The Evangelical & the Academy
In the cover feature of the October 2000 Atlantic Monthly, Alan Wolfe considers the “Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” He observes that American Evangelicals, while the lineal heirs of fundamentalism, have rejected their forebears’ anti-intellectualism and developed a surprisingly competent academy. He notes, however, that schools like Wheaton, Calvin, and Fuller, to remain true to their Evangelical heritage (and, one presumes, to their constituencies), must also relinquish any real allegiance to the principle of academic freedom when they insist, as they all presently do, that faculty affirm institutional statements of faith or denominational confessions.
Wolfe suggests a conclusion that has been easy to repress among those whose independence from fundamentalist constrictions has been an article of faith for more than a half century: No confessedly Evangelical (indeed, one must say, any Christian) institution, no matter how loose it sits to its professed beliefs, will have the respect of the intellectual establishment until institutional Christianity becomes part of a history overcome. He believes that what is moving the Evangelical schools along the right path is an opening process—a process in which Evangelical scholars have self-consciously been engaging for years. The logical, and perhaps, historically speaking, inexorable end to which Wolfe points is that these schools become secular, like the vast majority of American colleges that started their courses as Evangelical—an evolution copiously documented by George Marsden in The Soul of the American University.
Wolfe notes Stanley Fish’s observation that what is called academic freedom in the secular academy does not in fact exist, that it “rather than being open to all points of view, is open to all points of view only so long as they offer themselves with the reserve and diffidence appropriate to Enlightenment decorum, only so as they offer themselves for correction.” This dominant academic temper, no less fundamentalist than fundamentalism, has given cold comfort to the Evangelical intellectual who has consistently shown, from the beginnings of his existence as such, great sensitivity about his “color difference” from the larger academy, and a strong desire to be as like (academic) folk as possible. He wishes to be an Evangelical Christian on one hand and a card-carrying academic as well—yet in a world accurately described by Fish as constitutionally hostile to religious dogma. On one side lies the fundamentalist intransigence he denounces at every opportunity, on the other the illiberality of academic irreligion, which he ignores when he can. As an Evangelical in the pay of Evangelicals, he still bears the stigma of religious conviction (might we call it the “dogmata”?), so, no matter what his skill or accomplishment, his rejection of fundamentalism is rarely enough to gain him entrance, particularly in the humanities, to anything but the vestibule of the club of which he so desperately wishes to be a fully recognized member.
The intellectual horizon Evangelical scholarship has determinedly faced since the days of its first self-awareness has been the secular academy, and there are no signs that its orientation has changed. If anything, as Wolfe’s article confirms, the attraction is intensifying. When the movement turned away from fundamentalism, correctly noting the faults of its attitude and outlook, it did not seek to universalize itself through a process of catholicization, but presuming on its own depth, integrity, and catholicity, and ignoring the Church as a living authority to which it was bound to conform, its scholars have, while keeping one eye on the larger academy, attempted to define the movement by the largest bodies in its own rather restricted intellectual orbit. My own years of study in Evangelical schools convinced me that most—not all, but most—of my teachers did not believe this focal point to be the Church, for the church is less something that teaches us as something we are called to teach. The center was elsewhere. It was in something called “Evangelical theology,” which everyone was writing systematic theologies trying to define.
Whatever Evangelical theology has turned out to be, this is certain: It is a theology whose adherents must survive doctoral programs at Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, Oxford, Duke, Emory, and Chicago. As it was in the beginning of a movement marked by the ascent of the “Harvard fundamentalists,” the prestige academy’s doctorate is prized above all things, its recognition and praise the desired fruit of its intellectual labor. This almost desperate craving, always recognized by the fundamentalists (Bob Jones, Sr., on Evangelicals to the liberal religious academy: “We will call you ‘Christian brothers’ if you will call us ‘doctor,’ ‘professor,’ and ‘scholar’”), is probably the most powerful motivating force behind the “advance” of the Evangelical mind Wolfe compliments.
The enlargement process at the major Evangelical schools has involved a liberalization of the mind of the Evangelical scholar, and hence of its academy. Its withdrawal from fundamentalism, uncontrolled by a distinctively Christian, that is, churchly and historical, vision of where it must go thereafter, is now drifting briskly to port. Further Evangelical advances along the lines Wolfe praises, in openness, egalitarianism, interest in diversity, and tolerance as high moral virtue—all of which principles are wholly incompatible with obligatory professions of religious faith and the mindset behind them—may be expected to bring these schools to a predictable and well-precedented end.
Those who could or would stop the course, no matter how learned and accomplished, will not, cannot be recognized in the Evangelical academy as attempting to save the schools’ remaining Christianity. They are atavisms, threatening, in the spirit of fundamentalism, the destruction of decades of labor on scholarly reputation—reputation, however, the dominant academy will not grant until their colleges are no longer Christian. Full entrance to learned fellowship, Wolfe rightly indicates, will not be granted until the once-Christian academies are places where the old confession is objectively a dead specimen for dissection by religious science and subjectively an entirely private affair—places genetically hostile to a faith that regards them not only as in error, but apostate.
—S. M. Hutchens
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“The Evangelical & the Academy” first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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