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Carl Trueman and the Evangelical Mind

Carl Trueman and the Evangelical Mind

October 15, 2021

Carl Trueman is one of the most interesting Christian thinkers of our time. A professor at Grove City College, and author of books including the extraordinary The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Trueman has proposed a third way for traditionalist Christians between the current American extremes of woke accommodationism and crass Trumpism. I might call that third way "faithful realism": we should be rigorously orthodox in our theological and cultural commitments, and while we should be civil in doing so, we should hardly expect the watching secular world to applaud us for those orthodox commitments.

Trueman explains his third way in a longform piece at First Things, titled "The Failure of Evangelical Elites," a thought-provoking article which I commend to your attention. There is a lot to discuss in the piece, but here I focus on the parts most relevant to me: his discussion of the work and legacy of historians Mark Noll and George Marsden (my doctoral adviser at Notre Dame).

In the mid-1990s, a sustained effort was made to rehabilitate and defend the intellectual and academic integrity of orthodox Christians. The leaders of this movement, the historians Mark Noll and George Marsden, made valiant cases for the Christian mind. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll argued that American evangelicalism was hamstrung by its commitment to indefensible positions that lacked intellectual credibility. It consequently attracted the scorn of educated people outside the Church. Worse still, the lack of intellectual standards made life hard for thoughtful individuals within the Church. Noll focused on dispensationalism and literal six-day creation, arguing that these commitments were not defensible by the canons of reason, nor were they necessary for a rigorously orthodox Christian faith.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was a bestseller and named Book of the Year by Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine whose purpose was, in part, to articulate a Christianity that avoided the excesses of fundamentalism while defending orthodox Christianity. Shortly afterward, Marsden argued for what he dubbed "the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship" in a monograph of the same name. The historical portion of his case was based on research he had earlier published on the Christian origins of many of America's most significant institutions of higher education. Marsden concluded that Christianity's cultured despisers were simply wrong when they claimed that faith set a person at odds with the life of the mind. In the constructive portion of his case, Marsden argued that Christian scholars could cultivate careful respect for the canons of academic discourse and thoughtful, honest engagement with other academics within the guild without compromising their faith.

Unlike Schleiermacher, Noll and Marsden are careful to sustain full-blooded affirmations of orthodox Christian faith. And unlike ­Schleiermacher's, I find their arguments convincing. There is nothing about belief in the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ that undermines intellectual rigor or compromises academic standards--­unless, of course, those standards are deemed above criticism from the get-go. But there can be no doubt that the extraordinarily positive reception of Noll's and Marsden's ideas came about because university-­educated Evangelicals in the 1990s were anxious to be reassured. The universities they attended increasingly told them that their faith was disqualifying. Noll and ­Marsden argued otherwise, showing that a person of faith who ­engaged in self-criticism and discarded ­untenable beliefs could participate fully in modern ­intellectual life.

Though Marsden and Noll made their ­cases less than thirty years ago, I am struck by the fact that their arguments belong to an age that is long past. The idea that a commitment to honesty and integrity in scholarship might gain a person membership in today's universities and other leading institutions was, in retrospect, ­naïve. Higher education today is largely the land of the woke. One might be a brilliant biochemist or have a profound knowledge of Minoan civilization, but any ­deviation from cultural orthodoxy on race, sexuality, or even pronouns will prove more significant in hiring and tenure processes than considerations such as scholarly competence and careful research.

Trueman notes that when he teaches Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship at Grove City, students find Marsden appealing but somewhat unrealistic, given the current intolerant mood of elite academia and corporate culture.

I definitely think that Trueman is on to something, and I do find that Noll and Marsden's arguments sound increasingly like something out of a past generation. I would add that their histories of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, which to me are still the gold standard for incisiveness and historical method, also (tragically) seem a bit outdated now. Their works were critical but empathetic toward evangelicals. The most popular histories of evangelicalism in the past decade have instead been written in an activist, anti-evangelical mode. Loathing has often replaced empathy in the study of American evangelicals, even among some Christian historians.

Marsden is also critical of the modern academy, however, in ways that Trueman doesn't quite explain (it's already a long piece!). In Outrageous Idea and in The Soul of the American University, Marsden held the modern secular academy accountable to its own stated commitment to postmodernism and diversity. If we are all admittedly coming from a cultural perspective, he argued, and if a more vibrant academy includes a range of diverse perspectives and experiences, then why exclude outspoken Christians from the academy? Why shouldn't Christians (or people of other traditional faiths, such as Jews) have a "seat at the table"? Marsden already realized in the 1990s that academic "diversity" is usually not diverse ideologically.

