that explorations into the broader and deeper reaches of the intellect be considered a complement to, rather than competition against, person-oriented, teaching-focused, and democratically inspired intellectual life.”
Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 29-31.
Wesley Hill of First Things gives some commentary on this piece from The Atlantic. He says,
I can’t shed much light on the Catholic and mainline Protestant percentages there, but I can highlight how that figure for evangelical Protestants may be misleading.
For instance, think about the following scene: I was recently at a dinner party where most of the people in attendance were committed evangelical Protestants. A large number were Wheaton College graduates; most were in their early thirties, married with children, attended church regularly, and were interested in speaking up for their faith in their respective spheres of influence. At some point in the evening, the topic of gay marriage came up. (This was before the Supreme Court’s June 26 rulings.) Each of the people who expressed an opinion had done a bit of homework—most had read various articles in First Things and visited several thoughtful blogs. Each of them, in good evangelical fashion, had studied the relevant biblical texts carefully and repeatedly, as their comments indicated. At least one had spent significant time with The Theology of the Body. And a few of them—not all, but a few—had come to believe that they ought to support the legalization of same-sex marriage and say so publicly (signing petitions and the like)—but continue to oppose its practice in their churches. Influenced by the likes of the Roman Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (see here and here) and the Anabaptist-sounding Greg Boyd, they had concluded, in Boyd’s words, “it’s one thing to say that a behavior falls short of God’s ideal, and quite a different thing to say that Christians should try to impose a law preventing that behavior.”
Read the whole article.
Alan Jacobs comments (below) on this article from New York Times: The Evangelical Rejection of Reason. First and excerpt from the article:
The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced.Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book, though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation. Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.
There’s some truth to this, of course, but — forgive the griping — it’s deeply annoying to me. First, it doesn’t say anything that Mark Noll didn’t say in 1994; and second, the only reason it’s in the NYT is that it flatters the prejudices of the readership. A more nuanced view of evangelicals, like the one Alan Wolfe wrote for the Atlantic some years ago, would never run in the NYT.
The problem here actually has little or nothing to do with evangelicalism per se: it’s the long-standing know-nothingism of American populism, which comes in varying religious and not-so-religious flavors, has connived at the evisceration of American public education, and makes millions of Americans unable and unwilling to understand evidential arguments. Blaming the evangelicals is cheap and easy, especially for evangelicals. The real issue is far larger and deeper, and its consequences can be seen even in New York City itself — and there are versions of it overseas as well, though not always populist ones. The very same intellectual flabbiness that makes some people trust Answers in Genesis makes others believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
I do recommend reading the Atlantic article.