Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Rise of the Liberal Academy is the Conservatives' Fault

I think that the rise in the academy of liberal seminary professors and students is almost entirely the fault of conservatives. Why? Very simple -- every hard-core liberal (especially the ones bent on attacking conservatives) often have one of two stories:
  • They came from a conservative family/church. They were alienated from their own Church for asking tough questions. The finally found a group of people who were willing to allow them to ask the tough questions in. This was a liberal group, and forever they then view conservatives as dumb, close-minded people and liberals as open-minded freethinkers.

  • They came from a conservative family/church. They were extraordinarily conservative or extraordinarily vocal about their conservatism. Then, usually in college, they get exposed to criticisms of the Bible. Then, it goes in one of two directions. Either:
    • They get embarrassed and vilified by their liberal professors. This greatly affects their self-esteem. Because they have never faced tough faith questions, they are completely unable to respond, and then become militant liberals in an attempt to save their own faith, and to never feel embarrassed for being stupid. They feel (and their professors justify them in this feeling) that because they are now liberal they are "smart" and all their old conservative friends are "stupid".

    • They feel betrayed by their home church for "keeping the truth from them", because they had never heard these questions before. They assume that their church has been lying to them, and then uniformly reject nearly everything they were raised to believe as a bunch of lies.

Anyway, this is the fault of conservative churches. I don't think that conservative churches necessarily have to change any of their beliefs. However, they absolutely must interact with the beliefs and questions of others. I understand the reason for not wanting to teach the best arguments against the faith or against a church's doctrine within a church -- it is viewed as an unjustified risk.

The question is, though, which is riskier:
  • Having children and students struggle with questions of the faith and the arguments against the faith in college surrounded by professors who often would prefer they simply give up their faith.

  • Having children and students struggle with questions of the faith and the arguments against the faith in the church and surrounded by other people of faith who have struggled through these same issues and can help them through it?

Especially in today's world, they are going to hear the issues. Isn't the best place for that to happen in the church where they can be lifted up by people of faith rather than when they are alone against the world?

If you want conservatism and fundamentalism to survive, the best thing you can do is introduce criticisms of the faith as a standard part of school-age curriculum. And not straw-man versions, either. The real thing, with the best arguments. At the end you will have students who are both more faithful and more knowledgeable, and even better -- if you have done a good job teaching about how presuppositions affect the way that evidence is viewed -- you have also given them a good background for understanding new arguments in the future.

So, if you are a Church member, encourage your kids to ask questions, and help them find good answers. Don't assume that just because an answer matches your preconceived notions that it is a good answer. Take the time to really search the issue out. Try to prove yourself wrong. This is tough to do, and it takes a bit of courage. But it is well worth it, because in the end you understand both yourself and those who disagree with you better.

And the children of the Church won't grow up thinking that you lied to them and turn away.


At 11/17/2006 7:21 AM, Blogger Neil said...

Excellent analysis and advice. I have always encouraged my kids to ask all the tough questions they want. I think that has actually strengthened their faith, because they know there are good answers available (not always from me, but somewhere!). If someone is told "just believe" it usually has the opposite effect. People need to be able to have the humility to say, "I don't know, but I'll find out," because one bad answer can undo ten good ones.

At 11/17/2006 10:13 AM, Blogger PamBG said...

You said: This was a liberal group, and forever they then view conservatives as dumb, close-minded people and liberals as open-minded freethinkers. And you've said a similar thing eleswhere

As someone who did, indeed, come out of conservative Christianity in the last few years, I'd like to point out that, to the ears of someone who doesn't buy into the conservative label, that sitting in a conservative congregations one also feels insulted. We are regarded as not real believers who don't care about either God or the bible. When a person actually DOES actually care about these things, it's really very insulting to be constantly told that one doesn't care about God.

Personally, in a Christian context, I'd rather be called stupid than rebellious, idolatrous and unfaithful. So maybe the insult is in the ear of the beholder. If one agrees with the sentiments being expressed by other congregants, then perhaps one doesn't hear the insult.

Individuals in conservative congregations may come to see themselves as liberal because they are labelled as liberal by others. In the best-case scenario, people keep trying to "convert" you. In the worse case scenario, one may be labelled as rebellious and sinful or even "asked to leave". And a whole range of behaviours in between.

So, you might say that I agree with your post. Other than to ask how a conservative congregation could allow questioning. It seems to me that by definition conservatism has to be incredibly uncomfortable with questioning. At the end of the day, conservatism is about maintaining the boundaries between what ideas are in and what ideas are out, which people are in and which people are out. Which, for me, means that it is always flirting with heresy - precisely because the message of God's grace is that it is offered to all. We are only "out" because we exclude ourselves, not because God does.

At 11/20/2006 10:41 PM, Anonymous cseminarian said...

Pam --

Sorry for taking so long to respond -- I've been busy.

