Jesus and Academic Culture Part 3

This article is a continuation of the discussion which were a part of the previous Connections ReviewJesus and the Academic Culture, Part 1 and Jesus and the Academic Culture, Part 2

Edited 10/4/2019 and 10/11/2019


   In our first installment of Jesus and Academic Culture (Part 1) we strongly suggested that it was a challenge to be effective in our conversations with our non-Christian colleagues about Christ. We argued that barriers to understanding the gospel have always been there, but that the process of secularization in academy over the last 150 years has created a new and nuanced theological, sociological and political metanarrative that needs to be better understood in order to more effectively communicate.

   Related to that, we also suggested in the two previous posts that the “generic academic mind” is more often than not concerned with pragmatic issues and less with truth claims than one might think. In a real sense a lot of academe has adopted Karl Marx’s dictum: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in different ways. The point, however, is to change it." 

   We think that a subtle shift from seeking truth to seeking social justice (Marx’s version) in academe played a role in the shaping the opinions of many secular public intellectuals.  For instance, John Rawls and others feel we would be better off focusing on “justice”—political and social—in ways that overlap between diverse cultural worldviews rather than seeking (a divisive) truth. Because of the influence of secular thinkers like Rawls, present day conversations in academe and in the larger public square often have a pragmatic, Rawlsian flavor to them. 

   Add to that the influence of current postmodern analysis that sees social organization and communication as a chief modus operandi for acquiring and/or sustaining raw power and privilege and you set the table for a highly sensitive identity food fight. Care to deny it? It’s hard not to read periodicals like Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education over the past several years and think we are not in some sort of serious “fight” over sexual and identity politics at the Academy. (We have been tracking some of this here, here, here, and here.)

   In the second part of this series (part 2), we argued that even though this presents a serious communication problem, it was not necessary to change one’s political leanings in order to communicate with academic non-Christians. However, depending on your political persuasion it might have to be done very carefully. That’s because political views are used as a shibboleth in academe to separate the sheep from the goats. Once you’ve been separated from the sheep, you are separated; they often play hard ball with the outsiders. For now, we finished talking about that in our last installment.  In this post, we want to discuss how these political affiliations present a problem with our interactions with fellow Christians

   We also want to offer some ideas to hopefully lessen the tension among ourselves so that we can go on with the task that seems paramount for Christians in academe: redeeming our own soul, along with the souls of our colleagues and also redeeming the academic institution structurally. Let us explain some background for this tension that may help us to understand what we now face. We wish to address some of the theological and political dimensions to this dissonance. (endnote 1)

Some Theological History 

   We think some of the kinds of the problems the Christian community in academe is experiencing today resonates with our history over the centuries. Our history, especially influenced during the lengthy period since the collapse of the medieval Christian consensus in Europe, the advent of Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, especially during and since the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science in the 17th century and into the 18th century played a major role in this development. In a real sense these thought movements presented orthodox Christianity with some major “thought bombs” that we are still thinking and reacting to today.

   For the time being we are going to bracket issues between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. Historic protestant, orthodox Christian faith--at least from the Reformation--has emphasized having faith in the Bible alone (Sola ScripturaSolus Christus)--in the 66 canonical books of the Bible, in Christ alone (), in faith alone (Sola FideSola Gratia), in grace alone (), and to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). 

   The change we are referring to—as a result of the breakdown of the medieval Christian consensus and the influence of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment—has had a profound effect on the academic world and even on popular culture as it trickled down. Today’s cultural leaders think about nearly everything in much more secular categories. In the broadest scope, these intellectual and sociological trends (like the fact of religious pluralism) began to change the nature of the university in America and in Europe—in Europe before America, but institutionally in America’s higher education during the 19th century. 

   It is ironic that this happened in America since conservative protestant Christians played a major role in establishing and developing higher education at today’s finest schools. However, by the middle of the 19th century America’s colleges and universities were moving strongly towards secularism. These movements had long term impacts on the nature of academe that have now reached as far as our best theological seminaries. Of course, eventually it has reached the people in the pews. 

   This brewing stew became obvious at the beginning of the 20th century—a deep rift developed between the most theologically conservative, protestant Christian thinkers and theologians and two other movements. For our purposes we wish to briefly gesture toward an understanding of these developing movements in protestant Christian circles, in the early 20th century. 

