“Exvangelicalism” is a relatively new term for a much older phenomenon: those who’ve been raised as evangelicals coming to realize that they no longer identify as such, and intentionally reckoning with the continuing impact of that tradition in their lives. Philosophers have not had much to say about this phenomenon – until now. The Evangelical Philosophical Society sponsored the panel “Exvangelicalism and Evangelical Philosophy” at the 2022 Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and in this series of blog posts, the panelists share their contributions.
Evangelical Christian philosophers have long thought of their profession primarily as a service to the Church. By providing justification for Christian beliefs and defenses against anti-Christian arguments, evangelical philosophers hope to clear away obstacles for non-believers to come to faith and to shore up the confidence of believers in their faith. In general, we might say that evangelical philosophy seeks to offer rational warrant for Christianity’s truth claims, whether that be directly (through rational argumentation and the accumulation of evidence), or indirectly (by proving the rational warrant for the non-necessity of direct rational warrant for Christian belief). Yet, serving the Church is always done in the context of history, or at a particular point in time and space. Cultivating continual awareness of that context is the sine qua non for philosophers who seek to open intelligent discourses on faith. Thus, as with any profession or ministry, it is necessary to afford space for self-reflection and meta-philosophical analyses of our methods and comportment relative to the time in which we find ourselves. Today, a particular feature of our context is a large-scale movement away from evangelicalism, perhaps due to a necessary unveiling of abuses of power, institutionally and doctrinally, in the name of the evangelical Christian faith.1 In light of this long-overdue moment of reckoning, we, as evangelical philosophers, should ask ourselves an honest question: What feature(s) of evangelical philosophy/philosophers might drive people away from evangelicalism? What feature(s) of evangelical philosophy/philosophers might draw (or keep) people in evangelicalism? I take these questions to be posed not to figure out how to retain numbers or to solve a PR crisis, but as an occasion to allow ourselves to be called into question. What is it about the assumed nature of the task, the methods, and the intellectual dispositions of evangelical philosophy that might be perpetuating the problems and festering the wounds? How might the ex-vangelical phenomenon be revelatory, or how might lived experience hold up a mirror for us to see (or to face) the truth about ourselves? What resources within the Christian philosophical tradition more broadly might we draw upon to confront some of the spirit(s) of the age ex-vangelicals are identifying and to open possibilities of genuine faith? In what follows, I will identify two tactical errors that evangelical philosophy desperately needs to correct. I will then identify key resources internal to the tradition that I think render our philosophical endeavors opportune for such a time as this.
Swinging at Windmills
Without sufficient hermeneutical self-awareness, Christian philosophy becomes a discourse that earnestly provides answers to all the wrong questions. That is, evangelical philosophy is still swinging at windmills using intellectual weapons from the battles of yesteryear, and this preoccupation prevents it from recognizing the truly gigantic concerns of the day.
By my judgment, the most prominent windmill still under attack, especially by our apologetical efforts, is skepticism. The critique of Christianity that most inform the ex-vangelical movement is not skepticism, however, but suspicion. Describing the difference between the two, Merold Westphal says that skepticism “is directed toward the elusiveness of things,” while suspicion “is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness.”2 Skepticism, he continues, “seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons.” Furthermore, “skepticism addresses itself directly to the propositions believed and asks whether there is sufficient evidence to make belief rational,” whereas suspicion “addresses itself to the persons who believe and only indirectly to the propositions believed.”
Put differently, if the skeptical critique is concerned with the question “Is Christianity true?,” the suspicious critique is concerned with the question “Is Christianity good? And is it beautiful?” This is not to say there is no such thing as truth—indeed the suspicious critique has a very strong commitment to truth disclosure—but rather that the question of truth apart from goodness and beauty simply cannot exist and certainly is not worth pursuing. Suspicion recognizes, rightly so, that truth, goodness, and beauty do not stand in isolation from one another but are like three legs of a stool. In its pursuit of truth, evangelical philosophy has given insufficient attention to the ethical and especially the aesthetic dimensions. As a result, what it offers is a stool trying to stand on one leg, which of course gives people good reason to step off!
What I am suggesting is not that evangelical philosophers need better bedside manner, or more compassionate ways of dialoguing about the same things. Rather, I want to urge evangelical philosophers to recognize that the questions raised by suspicion—questions about the goodness and beauty of Christianity—are not irrational questions. In fact, given the concrete experiences and material conditions all around us, they are arguably the most rational questions. Thus, they should be taken seriously as philosophical questions rather than dismissed as pastoral concerns.
Suspicion is not a critique to be refuted in the same way as skepticism, or at least in the same way that evangelical philosophy has sought to refute skepticism. The root of suspicion’s concern is not with the amount of evidence for the existence of God or the soundness of a particular justification for the problem of evil, but indeed with the use of that evidence and the harms that come from approaching life’s questions as something that can be resolved by properly ordered P’s and Q’s. Therefore, attempts to refute the suspicious critique by doubling down on the same arguments and by using the same techniques as skepticism is not only poor strategy; it also confirms the critic’s suspicions—that Christianity has nothing else to offer than what is “human, all too human.”
Instead, evangelical philosophers should consider suspicion a call to step outside of sterile conference halls and grapple honestly with existence and the perplexities therein for the sake of our faith and even of our philosophy. Only then might the Christian philosopher offer what Søren Kierkegaard considers to be the greatest service of all, which is to open up possibilities of faith. This is not to make someone intellectually say “uncle” in an epistemic standoff, but rather to help others see something they did not see before. The Christian philosopher indeed seeks to provide credible accounts of faith, but suspicion reminds us that what is truly credible—that is, what is worth staking one’s life upon—is not the compulsion of logical necessity but the grace of revelation that opens us beyond ourselves. Only by (continually) passing through the waters of suspicion can Christian philosophy, specifically evangelical philosophy, generatively unfold possibilities on the other side.
