The Evangelical Rejection of Reason image

The Evangelical Rejection of Reason

The New York Times recently published an article by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens, entitled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason", which in my opinion was both inflammatory and somewhat unhelpful. Simply put, the authors divided "evangelicals" into two neat camps: simplistic, isolationist, anti-intellectual fundamentalists who are presumptuously overconfident, unyieldingly ignorant, and live in a Christian subculture; and careful, nuanced, engaged and humble (?) thinkers who keep up with secular research and integrate it to their faith (amongst whom we assume the authors are included). It was not left in much doubt which were the goodies and which were the baddies.

It’s not a particularly edifying read, since it commits the fallacy of the excluded middle on such a massive scale, and displays a marked lack of love to brothers and sisters in Christ. But as a statement of which issues are perceived as making Christian faith intellectually problematic, it is fascinating. Top of the list, unsurprisingly for anyone who has read Giberson, is denying evolution. The rejection of Darwinism marks someone out as both academically inferior and incorrigibly right wing, who is no doubt also prone to appalling practices like opposing gay marriage and spanking children. Those who affirm it, on the other hand, like Francis Collins, Mark Noll and the authors, thereby show themselves to be liberal, enlightened individuals who know that the Bible says next to nothing about things like evolution and gay marriage, and by working alongside those who have research degrees from major universities, remain in touch with “a conduit for knowledge from the wider world.”

The frustrating thing about articles like this, and they appear with irritating frequency both in print and online, is that there is a strong element of truth in them, but that this element is lost within a torrent of unpleasant adjectives and smug throwaways, which alienate the very people the authors ought to be trying to convince. Few readers of this blog, I imagine, would dispute Mark Noll’s central point in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (which, in a nutshell, is that there often isn’t one), or even Stephens and Giberson’s central point in this article that there is a strong current of anti-intellectualism in various streams of evangelicalism, including our own. It is all too true that for many evangelicals, evangelical leaders and even teachers, lines like “knowledge puffs up” have been taken out of context and used as excuses for intellectual laziness, with the result that some indefensible claims about science and history have often been made.

But when the rejection of evolution as unbiblical, or the smacking of children, or opposition to gay marriage, or complementarian theology, become tell-tale signs of “politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism” or “unyielding ignorance” or a “cultural isolationism” which is “stubborn”, “literalistic” and “reactionary”, then we have a problem. The apostles, it seems likely, did not believe in evolution, probably smacked (or, if you’re American, spanked) their children as Proverbs outlined it, held to what we would now regard as fairly traditional gender roles, and would have found gay marriage not just objectionable but incomprehensible. That doesn’t mean that we should unthinkingly believe exactly what they believed on every subject; they probably didn’t believe in neutrons either, or Pluto, or America, or the New York Times. But if it turns out that the apostles spoke clearly about some of the things on Stephens and Giberson’s list (like marriage, or the historical Adam, or gender roles, for example), then those who submit to the authority of Scripture are unlikely to ditch them as reactionary or ignorant. And rightly so.

From their article, in fact, it is unclear whether, and on what grounds, Stephens and Giberson would ever stick their necks out and argue that every word of God proves true, regardless of the secular consensus. It is hard to imagine them saying, with Paul, “let God be true and every man a liar”; the tone of the Times article is more, “let man be true, and if God’s word doesn’t agree, we’ll change or perhaps even ignore it.” On the other hand, it seems to me - and I write this as someone who both believes in evolution and is studying a research degree at a major university, which hopefully puts me outside their firing line, at least until writing this - that the positions held by millions of evangelicals, and decried by Stephens and Giberson, are often held for much more noble reasons than those suggested in their article. Many evangelicals’ moral and ethical convictions these days are not reactionary, but radically countercultural. Views of marriage and gender roles are less a result of cultural isolationism than of a commitment to biblical inspiration, however fashionable or otherwise the results may prove. And the rejection of evolution has happened because theistic evolutionists have (so far) not managed to persuade mainstream believers, nor many Christian leaders, that our reading of Genesis is at all credible. (Or, worse, some have bypassed historical-critical exegesis altogether and attempted to demythologise the whole of Genesis 1-11, disregarded Paul’s view of the historical Adam because he was a child of his time, and so on).

As such, although it sometimes is, it is not necessarily anti-intellectualism that leads to the rejection of evolution, or any other ideas on which there is a secular consensus. It’s often nothing more sinister than a courageous refusal to undermine the authority of Scripture.

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