Historian Molly Worthen says evangelical Christians don't have a single source of authority guiding them. - Image courtesy of AnySnapShot (http://bit.ly/1nBs0EW)

Historian Molly Worthen says evangelical Christians don’t have a single source of authority guiding them. – Image courtesy of AnySnapShot (http://bit.ly/1nBs0EW)

Growing up evangelical, I always assumed that our movement had at least one thing going for it: consistency. Unlike “secular culture” who lived according to their whims and proclivities, evangelicals had an objective moral guide in the Bible. This presumption was reinforced among many through a phrase parroted in Sunday School classes across America: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” (More liberal Christians were only slightly better, I assumed, but still needed to be condemned for obeying only the palatable parts of the Bible, and discarding the rest.)

But according to Molly Worthen, history professor at University of North Carolina, evangelicals have never consistently adhered to a single source of authority. In her book “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” she surveys the movement over more than 50 years to show that evangelicals “have never had a single authority to guide them…or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means.” Here, Worthen discusses the provocative arguments she’s making and why they matter.

Image courtesy of Oxford University Press

Image courtesy of Oxford University Press

RNS: You say evangelical Christianity is a paradox. What do you mean?

MW: All human beings have inconsistent opinions and instincts, but evangelicals are more paradoxical than most. Ever since the Reformation, their community has been radically individualist, yet preoccupied with the boundaries of community and family. They criticize the hubris of secular scientists and historians who challenge the claims of the Bible, and call on believers to trust their personal relationship with God–yet many claim that theirs is the most “reasonable faith,” and eagerly seek scientific evidence that the Bible is true.

RNS: You claim that evangelicals have never had a single authority guiding them, but many within the movement would contest that the Bible is their single authority. How do you respond?

MW: If the Bible were truly evangelicals’ single authority, there wouldn’t be thousands of different evangelical denominations around the world, each with its own ideas about proper doctrine and worship. Clearly, there are other forces that determine each evangelical’s interpretation of scripture.

Ever since evangelicals threw off the authority of Rome and distanced themselves from the ruling powers of Europe’s established state churches (even if they often joined those churches), they have been torn by the desire to obey conflicting authorities. These are: personal spiritual experience; Enlightenment reason and the demands of the secular public sphere; and a traditional or “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

This struggle to balance competing authorities is far more acute among evangelicals than among, for example, Catholics (who take the command of the pope very seriously, even if they sometimes disagree with him) or liberal mainline Protestants (who are, by and large, willing to let the goddess of Reason rule over the Bible, or rule serenely in her own separate sphere). Around the turn of the 20th century, this balancing act collapsed into nothing less than an intellectual civil war among evangelicals–a war of ideas that spilled over into politics.

Molly Worthen is a historian of American religion who teaches at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds a PhD Yale University. - Image courtesy of Molly Worthen.

Molly Worthen is a historian of American religion who teaches at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds a PhD Yale University. – Image courtesy of Molly Worthen.

RNS: You cite Alan Wolfe, who said, “Of all America’s religious traditions, evangelical Protestantism, at least in its 20th-century conservative forms, has ranked dead last in intellectual stature.”  Say more.

MW: American evangelicals have a reputation for being “anti-intellectual” because they refuse to play by the rules of mainstream academia. Secular intellectual life is not a free for all. It requires participants to obey the rules of Enlightenment reason and the scientific method. It does not admit supernatural evidence or authority: you must make your arguments by relying on data that is universally accessible to all.

Evangelicals, by contrast, defend their beliefs by twisting scientific evidence to affirm authorities that are often incompatible with science, namely their reading of the Bible, or personal religious experience. Secular observers caricature evangelicalism as an “authoritarian” community because they imagine believers as zombies following every command of their pastor. The reality is just the opposite: it’s a crisis of authority, not authoritarian mind-control, that sabotages evangelical intellectual life.

RNS: I’ve written about how evangelicalism has become a political force, but you argue that the rise of the Christian Right should not be understood in purely political terms. How do you explain the emergence of that powerful religious and political faction?

MW: The social and political battles that we call the “culture wars” are, at root, a debate over whether and how the Bible should rule in Americans’ public and private lives. Evangelicals have never had one single answer to that question. This is an incredibly diverse community ranging from pacifist Mennonites to tongues-speaking Pentecostals, and “evangelicalism” is not synonymous with the “Christian Right.” The political ascendancy of the Christian Right reflects the victory of one intellectual tradition over others–because it offered the most appealing strategy for fighting back against the threats of modernity, and because its leaders were gifted communicators and institution-builders.

