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05 / 06

In Intellectual Neutral

William Lane Craig speaks at Wheaton College

Time : 00:23:03

William Lane Craig speaks at a chapel address at Wheaton College during the annual philosophy conference, issuing a stirring challenge for Christian intellectual engagement and an admonition against the seduction of academic respectability.

Transcript

Thank you very much. It is really a privilege for me to speak to you in chapel this morning. I first came to Wheaton as a young Christian, only two years old in the Lord, and the priceless gift that Wheaton College gave to me was the integration of my faith and learning, and I will ever be grateful for that priceless gift, and that is the issue that is on my heart this morning.

Several years ago two book appeared which sent shockwaves through the American educational community. The first of these, entitled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E.D. Hirsch, documented the fact that large numbers of American college students do not have the basic background knowledge to understand the front page of a newspaper, or to act responsibly as citizens. For example, in a recent survey, a quarter of the students thought that the president during the Vietnam War was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two thirds did not know when the Civil War occurred. One third thought that Columbus discovered the New World sometime after 1750. In a recent survey at Cal State Fullerton over half the students could not identify Chaucer or Dante. What has happened to our schools that they should be producing such dreadfully ignorant people?

Enter Alan Bloom, who was an eminent educator at the University of Chicago and the author of the second book I referred to entitled The Closing of The American Mind. Bloom’s thesis is that behind the current educational malaise lies the universal conviction of students that all truth is relative, and therefore truth is not worth pursuing. Listen to what he says,

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them . . . The relativity of truth is a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. . . . The danger they have been taught to fear . . . is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness—and the relativism that makes it . . . plausible . . . is the great insight of our times. . . . The study of history . . . teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all. [1]

Since everything is relative, since there is no absolute truth, the purpose of an education is not to learn truth, or master facts, rather it is simply to learn a skill so that you can go out and acquire wealth, power, and fame. Truth has become irrelevant.

Now it hardly needs to be said that this relativistic attitude toward truth is antithetical to the Christian world and life view. For as Christians we believe that all truth is God’s truth, that God has revealed to us the truth both in his Word and in him who said, “I am the truth.” And therefore as Christians we can never look upon the truth with apathy or disdain. Rather God stands as it were at the pinnacle of a pyramid of diverse perspectives on the world and in the unity of his intellect he grasps the world as it actually is. And there is thus on the Christian view a unity and objectivity to truth which is known by God. And therefore the Christian cherishes the truth as a reflection of God himself.

Nor does the Christian’s commitment to truth make him intolerant, as Bloom’s students thought. On the contrary, when you think about it, the very concept of tolerance entails that you disagree with that which you tolerate, otherwise you wouldn’t tolerate it, you’d believe in it! The very concept of tolerance presupposes the objectivity of truth. The Christian is committed to both truth and tolerance. For we believe in him who said not only, “I am the truth,” but also, “love your enemies.” [2] The proper basis for tolerance is not relativism, but love.

Now, at the time that these two books were released I was teaching at Westmont College, the so-called Wheaton of the West, and I began to wonder how much have Christian students been infected with the attitude that Bloom describes. How would my own students fair on one of E. D. Hirsch’s tests? Well, how would they, I thought. Why not give them a quiz. So, I did. I drew up a general knowledge quiz over famous people, places, and things, and administered it to two classes of about 50 sophomores. And what I found was that although they did better than the general student population, still, there were sizable portions of the group that could not identify, even with a phrase, many famous people, places and events. For example, 49% could not identify Leo Tolstoy. To my surprise, 16% did not know who Winston Churchill was – one student identified him as one of the founding fathers of America, another identified him as a great revival preacher of a few hundred years ago. 31% did not know what Afghanistan is. 20% did not know where the Amazon river is. Imagine! I was also disheartened to find that a whopping 67% could not identify the Battle of the Bulge. Many identified it as a dieter’s problem. So it became clear to me that Christian students have not been able to rise above the dark undertow in our educational system at the primary and secondary levels. This presents a real crises for Christian collages and seminaries.

But then an even more terrible fear began to dawn on me as I contemplated these statistics. If Christian students are this ignorant of the general facts of history and geography, then the chances are that they are equally ignorant, or even more ignorant, of the facts of our own Christian heritage and doctrine. Our cultural in general has sunk to a level of spiritual and theological illiteracy. A great many, if not most, people cannot even name the four Gospels – in one recent survey one person named them as Matthew, Mark and Luther. A number of people in another survey identified Joan of Arc as Noah’s wife. And the suspicion arose in my mind that the evangelical church is probably caught somewhere a little higher up in this same downward spiral. But, brothers and sisters, if we do not preserve the truth of our own Christian heritage and doctrine, who is going to learn it for us? If the church does not treasure her own Christian truth, then it will be lost to her forever.

