LIVING THE QUESTION--EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY AND CRITICAL THOUGHT
By Robert Wuthnow
Growing up on a windy prairie in central Kansas, I had a friend named Harry Charles Kitchen. He was one of those afterthoughts, ten years younger than his sisters, who brings special joy to his parents. Eldie and Gracie, as they were called, loved him dearly. Poor tenant farmers, their clapboard house remained unpainted as it had been since the Great Depression, but they had high aspirations for their son.
A friend, I suppose, is not exactly what he was to me, for he was three years older, and being both tall for his age and quite stout, he was often the terror of the schoolyard. Indeed, his mischievous laughter can probably still be heard along the back fence where he dared us unsuspecting youngsters to grasp the electric wire that ran along it. But friend he was, certainly by standards I have since grown used to, for he was an important part of my community of memory and his life influenced me deeply.
When I was eight years old, Harry Charles died. One Saturday morning Eldie and Gracie rushed him to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and for some reason he died. Sitting there at my grandmother's house where my father left me to pay a neighborly visit to the hospital, the news spread over me like a sickening dream. My grandmother told a neighbor she'd never seen my father so upset.
I guess I had been conditioned to know about life's frailties more than most children. When I was three my father almost bled to death one night. He was routinely in and out of the hospital for the next fifteen years before he died. When I was four, stray dogs that periodically roamed the countryside invaded the chicken coop one day while we were away and left two hundred chickens nothing more than a grisly mess. When I was five, my mother suffered a heart attack; months of convalescence and worry passed before she recovered. But this was the first time someone my own age actually died. It hit my own mortality--all sixty-five pounds of it--like a ton of bricks.
Suddenly all those sermons I'd heard at the little Baptist church where Harry Charles and I attended Sunday School together--those sermons that spoke of people dying and going you-know-where -- took on painful urgency. After the funeral God's fearsome presence became as real as Harry Charles's lifeless body. I knew it was time, as they said, to get right with God. And in the next few moments I prayed and gained entry with all the attendant security and privileges into the kingdom of, yes, American evangelicalism.
Not long ago The Chronicle of Higher Education--the weekly newspaper that serves as a house organ for tens of thousands of college faculty and administrators--carried as its center front-page story an article about the growing danger posed by evangelical Christians on the nation's campuses. One poor, unsuspecting student, the article recounted, had begun attending services of an evangelical group on campus only to find "that her grades dropped, she lost touch with her friends, and her relations with her family deteriorated." Colleges need to be aware, the article cautioned, that many evangelical groups, while claiming not to be cults, use cult-like methods to attract and retain members, including deception, unethical recruiting, mind-raping, authoritarianism, and dictatorial practices that tell students how to live, whom to marry, and what they can and cannot read.
The die was cast many years ago. In the 1890s the United States government made a fateful decision: if the nation's economy was going to compete effectively in world markets--this was long before we fell behind the Japanese--we were going to have to enter the modern era, which meant applying scientific methods in business, developing new technologies in industry, and promoting higher education among our nation's most talented youth. Land-grant colleges, polytechnic institutes, and graduate research universities were launched with profusion. No longer would higher education be the preserve of church colleges and seminaries. Indeed, private benefactors added to what separation of church and state prevented the government from doing, offering church colleges generous grants if they would only shuck off their sectarian trappings and focus on secular liberal arts training. Caught up in the widespread belief that secular education and social progress went hand in hand, many churchgoers embraced the new developments, calling for modernism in pulpit and pew. Only the fundamentalists held out, taking their very identity from the opposition they voiced to these dominant cultural developments. As the twentieth century began, conservative Christianity was already at war, it seemed to many, with the prevailing values of an enlightened society. By mid-century, historian Richard Hofstadter could look back on the period and write in scathing terms of the anti-intellectualism espoused by this wing of American religion. Fundamentalists and evangelicals were, in his view, narrow-minded, dogmatic, and authoritarian. Not only were they content to believe in the superstitions and simplistic falsehoods of a time gone by, they were so threatened by the intellectual currents in the wider society that they were willing to wage war against it. They were prejudiced bumpkins from the farms and small towns, a subculture left over from the past like some Neanderthal creature, lumbering through the wheatfields and cow pastures without the intelligence to understand what educated people of the twentieth century were thinking.
