The Redemption of Reason

A transcription of Dr. Willard's address given at the academic symposium on "The Christian University in the Next Millennium," at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, February 28, 1998. This is the lecture that prompted the writing of The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.

I’m speaking this morning on "The Redemption of Reason" because I think that is the most salient thing I can talk about from the point of view of my work as a philosopher. The task assigned to me by Dean Wilkins was to address the philosophical pitfalls and prospects of the attempt to interface reason and revelation in a Christian university. I think one of the greatest needs today is to help people understand how the situation between reason or understanding and revelation has changed in our time, and specifically to understand that what is in trouble on our campuses today is reason itself. Reason is in big trouble!

The task of the university in the next century is to redeem reason and bring it fully into the camp of God. When I first began to contemplate the topic of "reason in the university in the next century," my first thought was "I hope it does better in the next century than it did in this one!" And I believe it can by the power of God. My claim will be that only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason.

Please forgive me, but I’m going to plod along here for a bit. I’ll just have to ask you to, in Biblical language, "gird up the loins" of your mind and stay with me. So I’ll say that to you again: only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason. Now if you had said that in most places of intellect and knowledge in the Western world at any time up to the First World War, the response would have been, "Yes, what else is new?" But in the last fifty years or so, the cultural transition has followed the wave of intellectual ideas that has been developing for some centuries. In the words of Max Picard’s wonderful little book, there has been a "flight from God"—a cultural flight from God and all of the automatic assumptions about life, intellect, truth, knowledge, and so on, that prevailed in culture generally.

Bishop Butler, in the preface to his Analogy of Religion, commented in a rather wry manner, that "certain advanced intellectuals seem recently to have found out that Christianity is a hoax." Well that group of intellectuals is extremely small, through the years it has grown, and only in recent decades has it come to have the weight of cultural assumption on its side. Once that came about, then reason itself, which was thought to be the bulwark of humanity, for good and against evil, began to crumble. Then, for reasons which I shall try to explain, reason could not sustain itself, and I’m going to repeat for the third time, only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason, in our time, and for the future.

Now let me give you a preliminary survey of the ground: The contest now, in our culture and in our universities, is not between revelation and reason. Reason is in as much or more trouble in the academic world today, as revelation. Now I admit that in some cases this is because the people who are attacking reason don’t think revelation is worth troubling with. But generally speaking, the human enterprise that is taking a beating is reason.

The opponent of the Christian understanding of reality today is a set of socially powerful ideas or prejudices. At one time they were called "empiricism," and you have the fruit of that in the philosophy of David Hume. A little later they were called "positivism," and you have the fruit of that in the work of thinkers like Ernst Mach and Nietzsche. More recently we find the "logical positivists," and the "existentialists" in the middle of this century. The name for reason’s current opponent is "naturalism." Naturalism is a form of what can also be called "scientism"—the idea that truth, and reality, is marked out by the boundaries of the concretely existing sciences, and their future. The central opposing idea to both reason and to revelation is that the sense-perceptible world is reality. The so-called "public world" (which is really not very public on most accounts when you get right down to it), the sense-perceptible world, is reality. Now we can go various ways from there, but that’s the basic idea. On this view, reason—and knowledge itself—becomes incomprehensible.

This is the fundamental fact of our time, from which reason must be redeemed: the incomprehensibility of reason and knowledge in naturalistic terms. Reason and knowledge are not to be found in the sense-perceptible world. It’s just that simple. If you have to understand everything in terms of the sense-perceptible world, reason and knowledge are gone. That is why you have the many strained and forced interpretations of knowledge and consciousness and reason, including all of the creative arts, and all of the areas of expression of the human spirit that we study in the academy—the forced interpretations of these as sociological, as behavioral, or even chemical. Even the interpretation of love has to be put in a naturalistic mold. I’m reminded of a man who said "Sawdust is wonderfully nourishing if you will substitute bread for it." When you try to put truth into the naturalistic mold, it’s gone. It is the same when you try to put evidence, when you try to put logic, logical relationships, probability, all of these fundamental things into a naturalistic mold. There are many dimensions of evidence, and many of them fall in a very variegated way within what we would call "sense-perception," but not sense-perception in the narrow sense that the naturalist wants to take it. And so we have to simply understand that the sociological, behavioral and chemical attempts to treat knowledge, reason, and creativity are due to the fact that the only categories available are the ones posed by the naturalistic world-view.

