Christian Scholarship

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship
The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship
by George Marsden

 The Adams Center for Teaching Excellence sponsored an online review of George Marsden's book, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, followed by a faculty symposium directed by Dr. Doug Foster in February 1999.

Chapter reviews by ACU faculty
Each of the book's six chapters is reviewed by ACU faculty member/s, each review including a brief summary and a response on the chapter's implications for scholarship at ACU.

Related (off-site) Links:

Chapter 1: Why Christian Perspectives Are Not Welcomed

Tom Lee and Lewis Armstrong

The role of religion in higher education eroded over time. The sense of investment needed in expressing Christian views and sharing Christian values in the classroom disappeared as university administrators and faculty slowly gave way to liberal Protestant views in universities in the United States. This lead to a subjugation of religion in favor of leaving it as a field of study and omitting its association within the academic disciplines and in the classroom. The resentment of those among the faculty opposing religion as an expression of one's conviction within teaching eventually won their way.

Dr. Marsden reveals the dilemma facing faculty in Christian universities, such as ACU. He elaborates on the situation through numerous terms, such as, liberal Protestant culture, scientific detachment, nonsectarian, theistic point of reference, multiculturalism, diversity, oxymoronic quest, trivalization, semi-official religion, quasi-established religion, and pluralistic society. He captures the events that lead to changes at schools, such as Harvard. The secular university model is represented by Jefferson's University of Virginia which lead to the evolution of state schools creating competition for private schools. It resulted in the displacement of a privileged status within American society. Christian schools have the choice of mirroring state schools or offering something unique and individual centered.

Response: Tom Lee and Lewis Armstrong

ACU has begun turning the corner with "Learning Communities" where faculty focus attention on the individual student as well as the class. A student has lost a family member, do we lead a prayer with the class? A student appears to be struggling with course material, do we meet with the student, counsel, provide study tips, and pray together? Would sharing scripture and praying relevant to the subject matter and personal problems of the students during a class period not strengthen the resolve of the students? Whether class members participate in intramural or varsity sports or other campus and off-campus activities, would our attendance at worship assemblies not re-enforce the "I care about you" we need to manifest toward our students? Our lives must be a guiding example to our students, reflecting Christ in our lives.

The "hem of the garment" may be stretched but while maintaining the requirement that faculty be members of the church of Christ, and perhaps the same for visiting committee members, we should all learn how to view our world through windows to see and understand diversity while we tie together faith and learning. Do we continue the pursuit of international, merit scholars and other groups that bring prestige to the University? What actions give us opportunities to attract even more church of Christ students, because we have something much better to offer them than the state school where they can attend for much less money?

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Chapter 2: The Arguments for Silence

John L. Robinson

In chapter two of his book Marsden attempts to answer three fundamental questions about the introduction of religious perspectives into the mainstream of academic life:
Is this "unscientific"?
Will it offend in our society's pluralistic setting?
Might it violate the principle of the "separation of church and state"?
He concludes that all three questions stem from prejudices and that all three may be confidently answered in the negative.

To the first question Marsden responds that a "science versus religion" stereotype prevailed when our modern university system first took shape during the late nineteenth century. Historically, the conventional wisdom of that era's thought leaders held that science provided the standard for all truth. Participants in the academy must thereby work from commonly shared naturalistic assumptions, evolving from these earlier times, putting religious assumptions to the side upon entering the university world. Yet careful analysis reveals that this is a wholly unwarranted assumption since, among several other reasons, all disciplines and values are not held to this same rigid standard. Beyond this, post-1960s intellectual trends run counter to nineteenth century concepts and hold that "science typically operates within frameworks of assumptions that are not themselves established on scientific grounds." (p. 27) Indeed, many in the university cling to non-verifiable "truths." As one example, most academicians hold that all students must be treated equally, regardless of, say, race or gender, wealth or handicap. Yet such values are clearly not empirically based; they are morally based, but no one maintains that they should be discarded in academic affairs; while empirical evidence may be cited to bolster them, they are held as ultimately inviolable truths. Should it be required that religious perspectives be laid aside, scholarship based upon naturalistic presuppositions would thus gain a privileged, but "unscientific" position, since it has not been empirically demonstrated that religious beliefs are indeed without foundation or that the empirical way of knowing perforce excludes all others.

