Not outrageous enough. This is my ultimate assessment of the proposal George Marsden puts forward in his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997). But before explaining my assessment, I want to underscore the extraordinary importance of this book and, more broadly, of the kind of faith–informed scholarship that Marsden has been producing for years now. Through faith and hard work, Marsden and others have forced the modern academy to acknowledge and, at least to some degree, respect the efforts of Christian scholars and Christian scholarship. Without taking anything away from those accomplishments, I want to suggest that we revise the vision of Christian scholarship that informs Marsden’s book in the direction of making it more comprehensive, integrated, unifying, totalizing.
Marsden’s central proposal is that “mainstream American higher education should be more open to explicit discussion of the relation of religious faith to learning.” In making this proposal, he emphasizes that he is simply asking that all scholars “participate on equal terms in academic dialogue.” These terms are commonly accepted in the academy, as Marsden sees it, and can therefore be evenly applied to scholarly work done from any number of perspectives—feminist, Marxist, African–American, and Christian.
In large part, the book appeals to a sense of equity. If other scholars are permitted to bring their substantive beliefs to bear on their work, Christians should be as well, so long as they, like everyone else, adhere to the criteria of competent scholarship. More specifically, Christians should be permitted, according to Marsden, to bring to bear their beliefs about creation, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and human nature on their work, in much the same way that a feminist does as regards her beliefs on the nature of marriage in patriarchal society or a Marxist does as regards his beliefs about the effects of industrialization. But this does not currently happen because the modern academy has a bias in favor of “naturalistic reductionism” and against Christian belief in the supernatural. This is why rules of procedure are important to Marsden: they are the means by which we can achieve the proper balance of religious and nonreligious voices amid the pluralism of the modern academy.
I must confess that, for at least three reasons, I am not as optimistic as Marsden about the possibilities for reform of the modern academy in support of Christian scholarship. First, I do not find there to be a very high level of agreement about basic beliefs or even simple procedural rules in the academy at large. This became startlingly clear to me in reading Marsden’s argument that the preponderance of academics operate out of nonempirically based beliefs, such as the belief that all people should be treated equally regardless of race or gender or that special care and concern should be shown to the poor and the handicapped. In explaining this point, Marsden also states that “most [academics] believe that it would be wrong to kill infants.”
Really? I don’t think so. I think it depends on whether or not the infant has been born. In the case of the unborn, I venture to say that many academics, perhaps even most, would say it is up to the mother whether or not it is wrong to kill her infant. My perception here, of course, is shaped by my religiously based beliefs about infancy and what constitutes infanticide, but the point I want to make also has to do with the way conflict gets concealed in liberal settings. Beneath an apparent consensus, there often lurks a much more substantive set of disagreements, as there is regarding the morality of parents killing their offspring and the adequacy of narrating human events with naturalistic explanations—and also regarding, I might add, the nature of genuine consensus and thus the conditions under which it is proper to use such descriptions as “agreement” and “disagreement.”
This leads to the second reason why I am less optimistic than Marsden about the prospect of Christian scholarship in the modern academy. Marsden’s preferred model of the university is taken from the model of liberal discourse proffered by William James. In this model, there are innumerable chambers, each housing a particular scholar practicing a particular mode of inquiry: an atheist in one, a traditional believer in another, a naturalistic chemist in yet another, a metaphysical idealist next door to him, and next door to her a pragmatist doing what James himself did, i.e., showing the impossibility of metaphysics. “But,” James writes, in the passage quoted by Marsden, “they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.”
Marsden confesses that he finds this image “quite congenial.” I must confess that I find the image quite dreary. It gives the impression that scholarship is primarily an activity performed by isolated individuals who interact only when they are on the way to the restroom, the copy machine, the classroom, or the next conference. It gives no account of how the work of these various scholars might interrelate intellectually. It provides no room for determining if one or another of these scholars’ views is the most truthful one. All we are given is a corridor through which these scholars pass and that these scholars supposedly “own,” but they do so by virtue of necessity, not out of substantive intellectual beliefs held in common.
Marsden, in his gloss on this analogy, is clear about the necessity of this arrangement: “In a pluralistic society,” he writes, “we have little choice but to accept pragmatic standards in public life.” Thus he is not “challenging pragmatic liberalism as the modus operandi for the contemporary academy”; rather, he is “affirming it for that limited role” and then “arguing that there is no adequate pragmatic basis for marginalizing all supernaturalist religious viewpoints a priori.” In a certain sense, he is arguing for what most any scholar argues for in our bureaucratized academic culture. He is arguing for more office space.