So of course, that’s why I say only the Christian knowledge-tradition can save knowledge in our time. If we don’t have that, we have a constant struggle within our Christian schools with what one writer has called "the problem of stemming the drift". The question comes up, "What is it about higher academic life that seems to make it such a hard-and-fast rule that given enough time, any institution, no matter how rooted in orthodoxy, will sooner or later slip away from its anchors?" In an article that appeared in "World Magazine" in May of 1997, Joel Beltz tries to address this. He quotes Gaylen Byker, President of Calvin College, on the problem. "The problem" is: How do you secure faculty for first-class programs in Christian colleges, without losing them to the secular mindset? When you’re hiring faculty you begin to think thoughts like, "Is it really important that a math professor hold to his school’s theological position?" With regard to experts in the various subject matters, Byker comments—and it’s very true in this simple statement he makes—"It’s hard to justify hiring a third-rate Christian when you can get a first-rate non-Christian." Those are his words, and I think we all understand this is a serious problem, not something to be dismissed.

In that article, Joel Beltz comes up with a formulaic response that is simply in terms of being faithful to a high doctrine of Scriptural inspiration. He’s actually commenting a bit about Calvin College and the debate that got underway when professors at Calvin and other folks in their sponsoring denomination got wobbly on the doctrine of Scripture. That’s when the underpinnings get knocked loose. I agree with that. The question is what are you going to do about it? I have a friend who says when he goes to France he just speaks English louder. When we’re dealing with this problem, do we just affirm the doctrine louder?

You see the real problem is how do we integrate a high doctrine of Scriptural inspiration into the body of knowledge that makes up our academic life? That is the real problem back of "drift." We speak of the integration of life and faith, and of learning and faith, but that means in practice we must have a theory of knowledge that incorporates an authoritative Scripture. How does that fit in? With no special pleading, no dodging, no evading, … how does that fit in?

Now you may feel like I’m taking unfair advantage of you because I’m about to drag you through some of the hardest patches in philosophy. And the reason for that is you simply cannot deal with these questions unless you’re ready to face up to the question of "What constitutes knowledge?" One of the reasons why people drift on the authority of the Scripture is because they have been taught that somehow it is in a separate category from other types of knowledge, so that’s what they do: they put it in a separate category. They do their mathematics, and their Slavic languages, and philosophy, etc., as if it were knowledge, and then when they come to the authority of the Scripture and the contents of the Scripture, suddenly that’s not treated as knowledge.

In fact, it isn’t so much that it isn’t treated as knowledge, as that it doesn’t even appear in the same category. That is a compromise that has been worked out over a long period of time: first among philosophers such as Spinoza, and later on thinkers such as Kant and Fichte, who developed the view that the historical content of the religious traditions was only a Faison de Parle—it was a manner of speaking, a way of saying something that could be said better if you laid it aside and did it on the basis of reason. So you have a compartmentalization, an idea that "Yes, we tell the Biblical stories and all of that but we all realize that they teach something which we all ‘know’ on a different basis." We can get past all of the sectarian divisions, and we can have peace by making this little division here so that religious faith as traditionally understood and realknowledge never meet." That is the circumstance in which drift occurs, and drift occurs because that is a falsehood - religious faith and real knowledge do meet. You cannot keep them from meeting. Just the fact that you have one person who’s trying to play both sides of that street means that it can never succeed as a device.

What we have to do is recognize that. We have to understand that the content of the Christian tradition stands on all fours with any other knowledge tradition, and where they deal with the same thing, stands as a knowledge claim on the basis of evidence. Authority is not opposed to evidence; authority is a form of evidence. But we have to have a theory of evidence that brings them together!

