Each spring semester for the past twenty-odd years I have assigned the same essay to my junior-level history majors at the Christian college where I teach. In it historian George Marsden navigates the complex relationship between personal faith commitments and serious academic scholarship, laying out what I believe numbers among the most compelling visions for integrating faith and scholarship ever written. The piece, published in 1997, was formative in my own personal development, and I’ve never questioned its relevance for my students in theirs.
Until this year.
While discussing the piece this time around, I was struck by a sudden recognition that the world that had given it weight and coherence no longer exists. Although brimming with still persuasive insights about the nature of scholarship and faith, Marsden’s essay, I could now see, was written amid social arrangements and assumptions that have since dissolved. It became apparent to me that I was, in effect, playing Pearl Jam on a Sony Discman. While it still sounded amazing, I began to suspect that my students experienced it more as a cool curio from a bygone era than a usable guide for their present needs.
Beginning in the 1970s, the “integration of faith and learning” emerged as a kind of shorthand among American evangelical colleges hoping to support academic work that was both biblically sound and intellectually serious. The language evokes a time when Cold War-era “neo-evangelicals” hoped to shake off the stigma of fundamentalism to pursue pathways they hoped would lead to cultural relevance, political nuance, and intellectual respectability. Schools like Wheaton, Gordon, Houghton, and Westmont began cultivating reputations as places devoted to more than just spiritual growth, biblical literacy, and ministry preparation. The “life of the mind” would invigorate and galvanize the Christian college experience; wise, thoughtful graduates would emerge to seed evangelical churches across the country.
Marsden was an architect and exemplar of this idea. He narrated the transformation of American evangelicalism during the twentieth century in books like Fundamentalism and American Culture and Reforming Fundamentalism, which were both exquisitely researched and faith informed. After two decades teaching at a Christian college himself, Marsden spent the second half of his career at elite research universities, where he demonstrated that serious Christian scholarship belonged at the highest levels of American academia.
He devoted most of the 1990s to promoting what he called “the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship.” The essay I annually read with my students, “Christian Advocacy and the Rules of the Academic Game,” was a distillation of this project. Marsden there struck a tone of characteristic humility and moderation, categorically rejecting any notion of or interest in re-Christianizing American higher education. The rules of the game made even the thought of this notion absurd. The modern, professional norms of the academy were sound and here to stay. Any Christian wishing to bring her faith perspectives into academic discourse would do so only as a voice among voices. A modest seat at the table. Nothing more.
But the rules of the academic game had changed in other, more current ways as well. By the 1990s the postmodern moment was challenging academic opinions about the presumed virtues of secularism, scientific neutrality, and universal knowledge claims. Unwittingly, Foucault and Derrida had opened an unexpected door to faith. All academic research, observed Marsden, was colored by the researchers’ social locations and pre-rational “background beliefs.” Christian scholars—just like their Marxian, feminist, Afrocentric, and LGBTQ colleagues—could produce credible scholarship without having to set aside their personal interests or frames of reference.
In short, Marsden invited his readers to envision the world as one where genuine faith and academic scholarship could coexist and even thrive together. And this world was rendered plausible because the trajectory of both evangelical and academic sensibilities seemed to be moving toward an ever more accommodating brand of liberal pragmatism: open, cooperative, diverse, and democratic.
Now, my memory is as fuzzy and prone to delusion as anyone’s, but I don’t recall experiencing the 1990s as a golden age of good relations between evangelical Christians and the broader culture. Indeed, the early nineties witnessed the publication of James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, which shifted the way we talk about the ideological and moral divide in our nation. And Mark Noll’s handwringing The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind worried that the “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” might forever stymie evangelical ambitions toward intellectual seriousness.
But the benefit of hindsight allows us to see just how good we had it. There were legitimate reasons in the 1990s to believe in a growing spirit of liberality among conservative Christians, and the same among the professional academic class. We evangelicals were indeed beginning to reckon with the notion that we lived in a post-Christian world, and, given our minority stake in the commonweal, could even begin seeing some benefits in charitable listening and in playing well with others. And the American academy seemed similarly chastened. Academic discourse was reckoning with the implications of multicultural, postmodern perspectivism that affirmed the value of diverse voices—even evangelical Christian ones.
Marsden’s modest and sane proposal made eminently good sense in a world bounded by the cultural détente promised by these apparent facts on the ground. But my current students are observant enough to see that we’re no longer enjoying any such détente. Today’s bottomless evangelical appetite for xenophobia, conspiracy theory, and populist nationalism feels to my otherwise traditional Christian students like a useless—even offensive—framework for engaging contemporary cultural issues and questions. And the increasingly Woke rigidity of identity politics and closely policed cultural orthodoxies now inhabiting mainstream higher education don’t exactly appear as a welcome mat for aspiring graduate students with traditional moral and religious convictions.
And then there are Christian colleges. The past twenty-five years haven’t been kind to Christian higher education. The vast majority of schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities are vulnerable and languishing—struggling with enrollment numbers, cutting faculty lines and programs, and hard pressed on every side to convince evangelical families of the value proposition found in a liberal education from a “distinctively Christian” perspective.
Reading vintage 1990s George Marsden through the eyes of twenty-one-year-olds was a gut check that admittedly left me reeling. Not a few scales fell from my eyes. We’re clearly not in Kansas anymore! But even as I wrestled with the very real cultural and political change over the relatively short span of two or three decades, I was strangely moved to double down on Marsden’s promise of faith-learning integration. I’m not sure that our confidence in this project was ever ultimately dependent on the stars aligning in our evangelical subculture or within the halls of university life. That is so much shifting sand. No, the hope for this project comes from knowing that there are genuine resources within our traditions that remain capable of sustaining the life of the mind and of promoting human flourishing.
So I plan on reading Marsden’s essay again with my students again next spring, a season of hope. And I’m also suddenly in the mood to listen to some Pearl Jam. Now if I can only find that Discman.
This post was originally featured in Current.