I’m done with Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and have had some time for things to percolate in my mind. Here are some thoughts:
1. I am appreciative of many areas where Noll has filled in history to which I have not paid much attention in the past. I will leave a question mark over some of it—where is spin I’m not equipped to recognize? But I would rather have a starter knowledge to edit later than have no knowledge at all.
2. I agree that the history of American Protestant Christian conservatism has been fairly anti-intellectual, particularly since the Civil War. Maybe it has always been since our colonist days because of the frontier personality.
Pragmatists came here and survived here, the kind of people who weren’t prone to value long standing traditions, do it yourself people. The most urgent truths are what are valued—what works, what will make it possible for my family to survive the winter? Typical US beginnings were by rough and ready individualists who didn’t let others tell them what to do—and that includes the Pope or some European church. Give me a Bible and I’ll tell you what God thinks.
The internet age has made it more difficult to hide from what the experts in any discipline are saying. But it's also not clear to me that the rising generations believe in experts. The sense is that truth is whatever works for me, a postmodern cultural Zeitgeist (not to be confused with some legitimate challenges from postmodern philosophy). Ironically, postmodernism has in part become the most recent excuse for anti-intellectualism among some pockets of conservative American Protestant Christianity.
3. Noll seems to me very modernist himself in many respects. Those who invoke him certainly are. I listen to us talk, we Christian "intellectuals” in conservative settings. So often the discussion is along the lines of the “ignorant masses” to whom we can offer so much in the way of truth. The problem is of course that so many of the views I hear espoused under this heading seem quite provisional themselves, to where our ignorance is only one step removed from those whom we ourselves criticize. (Physician, heal thyself)
We Christian thinkers need to be more humble in our truth assertions--especially as individuals but even as conservative or moderate groupings of thinkers. It’s “I don’t see how it could be otherwise, but I could be wrong.” It’s not “you're anti-intellectual if you don’t see things how I see them.”
I predict we’ll get over our fascination with subjectivism soon enough as a culture—including as a Christian culture—and start a new, chastened quest for objectivity in thinking. The postmodern critique is significant and valid. But the quest for truth will go on and over time the hypotheses that best account for the data will eliminate "cop out scholarship," scholarship that is not really interested in what is true but in applying one's intellect to support extreme minority or narcissistic positions.
4. Perhaps the most sobering thought I’ve had reading Noll is that the holiness/revivalist tradition isn't even at the table. People like Marsden and Noll have no reason to make careful distinctions when it comes to the history of my tradition. You can hardly blame them on one level.
Where are the holiness revivalist thinkers today? Is this sentence an oxymoron, to where the only way we can be thinkers is to abandon the holiness/revivalist part? Certainly Noll and Marsden think so.
Where is the standard Wesleyan-Arminian systematic theology to read? Where is the conglomeration of broader Wesleyan scholars presenting our take on church history, theology, and hermeneutics?
There are some broader Methodist voices in which I can see what such a movement might look like. They seem to be at Duke--people like Maddox, Hays, and Jones come to mind. But they are not dialoging with the holiness revivalist tradition. It is a Methodist seminary, and who of us is reading them with a view to our identity?
Asbury has had some lone scholars over the years. Bob Lyon more than anyone else probably brought about the de-Actsification of the holiness movement. But most of Asbury's people don't publish in a way that might create a movement in holiness revivalist circles (although Ken Collins would be a potential). And they also are primarily focused on things Methodist.
As far as the Wesleyan Church is concerned, there are no Leo Coxes today, no Wilbur Daytons or Melvin Dieters. Where even would an organized consortium of broader Wesleyan thinkers rise up from? Who among us is even recognized by broader scholarship as a voice for Wesleyan-Arminian thought?
Who will reach out to organize and mobilize us? Nazarene Theological Seminary? Do we even want to be mobilized as thinkers? Azusa won't, couldn't, even with a motivated David Wright as Dean. It's faculty are what so many faculties are--a bunch of individual lone rangers with no common cause and barely still in the holiness tradition. Wesley Biblical has great scholars, but they are not thought trailblazers. They are outstanding rear guard scholars.
I want to thank Keith Drury for providing me with a path to conceptualize my gnawing complaint with the way Marsden and Noll divide up early twentieth century conservative Christian history. First, I find it telling that the founding voices of fundamentalism do not fit into any of Mark Noll’s fundy categories: holiness revivalists, Pentecostals, and dispensationalists. It surely reveals a “fundamental” flaw in his history telling that the real movers and shakers of early twentieth century fundamentalism—people like J. Gresham Machen—do not fit into any of his categories.
The term Drury coined in his most recent Tuesday Column is “anti-modern.” Yes, my forebears were anti-modernist. They intuitively retreated into emotional experiences and end time scenarios to cope with the rapid secularization of America after the Civil War. They retreated from science and politics into countless little fragmented separatist groups.
But to call these groups "fundamentalists" is, I think, to assume that the standard of identity in play here is ideological. I don't think the key to understanding my forebears is to see them as retreating to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. They were retreating to what they saw as the fundamental experiences of Christianity.
I would expect historians with Reformed backgrounds to lump together people based on their orientation toward ideas. But call the intellectual anti-modernists "fundamentalists," people like Machen. Then let the next generation of revivalist thinkers--if we can find them--put a head on my experiential and behavior-oriented ancestors.
Is there any church historian of the Wesleyan tradition who is looking for a dissertation topic? So many current intellectual developments open doors for our tradition—the new perspective on Judaism and Paul, the impossibility of meaning in a text alone, the postmodern critique of absolute rational certainty.
Who will marshal us together and mobilize us? Or is the holiness revivalist tradition so anti-intellectual that it cannot survive thinking? I don't think so. We just need a revival :-)