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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Christian scholars and the secularized academy

Mark Noll on why Christian intellectual vitality requires a vision for the universality of Christian truth

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Christian scholars and the secularized academy

On the Friday Feature released on September 1, 2023, we re-played a 2009 interview with evangelical historian Mark Noll. That interview (originally featured on Volume 97 of the Journal) was prompted by The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue, a book co-written by Noll and Notre Dame humanities professor James Turner.

Noll’s major essay in the book was titled “Reconsidering Christendom.” In it, he argued that Christian learning is most likely to flourish in “a society in which the institutions of an inherited and respected visible Christian church provide the main ordering principles for education, culture, and much else; where government defers to the church for matters concerning family, personal morality, culture and education, and where, in turn, the institutions and personnel of a Christian church provide legitimization for governments that carry out what are considered God-ordained tasks of preserving social stability and perpetuating the favored social position of the visible church."

Even when Christendom dissolved — under the influence of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of modern science — Catholics and Protestants alike “kept habits of comprehension, community, proprietorship, and universality that powerfully sustained the effects of Christendom even without its actual structure.” At least for a while.

In America, in the twentieth century, the fundamentalist movement effectively “repudiated the proprietary instincts of Christianity.” Fundamentalist reformers saw the Church as an organization entirely separated from the world. Fundamentalist Christians — and their evangelical heirs — promoted “a religion whose strongest impulses were aligned with the American practices that had already weakened Christendom rather than with those that had recreated it. That is, fundamentalists were devotees of liberal individualism, they expressed republican fears of concentrated institutional power, they were confident in the ability of every man to interpret foundational written constitutions for himself, and (in American political terms) they displayed the Democratic Party’s distrust of centralized government.” Later in the essay he characterizes these Protestants as captive to “docetic, gnostic, and Manichaean tendencies.”

By contrast, “the proprietary mainline churches, in order to re-create effects of Christendom, had cultivated a measure of aristocracy, an ideal of inclusive community, a distrust of the unwashed masses, and the Whig Party’s trust in government to improve the quality of life. With fundamentalism, the attack on Christendom led not to its renewal but to its virtual extinction.”

Noll argues that in Christian history, the great moments of the flowering of Christian learning — of intellectual vitality ordered by theological depth and orthodox faithfulness — always occurred in settings where leaders presupposed that Christian ideas were not a way to escape from the world but the means whereby all of life would be transformed.

Later in the essay, Noll looks at the opportunities and challenges within American higher education for a Christian witness with a neo-Christendom vision. “Into the 1960s, American learned culture seemed fixed in its long but persistent flight away from specific Christian influence. To be sure, by galvanizing the nation morally as well as militarily, World War II had prompted an upsurge of religion. But this religion was more patriotic theism than a sharply focused particular faith. As argued persuasively in Will Herberg’s penetrating Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), a generic religion of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ easily became as much a substitute for individual faiths like evangelicalism or Catholicism as an extension of them.

“Whatever the state of popular culture, university life was continuing in the secular direction that had been strengthening since the late nineteenth century. Quite apart from the intellectual self-confidence possessed by liberal democratic pragmatists, international political realists, Freudian analysts of culture, social scientists enamored of Parsonian instrumentalism, and historians of American anti-intellectualism who saw Christianity as the major culprit, the nation's organized Christian bodies did not seem positioned to offer much intellectual help. Protestant denominations such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Christian Reformed Church, which sustained a European respect for higher learning, as well as Eastern Orthodox communions, were locked away in ethnic enclaves. The nation’s hordes of evangelicals and fundamentalists exerted almost no influence on the national intellectual agenda, partly because they had taken themselves out of this picture, partly because those who controlled that agenda did not let them in. Catholics, whatever may have been the reality within their own institutions, associations, and neighborhoods, were still regarded with nearly universal suspicion: by the acolytes of John Dewey as a threat to the pragmatist utopia, by ideological defenders of democracy and the American public school as a fifth-column of crypto-fascists, and by Protestants of many stripes as minions of the Antichrist.

“Mainline Protestants were still advantageously positioned within the dominant academic culture, but apart from occasional pronouncements by figures like Reinhold Niebuhr; these Protestants made few attempts at shaping, challenging, or redirecting the nation's dominant intellectual discourse. E. Harris Harbison, an active Presbyterian who joined the history faculty at Princeton near the start of World War II, later wrote about how isolated he felt as a practicing Christian who expected his faith to inform his scholarship and this was at Princeton, the most conservative of the nation’s leading universities which maintained a few of the forms of nineteenth-century proprietary Protestantism deep into Harbison’s own tenure on the faculty.

“The discomfiting of the United States’ once self-confident intellectual establishment which has occurred since the 1960s altered the configuration of ins and outs, and with a vengeance. The recent trials of the academy have been chronicled in a full library of books, but even a brief sketch can suggest some of the factors and forces that blew things apart. The civil rights movement and then conflict over the Vietnam War undercut assumptions about the moral indefectibility of the nation’s liberal democracy. The academic elites who dominated higher education into the 1960s lost moral authority when they embraced a variety of antinationalist, avant-garde, and left-wing moral causes. A handful of brilliant historians, led by Perry Miller and then Edmund Morgan, who were often atheists or agnostics themselves, rehabilitated the reputation of the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and showed them to be not only the most God-besotted but also the most intelligent of all early Americans. Roman Catholic firmness against communism and admiration for the nation's first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, defused much of the intellectual hauteur that had once dismissed Catholicism as unworthy of participating in the American Way of Life. From the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, a host of ever-deepening challenges called into question the self-image of disinterested scientific objectivity that had once sustained the amour propre of leading scholars. Then came legions of feminists, Marxists, and multiculturalists who expanded these intellectual challenges by taking them from the ivory tower into the streets and back. Meanwhile, the obvious strength of religious forces at work in the world, and even the United States, gave the lie to the plot of inevitable secularization that had once comfortably reassured many American academic elites.

“None of these forces or figures were particularly friendly to anything distinctly Christian, but all of them loosened the intellectual boundaries and made it harder to exclude vagrant positions, like those maintained by Catholics and evangelicals, from taking their place in the intellectual marketplace. In this new American situation there unfolded the parallel, but separate, histories of Catholic and evangelical intellectual development that, after many twists and turns, eventually brought representatives of each into contact with the other.”