With that said, now I’m ready to begin. I want to tell you what reason is. I want to tell you what knowledge is. I don’t do this in any high-handed way, I trust, but we need to have definitions before us to work from. So let’s just begin with reason itself. I’ll give you a very simple description; I will not split and start all of the available hairs.

What is reason? Reason is the power to determine, by thinking, what is the case. Really, it is the capacity to discern necessary connections, hypothetical connections. This is true when you are balancing your checkbook - you are using reason. You are saying if this happened, and that happened, and the other happened… I wrote this check, I made that deposit, there was this service charge, there’s this much going in, this much coming out… then there’s this much in the bank. That’s a use of reason. (Some of us may not be familiar with that particular case.) Anytime you’re trying to puzzle out what is happening in the middle of an event on the freeway sometime, you’re using reason. Other examples include trying to understand your child, or grading a paper. Of course those are loving activities because we want to be able to find contact with the mind of the other person involved, and it’s a great use of reason.

Reason is the power to determine or discover what is the case by thinking. We see it in its formal properties in Logic. One of the indicators of the sad state of reason in our culture today is there’s almost no training in logic now in our universities. I have to take my undergraduates aside and say "Now I know you don’t have to take a course in logic but I encourage you to take a course in logic." And to those who are Christians, I use the old saying of L.T.Hobhouse, the old English philosopher who used to say "All that religion requires of philosophy is a fair field and no quarter given," because that’s exactly right, and when you learn it on that basis, you’ve got something. But these days, you can earn a Ph.D. and never know the difference plied between non-sequiter and post hoc ergo propter hoc- you’re never required to learn those things.

Now you more or less fit into a particular field and you learn how the ball bounces in that field and you try to keep the ball bouncing. That’s often thought to be good method. That’s one reason why in the Academy today people are judged in terms of where they come out, rather than by how they got there. And that is a fundamental failure of intellectual virtue, which should indeed judge where you come out by how you got there, instead of judging how you got there by where you come out. But increasingly in our culture, reason is put in a position of defending a corner of the academic map for oneself, and reason, as Freud might say, has degenerated into "rationalization."

What is knowledge? Knowledge is the capacity to represent things as they are, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. That definition is purposely designed to incorporate the authority of tradition and the authority of scripture, properly chastened. We learn a lot about evidence by looking at how the tradition of knowledge has developed in the Bible and from there on. When God comes to Moses, he identifies himself in terms of a previous experience with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Moses is a point of reference as the "structure of verification," if you wish, for religious authority, and revelation moves down through time until it comes to a head in Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus comes, he fits himself perfectly into the revelation that had already been given and completes it. That is an appropriate basis of thought and experience. If you want to know what God is like, you have to take it in those terms. You’re not going to be able to derive a knowledge of what God is like simply from a blast of your own experience or from some clever thinking that you did one day after breakfast.

We have to understand the nature of evidence. That is a large part of the task that stands before the Christian universities today: to reinterpret and come to an understanding about the nature of evidence. All of the professions today, in my judgement, are in epistemological crisis because any solid sense of evidence has departed and been replaced by "good professional practice." And so evidence has become a ‘sociological’ reality, and then what do we do with the verse that says "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil"? Well if you’re following the multitude for your evidence, you don’t have much choice left, do you?

Now, we need to say, because of the history of our circumstances at this point, that reason is not inherently bad. Knowledge is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. Reason is simply a natural ability; the ability to know is a natural thing. It is like the ability to grow corn, cook chicken, and do all the other things that we need to do to stay alive - there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s good. God made it, it is good. Like all of the aspects of the human being that God has created, they’re good. But it may be taken as a place to stand independently of God, and even against God, which it also has in common with all other human abilities. And that is what has happened in the last one hundred years in our academic culture. If you have not read George Marsden’s book, The Soul of the American University, go out and read it immediately. One of the book’s most telling passages is where he explains the encounter between William Graham Sumner and Noah Porter who was president of Yale in the 1890s. The heart of that discussion is very simple: Sumner wanted to use a book by Herbert Spencer, on sociology, and Porter objected that Spencer’s book did not include discussions of God. Sumner’s reply is like the point where you go over the waterfall. His reply was simply that the subject matter had "nothing to do with God." It had nothing to do with God! Now Noah Porter realized the significance of this, and there’s a wonderful statement that Dr. Marsden includes in his book, where Porter is saying "Everything teaches theology, it’s just a question of which theology," and he cites Spencer and others. We all face this issue today. It’s a question of whether we’re going to teach the theology of B.F. Skinner, or Carl Sagan, or somebody else. Teachers of any subject need to understand that we allteach a theology, because when you teach a subject matter in a way that God is irrelevant, you are teaching a theology. And the Christian theology is precisely that God is not irrelevant to anything. (More on this later.)

