Every so often someone in the popular press will make the apparently earth-shattering discovery that evangelical Christians can actually think and are not, after all, “poor, uneducated and easy to command,” as journalist Michael Weisskopf notoriously put it nearly two decades ago. The latest example of this discovery appeared in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Jonathan Fitzgerald called “Winning Not Just Hearts but Minds.” The subtitle does more than hint at where the article will go: “Evangelicals move, slowly, toward the intellectual life.”
The author mentions Mark Noll’s 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which touched off discussions both inside and outside the communities that might claim the evangelical label. Fitzgerald repeats the tale told by Alan Wolfe a decade ago that evangelicals have finally heeded Noll’s call to the intellectual life and are beginning to be productive in this field. As one example, he alludes to the recent Comment symposium, “What would it mean to redeem psychology?” organized by my friend and colleague, Russell D. Kosits.
Given this flurry of attention from the media, I believe two questions ought to be posed. First, is evangelical intellectual life really all that new? And, second, what exactly is an evangelical?
Because the latter question is obviously more basic, this is the place to start. What is an evangelical? Quite simply, there isn’t one single answer commanding universal assent. By some estimates there are scores of millions of evangelicals in the United States alone, using a definition broad enough to include conservative Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Others prefer to draw the boundaries around the historic Reformed Protestant “solas”: sola scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide. Yet others trace the origins of evangelicalism to a series of revivals in the English-speaking world, beginning with the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and culminating in the Billy Graham crusades of the twentieth. The focus here is on a readily identifiable conversion experience marking a clear temporal boundary between “unsaved” and “saved.”
I will not attempt what others have been unable to do—namely, to formulate an indisputable definition of evangelical. However, I will observe that evangelicalism, far from being a unified movement, would be better understood as an umbrella phenomenon covering a variety of different groups, all of whom claim in some fashion to centre their lives in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not all of these groups constitute communities representing distinctive intellectual traditions, but many do.
For example, if one were to seek out a unique Lutheran intellectual tradition, one need look no further than Indiana’s Valparaiso University and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a body that nurtured the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who never completely ceased to be Lutheran, even after he became Roman Catholic. Lutherans, who were the first to be labelled evangelical in the sixteenth century, have founded numerous and respected institutions of higher learning, especially in the upper Midwest, where they tend to concentrate.
Then there are the Reformed Christian heirs of John Calvin, in whose tradition my own employer, Redeemer University College, stands. Though Calvinism has taken on somewhat different forms in different countries, one unifying element is support for distinctively Christian education. Within their respective milieux, Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Kuyper were both dedicated Reformed Christians who sought to live out the implications of Christ’s redemption in all of life, including the life of the mind and, of course, politics. Wilson served as president of Princeton University, while Kuyper founded the Free University of Amsterdam.
Even the most publicly visible of evangelical figures, the notorious television evangelists who regularly come in for drubbing and derision by the media and even by fellow Christians, have got into the act. One need only mention Oral Roberts University, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Pat Robertson’s Regent University to recall that even those not immediately associated in the public mind with careful scholarly reflection have nevertheless thought it appropriate to establish institutions of higher learning.
All of which is to say that, despite the supposedly late development of the evangelical mind, some of the component traditions making up evangelicalism have been at this for many decades, if not centuries. They simply have not done so under the evangelical label, which may explain why the popular media has not taken notice until now.
Despite this long history of what might better be called evangelical minds—in the plural—not every university founded as a centre of Christian learning has remained such, as we well know. Harvard, Yale and even Princeton are easy examples. The story is by now familiar. Devout Christians establish a higher educational institution, initially to train clergy, and then to educate in the other academic disciplines as well. Over time and with the passing of generations, the university becomes secularized, as the scientific method, coupled with a belief in the religious neutrality of reason, comes to squeeze out Christian conviction. Eventually even the divinity faculty abandons its confessional moorings, fully embracing the positivistic worldview undergirding the other non-theological disciplines.
So often has this story been repeated that many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have come to conclude that pursuing the life of the mind necessarily entails casting off the supposed shackles of belief, as demonstrated in the sad case of Philip Wentworth more than eight decades ago.
By contrast I would suggest that Christians are in a much better position than is generally recognized to contribute to the ongoing intellectual conversation. Why? The various secular approaches to the academy find themselves confronted by a dizzying diversity of things and aspects making up the cosmos. The nature of the academic enterprise calls for making sense of these in some systematic fashion. If we believe in the univocal character of reason—that it speaks in one voice to all human beings—we should in principle be able, through its exercise, to come to the same conclusions as to the nature of reality.
But of course this is far from the case. The followers of Charles Darwin believe that the complexity of life forms, including the multifaceted nature of human cultural activities, has its origins in the simple biological mechanism of natural selection. Those following Sigmund Freud trace human actions—or rather behaviour—to the subconscious influence of psychosexual factors rooted in one’s early upbringing. Marxists trace such behaviour to the autonomous workings of productive forces rooted in concrete material economic reality. Obviously these three schools cannot all be right. Yet if reason speaks always and everywhere in the same voice, then perhaps the problem lies with the mental faculties of those whose interpretations of the world conflict.
But once again, no. It’s not that Darwin, Freud and Marx are stupid or defective in their exercise of reason. The central difficulty can instead be traced to the tendency of those lacking a theistic underpinning to seek out a principle of unity within the immanent framework of the cosmos. This, I would argue, can only lead to intellectual dead ends, because the sheer complexity of the cosmos will inevitably defy such reductionist treatments. To be sure, academics—so often in danger of mistaking their theories of reality for reality itself—tend to hold on to them for dear life, while those on the ground eventually find them wanting and move on to something more promising.
By contrast, because we acknowledge, in the Apostle Paul’s words, that all things hold together in the Son of God (Colossians 1:17), we are freed from the necessity of having to find a principle of unity within creation itself. Recognizing, with Oliver O’Donovan, that “unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world,” we understand that we have nothing to fear from this complexity. We need not attempt arbitrarily to locate a single created principle of order to hold everything together. Our world belongs to God, and within the larger framework of divine sovereignty, we can freely explore the complex interlinkages among the multiple levels of causality that operate simultaneously in every circumstance. We can affirm biological, subconscious psychological and economic factors when and where we find them without falling into the trap of assuming that one of these represents the key to reality as a whole.
This means that cultivating the evangelical mind cannot simply mould us into Christian versions of, say, Rawlsians, Marxists or Derrideans. If we become such, not only will we have nothing distinctive to contribute, but we will merely be parroting the reductionist errors we ought instead to be exposing. Worse, we will inevitably follow the secularizing paths travelled by so many academic institutions and individual scholars in the past. We should rather be faithful scholars, exploring God’s world in all its complexity, affirming the partial truths in the many pagan and secular schools of thought, while definitively recognizing that the all-encompassing claims of Christ in the academy call for a distinctive approach fundamentally at variance with these.
Pursuing the intellectual life as Christians may or may not bring us to the attention of the media. But this cannot be our primary consideration in any case. Foremost in our motivations should be the desire to answer God’s call to faithfulness in everything we do. Whether it brings us accolades or persecution, cheers or jeers, we must do so as ministers of God’s kingdom, inspired by the command to love God above all and to love our neighbours who are created in his image.
Cultivating the Christian mind is not an optional pursuit for the community of believers, but is firmly anchored in St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous maxim, Credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I may understand”), in turn rooted in Scripture itself: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).