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The Scandal of "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind"
[ This guest essay is by Dr. Benjamin Mabry. Mabry holds a Ph.D. in political science from Louisiana State University. He’s the author of newsletter #67 on aesthetics and hosted a subscriber only webinar on an introduction to the thought of Eric Voegelin. ]
Why bother to review a book that is nearly thirty years in print and has been subject to no end of commentary and discussion at every level of Evangelical scholarship? Mark Noll’s most famous monograph, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, has become a household name in Evangelical intellectual circles and a byword for the problems facing that community. The career of Francis Collins was considered by many in the Evangelical community to be an example of Noll’s arguments in action. He was among the highest profile of a number of high-profile Evangelical scholars to be appointed to prestigious positions in the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy. However, many of the recent criticisms of Collins’s decisions, which can be found summarized in The Federalist, created shockwaves across the Christian academic community. It seemed that Collins, and many other prominent Evangelicals like him, had been co-opted by the secular regime and culture which increasingly appears to be the antithesis of Christianity. In fact, however, Collins’s actions don’t represent a betrayal of the Evangelical community, but merely the all-too-common, predictable actions of Evangelical elites desperate for the approval of secular authorities. These and other recent events should cause Christians to knock the cob-webs off of Evangelical thinking about Evangelical thinking and question whether the positions advocated in The Scandal actually led to Christ-centered scholarship.
A Flawed Narrative
At first glance, the most striking element of this text is the failure to adequately define what is Evangelical about this tradition, without which one cannot diagnose the Evangelical Mind. Noll’s narrative encompasses parts of the Protestant Tradition but doesn’t seem to follow any clear standard of inclusion, which ultimately confounds any attempt to seek an authentically Evangelical way of thinking. Luther and Calvin are considered intellectual precursors to Evangelical Protestants, and the Lutheran or Presbyterian intellectual giants of the 19th Century are included, but modern-day Lutherans and Presbyterians fall outside of the Evangelical category. Some Unitarians and Anglicans are treated as Evangelicals during the 18th and 19th Centuries while their modern-day descendants hang rainbow flags and deny the divinity of Christ. Fundamentalism results in “virtually no insights” into intellectual matters, and yet arch-fundamentalist J. G. Machen gets citation and praise. Christianity Today is described as an Evangelical publication, albeit mixed with public affairs reporting, and yet in practice its reporting is heavily criticized by Evangelical leaders like John Grano and Richard Land as out of touch, elitist, and speaking to “fewer evangelicals with each passing year.” The result is that his historical narrative feels overfit to the model he establishes in Chapter 1, and that the criteria of inclusion remains obscure.
Related to this theme, Noll tries to discuss the collapse of the Protestant intellectual tradition and yet says no word at all of the mass apostasy of the Mainline Protestant denominations in the mid-to-late 20th Century. As Robert Putnum and David Campbell so aptly describe (American Grace, pp. 83, 134), the distance between Mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Protestantism is so slight prior to the mid-20th Century that Americans freely switched between these denominations and their intellectual traditions were largely interchangeable. Beginning in the 1960’s, however, the Protestant world underwent a collapse that reverberates to this day, yet no mention of this appears in his intellectual history of Protestantism.
Ironically, this notion might even save his flimsy definition of Evangelical. By a recognition of the fact that most Mainline Protestant denominations apostatized from Christ, one could make a plausible argument that Evangelicals are in fact a remnant of the full Protestant Tradition, and rightly link modern Evangelicals to the great intellectual leaders of Protestantism’s past. Yet Noll rejects this notion, leaving his argument in a limbo of bad definitions, because the result of such an analysis would indicate that his entire religious history in Chapters 3 and 4 does not apply to modern Evangelicals but to apostate Mainline Protestants. His causative narrative doesn’t lead to the Evangelical Mind, but to the Puritan Hypothesis of modern Progressivism. The children of Christian Republicanism, Enlightenment Christianity, and the Protestant-American synthesis are not rural, blue-collar Bible-believing Evangelicals but secular, progressive, politically-radical, gender-queer Episcopalians.
