My copy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is scuffed, highlighted, dog-eared, and underlined; it was my young adult equivalent of a well-loved teddy bear. Its 1994 release coincided with my beginning a doctoral program in cultural anthropology at American University. With lifelong roots in conservative evangelicalism, part of me worried that evangelicals were right: I'd contribute more to God's kingdom as a wife and mother, or maybe a missionary, than as a professor. Arriving at just the right time, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind strengthened my inner conviction that a scholarly vocation was valid for an evangelical, even a female one.
I hesitated, however, at the very notion of "the life of the mind" (I still do today). Evangelicalism had taught me that faith ought to matter in the world, and that Christians ought to address urgent needs through evangelism and interpersonal care. Does any believer have the right to live the life of the mind, I wondered, in a world where people are suffering? Additionally, I wanted a family someday, and I didn't see a way to be the mother I wanted to be—or even a mother at all—if I spent my 20s and 30s working my way up the academic prestige ladder. In elite research universities today, the life of the mind often seems like no life at all. Competition for tenure is cutthroat and may last well over a decade. People work around the clock and around the week to produce peer-reviewed or university press publications that are read by few, understood by fewer, and applied by fewer still. The highest demands of academic careers often coincide with women's reproductive window, so choices about parenting become extremely difficult for women, and for men who wish to be engaged fathers. Not many can succeed on these terms and preserve spiritual and personal well-being.
I did pursue an academic career; I've been teaching college students for 15 years now, and I work as a tenured professor at a Christian college. I love it so much that, God willing, I'll still be at it 20 years from now. Nonetheless, I have always paired my sense of intellectual calling with a second, more practical, vocation: first urban ministry, then applied anthropology, now parenting. I've also seen graduate school friends, Christian and not, succeed in many of the myriad niches of higher education. Some—just a few—even thrive at research universities. Most graduate-educated Americans, especially in social sciences and humanities, peel off the research track at various points to invest instead in teaching, industry, government, or other applied venues.
Noll's Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, which just received an award of merit in Christianity Today's annual book awards, graces the middle season of my career. The postscript, "How Fares the 'Evangelical Mind'?" is worth the entire read. (Much of it appeared in a 2004 First Things article.) Here, Noll compares and contrasts today's evangelical intellectual scene with that of his original inquiry. Reasons for despair are holding steady or advancing:
- quick and reactionary approaches to cultural engagement,
- emphasizing concern for the immediate needs of individuals over more long-term political or social change,
- simplistic Bible reading and worship,
- the rapid speed of technological change, and
- a growing desire for selfish material gain.
Instead of indulging in negativity or berating evangelicals for being stupid, however, Noll points to many hopeful signs. Among them are the presence of Christians in pluralist research universities, innovations at seminaries, and partnerships between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. But first among Noll's points of light is the health of Christian colleges and universities.
The book concludes with a list of goals that Noll would like evangelical scholars to pursue. Careful study of Scripture and theology? Yes! Patient, reasoned, and non-ideological analyses of the world? Absolutely! Well-informed, broad social engagement? Hurrah! Evangelicals could raise the overall level of intelligence in our communities without too much cost. For example, we could add or strengthen educational components in short-term missions. We could pause to consider the meaning of our taken-for-granted lingo. (Why is being on fire, even for God, a good thing, especially in a post-9/11 world?) We could further consider cultural context when studying Scripture. These aims are true for more than just scholars; critical thinking is a task for pastors, lay persons, parents, and even children. All Christians have minds, and we dare not farm out responsibility for employing them to only those who sense a calling.
But Noll isn't just encouraging individual evangelicals or congregations to take up these goals; he believes we should cultivate an evangelical scholarly ethos, an intellectual tradition distinctively ours, to carry these goals forward. Most of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is a scholarly-pastoral encouragement toward this end, offering historic creeds as a basis for an evangelical tradition of scholarship. It's a valiant effort, but I suspect many evangelicals are unfamiliar with the creeds. They often don't even know that some of their fundamental beliefs are rooted there. Taking up a creedal approach to faith and learning may be, for many evangelicals, as cross-cultural (and as unlikely) as worshiping in an unfamiliar language.
