It’s just a matter of time before another mass killer once again bloodies our streets, our homes, our schools, and our concert venues with a rain of bullets. Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, we Americans have learned to expect the worst. The scary reality, though, is that we know very little about what is behind America’s mass killings, and so we have come to call them “senseless.”
Now, at the end of the second decade in the 21st century, something new is hitting many of our churches: a social justice ideology that is, as I wrote a few weeks ago, “anti-biblical, borrows heavily from the postmodern worldview which aims to redistribute power (Marx aimed to do the same with wealth), and…is becoming a kind of false religion.” Has a postmodern version of the old social gospel reared its ugly head inside churches where it once, at least during the fundamentalist era, was rejected?
It’s time for me to tell you how Wilberforce Academy is helping prepare them as Christian nation-builders, to use a term that my friend Vishal Mangalwadi has often used. To explain how we do it, I must first highlight the 21stacademic backdrop: Our academic institutions are graduating cynical secular postmodernists, on the one hand, and, inadvertently and indirectly, fueling radical Islamism, on the other (as I suggest when I address the case of Sayd Qutb below). At the Wilberforce Academy, by contrast, we believe God wants us to help shape men and women filled with hope, skills, and commitment for redemptive change because they follow Jesus Christ.
The September 10, 2016 cover story in one of the world’s most widely-read magazines, the Economist, is about “post-truth politics.” The article argues that the main contenders in our torturous 2016 US presidential campaign have stunningly sacrificed truth with reckless abandon. I highly recommend the article, but with a major caveat: The writers fail to satisfactorily answer the question: “How did we get to the place where truth is at best a literary doormat for those bent on power and conquest?” The answer to this question is the real story that will linger long after the presidency is decided in November.
Why are so many college students (especially Millennials) resistant to the Gospel? Naturalism, postmodern suspicion, and the marriage of cynicism and skepticism may be three good reasons why the campus apologist faces bigger challenges today.
© 2014 Robert Osburn
For at least a century, American colleges and universities have been identified with a monolithic secularism that vigorously pits academia against the church, and vice versa. Why this is the case is brilliantly narrated by George Marsden in his 1994 classic The Soul of the American University.
One of the many implications of academic secularism has been a faculty often resolutely at odds with orthodox Christian faith. Study after study has confirmed that faculty, especially those who are the elite within the natural and social sciences, hold very diffident (at best) and sometimes hostile (at worst) attitudes toward Christianity. African American sociologist George Yancey has shown in his 2011 study Compromising Scholarship that self-identified evangelical Christians are sometimes the victims of anti-evangelical bias when it comes to faculty hiring.
The secular ivory tower holds firm, or so it seems. However, there are indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the tower’s forbidding secular walls. For three reasons (outlined below), the prospects for evangelical and other conservative Christian faculty are just now beginning to brighten.
The first, and most important, factor is that postmodern Perspectivalism has opened the door to Christian scholarship. Admittedly, postmodernism---the view that, instead of seeking truth, the only thing we humans care about is getting power---has had tragic effects on society and the church.
However, one of its ancillary claims (which happens to be very true) has given religious believers a “foot in the door.” One of the many implications of postmodern thought is that humans inevitably interpret reality through a worldview, or perspective that colors how they understand the data of reality. Take human beings in all our complexity: Scientific naturalists see complex biological machines, whereas, without denying the complex biology, Christians see evidence of God who designed us in His image.
Prior to postmodernity (which began its rise in the 60s), the scientific naturalist simply proclaimed, “Here is the data, which speaks for itself,” as if they were perfectly innocent of any interpretation of that data. Postmodernism calls them on the carpet: You interpret the data just like everybody else, precisely because you have a perspective, a worldview. The net effect is that academics, especially younger academics, are increasingly schooled to see the importance of perspective (worldview) in how we make sense of reality. They are also much more comfortable with the idea that different professors have different worldviews. Thus, as Marsden showed in his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, scholarship interpreted through a Christian perspective is a viable option for academia. (He expands on this idea at the end of his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.)
The second reason for the crack in the secular ivory tower has to do with the effects of family fragmentation. Mountains of evidence clearly point to one conclusion about family fragmentation: Children raised in fragmented families have poorer academic prospects than those raised in stable, two-opposite sex parent homes. Not surprisingly, since Christian faith has the overall effect of stabilizing families, children raised in such homes have a higher probability of making it all the way to their PhDs and, thus careers in academia. That means that a higher percentage of academic hires, notwithstanding anti-evangelical bias on campuses, are starting to involve young, fresh-out-of-graduate school faculty who are active Christians. Anecdotally, there is evidence this is already happening, and so one can predict that in years to come the faculty Christian fellowships on our secular campuses will grow much larger.
