Thursday, February 3, 2011

Christianity's Impact in the University

One of the most amazing things has taken place over the last forty to fifty years is the emergence of a Christian presence in Academia as a whole, and in the discipline of philosophy in particular. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantiga, Eleanor Stump, Dallas Willard, and Bob and Marylyn Adams, to name of few, are making major contributions to the discipline of philosophy. They are publishing in first rate journals receiving glowing accolades from their peers. As a matter of fact, Alvin Plantiga, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame led this charge over 40 years ago and his work continues to bear lasting fruit as others assume his mantel. His work is so important because prior to Plantiga, the university was owned by naturalistic thinking. In an article published in 2001 in the journal Philo, an article entitled the Metaphilosphy of Naturalism, Quentin Smith bemoans this fact stating,

By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had …
become in the main secularized. The standard (if not exceptionless) position
in each field, from physics to psychology, assumed or involved arguments for a
naturalist world-view; departments of theology or religion aimed to understand
the meaning and origins of religious writings, not to develop arguments against
naturalism. Analytic philosophers (in the mainstream of analytic philosophy)
treated theism as an antirealist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the
reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions or certain “forms of
life” (of course there were a few exceptions, e.g., Ewing, Ross, Hartshorne,
etc., but I am discussing the mainstream view).

Yet, as Smith points out, we may be witnessing the “de-secularization of academia.” If the naturalistic epistemology begins to be questioned and properly scrutinized in the university, we well may see a changing of the guard. Being a theist and a scholar could be back in vogue. Of course Smith bewails this fact blaming it on naturalist passivity and not an inadequacy of the naturalistic argument. He states, “Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians.” Even a greater scare to Smith’s naturalism is what might happen if a naturalistic epistemology is replaced through philosophy, and then this could trickle down to other disciplines as well.

There are other inroads being made at the university level regarding a Christian voice. At Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (CURA), a group of scholars led by the famed sociologist Peter Burger, undertook a two-year research project on evangelical intellectuals, with a primary focus on the secular academy. According to the study’s coordinators,

American Evangelical Protestants, both in popular American media and even in their own minds, are often reputed for anything and everything but intellectualism. However, this perception fails to account for the development of an increasingly sophisticated, self-assured, and productive class of intellectuals – an emerging “evangelical intelligentsia.” These evangelicals, engaged in intellectual pursuits in a way that is motivated by and informed by their faith, are exercising a growing influence on American academics, culture, law, and public policy.

This anti-theism fostered by naturalistic philosophy was brought about by years of Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinkers wanted to shed themselves of the vestiges that retarded society’s progress such as religion and the monarchy. In doing so they introduced secularization, which, in their thinking, would liberate mankind from such aforementioned tyranny. As this movement really began to get a foothold on American culture, the church reacted by countering secularization with religious fundamentalism. What we know to be the fundamentalist/modernist controversy segued into a full-fledged fundamentalist movement. The theological elements of the fundamentalist movement were needed, but it was their retreat from secular culture that created the cultural chasm. Such Christian cowardliness has had a devastating effect on the cause of Christ. Os Guiness accurately points out that the result of such a retreat has created a situation where “the American people are as religious as the people of India-the most religious country in the world-but that American leadership is often as secular as Sweden, the most secular country in the world.” This fact needs to be changed since it is the leaders, academic and otherwise, who become the decision-makers of society, and in turn do much to shape its views, not to mention create a cultural milieu that shapes cultural.

I felt the brunt of this fundamentalist angst when I began to teach religion at a secular university. Friends and colleagues were actually questioning my Christian commitment by undertaking such a venture. My response to such thinking is to let the isolationist mentality created by American fundamentalism die and replace in its stead, a missional strategy that actually employs biblical evangelism. The anti-intellectualism created by the fundamentalist movement must be replaced by a movement of Evangelical intellectuals who will perform first-rate scholarship and make a real difference as society’s leaders and thinkers working missionally in aspects of life and work for the cause of Christ.

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