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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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"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.

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"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.

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"Serious faith ...
careful learning"

An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll

Mark Noll is a professor of history at Wheaton College in Illinois. He regularly publishes essays on the modern history of Christianity, particularly as it applies to North America. Noll's books include A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), and the forthcoming American Evangelical Christianity. Noll spent the 1999 spring semester as a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. He recently exchanged e-mail with The Atlantic's Joshua Friedman.

You mention in a recent article in Books & Culture that there are "many signs that now testify to stimulating intellectual engagement from evangelical or quasi-evangelical groups." Like Alan Wolfe, you write of finding hope in the conscientious work of Christian colleges and universities, the writings of contemporary scholars, and the research grants funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. But to what extent does this academic progress touch the life of the average evangelical Protestant? How should the growing evangelical intellectual establishment ensure that its own success translates into success in the community?

This is an especially important question for evangelical Christians since so much of recent evangelical history has been dominated by a democratic populism suspicious of formal academic life. It is possible to conclude that an effort to be more responsibly intellectual may, by its very nature, compromise the populism upon which evangelicals have depended. Yet my study of other eras gives me hope: in the eighteenth century, for example, figures like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards succeeded in promoting both an earnest people's piety and serious intellectual labor.

An ancient example provides even more hope, for it was the Apostle Paul who proclaimed in his first epistle to the Corinthians "the foolishness of the cross" and at the same time worked hard to master his era's best secular learning. For contemporary evangelicals to recover a history in which serious faith coexisted alongside careful learning would be a step in the right direction.

Wheaton College seems to be modeling itself after the best secular colleges in America, recruiting professors from the well-regarded departments of mainstream universities, embracing contemporary academic trends, and nurturing a pluralistic, tolerant student body. Are there risks to evangelical education becoming too secularized?

Anybody who studies the history of American higher education knows there are risks when religious colleges aspire (even selectively) to greater faculty competence, deeper intellectual seriousness, and more productivity in research. Wheaton's steps in these directions are modest so far, but they are taking place. Yet because institutions like Wheaton know something of that history, I think they are well positioned for appropriating aspects of mainstream intellectual culture, with discrimination, while still retaining a solidly religious character.

At the same time, colleges that want to provide meaningful religious analysis and interaction with the world as it actually exists always confront the opposite risk. That is the risk of over-insulating themselves from the best contemporary thinking. (In Christian terms, this danger pulls toward gnosticism, or the presumption that our own group's secret wisdom does not need sharpening by contact with God's full creation.) Colleges that want to be both seriously religious and seriously academic are always threatened by two perils at once -- creeping secularization and incipient gnosticism.

Your recent semester as a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School must have given you a new perspective on Wheaton and how it compares to its secular counterparts. What differences did you observe between the academic cultures and general environments of the two institutions?

I returned from the semester at the Harvard Divinity School with only tentative conclusions about such important questions, but for whatever they might be worth, here they are:

1) The top half of Wheaton students would have no trouble cutting the mustard academically at Harvard.

2) Harvard's self-conscious intellectual pluralism stimulates extraordinary academic endeavors, and these endeavors pose exactly the right kind of challenges needed by people who hold to particular religious convictions. At the same time, the great stimulus provided by Harvard's functioning intellectual pluralism is sometimes compromised by the restraints of an ideology of pluralism (e.g., lots of intelligent Christians and Jews around the world don't believe women should be ordained as ministers, priests, or rabbis, but restricting oneself to Harvard would not help you much in understanding those people or their views).

(3) Wheaton's self-conscious evangelical convictions provide a great deal of intellectual security for the task of studying, and studying with empathy, a much broader range of intellectual options than observers outside the evangelical world might imagine. By the same token, however, the relative homogeneity of the Wheaton campus sometimes reduces the existential intensity of the intellectual quest.

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