So how, I wondered, would Christian students fair over a quiz of general facts of Christian history and doctrine. Well, how would they? I now invite you to take the following quiz yourselves. The following are ten items which I think any mature Christian in our society ought to be able to identify. Ready?

1. Augustine

2. The Council of Nicaea

3. Two natures united in one person – what does that phrase refer too?

4. The Trinity

5. Thomas Aquinas

6. Pantheism

7. The Reformation

8. Martin Luther

9. Substitutionary Atonement

10. The Enlightenment.

Well, how did you do? If you are typical of today’s Christian students then perhaps the answer is for many of you, not too well. And if this is the case, then there is a couple of different ways in which you might react to this quiz.

On the one hand there is real temptation to become defensive and say, “Well, who needs to know all this junk anyway? I am not on Who Wants to be a Millionaire! I don’t need to know all this trivia, what really matters is my walk with Christ. Who cares about all this other stuff?” And I really hope that won’t be your reaction. If you react in this way it would be tragic because that would close you off from self-improvement. You won’t have learned anything from this little exercise this morning, you won’t have profited from it in anyway.

But there is a second more positive reaction. You may see, perhaps for the first time in your life, that here is a need in your life. [3]  And as a result resolve to become intellectually engaged as a Christian. This is a momentous decision. It is a step which is desperately needed in the lives of millions of American Christians today.

No one has issued the challenge to become intellectually engaged more forcefully than did Charles Malik in his inaugural address at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center on this campus. Malik emphasized that as Christians we face two tasks in our evangelism: saving the soul, and saving the mind. That is to say, not only converting people spiritually, but converting them intellectually, as well. And the church, he warned, is falling dangerously behind with regard to this second task. Listen to what Malik said,

I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy.

. . .

Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular . . . scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our entire civilization with their spirit and ideas? . . . For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ . . ., as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence. [4]

These words hit like a hammer. Evangelicals really have been living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence. The average Christian doesn’t realize that there is an intellectual war going on in the universities, and the professional societies, and the scholarly journals. Christianity is being attacked from all sides as irrational and bigoted, and millions of students, our future generation of leaders, have absorbed this viewpoint.

This is a war which we cannot afford to lose. As J. Gresham Machen warned in the Princeton Theological Review in his article “Christianity and Culture” in 1913 on the eve of the fundamentalist controversy, if we lose this intellectual war, then our evangelism will be immeasurably more difficult in the next generation. Machen wrote,

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation . . . to be controlled by ideas which . . . prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. [5]

Unfortunately Machen’s warning went unheeded. And biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closets of cultural isolationism from which we have only recently begun to reemerge. The war is not yet lost, and it is one we dare not lose. The souls of men and women hang in the balance. We desperately need Christian scholars who can, as Malik said, stand up and compete with non-Christian scholars on their own terms of scholarship. It can be done.

There is, for example, going on right now in the field of Anglo-American philosophy, a revolution. Since the late 1960’s Christian philosophers have been coming out of the closet and defending the Christian world and life view with intellectually sophisticated arguments in the finest secular journals and professional societies, and the face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result.

Fifty years ago it was widely believed among philosophers that talk about God was literally meaningless – mere gibberish – and yet no informed philosopher could take this viewpoint today. [6] In fact, today many of America’s finest philosophers are outspoken Christians. According to the eminent philosopher Roderick Chisholm, who is himself no evangelical, the reason that atheism was so influential a generation ago is because the brightest philosophers were atheists. But today, he says, the brightest people include theists who are using a kind of tough-minded intellectualism which was previously lacking on their side of the debate. [7] And it is this sort of scholarship with represents the best hope for the kind of revolution which Machen and Malik envisioned, and I believe that it’s true impact will only be felt in the next generation.

So it can be done. And it is my fervent prayer that some you here this morning would sense God’s call upon your life to embark upon a ministry of Christian scholarship. But even if you don’t become a professional academic everyone of us needs to be intellectually engaged with our faith if we are going to have an impact upon American culture.

