Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

I just started reading Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind because I heard it was a pretty good book, and the topic just interested me in general. I'm just about finishing up the first chapter and so far Noll paints a pretty bleak picture (though I think in a large measure an accurate one) of the state of evangelicalism and the bitter fruits that we are now reaping from its anti-intellectualistic tendencies. Noll describes his book as a "historic footnote" in support of the words of an Lebanese diplomat, scholar, and Eastern Orthodox Christian who was invited to Wheaton College in 1980 for the opening of the Billy Graham Center. This diplomat (Charles Malik) relayed some important words which I think is worth quoting here in full:

The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy. Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among the evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does your mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode of thinking in the great universities of Europe and America which stamp your entire civilization with their own spirit and ideas?
It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism.... Even if you start now on a crash program in this and other domains, it will be a century at least before you catch up with the Harvards and Tübingens and the Sorbonnes, and think of where these universities will be then! For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence."

With thirty some years since Malik's wise words, I still wonder just how much (or little?) evangelicals have progressed (or digressed) in this regard. Having spent most of my education at great secular institutions, I personally can't say that things have changed at all since then... What do you think? Has evangelicalism shed its shell of anti-intellectualism? Are there scholars who are beginning to contribute to the wide-range of disciplines at our universities?


rossjahnke said...

Malik: "Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research?"

Can I even discourse on secular, naturalistic or atheistic terms when my whole framework of thought is religious, spiritual, theistic and even Christological?

I think the best headway evangelicals have made is the movement away from feeling like we need to play by secular intellectual rules. I don't think this has hit popular Evangelicalism on a widespread or deeply reflective scale, but I think (though maybe a bit too optimistically) the generation of folks going through seminaries now will continue this turn in the local churches.

Most Evangelical discourse I have heard lamenting the evils of modern universities is not fundamentally against thinking in se, but rather thinking from and within an intellectual tradition and academic culture that tends to marginalize Evangelical Christianity.

Also, does Noll set it up as a competition as if there is some kind of cold war in the arena of the academy that Evangelicals must win? I have only glanced at his stuff before so I can't make that accusation. But if that is the case, I think we need to jettison that framework. We need to think critically for the sake of following Christ as history marches on, not because we need the Western intellectual machine to function on our terms.

Mike S. said...

Ross: Thanks for your thoughts. As I read a bit further, Noll qualifies his earlier statement to say that it's not as if evangelicalism's goal is to be accepted by the academy. At the beginning of ch. 2, he discusses this in detail, that an appeal to intellectual thinking must be nuanced further. However, I also think he would say that it is lamentable that most evangelicals think Christianity has nothing to say with regard to most of the major disciplines that people study.

Also, he mentions that seminaries and so forth are somewhat insulated from the wider "anti-intellectualism" but I think his main point has to do with those who are not in ministry or attending seminaries.

I think your final sentence hit the nail on the head and I'm pretty sure Noll (as far as I can tell) would agree with me on that.

The book is pretty interesting, I'll try to read a bit more when I get the chance and post up other thoughts or quotes to further our discussion!