Looking back on the year in articles, a few themes emerge. First, evangelicals received a lot of press with respect to politics in general and the environment in particular. Second, atheism went on the offensive. Third, the conversation regarding the relationship between “Christ and Culture” continues.
Evangelicals, Politics, & the Environment
Much of the press on evangelicals and politics is (mis)informed by problematic assumptions and poor data. A refreshing exception this past year was Walter Russell Mead’s article God’s Country? Evangelicals and Foreign Policy published in Foreign Affairs. There are and will be quibbles over the article, but it is generally a smart and well-informed piece that avoids the common errors. The Pew Forum recognized the article by holding an event with Mead and respondents (read transcript). The Institute for Global Engagement also recognized the article by devoting an entire issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs to responses to Mead’s article. (Those articles are not available on-line, but the Review may be found at your local Christian Study Center.)
Regarding Christians and the environment . . . the latest development is a collaboration between leading scientists and evangelicals, which can be found at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. There you will find a variety of resources in the form of pdf documents, including a concise (one page) “call to action” signed by folks like Cal DeWitt and E.O. Wilson, and a longer (20 page) transcript of the meeting. Students may also be interested to learn about the Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative. See, for example, the video Inconvenient Christians.
Meanwhile, across the pond, 100 persons from 20 European nations met in the European Parliament for the second congress of the European Christian Political Movement–a network of Christian organizations across Europe, including political parties, social service organizations, and think tanks. See also an excerpt from Jim Skillen’s remarks at the meeting.
Inspired in part by the perceived specter of theocracy, atheists published books more strident and “evangelistic” in tone. Given our interest in the “permanent things” that transcend the controversy du jour, we have largely avoided this topic. Alas, the “new atheism” emerges as one of the biggest “religion news” articles of the year. The conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival drew best-selling authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and received a lot of press (see, e.g., the NYT’s A Free-for-All on Science and Religion).
Harris and Dawkins have generally taken such a beating even in the secular press that we feel no need to weigh in at length. See, for example . . .
- H. Allen Orr, A Mission to Convert, New York Review of Books
- Sam Schulman, Without God, Gall is Permitted, Wall Street Journal
- Terry Eagleton, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, London Review of Books
- Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired Magazine
Christians have had a field day critiquing and reacting to all of this. Some of the Christian reviews have been quite thoughtful–e.g., Marilynne Robinson’s piece in Harper’s Magazine, Hysterical Scientism. Unfortunately, many other reactions have been, well, reactionary. The problem is that when Christians enter into the culture war’s game of tit-for-tat, they lose sight of one very important point: Dawkins and Harris are not typical atheists. Many–perhaps most–of my friends are atheists (or agnostics). They are all (ok, almost all) quite ordinary persons. Just as Christians rightly complain when secularists take Jerry Falwell to be typical of religious believers, so too would it be wrong to take angry, strident atheists like Dawkins to be typical atheists. So, lighten up, and invite an atheist classmate or colleague to lunch. Ask them what they care about most, and they’ll probably talk about everyday things–their future or their family–i.e., the same things people talk about after church. Dawkins and Harris are selling enough books that they can’t be ignored, but don’t take them too seriously. (POSTSCRIPT: Alan Jacobs makes a similar point in his column The Know-Nothing Party: How should Christians respond to ill-informed attacks?)
For the record, there is nothing wrong with criticizing religion. Or, more accurately, nothing wrong with criticizing religions (generalizations about “religion” are almost impossible.) Christians ought to be the hardest critics of Christianity and ought to readily acknowledge all accurate criticisms of the tradition. That said, has anyone noticed that those who accuse religion in general and Christianity in particular as being the source of violence in history have no disciplinary training in history? Historians specialize in complexifying or “problematizing” our understanding of history, moving away from simplistic understandings to more nuanced understandings of the past. Hence the recent emphasis among social historians on race, class, and gender–i.e., including those who were left out of earlier accounts of history. The “New Atheists” (and, as many have pointed out, there’s really nothing particularly new here) provide historic narratives that are simplistic to the point of reductivist. Perhaps history should be left to the historians after all.