The only problem with Hofstadter's analysis was that the twentieth century turned out to be more complex than he realized. At the same time Hofstadter was diagnosing the anti-intellectualism of conservative Christians, they were in the process of rediscovering a deeper tradition in their own past -- a tradition of critical reflection that remained critical of secular thought but nevertheless recognized the importance of the intellectual life. While some leaders denounced secular knowledge as evil and called for a radical separation between believers and the world, the majority opted for active participation in the cultural climate of the twentieth century.
They identified themselves with many of the positive intellectual contributions of Western Christianity in the past -- with the juristic approach to biblical literature of the Reformation, the dissenting political traditions of the English civil war, the emphasis on natural science and natural law of the Puritan divines, the studiousness of the Scottish Presbyterian moralists, and the social teachings of the American abolitionists. Believing that the same God who had created the soul had also created the mind, they founded and expanded Christian colleges and seminaries in which biblical studies and the human sciences could be brought together. They formed organizations to make their presence known in high schools and on secular campuses. And they encouraged young people to gain the academic credentials necessary to serve the needs of society and the world--in business, teaching, medicine, engineering, and the professions. They wanted to eradicate the village-idiot image of the fundamentalist, bringing the intellectual life to evangelical Christianity and making Christians* intellectually respectable.
Their work was cut out for them. When the first opinion polls on religion began to be conducted in the late 1950s, the results documented that Christians who held orthodox beliefs were indeed far less educated than other segments of the American population. Many did in fact live on farms and in small towns. Many of their parents were dirt poor; they were the remnants of the dustbowl, recent immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, Appalachian coal miners, African Americans, displaced migrants from the South, day laborers in the smoke-belching factory cities of the Northeast, sharecroppers like Eldie and Gracie Kitchen. The church colleges many of their leaders tried to nurture were indeed tiny, often little more than overgrown high schools with faculty who were themselves poorly trained and poorly paid. And in the secular colleges and universities, surveys of faculty showed few with sympathies toward these new recruits fresh from the pages of Elmer Gantry.
But social trends were not entirely against these new defenders of an orthodox Christianity. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of enormous expansion in higher education throughout the nation. Faced with stiffening competition in foreign markets and a continuing Cold War, American leaders poured billions onto the nation's campuses. Bright teenagers with good grades could obtain college scholarships more easily than ever before, no matter what their religious convictions were, and for many in the agriculturally depressed regions of the South and Midwest such scholarships were an attractive way out. Government loans made it possible for church colleges to expand dormitory space and for secular campuses to grow into the mega-universities that still dominate the Big Ten, the Big Eight, the California and a number of other state systems. Large numbers promoted diversity; Christian students on these campuses could sometimes find kindred spirits, and, influenced by what was left of the proverbial Protestant work ethic, many were able to succeed. By the end of the 1970s, surveys showed that the gap between the education levels of self-professed Christians and others had been greatly reduced. By the end of the eighties, conservative and liberal Christians were virtually indistinguishable in terms of education.
At the end of the twentieth century, therefore, the connection between Christianity and the life of the mind is far different from that envisioned at the century's start. If the breach opened between faith and higher learning by the fundamentalist movement has not been entirely closed, at least bible-believing Christians are found within the ranks of American higher education rather than outside, peering distrustfully at the distant spires of academe from their benighted villages in the hinterland. The question can once again be asked with urgency: what is the relation between Christian conviction and critical thought? And: what may we expect of this relationship in the decades to come?
Because of my background, I have found it easy to tour the landscape of Christianity within the ivied walls more or less as a fellowtraveler. As such, I have been put off by the arms-length reportage one finds in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other secular media in which naive journalists can scarcely distinguish a Christian from a Jew, let alone an evangelical from a fundamentalist. So follow me for a moment on a mental tour to various spots in academe where I have encountered in one way or another intellectuals who profess to be Christians.
My first stop is an exclusive restaurant in New York City. As I dine with a fellow social scientist from another university, he tells me he has come a long way in his thinking since his undergraduate days at an evangelical Christian college. He says he still believes in the "basics" -- does not elaborate -- but is increasingly annoyed with the clergy. Then, pausing for effect and looking around to see if anyone is listening, he asks me never to tell anyone what he is about to say. He says he often feels depressed about his work as an academic, so much so that he has been considering dropping out, selling his house, and moving to Africa where he could teach children or maybe retrain as a paramedic.
