m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

O C T O B E R  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)

SOCIOLOGY is another populist discipline that sees itself as speaking for the oppressed against the machinations of various power elites. Fuller has one sociologist, Jack Balswick, and except for the fact that he views the Bible as an authoritative text, Balswick's views are indistinguishable from those of many others in his profession. (Before coming to Fuller, Balswick taught for sixteen years in the well-regarded sociology department at the University of Georgia.) Balswick is committed to his discipline's core belief that individual life choices are shaped by social structures. He also believes that as a sociologist, he ought to teach his students, and to use in his research, the very best empirical materials available. A specialist in marriage and the family, Balswick offers parenting as an example of how sociological and biblical teachings work together. He believes that Christian parenting, properly understood, is not authoritarian but authoritative. Citing empirical studies demonstrating the negative effects on children of heavy-handed discipline, Balswick and his wife, Judith (Fuller's director of clinical training), wrote in their textbook, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (1989), that "God's ideal is that children mature to the point where they and their parents empower each other."

What happens, I asked Balswick, when sociological research does come into conflict with Christian teaching? Admitting that such conflicts are possible, Balswick responded that he goes into a "spiritual deep freeze," holding both his sociology and his faith in abeyance until the conflict is resolved. Scientific truth is tentative, he said, and so is the interpretation of Scripture. But because both are true, any apparent conflicts between them must be because either the science or the Scripture has been improperly understood.

The one issue that seems to challenge Balswick's efforts to be both inclusive and committed to the truths of the Bible is homosexuality, and "spiritual deep freeze" is as good a term as any to describe the way he approaches the question. He accepts Fuller's strong commitment to heterosexual marriage but at the same time wants to avoid anything that resembles gay-bashing. The result is language like this, from a book written by the Balswicks called Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach (1999):

We acknowledge that some gay Christians may choose to commit themselves to a lifelong, monogamous homosexual union, believing this is God's best for them. They believe that this reflects an authentic sexuality that is congruent for them and their view of Scripture. Even though we hold to the model of a heterosexual, lifelong, monogamous union, our compassion brings us to support all persons as they move in the direction of God's ideal for their lives.

Fuller's culture of inclusion, though reluctant to endorse homosexuality, has no problem condemning homophobia. "It is important for Christians to understand the great pain many homosexuals have experienced and to be compassionate to them," the Balswicks write, and many at Fuller agree. "Did God make gay people gay?" I was asked by Lewis Smedes, perhaps Fuller's most famous theologian, who is now a professor emeritus. Obviously not, he said, for God created human sexuality to make children. But, he continued, God also did not ask mothers to give up their children -- yet because they do, Smedes and his wife were able to adopt children of their own. "We have to do the best with what we have" is the lesson Smedes takes from his own life, and he sees no reason why gays and lesbians cannot be just as Christian as he is.

Fuller has evolved a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy with respect to homosexuality. Richard Mouw remembers the lesbian student who came to him shaking with hurt because another student had said in class that homosexuality was an example of "demon possession." Mouw told her that Fuller's policy was unambiguous: homosexuality violated the seminary's statement of faith, and his job was to enforce the school's policies. Moved by her, he then asked what it was like to be a lesbian at Fuller. She responded by saying that she had prayed many times for her sexuality to be changed, to no avail; she was attracted to women only. All she wanted was to preach the gospel, she told Mouw, begging him not to send her to a liberal seminary. Mouw asked if she would be willing to take a vow of celibacy until she graduated, which she agreed to do. "We want to be compassionate within the terms of our theology," he told me, justifying his action. Homosexual acts are sinful, but "homosexuality is not the worst thing in the world."

It would be inaccurate to describe Fuller's faculty as liberal. These men and women are, theologically speaking, conservatives; they have all signed Fuller's credal statement emphasizing that the Old and New Testaments "are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice." Yet Fuller's widespread culture of care means that the faculty is hardly right-wing either. Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, which describes itself as a "progressive Christian voice," has long argued that evangelical Christianity contains theological resources that make it a natural ally in struggles against social injustice. Once we leave homosexuality and other contentious issues behind, and focus on the way wealth and power are distributed around the world, Fuller seems little different from other campuses that have made issues of globalization and poverty central to their concerns.

Empowering the Poor was the name of a course taught by Jayakumar Christian, a visiting professor in the School of World Missions, whose class I attended. For the customary pre-class prayer Christian asked the students to name specific people living in poverty, so that everyone could pray for them. A student from Kenya offered an entire village; another, from the Philippines, added a family back home. A third student pointed out that a number of protesters had just been arrested in Washington, D.C., as they demonstrated against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and urged that any prayer thank them for their good works. The student assigned to offer the prayer that day was a member of the Vineyard Church, a fast-growing effort to combine conservative evangelical Christianity with the enthusiasm of Pentecostalist and charismatic sects. This quintessentially Californian young man in yellow pants and a green sweater, his hair bleached two tones of blond, took it for granted that everyone in the class believed in social justice and asked that "God give us strength to do what is right." Missionaries inspired by their devotion to Jesus Christ once traveled the world seeking converts. Now they bring people from all over the world to Pasadena to introduce them to Western ideas about equality.

