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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?

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"Serious faith ... careful learning"

An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll, the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).

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"Ultimately everything holds together"

An e-mail exchange with the philosopher Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

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"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.

Discuss this feature in a special conference on religion and public life, in Post & Riposte.

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"A truly multicultural society"

An e-mail exchange with the historian George Marsden

George Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written extensively on the history of American fundamentalism and the place of religion in the academy and in American culture, and is the author of many books, including The Soul of the American University (Oxford, 1994) and, most recently, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1997). He recently exchanged e-mail with The Atlantic's Wen Stephenson.

In the introduction to The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship you ask, "Why are there in mainstream academia almost no identifiable Christian schools of thought to compare with various Marxist, feminist, gay, postmodern, African-American, conservative, or liberal schools of thought?" Later in that introduction you go on to say, "whatever I propose by way of making a place for Christian scholars should apply, mutatis mutandis, to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and persons of other religious faiths or of no formal faith." That's a commendable statement. Do you think it's one that the boards and/or faculties of institutions such as Wheaton, Fuller, Pepperdine, and Notre Dame, could support? How about institutions such as Harvard, Duke, Columbia, and Chicago?

In order to answer this question, I first have to lay out my argument a little more fully.

If the United States is to be a truly multicultural society and not just a melting pot, two things are necessary to help maintain healthy subcultures, including subcultures that have a strong religious base. First, such subcultures need to be able to maintain their own distinctive institutions, including educational institutions that help pass their traditions from one generation to the next. Second, representatives of subcultures should have some ways to have their voices heard within public institutions so long as the representatives of the subculture respect the reasonable rules necessary to public institutions that serve diverse constituencies.

Religious schools such as Wheaton, Fuller, and Pepperdine first of all represent particular religious-cultural traditions. All faculty at Wheaton College (Illinois) and Fuller Theological Seminary, for instance, must affirm some basic evangelical beliefs (Pepperdine is somewhat broader and the situation at Notre Dame is quite different). It would be wrong to say to those evangelical Christian schools that they must have Buddhists and Hindus on their faculties, just as it would be wrong to tell Yeshiva University that it must have Muslims and representatives of every other major religion on its faculty. Each religious tradition should be free to have its own schools that teach its own religious heritage. So boards and faculties of evangelical Christian institutions would gladly say that other religious groups should be free to have their own colleges, universities, and theological seminaries where all the teachers teach from the point of view of the subculture. To require either that every school of a religious subculture must give equal representation to all major religious views or that they should avoid religious perspectives altogether would be to demand a melting pot with respect to religion.

At the same time, I have argued, persons of religious faith should be free to express that faith in responsible ways within mainstream academic institutions that are public in the sense of serving a wide spectrum of the culture. At Harvard, for instance, there ought to be room for professors who are Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Christians, Muslims, etc., to relate their religious faiths to their teaching and scholarship, so long as they do not violate any essential rules of academia or of public life. The case is similar to that of scholars who are feminists, Marxists, etc. They should be free to openly relate their faiths to their scholarship, but they must do so in a way that respects the diversity of the community and especially of the student body. My point is that if such schools were more consistent in their affirmations of the value of diversity and of open truth-seeking, they would give religious scholars the same consideration as they give scholars from the other perspectives mentioned.

In the conclusion of his Atlantic article, Alan Wolfe suggests that "many evangelicals prefer to stay out of mainstream universities," and that, "If the price of academic respectability is the modern research university and what Marsden calls its establishment of nonbelief, most evangelical scholars would rather not pay it." This does seem to be along the lines of what you are saying here -- that a kind of separatism among subcultures is a desirable thing for a society like ours. And perhaps in some important ways it is. Yet Wolfe goes on to suggest that evangelical scholarship, "rather than storming the gates of elite academia, with its culture of peer review and demanding standards for tenure, has taken its place as its own subculture, complete with journals, conferences, and publishing houses," and concludes, "So long as they continue to marginalize themselves, evangelicals will be unable to equal the accomplishments of the generation that brought us Marsden, Noll, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff. That would be the true scandal of the evangelical mind." Your thoughts? How does an academic institution that holds itself apart from mainstream academia manage to avoid the sort of insular, marginalized fate that Wolfe is talking about? How does a religious institution remain true to its tradition and also maintain the highest standards of academic inquiry and discourse?

What I am suggesting is more like a federation of subcultures that would be encouraged to maintain the distinct institutions necessary to preserving their essential identities but would also be encouraged to participate on a civil and cooperative basis in the cultural mainstream. I think there is lots of evidence from American history that such a balance of diversity and unity is possible.

Specifically with respect to higher education, then, I think schools with strong religious identities should not be pressured to give up such identities. Yet at the same time, their faculties and graduates should be able to participate in the wider academic disciplines -- and representatives of the viewpoint of such schools should be able to study or teach at mainstream academic institutions -- without being asked to entirely suppress their faith commitments.

Much as I admire Alan Wolfe and appreciate much of his writing on this subject, I think he is plainly wrong in the passage that you quote. The scholars whom he mentions all emerged from academic institutions that had a strong sense of their separateness from the academic mainstream. Three of us established our academic reputations while at Calvin College, which has long had strict religious tests for all its faculty. Mark Noll of Wheaton College in Illinois has always worked in a similar setting. Despite Calvin College's insistence on preserving religious distinctions, it was the most vital intellectual community I have worked in. Many faculty members participated actively in their academic disciplines and a remarkable number (for a relatively small school) gained recognition in those disciplines. Quite a few of our students have had distinguished careers in major universities. Colleges such as Calvin or Wheaton are, in fact, the models for what I am proposing. They retain strong religious identities but also encourage their constituents to participate constructively in the mainstream culture. Having seen that happen so often, I have simply been trying to foster wider awareness that there can be healthy relationships between deeply held religious beliefs and the academic mainstream.

The journals, conferences, and publishing houses of such subcultures are intended to complement those of the academic mainstream, not to keep people out of that mainstream. Further, there are so many younger scholars who have been shaped in part by such institutions and who are also doing excellent work in the academic mainstream, that I am sure there is no trend toward academic isolation or marginalization such as Wolfe suggests.

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