Reviews

“The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship” by George M. Marsden – A Book Review

George M. Marsden is a Reformed Evangelical historian with a PhD in American history under Sydney Ahlstrom at Yale University. Marsden previously taught at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and University of Notre Dame. He has won the Bancroft Prize for his work Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)in 2004. His other works include Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (1991), The Soul of the American University (1994), and Reforming Fundamentalism (1995). His most recent work is C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography published in 2016.

In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden argues for the need to incorporate religious belief with various fields of academia. Academic discussion regarding religious implications should be encouraged even among those who differ in faith or with the non-religious. Marsden challenges the assumption that educational system would be better off without religious learning. For Marsden, one’s belief in God relates to any other academic field. He observes that it is the professing Christians in academia who are quiet about their faith, considering the relationship of faith and scholarship to be an outrageous idea. In this work, Marsden provides guidelines for a religiously-informed scholarship as he urges religious perspectives to be accepted as legitimate in the academy.

George M. Marsden. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 142 pp.

Summary

In chapter 1, Marsden summarizes the historical analysis he previously outlined in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. Why does the culture of the academy expect the suppression of faith from scholarship? Marsden observes that the restraining of religion is the academy’s reaction to the long establishment of Christianity in higher education. American universities, virtually started in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Protestants, were havens for free scientific research outside the confines of supernaturalism. These universities were not opposing Christianity; rather, they are using scientific advancement to achieve moral and Christian idealism. Princeton University under Woodrow Wilson, for example, reduced Christian teaching but still held to Christian morals. In the 1980s, religious perspective in the classroom has dwindled, and prejudices against traditional religious viewpoints increased. Eventually, the academy viewed religion as irrelevant to scholarship. With the scientific method as the unifying authority of all disciplines, religion becomes its opposition because scientific knowledge was universal and nonsectarian while religion was parochial and divisive. Christian viewpoint has lost its voice in the fields of politics, history, sociology, psychology, economics, literature, etc. The academy’s drive for nondiscrimination and disestablishment ironically led to the biases against Christian perspectives.

The second chapter is Marsden’s polemical answers against common arguments for suppressing faith in scholarship. He highlights three factors for the academy’s rejection of religion as relevant and significant for academic inquiry. First, the academy argues that the religious perspectives are not scientific enough. Since the Enlightenment, religious authority has been replaced by scientific authority. Second, the academy’s rejection of religion is due to some’s fear of losing hard-won gains for diversity and tolerance. Many within the feminists, Marxists, and LGBT community felt that conservative Christians were the oppressors of diversity and tolerance. Lastly, the concern from academia is that the boundary between church and state may be violated when religion is given a greater voice in the academy.

Chapter 3 proposes the idea that religious perspective must be considered legitimate as long as Christian scholarship adapt the necessary rules for academic dialogue in a pluralistic context. Marsden combats the assumption that if Christian scholarship may disrupt academic civility because of its anti-pluralistic views. For Marsden, Christians and non-Christians alike can share basic standards of evidence and argument. Faith-based worldviews can be defended with empirical evidence. Adapting to the academy’s rules is not Christian schizophrenia; rather, adapting to various communities is consistent with the Christian’s call to be sojourners in the world without compromising their allegiance to God.

Chapter 4 sketches ways Christian perspective could have an impact on the academy. A common objection to religious scholarship is that there is no such thing as a Roman Catholic chemistry or a Presbyterian biology. Marsden responds that such a thing in fact exists: a Mennonite political science, a Roman Catholic view of medical ethics, or a Presbyterian view of anthropology. A religious and non-religious scholar have both commonalities and difference in their perspective when they view the same evidence. The facts may be the same, but the overall meaning and significance may be radically different. In addition, Christian scholarship also challenges naturalistic views, and it shapes moral judgments.