I’m talking about the circle of thinkers and evangelists associated with Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer who sought to repair the intellectual reputation of conservative Protestantism in the years after World War II. They shared a common background in the Reformed theological tradition descended from John Calvin in his colleagues. They came of age at the same educational institutions, during the same fights between fundamentalists and modernists. Most importantly, they all embraced a Reformed understanding of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy: a hyper-rationalistic theory that urges Christians to read the Bible just as they would a science textbook.

Their version of inerrancy seemed to refute secular scientists on their own terms by claiming that the Bible was a perfect source of scientific truth. Their slogan of the “Christian worldview” convinced many evangelicals to take their theology into the streets and become activists. Evangelicals with more complex, less black-and-white ideas about how to reconcile the Bible with secular modernity–such as some Wesleyans and Anabaptists–lost out. But the fight is far from over. Evangelicals who reject the agenda of the Christian Right may be making a comeback, especially among millennials who are sick of their parents’ politics.

59 Comments

  1. Best line in the article was the last one in reference to a younger generation throwing off the right wing Christian association that has characterized the last few decades. Politicizing Christianity was an incorrect alliance that has left many scars in the culture. Still, I would not totally agree with the interviewees position. If you want to see inconsistency, you will find it. And unfortunately, Christianity has given plenty of ammunition to its detractors, but then again, it always will since we are dealing with imperfect people. An honest look at the similarities across denominations and evangelicalism would yield an equally long list, if you want to see it and give it its due. Yes, there is a crisis in evangelicalism as our society at large is undergoing rapid change and it is to be expected that the church will be a part of that change. For all its ups and downs, and abusive and manipulating peddlers, Christianity will survive and continue under its inherent scriptural authority to be a messenger of peace and hope through Jesus Christ.

  2. Here is what is wrong with her so called “intellectual” superiority:
    MW: American evangelicals have a reputation for being “anti-intellectual” because they refuse to play by the rules of mainstream academia. Secular intellectual life is not a free for all. It requires participants to obey the rules of Enlightenment reason and the scientific method. It does not admit supernatural evidence or authority: you must make your arguments by relying on data that is universally accessible to all. She starts with the false premise comparing “authority” to so called “mainstream academia” and requiring data to be measured against “Enlightenment reason and the scientific method.” That is assuming that the enlightenment and scientific method is the true authority. People with that as their “reason” are doing exactly that…assuming. Know what the old saying about “assuming” is, right?

    • Assuming enlightenment and scientific method is the true authority makes the most sense since it is the most credible authority known.

      The problem with admitting supernatural authority is that none exists. It has no inherent credibility. Nobody has any compelling reason to take it seriously in an objective sense. It is whatever the person feels like investing into it.

      If you aren’t using reason, scientific methods of inquiry, and following the rules of logical study and rhetoric, you are not creating authority which requires one to take seriously.

      • The scientific method and enlightenment reason are seeking to answer questions that religion isn’t always asking. Science concerns itself with what is observable, measurable and knowable in the physical world. Religion is answering question to the meaning of life, why bad things happen to good people, what is best and good for mankind, morality, virtue, how to treat your neighbor, what is beyond this life, etc. Those things should be on an equal playing field in terms of importance, relevance to life, and thus authoritative in its proper role. No doubt that many in our culture today do not give it that kind of recognition or prominence. That is too bad because history did give it that level of importance. There is a realm of science now that is delving in how to quantify those ‘intangibles’ in the hopes of removing the last vestiges of religious importance in society. Perhaps we can soon look forward to a world completely explained by the reaction of proteins and environmental stimuli, but I prefer one with a little more beauty, flavor and mystery.

        • But religion is not particularly good at answering the questions concerning the meaning of life. It provides easily digestible answers and forecloses a lot of discussion and contemplation on the subject. Plus even as a benchmark for issues such as morality and virtue, religion comes up wanting. You are simply mistaking philosophy for theology. If anything religion was all about taking credit where it was not deserved.

          One can forgo religion from philosophical discussion without ever resorting to overtly scientific explanations for human behavior. It was never anything more than shorthands and quick answers to things that required a lot more thought than most were willing to spend.

