Carl Trueman is one of the most interesting Christian thinkers of our time. Professor at Grove City College and author of books including outstanding The rise and triumph of the modern self: cultural amnesia, expressive individualism and the path to sexual revolution, Trueman proposed to traditional Christians for the third time between the current American extremes of awakened accommodationism and crude Trumpism. I could call this third way “faithful realism”: we should be strictly orthodox in our theological and cultural orientations, and although we should be civilized in this, we should hardly expect the observing secular world to applaud us with these orthodox orientations.
Trueman explains his third way in a long text on First things, entitled “The Failure of Evangelical Elites,” a thought-provoking article and I recommend your attention. There is much to discuss in this article, but here I will focus on the parts that are most relevant to me: his discussion of the work and legacy of historians Mark Noll and George Marsden (my doctoral advisor in Notre Dame).
In the mid-1990s, constant efforts were made to rehabilitate and defend the intellectual and academic integrity of Orthodox Christians. The leaders of this movement, historians Mark Noll and George Marsden, made brave cases for the Christian mind. In The scandal of the evangelical mind, Noll argued that American evangelism was weakened by its commitment to indefensible positions that lacked intellectual credibility. Consequently, this attracted the ridicule of educated people outside the Church. What is worse, the lack of intellectual standards made life difficult for thoughtful individuals in the Church. Noll focused on dispensationalism and literal six-day creation, arguing that these obligations cannot be defended by the canons of reason, nor are they necessary for a strictly orthodox Christian faith.
The scandal of the evangelical mind was a bestseller and was named Book of the Year Christianity today, a leading evangelical journal whose purpose was in part to articulate Christianity that avoided the excesses of fundamentalism by defending orthodox Christianity. Shortly afterwards, Marsden advocated in the monograph of the same name what he called “an unheard of idea of Christian teaching.” The historical part of his case was based on research he had previously published on the Christian origins of many of America’s most important higher education institutions. Marsden concluded that the cultivated despisers of Christianity simply erred in claiming that faith brings man into conflict with the life of the mind. In the constructive part of his case, Marsden argued that Christian scholars could cultivate careful respect for the canons of academic discourse and thoughtful, sincere engagement with other academics within the guild without compromising their faith.
Unlike Schleiermacher, Noll and Marsden are careful in maintaining full-blooded affirmations of the orthodox Christian faith. Unlike Schleiermacher’s, I find their arguments convincing. Nothing in believing in the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ undermines intellectual rigor or compromises academic standards — unless, of course, those standards are considered criticism from the beginning. But there is no doubt that the extremely positive reception of Noll and Marsden’s ideas came about because university-educated evangelicals could hardly wait to gain security in the 1990s. The universities they attended were increasingly telling them that their faith was disqualifying. Noll and Marsden argued the opposite, showing that a faithful person who engaged in self-criticism and rejected unsustainable beliefs could fully participate in modern intellectual life.
Although Marsden and Noll presented their cases less than thirty years ago, I am amazed at the fact that their arguments belong to a long time ago. The idea that a commitment to honesty and integrity in scholarships could gain membership in today’s universities and other leading institutions, in retrospect, was naive. Today’s higher education is mostly a land of the awakened. One might be a brilliant biochemist or have a deep knowledge of Minoan civilization, but any deviation from cultural orthodoxy about race, sexuality, or even pronouns will be more significant in recruitment and employment processes than considerations such as scientific competence and careful research.
Trueman notes that when he teaches Marsden An unheard of idea of a Christian scholarship in Grove City, students find Marsden appealing but somewhat unrealistic, given the current intolerant mood of the elite academic community and corporate culture.
I definitely think Trueman is up to something and I think Noll and Marsden’s arguments are increasingly sounding like something from the last generation. I would add that their histories of evangelism and fundamentalism, which to me are still the gold standard for shrewdness and the historical method, also (tragically) now seem a bit outdated. Their actions were critical but empathetic to the evangelicals. The most popular histories of evangelism in the last decade have instead been written in an activist, anti-evangelical style. Disgust has often replaced empathy in the study of American evangelicals, even among some Christian historians.
Marsden is also critical of modern academy, however, in ways that Trueman doesn’t explain completely (it’s already a long piece!). In An unheard of idea iu The soul of an American university, Marsden held that the modern secular academy was responsible for its statement of commitment to postmodernism and diversity. If we all do come from a cultural perspective, he said, and if a more vibrant academy involves a range of different perspectives and experiences, then why exclude outspoken Christians from the academy? Why shouldn’t Christians (or people of other traditional faiths, like Jews) have a “place at the table”? As early as the 1990s, Marsden realized that academic “diversity” was not ideologically diverse.
