The Unintended Reformation: Chapter 6–Secularizing Knowledge (Part 9) What can we say about modern education?

Unintended ReformationBrad Gregory’s sixth chapter in The Unintended Reformation is entitled, “Secularizing Knowledge.” In it, he looks at the modern American education system, particularly universities. To the point, the problem as Gregory sees it is that it has come to be assumed that since “religious truth claims are based on faith…they are a matter of subjective opinion and personal preference…hence they are  not and cannot be candidates for claims of objective truth confirmable by shared epistemological standards” (299).

What does that mean? Simple: what has come to happen in universities and academic research is that what passes for “knowledge” is only that which can be testable and objective. Questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are regulated to the realm of “religious faith,” and are therefore deemed private and personal opinions. How this is shown in academia is in way research is done. Academics are “experts” in very highly specialized areas, but there is no attempt to see how that specialized knowledge in a particular field of discipline fits into the bigger picture of existence. As Gregory puts it, “there is almost no attempt by anyone to see how the kinds of knowledge thereby gained in different disciplines might fit together” (300).

The Assembly Line Effect
It’s what I like to call the “assembly line effect” of learning. Every academic is an expert in one particular aspect of one particular discipline, much like every assembly line worker has his/her own particular job…but no one bothers to ask what the heck is being built, or how everything fits together.

Now, that’s not to say that academic specialization isn’t important, whether it be in biology, astronomy, American history, Biblical Studies, the list can go on. But Gregory’s point is that the reason why there is no emphasis on figuring out how these various disciplines might relate to each other within a larger unity of knowledge is because the very concept of “Truth,” in terms of there being ultimate purpose and meaning, has been abandoned.

And the thing is, different disciplines do, in fact, make contrary claims about various things, and Gregory says many undergraduate courses fail to “teach students how they might even begin to evaluate contrary claims in disparate disciplines,” and in the end “like consumer choice in the marketplace, knowledge of ‘truth’ in the marketplace of ideas is a matter of whatever they want to buy on the basis of individual preference” (302).

harvard_shield_wreathThe result of this is an ever-growing accumulation of testable facts and data, but a gradual withering away of any concept of actual truth, value, purpose and meaning, replaced by an attitude that says, “I think this is true because it makes me feel good, and it’s what I prefer.” Just look at the current political coverage in the presidential race: a whole lot of disparate facts and “truths” are being spewed out by news anchors, politicians, and pundits alike, and they are being parroted by millions of voters, but very few people are able to step back and evaluate those truth claims in light of bigger realities.

Critical thinking is simply not emphasized or valued these days. Universities were a product of the Catholic worldview in the Middle Ages, and the purpose for getting an education was to become a well-rounded, educated person so that you could constructively contribute to society as a whole—that’s where we get the term “liberal arts” education: get an education across a broad range of disciplines, and be challenged to evaluate and reconcile the knowledge across disciplines into an overarching and critically-thought out worldview.

PrincetonNowadays, though, going to college is put forth as what you need to do to get a degree, so you can get a good-paying job, so that you can make money, so that you can buy more stuff and live the American dream. Don’t think about those challenges across academic disciplines, just get the degree and get a good-paying job. In light of this, Gregory says that most scholars and scientists choose to ignore the problem, choosing instead to remain “burrowed in their dens of specialization, continuing to pursue what is rewarded most highly in the academy: the creation of new, highly specialized, knowledge within one’s own discipline” (303).

Now obviously, that is not true across the board, but if you’ve ever done academic work, you know it is true to a large degree. It’s the whole “academics in the ivory tower” syndrome: some are simply cut off from the real world, holed up within their own specialized discipline, writing solely for other academics in academics journals that hardly anyone reads—and that’s how they want it.

Darwin and the Fundamentalists
Failure to critically think across various disciplines has also had a huge effect within the Evangelical world…and we have Darwin to thank for it. At the risk of being oversimplistic, there was dramatic shift in American higher education in the first quarter of the 20th century. After the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, Fundamentalists across the country were convinced that evolution was the grand enemy of Christianity, and that the more education you got in those “liberal and secular universities,” the more susceptible you were to being lead down the wrong road.

Bob Jones UniversityTherefore, Fundamentalists opened up scores and scores of Bible Colleges across the country, and most of them were devoted to biblical literalism, deep in dispensationalist theology, and, after Henry Morris and John Whitcomb came out with The Genesis Flood in 1963, also heavily into young earth creationism. The result was that there was a generation of Evangelical Christians who were raised on a steady diet of outright falsehoods, and who were unable to intellectually interact with claims from various academic disciplines, particularly evolution. Gregory points out that Mark Noll calls this “the scandal of the evangelical mind” (306). Simply put, Noll’s accusation was that Evangelicalism has intellectually crippled a generation of believers—they don’t know how to think, and they hold that up as a virtue!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Evangelical preachers say things like, “Now, I’m not a smart man. I don’t have fancy degrees, but I love Jesus!” I can’t help but think, “If you really loved Jesus, you wouldn’t be glorying in your chosen ignorance.”