        • I do not see why people put their faith in science.The problem science has is that scientists don’t know their limitations. They have faith that if they don’t know it, they will figure it out. It sounds an awful lot like the tower of Babel. Science is good for what it is good for; no more; no less. It relies on induction which is no more than looking at things in the context of the present and then making an assumption that the conditions and observations and physical laws we have today have always been and always will be. That can never be said with 100% certainty and a true scientist will admit it. Science has always been good at answering the “how”, but cannot ever explain “why”. Why DNA proteins instead of alcohol chains? Why do we look like we do? Why do we have gravity instead of velcro? Why is the grass green and not blue? Why are we at the top of the food chain instead of amoeba? Why is there evil or good in the universe? When science can find a way to answer questions like these, then science can enter the realm of religion.

          • I hate to break the news to you, but religion is a lousy way to answer the “whys” of the world.

            In general it provides pat answers and forecloses discussion and contemplation rather than encourage it. Exploration of knowledge, critical thinking and inquisitive attitudes are generally frowned upon in religious culture in favor of outsourcing such things to authority.

            The point is not to put faith in anything. Faith is belief without evidence. Without connection to the world around you. Instead of thinking “science” here, try “rationality”. Trust what can be perceived, what can be proven. Ask questions about the world around you, demand evidence for things to be believed. If the answers are not there, don’t just be satisfied with the first thing that people say, demand them to prove themselves. Look to authority which can’t be so easily dismissed as faith.

      • The scientific method is compatible with Christianity.

        However, the messed-up, so-called “Enlightenment” tomfoolery is not.

        Molly Worthen seems unduly influenced — very unduly influenced — by the latter.

        That’s unfortunate. Bzzzt. Next scholar please.

        • Says the person who openly denies the basis for biological research for the last 150 years.

          The scientific method is compatible with all religions provided that people are not engaging in the intellectually dishonest practice of trying to shoehorn their religious belief into scientific studies where they do not belong.

          If one is not going to rely on rational thought as guidance, what do you have left? Glorified superstition.

    • Stefan Stackhouse

      Never mind that Popper demonstrated that you can’t actually PROVE anything by the scientific method; at best you can just cross off falsifiable hypotheses as being false. And never mind that Kuhn demonstrated that “settled scientific theory” is always just a few inconvenient, non-conforming data points away from a major paradigm shift.

  3. Susan Humphreys

    I agree that Evangelicals are highly conflicted individuals. They seem to have many doubts about what they believe and get not just angry but very frustrated when challenged to explain their beliefs or their reasons for their beliefs AND especially angry when their explanations are challenged and their examples of Biblical texts supporting their beliefs are challenged by other Biblical texts. WHICH by the way is one reason why I keep telling Atheists they need to educate themselves about the Bible and religious doctrines/dogmas. You can’t fight a Biblical based belief by ignoring the Bible. BUT you can certainly find plenty of contradictory passages and really throw them for a loop! Human psyches are such that all we have to do is plant an idea into someones head and then sit back and let nature work her “magic”. When they least expect it and idea they rejected will pop back into their head leaving them confused and uncertain. Advertisers, politicians and those in the Christian wing of the Republican party are well aware of this.

    • Evangelicals never engage in a subject with any degree of methodological consistency or intellectual honesty. Ends are more important than means.

      A scripture duel is pointless because they only will accept the interpretations which fit their views and look for excuses for anything else. Or worse just claim that the scholarship is incorrect since it does not conform with their “only correct reading”. Since usually the discussion was never rational to begin with, so rational appeals have no effect.

      To be brutally honest most politicians in the religious right are such dogmatic, ignorant, buffoons that usually the best tactic is simply expose their nonsense in a public fashion.

      • Marcus Johnson

        I’ll split the difference between Larry and Edward: you’re both right, and you’re both wrong. The traditional approach within evangelicalism has been one that, as Larry claimed, refuses to engage in most subjects with any degree of methodological consistency or intellectual honesty. This is especially true of issues withing the natural and social sciences, as traditional, mainstream evangelicalism takes most paradigm shifts within these subject areas as a threat, and becomes more defensive, rather than more flexible.

        However, I would argue that this is not a behavior exclusive to traditional, mainstream Christian evangelicals. It is, at its most basic level, a human failing, one which the ultraconservative evangelicals have exploited and exacerbated to its limits, but they didn’t create that anti-intellectual defensive posture; they just noticed it, nurtured it, and protected it better than anyone else.