In addition, while the expression of religious perspectives may indeed prompt offense, misshapen concepts of religion may be at fault in this paradigm. Fairness, not the possibility of unwanted offense, must be the determinant. In a pluralistic culture such as ours, to exclude any particular culture diametrically opposes the founding principle of pluralism itself. While some cite fears of a resurgent Christian political right and consequent suppression of other viewpoints to justify exclusion of the Christian perspective, this will only lead to a cultural imperialism of a different but equally unproductive sort. To welcome diverse cultures into the university community only if they leave outside the religious dimensions of their cultures is to demand uniformity in the guise of pluralism.

Finally, the principle of separation of church and state has often been raised as a reason to exclude the Christian perspective; yet this principle is particularly subject to widespread misinterpretation and misapplication. Legislation and court rulings have been widely, and erroneously, supposed to hold that in publicly financed education, expressions of any religious perspective is disallowed. While this is not the case, the attempts of some religious groups to insert their particularistic views into public education have given credence to this idea, especially when such particularistic views have been rejected. But "separation of church and state" cannot fairly or legally be read as "separation of all religion from the state." Neither statute nor constitution prohibits "the free exercise of religious expression by citizens in any activity that is funded, in whole or in part, by the state." (p. 41)

Marsden concludes, then, that we face "strong prejudices against explicit introduction of religious perspectives into mainstream academic life," (p.42) and that such prejudices originate from one or all of the three grounds stated in the opening paragraph above.

Response: John L. Robinson

Marsden's efforts in chapter two address fundamentally the environment of the non-Christian university world. At the same time, the implications for our work at ACU are of primary importance as well, since we are preparing most of our students to live and work in that non-Christian environment.

One task we have is, of course, to keep our students as current as possible. Rather than teach from the academic environment in which most current ACU professors were schooled (i.e., one in which conventional--secular--academic opinion held that science provided the standard for all truth) we must make our students aware that contemporary thought (e.g., Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) now operates from different assumptions, that cutting-edge academic thought acknowledges room for the religious perspective in the search for truth. And our students must be brought to understand that since so many academicians are indeed religiously oriented, their religious beliefs must inevitably inform their scholarship. Thus, as post-modern relativism denounces "scientific objectivism," Christian scholars can as fairly maintain that a God-ordered reality has an academic standing on an least equal terms (from a scholarly perspective). Contemporary philosophers (e.g., Thomas V. Morris, God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason) have indeed led the way in undercutting "the popular notion that religious beliefs should be excluded on the grounds that they . . . fail to meet criteria of scientific verifiability." (p. 31)

At the same time, students must be shown that the "Christian political right" (p. 33) has often fueled the prejudices of the academy, leading scholars to denounce unfairly all Christian efforts to elevate Christian perspective to their proper role in the university world. In actuality, more traditional Christian fundamentalism draws on a heritage as ancient as Roger Williams' efforts in early colonial New England, and is heir to such key principles as tolerance and civility; there is no danger to academic interchange from such foundational perspectives. This appropriately dissociates traditional fundamentalists from those who are often popularly referred to as "fundamentalists" but who sometimes may attempt to force upon public education a "creation science" which would "involve the conclusion that the earth was only some thousands of years old" and that this and related matters must be taught "simply as science, with no reference to God or biblical teaching." (p. 39) Such efforts may do a "great disservice . . . by coopting the term 'creationism' for their own narrow views . . . [and] attempting to use the state to mandate their sectarian teachings." This often prompts many non-religious groups to raise the straw man of separation of church and state, when in reality "we have few churches with sufficient political power to be able to privilege their peculiar teachings by law." (p. 41)

And finally, in preparing our students to work in non-religious institutions, we must offer them concrete illustrations of how, specifically, this may be effectively done. A Christian professor in a secular academy may well acknowledge her/his religiously informed perspective, disclosing this as a sort of "truth in advertising" which may presuppose an interpretative bias. No teacher, religiously oriented or otherwise, conducts classes from the stance of a truly neutral objective observer. Thus when one makes students aware of this viewpoint initially, students are fairly alerted to possible statements which may fundamentally reflect the professor's perspective. This allows students the intellectual freedom to accept or reject--but at least to be aware of--the legitimate Christian perspective.

