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Whose mind needs opening?

Culture | A secularist respects evangelical colleges-for abandoning doctrine

Issue: "The narrow runway," Oct. 14, 2000

Has Christianity suddenly become intellectually respectable in the eyes of the secular world? It would seem so from the cover story of the October Atlantic Monthly, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind." But a closer reading yields a disturbing conclusion.

The article's author, Alan Wolfe, is a professor at Boston College. He hung around at some evangelical institutions of higher education, particularly Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary, read up on some evangelical scholarship, and was impressed with what he saw.

At a time when the field of academic philosophy has become lost in technicalities and abstractions, Mr. Wolfe wrote, evangelical philosophers are bringing it back to life. More: "At a time when humanities departments at American universities are obsessed with theory, conservative Christian scholars have kept alive a humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction for the informed lay reader."

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Mr. Wolfe even sees evangelical college classrooms as lively places: "Defying every stereotype of apathetic students and indifferent professors, the discussion was vigorous, intelligent, and informed." He praises evangelical colleges for being like the universities of the 1960s, where nobody doubted that ideas matter.

Implicit in Mr. Wolfe's praise of evangelical schools is the sad state of secular academia. In an academic climate that considers all truth to be nothing more than a social construction-indeed, an oppressive power structure-the intellectual life has often become little more than propagandizing, careerist status games, and a paralyzing cynicism.

What's striking in Mr. Wolfe's article, though, is that he did not give the evangelical schools he visited high marks because of their evangelical ideas. Rather, he was impressed by their new openness to secular ideas.

Academic evangelicals, he writes, "are as insistent on multicultural diversity as any good leftist." Although they cannot endorse homosexuality, they are trying to be sensitive and non-homophobic. They avoid gender-specific language. When it comes to "the way wealth and power are distributed around the world, Fuller seems little different from other campuses that have made issues of globalization and poverty central to their concerns."

Evangelical scholars, Mr. Wolfe writes, are strongly drawn to postmodernism. They are not necessarily postmodernists, but some are using the postmodernist critique of modernism to overthrow the rationalism of the Enlightenment, with its humanism and exaltation of the self. That's not bad-except that the major threat to Christianity today is not rationalism anymore but postmodern relativism. The challenge for evangelical scholarship is not to deal with old attacks against the faith, but with the new ones. This, by definition, would mean going against the prevailing intellectual fashions. And doing so would not be considered nearly so intellectually respectable.

Mr. Wolfe has his criticisms of evangelical schools. He knocks Fuller's embrace of the New Age psychologist M. Scott Peck-not because he is New Age but because he embodies "pop psychology" rather than the serious academic field. And Mr. Wolfe finds many evangelical academics almost too nice, too politically correct, and unwilling to hurt anyone's feelings by saying they are wrong. "Evangelicals have created institutions as sensitive and caring as any in America," he writes. "The downside of all this is that evangelicals sometimes find themselves with no adequate way of distinguishing between ideas that are pathbreaking and those that are gibberish."

Sometimes, Mr. Wolfe states, these schools are so accepting, so "nonjudgmental," that they lose their standards. "Once sentenced to intellectual mediocrity because they kept too many ideas out, conservative Christian institutions face the prospect of returning to mediocrity because they let too many in." In the context of that observation, it is curious that Mr. Wolfe reserves his severest ire for the habit of evangelical colleges to insist upon statements of faith for their faculty members. This constitutes, he thinks, a "loyalty oath" that inhibits academic freedom and the free life of the mind.

Mr. Wolfe does not see that commitment to a statement of faith is precisely what provides a framework for the pursuit of other truths. The political correctness and nonjudgmental mentality that he decries is a consequence of postmodernism. A statement of faith is a standard, one that can make a true evangelical community of learning possible. If evangelicals finally open their minds to the point of jettisoning their statements of faith, they will quickly become as dull and empty as secular institutions.

Should we be excited that evangelical colleges exhibit a 1960s-like intellectual vitality? Only if they avoid what happened to secular universities at the end of the decade.

What progress evangelical colleges have made is due directly to their having statements of faith. Their lapses come from trying to get around them. The task for evangelical scholars is not to open their minds to the secularists; rather, they need to open the secularists' minds-or else evangelical higher education will simply be showing itself to have been 40 years behind the times.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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