One of saner voices on the topic of science and religion that got some airtime this year was that of Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God. Collins was featured in a cover article in Time Magazine, Reconciling God and Science. Collins and Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich were also interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday.
Christ and Culture
G.K. Chesterton said he appreciated the invitation to speak at a conference on education since the topic was so broad that he could really speak on anything at all. The same might be said of “culture.” And so we mention two other notable and much-discussed articles that don’t fit anywhere else:Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Matthew B. Crawford’s essay in the New Atlantis, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”
More importantly, one of the brightest parts of the year in articles was the Christian Vision Project. It is hard to select favorites, but suffice it to say that with contributions from the likes of Tim Keller, Miroslav Volf, and Lauren Winner, among many others, there is plenty of good reading here.
A century from now, I suspect that religious historians will look back on this moment in time and focus not on the debate over science and religion, nor on evangelicals and politics, but on a story that gets very little mainstream press: the rapid spread of Christianity in the “global south”–Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This is the focus of the Christian Vision Project articles in 2007. There is no telling when the mainstream media may “get religion.”
If you enjoyed these articles, watch for more like them on the Articles and Reviews section of this site. With the help of students, 2006 was the first year we posted articles. We hope you enjoyed them. Please feel free to let us know if you have any comments or feedback on this section of the website.
Among the issues that divide Christians, one is the importance of evangelism relative to cultural activity. In an interview in the current issue of Christianity Today, N.T. Wright, the prolific New Testament theologian and Bishop of Durham, puts it this way:
For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery. (See Mere Mission: How to Present the Gospel in a Postmodern World.)
This is another example of the “Christ and Culture” debate, described at length 50 years ago by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book by that name. Although some scholars, such as Craig Carter, author of the hot-off-the-press Rethinking Christ and Culture (Brazos, 2007), think Niebuhr’s framework has outlived its usefulness, the issues remain current.
In a fine article entitled “The Prophet and the Evangelist,” Andrew S. Finstuen traces this tension between evangelism and cultural activity to the two religious leaders who each appeared on the cover of Time magazine mid-century: Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr. To overstate matters only slightly, what it means today to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” Christian depends on which of the two one identifies with.
The divide runs deep. Conservative Christians see liberals as secularists in Christian clothing, while liberal Christians see conservatives as other-worldly pietists. And let’s face it–there’s enough truth to these to sustain the stereotypes.
Is there any middle ground? Is it possible to care about both souls and society?
Thankfully, many leading Christian thinkers reject the dichotomy altogether. One example is Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw. Emphasizing the need for changing both hearts and society, he writes, “Jesus came to rescue a creation that was pervasively infected by the curse of sin—an infection not limited to the psychic territory populated by ‘human hearts.’ ‘Changed hearts’ will not ‘change society’ if the efforts at change are not also directed toward the structures and patterns of human interaction.” He draws this argument out at length in his book When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem.
There are many other such examples of Christian scholars who are similarly in this respect neither liberal nor conservative but happily “beyond category.” N.T. Wright concludes his interview with this:
The longer that I’ve gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it’s been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, and how we’ve managed for years to say the Lord’s Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou. It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.
The key to mission is always worship. You can only be reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing self-giving love into the world.
I just received my copy of Chesterton Day by Day, a collection of daily readings from the most quotable of writers. Turning to today, Dec. 13 . . .
Elder father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst though tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?
Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds
Like an elfin’s granary.
Speller of othe stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.
God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim
Filling all Eternity–
-GKC, The Wild Knight
Chesterton Day by Day is available on-line at http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/gkcday/gkcday.html
The pies are in the oven, and as I think about what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, the Christian Vision Project is toward the top of the list. For those who haven’t heard, haven’t seen, haven’t tasted the great articles–and now a DVD–coming out of this unique project, no more excuses. Check out the website. Watch the preview. Order the DVD. Get together with some friends and talk about what it all means.