There are Different Types of Knowledge
Since we’re on the topic of evolution, at the heart of the problem is that religious fundamentalists like Ken Ham and atheistic fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins have the same problem: they assume there is only one kind of knowledge, namely scientific, historical facts. Gregory points out that the liberal arts education in Medieval Catholic universities emphasized that “all truth, if it was what it purported to be, contributed somehow to knowledge of God’s intelligible creation in space and time” (309). Simply put, there were different ways of “knowing” things, and if we want to get a better understanding of both God’s creation and His interactions with it, we need to keep this in mind.

For example, (a) interpreting texts requires certain methods particular to its discipline, and (b) tracking the movement of the planets requires other methods. Different from the kind of knowledge each of those disciplines reveal is the experience of forgiving and the knowledge you are forgiven. All three are different kinds of knowledge, but they all contribute to understanding the bigger picture of God’s creation and His interaction with the world.

If you say that the scientific method is the only way to ascertain truth, not only will you not understand a lot about the world, but you’re going to misinterpret a whole lot of stuff. This is precisely Dawkins’ and Ham’s problem. Dawkins reads Genesis 1-11 using the scientific method and concludes Genesis 1-11 isn’t true because it isn’t scientific. Ham reads Genesis 1-11 using the scientific method and concludes Genesis 1-11 really is true and science does prove it, but those evil secularists are suppressing the truth!

No—Genesis 1-11 should not be evaluated as if it were a scientific document, because it isn’t. Neither Dawkins nor Ham knows how to read.

Yes, It All Goes Back to the Reformation
This fragmented understanding of knowledge that is so prevalent in many American universities and Evangelical churches can be traced back to the unintended effects of the Reformation. As Gregory states, “By rejecting the authority of the Roman church, the Reformation eliminated any shared framework for the integration of knowledge” (326). By pitting “Church Tradition” against the Bible, and by labelling anything they went against any particular Reformer’s view of the Bible as “human additions” or “the traditions of men,” the Reformers unleashed a huge problem.

We should remember that what started the Reformation was Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. This was not some sort of protest—it was a common practice in the university system. It was an invitation to debate these arguments in an academic setting. That, in and of itself, is what should be done. Unfortunately, due to both Luther’s temper and the clear corruption of the Pope, everything soon blew up.

The result, as we’ve seen in the previous posts, is that Reformers ended up appealing to local political leaders for protection, and they in turn set up their own local political/religious fiefdoms that weren’t interested in vigorous intellectual and academic debate in the universities on religious truth claims—they were concerned with promoting Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Calvinism, Catholicism…depending on what particular fiefdom you happened to be in.

Divorced from the life and worldview of the Church that provided the “Capital-T Truth” framework to incorporate all kinds of knowledge, education ended up being cut loose on a sea of disparate “small-t” truth claims, that instead of being incorporated into a coherent and unified worldview, stayed separate, or if they ever came in contact with each other, decided it was time to go to battle…and this is what happened in the centuries following the dawn of the Reformation.

Two More Items to Considers
In light of this, Gregory points out that the way in which the Early Church/Orthodoxy was able to convey a sense of a unified worldview was by means of the liturgy. He writes, “Besides the shared practices of the virtues, the center of Christian life was not the Bible or Bible reading per se, but the liturgy of the word and the Eucharist in the representation of Christ’s self-sacrificing love…” (334).

Simply put, the center and focus of Orthodoxy is not the Bible—it is Christ. The Bible is used within the larger context of the liturgy that points to Christ. The Church, as the Body of Christ, remembers and re-enacts Christ’s teachings and sacrifices in the liturgy, and the Bible bears witness to that. If you divorce the Bible from its part in the larger life of the Church as a witness to Christ, you have divorced it from the unified worldview that the Church provides, and as a result you get the over 20,000 Protestant denominations we have today. Unity and an unifying worldview is lost when the Bible is divorced from Christ as expressed in the life of the Church.

Another interesting point Gregory makes is what happened to the universities in Europe in light of the French Revolution. Remember, the French Revolution touted the values of the Enlightenment, and railed against the Church as being the seedbed of ignorance and superstition. Well, facts can be a troublesome thing. In 1789 there were 143 universities throughout Europe; by 1815 there were only 83. Why did that happen? By trying to get rid of the Church, Enlightenment thinkers succeeded in getting rid of the very educational framework that made higher learning possible.

All this is to say is that Gregory’s take on modern university education is this: without the concept of “Truth” in terms of the bigger Life Questions, universities have become places of specialized knowledge only. Gregory describes modern education like this: “Its aim is not the pursuit of truth—or rather, ‘truth’—with respect to any of the Life Questions, but rather indoctrination in the conviction that there are no definitive answers” (359).

Yes, that is a rather over-generalized statement, but it seems to be largely true. There certainly is a lot to think about. If I had to sum up this 2,000 post, I’d have to say this.

1. Gregory’s criticism of much in the modern university system is that it is a place solely of specialization, without any really emphasis of attempting how so many “small t” truths might be incorporated into any “Capital-T” Truth claims, because they don’t acknowledge “Capital-T” Truth claims as a valid means of knowledge.

2. Gregory’s criticism of much in the Evangelical world is that Fundamentalism has essentially committed intellectual suicide by not only largely rejecting the academic world as “too secular,” but by clinging solely to the Bible, divorced from the larger Tradition and life of the Church.

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