That aside—how evangelical to set the creeds aside so easily!—it's very unlikely that evangelical scholars will deepen their theological roots and develop a shared intellectual tradition. Noll sets stronger signs of hope over and against the reasons why evangelicalism hasn't produced an intellectual tradition. I conclude the opposite. It is good that evangelicals have not, and likely will not, develop an "evangelical mind." Rather than court the temptation of building a tower in our own name, evangelical scholars are better off as the "salt of the earth," flung far and wide across the academy, dissolving into various disciplines and intellectual traditions and heightening their flavor.
But first, to Noll's long list of reasons why the evangelical mind hasn't materialized, I add four reasons why it won't.
The Nature of Christian Colleges
"Ivory tower" is the wrong metaphor for Christian colleges; "family camp" would be more apt. Christian colleges are bustling hubs of full-life opportunities for students. Faculty are not just classroom teachers; we are part of a community. Students often become involved in our households and our churches, and we develop genuine friendships with them. I could never say on the first day of class, as a highly productive colleague of mine at another university does every semester, "You can e-mail me only if you're on fire, and you've already tried someone else." Hours spent with students—talking about faith, tutoring in course material, or playing broomball—are very well-spent, but those are hours not spent researching.
There are exemplary scholars who work from Christian colleges, no doubt. But in my experience, there might be a handful in a faculty of 200 or more. Highly productive faculty don't skimp on attention to students (I suppose some might, but I haven't met them yet), but they often do less committee and department work, leaving others to pick up that work of supporting the institution. To use yet another metaphor: If a Christian college is a body, it can only support a few talking heads.
Christian college professors who wish to take up Noll's charge and pursue learning at the highest levels face some difficult dilemmas: time with students or time spent writing? Energy invested in the institution or in one's own scholarly agenda? We faculty are great at creating both/and solutions. We conduct research with students and plan coursework to dovetail with our own writing plans. Still, much of the time it's not possible to do both. Crazy as it sounds, the life of a college is often at odds with the life of the mind.
There are evangelical scholars working at other types of colleges and universities, too, but, like grains of salt, they are spread far and wide across the academy, working in a vast array of disciplines and topics. They likely do not have time, interest, or sufficient job security to come together as a collective that could even begin developing an evangelical mind.
Evangelical Priority on Family
In American higher education, for scholars of any religion or none, the life of the mind is often at odds with the life of a family. For me, with three young children and aging parents, dilemmas are not occasional; they are the Muzak of daily life. Should I finish grading papers or make a phone call to check in with my parents? Should I stay at work late to work on an article or go home for family dinner?
"Both/and" solutions are sometimes possible, but more often they are ridiculous. To offer an example, I outlined this article on a notepad between 6:00 and 6:45 a.m. while frying eggs, helping a kid clean the cat box, and making school lunches. I could have asked my husband to do the housework because I had an idea to write down, but then I'd have missed getting my kids off to school. (Besides, James was busy cutting out smiley faces, picking up Legos, and checking the basement for flooding.)
The mind can be as ravenous as the belly, demanding more than what it rightfully needs. Family life is full of negotiation and compromise, and even that which a person sees as godly vocation must sometimes give. Though James and I have had to stretch the tradition to make it work for us (I work full time and he stays home with our kids), I'm grateful that my evangelical background offers no loopholes for escaping the responsibilities, and the joys, of family.
Other Christian traditions with a rich intellectual heritage certainly value family as well, and evangelicals would do well to observe them and adopt their practices. Simply having a heritage in place, however, provides a context into which new scholars can acclimate themselves. For evangelicals to start nearly from scratch, given the service, church, disciplinary, and family commitments we already have in a fast-paced, technology-saturated context, is simply too much.
Evangelical Priority on Practical Service
Though most branches of science originated in close connection with practical applications, today there is a strong hierarchy between basic research and applied work. Scholars sometimes even esteem each other for being obscure. (Clue: When the first syllable of "popular" is inflated, that's derogatory sarcasm.) Theory and basic research have their place, of course; even that which has no direct application advances the discipline and may lead to unforeseen applications. The problem is the hierarchy; placing abstraction at the top of the prestige ladder and practicality on the bottom rung doesn't sit well with evangelical sensibilities.
