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Monday, April 8, 2013

Are Evangelicals anti-intellectual? (Part 2 of 3)

Spinoza courtesy
Steven Wall with Randy Smart

    Concepts of the intellect, the intellectual and the anti-intellectual are very complicated.  Airey’s essay might not set us up to deal with these topics properly.  

    We will first champion the new regard recently opened to Evangelical intellectualism and then discuss the Evangelical intellectual process (in Part 3).

    Intellectually, Evangelicals have often been their own worst enemies.  While thinking persons of faith have tended to be highly regarded in the 20th Century, the traditions they represent have not (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom).  In Anglo-American culture, uncontested faith in an unchanging, personable God arguably stalled with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which opened the way for a secular explanation of the universe sans God and thereby birthed the "godless" Enlightenment.  Faith as a living process anchored by a rational God (including the basis of the Mennonite gemeinde) began to falter in 1914 with the beginning hostilities in World War I and the horrors which followed.  Arguably, the entire spectacle over the Scopes’ Monkey Trials of the 1920s were symptomatic of these stumbles, and not their cause.  Soviet atheism did not disprove God, but sought rather to replace God and inhabit (perhaps even control) that realm of the transcendent.

    Mennonites do not adhere to an English-based religious understanding.  We are joint-authors of and expounders upon the German alternative to the anti-faith English Enlightenment, being the Aufklarung which has been noted for fostering space for belief in faith, phenomenology and transcendentalism (all being the rational realm within which the concept of God abides).

    After the 1950s, Mennonites in North America tended to express their native European Mennonism and Evangelicalism in American terms.  The left, increasingly influenced by Chicago’s seminaries, Elmhurst and the Ivy League, led Mennonism into a rationalist retreat along the lines of contemporary Protestantism.  The right either merely opposed these influences or having been intellectually empowered by Bible college educations (after Moody’s model, again in Chicago), often fell in with American Fundamentalists.  This separated the diaspora into two groups that have not since been able to leave the side of their new intellectual allies (to the right or the left) in order to again behave as a unified Mennonite faith tradition. 

    The two extremes have much in common.  Both operate on the edge of materialism – the left, being unable to believe in a spiritual god and the right being unwilling to trust such a god.  Both adapted their respective theologies appropriately.

    In the middle, the Mennonites had two groups – the Mennonist Amish and Evangelical Mennonites (which could possibly include much of the Church of the Brethren), the two differing only in their definitions and placement of the role of the church community and of the individual in the spiritual growth process.  Regrettably, these two groups are the farthest apart culturally within the diaspora.

    Recently, faith in the transcendent has again become rational, therefore intellectual.  We no longer have to be skeptical of all things in order to be “intellectual”.  Quentin Meillassoux has reintroduced the concept of intellectual surety of knowledge.  Jan Verwoert, the international art theorist, recently noted that in the US, “social life is organized by two governmental technologies that should exclude, but in fact reinforce each other:  the modern secular state and pre-modern theocracy.  Religion, a force thought to be crushed and buried under the profanities of capitalism and atheist doctrines of socialism, has resurfaced as a thing of the past that shapes the present.”

    Is Verwoert referring to Fundamentalism?  Fundamentalism is faltering in America.  What he is describing is the Evangelical fellowship or the traditional Mennonist gemeinde.  We are not only rational, but we might be in danger of being hip.

    At the same time, charges of anti-intellectualism must still be confronted.  Evangelical Mennonites are not anti-intellectual, we are merely hesitant to give up a faith that is just as real to us as are rocks, sunshine and rain, just to fit in with a culturally foreign academic elite.  Similarly, while we maintain perhaps too much interest in the End Times theology of the Fundamentalists, the 20th Century was hard on us.  For most of it, we felt as though we were literally days if not minutes away from the man-made destruction of the world.  Yet, this interest was normally tempered by faith in God – Pre-Trib, Post-Trib, a-Millennial, our intellectual leaders never faltered in preaching that the shape of the future was irrelevant to the context and content of our faith in the here-in-now within which we lived.  Similarly, an understanding that the Genesis accounts were historical was most often tempered by a humility in understanding that we were not there and we do not seemingly always comprehend the mind or vocabulary of God.  Our faith is not in 24-hour days, it is placed in a living Savior.

    Rather than listing a roster of intellects including Isaac Peters, Jacob C. Wall, Alma Döring, Ulah Kliewer, Ernie Toews, O. J. Wall, A. P. Toews, John R. Dick, George P. Schultz, A. F. Wiens, Paul Kuhlmann, and by extension, P. M. Friesen, Calvin W. Redekop and others too numerous to name, a simple and consistent theology might suffice as demonstration of a vital, intellectual faith – our commitment to reaching the world for Christ, that unlike our despairing Fundamentalist brothers and sisters, entails a commitment to reaching beyond conversion into the realm of establishing schools, trade centers, hospitals, vernacular Bibles, farms, communities and colleges and choosing to live while challenging the anti-historical faith of those to the left who exiled God to the past, or to the right, who exiled God to a prophetic future. 

    The intellectual faith heritage of Evangelical Mennonites, like that of our Amish cousins, was not sacrificed in order to become current with the ideas of others or to be welcomed within their society.  This is not anti-intellectualism, but rather a consistent focus on the things of God rather than on the fleeting intellectual fads of the world.

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