Saturday, February 22, 2014

Worthen: The Evangelical Mind (11)

The final chapter of Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Reviews of previous chapters include:

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)
Chapter 3 (The Strivings of Christianity Today)
Chapter 4 (Mennonites and Nazarenes in the 50s)
Chapter 5 (The Drive to Accreditation)
Chapter 6 (The Church Growth Movement)
Chapter 7 (The Canterbury Trail)
Chapter 8 (Democrat Evangelicals)
Chapter 9 (A Form of Intellectualism)
Chapter 10 (The Presuppositionalists)

Finally, chapter 11: "The Paradox of the Evangelical Imagination"

1. The lead off of this chapter is a now famous question by Mark Noll in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: could it be that "it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both an evangelical and an intellectual" (241). Noll wrote that in 1994. He has since converted to Roman Catholicism and moved from Wheaton to Notre Dame.

I wondered if there was a little more opinion in this chapter than the others. But here is the basic point of the chapter and perhaps the book: "The problem with evangelical life is not that its participants obey authority. All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions. The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time. They demand that presuppositions trump evidence while counting the right kind of evidence as universal fact" (258).

This critique is similar to my critique of Ken Ham. He tries to look like he is using an evidentiary approach but he only uses it until the evidence seems to point away from the desired direction (to be fair, he makes the shift most when shifting from "observational science" to what he calls "historical science." Then he invokes his presuppositions to channel the evidence in a different direction).

So if it looks like stars are millions of light years away, we can simply assume God created the light in mid-stream because of our presuppositions. When our presuppositions are in danger, we find a "possible solution" relating to evidence and thus avoid the more "probable solution." We are still talking evidence but we look for a more complex and less likely interpretation that will fit with our assumptions.

There is a spectrum to this dilemma. At what point should presuppositions be brought in to trump the apparent trajectory of evidence, if ever? We inevitably operate with certain "irreducible assumptions," but are they huge systems or more atomic in nature?

2. Worthen mentions the founding of what came to be called the CCCU in 1971. This coalition of Christian colleges and universities met even a couple weeks ago, I believe. It has made it possible for grants and exchanges to take place. It helped Christian colleges become more than they could have become on their own.

3. The chapter mentioned the bromance that has occasionally happened between evangelicals and Catholics. For example, Notre Dame has hired a string of famous evangelicals over the last few decades: George Marsden (historian), Alvin Plantinga (philosopher), John Howard Yoder (ethicist), Stanley Hauerwas (ethicist), Mark Noll (historian), Christian Smith (sociologist). Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

The Catholic idea of "natural law" has provided a way for Christians to argue for various things in the public sphere without explicit religious language. The notion is that there are certain features of the world that argue for certain legislation and that all humans can see these laws without having to reference special revelation or Scripture.

4. I didn't like the way a section on thriving anti-intellectualism threw in together Richard Mouw and Ken Ham. Mouw is worlds away from Ham, IMO. This section also mentioned David Barton, who is very popular in some circles but considered an incompetent historian by most historians. Harper Collins pulled his book on Thomas Jefferson almost as soon as it was published because of its historical problems.

5. Worthen also mentions left-leaning evangelicals in this chapter, the "emergent church" in particular. She depicts the "new monasticism" of a Shane Claiborne as picking a few features of the Middle Ages and laying them over a still very modern mindset. "Without quite realizing what they have done, evangelicals often use these ancient teachings and practices to confirm, rather than challenge, their own assumptions" (254).

She especially has Western individualism in view. "Worship is more of a therapeutic means to personal fulfillment than submission to a higher authority" (256).

6. The last section of the book speaks of the "evangelical imagination," something deeper than ideas, something that involves underlying drives and impulses. She especially engages James Davison Hunter in this section. To him, evangelicals exaggerate the importance of ideas and worldviews. To him, evangelicals take history and "warp it into self-serving myth" (260).

"The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture... but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God's word--and the defensive reflexes that outsiders' skepticism provokes" (261).

Here is as close to a conclusion as we get: "If we continue to use the word evangelical at all, and we will--we must allow room for diversity and internal contradiction, for those who love the label and those who hate it. We must recognize that American evangelicalism owes more to its fractures and clashes, its anxieties and doubts, than to any political pronouncement or point of doctrine" (264).

7. Take-away
I have personally hated the word evangelical because I have come to associate it with the neo-evangelicalism of the 1940s and the fundamentalism of the Moral Majority. This book has helped me, in the words of Donald Dayton, "re-discover an evangelical heritage." The publisher changed his title to, "discovering," but the title he wanted was "re-discovering."

That is to say, the word evangelical was revivalist before it was co-opted to primarily be what it is today. The book has helped me be able to use that word of my faith community without exactly equating it to the mainstream evangelical establishment that has evolved over the last 50 years. The book, no doubt annoyingly to those who think they speak for evangelicalism, makes it clear that we are a bigger group--and more diverse--than at first appears.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Experience is important to anyone, Ken, but to use evangelical/revivalistic thinking is basing one's life on "the personal" apart from reason!

Evangelicals might think they use "reason" to interpret scripture, but what they use, as you've pointed out, is a presuppositional (theological) approach to "truth" (scripture), instead of thinking about what is best for themselves apart from "theological underpinnings"! "God" is the "First Preposition", as it is based on Tradition, not individually accessed reason. And "God" is not a scientifically observable entity, but a presupposition of "faith claims".

Some "liberal Christians" have tried to rescue the Church by submitting to a "community of faith" or the "Body of Believers" as the illustration/demonstration of "God in the World"! Religious language is useful to condition people to certain "outcomes", which I think is subterfuge! I like Truth, too! This is why I do not like post-modernity, as it undermines our nation-state for language games and an equalization of Power at the costs of peace.

Our country values the "rule of law", which grants the right of each citizen a place of power to appeal and resist in our courts. America was not a Military Dictarship (or Oligarchy), nor was America a Banana Republic! We were a country of "Ordered Liberty"! And civil libertarians might be concerned about the encroaching power of the State for the sake of "progress" globally.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do not believe in the theory of Declarationism. The Declaration of Independence had a different purpose and thrust, than the Constitution.
The Declaration of Independence was to give a reason for revolution,from Britain's colonization, while the other maintains or describes the Order of our society. In this sense, Progressives/Liberals would affirm Declarationism, because of the belief and commitment to "human rights", as argued by natural law!

Declarationsim is more of a "theology" than a legal doctrine, because it bases its "progressive" ideals upon the Dred Scott case and applies them universally/globally (arguing natural law/natural right). It is beginning and ending with "Civil Rights" granted by natural law, instead of civil liberties,using abolisinist arguments globally applied.