Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Evangelicals & Self-Criticism

Brick by Brick:
When it comes to evangelical disenfranchisement from the academy and wider culture, we are frequently our own worst enemies.

Please, don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t mean to suggest that there is not anti-religious and naturalistic bias in much of academia.  I am well aware that Christianity’s exclusive claims are unwelcome in our would-be pluralistic universities and are not tolerated in our would-be tolerant society.  But I have come to the conclusion that there are a number of Evangelical intellectual habits and material positions that are serious liabilities for us as we try to faithfully engage the academy and the wider culture:
  1. Academia progresses by a process of critical peer review.  Academics are used to the fact that we learn more about the world by refining our analyses, revising our conclusions in the light of new data, tightening up our logic, moving on from discredited ideas, and so on, and the fact that this learning process is propelled by academics’ scrutinizing and criticizing each others’ work, showing where their survey samples were too small to support their conclusions, where they had conveniently ignored problematic data, where they had committed non sequiturs and so on.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how things get done.  Evangelicals have more or less opted out of this process in order to protect some of our more intellectually vulnerable (i.e., dubious) stances from serious criticism.  That’s not to say that Evangelicals do not “engage” with the questions and issues raised in academic settings.  But we tend to “engage” only when we can do so on our own terms, publishing almost exclusively in our own sectarian publishing houses and journals for a generally sympathetic and/or uninformed readership who either won’t or can’t argue with our conclusions.  Such “academic engagement” tends to be highly selective about what data and questions it deals with (which is a bit disingenuous), and thus amounts to little more than shadow-boxing with straw-men.  So long as we Evangelicals absolve ourselves from serious (self-)critical engagement, we neither deserve a seat at the academic table, nor should we expect to be offered one.  But we can do better than that.
  2. When we Evangelicals are criticized, we have a tendency to prematurely assume a defensive posture, circling the wagons and sounding the “the gospel’s at stake” alarm.  And this goes for criticism coming from within the Evangelical community as much as (if not more than) for criticism from without.  When someone from within our ranks raises questions–however commonsensical or data-driven they might be–our tendency is to automatically make such people out to be outsiders, questioning their Evangelical credentials (as though Evangelicalism had a credentialing office) and painting them as traitors or apostates or worse.  (e.g., Read this, this, this, this, this, thisthis…).  This sort of knee-jerk reactionary mode of response serves only to shut down important in-house conversations and to disengage our community from, well, reality.   To say the least, this is not a productive pattern of behavior.  But we can do better than that.
  3. The “scandal of the Evangelical mind” persists.  Most of the intellectual maladies diagnosed by Mark Noll in his landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind have not really been addressed by the wider evangelical community.  Our quirky, a-historical, literalistic biblicism, our paranoia about science, and our shallowly partisan political reflection are all intellectual paradigms long overdue for nuance, revision, critique, and even replacement.  The brighter lights within Evangelical academia have moved past these paradigms, but their thinking tends not to get much press and does not really filter down to the people in the pews (not least because of point 2 above).  But we can do better than that.
  4. Evangelicals generally lack credibility within the wider academic world because the evangelicals who speak loudest are generally those who are guiltiest of problems 1, 2 & 3 and they generally go unopposed by others within the Evangelical community.  I don’t know of any other way to counteract this problem than by speaking up and encouraging others to do likewise.  Otherwise people in the academy and in the wider culture will be justified in assuming that the Ken Hams, Al Mohlers, and Jerry Falwells of the world speak for all of us on every point.  We need Evangelicals to regularly say to each other and before the wider world, “No, those people do not speak for me.  I think they’re wrong, and I am a Christian too.  I think we can do better than that.”
There are lots of reasons why we increasingly find ourselves on the margins of our society and the academy.  Scientistic reductionism, methodological naturalism, secularism, creative antirealism, and a host of other cultural and intellectual forces have combined to create a general atmosphere of bias against traditional Christianity.  But I believe that the hard truth is that by acquiescing in the bad habits enumerated above, we have become our own worst enemies, undercutting our ability to credibly counteract the corrosive cultural and intellectual trends of our time.  Until we develop a capacity to engage in and receive constructive (self-) criticism (particularly from within our community), the Evangelical community will have little right to claim a seat at the academic table or to expect much of a hearing in the public square.  If we fail to do this, I fear we will fail the next generation worse than have we failed the last.
This strikes me as overly pessimistic. But, something to think about.

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