A few weeks later I am at an international conference in Boston hosted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The gathering includes scholars from all over the world, each of whom is an expert in one or another of the world's four largest religions. They speak with surprising knowledge and yet with considerable detachment about their religion of interest. One young scholar speaks with slightly more passion than the others about the role of the church in the German Democratic Republic, points to the historic importance of Christianity in both sectors of divided Germany, and argues to the surprise of many that a religious revival is taking place in the Federal Republic of Germany. That evening, at a gathering in which he is not present, a colleague of his notes that the young scholar is an elder in an evangelical church in Germany.
As my journey continues I find myself at an academic conference in New Orleans. As we sip cocktails one evening, a friend mentions that some sociologists are having an informal meeting later on and asks me if I want to tag along. I agree and several hours later we enter a hotel room where about ten people--all professors--are gathered. One suggests opening the meeting with a prayer and no sooner are heads bowed than he begins speaking unintelligibly; others follow suit, and I realize I am witnessing glossolalia firsthand. The speaking in tongues stops as abruptly as it began, the host announces, "Gee, I guess we don't have any bread and wine, but here's some Coke and crackers to pass around," and everyone turns to informal chatter about their latest research project.
My final stop is at the home of a social scientist who teaches at a Christian college. We two have retired there for some late-night conversation after a formal dinner with several of his colleagues-formal in every sense of the word: all of us abided by the college's rule against consuming alcoholic beverages in public, bowed our heads and prayed at the appropriate moment, and spoke positively about how nice it was to teach in a Christian environment. But now I was about to hear the other side. My friend spoke openly of his reservations about the college's stand on everything from alcoholic beverages to biblical interpretation. He talked about quitting the local church in protest against its teachings on social issues. He spoke candidly of the difficulties he experiences when he tries to associate with faculty from the major secular research universities. And one by one he recounted similar stories for each of his colleagues.
I do not know how typical these encounters may be. Anyway, my point is not to generalize about the typical but to indicate the diversity that exists among Christians in higher education, just as it does in our whole society. Were I to say more about these various social scientists, it would become evident that they differ vastly from one another in interests, backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles; and yet each is in some way identified as a Christian. What then can we say about the relation between Christianity and the intellectual life?
In 1938 Robert Merton, among the leading sociologists of his generation, published an influential book in which he examined the connection between Puritanism and the rise of science in seventeenth-century England. Merton argued that the Puritans had a special disposition toward scientific achievement because of their emphasis on this life as well as the life to come, their conviction that nature was the handiwork of God, and their commitment to the rational knowledge and mastery of God's creation. It was a clever thesis reminiscent of--indeed, modeled after -- Max Weber's argument about the special connection between ascetic Protestantism and acquisitive capitalism. But subsequent inquiries cast doubt on Merton's thesis. Royalists were shown to be as favorably disposed toward science as Puritans, French Catholics were every bit as devoted to science as the English; and such factors as antinomianism and rationalism appeared to be as much at work as Puritanism.
I take the Merton controversy to be an instructive metaphor in seeking close connections between evangelical Christianity and a particular style of intellectual orientation. Some have argued that evangelical scholars may be inclined to accept rigorous empirical generalizations because of their belief that truth can be codified in simple propositions. Translated: Christians make better engineers than artists, or in the case of social scientists, better number-crunchers than theorists. Some have maintained on the same grounds that evangelical Christians may be less able than other scholars to appreciate paradox, subtle interpretation, and nuance. Some have suggested that Christian thought favors voluntaristic social theories more than deterministic ones; others have suggested just the opposite. My journey among my various Christian acquaintances -- some of whom have themselves proposed such arguments -- confirms none of these views.
