Following his move to The Big Apple to serve with InterVasity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry at NYU this fall, David is back to wrap up his series on Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar. For earlier posts in the series click here and here. Take it away David! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN, editor of ESN’s blog and Facebook Wall
4. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In his lucid (though acerbic) book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), David Bentley Hart summarizes the “simple but thoroughly enchanting tale” underlying modern attitudes toward the Christian Tradition:
Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of the church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of “Greek science” were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the “wars of religion” that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new revolutionary sense of human dignity…. (33)
Hart goes on to note that the sole defect of this “simple and enchanting tale” is “that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.” (34) Nevertheless, most modern Western people have swallowed this tale hook-line-and-sinker.
We Evangelical Christians have swallowed it too, and, to the extent that we have, we have cut ourselves off from the vital intellectual and spiritual Tradition of historic Christianity. As Protestants we were already primed to swallow this tale because, as you may already realize, it is simply a modernized, secularized, and slightly updated version of the (tall) tale Protestants have told about Catholicism since the time of the Reformation: Post tenebras lux! But we American Evangelicals were triply primed to swallow this tale because, frankly, we are a product of it—in addition to being Protestants and Moderns, we Americans are a characteristically individualistic bunch that have a deeply engrained suspicion of tradition, and that are especially prone to conceive of theology as an ahistorical, do-it-yourself project. In any case, Christian scholars who do not resist this “simple and enchanting tale” do so at their peril, for in so doing they lose the capacity to locate themselves and their work within the orthodox Christian Tradition.
Let me illustrate what I mean: My commitment to historic Christianity is, in part, precisely why I am quite comfortable not taking Genesis 1 “literally” (whatever “literally” means here). I’m with Augustine, Origen, Justin Martyr and many others in thinking that the opening chapter of Genesis cries out for a non-literal interpretation. I agree, too, with John Calvin in thinking it ill-advised to treat Genesis 1 as a scientifically accurate account of cosmic origins or a cosmological handbook, and I agree with Augustine that Christians need to take “secular” science with the utmost seriousness. Moreover, Genesis 1 aside, I agree with Saint Jerome in thinking that it’s at least possible that the Pentateuch came together in its final form in the post-Exilic period (the current, mainstream scholarly consensus in Pentateuchal studies). I share Luther’s skepticism about whether John the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John, Calvin’s doubts about whether Peter wrote Second Peter, and Origen’s doubts about whether Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. Many of these ideas—asserted on their own apart from my references to the theological Tradition—would be identified by my secular, liberal and conservative counterparts alike as being “progressive,” or “liberal,” or “modern.” In other words, the assumption is that thinkers of such thoughts must reside on the heretic fringe. And, yet, ironically all of these ideas have some precedent in the grand theological Tradition of the Church, having been entertained by some of our faith’s brightest and most revered luminaries. Ergo, I am carrying on the Tradition as much as anybody.
I have discovered time and again that the Christian theological Tradition (including the Reformed tradition) does not always say what we thought it always said. I have discovered time and again that historic Christianity is a vibrant, sophisticated, and nuanced intellectual Tradition with abundant resources for creatively engaging the discoveries and difficulties of our day. In other words, there is room for serious thinking in the Christian Tradition. There is room for exploring, for learning, for growing, and for developing. There is room for difference, disagreement, and doubt; for mystery and wonder; for asking and living with questions; for unanswered, indeed, unanswerable questions. There is room for serious Christian scholarship and, most importantly, there is room for you.
5. We are strangers and exiles.
Unappreciated by their secular colleagues in the Academy, unknown to the religious lay masses, and not unconditionally affirmed by Church or Synagogue—this is the plight of the ideal-typical biblical scholar.
I quoted this line from Jacques Berlinerblau’s book The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) in my initial post and, as several commenters noticed, it could apply to the ideal-typical Christian scholar in practically any field, not just biblical studies. While the deep-seated anti-intellectual streak in American Evangelicalism has been well documented (see, e.g., Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), a seam in that story that has, perhaps, not been seen clearly enough is churches’ reluctance to embrace Christian intellectuals. By “Christian intellectuals” I do not mean would-be “apologists” whom churches can always count on to defend what they already thought, but rather scholars whose research has the potential to unsettle our preconceptions. The Christian intellectual can often expect to be held at arm’s length by the Academy because she is a Christian and held at arm’s length by her church because she is an intellectual.
