Does evangelical thought have any chance of dominating the great universities as long as it stays on the periphery of intellectual responsibility?

I speak to you as a Christian. Jesus Christ is my Lord and God and Savior and Song, day and night. I can live without food, without drink, without sleep, without air. But I cannot live without him. Without Jesus I would have perished long ago. Without him and his church reconciling man to God, the world would have perished long ago. I live in and on the Bible for long hours every day.The Bible is the source of every good thought and impulse I have. Not a day passes without my crying from the bottom of my heart, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I know he is coming with glory to judge the living and the dead, but in my impatience I sometimes cannot wait, and I find myself in my infirmity crying with David, “How long, Lord?” And I know his kingdom shall have no end.

Nothing is more important or as important in the world today than for the Christians of America to grasp and realize their historic opportunities.

Perhaps never since the Twelve Apostles and Saint Paul has any group of Christians been burdened by Providence with the responsibilities now devolving upon American Christians. Materially, politically, and morally, the Protestants of America especially command resources that are absolutely unprecedented. Spiritually they are in a state of creative ferment.

The Protestants of America today can do more together—not separately, but in sincere cooperation with other Christians—than any other group of Christians to promote the highest interests of man and the spirit. They can effect this in the mass media, in the schools and universities, in the churches themselves, in the seminaries, in individual personal character, in popular literature, in the conduct of business, in the councils of state, in international relations, and in the general quality of life of a whole epoch. The burden of their infinite accountability before God and history can only be carried with at once the deepest joy and the most authentic humility.

Protestantism emphasizes four fundamental truths: (1) the supreme importance of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as the Word of God; (2) Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the living Lord of Lords and King of Kings, with whom we must, and indeed we can, have a direct personal relationship; (3) justification by faith and not by works, best expressed by Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness”; and (4) individual, personal, responsible freedom as the very essence of the dignity of man.

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Jesus Christ will not be revealed as the Light of the World, his wonderful light will not shine in the awful darkness of our world, until the American evangelicals—on whom so much depends today—integrate into themselves, and get themselves integrated into, the unity and continuity of the cumulative Christian tradition. For Christ has so shone on many souls and many cultures throughout history—not on today’s evangelicals only.

This is the spiritual side; there is also an intellectual side. In the nature of the case, evangelization is always mortal man’s most important task. For proud and rebellious and self-sufficient man (and pride and rebellion and self-sufficiency are the same thing) to be brought to his knees and to tears before the actual majesty and grace and power of Jesus Christ—this is the greatest event that can happen to any man. Those who are engaged in mediating this event, the evangelists, are God’s supreme heralds.

But we are endowed not only with a soul and a will to be saved; we are also endowed with a reason to be sharpened and satisfied. This reason wonders about everything, including God. We are to seek and love and worship the Lord our God with all our strength and all our mind. We argue and reason with one another all the time. Indeed, every sentence and discourse is a product of reason. It is therefore neither a shame nor a sin to discipline and cultivate our reason to the utmost; it is a necessity, it is a duty, it is an honor to do so.

If, therefore, evangelization is the most important task, what follows immediately is to find out exactly what is happening to the mind and the spirit in the schools and universities. That—not politics, not economics, not the quest of comfort and security and ease—is in second place. A Christian will be profoundly disturbed once he discovers there is a total divorce between mind and spirit in the schools and universities, which divides between the perfection of thought and the perfection of soul and character; between intellectual sophistication and the spiritual worth of the individual human person; between reason and faith; between the pride of knowledge and the contrition of heart consequent upon being a mere creature. When he realizes that Jesus Christ is less at home on the campuses of the great universities in Europe and America today than almost anywhere else, he must ask what can be done to recapture them. The universities would not have come into being in the first place without Christ.

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What can the poor church, even at its best, do? What can evangelization, even at its most inspired, do? What can the poor family, even at its purest and noblest, do? Children spend between 15 and 20 years of their lives, indeed the most formative period of their lives, in schools and colleges in an atmosphere of formal denial of any relevance of God and spirit and soul and faith to the formation of their minds. The enormity of what is happening is beyond words.

The church and the family are already encumbered with their own strains and ordeals. They are fighting a losing battle in terms of the university’s bearing upon the spiritual health and wholeness of youth. All the preaching in the world, and all the loving care of even the best parents, will amount to little or nothing so long as what children are exposed to day in and day out virtually cancels out what they hear and see and learn at home and in the church. The problem of the school and university, therefore, is the most critical problem afflicting Western civilization.

So far as the university is concerned, I have no patience with piety alone. I want the most rigorous intellectual training; I want the perfection of the mind. Equally, I have no patience with reason alone. I want the salvation of the soul; I want the fear of the Lord. I want at least neutrality with respect to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I crave to see an institution that will produce as many saints as Nobel Prize winners, one in which, while producing in every field the finest works of thought and learning in the world, Jesus Christ will be at home—in every dormitory and lecture hall and library and laboratory. But this is impossible today, and why it is impossible is the most important question.

The sciences are flourishing as never before. May they keep on flourishing and exploding and discovering! The diversity and quality of the intellectual fare available to university students is absolutely unprecedented in history. There is nothing Western civilization can be more proud of than its great universities.

But I am worried about the humanities—about philosophy, psychology, art, history, literature, sociology, the interpretation of man as to his nature and his destiny. It is in these realms that the spirit, the fundamental attitude, and the whole outlook on life—even for the scientist himself—are formed and set. But in terms of content and substance, what are the dominant philosophies in the humanities today in Europe and America?