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Chapter 3: Christian Scholarship and the Rules of the Academic Game

Joe Bell and Curt Dickson

"The world will look very different to those who start with faith in God in contrast to faith in self or in material contingency." This statement is intended to describe John Milton's argument that true faith in God changes everything else. Marsden accepts Milton's position and uses it as the focus of this particular chapter.

In the past, the rules of the academic game have been such that liberal views have been accepted; while conservative views, often based upon religious beliefs, have been considered suspect at best. Marsden acknowledges the "normal" academic practice of requiring one's faith to be separated from scientifically sound investigation; but points out that all such investigations are ultimately grounded in some faith or other. Christians must follow the same rigorous path in their academic pursuits as any others, being that they are to be detached enough to weight all their evidence judiciously. Scholarship will always be shaped by the individual's world view, be it Christian or otherwise. Wolterstoff is said to have described one's significant background beliefs as "control beliefs" which do, in fact, shape other beliefs and theories the individual is willing to consider. Marsden notes that there must be room for explicit Christian points of view just as there must be room for points of view that are at odds with the Christian perspective. The academy is diverse by nature and scholars need to extend the golden rule by expecting and allowing a variety of views to be expressed. The Christian scholar should encourage and expect fairness and charity in all arenas. Marsden notes that "scholarship with theses qualities will ultimately have the greatest impact in the academy and the greatest chance of being accepted." Religious people are encouraged to participate fully in the academy and work to bring change to those areas which seem to limit Christian views, noting that "the rules of the academy are not fixed or inevitable."

Response: Joe Bell and Curt Dickson

Marsden presents us with a typical dilemma that the Christian, who chooses to plunge into the world of the academy, must face. However, this dilemma is not peculiar to the academy. The onslaught of secularism and humanism that define "post-modernism" bombard us with messages that cause to shrink back from our convictions; or, fight for them at our own peril. So, we Christian Scholars must learn the "rules of the game."

How does one conduct oneself in an environment where everything is ok, except, being openly Christian? In the state university systems, the constitution is interpreted more along the lines of "freedom from religion." In the context of academic freedom, problems seldom arise that would cause any distinction between Christian and other belief systems. Nevertheless, we must reconcile what we research, write, present, discuss, etc. , with our own belief in God. Suppose the central theory behind a study were a widely accepted atheistic belief (i.e., Postural Origins Theory). How should the Christian respond to this situation.? Should we avoid the study, object to the study, or simply fall into step with other scholars and say nothing?

That, in essence, is the crux of the matter. There have been many noteworthy scholars among our faculty. It should be evident to the world that they accept a Christian world view. We cannot separate any aspect of our lives from our belief system. If, indeed, Christ is truly Lord of our lives, He must be Lord of our academic lives too. Can the Christian be a respected scholar among the secular? Yes! Does the Christian have to settle for something less than excellence because of his/her beliefs? Not at all! But, we must be cautious that we not leave our academic setting without people knowing that we are different from the world. It is not necessary for us to shrink from our Christian world view in order to gain the respect of the academy. Certainly, Sir Isaac Newton did not find it so.

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Chapter 4: What Difference Could It Possibly Make?

Sally Reid

One objection to Christian perspective in scholarship is that if it doesn't contradict the standards of the academy, then what difference does it make? And if it doesn't make a difference, if there is no unique impact, why pursue the Christian point of view?