What, then, is the most generous way to take this historical narrative seriously? Given the context and the description of the author’s intentions in the prologue, one who reads The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind should take its historical narrative as an aspirational retro-conversion of Protestant intellectual history, in order to make a persuasive case for how modern-day Evangelicals should reinterpret their past. The question then becomes, is the narrative that Noll creates persuasive or does it fail to represent the lived, real experience of what it means to be an Evangelical today? Are his heroes of intellectualism really our people or do they represent an alien tradition? Are the villains of Noll’s story really wrong, or do they just get in the way of Noll’s ambitions for the direction he wishes Evangelism to take?
The Concept of Gnosticism in Noll’s Diagnosis
One of the key elements of Noll’s diagnosis of the current state of Evangelical thought is his use of classical-age heresies to illustrate what he perceives are theological errors by Evangelicals in the 20th Century. This is not an unusual approach; “gnostic” has become a commonly misused pejorative ever since William F. Buckley fished it out of Eric Voegelin’s philosophical masterpiece, The New Science of Politics. Noll, like many others, substitutes a superficial, ontic description for a deeper understanding of what those heresies mean, describing Gnosticism without a single mention of gnosis as an attempt to impose one’s own will upon reality. In the original context, political gnosticism is not defined by contingent dogmas but by its experiential meaning as pneumopathology, or sickness of the soul. Dogmas are contingent articulations of emotional and spiritual deformations caused by a negative reaction to ontological experiences.
As God makes his presence known more fully throughout history, higher truths are revealed about the nature of the universe in its more fully differentiated nature. The Apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and others articulate these finely-grained ontological distinctions into notions like the Two Cities, which differentiate the contingency of mundane history from the meaning and directionality of ecclesiastical history. Ontological differentiation prevents human beings from hiding behind sacred monarchs, political institutions, ideologies, or movements and force them to confront their personal responsibility for their Being before the Lord God. Faced with this responsibility, stripped of the false camouflage of primitive notions like collective sin, one must respond like Isaiah before the throne of God. This critical awareness centers Man’s unfitness to stand before the Transcendent, forces into presence the spiritual death of fallen Man, and closes all possibilities of Being other than utter dependency on the Blood of Christ.
The anxiety induced by this awareness may also lead a person to mutilate their own spiritual capacities, much like Sophocles’s Oedipus. Incapable of enduring the vision of the Divine in one’s ontological nakedness, the heretic hides behind false meanings imposed upon mundane institutions like governments, churches, and ideologies as the bearers of intramundane salvation. By denying the contingency of history revealed to Augustine, and imbuing the power struggles of secular regimes with divine purpose, a person can escape the full responsibility for his eternal destiny by passing the blame onto the world. Dispersing oneself into gnostic, world-historical causes serves to divert awareness away from the guilt of one’s inadequacy before the Divine. Noll’s shallow treatment of these deep ontological issues ensures that the examples of heresy he gives are in fact merely misunderstandings of orthodox doctrines like the Two Cities. Recognizing that mundane politics operates on the power principle or abstaining from participation in power struggles between political factions over worldly spoils does not make one a gnostic.
A good example is the abandonment of eschatology by Noll, which is not limited to the kind of naïve millenarianism that is universally acknowledged as absurd. For Noll, accounts of the End Times are merely an affective and cosmological account of the drama of salvation (Noll, p. 142). While he spends much of his book harping on Scripture’s bearing towards as vague and subjective a notion as intra-mundane justice, he entirely ignores the explicit theme of life as a running-towards the Apocalypse. Eschatology is a fundamental perspective of Scripture which permits believers to live in resolute anticipation of the possibility of the End Times, accepting responsibility for every moment of every day. The rejection of eschatology represents a debasing of meaning into fraudulent, transient, or political ends that deprive human beings of their eternal value and reduce them down to historicist objects of collective forces and narratives in social and political history.
