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ID and the Charge of Fundamentalism

FROM THE CURRENT ISSUE OF CT: Baylor’s eclectic approach to gathering faith-and-learning resources meant they sometimes failed to screen out the culturally militant elements of evangelicalism. In a head-shaking blunder, Sloan’s team put William Dembski—point man for the Intelligent Design movement—in charge of a new science-and-religion center. It’s hard to imagine any step that would have been more effective in convincing skeptical faculty that Sloan was turning Baylor over to the fundamentalists.

Christianity Today‘s current cover story by SPU’s Michael Hamilton (scroll down) is meant to engender hope in Christian higher education and its engagement of the wider culture, but in my view the article does the opposite. I comment on it here because the story is relevant to ID’s resistance within mainstream Christian higher eduction (i.e., CCCU schools).

Hamilton, as it turns out, was offered to head Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning two years back (I’m still officially part of that institute until my contract with Baylor expires May 31). The article opens with Hamilton describing Robert Sloan’s tenure as president at Baylor, his recent resignation, and what that protends for the school. After that, he describes a number of recent books that have been published by Christian academics on integrating faith and learning.

In reading the description of those books, I was reminded of an old quip by my dad (who was in higher education with an M.Ed. in education as well as a D.Sc. in biology): “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” The overwhelming sense I had from this article was that faith-learning integration is not a matter of unseating falsehoods or challenging anti-Christian worldviews, but of fitting in within existing academic culture, doing work that is unobjectionable, and then being able to say, “See, I’m a Christian.”

Thus, at one point in the article, Hamilton remarks, “though we want badly for Christian scholarship to look different from secular scholarship, much of it in fact looks the same, especially in the hard sciences. Biological research done by a Christian looks pretty much the same as biological research done by a non-Christian. Even in fields like history and literature, the basic research and the core documents and data, will be the same for the Christian.”

Now it is true that many areas of scholarship will proceed without any difference in Christian and secular contexts. For instance, mathematical facts are mathematical facts, and they better not differ in the two contexts. But worldview presuppositions are implicated in many, many disciplines, not least evolutionary biology. It’s precisely in these areas that Christian higher education promises to make a real difference.

But for Hamilton, this is not where the action is in Christian higher education. Consider how he closes his article, focusing on two professors at a Christian school:

Despite Haynes’s excellent work on the Rhodes Consultation [i.e., a discussion on the future of faith-related colleges] and Michael Nelson’s forthright testimony of faith when he first came to Rhodes [i.e., that it was great to be at a school where Christian faith could be freely discussed], nothing was more important in strengthening their college’s Christian character than what they did on April 24, 2001. That’s the day they stood together in their academic robes on the platform at the Rhodes Awards Convocation. Haynes received the college’s award as the outstanding teacher of the year, and Nelson received the award as the outstanding research scholar of the year. For if Christian professors aren’t good teachers, good scholars, and good colleagues, then there won’t be any good reasons for having Christian colleges. It’s that simple.

Certainly getting outstanding teaching and research awards, maintaining high academic standards, and fostering a collegial atmosphere are fine and well. But is that all there is to Christian higher education? Is there really nothing more important to strengthening a Christian college’s character? Not only does nothing further come across in Hamilton’s article, but he explicitly repudiates ID as playing a role in the endeavor to integrate faith and learning. He writes, addressing my case at Baylor,

Baylor’s eagerness to draw upon evangelical resources has had a mixed effect. On the positive side, evangelical thinking about faith and learning helped Baylor get quickly up to speed on the crucial issues. A large number of evangelicals joined the faculty, and this brought to Baylor some superb scholars who had thought long and hard about Christianity and education. But it also made some Southerners on the faculty feel like they were being inundated by Yankee evangelical carpetbaggers. They feared that the newcomers would undermine Baylor’s academic freedom.

On the negative side, Baylor’s eclectic approach to gathering faith-and-learning resources meant they sometimes failed to screen out the culturally militant elements of evangelicalism. In a head-shaking blunder, Sloan’s team put William Dembski—point man for the Intelligent Design movement—in charge of a new science-and-religion center. It’s hard to imagine any step that would have been more effective in convincing skeptical faculty that Sloan was turning Baylor over to the fundamentalists.

Make no mistake, Dembski is an accomplished scholar and sharp intellect who has earned, and deserves, a hearing. But like every other evangelical culture warrior, he sees much of higher education in particular, and American culture in general, as apostate. His mission is “to engage the culture and reclaim it for Christ,” as he declared after leaving Baylor. This is the vision that drives the leaders of the conservative forces in the Southern Baptist Convention.

No surprise, then, that Dembski left Baylor last September for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. There, president R. Albert Mohler Jr. has set him up as director of a new Center for Science and Theology. The center, as Mohler put it, represents “our commitment to be very serious about the task of the Christian worldview.”

As it is, I don’t start at Southern Seminary until June 1st. Yet the most troubling aspect of this passage is what it says about how mainstream Christian higher education views the ID movement. Instead of seeing it as one component in the larger project of integrating faith and learning, Hamilton repudiates it, referring to me and my colleagues as a “cultural militants,” identifying ID with “fundamentalism.,” and regarding it as a colossal mistake (“head-shaking blunder”) that Baylor ever got involved with this topic by hiring me.