The truth of the matter is that Christian thought, even evangelical Christian thought, is sufficiently diverse that no straightforward influence on the nature of intellectual work is readily found. Christians do not operate from some set of higher-order truths, such as the trinity, redemption, or original sin, from which they derive notions about the sort of work to do and the best way of approaching it. They may make certain assumptions; we all do. But it has not been my experience that Christian scholars are any more likely than any others to take, say, an authoritarian stance toward certain deeply held beliefs, or to argue from first principles in the face of empirical evidence, or for that matter to let new evidence readily upset favorite theories. The various people I introduced in my imaginary journey in one way or another expressed doubts, raised questions, and exhibited critical distance toward the scholarly role itself. They did not abandon their intellect to be Christians. In fact, I would say they subjected their Christian assumptions, like everything else, to the dictates of their intellect. That, to me, suggests the more fruitful way of approaching the question of how Christianity and critical thought may intersect.
I have borrowed the much-used phrase "living the question" because it seems to me that Christianity does not so much supply the learned person with answers as it does raise questions. It has been said of Marxists that even apostates spend their lives struggling with the questions Marx addressed. The same can probably be said of Christianity. It leaves people with a set of questions they cannot escape, especially when these questions face them from their earliest years. I doubt very much whether there are many practicing academics who have been without religion, found themselves searching for answers to life's questions, and then converted as mature adults to Christianity--although I am aware of course that C. S. Lewis claimed to have followed such a path. In Lewis' case one does see a person attempting through curious tricks of logic to prove that various answers supplied by Christianity can satisfy the logical, rational mind. But, despite the fact that Lewis holds some attraction for many educated evangelicals, I have not found either the pattern of his life or his rationalistic style at all typical. More commonly, someone learns the basic stories of Christianity as a child, becomes a scholar sometime later, and yet continues to be influenced by the questions those stories asked, even though his or her rational arguments, theological outlook, and philosophy of life may have undergone much change.
Let me illustrate my point by referring briefly to some of those stories. To begin at the beginning, take the story of Adam and Eve. To be sure, one can derive theological propositions from this story. But the most memorable aspects of the story itself are probably the questions it raises--questions about gender roles of course, as Elaine Pagels and others have recently argued, but more importantly questions about the nature and limits of human knowledge. Christian scholars I have known take a variety of positions on epistemology, but I would venture the generalization that their interest in epistemological questions is at least relatively acute.
Or take the story of Samuel, of the people of Israel wanting a king, of Samuel anointing David, and of the conflict between David and Saul. I was recently at a little church in the Midwest where the adult Sunday School lesson for the day focused on this story. After viewing a well-presented retelling of the story on videotape, the class was considering the question of why the Israelites wanted a king. One person suggested that, because the surrounding tribes had kings, it was a matter of keeping up with the Joneses; another, that as a society becomes larger it may be helpful to have a centralized source of authority; still another, that people who feel personally insecure may find vicarious esteem by identifying with a king. The leader did not select one answer as correct; that was not the point. The point was that the question is worth thinking about because it prompts reflection on the human condition. That seemed to me to be rather the same way a group of academics might have understood the task.
Or consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. Like virtually all of Jesus' parables, it ends with a question: which of these was neighbor to the man? In the story the answer may be obvious. But a parable is also a mirror in which to observe real life, and in real life it is still the question of neighbor that animates much discussion, not only in theological circles, but in wider scholarly settings such as the social sciences. A Christian sociologist might argue that it is "neighbor" to the countries in Latin America to send financial aid; another might argue that it is "neighbor" to promote economic self-sufficiency. It is on the importance of the question that they agree.
Robert Merton borrowed from the classical work of Max Weber in developing his argument about Puritanism and science. Weber thought religion figured into human behavior as a motivator. The image he used was of a switchman. Different religions switch the behavior of their adherents onto different tracks. Having certain questions in one's mind can be a switchman of this kind. The effect of a particular religious upbringing may be to motivate one to pursue a certain kind of question in one's research. Or, more likely, as Weber would have argued, it provides motivation of a broad sort -not the kind of motivation that says study this instead of that, but the motivation it takes to get up in the morning and get to work because life has meaning.
