Skeptic Revisits Christianity
Published in First Things,
Mike Bryan is an atheist,
raised a Methodist, who wanted to write a book about "Christians who
actually believe the Bible versus all the other kinds." So he
attended Criswell College in Dallas, an institution dedicated to
producing crusaders for the cause of Biblical Inerrancy.
Mike (his writing
establishes a first-name acquaintance) has provided an absorbing
account of what he found there and how it affected him. The book
particularly attracted my attention because so many professors in
the secular universities are talking about the pressure to be
"politically correct" on subjects like feminism and affirmative
action. How does the situation compare in a fundamentalist college
that is dedicated by definition to furthering a dogma?
It compares very favorably,
according to Mike Bryan. In the secular universities things are up
for grabs, with the result that everyone is engaged in a power
struggle. At Criswell the basic premise is settled: professors and
students alike wouldn't be there if they didn't accept it. As a
result, professors feel free to expand their students' intellectual
horizons by teaching them to understand competing premises
sympathetically. Here is a typical description of what Mike saw and
heard in the classroom:
theology was fascinating, the classes fun, the students were real
people.... And where was the lockstep indoctrination I had feared
from a Bible college? I sought for it in vain. Everyone was a
conservative Christian, but much of what I heard from [all the
Criswell professors] was assorted challenges to students, to the
point of riling them up. Speaking to captive audiences that agreed
with their own beliefs, the professors constantly challenged those
beliefs by calling attention to opposing views and requiring
students to know them and understand them. "Liberal" was one of the
first words that came to mind as a description of the atmosphere in
Criswell College classes.
The Old Testament course
Mike remembered taking at Columbia was very different. There
students were not encouraged to consider seriously
any alternatives to the professor's naturalistic philosophy, or to
the "inerrant" theory that the Pentateuch was patched together from
documents of different centuries.
Sometimes the prayer
warriors in the Criswell student body get a little impatient with
the mind-stretching. In the manner of budding practitioners in a law
school who want to learn how to attract clients and win cases, they
ask "Do we really need all this?" Like a law professor telling
students that they may one day be Supreme Court Justices, President
Paige Patterson replies that Criswell graduates are meant to be
generals in the Lord's army, not privates, and as such they have to
understand the adversary's thinking. Patterson himself is a general
on the conservative side of the Southern Baptist denomination's
notorious internal war, and Mike's portrayal of his easygoing ways
will astonish anyone familiar only with the media stereotype of the
participants in that conflict.
Mike was favorably impressed
not only with the intellectual atmosphere, but with the personal
integrity and generosity of the faculty and students. They were
nothing like the television hucksters that have been such a gift
(Godsend?) to the media image-makers. Near the end of the book, Mike
examines his own mixed feelings after Paige Patterson has genially
introduced him at an alumni banquet as the school's guest atheist.
Mike is confident that Patterson's "unfailing kindness" is not
merely the calculated cordiality that anyone might show to a visitor
who is known to be writing a book about the experience. No,
Patterson's "generous and undoctrinnaire attitude, shared by almost
everyone else at the school," is "another mark of his irrepressible
mischievousness and genuine interest in all folks and their diverse
ways -- a mark of his personality, not his faith."
But why are these personal
virtues so pervasive at Criswell College, if they are not marks of
the faith? Mike describes the atmosphere of "unadorned, joyful piety
of the place," and quotes Patterson to explain where it comes from:
the things that happens to you in conversion is that there's a
fundamental change in your attitude toward people when the Lord
moves into your life. You don't any longer see them as the girl who
sells you the hamburger or the guy who changes your tires. You see
each of them as very precious people, each of whom has a fascinating
personal story. You get to where it's fun to be with them, see what
makes them tick."
If Mike Bryan likes the
folks at Criswell so much, why doesn't he answer the altar call and
spread the kind of joy that accompanies the finding of a lost sheep?
The question is starkly presented because Mike is under no illusions
about the nihilistic world he presently inhabits. His metaphor for
that world is the Mark Rothko Chapel, a shrine of the religious left
on the campus of St. Thomas College in Houston. The chapel is
supposed to be like a big tree that offers shade to everyone, and
the lobby table holds all the sacred texts: the Bible, the Tibetan
Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on.
Mike sees the chapel as "the
perfect embodiment of a godless world, the array of God-seeking
texts on display notwithstanding, or even proving the point: belief
in everything, belief in nothing." Visitors upon seeing the famous
religious paintings look puzzled, or disappointed, but never joyous.
"Where is the hospitable shade? Where was it for Rothko? The painter
committed suicide before his pictures were hung."
Mike understands that
intellectual nihilism reflects an underlying spiritual despair.
"There must be some connection between the disbelief on the part of
most artists today in any kind of organizing principle for the
universe (God), and their refusal to employ readily grasped
organizing principles in their work. There must also be a connection
between artists' disdain for those 'classes' that still believe in
God and their delight in confronting those rubes with offensive
images, such as the photograph of a cross dipped in a jar of urine."