Briefly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that Marsden’s call for ideological consistency could have the opportunity to open space for more Christian perspectives in an elite academy. He himself won the Bancroft Award for American History from Columbia University, arguably the most prestigious award for an academic historian of America, for his critical but admirable biography of Jonathan Edwards. I cannot imagine a Christian historian today winning such an award for such a book.
Moreover, in the early 2000s, Baylor’s “vision of 2012” began, in which Baylor set out to become a research university, maintaining a clear commitment to Christian orthodoxy, at least of a very broad kind. The fate of that vision is another topic for another time, but successive leadership changes since the mid-2000s, and Baylor’s terrible sexual assault scandal in football, have certainly not helped Baylor maintain institutional focus or full credibility, especially on the clarity of his Christian commitments.
Trueman suggests that the recognition of the elite in academic circles requires a theological and ethical compromise, a claim that could be substantiated by examples from various fields of biblical studies, ethics, psychology, social work, and so on. Yet I am still not convinced that the position of traditionalist Christians force from high the elite academy is pretty black and white as Trueman suggests. (One might expect me to have some doubts, as a Marsden student.) After all, Trueman himself teaches at an outstanding Christian college that has good grades according to common secular academic metrics, and has also published in elite academic media, including Oxford University Press. His undeniable credibility as a Christian scholar is confirmed by these facts.
For most believers in academic circles, there is no necessary reason why someone’s belief in theological or cultural issues would by definition prevent you from getting an academic teaching position. (The terrible labor market could be a far more difficult problem.) Moreover, scholars like Trueman, me, Noll, Marsden, and others have found that university printing houses are willing to publish our work in religious history because our work meets normal academic standards you must meet to be published there. I have certainly encountered subtle or overt forms of anti-Christian intolerance from potential employers and from anonymous readers in printing houses and magazines, but I do not believe that in all fields or endeavors one’s faith per se it will block your academic success.
The problem arises, as Trueman observes, when you express attitudes that the dominant secular academy finds disgusting. This is hardly limited to traditionalist Christians. University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot recently canceled an invited lecture at MIT out of astonishment over his criticism of the current academic rule of “diversity, equality and inclusion.” Because of the mandate, such cases rarely result in termination of employment, but universities can still make life difficult for those who deviate from established ideology.
At the beginning of their careers, scholars with previous experience might find that they do not need (or do not want to) talk about issues that are contrary to the dominant ideology. Of course, it becomes increasingly difficult when your research is directly related to a controversial topic. University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus (a Catholic) fell under a massive campaign of harassment, shame and investigation because he dared to publish a research in 2012 that raised questions about the prosperity of children raised by same-sex parents. But he already had experience and so he survived the storm.
However, there are many fields and topics in which one’s faith or personal beliefs do not have to provoke cultural conflicts, such as Trueman ‘s 1994 book. Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and the English Reformers, 1525-1556, with Oxford University Press. Many such examples could be cited of Christians writing about religious history from different confessional perspectives and finding outlets with top secular printing presses like Oxford or Yale (with which Marsden published his biography of Edwards).
Is it possible for the press and magazines to stop publishing the works of people who (a la Dorian Abbot) are otherwise known to have attitudes that are disgusting towards dominant academic and media interests? Of course, it has certainly already happened (at least subtly) in some cases. But as long as traditionalists and others with undesirable views can still be published in secular newspapers, they should do so. It is essential for many Christian scholars to engage in Christian publishing in particular, and several secular publications would like to touch on Trueman’s The rise and triumph of the modern self. (Thank God some Christian presses, like Crossway, will anyway!)
But some Christian scholars will also keep a seat at the table in elite secular academic circles, especially announcing in the secular media that they will have the opportunity. There is a long and respectable Christian tradition that this is done when possible. Christian intellectual leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, and CS Lewis retained a distinctive Christian voice in the elite academic circles of their epochs — though, admittedly, they all worked in a far more Christianized culture than ours.
A complete Christian intellectual witness ideally involves maintaining the role of such Christian scholars, as long as maintaining that place does not require a theological and cultural compromise. We could pray that in the post-Christian West, the apparent commitment of our culture to the principles of classical liberalism and tolerance can open the door to the Christian intellectual witness in the scattered corners of the dominant academic culture.
God hardly needs our academic contributions to build the Kingdom. But from Paul’s testimony on Mars Hill to the present day, Christian voices have always been heard defending gospel truths in the groves of the academy. As much as we can, let’s continue with that witness in our generation.
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