Finally, the third reason for this particular crack in academia---greater openness to and greater hiring of active orthodox Christians to faculties---is the rise of Christian study centers next to major universities. Though not well documented, over the past decade the numbers of these study centers where Christ is honored and serious scholarship is celebrated has grown significantly. The website for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (full disclosure: I am a founding board member of that organization, and for 12 years directed one of the study centers in the consortium) lists 27 active Christian study centers next to major universities such as Yale, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Cornell. (Only 15 were in operation when this article was initially written.) As these centers expand and multiply across the USA, they will further legitimize the case for Christian scholarship while also providing a nurturing ground for future Christian academics. My successor at MacLaurin Institute (now Anselm House) has launched a stipended annual fellowship program (Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program) for Christian students that engages them in the very best of Christian scholarship, the intellectual foundations of Christian faith, and provides a social context that reinforces serious Christen engagement with academic life. This will translate into a future wave of Christian academics.
Higher education’s very secular ivory tower is covered in crises, pathologies, and injustices (such as the growing aversion to letting Christian student groups restrict their leadership to self-identified and practicing believers). However, there is at least one crack in that secular ivory tower: The numbers of self-identified Christians who, at least in some cases openly pursue Christian scholarship, is starting to grow.
Some cracks are bad. This one looks to be very redemptive.
© 2014 Robert Osburn
The headwinds of political disengagement are buffeting Christian young adults. There is overall cynicism about the political enterprise, in the wake of feeling like much has been promised and little has been delivered. A general lack of trust in institutions including government is widespread. A preference for “really doing something” by providing tangible help to fix immediate and proximate needs is clear. And the illusion of the compelling witness of libertarian peers, who promote a supposed live and let live political philosophy that seems so much less controversial and complicated, is rampant.
These words, recently penned by the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Stephanie Summers, are an almost perfect snapshot of the American college students I teach at the University of Minnesota. There’s something beautiful about their earnest desire for tangible, practical solutions to human problems, and yet behind it all lurks a tragic suspicion about our institutions, especially our political institutions.
Besides the reasons offered by Summers, there are at least four more. There is the general effect of postmodern discourse, that way of talking and writing about reality that is laced with jaded caution and suspicion that someone, especially those who lead institutions, is out to rob you of power while proclaiming their ideology has the answers to what ails humanity. Even Christian evangelism is seen as nothing more than a ploy to lash poor benighted souls under the tyranny of Christian religion.
Besides postmodern discourse, today’s technology conveniently lets students bypass most institutions (except social networking institutions like Facebook) in favor of multiple direct personal encounters mediated by endless technologies. Churches, associations, clubs? Strictly optional when all you need is a cell phone.
Postmodern discourse, electronic technology, and, thirdly, a fractured culture add to the disengagement. Ever since the 1960s, America has been a nation without a cultural consensus, and that lack of cultural consensus is making it much harder to find political consensus. It’s easier to write off political institutions that fight all the time than it is to try to understand why they work so poorly. 1960s cultural fragmentation has created 21st century political fragmentation.
Finally, to complete the portrait of collegiate political disengagement, remember that this generation has their parents to thank for up to 50% of them having experienced family fragmentation owing to divorce, etc. We know from research that divorce has devastating effects, among them a much greater propensity to steer clear of religious institutions and to settle for the private comforts of a saccharine spirituality.
So, the typical politically disengaged American college student is the product of postmodern discourse, electronic technology, political fragmentation, and family fragmentation that adds up to one word: dystopia. However, many students stop short of full-blown anti-utopianism and say, “Things will turn out tragically lest we somehow get engaged to make our world a better place. “ That’s the socially conscious part of students that really does look attractive and hopeful. Dig wells, teach literacy, save rainforests, and so on. Direct action looks so much better, as Stephanie Summers points out, than working with and through institutions that are failing (families and politics).
Unfortunately, lacking a Christian anthropology, many socially-engaged students will find their sails completely whipped apart by the desperate brokenness of those they have come to help. Combine that with the sense that the “system” (whatever it is in any given society) ensures the continued misery of the poor, and the picture clouds up quickly. Students may, after all, end up with truly dark and hopeless visions unless they joyfully welcome the liberating bondage (Romans 6:18) of a Savior who straightens out our minds while He saves our souls.
Is my truncated portrait of many American college students (politically disengaged but socially conscious) the end of the story? We already know that students are weary of institutions. Add to that the prospect of many becoming truly dystopian after their save-the-world efforts come up drastically short, and, well, the prospect of dark anti-institutionalists running the world is not pretty. Were it not for generous doses of common grace that Jesus seems to freely dispense, this is a recipe for chaos, disorder, and darkness. Gloom and doom.
