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The Illusion of Respectability
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It is very nearly four decades since, as a terribly callow graduate student with an interest in philosophy, I made a pilgrimage with a friend to the home of a professor of Christian apologetics. I was looking for direction, and even though Cornelius Van Til had been retired for many years, he was known to welcome inquirers—whom he often greeted on his front porch with a rake in hand, suggesting that perhaps they could pile-up his leaves for him before they talked.

I was hoping to hear an intimidating, intellectually-convoluted, scholastic, metaphysical strategy for blowing the philosopher’s version of Gideon’s trumpet. Van Til, then pushing 80 stood with his hard white comb of hair brushed back from his cliff-like brow, and the smile of an old Dutch dairy farmer (which his father had been). I asked, “Dr. Van Til, why did you decide to devote your life to the study of philosophy and the teaching of apologetics?”

And I then sat back to allow the metaphysics free room to roll. Van Til never blinked.

“Why,” he said, “to protect Christ’s little ones.”

The surprise that could have dropped me to the floor that afternoon has never quite evaporated. Why, to protect Christ’s little ones. Not only because those words express a great nobility in a few syllables, but because, remembering them, they cast down every castle of intellectual folly I erect, or am tempted to erect. And because, at the end, I am not worthy of them, and because anyone who understands that the kingdom of God is our true home, that God’s people are truly our people, and that this is a world by turns indifferent and hostile to both, must see those words as a true reminder of what we owe to each other as Christians, and in what relation we stand to each other.

I recall those words—Why, to protect Christ’s little ones—with tears, both because I have not always lived according to them, and because it is precisely the world of the scholar and historian that encourages me to ignore them. Certainly, I do not recall in graduate school ever being so advised. I was so busy protecting myself as a graduate student in history that I barely had time to worry about those little ones. I had only just earned the PhD and was on the job market when my department’s graduate chairman took me aside, and in the kindliest terms, said, “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you should know that the slightest hint of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death.”

In the years since I was given that advice, the shadows have only grown longer in the academic world. What we believe is now no longer merely odd, but discriminatory, and therefore fair game to be discriminated against. We have seen, or read, the exclusion practiced at Vanderbilt, at Bowdoin, in the University of California system against Christian student organizations; we have seen with perhaps more anxiety a Christian college temporarily threatened with loss of accreditation. And given the degree to which even private colleges and universities are dependent on various streams of public funds, some modernized version of the Test Act cannot be far away.

Given that almost 20 percent of the Department of Education’s most recent financial-responsibility fail list were made up of identifiably Christian schools —Montreat College, Eastern Nazarene College, Multnomah University—the pressure to hide culturally disdained lights under the nearest convenient bushel will only grow greater. The slightest hint of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death is the reality we see materializing before us, individually and institutionally.

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The Illusion of Respectability