Consider my friend, Ben, a Christian with a PhD in biology from one major research university who is working as a postdoc at another major research university. His area of expertise is population genetics, an area exceedingly relevant to contemporary discussions of evolutionary theory, and, having worked day-in and day-out with the relevant data for more than a decade, Ben has come largely to accept the Neo-Darwinian account of life’s development. Despite Ben’s strong resume and publishing history, his coworkers question his intelligence because of his Christian faith. Despite Ben’s deep piety, church involvement, and decades-long walk with Christ, Ben has discovered that he cannot talk about his work at his Evangelical church without running the risk of being berated for undermining the faith or dismissed as having simply imbibed the Academy’s secular Kool-Aid. As a result, Ben experiences a sort of double alienation, both ecclesial and academic, on account of his Christian scholarly vocation.
I could give more examples of this sort of dynamic, but I don’t think I need to. Many of you will know exactly what I am talking about. And to you I want to say that that is part of the deal. Part of the Christian scholar’s vocation is to live in and to try to heal this rift. You will have to be an apologist for the faith within your discipline and also an apologist for your discipline among the faithful, and often that will mean being a stranger and an exile in both Church and Academy.
6. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood. Something which I had not expected in coming to Westminster Seminary was to be embroiled in a controversy that was not merely academic, but which, at its heart, was political. The question on the table was what it meant to be Reformed. There are no easy answers here. The Biblical Studies department could appeal to precedents within the Reformed tradition for the sort of work we were doing (see point 4 above) and could rally around the Reformed value of being semper reformanda. The Theologians and Apologists could appeal to precedents, as well, not least when it came to classical Reformed expositions of the doctrine of justification and Old Princeton’s resistance against 19th century historical-criticism. Neither side had a monopoly on precedent within the Reformed tradition. In the end, however, the discussion between these two competing visions of what it should mean to be Reformed in the 21st century was not settled by theological argumentation, but prematurely foreclosed upon with heavy-handed political machinations—not least the overriding of a 12-8 faculty vote in Enns’ favor and the leveraging of key members of the Board of Trustees. Money and power had as much to do with how things shook out at Westminster as theology did.
I say this because Christian scholars need to understand what they are up against. Westminster is by no means unique. In any institution of higher education, whether secular or confessional, intra-institutional politics will loom large. I have met more than a few Christian scholars in secular universities who would rather not “come out” as Christians until they have tenure—if ever. Indeed, it is quite telling, for instance, how many of our writers here on the ESN blog feel the need to write under pseudonyms. Being a Christian scholar comes with certain liabilities and however solid one’s arguments, resume, or publishing record, these cannot always protect us from being black-balled, marginalized, passed over, rejected, or even fired. Christian scholarship, in other words, is a full-contact sport, and you need to be ready to take a few lumps. In this regard, however, the Christian scholar is no different from Christians in any other vocation. In fact, compared to what our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world have to deal with in terms of persecution, Western Christian scholars have it quite easy.
It’s time to wrap up. I will return to many of the themes of these posts as I write here on the blog: the Christian Tradition, Biblical studies, faith and science, anti-intellectualism. I would love to hear from you about what has most piqued your curiosity or encouraged your heart.
Over these last three posts I have not painted a very rosy picture of the Christian scholar’s vocation. You have, no doubt, by now detected the irony of my title: “Why you must be dying to be a Christian scholar.” Yes, you must be dying to be a Christian scholar: As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Or, as Jesus said, “Whoever would come after me must take up his cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus into the Academy is as cross-ward a path as any other Christian vocation. You must be prepared to die to yourself. Following the evidence while following Jesus can lead you to Golgotha. Your preconceptions about God and His world may have to die, your denominational allegiances may have to shift, your fears will have to be faced, and, yes, persecution may have to be endured. But we are in good company as we tread this narrow road, for not only are we surrounded by the great cloud of fellow Christians who have gone before us in thinking deeply about difficult issues, but we are also accompanied and assisted by Him who has called us.
Go in peace!
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, John Henry Newman’s, and Abraham Kuyper’s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.