   One movement has come to be known as “liberal” Christianity“neo-orthodox” Christianity and another was . Theological conservatives at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century—circled their theological wagons in reaction to the other two. Upon reflection, their reaction was quite curious in that they largely retreated from the intellectual challenge posed by the other two instead of meeting it head-on; they also became increasingly anti-intellectual, and eventually defined what they thought was “fundamental” to orthodox Christian faith. They came to be known as “fundamentalist” Christians. The tensions among the three are not just theological, there are also important philosophical and political differences that have been recognized. 

   Liberal Christianity emerged into a recognizable entity by questioning supernaturalism, that is, practically speaking whenever the Bible and science conflicted, liberal Christianity for the most part “went” with the science. In time, that path brought into question the whole of the teaching of the Bible including calling into question the miracles of Jesus (again questioning supernaturalism), calling into question historical claims of the Bible (questioning factual adequacy and inspiration). Eventually, it has been argued, the theological liberals “understand” Christianity through metaphysically naturalistic lenses. 

   The “neo-orthodoxy” movement on the one hand takes issue with liberals because they do not think the Bible is a science handbook (as apparently the liberals and fundamentalists did and do), but rather a book about God’s spiritual communication to humans. Neo-orthodoxy tended to focus on the moral and spiritual teachings of Jesus and the Bible as authoritative. In matters of science and biblical criticism they tended to agree with liberal Christians that the Bible was not trustworthy with regards to either. It should come as no big surprise that fundamentalist Christians took issue with both of these movements.

   However, in that early part of the 20th century fractures began to appear in that third group, among the fundamentalists who felt they were in continuum with what the Reformation defined as historic Christian faith. The fundamentalists believed both in supernaturalism and rejected the results of an historical critical understanding of biblical literature on the basis that the bible was inspired by God, and was therefore trustworthy in matters of faith, history, and science. 

   Ironically, by the beginning of the 40s, a splinter group emerged from fundamentalism that we now call “evangelicalism.” While most evangelicals retained their high view of Scripture, they decried fundamentalism’s developing anti-intellectualism and its knee jerk non-involvement response to the liberal’s “social gospel.” They treated biblical criticism on a case by case basis and tended to treat the challenged areas as unresolved problems rather than outright errors. As such, evangelicals retained what they called a high-view of scripture.

   That’s a rough sketch of the backdrop of today’s concerns. What we see happening now is an emerging theological split among evangelicals that has some similarities and differences from earlier splits among Protestantism.

   We think what's going on in the evangelical community is very similar to the modernist and fundamentalist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century. Remember that’s where the theological liberals moved away from preaching the gospel to asserting a “social gospel. Remember also that the theological conservatives, to distinguish themselves from liberals, demurred regarding social involvement and "stuck to the gospel." The two groups became extremely suspicious of each other and built bigger and bigger walls between them and the infighting got personal and nasty. 

Politics and Theology Bleeding Into Each Other

   Compare that dynamic to what we see happening within evangelicalism today.  What we are presently seeing is a division, at least at a superficial level, that resonates with the conflict between the gospel and social issues—between fundamentalism and liberal Christianity. However, it is difficult given the current status of research to precisely define the size of the current political split among evangelicalism, much less the size of the political split among evangelicals within academe.(endnote 2)

   It’s worth noting the political progressives and the political conservatives in evangelicalism have always been there; but now these issues are at or near the top of both agendas. Both sides are digging in and are deeply suspicious of each other (ring a bell?). Progressives charge conservatives with having abandoned their social responsibilities in a way that is deeply anti-gospel; conservatives charge progressives with naively accepting a secular Marxist analysis as part of the gospel and as having a radical postmodern suspicion of anyone who disagrees with them.

   The division is deepening (so we say), rhetoric has gotten increasingly inflammatory, lots of folks on both sides play hard ball, some former evangelicals are now calling themselves post-evangelicals and are leaving to join (at least in principle) the other two movements.  Some post-evangelicals are contending for a redefinition of the term.  Both sides within evangelicalism are doubling down. What can we constructively do about this?

We’d like to make a few suggestions:

1)    Realize our intramural debate has a history and because that history has had some inflammatory language and produced divisive moments from both sides, there is a minefield of theological and politically motivated challenges that are in front of us. Not the least of the problems is that this intramural debate in academe among evangelicals is taking place in a space where many of our secular colleagues are the ideological inheritors of the fundamentalist/modernist debate.  Note, too, that that among evangelicals, the political progressives are better represented in academe than conservatives and that evangelical political progressives find themselves more in agreement with their secular colleagues than with their conservative colleagues.  Those facts can affect how this internal debate plays out. 