For a brief moment in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that Marsden's call for ideological consistency might have a chance of making room for more Christian perspectives in elite academia. He himself won the Bancroft Prize in American History from Columbia University, arguably the most prestigious award for an academic historian of America, for his critical yet admiring biography of Jonathan Edwards. I cannot imagine a Christian historian winning such a prize for such a book today.

Moreover, the early 2000s saw the beginning of Baylor's "2012 vision," in which Baylor set out to become a research university while maintaining a clear commitment to Christian orthodoxy, at least of a very broad kind. The fate of that vision is another topic for another time, but successive leadership changes since the mid-2000s, and Baylor's horrific football sexual assault scandal, certainly have not helped Baylor to maintain institutional focus or entire credibility, especially on the clarity of its Christian commitments.

Trueman suggests that elite recognition in academia requires theological and ethical compromise, a claim which one could back up with examples across fields in biblical studies, ethics, psychology, social work, and more. Yet I am still not convinced that the position of traditionalist Christians vis a vis elite academia is quite so black-and-white as Trueman suggests. (One might expect me to have some doubts, as a Marsden disciple.) After all, Trueman himself teaches at an outstanding Christian college that scores well by the usual secular academic metrics, and he has published with elite academic outlets including Oxford University Press. His undeniable credibility as a Christian scholar is bolstered by those facts.

For most believers in academia, there is no necessary reason why one's convictions about theological or cultural issues should, by definition, keep you from being able to get an academic teaching position. (The awful job market might be a far more difficult problem.) Even more so, scholars like Trueman, me, Noll, Marsden, and others have found university presses willing to publish our work in religious history, because our work meets normal academic standards one must meet to get published there. I have certainly encountered subtle or overt forms of anti-Christian bigotry from prospective employers and from anonymous readers at presses and journals, but I don't believe that in all fields or endeavors, one's faith per se will block you from academic success.

The problem comes, as Trueman notes, when you express views that dominant secular academia regards as abhorrent. This is hardly restricted to traditionalist Christians. The University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot recently had an invited MIT lecture cancelled because of dismay over his criticism of the current academic rule of "diversity, equity, and inclusion." Because of tenure, such cases rarely result in termination, but universities can still make life difficult for those who stray from the mainstream ideology.

Early career, pre-tenured scholars may find that they do not need (or want) to speak out on issues that run against the dominant ideology. It becomes more difficult, of course, when your research is directly related to a controversial topic. University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus (a Catholic) fell under a massive campaign of harassment, shaming, and investigation for daring to publish research in 2012 that raised questions about the flourishing of children raised by same-sex parents. But he already had tenure and thus survived the storm.

There are many fields and topics where one's faith or personal beliefs need not precipitate a culture war fracas, however, such as Trueman's 1994 book Luther's Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525-1556, with Oxford University Press. One could cite many such examples of Christians who write on religious history from various confessional perspectives and find outlets with top secular presses such as Oxford or Yale (with which Marsden published his Edwards biography).

Is it possible that presses and journals will stop publishing work by people who (a la Dorian Abbot) are otherwise known to have views that are abhorrent to dominant academic and media interests? Sure, and surely it has already happened (at least subtly) in some instances. But as long as traditionalists and others with undesirable views can still be published with secular presses, they should do so. It is essential for many Christian scholars to be engaged in specifically Christian publishing, too, and few secular presses would want to touch Trueman's The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. (Thank goodness that some Christian presses, like Crossway, still will!)

But some Christian scholars will also keep a place at the table in elite secular academia, especially by publishing in secular outlets as they have opportunity. There is a long and distinguished Christian tradition of doing so when possible. Christian intellectual leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, and C.S. Lewis maintained a distinctive Christian voice in the elite academic circles of their eras -- though admittedly each worked in a far more Christianized culture than ours.

A full-blown Christian intellectual witness ideally includes maintaining a role for such Christian scholars, so long as maintaining that place does not require theological and cultural compromise. We might pray that in the post-Christian West, our culture's ostensible commitment to the principles of classical liberalism and tolerance might keep the door open for a Christian intellectual witness in scattered nooks and crannies of dominant academic culture.

God hardly needs our academic contributions to build the Kingdom. But from Paul's witness at Mars Hill through today, there have always been Christian voices defending gospel truths in the groves of academe. To whatever extent we can, let's carry on that witness in our generation.


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