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Tender versus Tough-Minded Christians and the Survival of the Orthodox Church

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Published on: December 29, 2015

Who do you trust with the future of orthodox Christianity in the United States and in the World?  Who do you think is able to fight effectively for religious and political freedom let alone the dominance of Christian culture?  If tough-minded Christians, skeptical of reason and modernity, walked off the field, leaving it to Christians who believe that being nice and working with the government, academia, and science is the route to saving our Christian way of life, would you sleep better or worse? 

In the latest installment of the Wheaton Alumni Magazine (where Wheaton is the most famous college of the evangelical subculture) we find news of the college’s “Center for Urban Engagement.”  (I take it that the center has been established to demonstrate how the Gospel can be restated in terms of social science and perhaps social justice, and therefore made truly engaging.)  And in that news we find Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a Wheaton Political Science professor, now famous for publicly identifying with Muslims on the grounds that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, participating in one of the center’s panel discussions.  No doubt her contributions to the center are as scientific and as integrated with the Christian tradition as her remarks about the commensurateness of Christianity and Islam.  

In the meantime we read in the same publication of Professor Theon Hill of Wheaton who, as a communications expert, examines “the role of radical rhetoric as a crucial form of civic engagement and public advocacy.”  Dr. Hill tells us that he wants the freedom to research what he truly believes.  There is no mention of researching what Wheaton or the orthodox church really believes.  (I wonder if Professor Hill has an open mind about the value added by radical right wing rhetoric.)   

Even at this late stage in the practical irrelevance of liberalism we still find no sign of Wheaton beginning to question what happens when explicit confidence in reason and science is turned loose on campus while the conservative understanding of how traditions actually work is nowhere to be seen.  Unfortunately, professors who do understand how traditions work, and who reject the rationalism which is not repudiated in practice at Wheaton, leave for the Catholic Church.   This is one way to escape from the blandness.  In the past Wheaton disciplined sincerely orthodox students for dancing, drinking, and going to movies.  Now it disciplines students for being orthodox enough to make homosexuals feel uncomfortable on campus.  Is Wheaton anchored in the orthodox Christian tradition or standards of Reason and Niceness, all of which are relative, shifting sand?  President Ryken has said that Wheaton is welcoming, not affirming of individuals who protest its increasingly thin coating of conservative Christianity.  What is the practical difference?  The Church cannot preserve its identity by welcoming everybody.  History is headed toward a great divorce.  Conservative theological passion and liberal niceness cannot occupy the same space.  It has gotten to the point where Wheaton needs to consider its appearance.  Niceness is becoming a vice.  It just looks like cowardice. 

William James, at the turn of the last century, argued that some people are simply predisposed to more or less hard-headed or sentimental views of Reality.  He did not think that these predispositions, all by themselves, determined the truth value of beliefs and defended the right of the tender-minded to believe what the tough minded refused to imagine.  Tender-minded people, he thought, are more open to religious belief, and the test of their truth, being pragmatic, is as good, if not better, than the speciously rationalist tests of the tough-minded.   

The extent to which these roles have been reversed in our own time is nothing less than amazing.  Now it is the all too imaginative, and hopeful, who embrace the crumbling claims of Reason and modern science, and it is the formerly “tender-minded” Christians, using the very same pragmatic test, who are the emerging skeptics and realists mocking the failures of modernity.  While the faculties at places like Wheaton are still immersed in the mythology of universal reason and its power to redeem the future of religion, the truly educated have given up on this tender-minded nonsense announcing their pragmatic Christian skepticism of the whole western liberal tradition and its scientism.  They believe the new version of tender-minded Christians cannot possibly save the church and its God-given mission. 

Tough-minded contemporary Christians assert the following propositions, and tender-minded Christians, still hoping to immanentize the eschaton, reject all of them except (12) where the even more profound disagreement is about the specific social policies implied by Christianity: 

