The evangelical rejection of reason?

Two academics discuss their faith and reason in the New York Times:

we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation.

Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.

I am of two minds of their mind.

If you only read the red lines, yes, you could say that Christianity is relatively humble. That starts to change pretty fast, pretty much with Peter. But if you’re an evangelical, maybe you’re not fully thrilled with the first pope.

But the people who find it hard to fit their ideas and ethos into their faith (and especially an institution) only do so by what I think of as religious lego: take what you like, toss away the rest. Build your own religion. (Canadian Catholics, among whom I was raised, take this to an art form.)

So I have to say that “intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking”  sounds rather like wishful thinking.

Thoughts from readers? The usual ground rules for my comments section apply: civil discourse only. Or else my blog lightning might just hit your comment.

17 thoughts on “The evangelical rejection of reason?

  1. What would be so wrong with a little religious Lego? When political party members make up their own minds about individual issues rather than just toeing the official line it’s usually seen as a positive thing; yes, I can see that fundamentally religion is predicated on submission to a higher authority, but there’s no reason that authority has to be a corporate body of any description.

  2. Why should that be wishful thinking? I know plenty of people whom I would describe as intellectually engaged, humble evangelical Christians, like my friend Dean Nelson, a journalist from San Diego who recently wrote a piece for USA Today about why certainty about God is overrated (see ). His piece profiles the British scientist John Polkinghorne, another intellectually engaged, humble evangelical Christian.

    It is hard to make sense of these categories — Christian, “person of faith,” evangelical, fundamentalist. They are just words trying to capture peoples’ experience with scripture, with life, with the traditions of the church, with reason and intellect — all of which are deeply personal, complicated and often contradictory. Look, I’ve attended churches that poo-poo women’s abilities, that make you feel like you need to check your intellect at the door — all that is real and it gives me the shivers. It’s part of why I hardly go to church anymore; because when I’m there I always feel like I have to watch my back.

    But not all churches are like that; and not all people in churches are like that (churches are, after all, just a bunch of people). And there is something deeply humble about people coming together week after week, out of the dust and dirt of their own lives, and sitting down and bowing their heads and saying: hey, I can’t do this on my own. Hey, I think life has meaning, I think life is more than we can see.

    Anyway, guess I’m rambling: the truth is there has never been nor is there now any necessary discrepancy between faith and reason.

  3. The best faithful activity is flawed people striving to meet an impossible standard. (That’s not to excuse the failures, but the failures don’t invalidate the faith.) With that in mind, it’s all “wishful thinking”. The authors’ wish certainly seems closer to the red lines of the Bible than do the wishes of many evangelicals today, especially on patriotism, international intervention, and immigration. I only wish these professors could appear on Fox News instead of in the New York Times.

  4. I much prefer lego-religion, but one of the NYTs conservative columnists (Brooks I think) made a good point about that – if you look at which religions are growing and which are seeing people leave, it’s the lego religions that are floundering. A perfect example is the German protestant church, which has overall great, open, liberal values, but decreasing number of members (in spite of super-favorable institutional conditions) and very low actual participation/churchgoing among those members.

  5. From my perspective as a third culture evangelical, the religious right and the moral majority are lego-religion incarnate. Anti-evangelical reaction tends to be a reaction to these groups rather than an honest reaction to a close reading of scripture. My sense is that there will be a greater and greater revulsion to american fundamentalist Christianity as people begin to see more clearly that it is a religion based on culture rather than scripture. I’ve never really understood the purpose of building alternative foundations for religion whether you’re a fundamentalist or a liberal. If a religion is no longer based on its foundational texts, why is it more than a club or a civic organization? Maybe that’s why both pole’s numbers are dropping?

  6. I think one can realistically hope to avoid fundamentalism without stepping too far into the “religious lego” approach.
    An intellectually engaged Christian has to take seriously the parts of the tradition they ‘don’t like’. A forward-thinking Christian will recognize that scripture is contextualized, and subject to interpretation, and will be willing to set parts aside when taking modern lessons from ancient wisdom. But a humble Christian will also recognize the Bible as sacred spiritual history and philosophy, and not feel entitled to toss any of it aside without serious consideration and deep understanding.
    I think the much of the theological tradition is predicated on the idea that reason gives us hope of defining that middle ground; that it’s not just wishful thinking.

