Jesus and Academic Culture Part 2

This article is a continuation of the discussion in the previous Connections Review, Jesus and the Academic Culture, Part 1.  You can access that previous article with that link, but you may not need to.  In the first part of this article we review and unpack more of what we earlier had to say and then advance that discussion in the second section.  

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    Our last installment strongly suggested there is a seldom addressed problem in presenting the gospel in academe—handling highly charged political commitments in conversation.  This challenge is not completely new, but it has evolved in our culture in many complicated ways.  Especially in the last several decades it has been directly and indirectly poisoning the well of conversation between not only believers and non-believers, but also between believers and other believers.

     Space will not allow us, in the remarks below, to address the latter case; rather, we wish to consider how this problem affects the progress of the gospel in light of our desire to engage with non-believers.  Given the past, it is very hard to imagine that all this will be easily cleared up, as both sides tend to keep doubling down. How did we get to this? Is there a way out?  

Babel All Over Again?

     In sum, our previous post highlighted how the process of cultural secularization, both in obvious and subtle ways has made a major contribution to this developing problem—at least in the United States (endnote 1). Secularization has played a role in (or is correlated with) the elevation of the importance of political beliefs over other strongly held beliefs, including in many cases religious ones. The result in practical terms has meant that establishing engaging conversations in academe involving the gospel has been hindered. How so, you might ask?

     We suggested that the current political zeitgeist has played a role in shaping the trajectory of even casual conversations—they often move quickly to identify political allegiances. It’s hard to discuss any current event or policy without revealing more than just superficial attitudes. They want to know why you think what you think, but when disagreements occur it leads to questions like, “how can you think like that?!” Conversations can go quickly from, “oh you think that,” to “you must think this about that,” to the feared, “oh, you must be one of those people.” Nobody wants to be one of those people.

     It seems this last trope is often on the tip of the tongue in the academic world— and the ideological dots are connected pretty fast. From our point of view, what happens as those dots are connected is extremely important for those of us whose priority is to advance the Kingdom of God, because the conclusions they reach deeply affect their opinion of you and therefore whether you are heard or not. It is important in our conversations to not only listen, but also to be heard on the most important news ever announced.

    Once deeply held attitudes and their possible political implications have been uncovered, it has become chic for both sides to marginalize those with whom we disagree—typically verbally, but if not, then covertly. Worse, for conversations about the nature of the gospel, there is strong empirical evidence that ideological marginalization occurs in academe...and that it happens over politics. Recent sociological research indicates that university faculty look unfavorably towards evangelicals largely because of their political beliefs (endnote 2).

    Times being what they are, the old adage that one should avoid discussing politics and religion seems especially appropriate for many evangelicals on campus. It is the fast way to get branded and closeted (if not worse) in marketplace of ideas, which academe is thought to be, ironically. There is a lot of suppression and self-editing that goes on for many Christians on campus. The outside suppressive part used to be denied, but less so now; suppressing Christian voices on campus is thought to be a good thing when controversial subjects in the classroom are broached.

Unpacking the Alleged Barrier

     We further claimed, perhaps counter-intuitively, that when one peels back the layers of ideology we find the “academic mind” is not as much interested in truth as one might think.  That will raise many eyebrows and some hackles—and rightly so.  In light of that likely reaction, we need to do some explaining and some qualifying.

     Such a claim does not mean that there are hardly any “truth seekers” in academe.  To the contrary, we think there are plenty who are interested in truth seeking in the traditional sense of that term, both in their professional careers and in their private lives.  However, certain currents that swirl in academe (some of those currents are more like a tsunami than an eddy) can play a role in vaccinating academics against those intuitions and instincts.  Even so, we acknowledge that there are still voices in academe that are calling for cooler heads regarding free and courteous speech—good for them.

 Nonetheless, in our last post, we named a few of those currents: 1) an epistemic pragmatism that tends to exclude parochial claims to truth, 2) the ubiquitous Marxist analysis that brands objectors as selfish immoral people, coupled with an apparent amnesia regarding the ramifications of its recent history, and 3) manifestations of a virulent kind of post-modern analysis that also marginalizes objectors (to understate things a bit) as miserly beneficiaries of power and privilege, and divides people between oppressors and the oppressed. What can increase the conversational toxicity is that the latter two currents allege to uncover hidden motives for getting and preserving economic power, or just power in general (endnote 3).