The problem is that reason can be socially corrupted. And what you see in Sumner is the result of two or three centuries of the social corruption of reason. The deeper issue here, as always, is "What is to count as knowledge?" You see, Spencer and Sumner, and now nearly everyone in the academic world, simply define knowledge in such a way that what can be known is something that God has nothing to do with. But that is not a discovery! That is a decision. They did not discover this, they decided it! The weight of history had pushed them along, it’s true, to the point where they thought, for their own professional respectability, they had to make that decision. And it is important to understand that the skids really began to move at this point because the old model of responsibility for knowledge before God — which was basically that the president, or perhaps a community minister, or some of the more distinguished members of the faculty would interpret the whole college career to the student in the light of Christian revelation —could no longer sustain itself in the face of specialized knowledge. Noah Porter could not convincingly come back to William Graham Sumner and say, "You don’t know what you’re talking about." You see, the growth of specialist knowledge posed a problem for Christian intellectual leadership in the Academy which it was never able to get over.

So the deeper issue here is "What is to count as knowledge?" And the decision that you see in Spencer and in Sumner has its roots back in people like Spinoza. Spinoza wrote a book called Tractatus Theologicus Politicus (or Politico Theologicus) on the relationship between theology and politics. It is worth your time to read it because Spinoza more than anyone else gave great impetus to what is called "higher criticism," and the function of higher criticism is very apparent in what Spinoza has to say in his book. Its function is basically to disarm historical traditions and authoritative texts, and to put them in a position where they can be reinterpreted as having a local cultural significance, but not significance as conveying truth about reality. That now is going to be left to the sciences, and to philosophy of course, and the State will stand back and not enforce theological truths, which of course is a major issue. In Holland, where Spinoza lived at that time, Mennonites where hunted down and burned at the stake. This is not a small thing is it? But with the good comes a time-bomb, and it ticks away: the irrelevance of the content of historical revelation to reality.

Then we have the positive side which is seen most clearly in a piece of writing by a Frenchman named Condorcet, that he entitled "Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind." This is a very ironic piece. Condorcet wrote it while he was in hiding from the French Revolution, which he had earlier sponsored, but which killed him before he got the book written. It’s full of confidence about the progress of the human mind on the basis of scientific knowledge—knowledge of scientific laws. Scientific laws are of course to be interpreted precisely in the naturalistic way which I have described already. This is how we’re going to solve every conceivable problem, including the problem that we still talk about today - it’s so amusing to see how these things keep going - that we’re going to overcome aging and death on the basis of natural law. We will also learn how to make people virtuous and happy. That’s the positive side. What do you need religion and priests for, if you have science?

Well, this has not exactly worked out. But Liberal thought (I don’t use that in a derogatory term, but descriptively), Liberal thought as it’s historically understood, including Liberal theology, adopted this course that you see both in Spinoza and then later in Condorcet. It buys into the idea of the scientific, and of knowledge as defined by the scientific, and puts it in another category in opposition to faith. I think many of you know that story.

The reaction, on the part of Fundamentalism (again I don’t use that as a term of derogation but rather as a descriptive term), was mistakenly to attack reason. I was educated in Christian colleges, and I know how bad this can be at times. The very idea that thought is wicked (and you can quote verses on that), that the imagination is evil, and the idea that there is nothing good in human beings, leads to trying to blot out every element of creativity in thought and action. I was in a very confused tradition: I’m Southern Baptist. In that tradition, we will preach to you for an hour that you can do nothing to be saved, and then sing to you for half an hour trying to get you to do something to be saved. That is confusing!

