Christians in Academia

Three articles have been brought to my attention recently that are worth some discussion. The first two from Inside Higher Ed by Timothy Larson of Wheaton and Adam Kotsko at Kalamazoo College. (HT EG) The third article is an interview of Mark Noll, Professor of History at Notre Dame, as part of the Patheos series on The Future of Evangelicalism.

First Timothy Larson’s contribution: No Christianity Please, We’re Academics. Larson relates a couple of anecdotes, one from his own experience and suggests that  while a persecution complex is unhealthy, and one should be critical of one’s own work, discrimination is something that Universities should worry about.

So, although we hear these stories frequently, Christian academics are the first ones to respond to them with suspicion. Maybe John got a bad grade because his work was not very good. Maybe my proposal was written in an irritating tone that baited some members of the committee to respond that way.

Nevertheless, scholars ought to be concerned that Christians often report that the academy is a hostile environment. Are academics generally glad that such a perception exists? If not, how might it be dispelled? If it is based on genuine experiences, what can be done about a climate that tolerates religious discrimination? If the two stories presented here are merely assailable, anecdotal evidence, then why not gather information on this issue more systematically? Do academic institutions ever try to discover if their Christian students or scholars experience discrimination?

Adam Kotsko’s response was straight back at Larson (after the jump) .

Do you think that there is real discrimination against Christians in academia?

Adam Kotsko in his article Christians in Academe: a Reply suggests that there is discrimination perhaps, but it is not against Christians. Rather it is a problem for conservative protestants – and a problem of our own making. There is no obligation for academia to respect weak and unsupported arguments. Just one paragraph to give a taste – read the whole article:

I would propose instead that we need to acknowledge that conservative evangelical Christians, as a cultural group, often have difficulty assimilating to the culture of secular colleges and universities. Such difficulties are faced by many groups, including first-generation college students, lower- and working-class students, and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. It seems to me, however, that conservative evangelical Christians represent a special case in this regard. In the other cases, we are dealing with people who have historically been excluded from academe and are therefore simply unfamiliar with its culture and expectations — a relatively straightforward problem to solve, though not always an easy one. In the case of conservative evangelical Christianity, however, we are dealing with a group whose leaders have encouraged its members to define themselves over against the secular world and particularly secular academe.

Kotsko is not into bashing Christians – rather he speaks from his own experience raised in a conservative Christian family and church facing challenges in college and beyond. At one point he notes “I should say immediately that not all conservative evangelicals take such extreme views seriously. My own parents, pastors, and youth leaders, for example, had fairly sensible views — certainly they were more conservative than I have wound up being, but they were fundamentally reasonable.” He makes some positive suggestions for ways to move forward.

And this brings us to the interview with Mark Noll on The Future of Evangelicals in Academia. About fifteen years ago Noll published a much read book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that set forth what he saw then as problems – profound problems – with evangelical thinking. It was impossible, or well nigh impossible, he claimed to be an evangelical scholar with intellectual integrity. But things are changing. Toward the end of the interview Timothy Dalrymple poses a question from his own experience as a graduate student.

In my own graduate education, I sometimes heard believing professors and historians say that, “As a historian I believe X, because I am required to operate according to a certain methodology. But as an individual believer, I believe Y.” The question is: Is that a stable arrangement? … Is it practical to bifurcate ourselves as scholars into one part that draws conclusions according to rigorous methodological criteria and another part that confesses a different set of beliefs?

Mark Noll responded:

That’s a very good question. I actually think it’s fatal for long-term Christian thinking and fatal for the long-term health of Christianity per se to live under different basic commitments in professional life and church life. To say that I adopt the rules of the game for academic life Monday to Friday, and the rules of church life on Sunday, that’s a real problem.

However, what’s required for many domains of learning, and I would include biblical studies, is the serious use of the mind while the spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation.

This is a nice turn of phrase – serious use of the mind, rigorous and critical thinking, while the spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation. We need to find a way forward that preserves intellectual integrity and remains Christian. Not an easy thing in an environment where secular materialism is in the air we breathe. We need to break out of what I have called “evangelical ghetto thinking” but do so while remaining committed to Christ and his church.

Noll also sees some encouraging trends – prominent evangelical and confessional Protestant philosophers (RJS: side note of my own – if only they would listen to scientists about science); significant work by sociologists (eg. Christian Smith, James Hunter and more); Francis Collins and BioLogos; and, he notes, “a better way of negotiating the major universities like Chicago and Michigan and the Ivy League schools, as more faculty and more students are willing to identify as evangelical Christians and confessional Christians.” The efforts at Baylor to become a true research university while retaining a commitment to evangelical principles is also a positive sign.

And this brings me back to the question I posed above:

Do you think that there is real discrimination against Christians in academia? If so is it justified? What can we do to move forward?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you wish to comment on my posts please see Jesus Creed.

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