Oh yes, we’ll have the DVD’s in the resource room just as fast as they can ship them.
Today, October 24th, is Take Back Your Time Day. Simply put, Take Back Your Time Day is for our harried schedules what Earth Day is for the natural environment.
Consider this. Hours spent at work peaked during the industrial era. In the late 19th and early 20th century, labor unions secured a string of successes in the shorter hours movement–first the 12-hour day, then the 10-hour day, the eight-hour day, and finally the five-day week. Imagine: From 80-hour weeks to 40-hour weeks in about half a century! The expectation, of course, was that this trend would continue. Social pundits contemplated the “problem of leisure,” and state universities founded departments of leisure studies both to study the phenomenon of leisure and also to train recreation specialists to supervise leisure pursuits in the new age to come.
Then, something happened–slowly and unnoticeably at first, but over time it became unmistakable. We got busier. In his 1970 book The Harried Leisure Class, Staffan Linder challenged the notion that time equals money. More money, he argued, meant more shopping and therefore less time. More recently Juliet Schor has argued that we are busy because the American workweek has been getting longer since the 1950’s–that we are a harried working class. Whereas Europeans have converted postwar productivity into increased time off from work, she writes, Americans have use their increased productivity to buy more stuff. Indeed, newly constructed houses are on average twice the size of homes built prior to WWII.
Schor’s thesis is not entirely uncontroversial. Those employing time diary methods for calculating hours at work end up with different data. And one must point out that the longer vacations in Europe are in most cases part of more centralized economies and coincide with higher rates of unemployment. As the Wall Street Journal has argued, the freer the market economy, the shorter the vacations, but the lower the unemployment.
Nevertheless, the point remains. We Americans, we westerners–perhaps we humans–are harried. Why? There are too many reasons to name, but they include the following. We buy homes in the suburbs which increases our commute. We build bigger homes which increases the maintenance. We buy labor saving appliances and then feel that we must enroll in the local fitness club. It’s a cycle of consumption that leaves us rich in things but poor in time.
As David Brooks among others has pointed out, we are the first culture in history where the wealthy choose to work like slaves while the poor struggle with involuntary leisure–i.e., unemployment. Again, there are many reasons for this, inicluding the ubiquity of information technologies that follow us everywhere, but the primary reason is almost certainly that of identity formation. In his book Bobos in Paradise, Brooks illustrates this phenomenon with examples from the New York Times wedding page. As recently as the 1950’s it is clear from wedding descriptions that identity was rooted in family: “She is descended from Richard Warren, who came to Brookhaven in 1664. Her husband, a descendant of Dr. Benjamin Treadwell, who settled in Old Westbury in 1767, is an alumnus of Gunnery School and a senior at Colgate University.” Today, by contrast, identity is rooted in personal accomplishment. When you look at the wedding page, Brooks writes, “you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Freres joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna–the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person–college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession–for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.”
If it is true that we are what we achieve and produce, then it follows that we must continually prove ourselves. Which is to say that we must constantly work. And work. And work.
One of the challenges facing Christians today is resisting this tendency to define ourselves according to our productivity, and to ground our identity in the person of Christ. In the creation narrative of Genesis, God creates, steps back from his creative activity and enjoys it by proclaiming “It is good.” Herests. Not because he is tired, mind you. But because rest is good. God’s rest is not merely the opposite of work; it is the opposite of restlessness. It is the opposite of anxiety, worry, of cosmic anomie. Which is to say it is the very thing we need at this cultural moment. We are invited to join him in stepping back from our work, looking back on it, and enjoying it. For many of us, this kind of rest is hard work.
Take Back Your Time Day is still a new movement. There is no telling where it will lead, but the cause is a good one. It should not be lost on those of us who read Scripture that the first thing God calls holy is time. The scriptural themes of rest and even of identity formation should have something to contribute to this conversation.