  1. There are no universal standards of rational justification; there is no single “scientific method.”  Consequently, there are no purely rational (tradition-independent) principles of justice.  The classically liberal cornerstone of western culture is dead.  All contract theories of justice presuppose the nature of reason, fairness and justice.
  2. All language is goal driven, a call to action.  There is no such thing as a pure “objective truth claim.”  Human language is not designed to make literal truth claims about Reality independently of any existential motivation.
  3. There is no such thing as verified or even falsified scientific truth claims about Reality.  Western Christianity must become the most sophisticated source of postmodern skepticism.
  4. Science is not a literal description of Reality and there is therefore no such thing as a Christian world-view based on integration with science.  The so-called Christian world-view is in a constant state of flux; it is a useless intellectual ghost.  The Christian tradition, anchored in salvation history, is the relatively stable paradigm of language.  The only thing which destabilizes it are the false truth claims of naïve scientific realists.
  5. The orthodox Christian tradition determines the true meaning of secular reason and learning, insofar as the latter claims to literally describe Reality.  Secular truth claims are NOT the judge of the true meaning of Christianity. 
  6. Relevance is tradition-relative.
  7. Rival, competing traditions are incommensurate paradigms of language.  There is no meaningful debate, dialogue or conversation.  They each have their own account of what is rational.
  8. State welfare and state education are by nature, competitors, not partners, of the church.  As secular processes they are not redemptive; they are damning of the people who become ensnared in them.  The welfare state is a moral holocaust.
  9. Modern bureaucratic government, anchored in naïve utilitarianism, is the enemy of the church to precisely the extent that the church attempts to do its job; to the extent that the church strives to be the primary source of social construction.
  10. The goal of orthodox Christianity is to dominate every square inch of the earth through spiritual warfare, where spiritual violence and suffering is admittedly worse than physical violence and suffering.  Christianity, by its very nature, induces spiritual violence from the world’s point of view. 
  11. Christianity cannot dominate the culture while the government exercises a rival tradition (liberalism) and dominates the means of cultural production (the schools, the mainstream media, universities, courts, immigration policy, policy-making science).  The government school monopoly is anti-democratic tyranny.  All government control of the means of cultural production must end.
  12. Religion and politics are inseparable.  What one believes about God’s system of justice serves as the model for temporal justice.  If one believes that God treats human individuals as images of Himself with a right to justice under His law (see the Ten Commandments) then it is irrational not to apply this picture of justice to our neighbors and insist that they apply it to us.  The attempt to separate religious traditions from political action is a moronic liberal strategy based on a moronic liberal theme — that there is such a thing as universal reason and it is a substitute for all religious tradition. 

Most, if not all, tender-minded Christians, seeking accommodation, reconciliation, and integration with secular culture and rival traditions find these propositions frighteningly harsh.  Christians, which I describe as dispositionally tough-minded, find all of these propositions almost obvious.  Their assent to them is instinctive no matter what their educational level. 

But above all else, tough-minded Christians see the tender-minded rejection of these propositions as nothing more than surrender.     

And so your own hypothetical ability to sleep better or worse at night, given the hypothetical retreat of tough-minded Christians, is based on your own tough or tender disposition. 

But, of course, tough-minded Christians do not retreat.  They attack.  “Attack” is not even in the tender-minded Christian’s vocabulary. 

It is above all else time to found a whole new consortium of orthodox Christian colleges based on the premise that we now live in a postmodern, post-liberal age in which Christian colleges can and should shed every vestige of modern rationalism and scientism and engage in the daily deconstruction of modern knowledge and truth claims; in which Christianity is the tough minded, skeptical tradition.  Some very rich, and very orthodox Christians need to start founding new Christian Colleges and Universities, rooted in postmodern critique of human reason, and our delightfully ancient Christian tradition. 

I know an alumnus of Wheaton who has donated to the college in the past out of his substantial wealth.  He recently emailed me to announce that he will be giving no more.  In my book, The Problem with Wheaton, I offer a charter statement for a whole new Christian academy.  We need to start over.  New postmodern, anti-rationalist wine cannot be put into old wine skins.  It is very difficult to turn an institution like Wheaton into a place where modern truth claims are aggressively deconstructed as the very heart and soul of the college’s mission.  Wheaton is experiencing the liberal degradation which, in the past, it claimed it would prevent.  It is impossible to prevent when the true cornerstone of the institution is the liberal account of reason as a tradition-independent source of literal truth about Reality.  Wheaton has become increasingly nice (politically correct) and increasingly boring.  As long as it is committed, implicitly let alone explicitly, to the notion that reason is universal, can literally describe Reality, and has claims on the Christian tradition, it is liberal.

Perhaps it is not too late for Wheaton to stop living in the liberal past.  This is for Wheaton and God to decide.  In the meantime, the tough-minded among us must keep moving toward a whole new Christian academy and an unrelenting attack on modern Western culture. 

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