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Hope for Christian legal scholarship

David Skeel on an scandal and its possible solution.

David A. Skeel, professor of corporate law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, will soon publish an article in the Emory Law Journal called "The Unbearable Lightness of Christian Legal Scholarship." In it, he chronicles the scandal of the Christian legal mind:

[T]he scope of Christian legal scholarship in the American legal literature is shockingly narrow for such a nationally influential movement. Why is there almost no trace of the intellectual underpinnings of the recent movement? ... Although evangelicals re-engaged American political life in the 1970s, the skepticism of religious perspectives, and the absence of a critical mass of Christian legal scholarship, lingered. There is now a substantial interest in Christian legal scholarship, but surprisingly little scholarship to turn to.

In that article, which Skeel first wrote in 2006, he acknowledges some counter-evidence, but concludes, "It is still much too early to tell if this new scholarly activity will have a sustained impact on legal scholarship generally, or on internal debate within Christian circles. But it might. In ten years, or possibly even five, this article's laments may come to seem quaint. I pray this is so."

As it turns out, the article may come to seem quaint even before it's published. Skeel has a new paper out claiming

that a real renaissance [of Christian legal scholarship] may finally be underway. Several promising articles have appeared in the law reviews in the past year, and more seem to be on their way. ... There are hints that a new normative Christian legal scholarship may be emerging. The most important illustration is the vibrant literature on international human rights. In domestic law, several scholars have recently asked the question of when and how the law should be used to police morality. ...

It's not surprising that Skeel thinks that Christian legal defense funds "are not a promising seedbed for Christian legal scholarship." Even those groups would be likely to agree that "they are designed to defend Christian positions, rather than to debate or wrestle with the appropriateness of the particular position. This is not a recipe for the kind of intellectual give-and-take that is likely to inspire innovative Christian legal scholarship."

It might be surprising, to some readers at least, that Skeel sees Regent Law School as a sign of hope. He puts the school, which was widely disparaged last year during the Justice Department firings debate, alongside Pepperdine as a "promising development" because of its "willingness to nurture and reward religiously informed scholarship" and its potential to "seriously [engage] the best scholars in their fields." It may be surprising, but only if you believe the caricatures of the school.

Skeel's most provocative assertion is his prediction "that many of the most exciting developments in Christian legal scholarship in the next generation of work will come from outside the domain of traditional philosophical analysis." He likes Alasdair MacIntyre, Alvin Plantinga, and Nick Wolterstorff a lot, and thinks philosophical work is extremely important in Christian legal scholarship. But "underexplored issues and perspectives offer opportunities for exciting new contributions," he says. Likewise, he says,

in the hands of us legal scholars, moral philosophy often becomes a debate about abstract propositions, and never quite gets to the street level business of trying to make sense of how the law actually functions and the lessons that can be learned from this. Rather than abstract propositions, the focus of the coming generation of Christian legal scholars will, I think, more often be on the orientation of the law: does it reflect the God who welcomes back the prodigal son, and who became flesh and dwelt among us?

Thankfully, even in his brief article, Skeel keeps his eyes on that God. He writes, "It is important not to overstate the potential effect of Christian legal scholarship. Law, Christians believe, is not what saves us; only God's grace can do that." But Skeel grasps how understating scholarship in light of God's transforming work has already damaged the academy, the church, and society. One hopes that the Christian legal scholarship boom is even more vibrant than Skeel sees.

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