        Also, we should probably distinguish between the ultraconservative, defensive evangelicalism and progressive evangelicalism, as the latter is much more receptive to dialogue regarding issues of Scriptural interpretation, social issues, and scientific discovery.

      • Making this generalization to all Evangelicals is incorrect. Many may, but as an Evangelical I have been published in the secular sphere in the context of the sociological study of new religions, and have practiced methodological consistency and intellectual honesty in the process. Evangelicalism needs to hear this critique, but the criticism must be fair and not make such universal declarations that clearly aren’t true in all cases. This detracts from your critique.

        I would also note that the interviewee raises some fine points for reflection by Evangelicals, but she might also become more aware of the assumptions in her own statements, such as when discussing Evangelical anti-intellectualism and stating that Evangelicals must “obey the rules of Enlightenment reason and the scientific method.” Yes, we must use reason and the scientific method, but Enlightenment reason has its own underlying philosophical assumptions, such as foundationalism, which is often assumed by Evangelicals and secularists alike, and this is open to critique.

        • In all fairness when you engage in a sociological study, you willingly accept methodological constraints to form which ensure credibility and consistency. You are not describing personal beliefs or theological issues. You are studying practices and evidence of human behavior.

          This is far different than someone explaining their religious beliefs or exerting a religious authority on a given subject. When it comes to asserting religious beliefs and authority evangelicals take an anything goes approach.

          One clear example are the arguments used for Creationism. When initial appeals to psuedoscience/scientific ignorance fail, the approach changes to attacking the baselines of knowledge (when you start to hear stuff like materialistic naturalism …). Then they start asserting it as a form of personal belief (“I can’t accept a world where God didn’t create it in 6 days”) and then make senseless appeals to emotions (we need a God created world to have a moral society). At every point is the undermining of a credible argument and the inability to abide by constraints to form.

          Throughout the entire discussion is the undermining of the original principles of creationism. That it does not require belief, that the evidence is clear and convincing in of itself. Essentially the creationist reveals their premise was false to begin with once they admit it is a matter of faith.

      • Susan Humphreys

        I am not talking about ‘dueling’ larry. I am talking about sowing seeds. I am talking about working with Human nature NOT trying to work against it. People have a conscience (remember the story of Pinnochio). ALL I have to do is plant the seed of a different idea then sit back and let nature take her course. For those that think that winning only comes with total capitulation this is a concept they can’t grasp. But those folks also don’t grasp that forcing someone to their knees or to the point of capitulation also doesn’t work. They may make someone cry for mercy, but once the debate is over, the anger sets in and the person becomes even more determined, more filled with hate, and more intransegient. By planting an idea, I know that when they least expect it, something I have said will pop into their head and bug the heck out of them, it may even cause them to have headaches, intestinal distress, high blood pressure–that is what happens to our bodies response to stress, to trying to maintain the lie when your conscience knows that what you are doing is wrong.

    • Christian scholarship and resources have taken care of those “alleged contradictions” and other skeptical attacks aimed at the Bible. That’s not even an issue anymore. The only question is whether Christians can get the necessary information to their young people, while they are actually interested in receiving an answer.

      Too often, in far too many Christian families and churches (and pulpits), they don’t even know how to SPELL apologetics, let alone actually be ready with actual answers and resources for a wide variety of skeptical questions and challenges such as the “alleged contradictions” issue.

      They’re not able or willing to invest the time to do the homework and come up with a scriptural, rational and scientific stand against skeptics’ arguments at all, nor can they defend the accuracy and authority of the Genesis creation account (or other biblical issues) against the no-good hot mess called “evolution.”

      But that needs to change. It’s time for Christians to fight back and win.

      • So anyone who disagrees with your interpretation is just ignorant and doing it wrong. Fundamentalism breeds a type of narcissism whereby the Bible will always conform to their views and anyone else is not truly of the faith. Its a great way for people to claim a measure of authority which is without merit. To create a bubble in which no rational authority can be accepted.

        The fact that the overwhelming majority of those in the faith disagree with your take on scripture merely means they are not really Christian. Some kind of heretic of your singular true faith. How comforting it must be to have such beliefs. Being a fundamentalist means never having to say you are incorrect.

        Your objections to evolution are quixotic, infantile and intellectually dishonest claptrap. The world doesn’t have to adapt to your beliefs. If they are at odds with present scientific knowledge, that is your problem. Nobody else has to care.