So there are real problems here. Mistakenly, the Fundamentalists’ general reaction was interpreting the problem to be reason, not wrong reason (of course there were exceptions). It’s like the people who quote Paul from Colossians II about "vain philosophy," and suppose that the answer is to respond with no philosophy at all. I hope if I advise you against vain clothing you would not suppose it is appropriate to respond with no clothing at all! So there was a progression that really went on, by and large, the disowning of particular fields from the authority of the Christian tradition. The disowning of knowledge as such, regarding it as outside of scope. So many times in Christian institutions the idea was that, "We really do spiritual life here and we protect our students from those bad people in the other universities. We do what is necessary to qualify them for jobs, but we don’t think of honoring the intellectual or artistic life in its own right because somehow that would be ungodly."

The next stage is how reason itself, left on its own, left without the life-giving sustenance of the content of Scriptural revelation, falls victim to Empiricism and Positivism. It’s a long story; I don’t have time to tell it. The patron saint here is Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was the dupe of all kinds of shallow and unconvincing philosophical positions, most notably Phenomenalism or Positivism. He simply buys the whole bag. The weight of authority falls on him, and actually he gives a theory which justifies it anyway. (That’s always nice to do if you’re going to be irrational: give a good reason for it.) But Nietzsche is now the patron saint of irrationalism on the campuses generally. The idea is that everything is an expression of power, so then all of the very real problems in our culture about diversity, oppression, and so on, are brought to bear on this, and the idea comes to be now that even truth is oppressive. Logic is a "male conspiracy"… You actually hear these things said!

Reason itself is a part of the problem, because reason gets formed in a cultural way, so that those in power can oppress the weak. And guess what? There’s a lot of truth to it. A lot of truth. But fundamentally, it is used to undermine the role of reason as an authority, and reason cannot sustain itself because it does not fall within the naturalistic world view. So it is pushed over into that world view, and standards of reason and rationality are then treated sociologically or behaviorally. It’s only when you get into philosophy that you find any attempt to even say that they are chemical, but that’s quite a stretch, so standards of reason and rationality are usually treated sociologically or behaviorally and, frankly, they are lost. Reason cannot sustain itself on its own, as no natural created power can. Reason was never meant to function on its own, any more than any other of our natural powers - sexuality, abilities to cultivate the landscape, to work with chemicals and physical powers, and so on. None of that was ever meant to stand alone. Reason wasn’t either. It won’t stand on its own. And so we come to the point now, that reason must be redeemed.

Reason must be redeemed because it falls under the influence of fallen patterns in our social context. Let’s look at a passage from C.S.Lewis’ wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters. This is a prophetic book. I’m stunned when I read Lewis, especially these letters. I see Lewis as standing mid-stream, where everything we’re discussing now is sweeping past him and he’s standing there knowingly watching it come. What he says is prophetic because it has become increasingly true.

In the first letter you have Screwtape saying:

My dear Wormwood,

I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading, and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you suppose that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time, humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not, and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we’ve largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed ever since he was a boy to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," as "outworn" or "contemporary," as "ruthless" or "conventional."Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true. Make him think it is "strong" or "stark" or "courageous," that it’s the philosophy of the future, that’s the sort of thing he cares about. The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too! Whereas in really practical propaganda of this kind I’m suggesting, He has been shown for centuries to be greatly inferior to our father below. By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have strengthened in your patient, the fatal habit of attending to universal issues, and withdrawing his consciousness, his attention, from the stream of immediate experience. Your business is to fix his attention on that stream. Teach him to call it "real life," and don’t let him ask what he means by "real."


