After an overzealous editor attempted to rearrange one of Winston Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, the Prime Minister is said to have scribbled in reply: “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Churchill was confident about his writing style and knowledgeable enough to recognize that the "rule" against preposition-stranding was a convention of usage and not an inviolable grammatical standard. The silly rule, according to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, had been “created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” Churchill understood the difference between conventional wisdom and established fact and his witty rebuke ensured that that chastened proofreader learned the lesson too.
I was reminded of this (possibly apocryphal) anecdote while re-reading a review in First Things by Justice Antonin Scalia of Steven Smith’s Law’s Quandary. In presenting his analysis, Smith claims that there are three “ontological inventories” describing what we in twenty-first-century America “believe to be real”: everyday experience, science, and religion.
Scalia notes that Smith excludes the last from consideration because of the “norm prescribing that religious beliefs are inadmissible in academic explanations.” The view he describes has become the conventional wisdom despite being utter nonsense. The sort of nonsense up with which I will not put. And up with which you should not put either.
All too often Christians—and theists in general—allow such silly remarks to pass unchallenged. We shrug and sigh, assuming those are the rules of the game. Instead we should giggle and snort and point out that no one is without religious beliefs. A belief is a religious belief, as philosopher Roy Clouser usefully defines the term, provided that:
(1) It is a belief in something(s) or other as divine, or (2) It is a belief concerning how humans come to stand in relation to the divine.
Even those who might quibble with the novel definition cannot deny that this is a universal set of beliefs. Whether the subject is Yahweh, Zeus, the Great Pumpkin, or the physical cosmos, everyone has a belief about the “divine” and man’s relation to such an entity. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, as Bob Dylan said, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.
Like Dryden and prepositional-endings, those who create this “norm” create, ex nihilo, the silly rule that the only legitimate relation to the divine is a functional atheism. “You can believe your fairy stores about Jehovah and Jesus,” they smirk, “but they are inadmissible in academic explanations.”
The only proper response to such foolishness is to deride their palpable and wholly self-imposed vincible ignorance. Would they attempt to apply this ridiculous standard in dismissing the explanations of Augustine, Aquinas, Sir William Blackstone, T.S. Eliot, Isaac Newton, Johann Kepler, or Alvin Plantinga? If so, then they are unserious and can be rightfully dismissed as poseurs.
Instead of doing that, though, we Christians react defensively. We tend to act as if we are the ones who are required by default to defend our position because . . . well, because those are the rules of the game.
We evangelicals in particular, having squandered our intellectual heritage, are especially prone to being cowed into submission. Our scholars leave their publicly unpalatable beliefs at the gates of the Ivory Tower, promising to return for them when they join the hallowed ranks of the tenured and are free to speak without fear of reproach. But having learned to serve a false god—the divinity of functional atheism—they find their minds are too flabby and unfit to “think Christianly” about their research programs.
Academics are not the only ones at fault. Many of us fool ourselves into believing that we can approach our vocations from the position of religious neutrality. What we fail to understand is that we either bring the Logos to bear on our areas of expertise and fields of study or we reject him as irrelevant, a useless appendage that can be shaved off with Occam’s razor. We would do well to remember Christ’s warning that if we deny him before men that he will also deny us before his Father in heaven—and that we can deny Christ without ever moving our lips.
In refusing to acknowledge how our religious beliefs affect our work, we do more than merely shame our Creator. Common grace can only carry us so far, and without bringing the Logos to bear on our work, we will sink further into cognitive dissonance, as, for example, in being unable to resolve the tension between a purely material, deterministic universe and human free will.
When corrected by archaic grammarians who insist—even though we don’t speak Latin—that it’s improper to split infinitives, we must have the courage and good sense to call them on their nonsense. The same is true for those who attempt to hinder rational inquiry by excluding explanations rooted in theism. It is our duty to boldly challenge such illogical prejudice; nonsense up with which we should not put.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Antonin Scalia’s Law & Language
R.R. Reno’s Metaphysics and the Common Good, a review of Steven D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse
David Mills’ Secularist Cheating
Joe Carter’s Cogito and Christ
Joe Carter’s Should You Trust the Monkey Mind?.