Marsden answers that just because Christian scholarship is not always unique or completely distinct from other perspectives does not necessarily suggest it has no value. He also points out that the multiplicity of "Christian" views on any subject contributes to the confusion. But again the absence of a "single" Christian perspective does not negate the presence of Christian influence on scholarship.

Humans naturally bring a holistic view to the perception of any patterns. We cannot escape these ways of looking at the world. We do not exclude the perspectives we grow with simply by not acknowledging them. And if we all have a world view, perhaps it is important to ask why the Christian scholar would work so diligently on occasion to exclude this perspective from scholarly endeavors.

Faith based perspectives naturally have the most meaning in contexts of larger significance, how humans relate to each other and the universe, than in more narrowly defined empirical observations. Still Marsden identifies four ways in which faith can have a bearing on scholarship in even the most technical disciplines:

1) faith can be a factor in motivating a scholar to do excellent work

2) faith can help determine what the scholar sees as the application of her scholarship

3) altruistic motives can influence the questions one asks about one's work or the shaping of a sub-field or specialty

4) faith may inform how the scholar sees the implications of the scholarship in a larger framework of meaning.

The Christian can bring a perspective to a discipline which gives continuing life to the important questions which have been asked from the beginning of time. Christianity can give scholarship a larger significance.

Response: Sally Reid

Because moral judgments are not necessarily exclusively Christian, it is easy to confuse current cultural expressions of morality (many of which may have been shaped by Christian origins) with genuine Christian moral influences. We should be interested in the differences between moral agendas set by public opinion and genuine Christian values, especially since our own cultural perspective sometimes disguises and blurs these distinctions.

History tells us that Christian commitments do not always make the difference they should in how the Christian community acts. Christians have not always been among the first to challenge "conventional wisdom" when it conflicts with moral principles based on faith. This is WHY we should pursue more critical Christian thinking, to discern between cultural morality and Christian morality and to assure that we pursue action based on Christian moral principle.

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Chapter 5: The Positive Contributions of Theological Context

Jeff Childers

In his chapter on "Positive Contributions of Theological Context," Marsden explores several ways in which Christian belief might impact scholarship. Marsden's philosophy is basically Augustinian: Christian scholars will participate fully in the world's academic institutions and will pursue their disciplines according to the standards of those disciplines. Yet as citizens of a higher civilization, they are motivated by love for God and will not be duped by any other claims of ultimacy. Often, their work will be indistinguishable from that of their colleagues, but the Christian theistic vision of a larger context will distinctly shape their assumptions, agendas, and attitudes.

For example, the Christian doctrine of creation challenges fundamental assumptions of contemporary scholarship, perhaps more so in the humanities than in the natural sciences. Perspectives which are methodologically atheistic understand human beings and their cultures to be the result of natural processes, not divine creation. One consequence of this is the elimination of any grounding for ethics - not that academics do not have passionate moral convictions, but they lack a rationale for their beliefs or any means by which to adjudicate competing claims and value judgments. The belief that morality originates ultimately with God provides a foundation.

Epistemology is similarly affected. Without a firm point of reference, seekers of knowledge are deprived of confidence in their discoveries and tend to disallow any authority external to human beings themselves. Relativism reigns. Christianity maintains that all truth originates with and is guaranteed by God--he is Truth. Since he is also Creator of our minds and our world, it follows that the creation has been imprinted with his character and that we are equipped to perceive what is true, albeit in a limited human fashion.

In an academic environment floundering for want of fixed anchor points, the Christian affirmation of God as Creator and Authority stabilizes scholarship and liberates it from relativism so that it can make genuine progress.

Belief in the divine incarnation of Jesus Christ implies the conviction that the natural and supernatural connect, rejecting the notion that an impassable chasm exists between the transcendent and the mundane. Christian scholars will not discount natural phenomena and processes. Indeed, they will be more sensitive to the ways in which God is present in the ordinary, in the empirical objects of their study--nature, art, literature, human societies, history. Believing that empirical realities touch metaphysical ones, Christian scholars will consciously operate in a spiritually open universe, and in their work they will challenge the common conclusion that materialism is the best explanation of reality. They will give attention to the wider context of their work, including its spirituality, and be intentional about expressing their academic agenda and priorities as shaped by their spiritual sensibilities.