The second tactical error that I see in the practice of evangelical philosophy is, ironically, methodological secularism. Of course, evangelical philosophers see their work in large part as pushing against hardened secularism. However, I contend that the primary methods in use are latently secular.
Secularism, Paul Ricoeur says, is “the extension of rationality to all areas and all levels of reality.”3 This rationality is based on the process of objectification, which, he explains, is “a grasp of reality according to the facts articulated in laws, elaborated in theories, and formalized in axioms according to fundamental principles.”4 By subsuming all things into this process of universal objectification, secularism reduces the “mysterious” to the “problematic,” or it presents all things as “problems to solve, as opposed to mysteries to decipher and to contemplate.”5 In other words, secular rationality works by approaching the world as a furry of problems that can be resolved if we put everything into P’s and Q’s and determine how to organize them in ways that tuck everything into a rational order, ideally without remainder.
It is not hard to see how evangelical philosophy, as it is generally practiced, is implicated in this very description. Even as we are trying to defend a “biblical anthropology,” or formulate theories of time, or solve the mind-body problem in ways that we take to be consistent with Christianity, such investigations too often are funded by this underlying assumption that the world and human beings are transparent objects that can be explained—and that is what philosophers are employed to do. In practice, this typically looks like playing an unending game of philosophical wack-a-mole. Once we get one problem under our thumb, another pops up. Evangelical philosophers recognize that we will never resolve all the problems (because, finitude). Nevertheless, we work toward this goal because settling on theories that draw as much of reality as possible into a totalized rational order just is the task of philosophy—or so we assume.
A tight argument is vital, and drawing distinctions is important for interrogating things patiently and carefully. However, there can be a kind of “false consciousness” among evangelical philosophers in so far as assumed methods and modes of questioning are reductive and are more historically contingent than universally objective. The assumption that the task of philosophy is to dissect and resolve rather than expand and create is not to uphold clarity and rigor over imprecision and sentimentalism but to take on the implicit assumptions of a distinctly secular rationality.
This method, which I am designating as “secular,” rightly places evangelical philosophy under suspicion. Broader philosophical discourse has shown convincingly for well over a century that what is posited as “univocal meaning” is often masked oppression. Bare facts or fully articulable propositions logically arranged can never be revolutionary or re-generative but are more akin to determining the most coherent way to arrange the chairs on the titanic. Ex-vangelicals, whether they are aware of the philosophical discourse or not, sense this to be the case. They have a (tacit) awareness of the way that pressing the world into abstract theories or seeking to distill it into propositions leads to all sorts of manipulation and oppression. Unless evangelical philosophers take a hard look at the assumptions behind our practice, we give people good philosophical, as well as ethical, reasons to leave.
Resources for Other Directions
Having identified what I take to be methodological approaches and latent assumptions that urgently need to be dislodged from their place of exclusivity in our practice, I also want to identify resources that evangelicals have internal to the tradition that can and should shape our philosophical imagination.
Evangelicalism’s high view of scripture and commitment to allowing our theology to inform the way we think about our philosophical practice and comportment is something we must revisit. The doctrine of creation provides conceptual categories for how philosophy can be nurturing and generative. It even issues a call for philosophers to pursue our vocation as part of the cultural mandate—to care and cultivate the world, to bring out its latent glory, to seek flourishing and abundance over scarcity and domination.
The doctrines of the fall and redemption also shape the mode in which we pursue philosophical endeavors. To philosophize as a Christian, specifically an evangelical Christian, is in large part to take up a task of spiritual discernment. That is, Christian philosophy in principle has unique capacities to identify the spirit(s) of the age and to speak prophetically to them with the kind of piercing analysis that our tools allow us to provide.
Finally, the doctrine of new creation suggests that evangelical philosophers can serve best by seeing our primary task as opening (discursive) possibilities more than busting mysteries. Of course, existence will throw us into all sorts of problems and perplexities. However, taking up the deeper work of re-framing questions and of discerning what pre-theoretical frameworks might be the source of the problem at hand is a way of practicing philosophy in a reflective and generative mode.
To philosophize as a Christian, specifically as an evangelical Christian, is to take on an impulse to heal and restore what is broken, fragmented, and alienated. We know how to use philosophy as a weapon, but our theological commitments and rootedness in the biblical story give us a broader category for philosophy as edification. Though this is unfortunately not what evangelicals are generally known for, within our theology we have resources to re-direct our efforts and ethos from domination to edification, from winning an argument to opening a possibility, from division to restoration. As I see it, evangelical philosophers can and should play a crucial role in that very important re-direction.
What might evangelical philosophy learn from the ex-vangelical phenomenon? That it must become more hermeneutically aware of the way in which it is inscribed, so it can be relevant, much less prophetic and restorative. Evangelical philosophy should think philosophically about what Alvin Plantinga calls the defeaters of faith, but it also must think philosophically about what is defeating the faithful. To do so we need to take seriously how lived experiences tell us the truth about who we are, for both the edification of our faith and the enrichment of our philosophy.
- While there is not yet much by way of concrete empirical data measuring this phenomenon, “ex-vangelicalism” as nonetheless has entered into the American evangelical vernacular and it has gained strong cultural recognition as both a movement and a growing subculture. For a helpful discussion see https://www.axios.com/2021/09/19/evangelical-exvangelicals-church-religion-christianity.
- Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 13.
- Paul Ricoeur, “Two Essays by Paul Ricoeur: The Critique of Religion and the Language of Faith,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 28. 3 (1973), 214.
- Ricoeur, “Two Essays by Paul Ricoeur,” 216.
- Ricoeur, “Two Essays by Paul Ricoeur,” 214.