Fuller Theological Seminary was founded by men who made no place in their institution for women, Catholics, Jews, or blacks. In view of that, the democratic impulses that lead Fuller's faculty to emphasize individual growth and social justice are surely worth celebrating. Yet democratic impulses are also, from an intellectual standpoint, problematic. Mark Schwehn, the dean of Christ College, an undergraduate honors program at Valparaiso University, argued in his book Exiles From Eden (1993) that humility and other Christian virtues could create a positive alternative to the competitive culture of the secular research university. At their best, evangelical sympathies do exactly that. But a therapeutic sensibility and a culture of nonjudgmentalism are inappropriate for hiring new faculty members, evaluating them for tenure, developing a syllabus, grading undergraduates, mentoring graduate students, writing books, or conducting experiments. All these tasks involve making judgments about who or what does or does not achieve a certain threshold of validity or excellence.

In addition, the democratic sensibilities of many evangelical faculty members are, in the situations they create, not unlike the rigid identity politics characteristic of many secular campuses. Reflecting its own version of political correctness, Fuller includes the following in its statement of institutional commitments: "We recognize that many women and men no longer find 'man,' 'men,' and 'mankind' acceptable as generic terms.... As Christians desiring to support human equality, we intend to avoid exclusive language which might express or encourage discrimination within the church or society." Evangelical colleges, like secular ones, also want as many minority students as they can attract, yet once they attract them, they tend to treat them not as individuals but as representatives of their race. "What about you students from other cultures?" Jim Guy asked his class on M. Scott Peck, looking directly at one of the many foreign students. Turning to a black student, he asked her how "white" she found the book they were discussing. Given the appropriate cues, the students responded in color-conscious ways. Peck does not use "an oppression model," one Third World student pointed out. Another wondered whether the book would work back home in Indonesia. If critical thinking involves the ability to debate ideas according to their merit, rather than according to the personal characteristics of those who hold them, then these students, paralyzed by their desire to treat everyone with respect, lack it.

Nathan Hatch wrote that the story of evangelical Protestantism is "how ordinary folk came to distrust leaders of genius and talent and to defend the right of common people to shape their own faith and submit to leaders of their own choosing." That is also the story of why so many of the institutions of higher learning created by evangelicals have been so persistently anti-intellectual. None of the religious traditions that have created first-class universities in America can rightfully be described as democratic. Whether Puritan or Presbyterian, Ivy League universities were typically founded by Calvinists who emphasized the inherent depravity of the individual and the need for stern instruction and against-the-grain moral discipline. Catholicism has a glorious philosophical tradition, one that continues to fashion the curriculum at most Catholic colleges and universities in America -- yet of all Christian traditions it is the most hierarchical in structure, and to this day, of course, it excludes women from the priesthood. The tradition within conservative Protestantism that created a serious intellectual environment in America, the Christian Reformed Church, is anything but populist. When it comes to the life of the mind, democratic sensibilities are not always a help. Once sentenced to intellectual mediocrity because they kept too many ideas out, conservative-Christian institutions face the prospect of returning to mediocrity because they let too many in.

Faith Meets Foucault

HEAVE an egg out a Pullman window," H. L. Mencken wrote in 1926, "and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today." Heave one out of a classroom in the world of evangelical higher education and you will hit someone discussing postmodernism.

Imagine that you are a deeply religious Protestant, perhaps even the kind who occasionally speaks in tongues. Although a serious academic, you believe that the modern world made a wrong turn when it committed itself to the confidence in human reason so characteristic of eighteenth-century secular thinkers. Always a bit ashamed of your old-fashioned views, you keep them to yourself -- until the day you discover that left-wing professors of English at America's most prestigious universities share your misgivings about the Enlightenment. True, these professors seem unduly inspired by Michel Foucault, a gay man who may have died of AIDS, and they pronounce themselves committed to causes you cannot abide. But like you, they seem to blame liberalism for the world's problems -- so maybe there is something to their views after all.

When evangelicals read authors like Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, they cannot accept pronouncements about the insufficiency of meta-narratives or the impossibility of grounding truth, because they believe that the Bible is the greatest meta-narrative ever written, in part because they understand it to be true. But everything else about postmodernism appeals to them. Descartes and Kant posited the primacy of the knowing self, a direct slap at God's authority, and postmodernists are right, evangelicals believe, to take those thinkers down a peg or two. Postmodernism's skepticism about progress is a reminder that secular rationality does not have all the answers to life's mysteries. Its radical anti-humanism is compatible with the possibility of a superhuman intelligence. And its rejection of the notion that knowledge can be grounded by appealing to a reality that exists beyond interpretation gives equality to all possible interpretations, including Christian ones.