    All of these currents together serve to deflate the desire for any kind of “big T” truth for those who swim harmoniously with those trends and memes, and thereby these notions beg for change.

    Unfortunately, this group of ideas also increases the likelihood that those who hold these views and analyze others based on those views, are increasingly sealed off from what outsiders have to say. This is because woven into these deeply held beliefs are so-called “self-sealer” attitudes. They’re self-sealers because once adopted, they tend to greatly reduce the desire to seriously look for contrary evidence. Some argue that it affects even the ability to see contrary evidence. This nuance is integral to a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

    If such a state of affairs does exist in academe (and we believe it does), it is not great for Christian/non-believer dialogue. In short, these currents in the academic community, joined with the spirit of political adversarial rhetoric, places sobering barriers before many of us. It turns out that the way we speak about political events and values, even in casual conversation, identifies the kind of person we are in the minds of others. If we don’t share their political views or aren’t as committed as they to that partisanship, we amount to counter-revolutionaries.

    Casual conversation isn’t the only way that an academic shibboleth can be erected and established. A misstep in your past—an indiscreet twitter or an unacceptable Facebook post can be the means to separate and call out the goats from among the sheep. I am afraid that in combination, the courses of the currents and the culture they suffuse have a nearly “lethal” impact on quality communicative results. How could they not?

   These currents categorize people as either “the good ones” or “the bad ones,” all or mostly based on politics. As a sidebar, we have hinted that this can also have the effect of creating conversational echo chambers and helps foster the attitude that all the intelligent (or all the good) folks agree with me—and why should I be talking to you?

   The conjunction of these strongly held views calls into question many things, but especially motivation—the hidden immoral motivations—of those with whom they disagree. (Unless, of course, you do not swim against those currents.)

    This phenomenon often fosters suspicion and subsequent frustration in the workplace and classroom. Sadly, there are indications that there is even an in-house debate among secularists as to whether it is better to try and convert us to their views, or whether it is better to forget that and merely gain the power it takes to rule. Further, the nearly unbridled will to power that this represents is occasionally understood in terms of a “by whatever means it takes” mentality. 

    From their perspective and from the position of power they have (or intend to have) in academe and the general culture, they believe they will make things “right.” The incentive for serious engagement with those who see things differently from them is (or can be viewed as) just a timewasting impulse. They have read their copy of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and are putting the advice to practice (endnote 4).

     This pragmatic instinct is not exactly new; it’s the old, "the end justifies the means" meme we have inherited from the cold war experience. It resonates with one of Marx’s pragmatic dictums, “[T]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

    (Speaking of conversion, resistance to political conversion in academe is often considered sinister evidence that the “resistors” are seeking or trying to maintain power— either economically or culturally. It turns rabid religious fundamentalists’ suspicion of resistance to religious conversion on its head.)

    These forces also can create and we think they do play a major role in shaping an increasing cultural polarization. We leave to you, as a homework assignment, the question of whether or not the polarization is caused by a logical entailment from those views or is merely a correlate. What does happen at the street level are two things: 1) an easier and earlier dismissal of those with whom they disagree; and 2) a temptation and a tendency to project moderates in both camps as “closeted” holders of the most radically opposing views.

    In practice, many people treat those who disagree with them as either to the left of Stalin or the right of Hitler. True, some make a few discriminations in classifying their interlocutors, like: counter revolutionaries are culpably ignorant, naïve, rationally bounded or just “bad people.”

    In summary, this kind of sociology of beliefs creates the kind of fear and suspicion that provides little protection for those identifying with centrist positions. We are told, if you are not among the committed (extremes) and thus in harmony with the tribe, you are complicit with the other side. What is acceptable parlance today may be the cause of your getting kicked out of the proverbial club or getting fired tomorrow (endnote 5). It is not hard to see how this expression of culture can gum up communication in academe generally, and especially obstructs quality conversations about the gospel.