The significance of October 24th? It is the day that “falls nine weeks before the end of the year and symbolizes the fact that we Americans now work an average of nine full weeks more each year than do our peers in Western Europe.”
Last week eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published his most recent book–The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. It’s a very nice looking book from Norton, featuring earth tones and outdoorsy-feeling rough cut pages. The contents of the book, a series of letters to a fictional Southern Baptist preacher, the upshot of which is that we should all set aside dogma, ideology, and metaphysics, and join in the cause to “save the Creation,” are more of a mixed bag.
I was considering posting my response in the form of a letter back to Wilson, but my friend Andy Crouch beat me to the punch in his Letter to a Tenured Professor. While affirming Wilson’s appeal to collaborate across worldviews, Crouch puts his finger on the main problem: Wilson persists in speaking of science and religion in oppositional terms.
By way of a little background, when the environment became a hot topic in 1970, the church was largely asleep at the wheel. As Rolf Bouma of theCenter for Faith and Scholarship (the Christian Study Center at the University of Michigan) demonstrated in a lecture here a couple of years ago, debates over the nature of salvation have so preoccupied Protestants since the Reformation that the doctrine of creation has been effectively marginalized in seminaries and theology textbooks.
Much has changed since 1970. In 1990, the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan initiated the Open Letter to the American Religious Community, signed by 32 Nobel laureates and other scientists, including Wilson. Partly in response to that letter, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment–a coalition of Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline, and Evangelical organizations–was founded in 1993. Also in the 1993 theEvangelical Environmental Network was founded, and issued The Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. There are so many initiatives at the interface of religion and the environment, from Cal DeWitt’s AuSable Institute to the recent Conference on Christianity and the Environment at the MacLaurin Institute (the Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota), that it is virtually impossible to keep up with it all.
When Wilson expresses concern that belief in the Second Coming results in an atrophied appreciation for this world, he is echoing a concern that found similar expression in David Orr’s much-discussed April 2005 Conservation Biology article “Armageddon Versus Extinction.” To be fair, Orr and Wilson have some good reason to be concerned. In a country where the Left Behind series has sold 70 million volumes, escapist rapture theology is not all that uncommon. And, as Crouch pointed out in an earlier column, evangelicals have been cool toward global warming.
What should we make of all this? First, let’s acknowledge that Christians have been slow and reactive on environmental issues. Second, let’s also acknowledge that religious reflection on the environment has come a long way in the last 15 years. Third, let’s remember that Christianity is a religion of renewal and hope, including the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Historic Christianity teaches that Creation itself will be restored. We are called to be agents of shalom in the world, and that includes stewardship of the natural environment. Not only the doctrine of Creation, but the doctrines of the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection, Common Grace, and even the Second Coming, all yield a dignity and significance to the material world.
Finally, what should we make of Wilson’s proposal that we all set aside dogma, ideology, and metaphysics in order to work together to save the Creation? Right idea; wrong strategy.
The main problem with Wilson’s book is his epistemology. He believes that science and religion constitute two different ways of knowing, which is very problematic. Christianity (for example) is founded on an historical event that is “evidentiary” in nature. The disciples testified to the Resurrection as that which they had heard, seen, and touched. They were invoking sense data as their evidence, and as many historians of science have pointed out, a belief in the reliability of sense data that characterized the Christian West was one of the preconditions of modern science. The Belgic Confession puts it nicely, that God is known by two means–first, “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,” and second “by his holy and divine Word.” Historic Christianity, contra Wilson, posits no conflict between reason and revelation.
The conflict between science and religion has been greatly exaggerated, for the opposite of theism is not science but atheism. Wilson refers to his worldview as “scientific humanism.” But humanism is a philosophy, and there is nothing inherently more scientific about it than other philosophies, including Christianity. Simply put, Wilson’s philosophical outlook is dated, as would be obvious to anybody who has followed discussions in the philosophy of science over the last half century. Problems with his philosophy lead to problems with his sociology, as he assumes that scientists and religionists are two distinct sets of people, when in fact they are often the same people.