Mike swears that he remains
a child of the sixties, with no leanings to neo-conservative
politics. "Nevertheless, we would all agree that this culture is
nearly overwhelmed by all the bullshit and bad faith, by the
literally spellbinding vacuity, top to bottom, left to right." That
much disenchantment with the culture produced by the death of God
invites the big question: why does someone who knows he's lost in
the desert turn away from an oasis that offers living water?
Criswell students tell Mike
that the stumbling block is pride, and he admits that he is afraid
of looking like a fool. "Secularism is the easy road today. Telling
friends with Ph.D's you've become a born-again Christian takes
nerve." The irony is that those friends are undoubtedly relativists
about everything except a few pet ideas like the death of God. Mike
can't help thinking that these inconsistent relativists must be
absolutely right. Why?
His problem isn't just with
the fundamentalists' inerrancy doctrine, or their regretful
insistence that unbelievers go to hell. Mike has some attractive
alternatives. He experiences an "epiphany of sorts" in a Catholic
church in El Salvador, where the liberationist sculpture reflects an
understanding of human suffering more suited to the spirit of our
times than the Baptist emphasis upon personal sin. Why not join the
Catholic Church, which has many mansions?
Mike also has an important
conversation with the pastor of the Methodist church of his
childhood, now retired. Mike is unimpressed by the kind of vacuous
liberal theology that C.S. Lewis called Christianity-and-water, but
Don Pevey's liberalism inspires respect because it grows out of
personal experiences with which Mike can identify. "I would like to
have spent hours with this man whose Christianity doesn't claim to
be definitive, much less exclusive, who simply finds in the faith
and communicates very effectively to anyone who cares to hear one
deep and beautiful mystery: God incarnate determined to save his
children from themselves." Why not become that kind of Methodist?
The answer has to be that
the deep and beautiful mystery is, regrettably, a fairy tale. Mike
explains the ultimate stumbling block early in the book, in his
discussion of liberal theology's campaign to "demythologize"
Christianity. The attempt had to be made because we live in a
technological age where "Science, not Scripture is now inerrant."
For a time reason and revelation lived comfortably together in the
two-level system of Aquinas, but a crisis arose when reason
(Galileo, Hume, Darwin) began to cast doubt on what Scripture had
revealed. As Mike sums up the situation:
advances in scientific knowledge of the past four centuries have
undercut the textual integrity of the Scriptures as a whole, but
perhaps more damaging is the nature of the scientific enterprise
itself, which postulates anti-supernaturalism as a necessary first
principle for its endeavors. Thus the initially peaceful coexistence
of reason and faith has become, in the secular mind, an
irreconcilable contradiction. Faith is now opposed to reason --
opinion, to put the best light on it, or ignorance, to put the
worst. The Reformation thinkers had said all along that splitting
reason from revelation would be fatal because it would give man an
independent role and thus separate him from an objective, inerrant
source for knowledge -- Holy Scripture. They were correct.
But modern man substituted
science as another source of inerrant knowledge, and Mike cannot
shake off the influence of that choice. He is impressed by C.S.
Lewis's argument that, although the Christian theistic point of view
can comprehend science, art, and morality, "the scientific point of
view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself."
(That is because to reductionist science our minds are merely
machines selected for their efficiency in producing offspring.) Mike
followed a similar line of reasoning but with different premises.
"While Lewis and [Francis] Schaeffer presupposed our sense of
meaning and purpose, I presupposed the workings of evolution and the
natural world, and I decided that I must therefore be a machine
because nothing but a machine could evolve from a machinelike,
There are liberal
theologians who embrace scientific naturalism but still think of
themselves as Christians: in fact, they dominate the mainline
seminaries. Mike recognizes that these accomodationists have
discarded the only metaphysical basis that can support a mystery of
God incarnate determined to save his children from themselves, and
so their Christianity survives only as a metaphor. That is why the
Christians he respects are the genuine, unapologetic
supernaturalists, but he thinks that option is foreclosed to one who
has drunk deeply of the water of naturalism, death-giving though he
may know it to be.
Chapter and Verse
is generous in spirit but tough in mind, and the people it describes
are a joy to meet. I hope Mike Bryan will visit another important
subculture and write a book about the experience. This time I wish
he would forego religion and inhabit the world of the scientists.
Take a good look at evolutionary biology, Mike, or the dogmatically
reductionist world of the biochemists who hope to redesign humanity
after they crack the human genome code. Compare the practitioners of
inerrant science with what you saw at Criswell College. Do they
understand, as the Criswell faculty does, that all thinking rests
upon presuppositions, which by definition are not derived from
logical argument or evidence? Do the biologists know the difference
between what they presuppose and what they demonstrate, and are they
even interested in finding out?
As Socrates used to say, you
can't be too careful when it come to scrutinizing the teachers into
whose care you are committing your soul. Look into it, Mike. Then
write another book, and put me down for one of the first copies.
© 1997 Phillip E. Johnson. All rights reserved. International
File Date: 8.12.97