Dr. George M. Marsden has been the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame since 1992. He has won a number of honors, awards, and fellowships for his historical research. His more recent books include The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Dr. George Marsden and another author in this issue, Dr. Gregory Ganssle (p.9), were among the speakers at a conference entitled "Christian Scholarship: Knowledge, Reality, and Method" held at the University of Colorado at Boulder in October of 1997. The conference was directed by Christian Leadership Ministries and was cosponsored by the Theology Forum of the Philosophy Department of the University of Colorado and the Dayspring Center for Christian Studies.
The Colorado conference explored the metaphysical and epistemic assumptions of academic scholarship, with special attention to the influence of those assumptions on Christian scholars who seek to integrate their Christian faith with their academic discipline. Edited proceedings from this conference, as well as a helpful bibliography and other related resources can be found at Christian Leadership Ministries' Academic Integration website located at www.leaderu.com/aip.
One peculiarity about American evangelical Christianity is that few Christians challenge the American cultural convention that religious belief should have nothing to do with other things one thinks about in higher education. Christians believe in a God who is great enough to create this unfathomably vast universe yet personal enough to care for each of us. One would think such beliefs would have immense implications in many areas of thought, scholarship, and teaching. Yet many Christians in academia blithely accept the idea that when they do hard thinking about the rest of reality, they should think as though God did not exist.
Christian belief, of course, does not make much difference in many technical areas of scholarshipin mathematical formulas, for instance. However, that should not blind us to the fact that in many areas of scholarship, particularly in philosophy, the humanities, the social sciences, and the philosophical implications of the natural sciences, Christian perspectives could make a great difference.
In such areas Christian perspectives should make at least as much difference as feminist perspectives. Not many people recognized the relevance of gender to scholarship 40 years ago. Today, after consciousness-raising, most people acknowledge that there is some substantial relevanceeven if some of the feminist claims may be excessive. I would argue that if Christian-consciousness is raised, we will find that belief in a God of the magnitude and qualities of the God of Christianity will make a substantial difference in the way people think about many aspects of life.
For instance, if we believe that all reality is created by a God who cares for us and reveals himself to us, then we cannot view human moral ideals in a simply functional lightas nothing more than arbitrary constructions of the powerful or as survival mechanisms of the oppressed. Rather we would see thatwhatever else they arethe most important things about human constructions of moralities is how well they conform to divinely instituted standards. Putting God in the picture will change the picture. Putting God in the picture may not essentially change our analysis of the cultural functions of morality. But it will change the picture substantially to recognize that the cultural functions of morality are not their only functions.
The belief that God has created us provides us with a place to stand in evaluating the cult of self in modern and post-modern culture. With God the Creator out of the way as a serious component of our thought, views of human capacities have become immensely inflated. Much of the history of modern and post-modern Western thought could be written as the elimination of the Creator and the consequent inflation of human ego and achievement.
Unlike most contemporary educators and students, we should be talking about human limits as well as about human greatness. Of course, Christianity greatly values humans, even those who may seem least significant. Yet to paraphrase Pascal, humans are the crown of creation and the scum of the earth. The heart of human sinfulness is in our achievements, in the illusion that we can be our own godsa law unto ourselves, creating and controlling our own reality.
Such perspectives ought to transform religiously- committed scholars into dissenters from many theories taken for granted in current academia; it should make them critical of viewpoints, especially strong in the arts and literature, that emphasize human freedom and creativity as the supreme values. Although of immense worth, these human gifts will reach their highest expressions when exercised within a sense of the limits of the individual in relationship to the community, the created order, and ultimately to God.
We see the problem of the opposite view in our popular culture, as on the TV phenomenon MTV. Creativity knows no limits, but not because the artistic goals are so high. Cynicism has become a cliché. Similarly the world of advertising and mass culture has no shame in exploiting the ideals of unlimited freedom that cashes out as sensuality and self indulgence. Scholars from all sorts of traditions might critique such cultural trends, but scholars with theological perspective are more likely to see them as part of a larger pattern of self worship that has an almost cultic quality about it.
These are just a few illustrations. I could give many others. The point is that with God in the picture we have a very different perspective. For one thing, if we remain keenly aware that God is in our intellectual picture, the dimensions of the rest of the picture will shrink drastically. For another, if God is in the picture, then God will be at the center of the picture. Rather than seeing ourselves or our kind, as we normally do, as at the center of reality, we will see that we are on the periphery and no more significant than anyone else.
So what I urge each of you, who is a committed believer, to do is to prayerfully think about what it would mean to keep God in your intellectual picture.
[Editor's note: This article is adapted from The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).]