The Illusion of Respectability

Our mission is simple. And it means death to one of our greatest lusts.
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.

There are a number of ways Christian scholars in higher education can respond. One is simply abandonment. We can just read the tea leaves and decide that a life in colleges and universities isn’t worth butting one’s head against a brick wall forever, and do something else. But investing the many years that a PhD requires, not to say the aspirations of the scholarly life, do not make abandonment a very serious alternative. For that reason, what is more likely to happen is accommodation, in which we do not resist or withdraw from a hostile environment, but in which the environment changes us—substitutes its reward system, offers its hierarchy, and creates its parallel universe to which we are slowly enculturated.

As much as American evangelical Christianity has seen itself as exceptional, as countercultural, as standing outside a mainstream, what has struck me in my years of observation and participation has been, instead, its lust of its scholars for respectability. This is an odd pursuit for Christian academicians, though, because respectability is, after all, a secular virtue. The cult of respectability alarmed the evangelical Awakeners, from Edwards to Finney, who denounced the trappings of gentility as worldliness. But the revivalists’ resistance faded, eroded by the pressure to re-package evangelical Christianity as refined and tasteful.

“Take from the refined and intellectual, all excuse for the rejection of religion,” advised a Christian periodical in 1819, “Render yourself and your religion, in every way, as amiable as you can, if by any means you may win some.” Read this one way, and it’s a harmless strategy for evangelization; read it another, and it’s a campaign for status.

It is as though Christians have never been able to forget that they were once the cultural core of American life; and despite all our professions of biblical horror at a culture now grown secular and irreligious, we long for the time when that culture comforted us—and we will make any accommodation to get back there. In a recent reminiscence, Roger Olson mused on how much American evangelical Christianity had changed in his day—and “so dramatically,” he adds, that “it’s hardly recognizable.” Especially, Olson noted, “It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘worldly’ uttered in an evangelical church. The line between us and the secular world and its forms of entertainment has just about disappeared.” And again: “evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. … All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.”

For all of the talk about “culture wars,” there has really been very little war waged by the scholars; and where there actually has been war, the results have uniformly been losses. In every example where the courts, the celebrities or the culture-makers have trampled heedlessly on biblical norms, there are some initially robust outbursts of resistance, then a nervous glancing around to see whether anyone has joined the resistance. When it develops that the resistance is unpopular, the objections trail away so that a respectable place in society can somehow be retained. Like the Wayfarer in Stephen Crane’s poem, the most characteristic Christian play has been the punt:

The Wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

When the day arrives that our chief delight lies in how easily we can be mistaken for an entirely irreligious thinker, in an entirely irreligious profession, in pursuit of irreligious jobs, then we shall have already received our reward in full.

The real measure of the integrity of the Christian scholar is distance, not proximity, to respectability. For that reason, it has been suggested that the best alternative to abandonment and respectability is exile. So, it is proposed, we must be prepared to create academic colonies of exile—the “Benedict Option” named for the concluding paragraph of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. This has the virtue of simplicity: the exiles know who they are, and they know they are in it together, and so the instruction to protect Christ’s little ones comes as a natural and easy priority.

But I am not sure that it is any longer practical to speak of exile in a globalized, communications-saturated world. Wherever you go, the treaty-makers and zoning boards will soon be at the door, smiling, threatening, demanding. There is no wilderness any more into which we may undertake an exile like that proposed by John Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. And even Winthrop could not speak of the Puritan errand into the wilderness of New England without casting a glance back toward old England. In his famous sermon of 1629, Winthrop had the exile part right: “That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice.” The goal of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts would be “that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.”

The serpent entered, though, at the very end of Winthrop’s sermon: “for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” At that moment, Winthrop and his fellow-exiles gave themselves over hostage to applause, to fitting once again into a social world that few of them had really wanted to leave anyway. Until it has occurred to us that we don’t care whether the eyes of anyone are upon us, exile will not become a viable alternative. But that will require a rethinking of our personal priorities as scholars, and our collective priorities as believers, which will have to wrestle mightily with that sanctimonious yearning for the days when all people spoke well of us. Of this, be assured: they will never think well of you.

Our Lord Jesus bore death so that we might live. The Christian scholar either has that for a model, or else has neither model nor Lord.

So, we must bear death in order that others—the little ones—might live. I do not mean literal beheadings; I mean something substantially more agonizing, more drawn-out, more lonely, and that is the death of ostracism, the death of contempt, the death of unemployability and poverty and incessant self-accusation for being so silly.

This is real suffering, as opposed to the bogus self-advertisement of the provocateur. There is no short supply of people who believe that they are saying something prophetic by sidling up to the freshest secular shibboleth, but we may be sure that there is nothing prophetic in our words if it turns out that they are indistinguishable from The New York Times editorial page, or if they garner fat honorariums from elite audiences or strange-new-respect awards from well-endowed foundations.

Christian higher education often suffers from a split personality. It professes a Christian religious allegiance, but practices a variety of secular professional agendas, consciously or unconsciously. But schizophrenia, no matter from which root it springs, is as lethal to a healthy institution as it is to healthy psyche.

The mission of Christian academics is single, not multiple, and Van Til’s advice is a good place for them to start. This is not, mind you, an argument for ignorance. Daniel and his companions had “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams … ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters” in Babylon (Daniel 1:17, 20). But they practiced neither abandonment nor gentility; they would “not defile [themselves] with the king’s dainties.” And they were reconciled to humiliation and death.

Daniel’s friends had, as T.S. Eliot’s TheRock counselled, made perfect their wills. The Christian scholar who has agreed to purchase peace by silence, the Christian academic who swims unknowingly in a sea of secular assumptions and drowns in a warm bath of secular approbation, and the Christian college which carefully trims its sails to avoid confrontation, to recruit tuition-paying students, or to afford a platform for self-admiring blather, need to know this: make perfect your will.

Understand what it is you are as a Christian—one “under authority” (Luke 7:8), one whose ultimate concern is that of a steward, whose criterion of worth is not sensation, not popularity, and not their claim to being au courant, but “that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Understand that when you have done all your work, you are permitted only to say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:9).

Christian scholars do not stand side-by-side with Christ, as though they were performing a non-religious work that supplements his. They are people who have taken his form as the Good Shepherd, the one who drives away the thieves and robbers from the sheep, and who mandates work, marriage, governance, and the church as the instruments by which his flock prospers.

In Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Becket is tempted four times—first by a tempter advising abandonment, then by a tempter pleading for peace, and by another tempter inviting him to a conspiracy. What surprises Becket is the appearance of a fourth tempter, who tempts Becket with his own willingness for martyrdom. “Can I neither act nor suffer without perdition?” Becket asks. The answer seems to be no, until the archbishop realizes that all of these temptations are based on what others around him will think or do or say. He realizes, afterward, that he can only speak and do for himself, that he must be someone “who has become an instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.”

When we no longer make ourselves the center of our desires, when we take as our aim as Christian scholars, college presidents, pastors, thinkers, to make perfect our wills, then and only then do I imagine that we will have any real effect on the world—only when we have surrendered the notion of having an effect will we have one. And only then will we begin to see that our real priority is not to change the world, to change our professions, to publish this or footnote that, but to protect Christ’s little ones.

Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. His latest book, Redeeming the Great Emancipator, will be published by Harvard University Press in February.

May
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The Illusion of Respectability