You see, the flow of human events around academics proves that they too are sinners. They too are ready to give in to the pulls and pushes of the social context. Another little piece by Lewis called "The Inner Ring" is one of the most important things for any Christian academic to read. It is a story about how we hunger all of our life to be included. And that is one of the main reasons why reason has to be redeemed. I often jokingly say, but not so jokingly, that the lie most commonly told in my context is "Oh yes, I’ve read that book." Now why do we say that? Because we want to be included, we don’t want to be left out. We want to be "in." The whole word "party" is an interesting word; it means "to be a part of." We like to be included; we like to be brought in. Only the strength of a greater community that is provided by Jesus Christ can stand against that. And that’s why Paul refers to the church as "the pillar and ground of truth" (I Tim. 3:15).

It is only the person in a redeemed relationship to God that can stand for truth. Truth is too hard. You often hear the verse quoted to the effect that "The truth will make you free." The truth will not make you free! That verse doesn’t say that! Read the whole thing! It’s about discipleship: "If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-33) But today we no longer have to know the truth. On the elevator in the Humanities building at USC it just says "…The truth will make you free." Truth will not make you free - it’s probably better said "the truth will make you flee." Truth is hard to live with. And that is one reason why there has to be a community of redemption that comes down to earth and provides a context in which people can truly walk free, in the truth, because they are supported by their spiritual redemption before God in relationship to Him. They’re living in what I call "a conversational relationship with God."

I want to spell out in rather full detail just exactly why reason has to be redeemed. I’ll give you just three premises and a conclusion. First of all, standards generally cannot be maintained unless you can maintain ethical standards. Standards generally cannot be maintained - and reason in a social context is a matter of sustaining standards - unless you can maintain ethical standards. Why? Because courage is required, as well as justice and compassion. I have learned that you can be completely rigorous with your standards and people will still respect you, love you, and not drop your course (which aren’t necessarily all the same thing, but they’re all important), if they understand that you are being courageous and fair and loving about something of vital importance. We’ve lost that in our culture! A recent newspaper article stated that "Fs" have apparently totally disappeared from the grades at Princeton. Now you and I know there’s something wrong when that happens. It reminds you of that line from Garrison Keeler about Lake Wobegone, "Where all the children are above average." This won’t work mathematically, but I presume it’s good social policy. So standards cannot be maintained unless you can maintain ethical standards.

Secondly, you cannot maintain ethical standards unless you can effectively present them as grounded in reality. Socially ethical standards must be founded in reality, that is, as an expression of what is the case, of how things are. The Ten Commandments are an expression of truth about human life—they’re truth about the human context, that’s why God gave them to us. It’s important to keep this in mind when we think about all the oddities of our educational system. I often point out that we can be thankful that God didn’t give the multiplication tables to Moses, because then we wouldn’t be able to teach them in our public schools. Unfortunately, the Ten Commandments couldn’t wait.

Third: You cannot present ethical standards as knowledge of reality if knowledge and reality must be interpreted within the empiricist, positivist, naturalist framework of ideas. Again it’s back to the case of sawdust being nourishing if you substitute bread for it. What you get substituted for ethics in the naturalistic framework is not ethics. You look at so-called "professional ethics" today and there’s nothing, classically, that you would call "ethical" about it. It’s all about how to stay out of trouble… with your clients, with the law, and with your fellow professionals. There’s nothing in professional ethics about how to use your profession to be a good person. Nothing! And if you know of something contrary to that would you please tell me? I go around the world saying these kinds of things and I’d like for it to be tested against experience. If you show me an ethical code of any of the professions that says anything about being a good person, I’ll buy you lunch. You cannot present ethical standards as knowledge of reality if "knowledge" and "reality" must be interpreted within the empiricist, positivist, naturalist framework of ideas.

I feel very cheap to just dump that on you. I teach ethical theory constantly, and I’m prepared to reason with you about that if you have any doubts.

Now because those three premises are true, it follows, reason cannot prevail within the naturalist paradigm. And reason will not prevail. Of course generally now, if you’re familiar with post-modernist talk, you know it’s ordinarily assumed that reason goes along with technology and you have two magical words which you chant when the topic of reason comes up: Hiroshima and Auschwitz. And these are taken to prove that reason has failed, from the other side.

