Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Evangelical Churches and Intellectuals

Is evangelicalism anti-intellectual?  As many of our readers know, Mark Noll answered this question twenty years ago with a resounding "yes" in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Do evangelical churches contribute to this kind of anti-intellectualism?  Last October, Stephen Mattson of the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN, writing at Sojourners, answered this question with a resounding "yes" in a piece entitled "Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals?"  Mattson believes that there are three primary reasons why churches tend to alienate Christian intellectuals.

First, Mattson writes, "churches prefer certainty over doubt."  I would probably phrase this a little differently and say that churches are not very good at dealing with complexity. Now don't get me wrong.  I expect my minister to preach with authority and exhort the congregation to put truth into practice.  Sermons are not always conducive to complexity, and I am OK with this.

But unfortunately this kind of authority or certainty often informs the way people in a given congregation analyze social, cultural and political issues.  I would assume that all evangelical ministers want the people in their congregation to think Christianly, or biblically, or theologically about the world around them,   If this is the case, then ministers must acknowledge the fact that such thinking does not always lead the thinker to end up in the same place on this or that social issue. Issues such as whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation or whether or not to support Obamacare are complex.  Serious, smart, and faithful Christians can come to different conclusions about these issues.  This is why there are few Christian humanists in evangelical churches.  Most of them flock to denominations or traditions that celebrate the mystery of Christianity and, consequently, the diversity that abounds in the Church on this side of eternity.

What I have described above is part of the reason why I have always resisted joining a small group or participating in men's fellowship activities at my church.  I applaud these groups for the way that they attempt to cultivate spirituality among attendees, but whenever I have attended them in the past I have always ended up being the only guy in the room who is asking uncomfortable questions about the Biblical text under consideration or questioning the group's presuppositions on this or that issue.  I try to be polite and civil when I do this, but I always leave feeling like the odd duck.  Sometimes I just stay quiet until I get in the car and start complaining to my wife!  I also realize that this is partly my fault.  I need to work harder at being part of my church community, but it is often difficult when complexity ruffles so many feathers.

One more thing on this front.  Most intellectuals I know are not very good at small talk. But we will often light up when the conversation turns to deeper matters or when you put us in front of a Sunday School class or adult education forum.  Many of us are introverts.  As a result others in church can often perceive us as aloof or even rude.

Do any other church-going intellectuals feel the same way?

Second, Mattson writes, "churches are anti-science."  Since I am not a scientist, this one does not bother me as much.  But I know it bothers some of the scientists in my congregation.  Frankly, I can't get my head around the fact that so many people in my church believe that global warming is a myth. I seldom talk about this issue with folks from my church because I don't want to ruffle feathers or create undue division in the community.  Maybe I should change my approach here.

Third, Mattson argues that the church should be doing a better job at Christian education.  Again, a caveat is in order here.  I have yet to find any brand of Christianity that is better than evangelicalism at forming young people in the faith.  Having said that, evangelical churches could do a much better job of bringing college-level or seminary-level courses in Biblical studies, theology, or church history to their members and attendees.  Mattson writes:  

Unfortunately, churches now depend on higher education to do most of the in-depth training that was once commonplace among lay parishioners. The average believer seemingly knows less and less of the Bible and the historical context of the Christian faith with each passing year. Churches need to remember that very few of their members attend or attended Christian colleges or seminaries. Churches (with a few exceptions) no longer offer classes about church history, Greek, Hebrew, proper exegesis, or groundbreaking Bible studies to churchgoers — these are reserved for Bible colleges and the students who attend them.

Let's remember that nearly all of the people attending evangelical churches today did not attend a Christian college, a Bible college, or a theological seminary.  It is thus not surprising that people like Noll and Mattson lament the church's anti-intellectualism.  Why don't more evangelical churches have a "theologian in residence" or a staff member devoted to equipping the saints in this way.

Mattson concludes:

Overall, modern Christianity has modeled a strategy of comfort, where believers are viewed as consumers that need to be pleased and catered to — not challenged or made to feel uncomfortable. Intellectuals are not the target demographic within churches, so they rarely garner much attention or care, and it's widely believed that they would be better off in an academic setting rather than a spiritual one. 
It seems that thoughtful evangelicals can do one of two things.  They can either leave their evangelical churches (as many, many, many have done, especially those of us in the humanities) or they can stay within evangelicalism and seek opportunities to cultivate a Christian mind among the congregations where they have been placed.  I have thought long and hard about pursuing the first option, but I have decided to at least try, however imperfectly, to pursue the second option.
During my two years of ecumenical dialogue and conversation as a Lilly Fellows in the Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University I realized that evangelicals were "my people" and thus deserved my loyalty. (Of course it also helps that I believe in the transforming power of the gospel as preached by evangelicals).  But I also realize that as an intellectual in a mainstream evangelical church I will always, it seems, occupy a liminal space.  I am prepared to live with the tensions.