Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Faith is Not the Rejection of Reason (or Science)
After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
The first time I heard of the Nazarene Church, I was in grade school. A young man from that denomination who was studying for the ministry, was dating the daughter of the pastor at the Methodist Church where I grew up. I don’t remember very much about him, but the police were called once because he was praying too loudly.
He had gone out to a hill behind the parsonage to pray by himself, because that’s what Jesus did. We don’t know from the Gospel passage whether or not Jesus prayed aloud, but the young man did. The hill he climbed is a long way from the nearest house, so he must have been praying very loudly.
But in the end there was no arrest. Just a warning.
In the New York Times last week there was an essay by Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens titled, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” The dateline was Quincy, Massachusetts.
One is a former professor and the other is a current professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts.
The article does not break new ground. They observe the obvious, that evangelical Christians have recently shown a disturbing trend toward anti-intellectualism and a broad rejection of scientific theory and research. Evangelical Christianity has always had its share of anti-intellectualism, but historically that has been balanced a strong and rigorous pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, is an example of someone who blends traditional evangelical faith and rigorous scientific investigation. But scientists and intellectuals, like Dr. Collins, are now increasingly marginalized by the dominant anti-intellectualism of prominent evangelicals.
Giberson and Stephens argue that “evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism.” It is possible to be an authentically evangelical Christian without rejecting science and reason.
I’ve heard that argument before. I’ve even made that argument before.
What struck me was that this was now being said by people from Eastern Nazarene College. The Nazarene denomination has roots in Wesleyanism, especially the Wesleyan holiness tradition, as well as in Pentecostalism. They are at the far end of the Wesleyan spectrum. And even from that vantage point, they think that things have gone too far.
They point to David Barton of “Wall Builders” and James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” as prime examples of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Barton has dedicated himself to the proposition that the founding fathers were evangelicals whose vision was of a Christian America. Dobson champions the idea that homosexuality can be cured and that gay people can “pray away” their sinful and unnatural desires.
As Giberson and Stephens observe, “Charismatic leaders like these project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ. Their audiences number in the tens of millions. They pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of Scripture; to many, they seem like prophets, anointed by God.”
But their anti-intellectualism is toxic to the national discussion of such important issues, and it tends to discredit evangelicalism as a whole. And by extension, it tends to discredit Christianity.
Within the rich intellectual tradition of Christianity, there is an important place for evangelicalism. We need that deeply personal faith connection. But when “faith” calls for the rejection of reason, Christians need to speak up.