While he is not incorrect that some Evangelicals were indeed Gnostics, his untheorized account fails to apply the term meaningfully, that is to say ontologically. Noll falls into his own trap by re-divinizing mundane history, retreating from Augustinian insights. (Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, p. 36) Divinizing history derails Christian life into the self-deceptions of intra-mundane politics: the egotism of corrupt worldly leadership, the delusions of idealistic crusaders, and the avarice of professional partisan activists. Christ’s Lordship is never at risk in the battles, elections, and campaigns of this world, nor can these ever supplant the ultimate mission of the Church in raising up the City of God.
Abandoning Authenticity for Respectability
In Chapter 8, Noll criticizes Christian institutions who close off fruitful avenues of scientific research by Christian intellectuals, naming it as the most serious problem facing Christian intellectual life (Noll, p. 230). These examples, however, mirror the problems that evangelicals have with Francis Collins. Abortion and promoting “safe” sex are not scientific questions, nor are they areas of “fruitful research.” Francis Collins is criticized today because he used his Christian identity to pass off monstrous acts, such as selling the body parts of murdered infants, not because Evangelicals were offended by microevolution in animal breeds. Science’s ethical limits cannot be determined from within the scientific worldview but necessarily must proceed from an outside source. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Is the popular body of the Evangelical Church the appropriate judge of these limits? Perhaps not, but it should not be controversial to say that nobody has done a worse job of policing the moral boundaries of science than the technocratic and corporatist elites of secular modernity.
Noll’s argument fails to give any clear idea of what distinguishes Christian thought from secular thought. Philosopher Martin Heidegger illustrates this problem in Being and Time, arguing that before one can begin to think, one must decide whether or not one believes that the world was created. Those who believe that it was created begin with an entirely distinct set of presuppositions from those who believe it was not created. Because of this fundamental difference of belief, Heidegger concludes that these camps must necessarily come to antagonistic conclusions on nearly every major question. For each side, the other’s arguments rest on faulty assumptions about the nature of reality. A parallel is found in William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’s book, Resident Aliens, where the authors ask: if one finds oneself always in agreement with the secular world, on the same things as the secular world, in the same way, how is one’s worldview Christ-centered? Shouldn’t authentic Christian thought begin from the unique axiomatic grounds of the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
The excerpt from Charles Malik’s lecture at the end of Chapter 1 condemns Evangelicals for failing to compete with secular scholars toe-to-toe. He may as well be criticizing Christians for failing to compete with secular Marvel fans in memorizing Expanded Universe trivia. Christians should not particularly care to compete in the study of 101 genders or the competitive grievance-mongering that makes up modern social science. Christian scholars are called upon to replace, not supplement, the failed model of modern intellectual culture. One of the rare examples of this is Robert George’s work on how a false mind-body dualism in secular social science lies at the root of many modern academic studies of the human being. This manifests in the way that Christian colleges try and fail to address issues of sexuality, gender, and identity by uncritically adopting the metaphysical worldview of the secular world but adding a superficial Christian gloss. They never interrogate the notions of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” from an authentically Christian perspective but merely either denounce or affirm secular interpretations. Nobody ever seems to question whether any of these ideological buzzwords represent something real in terms of an explicitly Christian metaphysic grounded in the Word of God.
Lastly, Noll’s notion of the consensus of scientists as God “speaking through the natural world” (Noll, p. 207) reflects an obsolete conception of a Popperian, orderly process of ever-growing envelopes of scientific evidence. It ignores the way that consensus, even in science, is a product of political fashions, money, power, and institutional hierarchies. Soviet Lysenkoism and Nazi Aryan Physics are not the exception in the history of science, but the ordinary case. Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method illustrates that scientific outcomes very often reflect presuppositions undergirding methodology rather than naïve realist notions of the extant world. Material progress is often a product of just-so arrangements by engineers and practical craftsmen who stumble across workable solutions, not academic scientists. Edison didn’t invent his lightbulb through determining the characteristics of metallic alloys, but through trial and error, until he found a filament that just worked. In the Ivory Tower, theories only really change when funding changes or entrenched intellectual robber-barons abdicate their seats of influence, just as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt describe in their 1994 book, Higher Superstition. How much of modern Academia, especially the social and political sciences, actually works when it is deployed in the world? How much of it is pompous expounding of ideological dogma and abstract, theoretical superstition?