What we urge among the progressive evangelicals in academe, is that they do not break off dialogue with their politically conservative evangelical colleagues. That may be tempting to do as a political maneuver, but it’s hard to justify theologically. After all, they should be able to find some Christian intellectuals in that other group who made it into academe with whom they can dialogue. There are those who are not merely left-over benighted fundamentalists and are not disagreeing with you because they only wish to keep power and privilege.

What we urge among the conservative evangelicals who make up the “populist” part of evangelicalism in academe is to continue to uphold the convictions of earlier evangelicals who turned from anti-intellectualism and kept open minds. We believe you will also find many progressive evangelicals in academe who will accommodate fair dialogue, and evangelicals dare not split until there is no other choice.  

2) We generally need to lower the rhetorical level in our interactions even if we do have serious misgivings about the other’s point of view. Both can see the other side as a betrayal of historic Christian faith; we should acknowledge that reality and enter into discourse carefully.

3) It will be a serious problem to overcome if either or both sides do not argue with each other in good faith. By "good faith" we mean that we need to assume those with whom we dialogue are trying to understand our point of view…unless there is good evidence against that. We should be intent on making the conversation better. Check what we found to be a provocative article in IHE entitled, “The Presumption of Good Faith in Campus Conversation."

4) Realize both sides are in danger of putting their politics above their theological reasoning. They both can easily “read into” scripture their point of view on politics and this possibility needs a lot of good faith research and discussion.

5) Realize that in the future, if the larger evangelical community threatens expulsion of the political progressives from evangelicalism or if the political progressives within evangelicalsim threatens to abandon evangelicalism, it will do little to help fruitful discussion. That should come much, much later if need be.

6) Theological conservatives need more research regarding biblical problems that the neo-orthdox and some post-evangelicals struggle with, and they need to publish their work.

7) Social activists need to re-examine the biblical support they think they have for Marxist and postmodern analysis. Some within their group also need to better explain and defend various versions of the Reformed idea of “sphere sovereignty” as a part of that discussion. 

8) Finally, we all need to realize the church has long struggled to some extent with these kinds of issues—note how a particular social and theological issue came up and was resolved in the beginning of Acts 6:1ff.




1 In these series of articles and especially in this one we will and have discussed some of the differences between progressive political evangelicals and conservative political evangelicals and how that explains some of the dissonance we find among evangelicals in academia. What’s going on among evangelicals in academe is our main focus.  Most of the research we have looked at speaks to the nature of the larger evangelical community and not evangelicals necessarily in academe. However, since a divide does exist in academe among evangelicals and it looks a great deal like the division in our broader community, we think the advice we offer will remain relevant. Also, it is easy to conflate political leanings and theological leanings—however, while there may be some important correlations to recognize among the two, we do not think that there is a necessary logical relation between the two. We think that because we often find political positions that are supposed to be "in scripture" are arguably underdetermined in the text.

2 In trying to guage a rough and ready approximation of the size of the divide within the conservative/progressive political division within evangelicalism, we originally leaned on research produced by the Pew Reseach Center (PRC).  According to their work, see a 11/9/2016 PRC article “How the Faithful voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis” that among “White, born again, evangelical Christians” that voted, 81% were for Trump and 16% were for Clinton. To better understand the statistical nuances we invite you to read that article carefully, and two others: a 4/27/2017 PRC article “Among White Evangelical, Regular Churchgoers Are the Most Supportive of Trump” and this 8/18/2018 PRC article “An Examination of the 2016 Electorate Based on Validated Voters.”  One obvious important nuance we didn’t originally consider in this estimate is how non-white evangelical voters voted in the election (of black voters, 91% voted for Clinton, 6% voted for Trump) and how that’s relevant to the size of the conservative/progressive political divide within evangelicalism; neither did we research the size of the potential “never Trumpers” who might have been conservatives within evangelicalism. For the purposers in this article—since we are mainly talking about what’s going on in academe and because we think conservative white evangelicals and conservative non-white evangelicals are under-represented at universities and especially at elite universities— we did not think it necessary to go beyond these approximate numbers in estimating the proportions of the divide. That is, neither the precise size of the political division in the larger evangelical community, nor the size of the political division within the academic evangelical community was our aim to resolve.  

Correction: This article was edited on 10/4/2019 and subsequently on 10/11/2019 due to a concern voiced by Dr. John D. Inazu regarding our estimate of the size of the political divide within evangelicalism. © Academic Connections, International