  4. I have read her book and I while I am not sure she has gotten everything right, she has a real point that many Evangelicals have little sense of how Evangelicalism fits into the broader scope of Christian history and because of that and Evangelicalism’s free church polity, Evangelicals do look to a wide variety of authority figures. It is not completely pick and choose, but one group of Evangelicals looks to one set of leaders and another group looks to another set of leaders.

    Theologically the different groups may believe similar things, but they often have zero contact with other streams that are still within Evangelicalism. I think those streams are mixing more now than 30 years ago. But still we have people that look to Piper and Andy Stanley and Rick Warren and Calvary Chapel and RC Sproul and Gothard and a bunch of smaller evangelical groupings. But they all still broadly consider themselves Evangelicals.

    What Worthen did a good job of in her book was placing the growth and changes of the Evangelical movement from the 40s on in context of the broader cultural movement. I think quite often we do things for both cultural and theological reasons, but we do not sort out the difference between our cultural and theological reasons, because Evangelicals tend to be more pragmatic than dogmatic.

  5. But are those figures any more of authority figures than others were in history – Spurgeon, Wesley, Luther, Calvin, Athanasius, Augustine, etc.? They are influencers and fit today’s entertainment culture since they write the books and make the DVD’s, and no doubt people see them as figures to at least respect and follow. But looking to popular figures may not be the best measure of a confused authority structure. I think the rapid pace of societal change and the presence of very large cultural issues (gay marriage, politics, world conflict, environmental issues, etc) are contributing to much upheaval that looks like a struggle for authority. In the midst of such far reaching change, the church is looking for solid ground, and a varied denominational landscape makes that difficult. Add to that instantaneous communication and the blog world, and it all looks very chaotic. The christian landscape has long been disconnected and scattered, but the issues today are taking a different toll. The issue is not only with leadership, but with the laity as well.

  6. There are 3 types of legitimate authority:

    Traditional – The individual is born into the right to rule
    Charismatic – The citizens consent to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person.
    Legal – The citizens consent to the individual’s legal right to rule

    Jesus has plenary authority over heaven and earth and fulfills all three categories of legitimate authority.

    The early Church’s big mistake was (under the coercion of persecution) accepting a grant of illegitimate authority from Constantine. Constantine had no right to grant any authority to the Church, but the Church accepted that authority to be the official religion of the Rome.

    Reformers (Protestants) protested against the illegitimate authority of Rome and established an equally illegitimate authority – the scripture.

    Later, America was established through a rebellion against a king and his kingdom; consequently, we maintain contempt for all kings and kingdom culture. To the author’s point, in the American Church, “sovereignty lies with the people.”

    The kingdom of God is a form of government, and the primary subject of Jesus’ teachings.

    Jesus said to “seek first the kingdom of God…”

    Does that mean “seek to go to heaven?” Could that mean “seek to align the government of your domains (realms of authority) with the government of heaven?”

    Jesus taught us to pray that the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

    What else does that mean, but that his desire is for us to govern the earth in alignment with the government of heaven?

    Is that what it means to be ambassadors of Christ? To represent His government in the earth?

    In the kingdom of God who has authority? The Pope? The Scripture? A representative republic?

    When we submit to the authority of the kingdom of God we will come into righteousness, peace and joy.

    • Susan Humphreys

      BUT who determines what God wants for his kingdom? That is the million dollar question. How do YOU or anyone else (Pope, priest, minister, mullah, peon or common man/woman) know if the voice in your head/heart telling you what God demands, what is right/moral/virtuous/good is the voice of God, the voice of the Devil or the voice of your own self-centered, self-righteous, greedy, vindictive, judgmental, homophobic EGO?

      • That’s why we have the Bible – to provide an objective standard for all those voices in our heads and inclinations towards certain behaviors. And the comments below regarding context, literary appreciation, culture, etc., are all valid and render it very possible to correctly interpret the intentions of scripture. Yes, it requires some work like any other work of history, but don’t get caught in the trap on just leaning on common caricatures (mean, distant, abusive, violent, greedy….) of God and the Bible. That’s a lazy and uninformed view.

        • There are no objective standards in the Bible. Claims to the contrary are nothing more than oft-spoken dogma with no relation to reality. Christians are some of the most morally relativistic people out there. Always claiming there is some excuse in the Bible for bad behavior towards others.

