This is Part Two of a two-part blog from a guest blogger, Dr. David Caddell. Click here to begin with Part One.
Evangelical Culture and the Rise of Anti-Intellectualism
The willingness to allow novices in vital positions such as teaching has largely been the result of the anti-intellectual bias which set up household in the church beginning in the 1870’s. The slide toward anti-intellectualism has manifested itself in several ways. First, it has had a detrimental effect on the ability of evangelicals to look clearly and reflectively at the world around us. In fact, it has nearly destroyed the desire of evangelicals to engage in responsible intellectual discussion with the secular world—engaging it on its own terms. This desire appears to have been virtually eradicated among the varied fundamentalist movements within American evangelicalism. All this has evolved to the bewilderment of devout Christian scholars (including Jamie and I) whose commitment to Christian orthodoxy is strong, but find the anti-intellectual modus operandi among conservative evangelicals to be problematic for the health of the church.
This movement is in stark contrast to Paul’s willingness to engage the world on its own terms in the first century, Origen’s engagement with the secular polemics of Celsus in the third century (248 C.E.), and Augustine’s in the fifth century. In fact, Origen wrote eight such books, taking on the pagan philosopher on an intellectually respectable playing field, demonstrating the reasonable nature of faith. In the modern church, many of those who attempt to do this have been relegated to the margins of modern evangelicalism to the point where the most reflective among us keep their mouths closed while being expected to continue writing their tithe checks.
There is some irony in this process. The push toward anti-intellectualism in many churches has been legitimated largely because American universities (secular universities and even many within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) have been branded as “too secular” to be trusted with our young people. The irony lies in the fact that this has only served to perpetuate the secularization of the academy and to make Christian scholars more marginalized. If the academy is off limits to the devout believer, what will become of the academy? What would we expect? The world of academe will continue down the path of secularization if believers are encouraged to abandon the field. Is that what we do? Do we really desire to discourage believers from engaging certain groups of people with the gospel, only to complain later about how secular they are?
All in all, this trend has increased the acrimony between Christianity and the life of the mind and made the conservative evangelical environment less accepting of Christian intellectuals as well. Many academics, including me, have been shouted to the margins of a church culture that rules out reflection, dialogue, and questioning as if they were sure pathways to theological liberalism. Since higher education promotes these habits associated with the life of the mind, to be highly educated is often seen as synonymous with “liberal,” and liberal is viewed as unmitigated evil. The noisy reactions of an anti-intellectual crowd have made it much more difficult to hear the softer, more reasoned voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer , C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinhorne, and Gerd Theissen.
I wonder if even the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, who believed in a great partnership between the Christian faith and the life of the mind, would be welcome in most modern American evangelical congregations.
As a result, when modern evangelicals are in need of their own intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by modernity, secularism, postmodernism, or other faith traditions, as Noll says, they find that “the cupboard is nearly bare.” Why is it so bare? This war on expertise has created a church culture in which everyone with common sense is an expert. Well, in a setting where everyone is a so-called “expert,” the worst thing one can be is a true expert.
Back to the Bible Study Class
The several group members who began our discussion suggested that we should rely on a so called common-sense tack (often deceptively referred to as “plain” or “normal”) sought by many anti-intellectual approaches, which suggest that meaning in the scriptures is always readily apparent without disciplined study. The assumption here is that the Bible is written in common sense language, and anyone with a modicum of common sense will be able to comprehend its meaning. However, this “anyone with common sense should know” approach neglects the reality that our current definition of what is common sensical is a twenty-first century (it really began in the nineteenth century), Western definition. Applying this definition to a first century, Mediterranean text will hardly yield meaning which is self-evident. The confusion caused by this has led, even among churches employing a literalist approach to the scriptures, to studies in which various members sit and discuss what a passage means to them. This often results in a meaning that is chimerical at best, having little relation to the author’s intent.
What Should We Do?
1) The church must reclaim its place in Biblical and theological education. There was a time when solid doctrinal education was available at the local church. Those days are now behind us. At one time, Sunday morning Bible study consisted of expository journeys in the scriptures, while Sunday evenings offered training in topically based doctrinal studies. Those have been abandoned in favor of a de-skilled curriculum. The church has all but abandoned Biblical/theological education to the seminaries.
2) The church must re-evaluate the theological nature of its worship. As a result of our decline in Biblical and theological literacy, our worship has devolved into a ritual where we express our affection for God rather than reasoned consideration of God’s character. Thus, worship has focused on emotional catharsis rather than the dependable work of the one true God. Can this be emotional at times? Absolutely. However, our emotional response to God’s work must not take the focus away from the character of God himself. This more theologically sophisticated worship will not occur again until the church reclaims its intention to think about God in a more disciplined way.
3) The church needs intellectually prepared leaders. In order to accomplish the two previous prescriptions, the church must move toward placing leaders in key positions of teaching and worship who possess the intellectual and spiritual preparation to think about these priorities in more nuanced and mature ways. We will never have a church who thinks clearly about the scriptures until we have teachers who have done the thinking beforehand as well. We will never have more theologically informed worship until we have worship leaders who are more intentional regarding the theology behind the worship they lead.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
- Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
- John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
- Gerd Theissen, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, and Gerd Theissen, A Critical Faith: A Case for Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
- Charles Pierce. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.