Exercising a Christian Intellect

by Glenn Tinder

Glenn Tinder is professor of political science emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 626-629. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org target=”_top”>. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


In his review of George M. Marsden’s book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Tinder agrees with Marsden’s argument that Christian scholars should stop being merely Christian in private and endeavor to break down the antireligious bias in our predominantly secular college and university facilities. However, Tinder suggests the Christian claim of revelation will render this change unlikely in the arena of scholarly discourse with its insistence on rational objectivity.

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarshipby George M. Marsden. Oxford University Press, 142 pp., $22.00.

"It is time to face the fact, long suppressed in the highest intellectual circles, that a religiously diverse culture will be an intellectually richer culture. It is time to recognize that scholars and institutions who take the intellectual dimensions of their faith seriously can be responsible and creative participants in the highest levels of academic discourse." With this statement, George Marsden pretty well sums up his main argument: Christian scholars should cease being Christian merely in private, as though their faith were no more than a hobby, unrelated to their scholarly pursuits. They should integrate faith and intellect, thus becoming whole in their minds. Rather than being scholars who just happen to be Christians, they should be Christian scholars. And the academic community should accept them as such, just as it accepts scholars committed to secular ideologies such as feminism or Marxism. Marsden aims, above all, at breaking down the antireligious bias he sees in present-day universities and colleges.

Marsden's argument involves three claims. The first concerns the reigning ethos in 20th-century American universities, an ethos which Marsden calls "a virtual establishment of nonbelief." Scholars who are Christians are trained by the dominant academic culture to keep quiet about their faith as the price of full acceptance in the academic community. As a consequence, "something very much like 'secular humanism' is informally established as much as Christianity was in the 19th century." Marsden would readily grant that there are exceptions, such as Calvin College, where he once taught, or the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches now. But these only prove the rule, which is a surprisingly inflexible and widely prevalent insistence that faith and learning be kept apart.

Marsden's second claim is that this rule is unfair. Universities often make a considerable show of "celebrating diversity," but Christians are not welcome to stand under the diversity umbrella. Feminists, Freudians, Nietzscheans, Heideggerians and many others are admitted to the scholarly community without question, but not Christians. All that can reasonably be demanded of Christians is that they obey the established rules of scholarly discourse, and Christians are perfectly willing to do this. Although their Christian orientation is based on faith, their conduct of intellectual disputation can be and normally is as rational as that of any other scholars.

Marsden notes how ironic it is that Christians are rigorously judged against the standard of rational objectivity at a time when the very possibility of rational objectivity -- as an inheritance of the Enlightenment -- is under widespread attack.

Marsden's final and perhaps most important claim is that the world of scholarship, far from being somehow threatened or impoverished by the presence of Christians in its midst, would be enriched. Faith makes a difference to whatever scholarship it inspires and sustains, although the difference in no way compromises intellectual integrity, as the secularists who govern our universities seem to fear. The Christian faith may, for example, alert scholars to subjects worthy of investigation; thus (my example, not Marsden's) a great deal of empirical research into the influence of religious beliefs on political behavior is being conducted by Christian political scientists. In many cases these scholars can understand the beliefs they are investigating better than those who have never, so to speak, been inside them. Further, religious faith may prompt a scholar to ask questions that another scholar might neglect -- concerning nuclear war, for example, or medical ethics.

In addition to orienting scholarly research in directions that might otherwise be ignored, Christian faith may provide useful hypotheses. For example, Christianity presupposes a more pessimistic view of human nature than is held by many people. This view may provide a useful framework for investigating areas of human behavior, such as politics, in which typical behavior is worse than behavior anticipated by more optimistic views. One of the most helpful hypotheses set forth in our time (again, my example) is Reinhold Niebuhr's concept of "original sin."

If Christian or other religious commitments make differences of this kind in the conduct of scholarly inquiry, the scholarly community makes itself poorer by its ban on religious expression. Marsden's plea to secular scholars is not simply "Be fair!" but also "Consider your own best interests!" These interests dictate that scholars listen to every reasonable voice and rule out no argument unheard.

Marsden's position is well founded. I wonder whether there is a single Christian in American academic life today who would deny "the virtual establishment of non-belief." While there are openly professed Christians in American universities (a few of them well-known scholars and in prestigious universities), professing one's Christian faith in an academic setting is not an easy undertaking. Recently I found myself advising a Christian graduate student in a renowned university who was facing interviews for faculty positions not to go out of his way to make his Christian faith known. A Christian acquaintance on that university's faculty fully concurred.