Wilson’s question needs to be recast. The question is not can scientists and people of faith work together on the environment (as Crouch points out, he and his wife get along fine), but can people of different faiths and/or no faith work together on the environment? The answer of course is yes, but again, not for the reasons Wilson suggests. Wilson says that the basis of collaboration is setting aside differences in metaphysics. Not so. The better basis for collaboration is for all parties involved to ground their concern for the environment in their particular metaphysics. In contrast to Wilson’s assertion that “the defense of living nature is a universal value [that] doesn’t rise from any religious dogma,” it is rather a value that, like all values, can only arise from religious dogma. Christians care about Creation because God created it and calls it good. Set aside the narrative and Christians no longer have a basis for environmental ethics. Wilson’s values function more similarly to this than he realizes. His own care for creation is grounded not in science–science doesn’t give us concern for the environment–but in his humanism. As organizations like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment illustrate, differences in worldview need not divide, but can actually be the very basis for collaboration. Indeed, mutual respect means acknowledging, not ignoring, each others’ worldviews. In all sincerity, perhaps what is needed is for Wilson and other secularists to join the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Secularism, after all, is not a procedural ethic that somehow transcends particular visions of human flourishing. It is one among many worldviews.
POSTSCRIPT: Cambridge paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris has just weighed in with his assessment of Wilson’s book in the current issue of Nature(“The Road to Hell,” 21 September 2006). Morris refers to Wilson’s thesis as “deeply problematic” and “a thinly disguised programme to hijack religious energy and divert it into the secular arena.” Although well-intentioned, Wilson’s work “is ultimately underpinned by an incoherent metaphysics. Equally important, its scientistic agenda carries the real risk of imposing tyranny.” Then, echoing our observation precisely, he concludes that the failure of Wilson’s project lies in “the recurrent inability of materialists to understand that the decision to protect the biosphere can only derive from an ethical imperative that is itself independent of the natural world.”
There are, to overgeneralize only slightly, three basic ways of understanding the relationship of religion to public life. First, there are those who believe their particular worldview is true and should therefore be established in schools and government agencies. Second, there are those who believe that religions and worldviews are a matter of personal preference, and that there exists some sort of viewpoint-neutral public reason that transcends and rightly relegates religion to a private sphere of life. Third, there are those who believe that there is no such thing as “a view from nowhere,” that secularism is no less neutral a perspective than other “traditions of inquiry,” and that true neutrality consists of equal accommodation of all particular viewpoints, including both the religious and the secular.
Whereas the first view was dominant in the pre-modern West for a millennia or so, and the second, modernist view has been dominant in courts, media, and universities through the twentieth century, the third view has been gaining more–and more articulate–voices in recent years. With the publication of The Decline of the Secular University, C. John Sommerville joins these voices.
According to Sommerville, “the secular university is increasingly marginal to American society and this is a result of its secularism.” Laments over the secularization of the modern research university are nothing new. Sommerville, however, is saying something different, something much more interesting. His argument is that the modern research university’s marginalization of religion has been bad for the university. He is “more interested in the university’s loss than in any loss that religion has sustained.”
The book is concise yet wide-ranging. Twelve short chapters are focused around a series of big–very big–questions. What is the status of the human today? Don’t all professional programs serve some idea of human optimality? Is there really a philosophical justification for the fact/value dichotomy? How does the university justify the moralizing that still dominates the humanities? Isn’t it time to start studying about secularism, instead of just indoctrinating students in it? Why is intellectual fashion replacing seasoned argument in the university itself?
Although some will criticize Sommerville for taking on so much in such a small book, they will have missed his point. We should not shy away from the big questions, he is saying, simply because they cannot be dealt with comprehensively. Indeed, the groundwork for this volume lays elsewhere–in the scholarship of Stanley Hauerwas, George Marsden, John Milbank, Alisdair MacIntyre, Warren Nord, Alvin Plantinga, Christian Smith, Charles Taylor, and in Sommerville’s own work on secularization. The present volume may be described as a readable and forceful distillation and application of this larger body of literature.