Joining me for dinner one night at Wheaton College were two members of the English department, Alan Jacobs and Roger Lundin. They are the kind of people one hopes to find more of in the humanities departments of elite universities: they read actual texts, from many different fields; they believe that such texts mean something; and they dedicate their lives to conveying what those meanings might be in both scholarly venues and venues designed for the serious general reader. Yet despite their old-fashioned belletristic qualities, they are tempted by, and occasionally seduced by, postmodernism's hermeneutics of suspicion.

Jacobs, an expert on W. H. Auden who also frequently writes reviews for influential conservative magazines such as The Weekly Standard and First Things, teaches a course in contemporary literary theory in which the four required texts are works by Mikhail Bakhtin, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. "Several of these thinkers challenge or shed valuable light on central Christian doctrines," Jacobs later told me in an e-mail, pointing out that "Foucault's universal suspicion is not too far from Calvin's emphasis on the utter depravity of unredeemed humanity" and that "Derrida's proliferation of interpretations certainly arises from his own understanding (from within Judaism rather than Christianity) of biblical study and commentary as a ceaseless activity." Roger Lundin, whose revivalist lecture style breathes passion and life into the poetry of Emily Dickinson, has published three books that, although critical of postmodernism, share its sense that the Enlightenment went wrong. "The hero of the anthropocentric world," as Lundin puts it, "became the free and powerful self," who, "under the program of the Enlightenment, and later in romanticism, ... sought to assume the authority once granted to God in historic theism." Neither Jacobs nor Lundin would ever call himself a postmodernist, but neither man dismisses postmodernism as part and parcel of secular decadence either.

Postmodernism appeals even more strongly to evangelicals far removed from the humanities. I attended a class at Fuller in Eddie Gibbs's course Applied Church Growth. Because they believe in spreading the word, evangelical Christians are committed to church expansion, and Gibbs, an Englishman, is one of the leading authorities on the subject. I was unsure what the class would discuss when I asked to attend, but my assumption was that I would learn how evangelical churches finance themselves and plan their strategies. Instead I was privy to a lecture on the way the "modern" church, described by Gibbs as elitist and hierarchical, is giving way to "postmodern" churches, organized horizontally through networking. The American churches that are growing the fastest, Gibbs pointed out, are "new-paradigm churches and movements" -- those, for example, that reject the denominational idea of a central headquarters in favor of the idea that every church is a denomination unto itself. Perhaps pre-modern thinkers anticipated this postmodern development, Gibbs pointed out. After all, he explained, Jesus and his disciples were a kind of "hub and spoke" operation comparable to ones run by the airlines today, as they have responded to the postmodern conditions of deregulation and intense competition.

Postmodernism exercises such a fascination over the evangelical mind, I believe, because of the never-ending legacy of fundamentalism. In one sense evangelical scholars have moved away from Billy Sunday and in the direction of French poststructuralism: they cast their lot with those who question any truths rather than those who insist on the literal truth of God's word. Yet these scholars are still battling over questions about the nature of science which have long been settled in other religious traditions. There is nothing in either Catholicism or Judaism, both of which have fundamentalist adherents, quite comparable to the conservative-Protestant suspicion of Darwin; in 1996, for example, John Paul II restated the Church's position that belief in evolution is compatible with Catholic faith. But contemporary evangelical scholars cannot make peace with science in quite the same way. And so postmodernism offers them a chance to replay the Scopes trial; science, they believe, will have to defend itself against Jacques Derrida in a way it was never forced to do against William Jennings Bryan.

Although postmodernism's suspicion of textual certainty is the very opposite of fundamentalist literalism, postmodernism and fundamentalism are in a similar relationship to questions of power and authority. American academics attracted to postmodernism question the meaning of texts because they have mixed feelings about any kind of authority, including their own. Some -- including Jane Tompkins, who, along with her husband, Stanley Fish, recently left the English department at Duke for the University of Illinois at Chicago -- are so uncomfortable with authority that they have qualms about teaching in a traditional classroom format. Others move in the opposite direction; attracted to political correctness, they seek to ban from their campuses speech considered offensive to women, minorities, and homosexuals. This shift back and forth from the rejection of authority to the imposition of authority mirrors perfectly the combination of populism and authoritarianism that has characterized the history of fundamentalist churches in America. Stanley Fish and Billy Sunday turn out to have more in common than at first meets the eye.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)


Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College. His next book, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now, will be published in the spring.

Illustrations by Theo Rudnak.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; The Opening of the Evangelical Mind - 00.10 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 4; page 55-76.