What about Marsden's claim that this antireligious bias is unfair to Christians and impoverishing to academic life? On the issue of fairness, unbelievers would probably be more reluctant than believers to agree with Marsden. Still, if I interpret him accurately, he gives little cause for disagreement. In no way does he question the validity of the established rules of scholarly discourse. We must address one another on the basis of reason. Christians have no business asserting that something is true because God says that it is. They must support whatever positions they take with evidence and reasons that non-Christians can rationally weigh. It is hard to see what nonbelievers have to fear: they are not asked to compromise their scholarly integrity in any way but only to extend to Christians the courtesies that, in this era of exultant diversity, they extend to every sort of secular persuasion.

Can the scholarly realm be enriched by the presence of Christians? No doubt many nonbelievers will remain unconvinced, but Marsden's response to their doubts might be phrased as a question: What harm can come from giving religious scholars a hearing? Or, recalling John Stuart Mill, Marsden might ask: On what rational grounds can you reject arguments you have never heard? One suspects that some of the difficulty in winning non-Christian academicians over to a viewpoint like Marsden's derives from the fact that they are not well acquainted with Christian writings. They are often unfamiliar with the works of even the greatest Christian writers such as Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. They do not realize the high order of rationality and learning that is displayed in such works.

A theologian in their eyes is somewhat like a dragon -- strange and alarming--and they shrink from the prospect of facing such a creature in scholarly debate. But their doubts have little to do with the real nature of the Christian intellect or with the intrinsic merits of the viewpoint Marsden is arguing.

Marsden's manner is persuasive. He is unfailingly civil with his readers; sarcasm does not seem to be in his intellectual arsenal. And in fashioning his polemic, his style is one of studied moderation. But this moderation and civility may have led him to be less bold than is warranted by the strength of his case.

Why, for example, should Christian scholars want to join secular scholars in a single community of inquiry? What can they learn from secular scholars? Why shouldn't they heed Paul when he urges Christians to separate themselves from the company of unbelievers and to stand apart? Marsden tends to say only that Christian participation in the world of secular scholarship is a matter of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. In everyday life, believers and nonbelievers alike "routinely move from one field of activity to another, each with its own set of rules." Such adaptability is "fully consistent with Christian commitment."

Something stronger might well be said. If Marsden does not say it, or says it only very faintly, it may be because of his moderate and civil spirit, not because of his convictions. Christianity is concerned with the truth above all else, and truth for Christians is not an esoteric doctrine, as it was with the Gnostics, but is the Logos pervading the universe. In entering the realms of rational inquiry, Christians are not in alien country. However uneasy secular scholars may be in the presence of Christian scholars, Christian scholars can be quite comfortable in the presence of secular scholars. To whatever degree they possess authentic truth, secular scholars are on common ground with Christians. Christians can in good conscience listen to them and learn from them. I wish that Marsden has pressed his argument in this direction.

He might have pressed it in another direction as well. Marsden's exhortation to his secular colleagues is minimal: be fair, don't discriminate unreasonably against professed Christians; be reasonable, recognize that you can learn from Christian scholars. Sometimes he seems to say even less -- that Christian scholars, once admitted into the arena of the secular intellect, will prove to be harmless. Some of his most interesting arguments, however, suggest that secular universities are far more dependent on Christian insights than he wants to say explicitly. He notes that many professors have "deep moral and political convictions" but are unable to defend them because they are captives of moral relativism. With their belief in a divinely grounded, hence absolute, moral law, Christians are in a good position to help them.

A similar situation exists in the field of epistemology. "Human perceptions," Marsden writes, "are notoriously limited and, with God excluded from consideration, it is difficult to find a point of reference for establishing any certainty in what we claim to know." Hence, with the spread of postmodern relativism, secular scholars today are "up a creek without an epistemic paddle." Christian scholars have a paddle they could lend to secular scholars; they have transcendental resources for resisting deconstruction and other such corrosive forces. Finally, in the godless universe of secular academics, "humans loom as the ultimate creators of reality. The self, or perhaps the community or the nation, is inflated and absolutized." Christian scholars can help bring a sense of proportion into intellectual debate; they can remind us from time to time that we are human and not divine -- a reminder scholars need perhaps more than some other groups.