There are, however, micro-alternatives (e.g., Wilberforce Academy) that are popping up. Our objective is not in any way to undercut students’ social consciousness, but, rather, to give them philosophical and theological legs so that, rather than drifting into despair when their valiant efforts hit brick walls, they bounce back into institutions with a robust political theology that aims to transform what seems hopeless. William Wilberforce lived in dark times at the end of the 18th century, but a few others like him in the Clapham Community were well-instructed by Wesleyan and a few godly Anglican pastors who taught them the ways of God. Wilberforce and his colleagues (whose story is richly told in the 1953 book Saints in Politics) worked with and through institutions to effect dramatic and positive changes that no one could have anticipated, least of all the abolition of the slave trade.
Turn around is possible, but we will need far greater efforts (like Wilberforce Academy) to give our students the biblical, theological, and philosophical grounding that creates the leaders our institutions will need to endure, and for civilization to be renewed.
© 2014 Robert Osburn
The 20 year-old film Reality Bites opens with a scene where the character played by Minnesota-born Winona Ryder is offering the conclusion to her college valedictory speech: “And the answer to it all is….”
Her eyes grow wide. Deafening silence. Her professors sit glumly while the audience is tense and uncertain. And then, as if all the tension in the Universe were suddenly being released, she declares: “I don’t know!” And the crowd cheers, not just because the long ceremony is finally over, but also because postmodernism, which is what the film is all about, has nailed tight the coffin. In a world where matter is all there is, reason and rationality are dead.
And because rationality is dead, we don’t hire commencement speakers to exhibit the glories of what students should have learned in classrooms. Many don’t know how to use reason to engage in deep discussion and the pursuit of knowledge; no, we hire commencement speakers to ratify our deepest prejudices or glorify our wildest dreams. And so when students protest certain commencement speakers they are simply betraying what we should have long ago known: Having long ago thrown God out with the stale pizza and the beer cans that litter fraternity lawns, reason has consumed reason in the name of pure matter. Reason has been buried.
This theme---the death of rationality at the hands of the rationalist Enlightenment---was one of the burdens of Francis Schaeffer’s work in the 60s and 70s, especially in his books Escape from Reason (1967) and The God Who Is There (1968). Schaeffer was trying to tell us that when matter is all there is---an assumption that we generate by use of human reason---we have simply cut off the limb upon which we stand. Put another way, how do rocks generate great thoughts? Schaeffer insisted that if we are going to adopt a worldview that absolutely removes God, then we’re going to have to follow the logic. And that logic is very compelling: Pure matter does not generate thoughts, ideas, inventions, conversations; pure matter merely is an unfeeling, uncompelling, lifeless, thoughtless rock incapable of reason.
Much of Nietzsche’s 19th century work was all about facing honestly the absolute void that exists when God is declared dead. When God is dead, reason dies because there is no entity that embodies it, and all we are left with is the relentless quest for power (Superman). Postmodernism, and its obsession with power, not ideas, is an updated version of what Nietzsche was writing about
But, let’s be honest: Most of us have been trying to escape the cold, relentless logic of Nietzsche. Neo-pragmatists, for example, shrug off a column like this and call it “retrogressive,” a throwback to earlier forms of philosophical foundationalism. Truth, in the words of the late Richard Rorty, is “what your friends let you get away with.” This cynicism towards ideas undercuts efforts to make the argument I am making, but, more so, it has severely damaged the older notion that our universities are “marketplaces of ideas.” Rarely is that phrase heard anymore, and thus the annual Spring ritual, growing ever-more deafening and insistent, of organized groups forcing college commencement speakers to cancel their plans to speak. As Stephen Carter opined in a recent column, those who oppose or shout down commencement speakers are confident that they “have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions (they) dislike.”
The problem, at its root, is that with the reign of philosophical materialism in the academy, rationality has been and is being slowly and systematically destroyed. It has utterly no place in pure matter, and all that can replace it is raw power.
The late philosopher Dallas Willard, in an address that I heard him give in 2005 at the University of Chicago, said very simply, but profoundly that reason must be redeemed. And the only way to redeem reason is to deeply and seriously engage the reality that there is a God who has revealed Himself as the Word. If we take Him seriously, then reasonable, language-filled assertions capable of being discussed, debated, and clarified by reason-filled people made in the image of a Triune God is possible.
Until reason is redeemed, woe is the lot of commencement speakers who really believe that they must discuss ideas in their speeches. They will either be shut down or shouted down.