Monday, September 08, 2008

The Grass is Always Greener

Mark Noll's dialogue with James Turner in The Future of Christian Learning is a worthwhile read. Noll's portion seems a fusion of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Is the Reformation Over and a general history of North American faith. In short, Noll is post post-Christendom. He observes that the Protestant Reformation did not destroy Christendom, but morphed it into Swiss Calvinist, English Anglican, and German Lutheran forms.
Where Christendom was attacked by political pressure or reconstituted without spiritual revival, as in the Napoleonic era, or where the reformers of Christendom no longer shared the instincts of Christendom, as with modern fundamentalism, then Christian learning was not robustly promoted or was even rejected. In sum, Christendom, however manifold its shortcomings, has historically proved to be a most propitious environment for the flourishing of Christian learning.
Such Christendom resources that some Catholics still have, and that Evangelicals need, include a positive take on matter, reason, institutions and traditions, the parish ideal and legal realism. On the contrary, Catholics need things evangelicals have, such as the revivalist instinct against formalism, mobilization, personal engagement, and the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. "Like the symbol of yin and yang, evangelical and Catholic strengths and weaknesses are aligned with nearly perfect symmetry." What's odd is that - while mentioning converts to Episcopalianism - Noll only anecdotally mentions Catholic or Orthodox converts (which he does mention in Is the Reformation Over). Is the evangelical brain drain not a problem? For example, five out of six of Wheaton's most recent valedictorians, I am told, have or are seriously considering converting to Catholicism.

James Turner is less optimistic about possibilities for unity, at least not institutionally. Because of the "Darwinian ecology of American higher education." Baylor may look to Notre Dame, but Notre Dame will never look to Baylor (just as Baylor wouldn't look to a smaller Baptist school). Notre Dame has to look to Princeton and Harvard. Furthermore, Turner argues that the grounded, "sacramental" Catholic perspective extolled by Noll is the very thing that makes Catholic scholars not very different from secular scholars. Turner seems to take Noll's suggestions that there be "Christian scholarship" to be akin to "Christian plumbing." Turner then takes a good, hard look at Catholic schools, and the picture isn't pretty. Most Catholic schools, seeking to shed pre-1960 Thomistic "ghetto mentality," just want to fit in; hence they "whirl in a complicated dance with mainstream secular higher education." (One wonders if a calf is involved.) It's a nice warning to those valedictorians.
The Vatican can publish a catechism, but no pope can make Catholics read it, much less assent to everything is says. Catholic may be required to believe defined dogmas, such as papal infallibility, but many exempt themselves from the requirement.
Of course this is no surprise, but Turner's numbers are disheartening. At the largest Catholic school in the country, DaPaul, 70% of the students are non-Catholic, and many of the professors aren't even Christian. His realism enables Turner to suggest:
Evangelicals have no pope and no Vatican, yet in real-world terms they have a stronger theological center of gravity than Catholics do: that center, indeed, defines them. It would be ludicrous to minimize what divides evangelicals... [yet] why do we call all of these folks "evangelicals," and why do they so label themselves? It is solely because they share certain core beliefs - about the Bible, about new birth in Christ, about the awakened Christian's duty to spread the good news. Catholics do not agree among themselves about a single one of those items. But, then, they do not need to in order to be "Catholics."
Unfortunately, Turner's positive take on evangelicalism is not shared by the most astute students of contemporary evangelicalism. Turner's take may be history. The man who has put the most study hours into that arena right now appears to be David Wells. There's a nice summary here of his grim opening analysis in The Courage to Be Protestant (and audio interviews here and here), but I'll get right to the kicker:
Can the evangelical Humpty Dumpty ever be put together again? I think not. What was started in the 1940's, both in America and in Europe, has had a wonderful run, has created a multitude of churches and parachurch organizations, an immense and impressive array of scholarship, seminaries, colleges, social relief, missionary work, and a massive enterpriese in believing. However, today it is sagging and disintegrating... The word "evangelical" has oulived its usefulness.
Considering both sides aren't looking too good, one option outlined by Thomas Albert Howard in the opening of The Future of Christian Learning is "critical loyalty" to one's current tradition. It's a thought.