I think I'll address your last question first, because, well, it's easier :)

"Which, for me, means that it is always flirting with heresy - precisely because the message of God's grace is that it is offered to all. We are only "out" because we exclude ourselves, not because God does."

I think you are confusing conservatism with a perversion of conservatism. With God, neither orthodoxy nor orthopraxy are prerequisites, though both should be a normal outgrowth of an active faith. If someone makes them prerequisites of faith, then you are right, this is heresy. However, conservatives are debating about where someone should be striving to go, not where they are coming from.

For your main question, if I understand it correctly, you are saying "isn't allowing questioning in itself contrary to conservatism, which has pre-determined answers?"

I would say both "yes" and "no". I think there are things which have predetermined answers for a believer. However, I think the amount of grace that is allowed for conclusions drawn from that is very large.

What makes one a conservative is the goal -- to have a faith that is in line with the Bible and the historical confession of the Christian faith. These are the sources of authority.

This doesn't mean that everyone will agree about where this one goes, but it does mean that we should agree in general about what the authority is.

I don't care so much about a lot of the "issues" that are often used as conservative/liberal shibboleths (well, I care, but not as markers of anything in particular). I am against gay marriage, but I think the most important thing is that the Bible be the ultimate source.

In addition, thinking about these basic assumptions as well is a good exercise, if only to discover whether or not you really believe them. As much as I want others to use scripture and the traditional Christian witness as authoritative, I want them to also know from the beginning if they don't actually believe that. Better to know sooner rather than later. Especially since it allows you to understand why or why not you believe as you do.

At 11/29/2006 11:49 AM, Blogger PamBG said...

Gee, I think I must be a conservative by your definition. Some of your US collegues would undoubtedly be horrified at that thought!

I agree with your assessment that what I've characterised as "conservative" may be a "perversion of conservatism" but it is the way I see many churches behaving. Even here in the UK where conservatism is generally less "to the right" than in the US, both politically and theologically. (Although, of course, there are exceptions to every rule.)

When you have the time, I'd be interested in maybe seeing a post with your thoughts about how a conservative church could go about encouraging healthly questioning. I do believe it's vital because I do think that the general thrust of your post is correct.

At 12/01/2006 9:27 AM, Blogger PamBG said...

I've had some further thoughts.

I think that I might define "liberalism" fairly differently than you. Maybe it's because of my background (hard-core old-fashioned Lutheran scholarly inerrantist), but I pretty well categorise anyone who doesn't see the bible as verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible as some sort of "liberal".

As an example - and he'd probably kill me for saying so - I'd see NT Wright on the conservative end of the liberal spectrum (I certainly know that if *I* repeat his ideas without acknowldging him as the source, I get called a "liberal" for doing so.)

The people who you are characterising as paradigmatic of the "liberal" school, like John Spong and Matthew Fox, I see as falling off the edge of the liberal end of liberal. (Personally, I would suspect both of not actually being Christian any more.)

I guess it's a question of terminology. Ask "senior Methodists" here in the UK whether they see their theology as liberal or conservative and I suspect that 90% would say "liberal". They would also hold Spong et al in fairly high disdain.

My second comment on the back of all that verbiage is that I question your premise that wanting to be true to the bible will lead to one being a conservative. I would say that it's wanting to be true to the bible that has made me a liberal. Because I don't think it was ever meant to be read the modernist/enlightenment epistemology that fundamentalism demands.

Finally, I think I misrepresented one of my positions in my last post. I think it's vital that conservative Christianity help people to ask hard theological questions, not because it results in liberalism. More often than not, I believe, it results in simply dropping out of Christianity entirely.

At 1/08/2007 5:00 PM, Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Great post. Are you sure you are still a "conservative" seminarian? Ha! I have been fascinated by the discovery that many of the "theologians" and thinkers that I consider very "liberal" (previous commentary has already pointed out the problems with conservative/liberal language that I will not rehearse here) actually came from conservative and sometimes even fundamentalist backgrounds and, in many cases, felt betrayed or hurt (not the emotional content) by something that church did to them (or failed to do) and have become (oftentimes angry) liberals in some kind of reaction. So I think you are right that much of the blame could be placed on conservative and fundamentalist churches.
You say that those churches need not change their doctrines but their "style" (by allowing tough questions). I wonder if a fundamentalist church is capable of doing this or if by allowing such questions as a matter of principle it ceases to be fundamentalist altogether but becomes merely "conservative evangelical"?
In either case I think you are right about your suggestions. I once was allied to a nearly/semi-fundamentalist church and I did not realize that Christianity was even capable of addressing the really tough questions (since at my church they were not often addressed) until I read the writings of C.S. Lewis and I became devoted to the necessity of questions - but reasonable and honest ones that are willing to follow up with a disciplined search for answers (not questions for their own sake, as some liberal seminaries seem to extoll) - as a means of knowing truth, which if it is true is therefore capable of withstanding the scrutiny.


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