Marsden is not clear about how these services can be performed without making a direct appeal to revelation -- which, of course, the rules of scholarly discourse preclude. The key point, however, is that if the secularized academic community cannot on its own terms sustain moral standards, gain epistemological assurance or avoid the virtual deification of the human, then far more than fairness and open-mindedness is at stake in its relationship with Christians. The viability of the scholarly community is at stake.

This may seem an extreme way of speaking, but the plight of the secular university invites such speech. A research community that has no moral standards for directing its investigations or judging the results, that has no way of knowing whether it really knows anything at all, and that saddles human beings with expectations and demands that they (being human and not divine) are constitutionally incapable of fulfilling is in desperate circumstances. Marsden is aware that his analysis hovers on the edge of such conclusions. This is shown by the very first sentence of the book: "Contemporary university culture," he declares, "is hollow at its core." However, it's as if, having said that, he clapped his hand over his mouth and resolved to be more discreet. Never again does he speak so plainly, even though he provides himself with ample grounds for doing so.

Finally, it is arguable that Marsden makes too little of the chasm dividing Christian and secular scholars. He writes as though most nonreligious scholars will recognize the common sense informing his argument and will accordingly revise their attitudes toward Christian scholarship. Having suggested that Christians are more realistic in their assessments of human nature than are their secular colleagues, Marsden is not very realistic in his assessment of his secular colleagues. He ignores the fact that one of the prime motives behind secular hostility to religion is pride. Even Christian scholars may be reluctant to admit how clouded and unsure the human mind is, and how dependent on revelation. How much more so non-Christian scholars! To have been explicit on this point would of course have necessitated speaking of sin -- a delicate if not impossible task in this context. It would, however, have brought to light conditions to which Marsden gives insufficient attention. In view of the intractability of sin (maintaining its hold, presumably, on both sides of the chasm), relationships between Christian and non-Christian scholars are unlikely ever to be free of serious tensions.

These tensions can easily be seen if we note how unavoidable it will be for Christian scholars to appeal, at least occasionally and tacitly, to revelation. Can a Christian scholar affirm absolute morality without in some way introducing the proposition that the moral law is revealed and underwritten by God? This is doubtful. Even the concept of natural law, which probably lends itself to rational definition and defense more readily than any other theological version of morality, makes little sense without God as its ultimate premise. And can a Christian scholar offer any sort of "epistemic paddle," that is, any assurance that human knowledge can attain absolute truth, without at least implying that such knowledge must be checked and completed by revelation? Again, that is doubtful. But to fall back on the authority of revelation is sure to cause offense.

The propriety of appealing to revelation in public debate is a complex issue. On the one hand, it seemingly does no harm as long as all participants are free to follow reason and conscience. Moreover, what one person affirms on the basis of revelation, another person may accept on the basis of reason or of personal intuition; such an exchange is particularly easy to imagine in the area of moral inquiry. On the other hand, if the ultimate criterion in scholarly disputation is reason, then publicly claiming prior authority for revelation is a breach of ethics and is rightly reprehended by secular scholars.

In any case, Marsden too casually assumes that Christians can always make a rational case for beliefs they regard as revealed. To begin with, it is doubtful that revelation can, even in principle, always be supported by reason. And even if it could, it is doubtful that in the heat of scholarly disputation it always would be. When Christians and non-Christians take part together in intellectual inquiry, revelation is almost bound to be there, just under the surface, as a potential source of trouble.

Marsden characterizes his outlook as Augustinian. Just as Christians should fill a responsible role in earthly affairs even though they are citizens in a transcendental community, the City of God, so they should be "full-fledged participants in the secular academic institutions of the day, yet be free of illusions about those institutions." But the truth may be more radically Augustinian than Marsden grants. For Augustine, given the tenacity of human wickedness, no earthly city can be expected to realize the form and spirit of the City of God. In like fashion, we probably should not expect the realm of scholarly discourse closely to resemble the kind of truth-seeking dialogue imagined by great religious thinkers such as Martin Buber, and by great secular thinkers such as John Stuart Mill.

Even so, as Augustine would advise, while living on earth we should direct our eyes sometimes toward heaven. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship is a heavenward glance. The scholarly community, secular and Christian alike, cannot but be the better for it.