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What to Do? 

   At this point, we must ask the question, “what do we do about this problem?” How do we carry on the proclamation and defense of the gospel in a politically charged academic atmosphere like we now see?

    We cannot point to a person or movement within the contemporary believer’s camp that has this completely figured out. We certainly do not    

     However, in the last post we promised some suggestions and so we are going to do that. The kinds of suggestions we are going to make are not going to sit well with those in the more extreme political camps within evangelicalism. The suggestions we might make could be seen as an accommodation, possibly capitulation, or another of those ‘complicit moderating forces’ that should be resisted. However, what you will find is that we do not offer a "one size fits all" solution...it will depend on a number of things within your control.

     There are options in how to deal with rational and irrational communication. The first step is being able to identify which is which and at the same time, be aware of the possibility—no, likelihood—of having a log in your own eye. That’s not much fun to think we could actually be part of the problem. Nonetheless, it is useful to ask ourselves important questions and then look at some general stances that can be taken when you enter into controversial topics like these. What are your political leanings? Hey, you are thinking, does this imply that we’re advocating “values clarification?” In answer to that we offer a benign “yes.”

Introspection - What Clarifying Questions Should be Asked?

    How do you prioritize your political and theological beliefs? Which is most important? Do you form your theological opinions based on your politics or vice versa?

    Have you considered that your political values can affect your reading of the Bible? For instance, do you proof text your political beliefs with a smattering of Bible verses, but have trouble integrating those passages with others in the text?

     Does it seem to you that your beliefs were formed during an uncritical rebellion to any and all authority figures—including parents? This gate swings at least two ways. It is fair to ask whether both sides are guilty of some confirmation bias in these matters? Have you considered the possibility that the political stances we see in the Bible might be underdetermined within the text, all things considered?

     It is also worth asking how much homework you have done in researching both areas. Do you only read one side of the argument? Do you only get into discussions with those that agree with you? Can you articulate the other side of arguments?

     Have you gotten beyond a Sunday school’s education regarding theology? If your response to these sorts of questions amounts to a blank stare, you may have a lot of homework to do. 

     For the sake of the progress of the gospel, would you be willing to hold back expressing your political beliefs if they hindered communication—especially in conversations about the gospel with non-believers? If not, your political view might have come to represent a second “religion,” and by that, greatly hinder your walk with God.

     There are also some questions to consider that can be complex and difficult to comprehend. For example, how does the way you prioritize your theological and political beliefs affect the integrity of your worldview? That is, is there good reason for you to think you lack integrity (or are being deceitful) if you do not candidly identify your politics in casual conversations or even in serious ones? What do you do if you teach political science and it is necessary to take a point of view? Nuances like these side-step most one size fits all approaches. 

     What are your political leanings? Hey, you are thinking, does this imply that we are advocating “values clarification?” In answer to that we offer a benign, yes.

     First, how do you prioritize your political and theological beliefs? Which is most important? Do you form your theological opinions based on your politics or vice versa?

     Have you considered that your political values can affect your reading of the Bible? For instance, do you proof text your political beliefs with a smattering of Bible verses, but have trouble integrating those passages with others in the text?

     Does it seem to you that your beliefs were formed during an uncritical rebellion to any and all authority figures—including parents? This gate swings at least two ways. It is fair to ask, are both sides guilty of some confirmation bias in these matters? Have you considered the possibility that the political stances we “see” in the Bible might, all things considered, be underdetermined by the text?

     It is also worth asking, how much homework have you done in researching both areas? Do you only read one side of the argument; do you only get into discussions with those that agree with you? Can you articulate the other side of arguments?

     Have you gotten beyond a Sunday school’s education regarding theology? If your response to these sorts of questions amounts to a blank stare, you may have a lot of homework to do.

     For the sake of the progress of the gospel, would you be willing to hold back expressing your political beliefs if they hindered communication—especially in conversations about the gospel with non-believers? If not, your political view might amount to being an idol and by that greatly hinder your walk with God.