Sommerville makes good (and entertaining) use of a variety of sources, quoting Will Willimon that the “vision of higher education as a place where the young are initiated into the wisdom of the past has turned into a place where the old abandon the young to their own meager resources because the old have nothing of value to say to them,” David Kirp to the effect that the “incoherence about what knowledge matters most has become pervasive in higher education,” Clark Kerr on his assessment that universities have “no great visions to lure them on, only the need for survival,” and Neil Postman who once quipped that “without a purpose, schools are houses of detention.”
The author is able to turn a phrase or two himself. Departments of religion that aspire merely to teach about religion in general have failed, he writes, because there is no such thing as religion-in-general. “It is rather like learning Language without learning any particular language.” Many academics, he says, treat religion “like a birthmark we all try to ignore.” Elsewhere he suggests that what is needed is not merely more tolerance between religious and secular viewpoints, but more interpenetration. “If our universities are to become more than professional schools, their rationalism needs to be in dialogue with other ‘traditions of inquiry.’ For the most important matters in life include such matters as hope, depression, trust, purpose, and wisdom. If secularism purges such concerns from the curriculum for lack of a way to address them, the public may conclude that the football team really is the most important part of the university.”
Thoughtful Christians need not agree with everything Sommerville says. For a very different perspective, for example, see D.G. Hart’s The University Gets Religion. And specialists will have their quibbles. Historians will want more footnotes, philosophers more precision, and sociologists more jargon. But again, Sommerville is intentionally resisting the temptation to write only for his colleagues, and the book is better for not having catered to these criteria.
My own quibbles include the following. First, although Sommerville helpfully distinguishes between secularization (“the separation of religion from various aspects of life and of thought”) and secularism (“an ideology that seeks to complete and enforce secularization”), I would have liked to see a comparative distinction between the “soft secularism” of the United States and the “strong secularism” of say France. Second, although Sommerville lays some of the groundwork to argue that the sexual carnival depicted in Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons is a logical extension of secularism, he never connects the dots. Third, Sommerville speaks of “the university” as if it were a personal, moral agent. But just as there is no such thing as religion-in-general, there is no such thing as the university-in-general. Decisions are ultimately made by persons, and it is not entirely clear how administrators who agree with his critique should begin swimming upstream against the current of campus culture. Finally, I fear Sommerville will lose some readers and end up preaching only to the choir for having thrown in the kitchen sink. In commenting that “most students’ last brush with history was a course taught by a coach,” Sommerville fails to avoid the sarcasm that plagues so many critiques of secular liberalism.
That said, anybody who has followed the work of Chesterton House over the years will recognize Sommerville as a kindred spirit. He is singing our song that the marginalization of religion impoverishes campus discourse, and that one key to reinvigorating campus discourse is acknowledging particular traditions of inquiry. This is not a coincidence, as Sommerville himself is an active member of the community of Christian scholars at the Christian Study Center of Gainesville. Noting that the anti-religiosity of universities too often has been answered by anti-intellectualism in churches, he puts in a word for study centers more generally. “Healing might begin in the Christian study centers formed at several universities, where faculty and students sharpen their sense of what religious perspectives have to offer to the stalled debates on their campuses. They might foster the virtues of humility and respect that could be recommended to the university generally.”
If Sommerville is right, and I think he is, then there are not really three distinct views of relating religion to public life after all. The view that there exists some neutral perspective that transcends religiously grounded reasoning is really a variation of the view that one worldview is self-evidently superior to all others and therefore worthy of establishment. It is what Marsden has called established non-belief. “We can’t even discuss the concepts of wealth, justice, sanity, truth, the human, and the humane,” Sommerville writes, “without finding their irreducibly religious dimensions. For all of these involve the question of what human life is all about, of what would be optimal for humanity. Naturalism is silent on these subjects. A century ago it seemed reasonable to restrict the university to questions we could answer definitively, to everyone’s satisfaction. We are now finding that this leaves out too much.”