In his President’s Report to the Harvard Corporation for 1986/87, Derek Bok comments on the problem of teaching and fostering moral development in the university. He has reason to do this because several outstanding graduates of Harvard had recently been escorted to jail from Wall Street. And so he’s reflecting on this. In this report he states that, "The churches no longer succeed in forming character." Interesting observation. "But," he says, "perhaps the universities should look into this matter." Well, you almost want to say, "Wrong turn!" But on the other hand, Bok realizes that the universities have had responsibility for this. He knows the tradition well enough. As a very well informed man, he knows that in the past universities did assume a lot of responsibility for this. (Again, read George Marsden’s book to see the depth to which this is true.) So he wonders about this and sort of chides Harvard and other universities for not doing it. Now unfortunately, if he had walked across to Emerson Hall, and inquired of the people who perhaps are thought to be most knowledgeable about this, he would have discovered that there is no such thing as moral knowledge. And it’s very hard to have "development" of anything of which you have no knowledge!

Now why is there no moral knowledge? Again I just have to lay that on you, and I would be happy to try to say more about it later, but that’s the situation we’re in today, there is no moral knowledge. People often wonder, "why has there been such a fuss about ‘political correctness’?" Answer: there isn’t any other kind of correctness. That’s disappeared as a topic of discourse.

Now in my final moments, I’m going to try to say very specifically what we, as Christians, might begin to do about this. How are we to be redemptive? How are we to redeem reason and understanding? How are we to bring back a social framework within which reason can fulfill her God-appointed function? Please understand my claim: Reason cannot stand on its own. It cannot stand on its own. It will be swamped by the sinfulness which is present as an actual reality in the most exalted corridors of learning. What one finds today is there are no original sins. It would be refreshing if we could find one sometime. But when you’re standing around with the highest levels of learning you find that it’s drearily present, and this desire to fit in, the desire to advance one’s self, the desire to be secure and so on, which are of course are valid needs, they simply corrupt the power of reason and make it serve at the mills of the Philistines like blinded Samson.

Here’s what we must do: using Lewis’ terminology, we must institutionally and individually treat the content of mere Christianity as a certified body of knowledge. This is going to be a tremendous effort, and nothing I’m going to say now in these closing moments is going to be easy. But I say it again: treat the content of mere Christianity as a certified body of knowledge. Lewis used that phrase basically to shear off all of the odd accretions that usually come to us from our more or less recent history - you know, which way you get baptized and so on. The doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, the presence of Christ in his people, the authority of the word, and so on, that’s"mere Christianity." Treat it as a body of knowledge and stop acting as if it were something else. Strip that gear in your transmission which allows you to intellectually shift over when you come to the doctrine of the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, the origin of matter from mind, and so on. The Biblical tradition is a tradition of knowledge. Many of you may be getting uneasy at this point, wondering "What’s happening to Grace?" You know: work, knowledge, effort… Grace is not opposed to effort, it’s opposed to earning. Jesus said "without me you can do nothing," and you can be sure if you do nothing it’ll be without Him. So in all firmness, in love, in openness, in humility, we say "This is knowledge, it is certified, it is certifiable to anyone who will look into it." You hear of people who decided to look into the resurrection, and how many of them believed. Now I don’t know, there may have been some that weren’t converted — they didn’t write a book. But Marsden and Wallace and all these other famous people looked into it. You see, it just needs to be looked into! We don’t need to be high-handed, we don’t need to be arrogant—we must not be arrogant—we must live in the spirit of Christ. We must love our neighbor as ourself. If my neighbor is Jaques Derrida or Nietzsche, he’s still my neighbor. I will love him as myself, and I’m going to be faithful to him in truth.

Secondly, confront the main issue at every turn. Again, I say institutionally and individually because we cannot go this alone. Individual faculty members can do a lot, and thank God for the heroes, but we need to stand together and we need our institutions to encourage us. On the other hand, we can’t send Clyde Cook out front and let him get his pants shot off, if we’re not prepared to stand behind him in our fields. That is often what happens to college presidents. They stand up for stuff that the faculty wouldn’t be caught dead defending in their professions. I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but my heart goes out to these men and women who stand up like this. We must stand with them: we’re the ones who have to deliver the goods. I said we never got over that hump of specialist knowledge that effectively shut the mouths of the people who stood as spokesmen. People like Noah Porter. When you stand up as president you’ve got to have people backing you who say, "Yes, I’ll deliver the goods. You write the order, and I will deliver the goods. I’ll deliver it in sociology, I’ll deliver it in Slavic literature, I’ll deliver it in algebra. I will deliver the goods."