      There are also some complex and hard to understand questions to consider...for example, what are the consequences of your priority choice regarding your theological and political beliefs on your personal worldview integrity? That is, is there good reason for you to think you are lacking integrity (or being deceitful) if you do not forthrightly identify your politics in casual conversations or even in serious ones? What do you do if you teach political science and take a point of view? It’s nuances like these that side-step one size fits all approaches.

     Going back to theology for a moment, how well educated are you in other theological matters like hermeneutics, especially when you are doing integrative faith and scholarship projects like this one? How do you think teachings in the Old and New Testament are properly related? Is there a change in audience or a change in covenant that is relevant to this? If politics were so important, why did Jesus not aim to directly overthrow the Roman Empire (or teach his followers to aim to overthrow it) and by that establish structural social justice? Questions like this have a major impact on what we might come up with.

     Is God a Democrat or Republican or is it possible He endorses neither completely; and, could He make distinctions between what He expects from His people in community and what sort of reforms (if any) have been scripturally mandated that we should be impose on a secular society? Have you read anything along the lines of how Christ and culture have related across the centuries? What are your sources for that?

Stances That Emerge From Those Questions

     As you answer those questions, here are three stances that can be useful in thinking through how to deal with this conversational impediment.

  1) One “stance” or option an evangelical could take is to completely detach herself from political interests and beliefs, not only in your public life, but also in your private life. The Biblical justification offered for this is typically that we are to seek first the Kingdom of God and its interests. If we have to become all things to all persons, then jettisoning our earthly attachments and political interests might need to be among the first things to go—whether you are located to the political left or right. The Apostle Paul, as an example, said he had become all things to all men in order to save some.

 In evangelistic dialogue this has the practical advantage of giving you grounds for sticking to the subject at hand—the great things of the gospel, and thus avoiding the heated controversies that come up with political baggage. It's a side-step. You could find yourself saying and perhaps repeatedly saying things like, “what you’re interested in is very important, but the spiritual things we are talking about are even more important.” If you think it is true to say this, you could add something like, “...what we’re talking about will not so much answer the question whether you should be a Democrat, Republican or Independent...or something else. There are questions that are deeper than politics—but they do have a great deal to do with the largest questions you can ask about our lives.”

     On the other hand, there are some practical disadvantages to this stance if the people (or person) you are dialoguing with hold their political beliefs with maximal commitment. They may judge all beliefs by the principle of how they might affect politics and expect you to do the same—if they do, they may find your avoidance of political commitments as just more “pie in the sky” theology. Or worse, they may think you are just hiding your real commitment to politics because it is immoral and you do not want to be exposed or forced change.

     2) Another stance option available, “works” in academe if find your political beliefs match up nicely with the secular culture’s values, then you are not likely to create hostility right at the beginning of conversations all that much. It might be refreshing and reinforcing for a non-believer to find her evangelical friend/acquaintance shares some fundamentally similar political outlooks and justifies them from his own faith-based perspective. This has the advantage from a persuasive point of view of decreasing the number objections that you have to defend and in effect agreeing where you can and disagreeing only where you have to. The idea here is that if as a matter of integrity and study, you agree with your colleague’s politics you might not have to fear getting cut off on that basis; and, the door to the gospel might be more easily reached.

     On the other hand, is there not something ‘funny’ about having deep agreement with the values and politics of your secular colleagues? Have you been persuaded to embrace secular politics because you have accepted (perhaps uncritically) that cultural pluralism “demands” you reject parochial claims to truth?  Can your impulse to get along cause you to not take a stand on any contrary principle?

     Have you explicitly or implicitly (and uncritically) embraced radical Marxist critique or a kind of virulent Postmodern critique of culture? Are there not any aspects of these views that do not fit nicely in a Christian view of life and culture? Do the strucutural changes they suggest necessarily involve revolutionary force?  If so, how much force are you willing to use to get people to be good and does that “forced” behavior deny others of a choice and thus virtue?

     Where do you draw the line, and if you do not, why not? Do you think structural injustices are best solved by the exercise of state power to coercively bring people in line? If not that, are you willing to reach your structural objectives mainly through cultural manipulation? How does this fit with the Christian view of changing people from the inside out? Will you find yourself to have eventually hopped out of the frying pan of collegial disapproval into the fire of adopting approaches that seem deeply anti-gospel?