Within mainstream Christian academic culture, the charge of fundamentalism is as bad as it gets. Even very few of ID’s secular critics ascribe fundamentalism to ID, ascribing fundamentalism instead to young earth creationism and characterizing ID as a more sophisticated replacement that does not fall prey to the charge of fundamentalism.

Anyone who has followed the ID movement, and my time at Baylor in particular, will realize that the militancy surrounding ID stems mainly from those who want to shut it down. If you have any doubts about this, read the source documents about my time at Baylor here. Alternatively, look at the exchange at the National Association of Scholars between me and my colleagues in the ID movement versus Paul Gross and his defenders here and here.

I used to say that if ID had a chance to succeed at any major research institution, then Baylor was the place. After the fall of Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center in 2000, I modified that: if ID could succeed at Baylor, it could succeed anywhere. Michael Hamilton leads me to modify this claim even further: ID will succeed in the CCCU (and by implication Baylor) only if it first succeeds in the mainstream secular academy.

This is unfortunate. As a Christian, I would like to believe that Christian higher education should be the one place where controversial new ideas could be freely examined, discussed, and developed. But that has not been my experience. For instance, Michael Behe gave a talk at Texas A&M University in February of this year. There was no talk at Baylor of bringing him up there to speak on ID — and Behe is a much sought after speaker nationally. Instead, I was told it would be several years before Baylor would be ready to receive Behe.

In conclusion, let me urge a somewhat different assessment of ID’s role in Christian higher education. The “head-shaking blunder” was not for Christian higher education to invite scholars like me to explore ID but to be so concerned about maintaining appearances that ID could not rceive a fair hearing in its midst. Prediction: ID will win the day and mainstream Christian higher education will once again be seen as holding up the rear rather than setting the pace.

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3 Responses to ID and the Charge of Fundamentalism

  1. [Email sent to me. --WmAD]

    I read the Hamilton piece on your blog. Sheesh!!! Typical bootlicking evangelical weenie who knows so much that he can’t even read the SBTS press release about your appointment.

    Think about what he’s saying: Baylor, by hiring you, has thrown down the gauntlet in the culture war, when in fact you may have been the only person on the Baylor faculty at the time who did not accept a complementarian view of science and faith. Apparently, having one vocal representative of that view in a non-tenure track position at Baylor makes your hiring an act of militancy.

    Now that Baylor has a donor to Planned Parenthood as interim president, is Hamilton willing to call Underwood a “culture warrior”? I can only surmise that Underwood would only be given that title if he were a fellow of the
    Discovery Institute: Being affiliated with killing the innocent unborn is not quite as bad as defending intelligent design. “Fearfully and wonderfully made,” I think is how the Pslamist described the human being. In
    light of that passage, it is ironic that your departure would usher in Underwood’s regime.

  2. ID emanating from theistic institutions is going to be viewed as biased by a vast majority outside those institutions and inside it’s just preaching to the choir. That might not be fair but I believe it is objective reality. It’s actually counter-productive as it just gives effective ad hominem ammunition to the Darwinian narrative apologists. ID wins by superior merits in any objective examination of the empirical evidence. It’s a far better fitting, more logical explanation of the same observations and experiments that random mutation + natural selection attempts to explain. The supernatural objection is a red herring. Nothing about ID requires a supernatural entity operating outside the known natural laws governing matter and energy.

    I believe the only obstacle to ID’s success as a valid scientific worldview is defeating Darwin’s exclusive reign as the only valid explanation for life in high school science classes, which is unfortunately the beginning and end of most people’s exposure to evolution-related science. The DI plan of doing this by first casting doubt on the Darwinian narrative is perfect. There’s plenty of room for doubt. The major impediment to this is the establishment clause. What DI has been less than successful at is divorcing ID from religion in the view of the judiciary and to a lesser extent in the court of public opinion. My hope is that the tortured latter 20th century interpretation of the establishment clause gets relegated to the dustbin of history where it belongs as soon as our fearless leader President Bush can make a couple supreme court appointments. When the courts stop blocking simple and factual pleas like the biology textbook sticker in Cobb County, Georgia then the Darwinian cookie will really start to crumble. Until then politics are preventing ID from getting the fair hearing it deserves – and again, I’m confident that it will win the day in any fair hearing.

  3. [Another email sent to me. --WmAD]

    Seeing American culture in general as “apostate”, and seeking to
    “engage the culture and reclaim it for Christ” makes one a “cultur[al]
    militant”, a “fundamentalist”, and a “cultural warrior”. In this post
    9-11 era, Hamilton’s language is delightfully damning. You might as
    well be an abortion clinic bomber.

    Bill, if you could just try to look on the bright side of American
    culture, and give up that antiquated notion of engaging the culture
    and reclaiming it for Christ, you would be so much more attractive to
    Christian institutions of higher education. Remember, religion and
    faith are private and personal. ‘Apostate’ is a dirty word. And heaven
    forbid, whatever you do, don’t put “Christ”, “culture” and “engage” in
    the same sentence.

    - Screwtape

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