In chapter 5, Marsden suggests how theological affirmations can reshape some academic thought. For Marsden, theology can be integrated with scholarship. He demonstrates this from common Christian beliefs. Creationism, for example, is not limited to dialogue with the natural sciences, but it has greater implications in humanities, social sciences, ethics, morality, anthropology, and epistemology. The incarnation, the Holy Spirit and spiritual dimension, and the human condition are other examples of Christian doctrines that has contribution to broader academic fields.

In the last chapter, Marsden challenges Christian scholars to engage in academic communities. Marsden calls for a mobilization of Christian scholarship by cultivating spiritual commitment for the eventual Christian scholars. He warns about the dangers of mainstream academic culture and stresses the fruit of the Spirit as the traits that must be seen among Christian scholars. In published scholarship, a Christian scholar must show respect and humility, especially towards those who hold an opposite view.

Analysis

In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden demonstrates the need for Christian scholarship, answers the objections, and provides ways that a faith-based perspective can benefit the academy. As a well-experienced historian, Marsden has pointed out great examples that either promote Christian scholarship or challenges those who object to it. Speaking to two audiences, he adequately promoted Christian scholarship to those in mainstream university scholars; for the Christian scholar, he clearly outlines the role that he must take in academia.

While Marsden’s work has been generally compelling, a few questions need to be asked. First, when is the best time not to parade one’s “Christian beliefs” (p. 67), or to call one’s view generally as “faith-informed” instead of specifically “Christian” (p. 10, 67)? Secondly, how valuable is having an acceptable “Christian scholarship” to the extent that one must deemphasize his Christian beliefs when it comes to Creationism? Marsden says that

There is no Christian teaching of more consequence for scholarship than that ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ It is this doctrine that sets Christian perspectives against the purely naturalistic viewpoints which dominate mainstream academia.

p. 40

Third, is Christian scholarship an achievable goal? While Marsden has convincingly answer main objections to his proposal, it seems that both mainstream secular academes and conservative Christian scholars themselves do not believe that “Christian” and “scholarship” could coexist in the world of academia.

Marsden’s ideas and arguments are worth contemplating over for both Christian and non-Christian scholars. Some highlights include his four arguments against empirical science’s superiority and as the universal rule of inquiry. Is science really the most valuable standard for truth because it provided conclusions that all fair-minded observers—those with different faiths—agree? Marsden points out that the empirical model failed to unite people on the larger questions concerning society and human relationship. The disunity in academia over these larger questions in life demonstrate that empirical science has failed to unify scholars. For Marsden, empirical science is not competent to give definitive answers. Secondly, the empirical method is not applied consistently to other non-demonstrable beliefs—equality of gender and race, killing infants, concern for the poor. These beliefs are not derived from any scientific argument. A belief in God is rejected by the academy based on lack of demonstratable science, but denial of a Creator is accepted by the academy when it is equally indemonstrable. Third, excluding religious perspective from objective science cannot be done. Since many academics are religious, their beliefs will inevitably shape some of their scholarship. Fourth, empirical science as the universal rule of scholarship is based purely on naturalistic presuppositions. Naturalistic starting point naturally leads to purely naturalistic conclusions.

Other highlights include Marsden’s argument about the bias against Christians in the academy. As an example, he cites the academy’s favorable acceptance of a religious Jew over a fundamentalist dispensationalist when it comes to diplomatic history when both groups hold to the same view on Israel. In chapter 4, Marsden unveils the possibilities of how Christianity could enrich the academy. By reading Marsden’s list of how Christianity can influence various academic disciplines, a Christian scholar (when given more time of reflection) could probably come up with scores of ways that his faith could influence his discipline of study. As Marsden puts it,

It simply does not follow that, because there is no special Christian view of photosynthesis, there is therefore not a Christian view of biology.”

p. 61

Conclusion

Overall, Marsden has given the scholarly world something to ponder about. Christian scholars are called to pursue excellence in scholarship and strong commitment to his Christian faith. The non-religious should consider the inconsistency of the academy’s rejection of Christian scholarship. Perhaps, a crisis may come that the academy may need to look at the Christian scholar to give perspective to the overall meaning and significance of an empirical evidence.

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