GLIMPSING HEAVEN FROM A PARK BENCH

I’ve written previously about the passage below from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

I love Lewis’s word picture of the “pleasant inn.”  The world is not our home–we are pilgrims en route to a better country–but the Lord in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life, experiences of refreshing that strengthen us for the journey ahead.  These experiences don’t have to be expensive or exotic.  For me, one of the pleasant inns that most refreshes my soul is the simple act of reading a good book outdoors on a sunny day.  (You can add this to the list of reasons why my life’s story will never be made into an action movie.)

Last summer my favorite spot was beside a small lake near our home in Wheaton.  This summer I have broadened my horizons.  I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Riverwalk in Naperville, Illinois, about a half hour away.  The Riverwalk is a public park that runs along a branch of the DuPage River.  It boasts nearly two miles of walking trails; lots of artwork, flower beds, and fountains; covered bridges, a small lake, and a 160-foot-high carillon tower. It’s a gorgeous setting, and on weekday mornings it’s not even very crowded.  I love it.

If I have most of the day, I organize the occasion like one of the “progressive dinners” my church used to sponsor when I was young, changing locations with each “course.”  I normally begin near the “Dandelion Fountain,” reading there until too many kids show up or my rear end starts to feel numb.

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

From there I go across the river to a bench next to “Dick Tracy”–or more precisely, a nine-foot tall, 2,000-pound bronze sculpture of the old comic-strip detective.  (Yeah, I think it’s pretty weird, too, but it’s a little less weird if you know that one of the long-time contributors to the strip is a Naperville native.)  Detective Tracy stands a bit off the main walkway, and he and I often have the landing behind the town hall to ourselves.  I find him my ideal reading companion–reassuringly present but not too talkative.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

I typically end up a couple of hundred yards away, on a bench near an old stone quarry that has been converted into a lake for paddleboats and kayaks.  If my time is limited, though, I start there, for it’s at the same time the most beautiful and the most secluded spot in the park.  My bench is in a little alcove several steps below the main walkway.  It is screened by bushes, and when I sit there I have a sense of solitude–or what passes for solitude in such an urban setting.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville--not a bad place to read.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville–not a bad place to read.

Friday morning before last I spent two glorious hours at the Paddleboat Quarry, lingering over a cinnamon and raisin bagel and the pages of Political Sermons of the Founding Era, vol. II.  It was 76 degrees (my smart phone told me so), the sky was relentlessly blue, there was a whisper of a breeze, and there was almost no one in sight.  It doesn’t get much better.  “Every good and perfect thing comes down from the Father,” the books of James tells us, and in my heart I was grateful.  But because I was pretty sure that this would be my last Riverwalk reading of the summer, I was also wistful, even a little sad.

Grateful but longing for more.  If I understand Lewis, I think that’s how it is with “pleasant inns.”  The experiences that he mentions are not merely respites from the stress and strains of life.  They re-energize us, giving us strength to continue the journey by granting a glimpse of what awaits us when our journey’s done.

That, I think, is what I experienced as I sat and read on that Riverwalk park bench: a glimpse of heaven.  I mean that literally, knowing full well that it may strike you as more than a little strange.  After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, my Wheaton colleague Wayne Martindale has concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.”  This is surely so, in large part, because of how comfortable our lives are.  In His kindness, God showers us with blessings meant to encourage us in our journeys: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings.  In our fallenness, we tend to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves.  This dulls our longing for God and causes us to rest our hearts in this world.

One of the ways to combat this tendency, I believe, is to cultivate greater mindfulness with regard to pleasant inns.  This means being more intentional about seeing the pleasant inns that God places along our path, recognizing them for what they are, and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the tension of pleasure and longing that they create.  Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what made my experience on the park bench a foretaste of heaven, and here are three features I’ve come up with:

First is the sensory component.  The physical surroundings matter.  After twenty-two years in Seattle, I never take sunshine for granted.  After four winters in Chicago, I treasure warmth as a rare commodity.  We will be embodied beings in heaven, and the combination of light and color and water and sound that summer morning played an important role.  It was luxurious, but also fleeting–for now.

More important was the element of contemplation that occupied my thoughts.  The reading I was engaged in was deeply satisfying, but it was not entertaining in the common sense of that word.  It was hard.  My goal was to be challenged and changed.  In Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark William Roche reminds us that contemplation is an important way of drawing close to God.  Both Aristotle and Aquinas recognized that it as an activity that sets human beings apart from the rest of God’s creation.  Animals eat, sleep, work, mate, and even play, but as best we can tell, they don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the universe.  When we engage in contemplation, Roche observes, we engage in “the activity that most mirrors the divine.”

Finally, there was also an important aspect of communion in my park-bench experience.  I was reading 18th-century sermons, after all–figuratively entering into a conversation with Christians from another time–and in that sense I was participating in that fellowship of believers across the ages that the Apostles’ Creed refers to as the “communion of the saints.”

I may be wrong, but I don’t think we evangelicals give much thought to the temporal dimension of God’s church.  When it comes to our musings about heaven, we may acknowledge that the “sacred throng” that will gather around the throne will include representatives of “every kindred” and “every tribe,” as the hymn writer put it long ago.  But I don’t think it much dawns on us that the saints will represent a vast range of times as well as places.  The “communion of the saints” is a fellowship that spans centuries as well as cultures.  We forget that truth, in part, because we are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase.   What is worse, as Bendroth points out, we tend to think of people from the past as inferior to us, even as “not really real.”  In heaven we’ll see otherwise.

WHY CHOOSE THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Two weeks from today I will be manning a table at Wheaton College’s annual Academic Fair.  The doors to the gymnasium will open at 11:30 and a flood of new students and their parents will pour in.  They’ll roam from table to table, nervously introducing themselves and asking questions about the various academic majors and programs that the college has to offer.  For my colleagues and I, it’s a little like sweeps week on network television.  We do our best to make the history major sound glamorous, exciting, and life-transforming.  We present ourselves as brilliant (but humble), devout, charismatic, and endlessly entertaining.  We also shamelessly give away prizes.  Most popular are the history action figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, and (my favorite) Marine Antoinette, complete with severable head and a basket to catch it in.

Such premeditated distraction works, up to a point, but eventually the conversations take a serious turn.  The transformation usually begins with a nudge in the ribs from the nearest parent, or perhaps an urgently whispered “Ask him,” at which point the eighteen-year old across the table will clear her throat and politely inquire, “What can you do with a history degree?”

The answer, of course, is pretty much anything.  For many of my years at the University of Washington, I served  as the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History.  One of the things that I did in that capacity was to administer a survey each year to our graduating majors (usually 200 or more), and one of the questions that I always asked our graduates involved their immediate and long-term career plans.  Their answers were instructive.

In any given year, typically a quarter to a third of our graduating seniors intended to become history teachers themselves, and a handful more hoped to enter closely related fields such as museum studies, archive management, and historical preservation.  But the large majority were headed down wholly different paths: in banking, financial planning, and insurance; in library science and computer science; in the national park service or the foreign service; in film production, law enforcement, and public affairs; in medicine, the ministry, or the military; in politics or the Peace Corps.  Others planned careers as journalists, attorneys, fire fighters, chefs, pilots, social workers, urban planners, and labor organizers.  I always thought that this was exactly as it should be.  History doesn’t provide technical preparation for a particular job, but rather broad thinking skills applicable to a myriad of jobs.

I typically share these findings with the students and parents at the Wheaton College Academic Fair, and I conclude by expressing my view that the study of history is far more than a gateway to a specific occupation; it is a stepping stone to lifelong learning.  As eloquent as that sounds, I don’t think it convinces many of my listeners.  The parents seem especially skeptical, a pattern that may have something to do with who is actually writing the tuition checks.  I totally get it.  College is expensive at best, and a private college like Wheaton requires enormous financial commitment and sacrifice.  Of course they want to believe that their money will be well spent before they fork over the cash.

RocheWhich is why I have prepared for this year’s Academic Fair by reading Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, by Mark William Roche.  Roche is an English professor by training, but when this book came out in 2010, he had just finished a lengthy stint as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.  I’ll be carrying crib notes from the book with me two weeks from now, I can assure you.  Roche offers a slew of statistics attesting to the economic viability of liberal arts degrees.  He cites numerous surveys of major employers who rank the ability to think critically and write and speak effectively as more important than technical expertise.  He quotes CEO after CEO in praise of the humanities, and reveals that students who major in the humanities (including history) have a higher acceptance rate into medical school than those in a more traditional “pre-med” discipline.

Yes, I’ll share some of these facts with my anxious listeners, but I wish that I wouldn’t have to.  This sort of pragmatic argument perpetuates an impoverished understanding of education that Christians need to be combating, not affirming.  At its richest, education is much more than vocational training.  Roche agrees.  He emphasizes the pragmatic benefits of the liberal arts because he is a realist, and he recognizes that we live in a culture that equates education with learning how to make a living rather than learning how to live.  (A recent survey of college freshmen ranks “being very well off financially” as their highest priority.)  Roche’s personal sense of calling is quite different, however.  Speaking as an educator to educators, he concludes Why Choose the Liberal Arts? with this stirring declaration:

 Our greatest challenge is not to help our students find a career that satisfies their specialized intellectual interests and capacities or their material needs and desires but to help them find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning and to be both at home in the world as it is and active in the wider world as it should be, so that learning becomes service to wisdom and justice.

I totally get the “what can I do with a history degree” question.  It needs to be asked.  But I do wish that at least one time a parent would nudge her son or whisper in his ear, and the nervous eighteen-year old would clear his throat and ask, “How will studying history change who I am?”

That’s a conversation I can get excited about.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SEEING MORE CLEARLY WHOM WE SERVE

Sociologist Christian Smith–a believing scholar at Notre Dame, formerly at UNC–has spent most of his career systematically surveying American religious beliefs.  A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for his 2005 book (coauthored with Melinda L. Denton) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Less well known outside academic circles is his 1998 study focused specifically on the values and beliefs of evangelical Christians in the U. S.–American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving.

The book’s title nicely captures its main argument.  After undertaking extensive polling and conducting thousands of interviews, Smith and his team of researchers concluded that American evangelicals were thriving  in large part because they were embattled.  Evangelicalism was growing rapidly, in other words, “very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism.”  Evangelicals see themselves as taking part in an ongoing struggle with an unbelieving culture, Smith found, and that sense of struggle has given evangelicalism much of its religious strength.

The sense of cultural struggle Smith alludes to has surely had its benefits for the life of the mind.  Most notably, as Smith points out, it has kept American evangelicals from either blandly blending into the secular mainstream or wholly withdrawing into fundamentalist ghettos.  That’s a good thing.  But when it comes to our engagement with the past, our sense of being engaged in a cultural struggle has been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it has led countless believers to value the past, to believe that it is vitally important that American Christians not lose touch with their religious and national history.  Although we historians often bemoan our culture’s “chronological snobbery” and relentless present-mindedness, every time I attend a home-school gathering or speak to a private Christian school, I am reminded that there is an enormous population of American Christians who take history with the utmost seriousness.

On the other hand, the embattled mindset that Smith writes about has encouraged countless Christian leaders and thinkers to study the past with an agenda in mind.  The most influential contributors to the popular view that America was founded as a Christian nation are also among the most egregious practitioners of what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.

Although their intentions may be honorable, those who adopt this strategy are more interested in proving points and winning arguments than in gaining greater understanding of a complex past.  They know in advance what they want to find in their investigations, and they can already envision how their anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that they already hold.  I cannot overstate the costs of such an approach.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all. We learn nothing beyond what we already “know.

Conceiving the Christian CollegeHere is an extended quote from my commonplace book that calls Christians to a different standard.  The author is Duane Litfin, who for seventeen years (1993-2010) was president of my current institution, Wheaton College.  The passage is from his 2004 work Conceiving the Christian College.  In context, Litfin is exploring the possible motivations for Christian scholarship and challenging Christians engaged in the life of the mind “to see more fully whom we serve.”  Listen to what he has to say:

I am highly motivated to be about the business of cultivating our minds and our learning, but it seems to me that our first motives must be intrinsic rather than instrumental.  In other words, we must learn to love God with our minds, to use our artistic gifts for Christ, to embody him in serving our neighbor and our society.  But our primary motive for doing so must not be the transformation of our culture.  Our prime motive must be obedience to Jesus Christ.  Then, if the living Christ graciously chooses to use our efforts to mold our culture into more of what he wants it to be, we will be grateful.  On the other hand, if he does not so choose–and let us be clear about it, he does not always so choose–and the culture remains resistant, even hostile, to our Christian influence, we must not be cast down.  Our motivation is not dependent on the acceptance and approval of our culture; in the end we care preeminently about the approval of Jesus Christ.  Our goal is to love God with our minds, whether the culture comes to appreciate our efforts or not.

AN ATHEIST’S HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FOUNDING

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to review a new book on the American founding for Christianity Today. The book is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The author, Matthew Stewart, is an independent writer, a philosopher by training, and an atheist by conviction. (If you missed the review, you can read it here.) Summarizing broadly, Nature’s God argues that the vision of the leading Founders was aggressively secular. Their worldview centered on a radical deism that was tantamount to atheism, and their ultimate objective was not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. What is more, their views were widely shared by common Americans in the revolutionary era.

Natures GodAlthough Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots.  In short, the emperor has no clothes.

I was under a strict word limitation in my review for CT, and there was quite a bit that I wanted to say that space didn’t allow. Before the buzz about the book fades completely—hopefully not too long from now—I thought I would share some thoughts that didn’t get into the formal review. Here are two somewhat lengthy additional reflections:

First, a great deal of what Stewart wants to do in Nature’s God is challenge the intellectual coherence of orthodox Christianity. Debates about the past are almost always debates about the present in disguise, and Stewart’s claims about the origins of the American Revolution are no exception. The author openly longs for the day when religious belief is wholly “confined to the private sphere, as a purely inward matter, where it is rendered harmless.” He recognizes that it’s easier to justify the banishment of faith from public life in 2014 if you can prove that it was irrelevant in 1776.

Yet for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account. And as for the teachings of Scripture and the elements of orthodoxy, Stewart’s strategy is to ignore theologians altogether and instead lampoon the purported beliefs of “the common religious consciousness.”

Stewart alludes to “the common religious consciousness” incessantly (on pages 72, 92, 131, 158, 173, 174, 322, 339, 370, 374, 387, 389, 397, 427, among other places).  When he tires of the phrase he ridicules instead “the common view of things,” “the religious conception,” “the common sense of the matter,” “conventional wisdom,” “the common conception,” “common intuition,” “common ideas about things,” “a common line of interpretation” and the “widely accepted view today.” The one thing that unifies every one of these references is that they lack even a single specific reference to supporting evidence. The “common religious consciousness” is simply Stewart’s rhetorical whipping boy.  It stands for whatever straw man he needs at the moment to make Christianity appear ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong. At times Nature’s God is an impressively scholarly work. The end notes are ninety pages long, and Stewart can split hairs with the best of them in exploring the subtleties of Epicurean philosophy or the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. But when it comes to defining the Christianity he so detests, the book becomes appallingly unscholarly, even anti-intellectual. Christianity is simply whatever Stewart says it is. And that makes Stewart’s job of ridiculing it a lot easier. “Nice work, if you can get it,” as we like to say around the McKenzie household.

Second, although Stewart would wince at the comparison, I kept thinking while reading Nature’s God that the book has a lot in common with the works of David Barton. A recurring theme in Barton’s “Christian America” interpretation is that the true history of America’s origins has been intentionally hidden by secularists who hate the truth. With almost perfect symmetry, Stewart argues that Christian apologists have “lobotomized” the more radical leaders of the Revolution and covered up the reality that they were religious heretics. From the founding all the way to our day, “there have been many attempts,” Stewart charges, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful—to deny or emend this basic fact of American history.”

Like Barton, Stewart also contends that he has no agenda other than a zealous commitment to discover the truth. He claims that he was “eager to see what I might learn” from the writings of Barton, Tim LaHaye, Gary Demar, and company—a whopper if I’ve ever heard one—and he insists that he was repeatedly surprised by the conclusions that his unbiased examination of the evidence thrust upon him. As I followed Stewart’s description of his approach in the book’s preface, the image that came to mind was an academic version of Sgt. Joe Friday, the relentless Dragnet detective who followed the evidence wherever it led. Just the facts, ma’am.

The reality is much different.  Stewart–like Barton–approaches the past more like a defense attorney than a police detective.   His job is not to present the whole truth to the jury, but rather to make the strongest case that he can for his client.  To put it differently, Stewart–just like Barton–is focused more on scoring points in the culture wars than on wrestling with the complexities of the past.  Winning the argument trumps understanding the issues.

I’ll take the time to share one appalling example of this from Nature’s God.  In chapter two (titled “Pathologies of Freedom”), Stewart introduces the villain in his melodrama, namely the Protestant Christianity that was widespread in the American colonies in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.  His primary goal for the chapter is to demonstrate how utterly anti-intellectual Christianity was (and is).

To that end, Stewart frames the chapter in terms of a relentless struggle between science and religion.  The former is defined by an open-ended commitment to truth, the latter by narrow-minded bigotry and hostility to free inquiry.  Stewart begins the chapter with an anecdote involving Ethan Allen, the free-thinking backwoodsman who would go on to fame during the Revolution as leader of Vermont’s “Green Mountain Boys.”  In 1764 Allen was arrested in Salisbury, Connecticut for defying a town ordinance prohibiting the administration of smallpox vaccinations.  According to Stewart, the town’s council of “selectmen” had caved in to religious arguments that vaccination interfered with divine sovereignty.  In an end note buried 414 pages later, he acknowledges that “opinion on the subject of inoculation did not consistently divide along theological lines.”  But in the text he notes only that Allen’s arrest “could be seen as one of many collisions between religion and science.”

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

Having used the vignette to illustrate the supposed hostility between faith and reason, Stewart then devotes the heart of the chapter to an overview of the theology of the Great Awakening, focusing most of his attention on an extended character sketch of the famous preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards.  According to Stewart’s contemptuous caricature, Edwards fomented hate, taught “strikingly cruel doctrines,” and brainwashed his congregation into worshiping “an angry God who demands absolute humiliation upon pain of eternal damnation.”  What offends Stewart most is Edward’s purported war on reason.  His followers were sheep who succumbed to Edwards’ insistence on “absolute  submission,” on “obedience without sense or purpose.”  Finding no intellectually respectable grounds for Christian conviction, Stewart dismisses the Christianity of colonial America as a form of “madness.”

At this point, I could almost feel myself pulling for those brave colonial atheists who refused to shut off their brains even as waves of religious superstition rolled across the land.  But although Stewart’s prose is colorful and engaging, the author’s characterization of Edwards is more ignorant rant than serious scholarship.  Jonathan Edwards was one of the preeminent intellectuals of colonial America.  He read widely, thought deeply about literature and art and philosophy, and was throughout his life an advocate, not an opponent of science.  When he died prematurely in 1758, he had just assumed the presidency of one of the leading institutions of higher education in North America, Princeton College.  He was the last person to cast faith and reason as unalterable enemies.  That view belongs to Matthew Stewart, not Jonathan Edwards.

And the cause of Edwards’ premature death?  The point is hardly irrelevant to the chapter on colonial religion as Stewart frames it.  Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation, having concluded that the risk involved from being infected with a mild case of the disease was justified by the statistical likelihood of its efficacy.   Stewart never once hints at this fact.  He is either unaware of it–which is possible, though I find it unlikely–or the truth simply didn’t fit with his predetermined agenda to discredit the Christianity he so despises.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SCREWTAPE ON “THE HISTORICAL POINT OF VIEW”

Lewis IIAs a historian, one of the things I most appreciate about C. S. Lewis is his conviction that the present has much to learn from the past.  As a teacher, one of the things I admire most about Lewis is his ability to communicate that conviction in an accessible, memorable, and imaginative way.  The extended quote below from my commonplace book wonderfully embodies both of these features.

The quote comes from Lewis’s WWII-era classic The Screwtape Letters.  If you’re not familiar with the book, I heartily recommend it.  It is a great example of Lewis’s genius at using imaginative literature to convey spiritual truth.  The book consists of a series of 31 letters from a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood.  Throughout the letters, Screwtape lavishes his nephew with advice on how to cause Christians to stumble.   The book is both engaging and convicting, as long as you remember that everything comes from a diabolical perspective.  What Screwtape is recommending, Lewis is warning us to avoid.

Screwtape lettersToward the end of the book, in letter 27, Screwtape shares with Wormwood about what he calls “the Historical Point of View.”  In context, Screwtape has been explaining to his nephew how best to undermine the effectiveness of human prayers.  He notes that an ancient writer  had shared insights that, if humans took them to heart, would badly undermine the devils’ strategy.  There is no need to worry, however, Screwtape assures his nephew.  “Only the learned read old books, and we [he means the devils of Hell] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.”  Screwtape then goes on to explain the reason for this hellish success:

We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View.  The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.  He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.  And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.  But thanks be to Our Father [i.e., Satan] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

Isn’t that a delightful passage?  I could go on and on about it, but let me share just a few observations.  First, Lewis is reminding us that there are moral consequences to our ready dismissal of the past.  By cutting ourselves off from all those who have gone before us, we forfeit the hard-won wisdom of experience that our ancestors might otherwise bequeath to us.  This lessens our ability to live virtuously.  Our contempt for the past is itself a sign of a moral shortcoming on our part, namely intellectual pride–or what Lewis elsewhere labeled “chronological snobbery.”

Second, while there are many reasons why western society as a whole learns little from history, be sure to notice that in this passage Lewis is focused on “the learned.”  The Historical Point of View that he describes is most pronounced among the well educated, but I think we can be even more specific:  In the United States, at least, the Historical Point of View–the mindset that finds it “unutterably simple-minded” to suppose that one could learn how to live by studying the past–is most pronounced among academic historians. At its best–in the words of historian David Harlan–the study of history should be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Too often in today’s universities, however, the study of history is a closed, self-referential conversation that individuals with Ph.Ds have with each other.

Finally, don’t miss the potshot that Lewis takes at the individual who was then the wealthiest man in the world.  During WWI, automobile tycoon Henry Ford had famously lectured Congress on the worthlessness of the past. “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world,” Ford proclaimed.   “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

Somewhere in the Lowerarchy of Hell, Screwtape smiled.

THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—Pt. II

Last week I responded to a rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education by University of Pennsylvania Professor Peter Conn (“The Great Accreditation Farce”). With considerable righteous indignation, Conn insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry” that supposed defines the secular academy. In my response (“Should Religious Colleges Be Denied Accreditation?”), I mainly pointed out that Conn’s diatribe failed to capture my own experience. Since leaving the University of Washington for Wheaton College I have enjoyed more, not less academic freedom.

Then, prompted by a question from a reader, I decided to follow up with two broader posts on the worldview of the secular university as I experienced it in my twenty-two years as a faculty member at such an institution. In the first (“Thoughts on the Secular University–Pt. I”), I primarily wanted to stress my belief that, at the level of the institution, today’s state universities are influenced by a hefty helping of market-oriented pragmatism. State universities are frequently enormous economic concerns. They employ thousands of workers and have billion-dollar budgets. And although they are non-profit organizations, they have to attract customers and keep them smiling just as much as Walmart or McDonalds.

We are tempted to think that state schools are shielded from market pressures because they receive state funds, and perhaps there was a time when that was largely true. State legislatures have slashed their support to higher education over the last generation, however, so much so that many state universities are “public” institutions in name only. Universities compete for students, they compete for wealthy private donors, and they compete for government and corporate grants. To a significant degree, they take the shape of what others are willing to pay for.

While this is true, I am not remotely suggesting that the secular university is an ideology-free zone. Far from it. There is a well-defined ideology that predominates in the secular university. Not every faculty member equally endorses it, but it is pervasive enough and dominant enough that it is reasonable to call it the secular university’s defining worldview.

So what does this ideology look like? It’s probably best to begin by defining terms. A political philosopher could come up with a much more precise (and convoluted?) definition, but I like the simple definition of “ideology” as essentially your ideas about the way the world is and the way the world should be. Let’s take these two components in turn. What is the prevailing view in the secular university of how the world is?

The answer is simple: it is material, period. More than anyplace else in America, today’s secular universities are strongholds of the materialist view (as opposed to the religious view) of the origins and nature of the universe. Matter and space have always existed according to this notion. Outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent. Nothing is transcendent. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan used to put it in the opening of the popular PBS series Cosmos, the material universe is all there is, all there ever has been, all there ever will be.

When it comes to higher education, the dogma of materialism finds expression in a single, overarching, non-negotiable dictum: in the words of atheist Matthew Stewart, “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” The label for this philosophy of knowledge is rationalism. Rationalism regards human reason as the only path to truth. It says that the only way to make sense of the world is to put autonomous humans at the figurative center of the universe and rely on human reason to explain whatever it can.

More to the point, rationalism dismisses the very possibility of divine revelation. This doesn’t mean that the university has to dismiss religion per se from the curriculum, as long as it’s studied as an odd cultural phenomenon that human reason explains away. Most universities of any size have departments of religious studies (often staffed by professors who are atheists or agnostics).  Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians often touch upon religion as well. They just can’t profess to believe any of the truth claims of the religions they study.

All of this makes sense within a materialist, rationalist framework. So does the university’s theoretical stance on moral values. Remember, matter is all that there is. Matter can be weighed, measured, and explained. Values, on the other hand, are immaterial. They are, by definition, subjective and beyond proof. In the moral philosophy of the university, whatever values predominate in a particular place and time are best understood as “social constructions.” They are invented, not discovered. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because those who wield power over them find them useful. In sum, while there may be discernible patterns of human behavior and belief, these cannot reflect objectively true values that transcend space and time.  Why?  Because nothing transcends space and time.

This, in a nutshell, is how the world is in the eyes of the secular university. What is its vision for how the world should be? Well, it should certainly be more rational, which is another way of saying it should be more secular. For several generations scholars have been asserting that secularization is the natural path of human development and predicting that religion will soon be an embarrassing memory from humanity’s superstitious childhood. Billions of believers have failed to get this memo, however, and both Islamic and Christian revivals continue to sweep vast portions of the majority world.

The world should also be much more just than it is. If the secular university exhibits a fair amount of pragmatism, it also exudes more than its share of moral passion and righteous indignation. This was certainly the case at the University of Washington. Walking across campus on a sunny day meant running a gauntlet of leaflet-wielding student organizations, each bent on converting you to their “cause” of choice: Aids awareness, homelessness, environmentalism, human trafficking, apartheid, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer rights, etc. Both faculty and students spoke glibly of “social justice” and “human rights” and both took for granted that these concepts were far more than “social constructions” reflecting the “cultural hegemony” of the cultural elite. The campus was awash in moral claims.

From retrospect, this is the feature of the secular university that I find most striking: On the one hand, the university rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other hand, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing. Put the two together and you get the contradiction at the heart of the secular academy: Deny the possibility of moral Truth while crusading for moral truths.

The stereotypical embodiment of this contradiction is the  self-described relativist who denies that there is any transcendent meaning or purpose to human existence, and yet expresses great hope for the future of humanity and feels passionately about his own non-negotiable set of ethical values. Michael Novak has called this oxymoronic outlook “nihilism with a happy face.” It flourishes in the secular university.

The contradiction underlying “nihilism with a happy face” is glaring, but it’s only troubling if you hold to the quaint belief that your worldview should be internally consistent. But I found that, for all its exaltation of reason, when it comes to worldviews, the secular university is not that big on logical consistency. That, at least, was my experience at UW. While I regularly encountered students with strong moral convictions, I encountered few who felt obliged to reconcile their moral commitments with a companion set of beliefs about the origin, nature, and meaning of the universe. In other words, almost none of the students that I got to know thought it essential to develop a comprehensive and logically consistent philosophy of life.  It was not so much that they were opposed to the idea; they had never given it any thought.  Nor were they much challenged to do so during their time at the university, sadly, for the university had given up on that project long ago.

It was pretty much the same with the faculty and graduate students whom I engaged in “meaning-of-life” conversations.  Repeatedly I encountered scholars who condemned religion as irrational but were more than willing to jettison reason in order to cling to their own secular philosophies.  When I gently accused one of my graduate students of inconsistency, she left my office mildly troubled and then returned a few days later to say that she had concluded that I was right and that she was quite willing to live with a measure of irrationality. When I confronted a colleague (a senior professor) about an irrational inconsistency in his worldview, he forcefully objected at first and then—unconvinced by his own argument—shrugged and observed that “perhaps it isn’t all that important to be rational.” Another colleague, a brilliant scholar and religious skeptic, ended our conversation by declaring, “Logical consistency is not my god.”

In “The Great Accreditation Farce,” Peter Conn insists that the faculty at Christian colleges like Wheaton necessarily abandon “the primacy of reason.”  I haven’t encountered that yet, but thanks to my time in the secular university, I think I’ll be able to recognize it when I see it.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: STEVEN GARBER ON VOCATION

I hope to be back in touch soon with part two of my thoughts on the world view of secular university, but I’m going to interrupt that thread temporarily to share a few more quotes from my commonplace book. A commonplace book, you will recall, was essentially a quote journal or intellectual diary that students were often required to keep in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I use mine to write down passages that I want to revisit regularly, quotes that challenge how I think through my calling as a Christian, historian, and teacher.

I recently finished a marvelous new book from Intervarsity Press that is a treasure trove of such passages. The book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber. I heartily recommend it, whatever your age, occupation, or outlook on life. Garber heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

Garber

The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?” Garber has spent much of his life studying the history and philosophy of science and in thinking critically about the world view of the Enlightenment. For all of the advances in knowledge that the Enlightenment furthered, it erred—tragically—in promoting the belief that mind and heart could be separated. Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Modern educators naively often suggest otherwise. Indeed, one of the underlying premises of the modern multicultural education movement is the idea that increasing students’ understanding of diverse perspectives naturally increases their appreciation of diverse peoples. That may sometimes be the case, but I think that Nietszche was right when he observed (I’m paraphrasing), “If I understood you better I might hate you more.” Knowledge makes us morally responsible, not morally right. How we respond to knowledge is the key to the latter.

Garber maintains that the more intimately we know the world the harder it becomes to love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.

Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.

Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.

Here are two final, more extended quotes from the book to whet your appetite. The first is a word of warning:

These are the truest truths in the universe: We do not flourish as human beings when we know no one and no one knows us; we do not flourish as human beings when we belong to no place and no place cares about us. When we have no sense of relationship to people or place, we have no responsibility to people or place. Perhaps the saddest face of the modern world is its anonymity.

The second is an exhortation to daily faithfulness and perseverance:

. . . But that is what matters most in life, for all of us. The long obedience in the same direction. Keeping at it. Finding honest happiness in living within the contours of our choices. To wake up another morning, beautifully bright as a summer day spreads its warmth across the grass, or awfully cold as winter blows its way over the high prairie, and stepping into the world again, taking up the work that is ours, with gladness and singleness of heart . . .