Christians CAN Think

Just because someone is a Christian, he or she is not therefore incapable of reasonable thought. That’s the argument recently from Provost Stanton Jones of Wheaton College. But is this true everywhere? Or only in the hallowed halls of Wheaton itself?

Jones was responding to a hatchet job from University of Pennsylvania English Professor Peter Conn. As we noted at the time, Conn accused Wheaton and other evangelical colleges of scamming their way into intellectual respectability. No school that demanded a faculty statement of faith, Conn argued, should be eligible for federal student aid. It was an intellectual and constitutional outrage.

In the discussion in these pages, commenters mostly took Conn to task for closedmindedness. Provost Jones takes a different approach. Not only are Wheaton faculty free to think and research, Jones writes, but they are actually freer than most faculty at non-religious schools. And their work will ultimately be more productive than that of their unfortunate colleagues at those schools.

Those researchers who fit in with the “contemporary intellectual tides,” Jones argues, might feel very free indeed at non-religious colleges. But for those who dissent, the “free” academic environment feels deadeningly constricting. A Bible-believing Christian professor, for example, might not feel entirely comfortable in a rigorously pluralist university like mine. “When we hire colleagues away from nonreligious institutions,” Jones asserts,

we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers, because they are finally in a place where they can teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions.

That’s not all. Jones uses the tools of postmodern academic life to undermine Conn’s attack. If “truth” is something we can only put in ironic quotation marks, we will be severely limited in our search for it. As Jones puts it,

Purely skeptical and unfettered inquiry is likely to simply chase itself in circles. Disciplined, rigorous, and self-critical inquiry grounded in a thoughtful understanding of one’s particularities can contribute to a vigorous and diverse intellectual marketplace.

Christian academics at schools such as Wheaton, Jones writes, are freer and more productive than their fettered colleagues at secular schools.

We should note, Jones only defends the rigor of academic work at his own school, Wheaton College. Conn’s attack was a broad-brushed condemnation of conservative Protestant colleges in general. Jones does not insist that other evangelical colleges offer conducive research homes for top-notch academics. I can’t help but wonder if this is mere oversight, or an unwillingness to vouch for the academic chops of evangelical higher education in general. Seems like Provost Jones is confident of the high-caliber intellectual firepower at Wheaton, but maybe not so sure of the strength of other evangelical schools.

 

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  1. I think that there is some truth in Jones’ arguments. I spent 20 years at CU-Colorado Springs and a number of years at Pepperdine. I would not say that my Pepperdine colleagues were per se more productive, but I would note that the discussions of the relationships between academics and religion/faith were much more open and productive. In the sciences, there was a respectful dialog that at most state universities would not even take place. Pepperdine does not have a statement of faith, but rather a statement of support for it’s mission. Thus, while there are many Christian faculty from various denominations, there are also Jewish, Muslim and non-believing faculty. I believe that Pepperdine as well as lesser known Christian college such as Goshen [IN] are academically rigorous while maintaining a faith commitment.

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