I am not suggesting that people actually have the questions they learned as children from Bible stories buzzing around in their heads, consciously or subconsciously telling them what is important about the world. It used to be popular to think of motives that way -- to imagine that people might embark on a study of social justice in South Africa because the story of Moses and Pharaoh had always made a troubling impression on them. But motives are more complex than that. They are not univocal, but multivocal. They speak to us with many voices. And they do not often, it seems, speak to us in clear, rational voices. Rather, they come to us piecemeal, as the bits and pieces from which a story about why we do what we do can be constructed. Listen to what French philosopher Bertrand Very says about them: "Subjective motives are not rationally, but semantically built." There are two phases, he says, in the semantic construction of motives. First: "An objective fact, a casual event, a commonplace situation is loaded with meaning. Its crude exteriority disappears. It becomes a motive for a subjectivity." And then secondly: "This motive joins an affective frame, not as a cause mechanically awaiting its effect, but as a sign expected to be connected with other signs to determine a decision. Entangled--as in a musical score--with other motives, its meaning gains more weight and it leads the situation towards a certain outcome."
Religion figures into both phases of this process. In the first phase, certain objective facts or events take on subjective meaning for us, in part at least because of the framework that our religious experiences give us. We are able somehow to see the importance of things because we have a story to tell ourselves about them. Perhaps it is a story that has special importance for us because it is about God. Perhaps it is a personal story, like the one I told about Harry Charles Kitchen. Then in the second phase, as motives become more complex and compel action, our stories become the musical scores, the web of interconnected signs that allow us to make sense of what we do. These are the stories in which we construct ourselves as actors. They make sense of our biographies, allowing us to integrate our lives, and see the importance of what we are presently doing, both to ourselves and to some larger body of relevant others. It is in this sense that the divine word becomes powerful as we appropriate it and make it part of our own story, an idea of course that is entirely consistent with the Christian view of redemption.
What does it mean, then, to say "living the question"? It means pursuing the intellectual life because the questions are inherently important, not because one hopes primarily to advance a career or even because one necessarily expects to discover a definitive answer. For the first person on my imaginary tour, this meant continually questioning the value of what he was working on, even the value of the intellectual life itself. For the second, it meant thinking hard about the church's future in the two Germanies. For the group passing around Coke and crackers, it meant thinking about the joy in life and the need to understand celebration. And for the friend at the Christian college, it meant taking a responsible but critical stance toward his institution and his church. The particular questions themselves are likely to vary. What Christianity does is add seriousness to the enterprise: it says, in effect, these are serious questions that people have raised in one way or another from the beginning of time; do your part to keep them alive. The message is what Madeleine L'Engle (a writer who, though she readily identifies herself as a Christian, disdains the term Christian writer) has likened to the task of pouring water into a lake. The scholar's contribution is like a cupful of water: it does not perceptibly alter the lake at all, but it and thousands of others like it replenish the lake and keep the cycle of nature flowing on perpetually.
Putting it differently, we might say that Christianity sacralizes --makes sacred--the intellectual life. It gives the questions we struggle with in our work' and in our lives a larger significance. Living the question becomes possible because our questions are animated. They have life breathed into them, not literally of course but by becoming part of the stories, the webs of significance, in which we locate ourselves. Any religion, any worldview does this, and does it not just to our intellectual questions but to the questions and tasks that confront us in every part of life. And yet to say that all religions work this way does nothing to diminish the particular way in which it happens for the Christian. The questions that take on significance in the Christian's intellectual work may be, as I have argued, quite diverse. But the reason they have significance is that they are part of a particular story, embedded as it were in a particular religious tradition and in a particular person's biography within that tradition.
This is one way of saying what it means to live the question, one way of saying how Christian faith and the intellectual life intertwine. It fits the cases I mentioned as part of my journey. And yet there is surely more to it than that. For each of the cases I introduced also reflected a certain degree of mysteriousness; a secretive, almost clandestine quality pervaded them.
There are in fact two dirty little secrets that American higher education, for all its commitment to truth and fair-mindedness, continues to harbor. The first is its disdain for evangelical Christians. Few groups are as despised a minority. Jews certainly are not. African Americans no longer are. Gays are not. Women are not. Roman Catholics once were, perhaps even very recently. But no groups arouse passions and prejudices more than evangelicals and fundamentalists.
How is it, after all I have said, that The Chronicle of Higher Education can print a lead story of the kind I mentioned? Because evangelicalism is not a reality that outsiders have tried seriously to understand; it is a symbol for all the fears that mainstream scholars and intellectuals worry about most. Evangelicalism is taboo because it conjures up images of crazed cult members burning books, closing their minds to rational argument, and allowing charismatic leaders to rape their intellects. In a society that values higher education as much as ours, the mind is our most cherished resource. To waste a mind is, as we say, a terrible thing. Drugs and evangelicalism stand for the same thing--the loss of a human mind.
