by George Marsden. Oxford University Press.
Instead of “Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,” we can name it the “Unstable idea of a halfway-covenant going by the name of Christian scholarship.”
A key argument: Here is the problem. Secularists object to Christians in the academy because the latter claim access to knowledge (special revelation) that others do not have, so they can’t do real science. Marsden counters that Christian beliefs function as “background beliefs.” They are not used as evidence for one’s views. Christians would look to other beliefs “that we share with persons from differing ideological camps so that we could agree on common grounds” (50). So what is the point of even having religious beliefs in the academy? They function as “control beliefs” (ala Wolterstorff) which filter which beliefs we are allowed to entertain.
Marsden then borrows an idea from Newman, which was later echoed by Dooyeweerd: the tendency in the modern academy is for each discipline to absolutize its own claims at the expense of each other. What the disciplines used to do to Christianity they now do to each other. The solution is to see the disciplines as integrally connected. This, of course, is a specifically theological claim.
A Concluding Analysis
The book is refreshing and in many ways nostalgic for me as a reader. I cut my teeth on Marsden when I was in college, especially as I dealt with the pressure from covenant-breakers (at an ostensibly Christian college, no less). There are a few fine chapters and an interesting appendix. Still, I think Marsden either doesn’t see (or more likely couldn’t imagine, as this book was written decades ago) the true nature of the Left towards Christians in the public sphere.
One good Christian argument for Christians in the Academy is that Christians can account for the unity and stability of the “self.” Postmodernism has denied the reality of the unified self. This allows Facebook (and the state of California) to believe in 58 genders. Strangely enough, it is these people who accuse Christians of rejecting science!
I return to my opening sentence: the book is a halfway covenant with the secular academy. It wants a place at the table. I’m not sure why he thinks secularists will play along. Which is why I think the whole idea is unstable. Mind you, I believe Christians should be in the academy. But we are living in what Van Til called the “later time of common grace.” The lines are getting sharper and the corners more hard-edged (to quote CS Lewis). Neither side is going to rest content with compromise.