But here a word of warning is in order. We must never allow academic respectability to become an idol leading us to compromise our biblical integrity. The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly contains an article which I am sure most of you had heard about, by Alan Wolfe. [8] It documents the intellectual renaissance going on at evangelical institutions, like Wheaton. According to Wolfe, evangelicals are trying to create a life of the mind at a time when secular America is questioning whether a life of the mind is worth having. And there is much in the article that is great cause for rejoicing. But the article also contains a veiled message for evangelicals which is all the more insidious for its subtlety. And that message is basically this: if you evangelicals really want to be treated with intellectual respect, if you really want to be regarded as equal players on the field, if you really want your institutions to be regarded as academically credible, then all you have to do is become more open. And Wolfe is clear what he means by that. Colleges like Wheaton, if they really want to become intellectually respectable, need to get rid of those archaic statements of faith which are holding them back. Evangelicals will only come of age, Wolfe says, once they abandon this arcane notion that God’s plan for human sexual activity is heterosexual marriage. In order to be intellectually mature, he advises, evangelicals need to move away from their biblical fundamentalism to a tolerant pluralism. And so Wolfe celebrates Fuller Seminary’s drift to the left in recent decades. He rejoices when certain Wheaton students in a political science class oppose justice Scalia’s views on permitting non-sectarian prayer in public school. Wolfe says the Wheaton students stood up for, now listen to this, the First Amendment’s separation of church and state clause. Can you believe it? I mean maybe someone had better tell Mr. Wolfe that there is no such clause, either in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution. I sure hope Wheaton students know the difference between the Establishment Clause and separation of church and state.

You see what is going on here? By trying to get evangelicals to abandon biblical fundamentalism for pluralism, Wolfe is saying that in order for evangelicals to become intellectually respectable they in effect have to cease to be evangelical. That is a fool’s bargain. What was wrong with fundamentalism was its cultural isolationism, not its theology. Don’t be intimated by mere name-calling. As Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, the word fundamentalist has become in academia today a term of abuse, roughly synonymous with S.O.B. Actually that’s not quite right, Plantinga says, it really means an ignorant S.O.B. And even that doesn’t capture all the nuances of the term. Plantinga points out that it is really an indexical word meaning an ignorant S.O.B. far to the right of me and my enlightened friends. [9]

It is ironic that the title of Wolfe’s article is “The Opening of The Evangelical Mind.” [10] The title is obviously a play on the title of Alan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. And what is ironic is that Wolfe doesn’t seem to appreciate that it was Bloom’s thesis that it was precisely relativism, not a commitment to absolute truth, which leads to closed mindedness and politically correct bigotry! Wolfe would have evangelicals open their minds by embracing the very relativism which has led to the closing of the American mind. Abandon your biblical fundamentalism and then we shall give you the prize of academia respectability which you evangelicals so desperately crave. To which I say, in the immortal words of General A. C. McAuliffe, “Nuts!” [11] We should never surrender our biblical integrity for academic respectability. Why should we trade our inheritance for such a miserable mess of pottage as that? Why should I give a hoot about academic respectability if it costs that much? Why, I’d rather be thought a fool for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom than to purchase academic respectability at the cost of faithfulness to God’s Word. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they sought the praise of men rather than God. Far be it from Christian academics to do the same thing.

So then let us seek to do first-rate biblically faithful work, and then let the chips fall where they may. If we gain academic respectability, then praise the Lord. But if not, well, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful, 1 Corinthians 4:2. Better to hear the words of the Savior, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” than to hear the fleeting praises of men.

To be brutally honest, it is probably too late for most Christian laymen to become intellectually engaged with their faith. But you students have the opportunity of a lifetime here before you. You have four years to study at a Christian college, under Christian professors, learning to articulate and defend a Christian worldview, learning to think Christianly about life’s most important questions. For the church's sake, for your own sakes, for your future children’s sake, do not squander this opportunity. So, if up until now, you’ve been coasting, idling, in intellectual neutral, now is the time to get it in gear. [12]

  • [1]

    Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25-26.

  • [2]

    5:03

  • [3]

    10:02

  • [4]

    Charles Malik, “The Other Side of Evangelism,” Christianity Today, November 7, 1980, p. 40.

  • [5]

    J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913): p. 7.

  • [6]

    15:03

  • [7]

    Cited in "Modernizing the Case for God," Time, April 7, 1980, pp. 65-66.

  • [8]

    Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2000. See http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2000/10/wolfe.htm (accessed September 6, 2013).

  • [9]

    Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). p. 245.

  • [10]

    20:03

  • [11]

    During World War II, when German troops surrounded the General’s troops and demanded his surrender, the General responded with the one word answer “Nuts,” a defiant and firm refusal to surrender.

  • [12]

    Total Running Time: 23:03 (Copyright 2013 © William Lane Craig)