To be sure, the suspicion that lingers in American higher education toward evangelical Christianity takes many forms. Sometimes it is little more than the subtle way in which a colleague asks how anyone can still believe that sort of thing. Sometimes it is more overt. Not long ago at my own institution I witnessed a prospective graduate student's credentials being scrutinized with particular care because study at an evangelical college was part of his undergraduate record. "I just wonder," said one administrator, "whether this person is ready for Princeton."
Knowledgeable persons in the academy recognize of course that Christians are a minority group; whether it is statistically true or not, Christianity has long been seen as a dying remnant from a less enlightened past. But unlike other minority groups, Christians are not the subject of affirmative action, special programs, or efforts to promote greater tolerance. They are treated differently because, unlike African Americans or women or gays, their status is assumed to have been adopted voluntarily rather than being an ascriptive identity. Christians, it is assumed, can at least repudiate Christianity as they gain the intellectual sophistication to recognize its dubious claims.
It is because of this skepticism, overt or covert, that Christians in American higher education adopt the clandestine tactics I noted in the examples I mentioned earlier. They look around to see if anyone is listening; they conceal their involvement in religious organizations; they meet in hotel rooms like some dissident cell group in a totalitarian state; even when they teach at Christian colleges, their true feelings are often kept closely guarded in private space. A faculty member or graduate student may announce proudly that one's parents were immigrants, that one's ancestors tried to overthrow the government, or even that one played football in high school, but one does not admit to having been, let alone being, a Christian. Even to reveal a piece of one's past, as I have done here, is a dangerous thing, unless one moves on quickly to repudiate the experiences of one's childhood.
For this reason, Christians -- perhaps of all persuasions, but especially of evangelical lineage -- are a disinherited people within intellectual circles. They are a people without a past, for theirs is a past too shameful to acknowledge. Evangelicals after all are the anti-intellectuals who tried earlier in the century to halt progress; their simple-minded notions stood in the way of intellectual advancement; they were the parents who did not understand when one went away to college or decided to become an academic; they were the bigots who burned books, supported Senator Joseph McCarthy, imposed quotas to keep Jews out of colleges and universities, marched under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan, opposed the civil rights movement, encouraged the United States government to napalm innocent Vietnamese in the belief they were pushing back godless communists, kept their women at home barefoot and pregnant rather than assisting the feminist cause, fought unthinkingly against the pro-choice movement that all intelligent people of goodwill supported, and made fools of themselves sending money to Jimmy Swaggart and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The dirty little secret of American higher education's prejudice toward evangelical Christians works because nobody in the academy itself dares admit having any affinity with this shameful segment of American society. Universities that might bend over backwards to start programs in women's literature, in African-American or Hispanic culture, or in Jewish studies would never consider a comparable program in evangelical studies. And so, Christian scholars may hide out in hotel rooms or hold forth publicly under the rubric of American religious history, but few are able to appropriate a legitimate past for themselves or to adopt a public identity. This, then, is the tragedy of being a people without a legitimate history, for it is, as I have argued, the ability to construct a meaningful account of oneself, a story that makes sense of one's activities, that amplifies meaning and augments motivation.
The other dirty little secret scholars and intellectuals in American higher education have never been quite willing to confront is the continuing existence of the effects of social class within the academic community. Because education is supposed to be the land of equal opportunity, the great leveler, we tend not to see the lingering influences of class. And those of us at the top of the educational heap are even less inclined to talk about them, especially if our economic privileges made our rise easier for us to do so. Despite all the talk about financial aid, it is no accident that a high proportion of students at places like Princeton have gone to expensive private high schools, enjoyed summers abroad or received tutoring at the finest academies. Nor is it an accident that these students continue on to graduate schools and academic posts in disproportionate numbers. Even among graduate students, where selective processes have reduced the range of disparity, subtle class differences continue to be evident.
Anyone who still retains an identity as a Christian, or simply hales from evangelical stock is subjected to a double stigma: first, the stigma of a shameful religious past; and second, the lingering effects of having been reared -- as a disproportionate majority of evangelicals were -- in disadvantaged ranks of the stratification system.
