Mark Noll and the potential contributions of Christian scholarship

Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), a book that scandalized the evangelical mind by noting that it wasn’t much in evidence (Noll then scandalized some further when he announced in 2006 that he was leaving Wheaton College after 27 years on the faculty for Notre Dame), was in a sense sequeled in 2011 by Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans).  Life of the Mind moves in a more hopeful direction by reconnecting with one of the most ancient of theological questions, often shorthanded as the distinction to be understood between Jerusalem and Athens:  how does one reconcile the life of faith with the life of the mind?

The very question can seem absurd.  Some Christian traditions have revered intellectualism when understood as supplemental or even constitutive of faith, and the world’s great centers of learning include many dedicated to propagation of the faith, but within the contours of profoundly thoughtful efforts to apprehend God’s creation through both the registers of reason as well as the more affectively sensitive mechanisms of intuition or unquestioning simple belief.  For advocates of those traditions – I have in mind the towering scholarly accomplishments of Catholicism and the scholarly products of the Jesuits or the Episcopalians with their metaphorical three-legged stool, but also the textually rigorous insistence that animates many of the Protestant and fundamentalist traditions and brings intellectual coherence to the “priesthood of the believer” (such as the originary impulse of the Churches/Disciples of Christ, founded by the Campbells and Barton Stone, to find converts by way of rigorous actual interdenominational debates) – a faith inconsistent with the dictates of rationality is a belief not worth having.  Why would one worship a God who cannot be apprehended, if only in part, by use of the very mental capacity that most fully distinguishes humans as God’s creation?

But the New Testament itself provides ammunition to those who see the Gospel as requiring a renunciation of the foolish dictates of reason.  The Apostle Paul thunders at the church in Corinth in a tone that taunts the ivory tower elites of his time:

For it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Cor. 1: 19-29).

There is much to say about this passage, and regarding related passages in the Book of Acts that describe moments of encounter between budding Christian doctrine and the worldly philosophers.  But to some, Paul is here recommending the abandonment of scholasticism and the deep methods of inquiry that can incline humans to hubris.  Augustine and others famously warned against confidence in academic inquiry – how might one have confidence that truth will emerge out of the exchanges conducted among fools? – all presumably to be renounced in preference for the interactions that conducted in prayer bring human frailty into contact with Divine perfection.  And yet the New Testament also recounts multiple scenes of attempted conversion predicated not on the performance of miracles or the enactment of loving care but through the incisive work of public argument (e.g., Acts 6:8-10; 9:28-30; 17:16-17; 18:27-28; 19:8-10).  The message regarding scholarship is thus often read as profoundly mixed:  helpful as a tactic of potential conversion but also dangerous, not only because of its possible inducement to hubris but because clever sophistry (of the type Satan practiced on Jesus as he wandered the wilderness for forty days and nights, or attempted in his jousting with God over Job) can lead the innocent astray.

When it comes to those Christians who have made professional commitments to the work of the public university, the issue is further complicated.  A life built on unwavering adherence to the Christian gospel can be understood as profoundly at odds with the spirit of skepticism and unending inquiry that underwrites the academy.  Only several short steps lead many believers to see secular institutions (like, for example, public universities) as inevitably hostile to Christian discipleship.  Meanwhile expressions of doubt, the very lifeblood of academic inquiry, are too easily read as heretical when articulated in religious settings.  Athens and Jerusalem are thus apprehended as two worlds completely divided and incommensurable one to the other.  (This, I think, is deeply unfortunate, and it has always seemed to me that faith traditions would be made stronger by welcoming and working through expressions of doubt.  There is support for this position in the New Testament gospels – in one case, recounted at Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus and asks that his son be healed.  Jesus says something like Everything is possible for those who believe.  The father replies by expressing a paradox often felt by even the most dedicated believers:  I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.  Importantly, Jesus is not offended by the contradiction but heals the boy.  And when the famous doubting Thomas expresses his skepticism about the resurrection, Jesus does not throw him out; rather, as recounted in Luke’s gospel, Jesus replies “Look at my hands and feet.  Touch me and see.”  Doubt is heard as an invitation to fellowship and grace and not read as blasphemy).

The risk that the phrase “Christian intellectual” will be thought a contradiction in terms, and the related consequence that Christianity will, if seen as embracing anti-intellectualism, repel brilliant seekers, is what I take as the animating impulse of Noll’s recent work.  His project is to argue the consistency of scholarship with Christianity, and more than that, to assert that Christians who do scholarship importantly enrich academic work.