The incarnation also has implications for ethics. Christian scholars will emulate Jesus' model of sacrifice and service, personally and in their work. Many of the moral ideals valued today actually are traceable back to Christ but have since been severed from their roots. It is the task of Christian scholarship to reconnect the values of compassion to their Christological roots.

The activity of the Holy Spirit also impacts Christian scholars. The spiritual sensibility required to be open to the spiritual dimension is made possible by the Holy Spirit's indwelling, and it is the Spirit who forms Christian scholars. The presence of the Spirit changes a scholar's center of gravity, so that he or she will make evaluations based on spiritual priorities, not secular trends or values. Christian scholars will be aware that their work is not done in a neutral setting, but on a battleground in which dark forces actively antagonize the search for Truth.

The Spirit produces an attitude of humility. Because of the recognition that human knowledge and accomplishment are limited and inscrutable mystery permeates all things, personally and professionally the Christian will behave humbly and without intellectual arrogance.

Atheistic assumptions remove God from the scene, exalting mankind as the ultimate creator of reality. Ironically, they are also liable to reduce human beings to the status of animals or material objects. Christian beliefs about the human condition affirm that mankind is the pinnacle of creation, but also that humanity is deeply flawed. Our best qualities may easily be turned into our worst vices. Christian scholarship will suffer under no illusion about human potential, yet neither will it allow the degradation of human beings. It is therefore better equipped to study and understand human individuals and society. It may provide solutions or explanations to the seemingly insoluble problems created by a humanistic, materialist perspective.

In particular, Christian tradition has identified the human tendency to absolutize the relative--to make oneself a god, or to promulgate some "ism" as the definitive explanation of reality. Christian scholars will remain alert and will challenge any absolutistic claims for human devices. While appreciating the positive contributions which any such "ism" might make, the Christian scholar will critique any attempt to absolutize the relative--outside the Church or in it.

Response: Jeff Childers

1. ACU faculty and students should formulate understandings of how their own practice of their discipline is distinctively Christian.
Appreciate the difference between being a Christian who is a scholar and a Christian scholar, a Christian practitioner, a Christian professional, etc.

Formulate written statements plainly indicating implications for one's scholarship of things like: a Christian view of creation, of human nature, of ethics; of belief in the spiritual; incorporating the values of a "kingdom economy;" the significance of one's relation to a confessional tradition (i.e. the Restoration heritage).

2. ACU faculty and students should have the courage to proclaim the truth boldly.
Christian academics should wear their Christian badges without shame. The temptation exists to preserve legitimacy by pursuing one's field without reference to Christian belief. Yet it is not possible for scholarship to occur without pre-understandings, Christian or non-Christian, and in any case Christian pre-understandings are the most legitimate and helpful.

Within their fields, ACU faculty should continue addressing the significance of Christian belief for their discipline, its pursuit, teaching, and application. E.g. making presentations in methods or pedagogy sections in national professional conferences (general conferences, not only specialized venues dedicated to Christian education).

3. Faculty should keep on guard against the basic error of absolutizing the relative. The only certainty is God himself.
Scholars understandably find the subject, methods, outlook, and results of their disciplines to be compelling and valuable, yet Christians must qualify their enthusiasm because of their faith commitments.

We should maintain a healthy sense of humor about the flaws and foibles of our disciplines, recognizing its limitations.

ACU scholarship should be characterized by a critical stance towards claims of ultimacy, however trendy.

Faculty should be wary so that students do not seek ultimacy within the pursuit of a particular discipline. Put the discipline in perspective, demarking its limitations.

Faculty will serve truth best by cultivating humility. In terms of absolute knowledge, the difference in education level between the doctoral researcher and an "ignorant" person is infinitesimal--and if the "ignorant" person faithfully serves God, regardless of intellectual prowess, he or she actually has a more precise understanding of reality than anyone who does not, regardless of erudition. This attitude should be apparent in the Christian scholar's work.

