In the most recent issue of First Things, Gerald McDermott writes about “Evangelicals Divided,” which explores current trends in evangelical life relative to what he describes as a struggle between traditionalists (who tend to be Reformed) and Meliorists (who tend to be Arminian). 

A line that caught my eye, though, was not about this conflict but about the tendency evangelical thinkers have to seek the approval of the academy:

“. . . evangelical theologians, like other orthodox thinkers, are susceptible to the peculiarly academic sort of ambition that seeks acceptance and recognition by their liberal colleagues.  We want the academy’s approval, and so we are tempted to write and teach a theology that will be consistent with its moral and theological sensibilities” (49).

I heard almost the exact same line at the Making Men Moral conference my campus hosted in 2009, celebrating the anniversary of Robert P. George’s book by that title.  It was a warning that came from thinkers who held important posts at important universities (just check out that speakers’ list!) and resonated with many of those in attendance.  Cultural affirmation is a fickle goddess that never satisfies for very long.

Ironically, I thought of the same thing this morning when I read that psychologists have identified a new problem with teenagers: obsession and potential depression over their facebook statuses.  I’m trying to decide if the phrase “evangelical thinkers” could be substituted for the word “kids” and “academe” for “Facebook” in this excerpt:
But there are unique aspects of Facebook that can make it a particularly tough social landscape to navigate for kids already dealing with poor self-esteem . . . .  With in-your-face friends’ tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don’t measure up.

As a whole, evangelical scholars have problems with self-esteem as well and somehow turn into gigantic intellectual golden retrievers all too often, seeking approving pets from the rest of academe.  I have been a part of way too many conversations that have boiled down to this basic lament: “If only I could find a way to stop having to comport with these theological chains that prevent me from earning the approval of the larger academy.”

That sentiment reminds me a good deal of another theologian who wrestled with this conflict, George Herbert.  Herbert’s poem “The Collar” (1633)  articulated his frustration with having to submit to theological and social restrictions, declaring “I will abroad!” and expounding on his frustrations before returning to his rationality with these closing lines:
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild,

At every word,

Methought I heard one calling, “Child”

And I reply’d “My Lord!”

 In the end, Paul’s admonition seems to ring truest:  

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). 

I just wish that courage were in larger supply, even, I must confess, within my own intellectual cupboard.   I have a feeling that like proverbial cleanliness, theological courage lies next to godliness and that my own timidity might be a barometer of whose approval I myself really seek.

Articles by Gene Fant

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