Why not engage both the life of the world and the life of the mind? Applied research does that, as does service learning and other "both/and" solutions. Indeed, Christian academics are much more present in these applied arenas than they are in shaping disciplines at the elite levels of theory and prestigious publication. The work of developing a philosophical and theological tradition from which scholars can draw resources and to which they can contribute is a type of this higher-level work, but again, there are dilemmas at play. Given limited time and resources, shall I bring students to work with me in Harrisburg on a poverty-reduction research project, or work alone on a theoretical matter? Should I allow the immediate and practical needs of my local context to shape my academic priorities, or stick with the meta-level abstract issues carried forward by an international, non-local professional body (be that an academic association or a religious one)? Personally, I'm likely to continue choosing service, guided by my evangelical leanings. Meanwhile, I will applaud Catholics, Protestant mainliners, and other Christians who carry forward their stronger theological-philosophical conversations.
Evangelical scholars ought to do all we can to encourage ourselves and our colleagues, our students, and our churches toward more intelligent, loving, and appropriate cultural and political engagement. At the same time, it's just fine that our intellectual life is limited by our priorities on activism and family, and by the nature of Christian colleges.
Workers in the World, Disperse!
Evangelical individuals and churches have contributed much to church and society, especially through local, activist, practical measures. In recent years, our attempts to work on the national stage as a religious collective, however, have been fraught with problems. Collective social and political action too often devolves into attempts to dominate others and gain power for ourselves. Even within the religious sphere, evangelical trinkets, music, and literature dominate Christian markets, and Christians in other traditions sometimes actively resist evangelicalism in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their own identities.
In light of the intensity of these matters at present, perhaps evangelical scholars are better off as they are, grains of salt scattered across the academy. In the absence of an intellectual tradition of our own, we can continue to invest our scholarly energy in our disciplines and subject areas, and even contribute to other Christian traditions. Evangelicals flavor dry orthodoxy with pietistic excitement, heighten the taste of basic scholarship by emphasizing service, and spice up esoterica by popularizing it through teaching and lay-level writing.
This may seem like a fool's errand if Noll's dire (and contestable) forecast is correct, that "forces hostile to Christianity in the academy and in elite culture are large, vigorous, and growing rapidly." But whether the broader culture is amenable or not, vulnerability could be a more appropriate response than banding together for self-preservation. Acknowledging that our intellectual scene is diffuse and untethered provides an opportunity for evangelicals to move into deeper relationships of genuine reciprocity with other Christians, and with those of other perspectives and commitments. In A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf reassures Christians that to share with others is not to reach perfect agreement or dissolve necessary conflicts or real differences, but rather, to enjoy mutual benefits when we "exchange … gifts in search of truth and mutual understanding." Cultivating rich, on-going, gifting relationships between evangelical scholars and others would enrich generosity and joy on all sides. And it would provide opportunities to practice humility and forbearance when good gifts are rejected or misused.
Instead of taking a tradition-building approach to intellectual life, I hope we evangelical scholars celebrate and deepen our current practices: teaching undergraduates, popularizing academic insights, working directly to change the world through service and applied research, and offering institutional and personal support to the small number of evangelical scholars who excel at theoretical and basic research. And along with all this, we should continue to worship and serve through our churches, provide hands-on care to our loved ones, and do good works in the world. From the vantage point of the modern academic prestige structure, this may not look like an exemplary life of the mind, but it may be one way to enjoy "the life that truly is life" (1 Tim. 6:19). In a time in which work tends to overtake life, an approach that both relishes the intellect and keeps it in its place is a pearl of great price, and we should display it readily even in settings where it is not recognized as such.
Jenell Paris is professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah College and author, most recently, of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are.
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Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was first a speech at Wheaton College. Christianity Today published it in 1993, a year before the release of his book. In 1995, Noll, Alister McGrath, Richard Mouw, and Darrell Bock further discussed the book's ideas.