Scholars Can Be Christian and Academic

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared on, July 14, 2014.

Christians have concluded that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- early followers of Jesus and witnesses of His life, death and resurrection -- are true.

They have done so for a variety of reasons depending on the believer. Serious people affirm the historic person Jesus of Nazareth as God in the flesh, who died an atoning death, and rose from the grave, after serious thought and study. They have not talked themselves into this faith or been bludgeoned into it by some external or internal compulsion. It is not an act of wishful thinking akin to a child's belief in fairies.

Yes, such acceptance demands faith. It requires faith in the rules of logic and historical evidence. Of course, a spark of trust that cannot be quantified also animates true faith. But it is not irrational, silly, puerile or pitiable.

Thus when University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn writes that "by awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the (higher education) process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education," he is simply wrong.

Christian colleges and universities require their faculty to sign statements of faith, which for Prof. Conn is intellectual madness: Inherently, he believes, such promises of allegiance to a given set of convictions constrict inquiry.

This is, logically, a non-sequitur in that it assumes that people who have come to hold beliefs commonly called "religious" have done so not on the basis of reason and evidence because such anti-faith activists insists such beliefs anti-intellectual and anti-inquisitive.

Faculty members who sign a statement of faith do so because they believe that the statement conforms to reality and thus should inform their inquiry and their teaching. These statements do not cabin the mind in the manner of some iron grid attached to the brain. Instead, they reflect the beliefs of what those who sign them think are the parameters of truth.

Furthermore, if a faculty member concludes that one or more articles of the statement she has signed are wrong, she can resign from her teaching position. Such actions, conventionally viewed as acts of conscience, are wholly in keeping the American tradition of religious liberty and personal accountability.

Statements of faith are required at Christian colleges and universities because such institutions are organized by people who have a common understanding of what is true and what isn't.

Jesus claimed to be "the Truth" and the sole means to God (John 14:6); one must accept or reject such concrete propositions. Christians accept them, including Christian academics, and thus join together to teach students and perform research within the context of their honest grasp of reality.

Prof. Conn asserts, "Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research." In an elegant refutation of Prof. Conn's claim, Wheaton College provost Stanton L. Jones writes:

Purely skeptical and unfettered inquiry is likely to simply chase itself in circles. Disciplined, rigorous, and self-critical inquiry grounded in a thoughtful understanding of one's particularities can contribute to a vigorous and diverse intellectual marketplace. Religious scholars attracted to places like Wheaton find it useful to draw upon certain fundamental commitments to Christian faith to shape engagement with their academic subject matter, just as all scholars draw upon their own fundamental commitments.

To put it more simply, what one believes ("particularities") will define the direction and nature of his skepticism and inquiry. One who believes the world is a cube will spend time showing why space travel mistakenly is called "orbital" and should instead be called "lunar rectangulism" or some such thing.

Such an investigator will be wasting his time, since the world demonstrably is circular. Christians believe that the New Testament is demonstrably true, and their understanding of all the disciplines is hued by this belief. They argue, quite reasonably, that what they believe is demonstrably true, as well.

Additionally, belief systems, whether or not articulate and consciously constructed, determine how we understand everything. Marxism can be shown to be wrong conclusively, in many of its presuppositions and many of its conclusions. It presents a fanciful grasp of what is and what can be. Yet many colleges and universities actively hail the professing communists on their faculties as great scholars.

Many of them are. That I disagree with them and with devotees of Rene Foucault or Patrice Lumumba or Doctor Seuss does not inherently delegitimate their participation in the academy, either. Nor does the fact that I can prove them errant mandate their dismissal as educators. If I so choose, I don't have to teach alongside them, or I can argue civilly but tenaciously with them in faculty fora of all kinds.

At Christian colleges, men and women of a kindred worldview join in a community of scholars to study and teach and publish. This does not diminish their inquiry; it simply provides a lens through which to pursue it. Prof. Conn's lens, whatever it is, is as fixed upon his eyes as the one through which Christians see. He simply has not defined or admitted it.

So, if Prof. Conn can prove Christian scholars wrong, using the rules of logic and evidence, he should do so. Otherwise, he should welcome them into the community of scholars as legitimate peers. Not to do so would celebrate the intellectual dishonesty and academic cowardice he decries.