The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

Synopsis

At the end of his 1994 book, The Soul of the American University, George Marsden advanced a modest proposal for an enhanced role for religious faith in today's scholarship. This "unscientific postscript" helped spark a heated debate that spilled out of the pages of academic journals and The Chronicle of Higher Education into mainstream media such as The New York Times, and marked Marsden as one of the leading participants in the debates concerning religion and public life. Marsden now gives his proposal a fuller treatment in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book on the relationship of religious faith and intellectual scholarship. More than a response to Marsden's critics, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship takes the next step towards demonstrating what the ancient relationship of faith and learning might mean for the academy today. Marsden argues forcefully that mainstream American higher education needs to be more open to explicit expressions of faith and to accept what faith means in an intellectual context. While other defining elements of a scholar's identity, such as race or gender, are routinely taken into consideration and welcomed as providing new perspectives, Marsden points out, the perspective of the believing Christian is dismissed as irrelevant or, worse, antithetical to the scholarly enterprise. Marsden begins by examining why Christian perspectives are not welcome in the academy. He rebuts the various arguments commonly given for excluding religious viewpoints, such as the argument that faith is insufficiently empirical for scholarly pursuits (although the idea of complete scientific objectivity is consider naive in most fields today), the fear that traditional Christianity will reassert its historical role as oppressor of divergent views, and the received dogma of the separation of church and state, which stretches far beyond the actual law in the popular imagination. Marsden insists that scholars have both a religious and an intellectual obligation not to leave their deeply held religious beliefs at the gate of the academy. Such beliefs, he contends, can make a significant difference in scholarship, in campus life, and in countless other ways. Perhaps most importantly, Christian scholars have both the responsibility and the intellectual ammunition to argue against some of the prevailing ideologies held uncritically by many in the academy, such as naturalistic reductionism or unthinking moral relativism. Contemporary university culture is hollow at its core, Marsden writes. Not only does it lack a spiritual center, but it is without any real alternative. He argues that a religiously diverse culture will be an intellectually richer one, and it is time that scholars and institutions who take the intellectual dimensions of their faith seriously become active participants in the highest level of academic discourse. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with this conclusion, Marsden's thoughtful, well-argued book is necessary reading for all sides of the debate on religion's role in education and culture.

Excerpt

In The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), I explored how and why American university culture, which was constructed largely by Protestants, has come to provide so little encouragement for academically rigorous perspectives explicitly shaped by Christian or other religious faith. One theme of The Soul of the American University is that the century-long process of dismantling the old Protestant establishment was, among other things, an understandable way of addressing problems of equity in an increasingly pluralistic society. However, as I argued in a "Concluding Unscientific Postscript," the dominant university culture has overcorrected to the point that expressions of religious perspectives are liable to be considered inappropriate or offensive.

As might be expected, that "Postscript," in which I stepped into a more prescriptive role, has drawn the attention of critics. In particular, they have asked what I had in mind by "Christian scholarship," an idea that I claimed had relevance to much of academic life. Many people find this idea strange unless it refers only to theology or to study about religious topics. Outside of that, they have no idea what it might mean. Reviewers have also raised a number of helpful questions about the appropriateness of introducing explicitly faith-informed perspectives into mainstream academia.

I am grateful to all those who have responded to my proposal and for the present opportunity to explain more fully what I have in mind. I am particularly grateful to those who have spoken out frankly and raised some . . .

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