Evangelicals and critical engagement

An article in the Guardian has been doing the rounds on Twitter. In it, the ‘anonymous academic‘ complains that evangelicals studying theology are resisting proper academic scrutiny and flattening out discussion about important issues.

Evangelical students cannot tolerate diversity of opinion and resist secular critiques of their views. My job is no longer the joy it once was.

Adam and EveThis isn’t a static observation, but one about change over the last few years. Although the headine suggests otherwise, the key problem that the writer identifies is the consumerisation of education, and the measurement of academic courses by student feedback. If lecturers undermine student convictions, then they will get poor feedback, and this will have consequences. And this then prevents important questions from being asked within an academic context.

Academic rigour, research-inspired teaching and independent, critical thinking are the hallmarks of today’s university culture. And yet many of us have found ourselves diluting or softening the topics of our modules, and the intellectual and critical content of our lectures, for fear of poor student feedback (which is carefully monitored by the university).

But there is of course another side of this. Why should evangelicals who study theology, paying good money like everyone else, put up with criticism and undermining of their perspective by someone who is, both organisationally, intellectually and socially exercising a position of power over them in the classroom?

In terms of the recent history of theological study, this represents something of a turning of the tables. Under the previous paradigm of education, an Enlightenment paradigm where a Kantian view of truth led to a remorselessly positivist approach to history, sceptisicm ruled, and any position of commitment in relation to faith was simply not admitted as having any legitimacy in the class room. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, many of the theology lecturers appeared to have an undisguised glee in disabusing Christian, and particularly evangelical, undergraduates of their naive and foolish convictions that the biblical texts were anything other than mythical. It was routine for undergraduates to start as Christians, and leave with faith shredded.

Now the epistemic boot is on the other ideological foot. Many Christians, especially those from a more conservative evangelical background, will still be working with a positivist, foundationalist approach to questions of truth.

Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text.

But in fact the environment is postmodern, in which any one view is as good as any other, and there is a market-place in which conflicting perspectives compete with one another. In this context, by what authority can the lecturer assert his or her view over against evangelical conviction?

And there is a wider context for this. Many feel that, in the popular media, it is open season for criticism of Christian and evangelical viewpoints—and I don’t think this is much of an exaggeration. I can hardly count a day go by when there isn’t an acerbic dig at traditional Christian belief on radio or television. Many of the most popular presenters in the media are atheist or in some other way antagonist to Christians—and they make no attempt to hide this. In such a context, who can blame evangelical undergraduates for pushing back when they have the chance? I am not saying this is right, or that I am proud of it, but it is hardly surprising. Christians in a post-Christendom context are going to have to learn to toughen up a little, come out from behind the protection of respectability and establishment, and stand up for themselves.

But there is an underlying question: is evangelical commitment inherently resistant to academic critique?

Any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity. It is a belief system that is uncomfortable with the academic study of religion, and which will often explicitly resist it.

I think this is an open question. In terms of global scholarship, the answer is clearly a resounding ‘no’. At just about every level of academic engagement, evangelical scholars are at the leading edge of discussion in almost every field within biblical studies. I am not sure there has been any more exciting time to be an evangelical in academic biblical studies since the Reformation. If the ‘anonymous academic’ is not aware of this, then he or she is either wilfully ignorant, being unfair, or needs to get out more.

However, in the local church I think the picture is much more mixed. Fundamentalist perspectives, mostly from the US, are making themselves felt, particularly in areas like evolution and creation, sexuality, and biblical interpretation. There is a key task to be done in connecting churches with the best in evangelical scholarship, and giving them the confidence within the marketplace of opinion that their convictions can stand up to scrutiny.

This won’t make undergraduates from such churches any less confident—but perhaps it might make them a little more gracious.

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15 thoughts on “Evangelicals and critical engagement”

  1. This just goes to illustrate the dark side of po-mo (and it’s an illusion: no-one who trusts their life to the fruits of scientific medicine actually believes that all claims are equal). Post modernism is great at deconstruction, but reconstruction is just as important.

    Academia and revelation claims are incompatible. Academia looks for the truth and tries to follow where it leads, evangelical Christianity thinks truth has been revealed. Evangelicals who want lessons ring-fenced by dogma should set up their own institutions, as many do in the US.

  2. I remember a well-respected lecturer at Oxford, while discussing models of the atonement, dismissing penal substitution in a single sentence because “it is a combination the sacrificial and law court metaphors and therefore obvious nonsense”.

    This casual and disdainful dismissal struck me then, and now, as uncritical and intellectually complacent. As an evangelical student, yours truly would have welcomed actual critical engagement. Wycliffe Hall encouraged us to learn without fear (but be alert to presuppositions).

    It could be our anonymous academic doesn’t occupy the intellectual high ground as comfortably as he thinks he does.

  3. I don’t know. When I taught that salvation by faith alone could not be read into patristic literature (not even alleging it to be false, merely a later medieval development), I was once quickly denounced to the bishop. As for why evangelicals who pay good money to study theology should put up with criticism and undermining of their perspective by someone who is exercising a position of power over them in the classroom? To learn? You can only learn from someone more experienced than you. If you choose to see that as a ‘position of power,’ I’m not sure what can be done.

