Monday, November 05, 2007

Who Is Anti-Intellectual?

In his new book Faith in the Halls of Power, sociologist D. Michael Lindsay makes an assessment which is astute, on the one hand, yet needs clarification, on the other. He writes,

The purpose of higher education has always been to train young leaders to assume the mantle of public responsibility. For most of history, that training was done by the churches. In the United States, the earliest colleges (including most of the Ivy League) were established for clergy formation. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, theological conservatives wedded rigorous academic scholarship to a religious view of the world. They did so not at second-rate institutions but at places like Harvard and Princeton. But the tide was turning. An alternative vision for higher education - one that emphasized academic freedom, skepticism, and the importance of independent learning - began to take root. Out of such convictions, the modern research university was born.... Theological conservatives - then called "fundamentalists" - became increasingly uneasy. They began to mobilize against the rise of biblical criticism at places like Princeton Seminary and the teaching of evolution in public schools. They were not, however, inherently anti-intellectual. In fact, even today, fundamentalism relies on a form of tight logic; much of the genre of Christian apologetics depends on reason. But its notion of truth had become so fixed that its proponents began to resent anything that appeared to be counter-evidence. Hence, fundamentalist anti-intellectualism is really an opposition to and resentment of academic intellectualism, especially as practiced in the modern research university. It is grounded in the fear that scholarship will chip away at the fundamentalist edifice that has become increasingly calcified and brittle. Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism came to a head at the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, and the tensions have never been resolved. As a result, many conservative Christians keep their distance from academic life.

Yes and no. As a fundamentalist myself, I think Lindsay is correct in his observations, but incorrect in his interpretations. He is correct that fundamentalism is not anti-intellectual, and I appreciate him saying so. "Anti-intellectualism" is a charge against fundamentalism that has been repeated ad naseum, but it has never been an accurate description of the core principles of the movement. Rather, fundamentalists have always been in opposition to atheistic intellectualism. That would be the term I would substitute for Lindsay's "academic." Fundamentalism actually modeled a great deal of their training of young people on the academic model, starting scores of Bible institutes and Bible colleges. I believe this shows that fundamentalists, rightly or wrongly, believed very much in the academic model. They could have chosen other ways to train young leaders to assume the mantle of public responsibility, but by and large they did not.

Fundamentalists were really against a kind of intellectualism that ignores God and his revelation and arrogantly supposes that man can build his own systems of thinking from his own autonomous reason. Fundamentalism is very clear about its fundamental starting point for everything - the Triune God has revealed himself infallibly in the self-attesting Bible. The fundamental starting point for knowledge in the modern research university is anything but that. The tensions have never been resolved simply because these two positions are mutually exclusive. The first commandment states, "You shall have no other gods before me." Fundamentalists believe that, and therefore they say to the modern research university (speaking as a whole of its underlying philosophy, not of each individual faculty member per se), "You are worshiping a false god."

Thus, the fundamentalist position is definitely not grounded in "fear that scholarship will chip away at the fundamentalist edifice." But Lindsay is right about one thing. It is grounded in fear - the fear of the Lord. Fundamentalism at its best eschews the fear of man and operates by faith in the Lord. And in that way fundamentalism carries on what is at the heart of what genuine Christians have always believed - that faith is the foundation of all knowledge. Anselm said, "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand.'" From the fundamentalist perspective, it is the modern research universities that are anti-intellectual.

No comments: