28 May 2006 - Sunday

Conflict and comprehension

In the recent Patrick Henry College controversy, the central theme of the dispute was not necessarily academic freedom, although that's what outsiders (including me) talked about the most. The central question for those actually involved was the proper Christian attitude toward the liberal arts. Two PHC professors, Kevin Culberson and David Noe, chose that topic for a student magazine article they wrote just before resigning.

The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, they told the PHC community, does not mean that evangelicals can ignore outside thought. On the contrary, "the majority of the knowledge we need comes to us from God's grace revealed in nature, and the bulk of that through the efforts of irreligious and ungodly men." Therefore, the liberal arts are valuable as a way to find freestanding sources of truth, not just pagan material to contrast with the Bible.

When I first read the article, I got the odd feeling that many conservative Protestants would bristle at its language even as they obey its spirit in their everyday lives. Anyway, the article seems pretty reasonable to me. What I like most in it, however, comes at the very end. I like this because it brings to mind my experiences with evangelical students.

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, "Was this man a Christian?" but "Is this true?" Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

It violates Christian charity when we delight in identifying those points at which pagan authors depart from the Scriptures. Is there really any profundity in concluding that Plato or Vergil did not know Christ? How much better is it to see that God has not left himself without witness among all peoples, we would say especially among the Greeks and Romans. If from the lips of infants and children he has ordained praise, and the stars themselves, though mute, declare the glory of God, day after day pouring forth speech, is it not true that in all aspects of the liberal arts God has revealed his glorious knowledge for our benefit?

In that last paragraph, I think, lies the heart of the problem. I can easily imagine the discussions that might have led Culberson and Noe to write this plea.

In my experience, many of my fellow evangelicals, although they may think they are willing to interact with the ideas of non-Christians, are actually pretty patronizing. As the authors hint above, many take pleasure in pointing out the shortcomings of any unorthodox philosophy. To such people, anything out of line with their interpretation of the Bible is by definition absurd; it is to be dismissed with ridicule and Bible verses. "How could anybody possibly think that?" they wonder.

And yes, to some of them, observing that a Spinoza or Goethe or Derrida was not exactly Chalcedon-compliant would seem like insightful philosophical analysis. They have no ability to step into someone else's worldview for a moment, to understand how people reach different conclusions. They lack the humility to recognize that someone's work can be brilliant even when they don't agree with it. As a result, they also often lack the ability to tell when a particular Christian is not being brilliant.

But I don't think this problem is unique to us evangelicals, nor do I think the problem is a religious one. I'm just observing the problems I see closest to home. Pretty much everybody is susceptible; we all tend to get uptight about something or another. And as another blogger noted some time ago, a lot of people just don't seem to be able to appreciate cool arguments for their coolness.

I think that's terribly sad. God made the human mind far too beautiful, even in all its decay, for us to disparage the variety and intricacy of its work.

| Posted by Wilson at 21:18 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk