I just finished reading Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen, and I thought I would think out loud with you a bit. If you’re not familiar with the book, it is an intellectual history of American evangelicalism since World War Two. It focuses on the various ways that evangelicals have tried to resolve the tension between faith and reason and the related question of how they should engage intellectually with the larger secular culture. The book came out a year and a half ago to great acclaim, and I figured it was a book I should get to know.
Although I am a Christian who studies American history, I am not a historian of American Christianity, so I read the book more as a student than a specialist. Primarily, I wanted to learn more about the evangelical culture in which I am now immersed here at Wheaton. The author, a recent graduate of Yale and now on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, delivered what I was hoping for . . . sort of. The book is deeply researched, the scholarship is careful, the argument strikes me as judicious, and the tone lacks the element of condescension that so often creeps into academic treatments of evangelical intellectual life. Worthen doesn’t openly identify with the evangelicals she is writing about, but she takes their ideas seriously and treats them respectfully, and that counts for a lot.
Worthen’s thesis is captured in her subtitle: there is a “crisis of authority” in American evangelicalism. Evangelicals after WWII took the life of the mind seriously and were determined to engage the culture rather than withdraw from it, but they didn’t begin to agree on how to go about either task. Without a single authority to formulate an official approach, they floundered, contending with each other as much as with the culture they hoped to redeem.
A reviewer for Books and Culture described Apostles of Reason as “the most exciting history of evangelical intellectual life to appear in decades.” I was less enthralled. Maybe that’s because I don’t know the topic well enough to be suitably impressed, or maybe it’s that I wanted a different kind of book than the one Worthen wrote. I wanted Worthen to offer some theological reflection on the dilemma she was describing. I would have been delighted if she had come out from behind the curtain and told us if she sees any answer to the dilemma. But it’s not that kind of book. Worthen has written about the Church, but she is not writing to the Church. She has written her book for the Academy, which, to be fair to Worthen, is exactly what the Academy demands of its untenured professors.
Apostles of Reason has been reviewed extensively online, so I won’t go to the trouble to offer an extended synopsis, much less a critical assessment, which I’m not really qualified to make. I do want to share one reaction that I had while reading, and it’s only obliquely related to the book at all. As I read, I was concerned by what Worthen seems to imply about secular intellectual culture, the world that I have inhabited for most of my career until recently.
In the book’s final chapter, Worthen sums up her argument by explaining, “The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority. All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions. The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time” [italics added]. The implication is that, because evangelical thinkers have to balance the competing claims of faith and reason, they face a challenge that secular intellectuals do not. A page later Worthen backtracks halfheartedly, admitting that “some version of this dilemma afflicts all thoughtful people,” but even here she sets evangelicals apart: Only evangelicals “have turned this torment into the hallmark of their identity.”
What concerns me is how easily this book will fit into the comforting larger story that the secular Academy likes to tell about itself. According to this self-justifying narrative, the interjection of religious faith is a “problem” for the life of the mind. It poses insoluble dilemmas that only the secularization of education can overcome. By vanquishing religious dogma and enshrining reason as its sole authority, the contemporary Academy banishes bigotry, breathes vitality into the open-ended pursuit of knowledge, and promotes a free, democratic, and pluralistic intellectual community.
And yet, as I’ve written before, today’s secular universities are awash in moral truth claims that reason did not lead them to, nor can it. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it, a secular world view “has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort.” This did not stop my students and colleagues at the University of Washington from holding fervent moral commitments—against homelessness, human trafficking, and apartheid; in support of affirmative action, conservation, and same-sex marriage—but these were moral commitments suspended in a vacuum. In today’s secular university it is perfectly acceptable (and I would say typical) to start with a wholly materialist understanding of existence, add to that the axiomatic assumption that all moral values are “social constructions,” and from there to avow any number of moral dogmas.
Today’s secular university has its own “crisis of authority.” More like evangelicals than they would care to admit, secular academics juggle the dual demands of faith and reason. But unlike the evangelicals they often scorn, they normally lack a philosophically consistent foundation for the moral convictions that they hold. Worthen is correct that the secular Academy is not defined by a struggle between faith and reason in the way that evangelicals have been, but this is not because the Academy has successfully resolved the tension between faith and reason. Instead, it simply ignores it. It’s easy to cling to a contradictory worldview when you distance yourself from those who might challenge it, and today’s secular Academy is nothing if not homogeneous.