4. Support for ever greater inter-disciplinary activity on campus.
Inter-disciplinary work is all the rage, but we should be front-runners--at a basic level the Christian scholar has more in common with Christian colleagues of other disciplines than with non-Christian colleagues of the same discipline.

5. ACU's Bible/Theology faculty should be direct-wired to other faculty in a relationship of mutual dependence.
All genuine Christian scholarship becomes theology.

A mutual dialogue, each discipline querying and informing the other.

It stands to reason that Christian scholars who are serious about formulating genuine theological frameworks for their discipline will want to be in dialogue with scholars who do theology as a first-order enterprise. Professional theologians will explore other areas of knowledge, not merely to learn about them or so that they can be of service to others, but because such acquaintance will actually transform the theologian's goals, methods, and results.

Relationships of true mutual dependence require humility.

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Chapter 6: Building Academic Communities

Jonathan D. Stewart and Brad Reid

The final chapter in Marsden's work on Christian scholarship contains practical suggestions for implementing some of the ideas discussed in the first five chapters of the text. This chapter begins with a discussion of how to create and facilitate scholarly groups that have an interest in, as well as the ability to do, high quality research and work in the area of faith and learning. This is done through several sound examples such as research institutes and emphasis of the Christian academic function of existing universities. These suggestions could be implemented immediately given appropriate resources. Next he emphasizes the role of spiritual virtues in the proposed enterprises. The book closes with a few observations for Christians living in the post-enlightened era.

Marsden argues that Christian scholars have suppressed their religious views over the course of the twentieth century in order to gain the acceptance of their peers. Therefore there is a need to build (or maybe rebuild) an institutional base of Christian communities that will support "high-level faith and learning discussions". This base should include top-tier research institutes, a stronger Christian identity in Christian liberal arts colleges, and programs to reflect on the importance of Christian perspectives. He observes, I believe correctly, that a primary barrier to establishing pockets of academic excellence outside the mainstream is that excellence is currently defined by the major research institutions and accrediting agencies in our nation. Little opposition is offered on this point beyond the suggestion to "resist the secularization of the dominant university culture."

The chapter closes with the important observation that improving the quality and visibility of Christian academics is not a purely intellectual process. The success or failure of the idea of Christian scholarship is ultimately a matter of the faith and spiritual virtues of the scholars that claim a relationship with God.

Response: Jonathan D. Stewart and Brad Reid

Abilene Christian University's history of resisting the mainstream educational culture, in favor of spiritual values, may have created both advantages and disadvantages with respect to increased Christian scholarship. First, it would seem that many of the barriers to building academic communities, as enumerated by Marsden, are not as prevalent on this campus as they may be on others in our nation. For example, there is a strong effort by faculty on this campus to connect what we say and do in worship to our efforts in the classroom. ACU also has a faculty faith requirement that is even stronger than that suggested by Marsden. The recent expansion of faith and learning programs, as well as other inherent characteristics of this city and university, position us well to make significant contributions in the area of Christian Scholarship.

At the same time, there are characteristics of the ACU culture that do not lend themselves as neatly to the Marsden model of establishing Christian academic communities. Being a primarily undergraduate teaching institution, faculty members feel strongly about their commitment to excellence in the classroom as well as interacting with students regularly and often. This means that scholarship is often a second priority at best. Additionally, being a historically teaching/learning based institution, there is not a broad base of financial support for faith and learning discussions of the kind suggested by Marsden, outside the confines of Biblical studies.

Assuming Marsden has proposed a model that ACU wishes to follow, the next logical step appears to be an increased commitment of financial resources to support the type of higher-level research and discussion described in this chapter. The parallel challenge is to maintain what we believe to be the distinctive aspects of our culture while making significant progress toward our scholarly goals.

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Learning Studio: Year One
The Learning Studio opened its doors to the campus last March. Here is a look at some of the stories from year one.