Noll’s famous line, “The scandal of the evangelical mind seems to be that no mind arises from evangelicism” has revealed itself, nearly three decades later, to be devoid of meaning. In what way is Francis Collins an Evangelical scholar, given his actions in office which demonstrate his real principles? In what way does a distinctly “Evangelical” tradition really exist anymore in light of Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens’s observations that the lines are disappearing amidst Vanishing Boundaries? In the final chapter, Noll remarks that the only successful Evangelical scholars tend to have deep roots in many different Christian traditions, and perhaps the response should be, “Who cares?” In the beginning of the book, Noll fails to provide an adequate definition for Evangelical and maybe the point is that such a definition is not possible. Evangelicals have always been inspired by thinkers like Luther and Calvin, Augustine and Aquinas, Milton and Hooker, Wesley and Whitefield, Edwards and Witherspoon, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and more. Today, the salient divisions become the line between those who uphold the Lordship of Jesus Christ and those who side with the growing power of Godlessness. In such times, the question of who “owns” what thinkers fades into irrelevance. Evangelicals have always and will always be deeply connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ of differing traditions and institutional arrangements. The new question becomes whether Evangelical thinkers will begin to think authentically or whether they will continue to unreflectively and inauthentically accept the intellectual framework of the World, to provide religious legitimization for policies otherwise untenable to Christian principles.
Noll’s work rightly illustrates the institutional problems that prevent the emergence of Evangelical scholarship, but describes them as mere trivialities. In this, he has reversed the order of importance. The most serious problem today is that the Evangelical churches and parachurch institutions have not taken seriously their calling to become alternative, parallel societies to the fallen, pagan, Godless secular world. Where our ancient Church Fathers established sees in parallel to Roman provinces, and bishops in parallel to Roman governors, no Evangelical university exists as the explicit alternative to secular education. In Guenter Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, he describes the position of Christians under that evil regime to be, “We carry all the items that are sold by the competition [that is: National Socialism], only in better quality.” (p. 166) The institutional churches had conformed and collaborated to the regime and only served to justify its actions by putting a Christian patina of rationalizations over the National Socialist agenda. Evangelical scholarship will not emerge so long as the expectation is for them to be secular scholars first, and for their Christianity to be merely one flavor or brand-label out of many.
To be fair, there are many passages in the book where Noll illustrates real problems and professes a concern for authenticity of Christian scholarship. The flaws in the argument may indeed be salvageable if one takes close care to ignore or ameliorate parts of the main narrative and stress the theme of authenticity where it emerges. It should be remembered that the author himself describes this work as a polemic and therefore the author, at least, should be given some benefit of the doubt due to the fact that polemics are supposed to be one-sided and a little hyperbolic.
What must not be forgotten, however, is the use to which this book has been put toward for the last few decades. Those who used this text to promote a syncretism of Christianity with secular ideological agendas have done untold damage to the cause of the Christian faith and are directly responsible for the divisions that rock the Christian world today. The Evangelical community is in immediate, mortal danger of following in the footsteps of the Mainline Churches, and of sacrificing their Christian distinctiveness in order to be accepted as one of the tame, docile, neutered “comprehensive belief systems” within the approved list of those permitted by the secular regime. In light of present circumstances, perhaps the best solution and most charitable to the author would be to let the deeply-flawed Scandal die the natural death of a work whose merits don’t quite balance the harm that it has done to the cause of the Christian Churches today.
I would like to thank the administration at Louisiana Christian University, especially Dr. Rick Brewer, for providing many of the books which contributed either explicitly or implicitly to this essay, and to my former colleagues there who spent many Tuesday lunch breaks discussing and working over the theme of authentic Christian education and thought.