It is very nearly four decades since, as a terribly callow graduate student with an interest in philosophy, I made a pilgrimage with a friend to the home of a professor of Christian apologetics. I was looking for direction, and even though Cornelius Van Til had been retired for many years, he was known to welcome inquirers — whom he often greeted on his front porch with a rake in hand, suggesting that perhaps they could pile-up his leaves for him before they talked.
I was hoping to hear an intimidating, intellectually-convoluted, scholastic, metaphysical strategy for blowing the philosopher’s version of Gideon’s trumpet. Van Til, then pushing 80, stood with his hard white comb of hair brushed back from his cliff-like brow and the smile of an old Dutch dairy farmer (which his father had been). I asked, “Dr. Van Til, why did you decide to devote your life to the study of philosophy and the teaching of apologetics?”
And I then sat back to allow the metaphysics free room to roll. Van Til never blinked.
“Why,” he said, “to protect Christ’s little ones.”
…I recall those words — “Why, to protect Christ’s little ones” — with tears, both because I have not always lived according to them, and because it is precisely the world of the scholar and historian that encourages me to ignore them… I had only just earned the PhD and was on the job market when my department’s graduate chairman took me aside and, in the kindliest terms, said, “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you should know that the slightest hint of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death.”
In the years since I was given that advice, the shadows have only grown longer… What we believe is now no longer merely odd, but discriminatory, and therefore fair game to be discriminated against. We have seen, or read, the exclusion practiced at Vanderbilt, at Bowdoin, in the University of California system against Christian student organizations; we have seen with perhaps more anxiety a Christian college temporarily threatened with loss of accreditation. And given the degree to which even private colleges and universities are dependent on various streams of public funds, some modernized version of the Test Act cannot be far away… “The slightest hint of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death” is the reality we see materializing before us, individually and institutionally.
As much as American evangelical Christianity has seen itself as exceptional, as countercultural, as standing outside a mainstream, what has struck me in my years of observation and participation has been, instead, its lust for respectability… In a recent reminiscence, Roger Olson mused on how much American evangelical Christianity had changed in his day — and “so dramatically,” he adds, that “it’s hardly recognizable.” Especially, Olson noted, “It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘worldly’ uttered in an evangelical church. The line between us and the secular world and its forms of entertainment has just about disappeared.” And again: “Evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward… All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons
are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul
…When the day arrives that our chief delight lies in how easily we can be mistaken for an entirely irreligious thinker, in an entirely irreligious profession, in pursuit of irreligious jobs, then we shall have already received our reward in full.
Our Lord Jesus bore death so that we might live. The Christian scholar either has that for a model, or else has neither model nor Lord.
So, we must bear death in order that others — the little ones — might live. I do not mean literal beheadings; I mean something substantially more agonizing, more drawn-out, more lonely, and that is the death of ostracism, the death of contempt, the death of unemployability and poverty and incessant self-accusation for being so silly. This is real suffering, as opposed to the bogus self-advertisement of the provocateur.
Christian higher education often suffers from a split personality. It professes a Christian religious allegiance, but practices a variety of secular professional agendas, consciously or unconsciously. But schizophrenia, no matter from which root it springs, is as lethal to a healthy institution as it is to healthy psyche.
The mission of Christian academics is single, not multiple, and Van Til’s advice is a good place for them to start. This is not, mind you, an argument for ignorance. Daniel and his companions had “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams … ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters” in Babylon (Daniel 1:17, 20). But they practiced neither abandonment nor gentility; they would “not defile [themselves] with the king’s dainties.” And they were reconciled to humiliation and death.
Daniel’s friends had, as T.S. Eliot’s The Rock counselled, made perfect their wills… [T]he Christian college which carefully trims its sails to avoid confrontation, to recruit tuition-paying students, or to afford a platform for self-admiring blather need[s] to know this: make
perfect your will.
When we no longer make ourselves the center of our desires, when we take as our aim as Christian scholars, college presidents, pastors, thinkers, to make perfect our wills, then and only then do I imagine that we will have any real effect on the world — only when we have surrendered the notion of having an effect will we have one. And only then will we begin to see that our real priority is not to change the world, to change our professions, to publish this or footnote that, but to protect Christ’s little ones.
Dr. Allen Guelzo ’75 is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as the director of the Civil War Era Studies Program.