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"The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," by Alan Wolfe (October 2000)
Of all America's religious traditions, the author writes, evangelical Protestantism, at least in the twentieth-century conservative forms, has long ranked "dead last in intellectual stature." Now evangelical thinkers are trying to revitalize their tradition. Can they turn an intellectual backwater into an intellectual beacon?
"Serious faith ... careful learning"
An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll, the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).
"Foucault is in a weird way one of us"
An e-mail exchange with the literary critic Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College.
"A truly multicultural society"
An e-mail exchange with the historian George Marsden of the University of Notre Dame, the author of The Soul of the American University (1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997).
Discuss this feature in a special conference on religion and public life, in Post & Riposte.
WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | October 2000
An e-mail exchange with the philosopher Richard Mouw
How have you seen evangelical scholarship and evangelical colleges change since you began your career?
The changes have been extensive. As an evangelical college student in the late fifties and early sixties, I found the atmosphere very restrictive intellectually. Asking questions about basic theological issues was strongly discouraged. Political views that diverged from conservative Republicanism were regularly censored -- a history professor at the college I attended was encouraged to leave the faculty because he had a Kennedy-for-President sign on his lawn.
In those days evangelicalism was still fostering a good deal of the anti-intellectualism and other-worldliness of the older fundamentalism. Even the evangelical liberal arts colleges were a bit nervous about what they were doing; higher education was regularly defended in very pragmatic terms, emphasizing the ways in which learning can help us in very practical ways.
Today there is a greater appreciation for the intellectual life. Evangelical colleges and seminaries are more inclined these days to support good scholarship on the grounds that thinking clearly about things is a healthy activity for the Christian community. The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities -- an organization that provides services to approximately one hundred evangelical schools -- has done much to foster a shared ethos in this regard, providing programs for faculty development and encouraging a broad-ranging discussion of the challenges involved in developing "an evangelical mind."
All of this has been helped along nicely by the emergence of a marvelous informal network of evangelical scholars, many of them teaching at evangelical schools, but others working at major secular universities. Some of them are well-known in the larger intellectual community: Wolterstorff, Volf, and Stout at Yale; Plantinga, Marsden, and Hatch at Notre Dame; Wuthnow at Princeton; the outstanding faculties at Wheaton and Calvin.
Good things have also been happening in the theological seminaries, but here the progress has been a little slower. Evangelicalism is a movement shaped by many theological battles of the past, and evangelicals tend to watch their theologians a little more closely than they do their philosophers, historians, and literati. Fuller is a refreshing place in this regard, and this is due in great part to David Hubbard, who led the school as president for thirty years. He cultivated a board of trustees who were strongly supportive of a progressive evangelicalism, and he encouraged a scholarly approach that was not plagued by the usual evangelical inhibitions.
Noting Fuller's culture of diversity and its sensitivity toward students' personal needs, Alan Wolfe writes that "the democratic impulses that lead Fuller's faculty to emphasize individual growth and social justice are surely worth celebrating," but he also observes that democracy has rarely been the founding principle of the best American universities. "Once sentenced to intellectual mediocrity because they kept too many ideas out," Wolfe continues, "conservative-Christian institutions face the prospect of returning to mediocrity because they let too many in." Are you at all concerned about what Wolfe sees as an emphasis on inclusiveness and sensitivity at the expense of academic rigor?
Certainly. But from our perspective we simply have to take the risks. Evangelicalism is a populist movement, and a kind of missionary impulse is basic to our ethos. We want to get the message out, to spread the Word. We want to serve as many people as possible. This expansionist attitude means that we feel guilty if we are not serving people who need what we have to offer. Furthermore we have also been literally shaped by missionary activity. Evangelicals in the nineteenth century started preaching the Gospel around the world, and now our converts have "grown up." They are leaders in their own right, and they want us to provide them with the intellectual resources necessary for their ministries. We have students from sixty nations on our campus. We also have a large number of Hispanic-American, Korean-American, and African-American students. And we have been a haven for evangelical women who want to enter the ministry -- often over the objections of their evangelical families and congregations. We cannot in good conscience not seek to foster this kind of diversity.
But I have to add that for the most part our ways of dealing with diversity are different than in many other educational contexts. A reporter once visited our campus as a part of a tour where she was looking at diversity at various schools -- mostly secular and liberal Protestant. After a few days at Fuller she said to me that we argue differently than in the other places. "Your different ethnic groups debate issues with each other, but there is very little of the kind of angry demanding that I saw on other campuses," she observed. "These folks recognize a common authority. They are trying to discover together what the Bible means for their lives."
Again, though, all of this is very risky. So far we have done a decent job of holding together strong scholarship with a "mass" approach to graduate education. Not too many schools have succeeded in this. We need to work hard on formulating the strategies for doing it effectively.
What role should evangelical colleges play in the larger sphere of American academia? Do official statements of faith shut off evangelical colleges from participating in mainstream academic discourse?
The Western academy has its origins in religious communities. While religion has not always been a healthy force for the intellectual quest, it has often provided an important kind of grounding for scholarship and teaching. One of the marvelous things that I see as I travel around the evangelical academic world is a clear sense of academic community: the same people who teach and study together also pray and sing hymns and study the Bible together. We are losing this sense of bonding in the larger academy. Evangelicals face the same challenges as everyone else in dealing with academic specialization, the fragmenting of disciplines, and the like. But we also operate with a worldview that says that ultimately everything holds together because Christ is Lord over the whole creation. The key word here is, of course, "ultimately." It isn't always easy to see the connections, but it is important to proceed with the conviction that they are really there. Truth, as we see it, is not constructed, it is discovered.
Yes, we do operate with "official statements of faith." But we join these academic communities because those statements are the ones that do in fact guide our lives -- including our intellectual lives. And we have all been "out there" in the larger intellectual world. We knew full well as graduate students, and now as people who belong to the learned societies of our fields of study, that there are many quasi-official "statements of faith" that are operating just beneath the surface in the larger intellectual community. We recognize that shared convictions can provide a healthy undergirding for the academic project, and we are willing to be explicit about the ones that shape our own communal quests.
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