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Fear and Self-Loathing on the Evangelical Campus

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Published on: October 24, 2014

 Professor Stephen Dilley of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, offers a fascinating article on the First Things web site entitled The Problem of Self-Loathing at Evangelical Colleges.

During his own engagements at evangelical colleges, both as a student and faculty member,  Dilley has observed the sad extent to which evangelical students demonstrate not Christian humility, but shame, which is reinforced by professors who resent the cultural isolation of evangelicalism. 

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Professor Mark Noll, the author of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” is an excellent example of this syndrome.  I take up Noll’s confusingly stated case in my own book entitled The Problem with Wheaton, in which I argue that the crisis in the evangelical academy is not its cultural isolation and lack of intellectualism, but its marriage to the cornerstone of modern culture — a modern conception of reason demanding integration with the products of secular reason.  In other words, the problem is not that the evangelical academy is culturally isolated, but just the opposite — it is the cuckolded whore of modern culture.  It is failing to deconstruct modern culture, and specifically, the modern account of reason.  It impossible to put an end to this pathetic, impotent self-loathing until the Christian academy begins to understand that postmodern thought is a platform upon which we can launch a cultural revolution.  We must teach evangelical college students to mock ambient modern culture and every supposedly Christian professor who cooperates with it.  The modern western tradition is not knowledge let alone wisdom.

Noll inherits his whining about the evangelical subculture from guys like Charles Malik and Os Guinness (about whom there is otherwise a great deal to admire).  The former bemoans evangelical anti-intellectualism, which I celebrate as a very profound instinct.  The latter echoes this elitist repudiation of the parishioners.  This is the height of naiveté from my postmodern point of view.  It is not the average evangelical parishioner who is letting evangelicalism down, but the evangelical professors who continue to operate on modern assumptions about the nature of language, meaning and reason. 

The evangelical student arrives on campus brain-washed by the government schools.  He takes a modern frame of mind for granted.  He assumes that reason is one or more universal standards of rational justification and that science is literally describing Reality.  So do his professors.  We need a whole new Christian Academy which reverses this brain washing and teaches this boring herd to become interesting by participating in a postmodern cultural revolution.  Some conservative Catholics get this point of view to the extent that they are more explicitly immersed in Christianity as a tradition which is simply incommensurate with the modern tradition and vastly superior to it both with regard to its account of reason and its practical moral effects.  The tradition determines the meaning of the secular mind and its products, not vice versa.  Reality is not the theoretical abstractions of science but the existential environment in which we are human and religious.

Students who arrive on campus demanding the end to their sense of Christian cultural isolation should be slapped in the face with a whole new challenge: End your cultural isolation by destroying the ambient culture.  This is a matter of spiritual and physical survival for the church and for them as individuals.

Apparently evangelical students no longer have a sense of the Christian tradition.  They have grown up saturated not only in the rationalist pretenses of the dominant culture, but their own subculture.  They need intellectual shock treatment.  They need a whole new revolutionary perspective.  The solution to their alienation is not more modernity, not more cultural integration, but the postmodern deconstruction of modernity.  This project is now obvious.  But it takes courage and aggression, not the modern narcissism of the evangelical professors, like Noll et al, who long for the respect of a dead modern tradition and imagine that they are the unappreciated saviors of our Christian intellects.   

Part of the problem is that evangelical students, like all students in modern culture, are so overwhelmed by boredom that they mistakenly grasp at superficial analyses of their alienation.  They think it will end if they just get more hip.  But their alienation is a product of a lack of tradition.  This cannot be reversed by this rationalist project of constructing a world-view out of a few Christian premises and a rotting warehouse of liberal secular mythology about human nature, culture and politics.  Put some high powered postmodern weaponry in their hands and they may just discover the instinct to fight.  War is not boring.  But they may have to start by making war on their boring, obsequious, elitist professors.

Dilley expects evangelical professors to demonstrate a little respect for evangelical history and tradition.  But in doing so he may simply be overestimating the extent to which the rationalist roots of Protestantism, its unfortunate compatibility with the liberal myth of the rationally autonomous individual, is able to defend itself as a tradition.  It is not presented as a tradition, with a tradition-bound account of reason by the professors.  It is presented as the marriage of faith and universal reason.  Obviously, there is such a thing as faith, and it is inherently rational from a traditional point of view.  But there is no such thing as universal reason.  The exciting project of the postmodern Christian Academy is not the banal integration of faith and modern science as a rationalist myth.  It is the wholesale deconstruction of modern reason and its culture.  And this, paradoxically, is going to require a degree of scholarship, discipline and courage which will only be displayed by the students when the professors stop looking for the world’s approval and demonstrate it themselves.

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