Peering Into The Evangelical Mind

Feb 9 2014 @ 9:29am

Reviewing Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, John Turner explores evangelicals’ complicated approach to the life of the mind:

In Molly Worthen’s witty and erudite retelling, evangelicalism is always on the verge of an intellectual meltdown. Fundamentalists-turned-neo-evangelicals traded in the presuppositions of strict inerrancy for the presuppositions of a [Reformed] Christian world view. Having once pretended that biblical authority alone could suffice as a guide for faith and action, they now pretend that Christians should be able to agree on what that world view looks like. Ultimately, evangelicals cannot live in the world of free inquiry and [secular] reason, so they curtail precisely those traits that would finally gain them the intellectual respect of non-evangelicals. “These habits of mind,” writes Worthen, “have crippled evangelicals in their pursuit of what secular thinkers take to be the aims of intellectual life: the tasks of discovering new knowledge, creating original and provocative art, and puzzling out the path toward a more humane civilization.” Of course, as Worthen herself notes, pursuing those tasks have never been evangelicals’ foremost goal. Instead, they want to win the world to Christ, and many of them fear that intellectual pursuits (even on evangelical rather than secular terms) will endanger that higher purpose.

In a review of the book last month, Michael Robbins zoomed out:

The key to understanding the anxieties that led conservative evangelicalism to such frantic action lies in [theologian Carl] Henry’s phrase “world-life view,” an awkward translation of Weltanschauung, a word that, in Worthen’s telling, obsessed the neo-evangelicals: “They intoned it whenever they wrote of the decline of Christendom, the decoupling of faith and reason, and the needful pinprick of the gospel in every corner of thought and action.” They picked up the term not from Kant but from Reformed theologians, and it came to represent a set of shared premises and guidelines that, once discovered and articulated, would reknit the dispersed body of faithful into a new Church Militant.

Apostles of Reason, then, is a chapter in the broader history of secularization, and as such it makes an interesting companion to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I happened to be reading alongside it. “It’s a commonplace that something that deserves” the title of secularization “has taken place in our civilization,” Taylor writes. “The problem is defining exactly what it is that has happened.” (The vulgar popular version has it that science in some sense proved religion to be false; this is simply another way of saying that scientism is the faith proper to late capitalism.) Regardless of the precise content of secularization, Worthen’s neo-evangelicals saw that a coherent picture of the world, a shared presumption of the truth of the Christian religion, had disappeared. And they set about trying to figure out how to restore it.

Recent Dish on Worthen’s work here.