Outrageous Idea 3: Rules of the Game

Cover of "Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship"

Can followers of Christ play by the rules of the academic game and still follow Christ faithfully?

According to Stanley Fish (Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago) the answer is “No.”  Marsden summarizes Why We Can’t All Just Get Along (Stanley Fish, First Things, February 1996):

“Though secular himself, Fish cites the authority of John Milton to argue that true faith in God changes everything else.  Reason, says, Milton, following Augustine, is subject to prior faith.  That world will look very different to those who start with faith in God in contrast to faith in self or in material contingency.  It follows, Fish argues, that Christians, if they are serious about their faith, should not compromise with liberalism, which is built on antithetical principles:”

‘To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas, but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith.  The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.’ — George Marsden.  The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997. p.44.  [Update 10/22/2009, 12:40 pm:  The second paragraph is a quote which Marsden excerpts from Stanley Fish‘s Why We Can’t All Just Get Along (First Things, February 1996)].

How would you respond? 

Marsden writes:

While it is certainly true that some religious believers wish to destroy the pluralistic academy, there are many other religious viewpoints, including some theologically conservative ones, which harbor no such desire.  It is perfectly possible, for instance to hold, as I do, to an Augustinian view that faith in God, rather than faith in self or material contingency, should shape one’s essential vision of reality and yet to support the rules of liberal society as a God-given means for accomplishing some limited but immediately valuable goals. … the problem as I see it is how to balance the advocacy implicit in all scholarship with academic standards that are scientific or “reasonable” in the sense of being accessible to people from many different ideological campus.  … religious perspectives ought to be recognized as legitimate in the mainstream academy as long as their proponents are willing to support the rules necessary for constructive exchange of ideas in a pluralistic setting (45).

Marsden interacts with the rules of the game by

  1. contrasting the pragmatic education approaches of William James and John Dewey.
  2. exploring why there is no reason to expect a vast difference in basic standards of evidence and argument between Christians and non-Christians.
  3. pointing out control beliefs as being present in all members of the academy.
  4. highlighting the concern which arises when personal beliefs become explicit in the academic setting.
  5. agreeing with Fish that better communication and more dialogue don’t solve all the problems of pluralism because it’s through such a process that we get to know what one-another really believes.
  6. leaving one with the question of why “so few scholars in mainstream academic settings work to relate their deeply held religious commitments to their intellectual lives? (58).

Have you experienced self-censorship or observed the imparting of the habit/attitude of self-censorship among Emerging Scholars as described by Marsden?

It is worth repeating that what we are talking about is largely a matter of self-censorship.  Younger scholars who are Christian quickly learn that influential professors hold negative attitudes toward open religious expression and that to be accept they should keep quiet about their faith.  So rather than attempting to reflect on the relationship between religious faith and their own beliefs, they learn to hide their religious beliefs in professional settings.  Such self-censorship by its very nature proceeds quietly, but the attitudes it fosters are pervasive (52).

To wrap up, do we find Marsden’s nuances taming The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship or providing a work space for followers of Christ in higher education, one which may have already gained significant ground since the publication of the book?

It is essential to reiterate that the alternative being proposed is that there be room for explicit Christian points of view (just as there are explicit Marxist or feminist views) for those who will play by the other rules proper to the diverse academy (p.52).

My ideal for Christian scholarship is one that not only looks for the bearing of one’s Christian convictions on one’s academic thought, but also reflects some Christian attitudes that shape the tone of one’s scholarship (54).

We should think of ourselves as “resident aliens,” as some of my friends say, but as resident aliens we should  obey the laws of the land of our sojourn to the extend that they do not conflict with our higher allegiance (55).

Some of the rules for getting along equitably in a pluralistic academic situation are different from the rules within the Christian church, but not contradictory to them.  So what may be appropriate to a church gathering may not be appropriate to an academic gathering [e.g., preaching sermons and/or public prayer when lecturing at a state university or academic meeting] (56).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

More Posts - Website


  • dwsnoke@comcast.net'
    Dave Snoke commented on October 22, 2009 Reply

    The second quote is not from Marsden, but from Fish.

  • Tom Grosh commented on October 22, 2009 Reply

    Dave, Thank-you for the note. I apologize for the lack of clarity in the attribution of the quote. I’ve added an update to address this concern. In Christ, Tom

Leave a Reply to Tom Grosh Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.