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If Wheaton College Would Drop its Rationalism, It Would be Exciting!

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Published on: October 2, 2014

Many leftists complain that orthodox Christianity is dangerous.  And of course it is dangerous to all liberal mythology insofar as it is a commitment to a historically based tradition, as opposed to some rationalist, permanently evolving “world-view” bent on integrating all of secular culture’s purported knowledge of Reality.  As traditionalism, explicitly opposed to rationalism, Christianity is unlikely to cave into scientific descriptions of Reality as if they are actually literal or to an unlimited tolerance of any competing tradition as if it has some tradition-independent rational claim on Christianity.  Competing traditions will appeal to science, as if it is not just another competing tradition, whenever it seems to give them leverage against Christianity.  For a moment, at least, they promote the myth that science is rooted in universal standards of rational justification.  When science turns on them, it is suddenly wrong.  Interestingly, science is as typically plastic as its narrative about homosexuality over the last hundred years. 

Traditionalism recognizes that competing traditions are incommensurate; that they cannot even agree on the practical meaning of the principle of non-contradiction let alone what constitutes an empirically verified or falsified proposition about Reality.  A tradition as such, in the modern age, remains explicitly incorrect culturally and politically speaking.  It does not cave into rationalism or relativism.  It might, for example, oppose gay privileges or even scientism on the basis of its own account of reason while pointing out the tradition-relativity of all accounts of reason.  This, it may also notice, does not mean that its own account of reason (as an expression of morality) is not absolutely true.

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So by way of a short explanation, serving as a good example of how this incommensurateness of competing views of Reality arises, and why therefore there really is no “rational” debate, no conversation, no dialogue, but just culture war, consider the metaphysical character of this so-called principle of non-contradiction.  It is not actually a logical principle, but the metaphysical assertion that something cannot be and not be at the same time.  In other words, the principle of non-contradiction is wrapped around the utterly metaphysical notion of being which Parmenides, not Christ, said was absolutely invariant and unchanging, making it the first object of modern western science.  But because being is such a metaphysical abstraction, as opposed to the historical Jesus, there is no saying what it can and cannot do in the end.  It is a metaphysical question.  And so quantum physicists are quite content to violate one or another version of the principle of non-contradiction all day long.  There are competing accounts of “quantum reality.”  And Christians can comfortably claim that God is one and three, and both human and divine, because our historical experience of God leads to all of these ways of speaking about Him.  There is no danger of some kind of metaphysical falsification of that very practical language.  The same is true for quantum mechanical language. 

But in my experience, as a student there, Wheaton believes that both Christianity and realist science are rooted in universal standards of rational justification; standards which no longer exist in postmodern thought.  They remain only in the modern thought of liberal optimists like Alfred North Whitehead and Arthur F. Holmes, who both imagined a forever evolving Christian world-view arising out of the interaction between science and faith.  It did not seem to occur to them that nothing could be more banal than such a project — especially insofar as it changes the otherwise orthodox meaning of the Christian tradition (liberalizing it), as if secular reason could tell us what the true meaning of the Christian tradition is instead of vice versa.  It was banal when I attended Wheaton, for want of truly interesting content, and now we know why it remains banal.  The explanation is postmodern.  There is no accumulating and literal knowledge of Reality in science to keep the project of constructing a Christian world-view from becoming morally absurd, from turning Christians into Sisyphus.  Instead of teaching the passion, meaning, sacrifice and adventure of a culture war, Wheaton teaches its students to dialogue endlessly and uselessly with devil’s invention — the great god reason.  Vital postmodern Christians are dancing on that god’s grave. 

Do I blame the Christian Academy for losing the culture war on the basis of its modern naiveté about reason?  Yes.  It was unintentional, but stupid.  Its consequences are evil.  And at least in that sense it is inexcusable.  Traditionalist Catholics, after all, were never so implicitly seduced because they would not abide this Protestant tendency to glorify the rationally autonomous individual as if sola scriptura could hold him back.  We live in a day and age when it is more important than ever for the Christian Academy to be absolutely dangerous to contemporary culture.  This mission cannot be accomplished while Wheaton accepts the cornerstone of modern culture — the Enlightenment, liberal account of reason as universal standards, somehow surviving outside of every competing account of Reality and encouraging the myth of scientific realism.  Implicit in all of this is this aforementioned commitment to the liberal project of making every student a “rationally autonomous individual” because “all truth is God’s truth.”  No, it isn’t.  Sometimes it’s just the world’s truth.  Often, it’s just junk to the extent that it is some purported but unverifiable detail about reality.  This is pure cognitive dissonance for a supposedly orthodox institution.  I experienced it myself at Wheaton a long time ago and have no information which suggests to me that anything has changed except for the worse.  Instead of becoming culturally and politically dangerous, Wheaton seems to have become even more correct. 

Dr. Duane Litfin, a past president of Wheaton, describes the “systemic” model of the Christian College in his book Conceiving the Christian College, which requires the faculty and students to actually be Christians.  He distinguishes this model from the “umbrella” model which allows competing traditions to participate on the supposedly orthodox Christian campus as if everyone is swimming in universal reason with which to engage in a mutually enlightening investigation of the objective truth about Reality, terminating in a rationally integrated Christian world-view.  But this is just precious from a postmodern point of view.  There is no such thing as an umbrella Christian Academy which is truly non-systemic if it is still succeeding in remaining orthodox.  There is no such thing as this tradition-neutral process.  And it is embarrassing when Litfin defends the systemic model of the Christian college as nevertheless providing “objective” and diverse inquiry.  Nonsense.  It is exercising its own tradition-bound account of reason, and it should.  Above all else, it should be deconstructing the rationalist mythology of the “umbrella” model, turning out explicit, counter-cultural warriors who are out to nuke all of modernity.  But then Wheaton would not be nice anymore.  It would be exciting. 

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