Review of Mark A. Noll and James Turner, The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue, ed. Thomas Albert Howard (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008). 144 pp.
As contemporary culture grows more and more post-Christian, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic—despite centuries of enmity—increasingly find themselves on the same side. Evangelicals and Catholics are standing together in protest lines outside of abortion clinics, working together politically on pro-family issues, and collaborating with each other in moral debates and cultural activism. In higher education, evangelicals struggling against secularist ideologies are drawing on the work of Roman Catholic scholars of the past and present and finding them good allies.
This book is the product of a dialogue held on the campus of Gordon College, an evangelical institution, between the historians Mark Noll, an evangelical Protestant, and James Turner, a Roman Catholic. Their papers and their responses to each other focus on the possibilities of evangelicals and Catholics working together to bring a Christian influence back into American higher education.
What evangelicals and Catholics can learn from each other
In his essay, Noll argues that evangelicals need precisely what Catholics have to offer: the legacy of “Christendom”; that is, the historical tradition in which Christianity actually did influence Western culture morally, spiritually, and intellectually. Also, Catholics need precisely what evangelicals have to offer: personal piety and a focus on the distinctives of the Christian faith.
In the course of a fascinating historical study of both traditions, Noll concludes that the problems that evangelicals have when it comes to Christian learning are “super-spiritual docetism, sectarian Gnosticism, and partisan Manichaeism.” That is, to translate the allusions to the respective heresies, to a tendency to minimize the significance of matter and the physical world; to trust in the knowledge from small in-groups of interpretation while ignoring the insights of other Christians; to reduce life in the world to a battle between good vs. evil, which then becomes the basis for political, cultural, and intellectual activism.
Roman Catholics, Noll says, have gone overboard in the other direction. “Common Catholic temptations strike me as offering too much respect for nature as created and too little attention to the operations of divine grace in redeeming the world, as emphasizing catholicity too strongly and being skittish about reasoning directly from scripture as divine revelation, and showing too great a willingness to find truth, beauty, and goodness distributed at large in a world riddled with sin and death.”
Noll then discusses the “learning-conducive strengths” of both traditions. Here is his list of the evangelical strengths that Catholics would do well to learn from: (1) a sharp awareness of how religious formalism and mindless tradition can anesthetize thought; (2) a well-practiced demonstration of the virtue of voluntary organization for mobilizing groups and initiating change; (3) an insistence on personal engagement, in faith and in learning, as a key to God-honoring personal and group existence; (4) and above all, the inestimable value (especially in an environment shaped by democratic individualism) of the priesthood of all believers.
Here is his list of the Catholic strengths that, he says, evangelicals should appropriate: (1) a positive, God-honoring place for matter; (2) a positive, God-honoring role for reason; (3) a parish ideal of community (all classes, races, dispositions in one common institution); (4) a positive acceptance of history and tradition as gifts from God; (5) a well-established record of careful legal casuistry; (6) a long-standing commitment to institutions as capable of connecting present communities with both predecessors and successors
Why Catholic universities will be standoffish
After Noll’s earnest call for an evangelical-Catholic alliance, Turner’s essay, from the Catholic side, seems to throw cold water on the whole project. Actually, though, he proves Noll’s points
Catholic universities will not collaborate with evangelical institutions, he explains with a bit of condescension, because they are not “peers.” Catholic universities see themselves as being on the playing field as the major secular universities. Evangelical colleges are just not on the same level. Notre Dame aspires to be like Harvard; Baylor aspires to be like Notre Dame.
He does say that collaboration might happen between individual scholars. Catholic universities are willing to “cherry-pick,” as he says, the best evangelical scholars for their faculties. Indeed, his fellow contributor to this volume, Mark Noll, while once at Wheaton now teaches at Notre Dame, as does Turner, who is now his department chair. Noll joins other major evangelical scholars who are impacting their fields at that pre-eminent Catholic university, such as George Marsden in history and Alvin Plantinga in philosophy.
It is surely telling that Catholic universities are proving to be havens for evangelical scholars. But Turner stresses that Catholic universities today hardly have a distinctly Catholic, or even Christian identity at all, and that this is purposeful. Nearly half of the faculty at Notre Dame are not Catholic, and more than half at Boston College, Georgetown, and DePaul. A good number of those are not even Christians.
Moreover, even the Catholics at these institutions are not likely to try to integrate their scholarship with their faith or even talk about their faith the way evangelicals do. Turner points to the important distinction in Catholicism between the laity and the religious orders. Laity on the faculty, he says, are unlikely to talk about Christianity with their students, assuming that this is only something that priests should do. He also admits that while Catholics have rich resources for the spiritual formation of priests, monks, and nuns, they have almost nothing like that for the laity. What little they do have now, he says, is modeled after the evangelicals, as are the recently-founded Catholic campus ministries.
Turner says that Catholic scholars can be more like their secularist colleagues because of the high view of reason in church tradition, which makes it possible for Catholics to embrace the rationalism of secular research. More deeply, he says, Catholics have a “sacramental vision” of the world. The belief that God manifests Himself in and through the physical realm means that Catholics can find expressions of God everywhere and not just within the church. Catholics are also universalists in the sense of finding religious truths in every culture and religion.
Now the Catholic scholars and laypeople that have been most helpful to me—for example, those who contribute to Touchstone, First Things, and ISI publications—do indeed talk about their faith and do seek to apply it in a distinctive way to the world. While they would agree that in the Sacraments God manifests Himself through material means, they would not jump to the conclusion that every material object is a Sacrament, much less use the sacramental vision as a rationale for methodological materialism. While they would agree on a high view of reason, they would also have a high view of revelation and would reject any attempt to minimize its intellectual significance.
Turner illustrates what many evangelicals who convert to Catholicism discover to their great frustration, that Catholicism, especially of the American variety, is not just St. Thomas Aquinas, Mother Theresa, and the High Mass. It is also liberation theologians, feminist nuns, and contemporary guitar services, as well as legions of cultural Catholics who are openly indifferent to the teachings of their own church, and when it comes to sexual morality and the sacredness of life openly defiant of church authority.
The true theological dichotomy is not between evangelical and Catholic but between Protestant and Catholic. Mainstream liberal Protestants are even more open to secularism and universalism than Roman Catholics are. Evangelicals represent a strain of the conservative wing of Protestantism, and their affinities will thus be with conservative Catholics.
These will not necessarily be well-represented at most Catholic colleges and universities. The Vatican, with the help of the growing ranks of conservative American bishops, is currently trying, in the face of much institutional opposition, to rein in at least the theology faculties to make them “more Catholic.” As illustrated in the controversy over President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic Church is undergoing a culture war of its own, and Catholic universities for the most part line up on the left with their secularist peers.
Neither Turner nor Noll are particularly critical of the current academic climate. Noll says that the collapse of rationalistic certainty and the new intellectual pluralism that characterize the postmodern university have made room for evangelicals and for Christian perspectives. So they have. But it is surely a fair question to ask about the prospects for learning under the reigning secularist ideologies. If Catholics have an educational advantage that evangelicals should emulate because they believe in reason, is there an educational problem when secularist academics reject reason? Will the relativism, nihilism, and political reductionism that have become commonplace at today’s universities be conducive to education or do they represent an intellectual dead end? Isn’t the contemporary academy also plagued with docetism, gnosticism, and Manichaeism?