          Every rule is excepted one way or the other to make some kind of behavior acceptable. God commands people not to kill other people, except those who do not accept him or those who violate obscure precepts of priestly law, or those who eat foods deemed forbidden.

          Anyone who claims to speak with absolute unquestioned authority on the Bible is really just stoking their ego. Trying to claim a superior status over others which is purely self-driven. In practice, every form of theocracy is an autocratic dictatorship with fancy touches around the edges. A truly repugnant form of organization.

          • So, does that mean you cannot read any historical book and understand what it is saying? People will always have a problem with the Bible because it presumes an authority, and that will offend many.

          • The Bible isn’t even accurate as history. It certainly cannot be relied for plain meaning of the text either considering how many different languages and authors it has. It has no continuity nor consistency because of its polyglot nature. Acknowledging such is merely an honest take on the text.

            People always have a problem with presuming Biblical authority because it implies a level of certainty which does not really exist on a given position. Somehow God’s words always seem to be in line with the speaker’s views. Whatever they may be.

        • Marcus Johnson

          As much of a believer as I am, I would hardly suggest that Scripture is “objective.” In fact, one simply cannot acknowledge its historical and cultural context without simultaneously acknowledging its subjectivity.

          Fortunately, Christians aren’t supposed to “follow the Bible”; we’re supposed to follow God, using the Bible as a reference to explain who God is. Using Scripture as a guide for right behavior or social policy is akin to using duct tape to repair a leaky pipe; it’ll work up to a point, and then it stops working.

    • Jews have always believed that God gave them their land to govern. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was speaking of the end of Roman rule of Israel to be replaced by the rule of God’s chosen people, the Jews.

      • Not quite. The Kingdom of God is not rule by the Romans or the Jews, or any other outward authority. The Kingdom is when the spirit of Christ is so strong in our hearts that we find our lives ruled by God.

  7. I think the biggest issue of authority in evangelical Protestantism is the unwillingness and inflexibility of some evangelicals to consider viewpoints that go against the teaching of their individual pastor (or groups of pastors). If you grew up in a small town in Alabama, the likelihood is that you would be heavily influenced by anti-intellectual Christianity, rather than if you were born in a suburb of Atlanta, Chicago, or Seattle. I think the willingness to challenge traditional, often conservative, views has more to do with your attitude toward learning and education than it does about what church you grew up in. If you do not value learning and critical thinking, then you will just go a long with any authority that you trust and respect.

    However, that tends to make many evangelicals behind the times and fearful of academic challenges to their faith. I agree that there is a sort of schizophrenic response in the apologetic methodology of many evangelicals. Legitimate issues like evolution (as a process of creation), rights for homosexuals, environmental stewardship, the role of other religions, and even the agnostic snubbery of the dependence on God…all of these things are challenging to a conservative Evangelical who grew up in a sheltered, traditional environment.

    Now, let me say that if there is no god and there is no purpose, then these people have every right and moral responsibility to fight for the world they want to live in. You may think it does not correspond to reality, but as Morpheus intoned in “The Matrix,” what is real; what do you define to be real? The problem with making all ideas equal is that all ideas are also permissible. You may have moral objections, but they are baseless and subjective. If you wish to live in a world of complete rationalism and science, fantastic…but you also have no right to be critical or call judgment on those who wish to live in a different world, unless of course you do so by making moral judgments from a completely scientific and rationalistic perspective. By deciding to live rationally in our public life and irrationally in our private, personal domain, we have literally opened Pandora’s box. If conservative Evangelicals refuse to live in reality, by what law and standard do you hold them accountable? You could resort to “might makes right” and wipe them out, but nobody sane or humane wants to do that. Why not? It is perfectly consistent with our desire to refine the species and continue to follow on our path of evolutionary glory; to become the gods our ancestors worshiped. Who cares if those who stand in the way of our world get wiped out; they were just masses of cellular tissue anyway.

    But does that not sound eerily like, “I will ascend to heights of heaven; I will be like the Most High?” Seems to me that Scripture knows us or reveals us better than we want to admit. The reason we have the hesistancy to embrace this worldview of power is that we have been influenced by the same fountain that these conservative Evangelical Protestants have. We know that if we abandon Judeo-Christian altruism and social morality, that we will truly lose ourselves in the oblivion of our egos and rise…rise higher and higher until we get to the throne of heaven, and then plunge the dagger into the heart of God. Only to realize we plunged the dagger into ourselves, and fall…fall like our father Lucifer into the hell of our own miserable, pointless, agonizingly boring existence. Western civilization is not going to be destroyed by an outside force, it will die at its own hand because without the Christianity, without the Jesus, who helped to make it, it will not be able to hold itself up or justify its reason to even exist.

