The Scandal of the Liberal Mind

Anti-intellectualism: it ain't just for the Evangelicals

American Christians, especially Evangelicals have long been taken to task for rejecting the life of the mind. Mark Noll’s 1995 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and most recently Alan Jacobs’s much discussed piece for Harper’s “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” tell a story of withdrawal from academia and intellectual pursuits. The long and short of it seems to be that yesterday’s fundamentalists and today’s evangelicals make up the religious wing of Richard Hofstadter’s famous assertion of American “anti-intellectualism” and the national preference for sloganeering over sophistication. The evangelicals, like their fundamentalist forbears, shrunk from the intellectual calling because of some animus toward smartypants types.

But there is a different way to tell the story. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, the world was in a scientific mood. New industry and technology had dramatically reshaped the experience of everyday life. New products, cheap and available electric lighting, cars, huge sea vessels, all bolstered by efficient manufacturing made it seem that science had actually delivered the signs and wonders that religion and myth had only promised. In the colleges, and even churches, every kind of knowledge needed to comport with data-driven methods and scientific ways of knowing. This wasn’t a gradual development. Sociology departments were hastily set up in universities and divinity schools alike. Foundations were set up in cities, not for simple charity, but with explicit scientific purposes, like Graham Taylor’s Chicago Commons Social Settlement House in Chicago. Understanding human beings could no longer be the province of religion or even philosophy. Somehow, the forces that had transformed the industry and the market had to be brought to bear on the human condition if any moral progress was to be made. Science could master anything. Why not the human being?

Since science (narrowly understood) was the new game in town, then it followed, for most intellectuals, that traditional Christian truth claims–what J. Gresham Machen called Jesus’s “stupendous claims” about himself–could not be contended for reasonably. That this is a very basic logical fallacy seemed lost on great swathes of religious-minded professors and men of letters. Walter Rauschenbusch’s famous line that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” became a popular slogan among ministers and cultural elites. By the 1930s, a strong intellectual current which assumed that not only the Virgin Birth but most of Christianity’s traditional claims of divine revelation were figments of the imagination, had embedded itself in polite society.

None of the above are novel observations. The story is often told this way by conservatives who lament the influence of German high criticism on the American church. Schleiermacher, Bultmann and Harnack are among the great horsemen of the modern apocalypse. What I find flabbergasting is how the story of a radical break with traditional Christian doctrine is only told by conservatives. Cultivated commentary on American religion almost never recognizes the intellectual and theological currents of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as the theological earthquakes that they very clearly were, especially for American churches. Liberal theology is treated by most intellectual commentators on American religion as though it was an inevitable and organic evolution of doctrine. The reactionary fundamentalists and their monstrous doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and a revival of chiliastic premillennialism are the ones cast as the great mutators of the ancient faith.

Certainly American fundamentalism produced dogmas alien to the great traditions of Christian thought, but they are negligible when compared with the imbibing of German high criticism which resulted in nearly every American Protestant denomination dividing over doctrinal affirmations. Though they were largely non-credal, American fundamentalists preserved 100% more of the Nicene and Apostolic affirmations in their dubious lockboxes of inerrancy and dispensationalism than did the entire faculty at Union or Chicago Theological Seminaries. Meanwhile, intellectualism expunged Christianity mostly due to the philosophically unjustified, assumption that belief in miracles and an immanent supernatural God is incredible. The only “Christians” worthy of the title could be those who had no problem discarding traditional Christian claims to divine revelation, supernatural episodes, and the divinity of Christ. It seemed one could either be intellectual or Christian, but not both.

How does the landscape look today? Certainly evangelicals have held onto their populist fundamentalist roots and produced movements and churches that have little to say to the intellectual sphere. But that is not the whole story. It is worth pointing out that much criticism of evangelical anti-intellectualism is self-criticism. Noll and Jacobs (among many others) are thinkers who are not shy about their evangelical affinities, but they are also unafraid to criticize their own people’s aversion to the life of the mind. Traditional Christianity is currently seeing a revival in academia and philosophy departments. The radical leftist and atheist Slavoj Zizek, the only living philosopher to be a household name, has published dialogues with Anglican theologian John Milbank and gave an address at Wheaton College in 2006. In history departments, N.T. Wright’s approach to historical critical method has produced respectable historical arguments for historic Christian truth claims. Analytic philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig have led a revival of theism backed by a matrix of modal logic. H.L. Mencken has been reborn as a caustic Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart whose answers to anti-religious polemics soar over the heads of outspoken new atheists and into pondering classic continental questions of being, desire, and the infinite. Even dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist Al Mohler regularly hosts secular thinkers on his excellent podcast Thinking in Public to discuss their published works and mine their insight. It seems to have turned out that one can affirm the Virgin birth without losing one’s mind.

But today, the charge of “anti-intellectual” has taken on an altogether different character. It is moralizing, not scientific. It is suspicious not so much of Christian claims to the miraculous but to their claims of rightly ordered sexuality and exclusivity of salvation. Again, liberals comfortable discarding traditional Christian beliefs and conservatives who see no reason to, line up against one another, the former seen to be on the side of reason, the latter hopelessly benighted. It is worth asking which camp–evangelical or liberal–has resulted in more anti-intellectualism.

Consider New York Times Columnist Nick Kristoff quoting progressive pastor Brian McLaren in a recent New York Times editorial:

What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?