A common approach in taking up this issue is to cite scripture on the topic of noble work.  In a number of places believers are called, irrespective of the location or nature of their employment, to excellence in the workplace, and I have heard these admonitions cited to induce even professors into offering their dedicated and best work.  Some examples:  The OT Proverbs in several places advocate for diligence (12:24 – “diligent hands will rule”; 14:23 – “all hard work brings a profit”).  Or from the Acts of the Apostles (5:38), a test that much academic work seems easily to pass:  “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God.”  Or, alternatively, the commendation made in the letter to the Colossian church at 3:17: “Do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (which one might read as a command to dedicate all work, especially the work of the mind, to God’s honor); later (3:23), “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”  Or, from the first letter to the Corinthian Christians, an injunction essentially to “bloom where you are planted”:  “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.”  Versions of the same idea are repeated three times in that one chapter (7:17, 7:20, 7:24) alone.  In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he writes (6:5-8) “Obey earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ…  like slaves of Christ doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

But this is not the path laid out by Prof. Noll.  Instead, Life of the Mind searches scripture for those places where insights into intellectualism can be abstracted into a philosophy of Christian scholarship.  What Noll finds everywhere are invitations to closer scrutiny and deeper inquiry.  In the Christian creeds and in the major doctrinal worldviews found in the New Testament (such as the first chapter of Colossians (1:16-17) are statements about the created world that he reads as inviting Christians to respond to creation with the impulse to further explore and learn.  In the statements of Jesus to which I’ve alluded already (especially for Noll: “Come, and see!”), Noll apprehends a scholarly impulse which one can credit by faith with always rewarding closer scrutiny.  What Noll advocates is a faithful confidence that deeper engagement with the protocols of learning will lead thinkers closer to God and not further away:

The specific requirements for Christian scholarship all grow naturally from Christian worship inspired by love:  confidence in the ability to gain knowledge about the world because the world was brought into being through Jesus Christ; commitment to careful examination of the objects of study through “coming and seeing”; trust that good scholarship and faithful discipleship cannot ultimately conflict; humility from realizing that learning depends at every step on a merciful God; and gratitude in acknowledging that all good gifts come from above.  If, as Christians believe, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hid in Christ (Col 2:3), the time is always past for talking about treasure hunting.  The time is always now to unearth treasure, offer it to others for critique or affirmation, and above all find in it new occasions to glorify the one who gives the treasure and is the treasure himself.  (p. 149).

Shortly after its publication, the great Yale theologian Nicholas Wolsterstorff wrote a positive review that nonetheless wondered whether Noll’s three-chapter discipline-by-discipline case studies were rich enough to make compelling the case for Christian contributions to scholarship.  He wrote:

Let me add that whereas the Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning seems to me both compelling and rich, the guidelines that he teases out of classic Christology for how we actually engage in learning strike me as rather thin by comparison.  Christians, he says, will affirm contingency.  They will affirm particularity.  With the Incarnation in mind they will insist, by analogy, that ascribing a natural cause to some event is compatible with ascribing it to God as well.  They will resist the pride characteristic of intellectuals.  All true; but very general and abstract.

That point is well taken, although given the common radical separation of secular and sacred intellectual inquiry, it may be that the simple articulation of a Christian alternative itself might engage deeper thinking.

For me, the trickier question is whether, despite the intellectual payoffs to be found in the great faith traditions, they should ever be strongly asserted in the public university.  One need not condemn Christians to silence in the public square to recognize that in an institution aiming to welcome and encourage thinkers from all backgrounds and perspectives, the forceful articulation of Christian theological imperatives risks doing as much damage to the open spirit of inquiry (by silencing those who will wonder if they can freely disagree with faith commitments so deeply held) as good.  I wonder.  It may be that the scholarly work Noll advocates is best undertaken in explicitly religious institutions, from which point its findings and main claims can be disseminated more widely as an implicit corrective to the narrower work of a public educational system that will of rightful necessity orient its efforts to reach more widely.

For me, then, Noll’s work finally raises this question:  Even conceding the strongest case for Christian scholarship (which is to say, the case that an articulated Christian worldview can enliven any disciplinary conversation), does it then follow that Christian commitments should be always and everywhere articulated?  Or, put a bit differently, does every workplace obligate the believer to proselytization?  Is it possible that, as Paul made tents to raise money for his missionary journeys, there were days when he simply quietly engaged in craftsmanship without preaching to his colleagues?  As the New Testament figure Lydia made purple silks, which we are told she did to fund the work of the church, did she try to determine how this or that biblical verse might better inform her artistic practice?  Or were these believers content simply to segment their good work, willing to concentrate their evangelism within other locales where Christian testimony would be more gratefully received than the tent or silk workshops?

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