On the one hand, we have the antichrist spirit that despises Christianity. Voltaire’s disciples have declined in intellectual rigor from Bertrand Russell to Sam Harris, but have retained the old Enlightenment skeptic’s willingness to substitute forcefulness of expression for argument. More and more of their leaders are willing to advocate profaning religious symbols. The hostility to Evangelical forms of Christianity has never been greater.
More potent perhaps is a general cultural ignorance growing in the educated. There are several causes for this, but chief is the hollowing out of general education at all levels of schools and a decline in functional literacy.
This is often disguised with postmodernist rhetoric. In practice, however, most of what is described as post-modernity owes less to Foucault, then to an inability to carry on a discussion. Whatever one calls it, many young adults have a marked skepticism toward any claims to knowledge, even in the hard sciences. They have no tolerance of the idea of religious knowledge, which they think is a quite intolerable concept due to its intolerance.
The most serious problem, however, for the culture is within the church. That there is rot is nothing new. When those called to be salt fail, then a nation or culture is in trouble. Christians too often are caught between demands for certainty from bad forms of religious fundamentalism and a desire to placate our putatively pluralistic culture. Some Christians become immodest about our actual state of knowledge and come across as strident and ignorant. Other Christians, particularly in the academy, can sound deeply uncertain and conflicted regarding everything. We refuse to commit ourselves to any but the broadest and most defensible theories.
Courageous groups like the marvelous Geoscience Research Institute are great examples of a balance between modesty and intellectual courage. The holistic geology paper of 2007 by Leonard Brand in Origins was a model of intellectual speculation, honesty, and faithfulness to his general approach to reason and revelation. Many of us who are Christians but not Adventists rely on their work and admire their charitable and humble spirit. Sadly, their numbers are all too few amongst modern Christians. How can we find greater courage and commitment?
Finding courage will begin with finding clarity in our intellectual engagements. It will also require learning to ask the right questions and deciding on an epistemology that grounds what we find most important.
In his novel Anna Karenina (chapter 7) Tolstoy has his hero Levin listen to a conversation between his brother and a scientist.
As he listened to his brother’s argument with the professor, he noticed that they connected these scientific questions with those spiritual problems – that at times they almost touched on the latter; but every time they were close upon what seemed to him the chief point they promptly beat a hasty retreat, and plunged again into a sea of subtle distinctions, reservations, quotations, allusions and appeals to authorities, and it was with difficulty that he understood what they were talking about.
Levin’s brother and the scientist avoid the main problem of the relationship between science and the spirit by focusing on the details.
Avoiding questions through academic obfuscation gains nothing. It risks teaching our students bad intellectual habits. Not knowing the answers to questions, even important questions, is part of the human condition this side of paradise.
Do the first chapters of Genesis give an accurate account of the creation of the world? Was there a flood in the days of Noah that destroyed all human life? Is John 1:1 correct when it says that Logos came before the creation of the cosmos?
Dodging these questions will not help our own beliefs or the faith of the generations we educate. We need not, I will suggest, have all the answers, but we must be asking the right questions. My wife attended a prominent Christian college where issues regarding the integration of Genesis and science were never discussed or were never discussed in any depth.
Students are asking questions, but too often instead of risking proposing answers that open us up to the keen criticisms of students and peers, we hide (as Tolstoy portrays) behind academic jargon and footnoting. This can become especially morally questionable when Christian colleges and universities obscure in their marketing what faculty believe in order to recruit students.
Parents and students have a right to know what they are getting. As scholars and educators, we have a duty to spell out what we believe. Of course, this is dangerous, since academic “answers” are always tentative. Many of us are in process, and parents and students should accept this, but often do not. The difficulty is not solved however when educators, who should be educating in this as well as other things, avoid all confrontations by hiding their views.
If old answers do not satisfy, that does not mean we need adopt old liberal or skeptical answers that our parents rightly rejected, but start the hard work of finding better answers that maintain what we know to be true. To do so is to reject the revolutionary spirit for the lost virtue of moderation or prudence.
Based on a presentation at Loma Linda University and at the College at Saint Constantine.