Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College weighs in on the decision of Wheaton College to terminate a faculty member because he became Catholic. Writing in Books and Culture , Howard is deeply appreciative of the desire of evangelical schools to maintain their theological identity, but he thinks evangelicalism is at a moment not unlike that described by Carl Henry’s classic of many years ago, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism . Howard notes a host of developments that are changing the relationship between evangelicals and Catholics, and arrives at this conclusion:
In the final analysis, the decision to welcome sympathetic Catholic scholars in the house of evangelical education should flow from the heart of the Gospel itself: from the evangelical concern about the Great Commission. Evangelism divorced from ecumenism, rightly understood, vitiates the cause it putatively serves. Evangelical liberal arts colleges are neither missionary agencies nor churches; they are not, in other words, on the front lines in proclaiming the gospel, baptizing and making disciples. But they are seats of intellectual growth, where young people can learn to think seriously and theologically; where ideas can be exchanged and improved upon; and alas, where divisions within the church’s history might be understood and, with grace, worked to overcome. Without an occasional flesh-and-blood Catholic on the faculty, this task is enormously compromised. And herein lies the cause of a new uneasy conscience.
I stumbled across this on a website to which¯in order not to embarrass the writer¯ I will not link. All too common is the touching, almost pitiful, degree to which the author has internalized the viewpoint of the cultured despisers of conservatism, and of religious conservatism in particular.
Here’s the thing: I’m religious¯a Christian, to be more precise¯which automatically makes my perspectives questionable as far as my agnostic friend is concerned. Exacerbating matters is the extent to which my views place me squarely within a “conservative” political framework and thus, in my friend’s estimation, a position of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition. And so when conversing on such topics as embryonic stem-cell research or cloning or abortion, we end up at the exact same place every time: with me talking a mile a minute trying to justify my beliefs and him grinning smugly in silence. No matter what I say or how convincingly I present my case, he just nods vacantly¯unmoved¯like no amount of evidence will ever change his mind as long as it continues to emanate from a nut job like me.
Fortunately for my ego, I eventually came to realize that such intransigence really has very little to do with me personally; rather, it’s part of a much larger phenomenon with which those of us attempting to safeguard human life must learn to deal. To state the matter as simply as possible, what I have discovered about my friend is that when it comes to bioethical issues, he’s much more concerned with the associations of particular beliefs than the beliefs themselves. For him, embryonic stem-cell research is justifiable¯even perhaps praiseworthy¯not because logic has led him to this conclusion but in order to align himself with one particular cultural community over and against another. In short, my friend¯a devotee of The Daily Show and NPR, a subscriber to The New Yorker , Adbusters , and The Financial Times , and a pretty big fan of both Al Franken and Michael Moore¯wants to be thought of as an urbane and intelligent person and so has chosen for himself the political opinions that he believes further this reputation.
My wife probably characterizes the situation best. Why is it, she often asks, that things like abortion and stem-cell research enjoy the support of the coolest people? What she’s getting at is a truth my college buddy only subconsciously recognizes: namely, that the espousal of such bioethically dubious procedures has become the default position of our nation’s most influential thinkers, tastemakers, and trendsetters. To adopt these same perspectives is thus to advertise oneself as similarly hip and knowing. Plus, one gets to side with most of American academia, the popular press, and of course Hollywood, which is always easy and nice, as well as distance oneself from the increasingly demonized “religious right” and its hopelessly unfashionable moral proclamations. Put it this way: you can either share an outlook with someone smart, well-spoken, and debonair like George Clooney (pro-choice), whose recent Oscar nods have pretty much secured his place as the present apotheosis of the thinking man’s celebrity, or with a person like the perennial media pariah Pat Robertson (pro-life), whom Saturday Night Live parodied this season as ascribing¯idiotically¯the physical ailments of various celebrities to the wrath of God. For many, the choice is a no-brainer.
One has considerable sympathy. But note the ways in which the writer has apparently internalized his friend’s understanding of what is “cool,” “urbane,” “intelligent,” “hip,” and so forth. Why on earth should one be intimidated by the antics of the clowns who prance on what Hollywood deems to be the commanding heights of culture? There is a palpable longing for admission to the really cool company of the likes of Al Franken and, if you will believe it, Michael Moore, and a deep resentment of being consigned to the sweated company of Pat Robertson. This is very sad.
I’ll take the writer at his word when he says that his friend is unthinkingly attached to viewpoints that he believes have a certain intellectual and cultural cachet. The sadness is that he seems to believe that as well. Exclusion from the charmed circle of the cool is, in this way of looking at things, the price he pays for his Christian and conservative convictions. To be derided by the fashionably ignorant is no price at all. To be concerned about the other guy’s thoughtlessness is a mark of friendship. To envy his association with the company of the clueless is a mark of poignant insecurity. There is no call for such cultural crouching.
In addition to which :
Where does theology fit into the self-understanding of the contemporary university, if it fits at all? That’s the question initially posed by philosopher James Stoner and addressed in the May issue of First Things by three theological luminaries: Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and David Hart. Isn’t it time you subscribed ?