    So, if that is the case, then can you really blame the conservative Evangelicals for wanting a different kind of world? If it really is “us v. them,” do they not want to win the struggle? A godless world (whether it is minus theism, pantheism, etc) is one that follows the truth of species evolution to its logical conclusion, or it drives itself crazy trying to live up to an invisible, elusive moral standard that it cannot shake and yet hates with every fiber of its being.

    Even if you do not agree with them, you have to admire them for wanting to live for something beyond the cold “reality” of Enlightment rationalism and dehumanizing science. At least they have something to objectively live for.

    • “The reason we have the hesistancy to embrace this worldview of power is that we have been influenced by the same fountain that these conservative Evangelical Protestants have. We know that if we abandon Judeo-Christian altruism and social morality, that we will truly lose ourselves in the oblivion of our egos”

      Well-put…a truth that escapes almost every atheist with whom I’ve conversed.

          • There is no such thing as “Judeo-Christian” culture.

            That is just a nonsense catchall term to take credit for anything you want to claim as your own. There is no definition of that term which is neither circular, descriptive or accurate.

          • Since you’re such a fan of Wikipedia, what with its well-known reputation for accuracy and detail and all, go check it out there.

          • Marcus Johnson

            “Judeo-Christian culture” is, in fact, a very real term, used to describe the pervasive influence which permeates practically every aspect of American society. You might not care for it, and neither do I, but it is a valid label to describe a very real social phenomenon; it’s certainly not nonsense, although it is a catchall.

            This is not a term used just by Christians or evangelicals, either; plenty of credible academic institutions use the term “Judeo-Christian,” especially when referring to the privileged status it holds in certain societies.

  8. Edward Borges-Silva

    People who find contradictory passages in the Bible do not understand context, nuance, literary precepts, and the possibility of copyist’s errors. True study of the bible requires diligence. I would like to hear more on the concept that scripture as an authority is ‘illegitimate.’ A simple approach to the issues that divide evangelicals; In the the primary doctrines…agreement, on secondary questions…forebearance, on tertiary matters…indulgence. Like most academics who are fraught with their own biases, I find the good professor too clever by half.

    • Marcus Johnson

      Agreed, the perception of contradictions presumes that the Bible is a single document, singularly authored, in a singular genre, in a single historical context. Every one of those assumptions is preposterous.

    • Frank Lustwerk-Dudás

      My own reading is that scripture is a legitimate source of authority. What is illegitimate is the elevation of particular human interpretations of scripture to the level of unchallenged or unchallengeable authority. Meaning in any text derives from interpretation; and scripture, because its meanings move on multiple levels with multiple applications, cannot have but a single interpretation. It is also not self-interpreting. The simple fact that each translation of scripture requires the translator(s) to make an interpretation leads to the uncomfortable situation that most believers do not have direct access to “uninterpreted” scripture. Leaders of religious movements typically establish a specific interpretation of scripture to which their followers adhere, and it is these specific interpretations that in some / many / all cases are illegitimate sources of authority, and are the sources of schism and conflict within and between religions.

      • Charles Freeman

        The universe is the ultimate source of authority for all life. This includes how and why it operates, if it does. Perhaps, we and the apparent universe are nothing except data in a large computer-like mechanism in something even larger. You say that “scripture is a legitimate source of authority”. Can we ever understand the universe, except in terms of our interests and intellectual limitations? Can we understand the thing itself, the “ding an sich”? Most would agree that we cannot. We have to rely on our sensory input and rational treatment of material organized in accord with our prerogatives of self interest. No document can be used without interpretation, expecially one written so long ago and with such limited knowledge available. No object can provide any guidance unless its import is interpreted to relate to our own well being. For example, the black stone of the Kaaba has no human relevance unless imbued by interpretation. Interpretation of religious books and objects is like grabbing at emptiness

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy

    “The reality is just the opposite: it’s a crisis of authority, not authoritarian mind-control, that sabotages evangelical intellectual life.”

    Actually, it’s a bit of both.

    On the macro level (American Evangelicalism as a whole) you have this cro-magnon anarchy, with thousands of little One True Churches each setting their face against all the Heretic and Apostate others. The universe cannot have two centers.