  4. James, I would 100% agree with the first half of your statement. But complete intellectual incoherence does not appear to bother people at the moment!

    I think your second comment is 100% mistaken; the two are perfectly compatible, and in fact the rationality of science is dependent on an assumption of rationality of the universe, which is only known by revelation. That is why many pioneers of scientific method were Christian or inhabited a Christian world-view.

    The compatibility of the two is also demonstrated by NOT having separate evangelical institutions. In the UK they are all happily validated by mainstream universities. You should visit some time. See this http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/should-theological-training-be-validated/

  5. Lorenzo, ‘If you choose to see that as a ‘position of power,’ I’m not sure what can be done.’ If course it is a position of power, which is why faculty need to avoid relations with students. The question is: how is the power used?

  6. Yes, students have to be prepared to learn from teachers. On the other hand, teachers are in a position of trust. I have certainly heard liberal teachers paint traditional Christian doctrine in a very distorted way, and indeed make claims for what ‘all mainstream scholarship believes’ which are in fact very open to challenge (latest example yesterday in Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus’: apparently all mainstream scholarship sees no historical truth (of the fact kind) in the wedding at Cana story. There is also a tendency on the part of some liberal lecturers to conflate anything other than agnostic secular liberalism with fundamentalism.

    As a lecturer, I have accordingly become less shy about being quite vigorously Christian in my lecturing. The way to teach theology is to do it, so that people can overhear and butt in and converse. Yes, the risk is that agnostic secular liberals can feel a little vulnerable in the classroom – but if (a) I handle this well, and (b) they accept that hearing diverse and uncomfortable views is what university is about – all is well. I think the converse applies, exactly, when my Christian students are in a colleague’s classroom who will come from a secular/liberal/agnostic/atheistic perspective.

    It helps if you’re in a faculty where staff are all coming from different points of view anyway – where there can be no doubt that it is academically permissible and credible to hold different views because the lecturing team does. We need to do everything to cultivate that intellectual big tent. My worry about this academic’s article is that whilst he is certainly right to point out how these students’ actions undermine that, I’d like to see an equal acknowledgement of how (as Ian notes) there has been in many faculties a tendency to uncritically denigrate traditional doctrine – sometimes in remarkably unacademic, crude and childish ways. It’s still hard being a Christian (and most of all being a Roman Catholic) in the classroom – much harder, in most universities, than being a good Guardian reading liberal.

  7. If it isn’t a spoof, by eliminating those RG universities with no religion department (Imperial, York, Liverpool, QMUL, UCL, LSE, Warwick, Newcastle, Soton), and those where this wouldn’t happen or where the curriculum does not match the description in the article, we’re looking for a male academic of some years experience who is an atheist and applies postmodern perspectives to the Bible, at only a handful of universities. Any guesses?

  8. Thanks for the reply, Ian Paul.

    I’m happy to rephrase it as “academia can’t defer to revelation claims.”

    As for science being dependent on a rational universe, why? Science is a human creation, and its method works. That’s all scientists need to know. Save justifications for the philosophers.

  9. Well, I am a philosopher, so I’ll stick with that. I’ll have a think about a book on the history of science for you to read so you can see the inter-relation.

    Peter: ‘As a lecturer, I have accordingly become less shy about being quite vigorously Christian in my lecturing. The way to teach theology is to do it, so that people can overhear and butt in and converse. Yes, the risk is that agnostic secular liberals can feel a little vulnerable in the classroom – but if (a) I handle this well, and (b) they accept that hearing diverse and uncomfortable views is what university is about – all is well. ‘ Nicely put.

  10. Ian, I’ve not disputed that science has been tied up with religion. I wasn’t advocating the conflict thesis, but saying that you don’t need a meaningful universe to do science.

    The conflict isn’t between religion and science (and academia in general), but between dogma and evidence. You asked why evangelicals should “put up with criticism and undermining of their perspective” from someone in power. Academia exists to test and challenge assumptions. If theology can’t proceed in that way, it’s not an academic discipline, and should go elsewhere. If every assumption can be criticized, what’s the problem?

  11. There are some things here worth noting.

    1) What is meant by ‘postmodern approaches’? Approaches carried out over the past (say) 40 years, i.e. roughly in the period labelled postmodernity which would include all our approaches? Or, deconstruction, as I seem to think is being assumed in parts of the discussion here. I think there may be different uses of the term ‘postmodern’ at work in both the Guardian article and the discussion here.

    2) One solution might be not to say ‘all truths are equal’ (honest question: is this actually a common belief in the field or in the classroom?) but to talk about all questions being allowed and up for debate, no matter how crazy or appealing staff or students find them? And assessment will be on the grounds of quality of argument, use of sources, engagement with scholarship…? I have found that there’s little problem in the classroom if people feel their ideas can be aired and that they can engage and criticise the views of others, including lecturers.

    3) Another solution might be (I’m just putting this out there…) not to say this or that view of atonement is stupid but to explain why people thought x, y and z, no matter how crazy or appealing we find a given view.

    4) There are interesting assumptions of ‘he’ and ‘male’ despite the person being anonymous. I don’t know who it is (like others I have my guesses) but I at least think some of those presuppositions need checking here!


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