    3) Suppose unlike option #2, you do not agree with your colleagues politics—you lean to the right politically. Consider whether the farther you go to the right, there are good reasons for you to make a political conversion...as anathema as that might sound. If after serious evaluation you find you cannot as a matter of integrity do that, then there may be some ways to work around— that is if your political views are more politically centrist and not too radically to the right.

     One would be to carefully prioritize your values, placing the interests of the Kingdom of God first, and allowing your political values and interests a voice, but mainly in situations where you are likely not to offend your audience. When conversations “force” you to identify where you are politically, you can explain first, that your political beliefs are held less firmly your religious beliefs—if that’s true. You could also say (if it is true), your political beliefs are open to objection and argumentation, but political conversation is not my main interest in talking with you...there are some issues that I think are even more important than that.

     This has the advantage of “allowing” you to be (politically) yourself.   If you can with integrity say that you hold your political values with less certainty and less commitment and with more openness to change than you hold your religious beliefs, then you might be able to better communicate.  Do not be surprised that your interlocutors will not want to "let you get away with that.”  Their ace in the hole is to place you—especially in public situations—in the category of one of those people.

     This third option requires a lot of social skill and wisdom and the downside is that many of your evangelical brothers and sisters will see you as talking out of both sides of your mouth. You speak a certain way in one audience situation and another way in another context. This can irritate some folks a great deal who see identifying who they are politically on a level with attesting to the gospel.

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Qualifications and Conclusions

     Some of the stances we have discussed above seem to garner important scriptural support...books can and have been written about this. However, we think as you move to the extremes of political views, you run the risk of going off the rails—the far right and the far left tend to want to use the force of the state to “help” the recalcitrant to behave. The far right and far left have a history of totalitarianism, some of them quite recent—despite protests to the contrary.

     Before concluding we wish to say a few things about what makes politics such a complicating factor. There is a tendency to oversimplify political attitudes so that they can be neatly divided between far left and far right, with a spectrum of liberals and conservatives in between. However, political beliefs turn on multiple axes, where some configurations can make for strange political bedfellows. One example of that is a “libertarian" political viewpoint—a label that has changed in meaning over time, but one that has tended to emphasize, ceteris paribus, the primacy of individual freedom in a society. (There was a period when libertarians were thought of as “liberal,” but they tend to be seen politically closer to the “conservative” tribe currently.)

     There are other complicating factors in political analysis (hinted at above) including that the "identifying terms" are sometimes ambiguous, or are used equivocally—for example, when the terms “capitalism" or “socialism" are used loosely as if there were not shades of meaning. Rhetorically, along with the term “communism," these identifiers can be used as a means to saddle adversaries with undeserved attributes. We’re not interested in doing that, so maybe the place to start in conversations has to do with clarifying how you are using your terms.

     All of that is hard work—the question for us evangelicals is, whether we have the tenacity and concern about the interests of the Kingdom of God to work through this? If we do let’s put our nose to the grindstone and go to work. If we do not, we can expect history to repeat itself with all that a meme implies.

~Editor

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1 For a good introduction on how secularization has affected the modern academy in America, see:  Marsden, George and Bradley J. Longfield (eds). The Secularization of the Academy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

2 See Tobin, Gary and Aryeh K. Weinberg.  Profiles of American University, Volume 2: Religious Beliefs and Behavior of American College Faculty.  Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2007.  This can also be accessed at: Link to Journal  See pages 2,6,10,12, 45-65,79-83, and 85-88.

3  Because of length considerations we cannot unpack these barries in as much detail as we would like.  For instance, we do not include any discussion here on the importance gaining victim status, intersectionality and the like, but we will do so in other installments in this series devoted to Jesus and academic culture.

4  Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Tadicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals.  New York, New York: Random House, 1971.

5  Check out this page (and its links) for related information on current issues: Free Speech on Campus.  See also other assets we have collected for you on our Court Watch.

See Also:


     Our next issue of Connections Review will take up the topic raised in this post, how can evangelicals on opposite sides of the political spectrum improve their dialogue?

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