    But on the micro level (within a single church/congregation/faction) you have total conformity and stifling groupthink. Long Live Big Brother.

  10. A “single authority” denotes that people cannot think for themselves, they cannot study, they cannot learn. That attitude has been the crux of every problem that has badgered the Catholic Church since the Council of Nicaea. It has been grossly evident in that church more recently since Vatican II, especially during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict.

    Why is the thinking of a a pope, or even a council of church bishops, considered more principled, more correct than that of any other informed and thinking individual? The ugliest result of such presumed “authority” and uniformity was the silencing and excommunication practiced by John Paul and Ratzinger-Benedict of those with whom they disagreed in their throw-back to the Dark Ages.

    The nasty behavior within groups or between different groups over their presumptions about the Infinite is a contradiction of the very goodness they attribute to that Infinite. They do not need uniformity, they need charity. “The greatest of these is charity.”

  11. Susan Humphreys

    No One honestly answered my question. “BUT who determines what God wants for his kingdom?” Many said that is why they turn to the Bible but refuse to admit as Larry pointed out the Bible isn’t Objective. It was written by men, translated by men, edited by men, even men selected which books to include and which to exclude. Even the claim that the Bible is inerrant and the word of God is subjective opinion, not based on fact. You can’t use a subjective source for the basis of an objective opinion. ALL you get is another subjective opinion, what we also call interpretation. So who is qualified to tell us what God wants or what God demands, what is or is not moral, acceptable……?

    • Susan, our determination of what God wants for his kingdom depends on who we think God is. Those who believe God is a God of love have a different understanding than those who believe he is a God of power. I may be irrational, but I choose to believe he is a God of love. Although the God of power may seem to be winning most of the battles, the God of love will endure to the end, even after the God of power has burned himself out with wars and other acts of greed.

  12. There’s no answer to your questions because no matter the response, you will have another angle from which to criticize. There seems to be no real desire for an answer, so anything given just plays along in the game. But, this doesn’t mean there is no answer, just one that won’t satisfy a committed critic.

  13. From it’s origins, Christianity has never been consistent. After Jesus’ death, his brother, James, was head of Jesus’ Jewish sect. With the spread of the apostles, including Paul, to the gentiles, Christianity developed, but Jewish believers remained active. For a long period of time, there was conflict between the Jewish and Christian groups, and between different Christian groups. Until Constantine, there was no consistency. In his reign, an attempt was made to standardize Christian beliefs into one form of Catholicism: Roman. To the present day, there remain other forms of Catholism: Greek and Russian Orthodox, for example. The Roman Catholic church conducted warfare against other types of Christianianity, such as the Cathars in what is now France. Protestantism flourished in reaction to Catholic repression and bad behavior by the Catholic clergy. With Luther, and others of his ilk, emphasis moved toward individual interpretation of the Bible, which couldn’t spread until printing presses made numerous copies of the Bible available to ordinary people.

  14. Dustin Brown

    First off, I respect Molly Worthen’s opinion and I agree with some of what she had to say. One thing with which I do not agree is the following:

    American evangelicals have a reputation for being “anti-intellectual” because they refuse to play by the rules of mainstream academia. Secular intellectual life is not a free for all. It requires participants to obey the rules of Enlightenment reason and the scientific method. It does not admit supernatural evidence or authority: you must make your arguments by relying on data that is universally accessible to all.

    I understand what she said and agree with some of it; however, I do not agree with her comment on “Enlightenment reason.” I am taking a great risk in assuming that she is speaking of the Enlightenment that took place on the continent of Europe–particularly in France–and not the Scottish Enlightenment.

    When many intellectuals speak of the Enlightenment, they are probably speaking of the ideals that came out of France. On the other hand, the Scottish Enlightenment is much more interesting and it took on a religious context. The shaping of the modern world can, in many ways, be attributed to the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish diaspora brought all of those wonderful ideas out into the world, particularly to America. Those ideas have shaped the United States and has worked remarkably. And it is those Enlightenment ideas, the ones with religious roots, that have contributed to the whole world, including academia.

    Of course, does that mean she is wrong? No. Does that mean that I am wrong? No. I believe that she makes valid points and I also believe that religious fervor can serve to be a fulcrum of advancement in academia. I also believe that a lack of religious fervor can serve to be a fulcrum of advancement in academia. However, I do believe that a person should not think with abandon.

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