What astounds here is that neither Mclaren nor Kristof seem to know that this question has already been soundly answered. What would it mean to “rediscover” the faith in this way? Why, it would mean just what has happened over the last hundred years in American religion. It would mean mainline Protestant traditions reinventing their doctrine to comport with strict materialism or vapid spiritualism, colonizing divinity schools with sociologists, and preaching social action as a substitute for doctrine.

What has been the result of this “rediscovery?” Here, we have the benefit of some hard numbers to go along with the history. The degree to which these churches have “rediscovered” their faith in this way seems to determine how rapidly their membership has declined. Perhaps we ought to forgive McLaren and Kristof for being unaware of liberal Protestants, as today they are quite scarce. What it would ultimately “mean” to rediscover the faith in this way, if one considers the result of these trends, as Joseph Bottum does in his book An Anxious Age, someone with Brian McLaren’s theological convictions will not, after a generation or so, be a pastor at all, but someone more like Nicholas Kristof, a “not a particularly religious Christian” scratching his chin about why we haven’t rediscovered religion yet for his Tuesday column.

A whole host of contemporary public figures who have left the benighted anti-intellectualism of evangelicalism to embrace the supposedly intellect-friendly Liberal Protestantism do not shine much brighter than McLaren or Kristof. Rob Bell, once thought to be a post-modern luminary leading the church into the new millennium, now hosts a show on Oprah’s cable network, and seems to be striving to replace Deepak Chopra. Rachel Held Evans’s horrified discovery that the church of her birth holds to strict gender differences has led her to pen many indignant screeds against the perceived absurdity of theologically justified gender difference (usually in the sort of blog posts that put their best sentences in boldface for easy skimming) and a lively Twitter presence devoted mostly to salvos against male writers on Gospel Coalition and plugging the existence transgender Christians, but nothing that approaches a deep intellectual engagement with the church’s long held perspective on the meaning of gender. Michael Gungor, an outspoken Christian musician, (but what does “Christian music” even mean anyway?) professes an interest in exploring sacred art, but he seems to stand, not inside any particular tradition of Christian worship, but in a vague spiritualism replete with unqualified acclamations like “We reject the notion that singing about “God”, for instance, is somehow more inherently “sacred” or “spiritual” than singing about romance, money, or any other aspect of human life.” He hosts a podcast with self-described agnostic mystic and pop author “Science Mike.” Though they purport to respect the “mystical” and the “sacred,” the only real source of revealed truth they espouse is a commitment to “scientific accuracy.”

Perhaps this crew does not qualify as intellectuals, but their perspectives, unlike those of their conservative opponents, do not carry the stain of evangelical anti-intellectualism even though they are not even close to fluency in the history of Christian thought (let alone the history of philosophy) and especially ignorant of the more recent history of their liberal theological patrimony. Support for their perspectives comes most often from invoking a combination of contemporary scientism and humanistic activists.

How can serious-minded churchmen and women enter these circular currents of what one might only very generously call “logic?” What orthodox Christian would want to accept this sort of life of this sort of mind, one that is ignorant of history and incurious of the big philosophical and existential questions traditional Christianity once advanced to answer? Moreover, what would they gain by it? A hearing? A title? I doubt it. With intellectuals like these, who needs demagogues? What needs to be said is that theological liberalism, the only sort of religion acceptable to the modern intellectual climate, is often fiercely anti-intellectual and more so than contemporary evangelicalism. The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of one. The scandal of the theologically liberal mind is that it is often impossible to understand, converse with, or even locate.

7 Responses to “The Scandal of the Liberal Mind”

  1. Mr Bob

    Thanks for writing this. I am in an Evangelical church that has both of these types of views in the congregation and the ‘liberal’ one (Gungor,Bell) is gaining a foothold in some circles. I find these folks do the same thing toward conservatives that they claim conservatives do to them, treat those they disagree with with contempt, disrespect and a haughty condescension.

  2. Jayne

    Interesting article, and I must say that a lot of it went over my head particularly the names. I simply don’t know a lot of those people. As I am a go to church on Sunday Catholic, I am making these comments from the audience, if you will. And most likely there is the criticism that if I were more involved then the intellectual life of Catholicism would come alive. Eh, maybe. I feel the ancient lives, the weight of ages, in much of the mass, but simply not getting engaged on the level of the mind. And perhaps the mass for the common man is not where Catholic intellectualism ever resided. And maybe my memories of the solemnity of the old, Latin mass, in which we faced God as from with and behind the priest, and women piously covered their heads, was nothing more than a vacuous set of motions we went through. Mass simply came across as a more serious aspect of our lives, a thing apart and above, drawing our thoughts upward. Now if our mind goes to a higher realm it is an individual experience and a bug, not a feature.

  3. Steve Murray

    Good stuff. Wanted more elaboration and substantiation though! IMHO this blog is worthy of book-length exposition.

  4. Phil

    I find it telling that your chief criticism of “liberal Protestantism” is that it proved unpopular. Short-term popularity and truth have little relationship to one another. Or have you forgotten the narrow and wide gates? Seems like a capitalist approach to religion, where growth and influence are the only measurements that count, is going to necessarily miss the only thing that counts; faith working through love. When the evangelical churches suffer the same deep decline that liberal Protestant churches have, what will be left? Will it be the same core group of loving, committed, sold-out believers that are quietly renovating those churches of which you are so dismissive?

    • Alex Wilgus

      It was not my chief criticism of liberal Protestantism. My chief criticism of liberal Protestantism is that it is intellectually incoherent.


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