We confront the main issue at every turn. The main issue is the reality of the Spirit- the reality of the Spirit and of the Spiritual. We have many people teaching, even in some of our Evangelical seminaries, who will dodge this like it was a silver bullet. The reality of the spirit is (and here we come back to the very heart of theology): God is spirit. It’s often shocking to people when I tell them God doesn’t have a brain. But He is spirit, and He doesn’t have a brain. He doesn’t miss it, doesn’t need it… Everything is a "no-brainer" to God.

Thirdly, make a point of specifically treating our subject matter in relation to God. I suggest that at least one whole lecture in each course in a Christian university should to be devoted to the relationship of the subject matter to God. One whole hour, specifically devoted to a consideration of how the specialized knowledge of the academic discipline being studied in that class fits into the comprehensive whole of the reality of our knowledge of God.

You can’t force people to do this, and I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about leadership opening the way. Suppose the members of the Christian Coalition of Colleges and Universities took this as an ideal, created a web page, and started a discussion. I’ll tell you, it won’t be hard once you get into it. It’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool: it’s hard when you’re entering. But this can be done, and I’m suggesting that every Christian faculty member should, as appropriate, develop one lecture for each course which explicitly relates their subject matter to fundamental Christian doctrine. "What does Pascal’s theorem have to do with the Trinity?"- it might be more interesting than you expect. No jive, no forcing, just hard honest thinking accompanied by the grace of God.

Fourth, devote one week of research each year to exploring the connection of my subject matter to fundamental Christian doctrine—"mere Christianity." After a few years you might not need this and that’s good, you can go fishing or whatever you like to do. But keep at it until it’s done,… until it’s done.

And fifth, institutionally and individually, we must refuse to allow the secular mind to continue to define what counts as knowledge. This is the bedrock issue: what counts as knowledge. That’s why William Graham Sumner said what he did about using Spencer’s book. What counts as knowledge? Don’t farm this out to your Philosophy or Theology Departments. Each of us needs to work it through. Ministers desperately need to work this through, and work it through carefully. It isn’t an endless task and you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in it. On the other hand, Christian faculty need to lead the way. That’s what we’re Christian faculty for, isn’t it? We need to lead the way. But if ministers began to teach and talk about this, as some do, then we’d have a lot less Christians coming to our universities and hanging on by the skin of their teeth, if at all, until they have finished their requirements and gotten out to where they can begin to practice their religion privately, and conduct their profession in secular terms.

If we approach it this way, we will solve the problem of freedom in the Christian academy. The problem of freedom of thought is an absolutely crucial one. One of the things we know is that it cannot be settled by force. You cannot stuff things down people’s throats, and thank God you can’t. The problem of freedom in the Christian academy is solved by intellectual leadership. That is what can stop the drift and set the students free—the strength of the leadership of intellect on the campus.

Well I must finish. There’s a brochure out in the foyer about the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s upcoming conference. It has a wonderful title: "Loose In the Fire." That would be a good thing to put on your bathroom mirror. "Loose In the Fire," isn’t that a wonderful phrase? You know where the story this is from… (break in the tape) …all the academic music. You hear this music and you’re going to bow down, or you’re going in the fiery furnace. And these guys said "We don’t even need to have a committee meeting! We’re going in." And you remember the king, after he threw them in (and some men even got burnt throwing them in), said, "What?! We put three in there. There’s four! Loose, walking in the fire!"

The power of God will be with us, as we walk loose in the fire.


For another wonderful discussion of this topic, please see Ken Archer's "The Turn to Husserl and Phenomenology by Protestant and Catholic Philosophers for the Redemption of Reason," which was presented at the University of Chicago's Redeeming Reason Conference in November, 2005.

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