First, a caveat: I am not a Christian. Specifically, I am an agnostic who used to be a Christian. And I start with this personal revelation because I want you to understand why an agnostic, especially one who left the church after years of religious abuse, is writing here about the compatibility of faith and reason.
Second: I recently finished a graduate degree in postcolonial theory and global policy. This piece is not about either postcolonial theory or global policy so I will explain, briefly, that in my studies I applied philosophical theories on power, culture and identity to political, economic and security issues in the formerly colonized world. It’s an extensive topic made navigable through the rigorous study of philosophy, a discipline entirely focused on the development of ideas and the advancement of intellectual enquiry.
I begin with these points because I want to make it clear that no one reading this should underestimate my willingness to criticize the Christian church, or my appreciation for critical thought. Yet neither trait makes me an enemy of Christianity itself. Rather the opposite. It is precisely because of these traits that I recognize and respect Christianity’s tradition of interrogating faith with reason, and vice versa. My respect for this tradition leads me to be deeply concerned by the resurgence of a distinctly anti-intellectual approach to the development and practice of Christian belief in the American church. I say ‘resurgence’ quite deliberately. The relationship between reason and Christian orthodoxy has often been uneasy; church history is pockmarked with conflicts between intellectual pluralism and the need for doctrinal unity. These conflicts will be familiar to most: they span the entire existence of the organized church and range from scientific disputes to the theological divisions that eventually spawned Cedarville University’s own affiliated denomination.
But for as long as pluralism has always existed within the church, so have institutionalized attempts to suppress it. I do not believe that these attempts represent any quality intrinsic to either the Christian faith or religious belief itself. They reflect a universal problem: the corruption of an institutional hierarchy. Faith did not put Galileo under house arrest or persecute the early Protestants; those were the decisions of an established institution determined to retain its grip on cultural power.
In the United States, the Christian church does not, in any of its denominational incarnations, currently have the power to order arrests or instigate bloody counter-revolutions. Those of us who grew up in American Christianity are probably familiar with problems common to a more localized church politics. We’ve encountered persistent gossip, vicious debates over doctrinal statements, and struggles for leadership. Perhaps we’ve participated in broader and often more vitriolic discussions regarding gender roles or gay marriage. We can likely all agree that these conversations demonstrate the on-going need to apply the pursuit of reason to the practice of faith. When Christian colleges and universities are also considered, that need is even more evident. Unfortunately, so is a return to the institutionalized repression of the past.
Please understand this: I don’t intend to target Cedarville alone. This is a systemic problem. In 2006, 5 out of a total of 16 professors at Patrick Henry College resigned in protest over President Michael Harris’ intervention in their academic freedom. Professors were especially critical of Harris’ refusal to allow them to rebut accusations that they threatened the college’s adherence to orthodoxy. Two years later, Westminster Theological Seminary terminated Peter Enns, a tenured professor, over differences in the interpretation of the Westminster confession of faith. The vote to suspend Enns came directly from the Board of Trustees and directly violated faculty opinion on the issue. And 2011 proved a particularly chaotic year for Christian higher education: Dr. John Schneider found himself jobless after his employer, Calvin College, objected to his interpretation of the creation account and at Baylor University, Dr. Mark Ellis became the subject of a formal academic investigation after expression public opposition to US and Israeli policies on Palestinian statehood. Dr. Ellis is a leading scholar in Holocaust studies and liberation theology, and is a tenured professor at Baylor.
There is strong evidence that a persistent movement exists to exclusively establish a theologically and politically conservative identity at America’s Christian colleges and universities, and there is further evidence that this movement is willing to violate professional ethics in order to repress intellectual pluralism in the name of fidelity to the Christian faith. But at these universities, and at Cedarville, too, it ought to be understood that this movement is not spiritual in any meaningful sense. It is political. It has confused faith with a voluntary surrender of the desire to reason and criticize. And in so doing it has betrayed the best and most compelling aspect of the Christian faith: its relentless pursuit of truth.
Let us be clear about what a politicized Christianity is capable of doing. It can enforce silence and stifle innovation; disguise abuse and erase dissent. It creates its own vocabulary; one specifically intended to transform a line of reasoned questioning into a series of unfounded accusations. It delegitimizes criticism, and it is intrinsically incompatible with the search for truth. That search is dangerous. It is driven by questions and directed by doubts. And it is disingenuous to suggest that the pursuit of reason ought to be separate from it. To punish individuals for undertaking that search is to restrict the development of Christian belief. That is an intellectual process that even those of us outside the church still acknowledge and respect. For some of us, it is often Christianity’s only redeeming feature.
As a former Christian and a student of philosophy, I encourage Cedarville students to ask questions. Follow your professors on this dangerous search for the truth. You owe that to yourselves, to your mentors, and to the world that watches you.
Originally published in issue 9 of The Ventriloquist, the independent student-run newspaper of Cedarville University. Read the entire issue here.