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For the most part they are materialism and hedonism, naturalism and rationalism, relativism and Freudianism. There is a great deal of cynicism and nihilism, indifference and atheism, linguistic analysis and radical obfuscation. We find immanentism and the absence of a sense of mystery or of wonder or of a sense of tragedy. There is humanism and self-sufficiency, the worship of the future rather than something above and outside and judging past, present, and future. We see the relative decay of the classics, the uncritical worship of everything new and modern and different. There prevails a false conception of progress, and an uncritical and almost childish optimism, an uncritical and morbid pessimism, and the will to power and domination. All of these are just so many modes of self-worship. Is it any wonder there is so much disorder in the world?

The state of the mind and the spirit in the universities lies at the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization. We see these as general nervousness and restlessness, the dearth of grace and beauty and quiet and peace of soul, the manifold blemishes and perversions of personal character. And we see problems of the family and of social relations in general, problems of economics and politics, problems of the media, problems affecting the school and the church, problems in the international order. These are all at the heart of the crisis in Western civilization.

It is totally vain, indeed it is childish, to tackle these problems as though all were well in morals and in the fundamental orientation of the will and mind, as well as in the great halls of learning. The leaders in all these realms come from the universities. The decisive question is: What are they fed—intellectually, morally, spiritually, personally—during the 15 or 20 years they spend in school and university? It is there that the foundations of character and mind and outlook and conviction and attitude and spirit are laid. To paraphrase a biblical precept, if the wrong foundations are laid, or if the right foundations are vitiated or undermined, “what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).

At this point, of course, a charge of self-righteousness will be leveled. But the question is so momentous that it must be vigorously raised even at the risk of this charge and a dozen other charges and misunderstandings.

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As Christ is the Light of the World, his light must shine and be brought to bear upon the problem of the formation of the mind. That investigation will have to be accomplished with the utmost discretion and humility; it can only be carried out by men of prayer and faith. But once the light of Christ is shed on this study, the light the study itself will shed on all problems facing the Western world will be incalculable.

This is not a mechanical thing, nor is it a question of reforming the university; the university only reflects the mind of contemporary culture. We are dealing here with a thoroughgoing critique—from the point of view of Jesus Christ—of Western civilization’s highest contemporary values. This is what lends the task its grandeur and its supreme responsibility.

Believe me, the mind today is in profound trouble—perhaps more than ever before. How to order the mind on sound Christian principles at the very heart of where it is formed and informed, in the universities, is one of the two greatest themes that can be considered. This theme must engage us with the utmost urgency as we live between the First and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and while human society continues to be under the sway of sin and corruption.

Is it necessary to sacrifice or neglect Jesus in order to create and excel intellectually? Must learning and research be sacrificed and neglected in order to give all of life to Jesus? Is self-giving to scholarship and learning incompatible with self-giving to Jesus Christ? These are the ultimate questions—but beware of thinking they admit of glib answers. I warn you: the right answers could be most disturbing.

But if Christians do not care for the intellectual health of their children and for the fate of their own civilization—a health and a fate so inextricably bound up with the state of the mind and spirit in the universities—who is going to care? The task is gigantic. For it to be accomplished as I believe Christ himself would want it to be accomplished, people must be set on fire for it. It is not enough to be set on fire for evangelization alone.

I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy. Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our entire civilization with their spirit and ideas?

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It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism. For example, I say this different spirit, so far as philosophy alone—the most important domain for thought and intellect—is concerned, must see the tremendous value of spending an entire year doing nothing but poring intensely over the Republic or the Sophist of Plato, or two years over the Metaphysics or the Ethics of Aristotle, or three years over the City of God of Augustine. But if a start is made now on a crash program in this and other domains, it will take at least a century to catch up with the Harvards and Tübingens and the Sorbonnes—and by then where will these universities be? For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ himself, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.

Responsible Christians face two tasks—saving the soul and saving the mind. I use “soul” and “mind” here without definition, but I can define them in precise, philosophical-theological terms. The mind is desperately disordered today. I plead for a tiny fraction of Christian care to be extended to the mind, too. If it is the will of the Holy Ghost that we attend to the soul, it is certainly not his will that we neglect the mind. No civilization can endure with its mind as confused and disordered as ours is today. All our ills stem proximately from the false philosophies that have been let loose in the world and that are now being taught in the universities. Save the university and Western civilization is saved, and therewith the world.

What could be more wonderful than for evangelicals to aim at achieving under God and according to God’s own pace the two-fold miracle of evangelizing the great universities and intellectualizing the great evangelical movement? These two things are absolutely impossible; and yet because they are at the same time absolutely needed, God can make them absolutely possible. Every self-defeating attitude stems originally from the Devil. It cannot be willed by the Holy Ghost.

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So anti-intellectualism is an absolutely self-defeating attitude. The great universities control the mind of the world. Therefore, how can evangelism consider its task accomplished if it leaves the universities unevangelized? And how can evangelism evangelize the university if it cannot speak to the university? And how can it speak to the university if it is not itself already intellectualized?

Evangelism thus must first intellectualize itself to be able to speak to the university and, therefore, to be able to evangelize the university and, therefore, to save the world. This is the greatest task, the historic task, the most needed task, the task—required loud and clear by the Holy Ghost himself—to which evangelicals must humbly address themselves.

If this should happen, think of the infinite joy that would overflow our hearts. Who, then, would not join with David in singing: “Bless the Lord O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul; and forget not all his benefits … I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.” (Psalms 103:1–2; 104:33).

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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