Beyond Belief | The Nation


Beyond Belief

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Ralph Winter, Vergil Gerber, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. (Wheaton College)

Apostles of Reason
The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.
By Molly Worthen.
Buy this book

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.
By George M. Marsden.
Buy this book

To the “culture war” opponents of American evangelicalism, the movement presents itself, reassuringly, as a towering monolith—if, that is, monoliths can come in the shape of a cross. The anti-clerical left has rehearsed a long and familiar litany of evangelical perfidy: they’re theocrats, anti-intellectual propagandists, political power brokers and fear-driven purveyors of superstitious folly. Such caricatures may hold water in extreme and absurdly shallow cases, such as Michele Bachmann or Pat Robertson. But ascribing this blunt, authoritarian set of motives to a group as vast and diverse as the American evangelical community—which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s adult population—is like saying that Rob Ford is the archetypal Canadian.

In reality, evangelicals run much the same gamut of cultural, political and intellectual passions, reflexes and fixations found in almost any other religious or ethnic subgroup. Yes, they’ve been a solid conservative voting constituency during the past thirty years or so of culture warfare, but to judge by recent electoral results, their ardor for certain crusades, such as the war on gay marriage, has notably cooled. Desperate GOP strategists gambled that a Hail Mary get-out-the-vote effort among the evangelical right could turn the 2012 presidential election for Mitt Romney, but nothing like that came to pass; in states explicitly targeted for such initiatives, such as Iowa and Ohio, Obama prevailed by a comfortable margin.

Another happy sign of evangelical diversity is the remarkable ongoing boom in evangelical history. An impressive range of scholars who have lived and studied within the evangelical tradition, such as Joel Carpenter, Kate Bowler and Mark Noll, have produced sharp analytical treatments of its twentieth-century resurgence, while plumbing the more recondite questions of doctrine, theology and political organizing among the born-again faithful. Now, a pair of historians from this cohort—one a venerable emeritus professor who is a dean of the field, the other an enterprising young scholar—have both produced books taking fresh stock of how evangelical faith has developed into a public philosophy amid the considerable sound and fury of right-wing religious activism.

Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen’s anatomy of the modern evangelical quest for surer footing in questions of scriptural authority, highlights some of the better-known excesses of the conservative religious world: its mania for absolute moral certitude, its unquestioning embrace of biblical inerrancy, its attraction to badly truncated and distorted accounts of doctrinal and church history—all are symptoms of a common modern intellectual malaise. Yet Worthen, who is not an evangelical herself but takes the intellectual struggles of the community quite seriously as a scholar, depicts the movement in a light that is at once far more nuanced and sympathetic than what passes for serious analysis on the left, while also supplying an intellectual profile of modern evangelical thought that’s at least as damning as the far more visceral secular denunciations of the religious right.

In Worthen’s account, conservative religious thinkers aren’t a perverse breed of demagogue possessed by crude reveries of cultural power; instead, they are—much like their counterparts in the secular world of intellect—convulsed by waves of doubt, status anxiety and existential drift. And much like their less orthodox academic cousins, these figures have sought to tamp down their personal and intellectual anxieties with institutional remedies: new academic concentrations, seminaries and departments; greater fealty to the rites of credentialed scholarship; and closely monitored modes of internal message discipline.

Such measures point to what should be an obvious trend, at least for dispassionate students of modern religious controversy: evangelical thinkers recognized the general thrust of the secular academic world’s indictment of the intellectual shortcomings of faith, and sought to refute it with their own parallel set of professional initiatives and scholarly canons, designed to one-up the achievements of culturally influential skeptics while also securing the eternal verities of faith within their own protective bounds.

* * *

One key plank of this ambitious project was the doctrine of “presuppositionalism”—a typically multisyllabic mouthful from the movement that made a popular slogan, earlier in the twentieth century, of “premillennial dispensationalism.” Presuppositional thought began as a campaign among Dutch Reformed theologians to situate the ultimate authority of the Bible amid the broader currents of modern cultural and religious pluralism. It largely originated with Abraham Kuyper, a dynamic religious theorist who would become the prime minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper argued that believers could sustain competing faith commitments in a religiously pluralistic society on the basis of their broader shared outlook of faith—the presuppositions, in other words, that informed their most intimate assumptions about how the world should be understood. Because they rarely encountered a Teutonic word cluster they didn’t like, the early fundamentalists also commonly referred to this body of presuppositions—and those that informed the competing “secular” mind-set of relativism and skepticism—as a Weltanschauung.

In the great tumult of America’s fundamentalist/modernist divide, Kuyper’s doctrine was sharpened and refined by a Princeton theologian and Dutch émigré named Cornelius Van Til. In Van Til’s hands, the genial pluralism of Kuyper’s public theology hardened into a far more unstinting assertion of absolute—and incommensurate—assumptions about the world, separating out the believers from the nonbelievers. As Worthen writes:

Van Til reacted strongly against…the emphasis on proving Christian truths with the aid of worldly evidence outside revelation. He argued that a nonbeliever cannot interpret such evidence accurately because, without faith, he reasons from the wrong assumptions. Van Til denied the Enlightenment ideal of the pure, objective fact, insisting instead that no assumptions are neutral, and that the human mind can comprehend reality only by proceeding from the truth of biblical revelation. It is impossible, then, for Christians to reason with non-Christians.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size