The typical academic past that one hears, sometimes in print but more often at cocktail parties, is not the past of one who grew up knowing Harry Charles Kitchen, or one whose parents were dustbowl tenant farmers, or one whose father quit school in the eighth grade at the ripe age of seventeen to help keep the family together. The typical past runs a different course. It goes: I remember discovering Thoreau, having already taught myself to read at the age of three, and being very much alone and self-sufficient, not being able to count very much on support from my parents who had devoted my grandparents' fortune to a life of scholarship. And so, when I went off to Harvard myself, it was with considerable misgiving, for I had to overcome the disadvantages of having to translate Homer with difficulty and work in only two languages on my senior thesis.
Evangelicals are as likely to be disdained for their lack of such cosmopolitan roots as for anything they themselves are or are not. Like children from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, they are unlikely to have parents who planned sending them to Harvard, if not because of the costs alone, at least because nobody in their circles had ever gone there. The exceptional evangelical student may have earned top grades but never traveled outside the United States, felt compelled to read Flaubert, or had the courage to tackle Camus. And the evangelical student who happens to have decided to enter graduate school, pursue a Ph.D., and eventually become an academic is unlikely to have parents able fully to understand the derision, let alone explain their offspring's folly to neighbors and church folk. Once embarked on advanced studies, the evangelical student from a typical background is also likely to face a number of continuing obstacles: inadequate foreign language training, which prolongs the years of study; the need to support a spouse and, perhaps, children, which reflects the evangelical dating and mating subculture; and a pragmatic working-class orientation, which extols finishing quickly and getting a job rather than taking the intellectual risks that someone of more affluent means can afford.
All of this is often an enormous disadvantage in pursuing the intellectual life, a disadvantage deepened by the fact of its denial. Indeed, it is more the denial of this background than the background itself that troubles me. Quite a few Christians have, as I have said, through hard work and native intelligence joined the ranks of the intelligentsia despite class disadvantages. But to enter a world in which the lessons of disadvantage are no longer valued is to live in a world of denial.
And yet, there are, as we know, certain gains associated with disadvantage and denial, particularly the freedom that comes with exclusion, the creativity that comes with marginality. Exclusion and marginality often facilitate critical thought. Alienation and ambivalence catalyze it subjectively; dispensation from established class roles enhances it objectively. We should no more lose sight of these goods than we should pretend that the problems do not exist.
American culture shows few indications as it moves into the twenty-first century of becoming any less dominated by the rich and powerful, by elite institutions of higher learning, by big government and big industry, or by the competitive materialism to which we desperately cling in hopes of saving our place in the global economy. I am Calvinist enough to believe in that, but I am also Calvinist enough to believe that such experiences as my encounter with the death of Harry Charles Kitchen have a permanent impact on one's life, whether we later reinterpret them with more sophisticated theological understanding or not. And thus, there is in my view a continuing role to be played by Christians in the intellectual realm. In living the question, in being true to the realities of their own existence, persons of faith can respond to the challenge of thinking critically about what is going on in the wider world as well.
Karl Marx thought Christianity a form of false consciousness that prevented people from seeing reality as it really is. But he was more right when he referred to it as the heart of a heartless world. Lived as a question rather than a set of absolute answers, Christianity can stimulate critical thought. And in so doing, it is likely to continue bearing the burden of misunderstanding and prejudice. But that response should only galvanize its courage to tell a different story. For a story of disinheritance and struggle can also be the story of a legitimate past.
[*] Among evengelicals, the noun Christian designates the person who, through personal conversion, holds, professes, and acts on faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. [Editors]
 Tanya Gazdik, "Some Colleges Warn Students That Cult-Like Methods are Being Used by Christian Fundamentalist Groups," The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 15, 1989), 1.
 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1962).
 For a summary of these studies, see Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), especially Chapter 7.
 Results from a national survey of the American population I conducted in 1989; see Robert Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves (forthcoming), Chapter 5.
 Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Harper and Row, 1970 ).
 Robert Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), Chapter 8.
 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988).
 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963 ).
 Bertrand Very, "Milan Kundera or the Hazards of Subjectivity," Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (Summer 1989), p. 81.
 Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), Chapter 3.
ROBERT WUTHNOW, professor of sociology at Princeton University, is author
of The Struggle for America's Soul (Eerdmans, 1989). Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of
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