The third reason I am less optimistic about the prospect of Christian scholarship today has to do with the way that this pragmatic liberal model of academia attenuates Marsden’s positive account of Christian belief. Here it should be noted that Marsden’s theological vision of human nature is shaped, at least in part, by William James, as transmitted through the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Marsden depicts human nature in terms of sin, which Niebuhr defined as humanity’s ineradicable inclination to absolutize the relative, i.e., to make the self, the community, or the nation more important than the Creator. In this view, the Christian’s task is to place absolute loyalty in God and to qualify our allegiances to all other human enterprises, to all governments or institutions of any sort.
The strength of this conception, Marsden notes, is that Christian scholars can avoid the twin errors of accepting current academic standards as ultimate or rejecting them as hopelessly corrupt. But there is a weakness to this conception of human nature as well. It does not account for the possibility of alternative construals of academic standards and alternative institutional settings within which those standards could be embodied. This weakness I would ascribe to an overly pessimistic account of the effects of sin and of the power of God to sanctify and make holy those claimed by Christ in and through the Church.
The theological issues are too complex to delve into here, so let me simply voice my concern that Marsden’s, and Niebuhr’s, notion of humility may actually be a “false humility” in two related senses: first, in the sense that it conforms all too readily to the pragmatic liberal model that currently dominates modern academic life; and second, in the sense that it conceals the possibility of constructing a genuine alternative to that model, a possibility that, in my opinion, Christian scholars should be taking up as a primary and urgent task.
But then what would such an alternative look like? The answer, in broadest terms, is that it would sponsor a comprehensive Christian intellectual vision, wherein all branches of knowledge—the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences—would be brought into a complex but unitary account of the truth of God’s creation as understood by the best scholarship up to this point. Its primary mission would be to foster Christian scholarship, and its institutional structures—its curriculum, departmental arrangements and divisions, and so on—would be ordered to this end. Most of its faculty, though not all, would understand their work as dedicated to advancing traditional Christian conceptions of the good, the true, and the beautiful, as these pertain in various ways to their respective fields of inquiry. This alternative, I would concede, may well seem utopian, but in making this concession I also want to make a point that was made ten years ago by Alasdair MacIntyre in the conclusion to Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. MacIntyre notes that “the charge of utopianism is sometimes best understood more as a symptom of the condition of those who level it than an indictment of the projects against which it is directed,” because often those who level the charge lack the imagination—or hope—to believe that the future could be very different from the present.
Let me sharpen my argument by focusing specifically on the field of history. I think it can be shown that this field as it is currently understood was founded in this country in the mid to late nineteenth century in an attempt to recount the past in a more scientific manner than was commonly done at the time by “amateurs” who were working out of specifically confessional perspectives. In the process, however, certain forms of causality (in Aristotelian terms, efficient causality) were privileged, and other forms of causality (formal and final) were marginalized. As a result, those working in the field of history must now labor under a truncated conception of how human events may be understood and explained, a conception, I would argue, that favors a pessimistic and unhopeful view of human nature. This has exerted an immense influence on the way religious history in the United States is told, as can be discerned in the work of field–shaping historians such as Perry Miller, Henry May, and Marsden himself. I have often wondered what these histories would look like if they were informed instead by, say, a traditional Aristotelian–Thomist understanding of human nature, the one articulated, for example, in Veritatis Splendor.
I pose this question not to answer it, but to suggest that this is the kind of question that should be taken up in reflecting on the way Christian scholars read and write history. In fact, this question has been taken up by some Christian scholars in one way or another for some years now. I am not certain what the outcome of this discussion will be. The issues are complex and difficult to grasp in their fullness.
In his book, Marsden appeals to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an analogy for the way we Christian scholars should approach our work. He suggests that we think of our understanding of things as equivalent to that of the Hobbits in Tolkien’s world. The most important thing to take into account is that we are involved in a great spiritual struggle between forces of darkness and light. Beyond knowing that, we can understand these forces only imperfectly. Nonetheless as limited creatures we accept that our role is to do what we can to promote the cause of the light and to use all our talents where they may be helpful.
This describes our situation rather well, I think, though it is important to note that Frodo and his companions rely, in making their journey, on the wisdom of the ancients: ancient kings and wizards, ancient stories and poems, ancient images and symbols, ancient teachings on the use and abuse of power in the cause of doing good.
Christian scholars have similar resources, all of which place at our disposal an ancient Wisdom, ancient and yet ever new. Only by shaping our own institutions will these resources be reliably available to us. Only with our own institutions will we be able to have a reliable and stable setting within which to enact our dramatic quest not only for knowledge but also for Wisdom. This means that Christian scholarship will fully flourish if, and only if, there exist universities that are born ex corde Ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church.
Michael J. Baxter, C.S.C., is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.