What an amazing—and perilous—time to be a Christian scholar. The modern intellectual world, of which I am part, is adrift, unwilling to allow any claim of certainty by which judgments are to be made. Dominant forces work toward fragmentation, limiting reason, and breaking down fundamental truths. In institutional terms, this has led to what Charles Krauthammer has called “the Balkanization of American education.”

Secular pluralism, long prevalent on university campuses, is nearly as pervasive in everyday life. Furious debates over abortion and homosexual rights, values education, and multiculturalism engage common folk in Peoria and Spokane, not just the intellectuals of Cambridge or New Haven. In his recent book, The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., notes that we are losing any common national identity as rival ethnic groups retell the American experience from their own point of view. “Will the melting pot,” he asks, “yield to the Tower of Babel?”

The call to retreat

In the face of such daunting challenges to morality and truth, Christian higher education is scrambling to respond. For example, Roman Catholics have attempted to address these concerns from the top. American bishops, departing from precedent, are openly discussing the possibility of granting licenses or mandates to theologians at Catholic universities in an apparent effort to thwart maverick scholars. And, in a new encyclical, “The Splendor of Truth,” Pope John Paul II expresses alarm at the extent of disagreement among moral theologians and calls for vigilance in protecting the faithful who are “disoriented between so many discordant voices.”

Faced with the same challenges, evangelical voices and institutions show similar strain and apprehension. A world of deepening relativism calls for renewed commitment to Christian truth, to be sure, but many evangelicals are responding to this challenge out of fear rather than out of creativity, hope, and courage. A prominent evangelical leader recently counseled Christian young people to attend evangelical colleges, not so they could learn to think Christianly in the face of modern culture, but so they could avoid secular influence. Other leaders who once confidently engaged the world of theology and culture have today turned their attention inward, fretting about who is evangelical and who is not.

A hunger for safe and simple solutions has caused evangelicals to become increasingly nervous about serious academics and academic life. This fall the president and trustees of a leading evangelical college summarily dismissed an academic dean who seemed too faculty-oriented (a curious charge, since most academic deans are hired to lead the faculty). At another, the latent tensions between board members and faculty flared when one trustee warned churches about permitting a particular faculty member to speak to their young people. At yet another evangelical institution, trustees selected a new president without seeking meaningful faculty input. By way of explanation, one trustee stated that the college needed to be saved from its faculty. Clearly, the impulse is to batten down the hatches in the midst of heavy seas of change.

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This response to the jarring pluralism of the cultural wars ought not to characterize the church. It is a fear-based reaction founded on a desire for simplistic answers to complex questions. The tragedy is that just when evangelical scholarship has begun to mature and be taken seriously, evangelical institutions are retreating from serious academic engagement. What Andrew Greeley said about Catholic suspicion of intellectual life is equally applicable to evangelicals: “The slow, methodical poking around of the scholar, his dispassionate suspension of judgment, his proclivity for nuance and qualification, and his refusal to provide the kind of answers that are wanted when they are wanted are intolerable if the enemy is at the gates. Indeed it is not at all clear that the scholar might not be on the side of the enemy.”

Such hand-wringing threatens to retard creativity among evangelical scholars and makes going to the intellectual frontier a risky business. Scholars who do so—George Marsden, Stephen Evans, Mark Noll, Richard Mouw, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, William Abraham, and others—have long faced the challenge of defending Christian convictions in a pluralistic environment. Now they face a new wave of suspicion from fellow evangelicals at the precise moment that evangelicals, more than ever before, need to confront intellectual issues with intellectual responses.

The vocation of Christian scholar requires an environment where the tension between openness and commitment is preserved. John Stott touched on this when he called Christian scholars “to accept some measure of accountability to one another and responsibility to one another in the body of Christ. In such a caring fellowship,” Stott said, “I think we might witness fewer casualties on the one hand and more theological creativity on the other.”

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The current cultural ferment gives dissident voices, even Christian ones, new opportunities to be heard. Standing firm in their convictions, Christians must face the tough questions of the world without a visage of gloom and doom. We must not automatically be suspicious of fellow believers who engage the world. Instead, we should join them in interacting with the world in confidence and hope.

The thorny intellectual questions of the modern world will not go away. Theories of origin, deconstruction and other theories of literary interpretation, human sexuality, gender issues, and other contemporary mysteries will not be easily solved by pious pronouncements but by Christian scholars wrestling with the tools of their trade: honesty, careful study, and rigorous debate. The evangelical community—specifically its colleges and universities—must have the courage to allow its scholars to do this necessary work.

By Nathan O. Hatch, vice president for graduate studies and research at the University of Notre Dame and a CHRISTIANITY TODAY contributing editor.

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Unjustifiable Homicide

Adangerous phrase is floating about pro-life circles these days. Following the murder of Dr. David Gunn and the shooting of Dr. George Tiller, extremists have rationalized those violent acts by calling them justifiable homicide. Fortunately, most people in the pro-life movement intuitively reject attempts to justify the murder of abortionists. But instinct may not serve us well in emotionally compelling situations. We must also think through the reasons for rejecting deadly violence in the abortion struggle.

The logic for justifiable homicide runs like this: If a crazed killer enters your home and threatens the lives of your children, you are justified in grabbing your deer-hunting rifle and shooting the intruder. Likewise, these extremists argue, you are justified in using deadly force to stop a doctor known to be a “serial killer” of fetuses from murdering more.

There are several assumptions in this argument that are worth examining. First, it is assumed one should try to kill a potential killer in order to prevent more killing. But the church has long recognized that the intent to kill is always sinful. The Christian may feel obliged to attempt to stop a madman with an AK-47. And that attempt may result in death. But moral theologians have applied the term justifiable homicide only to that killing which is an unintended secondary effect. The intent must be to protect the innocent. Disabling a killer—whether by hitting him with an unabridged dictionary or by shooting him with a bullet—may result in his death. But it is not permissible under the law of Christ for an individual acting alone to intend to kill another human being.

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Second, the analogy requires us to believe that the guilt of an intentional killing can be outweighed by preventing other, unknown, as-yet-not-committed evil acts. Christian ethicists have taught that we are not justified in committing a known evil in order to achieve a good end. Just as we do not cheat on our taxes in order to give more money to missions, we do not murder abortionists in order to bring more babies to term. The end does not justify the means.

Shooting an abortionist, then, is unlike incidental killing in the defense of one’s family: it involves premeditation and sinful intention.

Using evil to fight evil shows impatience with God, who creates both weal and woe (Isa. 45:7). Bad things happen in God’s economy, including cancer, starvation, and murder. We fight bad things in God’s way. We fight cancer with research and medicine. We fight starvation with food and nutritional education. We fight murder by training people in nonviolent conflict resolution. But we will never eradicate these evils in this life. Nevertheless, as Christians we work against evil in positive and constructive ways. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21), writes the apostle in a classic passage on the importance of submitting to authority and of leaving vengeance to God.

Ultimately, the issue posed by the “justifiable homicide” argument is not ethical but spiritual. It is a question of trust, of having our minds transformed and renewed by God, so that we will hate evil as he does and do good to our enemies as he has taught us. Christians ultimately rest in the knowledge that God’s sovereignty over life and death means that even the most tragic events will in eternity be seen to have worked for good and to contribute to God’s glory.

By David Neff.

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