  7. I think the implication is that religion lego is bad in some way, but if you aren’t religious you’re playing philosophy lego, right? I mean you might have a coherent idea about the afterlife (it doesn’t exist) and higher purpose (there is none), but does anyone not play lego with ethics?

  8. To call lego philosophy good or bad requires a normative position about what people should do, which is yet another organizing principle. It just is. The early Christian church was loosely organized itself, and resulted in some pretty diverse interpretations of Scripture. The Big Man Constantine codified some of his own laws about Christianity, and then Catholic Church engaged in its own lego philosphy at several points throughout its history. Lego philosphy is easier than lego science because of the nature of our perceptive abilities. We can see and observe facts; they can be proven to us. God can’t be seen in the same sense, so God is more easily fungible.

    At the end of the day, I personally believe that people want rules to organize their lives by – to make sense out of a complicated and complex environment. Most decisions aren’t religious or philosphical, and most of us don’t want to make them so. One rule works for us, the other doesn’t – so we use it instead of the other.

  9. I find it laughable that somehow we (as in American culture) have framed God’s top priorities to be picking a political party or advocating for a certain candidate. He has bigger fish to fry as should we. Faith can strengthen reason simply because they are not mutually exclusive–don’t understand how this assumption that you can’t have both arose.

  10. The problem is that people usually confuse religion, culture and faith.
    I believe that christianity was supposed to be a relational ideology instead of a cultural knowledge you can apply easily to make judgements about global change, politics, “humanitarian interventions” or social movements. This is why Martin Luther was that important in the Reform.
    For me it is extraordinary how christianity is used especially in the Estates to defend arguments and accumulate votes. This tendency has been described from the very beginning of the 20th century bye Weber in “The protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and since them a lot of evangelical christians try to go back to the basics (as the .
    That doesn’t mean that you can create your own religion, that means that you take what you like and you don’t like from the scripture and you try to apply it living in the presence of God. Yeah yeah I know in the Estates is different but in essence I don’t really thing christians are supposed to be religious people (using religion to our own benefit) and either re creating a new religion where we could feel confortable.

    From a humble spanish evangelical person that believes in the global change and works in aid.

  11. I’ve yet to meet an evangelical Christian who wasn’t deeply committed to the idea that men are better than women based on gender. So far as I can tell, the “evangelical” versions of Christianity are for folks who want to do more missionary work while hating on the poor and women a little more than the “mainline” versions of Christianity.

  12. From a close family member I received the following comment, which I thought was worth sharing:

    I mostly found your comments confusing. Too bad we could not have an hour’s discussion over coffee. I don’t know any evangelicals who have serious problems with the Apostle Peter – his life and his NT writings. We of course don’t believe that Christ appointed him as a “pope” or ever meant for there to be some kind of “papal succession”. So I wasn’t sure what you were trying to say there.

    Also, since you are lovingly involved in a family that I think has a few evangelicals who are at least relatively intelligent, fairly humble and forward looking, why you wrote that to describe some evangelicals that way was “wishful thinking”. I suspect you either wrote hastily or perhaps, in writing briefly left yourself open to misunderstanding.

    Here’s what I had to say.

    Briefly, I think probably my comments were hastily written and thus easily confused (which is an apt description of virtually every one of my blog posts, on any subject–whatever the topic, I hear daily from people who know something more about the subject).

    If I had to clarify what I said, I would say that my understanding of the evangelical movement is that a key tenet is the high regard for biblical authority, beyond just the Gospels. That biblical authority (depending on how you interpret it) can be in tension with humbleness or being forward looking. To non-evangelicals, it’s hard to see those tensions being resolved, especially in mainstream churches. This might be because we don’t understand well-enough what it means to be evangelical.

    But in practice, many of the deeply religious people I know seem reconcile what some of the bible says with their own beliefs by in effect rejecting some parts of the bible and accepting others. I think, philosophically, one could resolve the tensions or seeming inconsistencies between biblical authority and humbleness/forward-looking-ness. But I wonder if that resolution would be one that many evangelicals, even evangelical intellectual leaders, would regard as a reflection of their faith. It’s in this sense that I thought the article was wishful — the ideas the authors articulated struck me as sensible ones, but possibly unrealistic to think that they would be embraced by many of their brethren.

    To take a non-evangelical example, but a Jewish one, there is an orthodox Jewish biblical scholar at Harvard who wrote about the Old Testament. He has managed to reconcile an orthodox faith with a fairly liberal reading of the Old testament, but my understanding is that it is one that few Orthodox Jews agree with. So the question becomes, is he any longer an Orthodox Jew?

    More comments welcome. I do not stand on anything resembling firm intellectual ground.

  13. I while back there was a conference entitled “Humble Orthodoxy” that encouraged followers of Christ to hold fast to the authority of the Bible and the teachings of scripture, but with the humility that Jesus himself exhibited when he left all the glory of heaven to come to earth and die for a sinful people (Philippians 2).

    For those wanting to engage in this humble orthodoxy, I would encourage them to look at the gospel coalition website –, which represents various denominations and traditions. I think Tim Keller from New York is a great example of how reason and faith go hand in hand. Check out his book “A Reason for God.” Also, there are quite a few evangelical economists seeking to bring the reconciliation of Jesus to the public sphere such as Dr. Elzinga at UVA to name one.

  14. A favorite professor of mine once said, “Yes, I’m a cafeteria Catholic [similar to the lego analogy, take what you wish and leave the rest]…Just as Jesus was a cafeteria Jew.”

    I think that’s not an unimportant point.

  15. I think it’s important to note that most evangelical Christians (intellectual or not) reject parts of what the Bible literally says on cultural and/or interpretive grounds. There are very few churches, for example, that teach that women need to wear their hair covered in church, or that wearing pearls and other jewelery is sinful, yet these are laid out as direct prohibitions in the New Testament. In the extremely conservative Baptist megachurch church I grew up in and in many non-humble, non-forward-looking churches today that take a strong view of Biblical orthodoxy, these passages are dismissed as being of a time in which women who did those prohibited things were prostitutes. Since that isn’t the norm anymore, we didn’t have to worry about it and could feel free to show up with hair flowing and jewels sparkling.

    Is it cafeteria line/Lego theology? Absolutely – those passages are just steps away from the ones prohibiting premarital and gay sex. It’s this tension that for me is frustrating; not the picking-and-choosing of what to believe (which everybody does), but the picking-and-choosing of what is worthy of picking-and-choosing (such that, say, living in extravagant wealth while others suffer is not condemned while specific sexual activities are).

  16. Chris’ notion of how one – by separating from the majority of those who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews – a scholar with new interpretations might himself have ceased to be an Orthodox Jew.

    I say this scholar is – and should be recognized to be – whatever he tells you he is. Identity is not scientific. If he tells you tomorrow that he is a big purple dinosaur – then you should greet him “I love you, you love me…”

    Please tell me that was the first Barney & Friends reference in the illustrious history of this blog.

  17. I believe the Bible is the true inspired inerrant infallable Word of God .In order for anyone to interpret the Word of God YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN.QUICKENED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT of GOD.REGENERATED by the HOLY SPIRIT of GOD.Since too many times and by too many people the WORD of GOD is attempted to be interpreted by these people who think they know what the BIBLE is saying .They really DONOT have a clue what the WORD OF GOD is all about or what the LORD is conveying to HIS people.These people need to sit down and shut up .They have no idea how wrong they are when it comes to interpreting the WORD OF GOD.LEAVE THE WORD OF GOD ALONE. There is nothing wrong with it It is people like you that keep people who are looking for true meaning to life from ever finding it..Jesus said, Ye must be born again. Unless a man is born of the water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of GOD.That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit .What is written in the WORD OF GOD takes spiritual discernment.