Put differently, theocracy is not only a religious, but also a secular phenomenon. And what is needed is disestablishment of the secular theocracy in our public universities.
Sommerville’s book has been reviewed in the New York Times and excerpted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. George Marsden calls it “the best case I have seen for why the dogged secularism of many universities is undermining the announced purposes of higher education.” “Particularly in his brief against the mindless drift of secularism and for a thoughtful correction by religious conviction,” writes Mark Noll, “Sommerville offers sage wisdom that all who value the life of the mind should take seriously indeed.” But Robert Wuthnow puts his finger on the real issue: “John Sommerville has written a valuable book that calls universities to task for their narrowness in addressing the big questions of what it means to be human, how to understand history, and what to think about difficult moral issues. He suggests as one possibility that academics reconsider the role of religion. This will strike many as a novel idea. They are the ones who especially need to read this book.” Indeed.
Advice to incoming college students is as plentiful as silly love songs. But here we go again.
The current issue of Comment, a relatively new publication out of Ontario, features a forum entitled “Making the Most of College.” There is lots of advice, including this from philosopher Calvin Seerveld:
- Major in the best profs, who make you think self-critically and who give solid course content in a field-area that you have gifts for or can be busy with, without noticing the passage of time.
- Take a double major, if possible, to promote the ability to do interdisciplinary thinking.
- Get in-depth knowledge of a certain period.
- Read a novel every month or so.
And my favorite . . .
- Find a group of kindred spirits with whom to read books of Christian philosophy together, any kind of communal deeper reflection on current problems, so that you exercise in community how to pin down the idolatries of our day in theory.
“Wouldn’t it be beautiful to see a community of Christian students who take delight in their required texts? What a witness it would be if Christian students were glad to be serious readers fully engaged in the books they are taking up? If Christian students read extra books to supplement their typical reading to acquire a perspective rooted in a Christian worldview, wouldn’t that astonish professors and classmates? In those schools where professors fret about the lack of student attentiveness, this would be an amazing contribution to the campus ethos.”
Although Borger and Seerveld may not be familiar with the workload assigned by Cornell professors (I recall 500 pages per week of reading for a single four-credit class in history), their words are not without wisdom. What they are attempting is something necessary but rare: a vision of college life that rises above a mere means to self-advancement.
Achieving such a vision is no small task. Perhaps the first question for Christian students at secular universities is not What courses should I take? orWhat extracurricular activities should I pursue? but Do I even belong here? Some students, frustrated by the way secularism marginalizes their faith, endure classwork as a necessary evil while maintaining a devotional life disconnected from the rest of life.
Andy Crouch ’89, in a talk originally given at Cornell, offers a different answer. Likening the secular university to Babylon, a place of exile, Crouch writes this:
“[F]or us as for Daniel, there is something else we ought to know as we proceed through the university: this is all happening because of the sovereignty of God. ‘The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [Nebuchadnezzar’s] power.’ For Daniel, and for us, the arrival of people of faith in a foreign land is a necessary historical development that is ultimately for the good of God’s people and God’s purposes in the world. The Babylonian exile is a sign of judgment–Israel, as generations of prophets had warned, had forgotten God and become entangled in the machinations of the world. Yet the exile is also a sign of hope. God’s people are placed in the midst of the religion-assimilating, privilege-seeking, royal-food-serving, power-serving, name-changing kingdoms of the world to bear witness to those kingdoms that they are not the last word. They are placed there because God loves the world, including Babylon, and wants his ways to be known everywhere, not just within a religious enclave.”
Crouch’s article is entitled “What I Wish I Had Known My Freshman Year.”
“I wish I had known,” he concludes, after offering several other answers to the question, “that I belonged here.”