A Comment on David McKenzie’s “Teaching Students Who Already Know the Truth”
Cultic Studies Journal, 1987, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 73-77.
Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.
Professor McKenzie’s essay on the religious dogmatism of his students is wide-ranging and insightful. It reflects a sense of pedagogical concern, nagging frustration, and a hint of personal threat. Its content touches a variety of academic disciplines, principally philosophy and theology. Nevertheless, I believe his discussion is not only incomplete but is in some respects misleading and misdirected.
Ironically, the title of thearticle, “Teaching Students Who Already Know The Truth,” reminded me of a recent, much-discussed book whose title, The Closing of the American Mind, suggests a correspondence to the McKenzie piece, but whose content promotes a thesis which is really the converse of McKenzie’s complaint The book, by University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom, argues that in the name of “openness,’ the American University has succeeded in closing students’ minds. Whereas McKenzie decries the absolutism in his students, Bloom laments the lack of any absolutes in his students and the flourishing of relativism. The purpose of a college education today, Bloom observes, is not to produce scholars but to provide students with a moral virtue – openness.
Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger (Bloom, 1987: 25-26).
In his zeal to ‘attack dogmatism,’ Professor McKenzie may well be contributing to what many consider the malaise of modem learning – a normless toleration of diversity and a dogmatic commitment to the relativeness of truth. As theologian Carl Henry notes, the repudiation of a divinely given truth which now dominates the university classroom has not always characterized American higher education.
Earlier education affirmed that truth and the good are fixed and final; it denied that right and wrong are culture-relative. The current view, on theother hand, asserts that all ideas and ideals are relative to culture – all ethical imperatives, all philosophical pronouncements, all theological doctrines are partisan prejudices of the sociocultural matrix. It rejects outright eternal and revealed truths, divinely given commandments, unrevisable religious doctrines (Henry, 1984: 10).
‘Unrevisable religious doctrines,, ‘fixed and final’ ‘biblical inerrancy’ – these are the phrases that Professor McKenzie and his colleagues find offensive. Such concepts, they assert, inhibit critical thinking and lead to intolerance and narrowmindedness. Yet, as Professor Carl Raschke of the University of Denver eloquently argues, the ethos of unbridled tolerance and pluralism so typical of today’s academic scene ‘is not the grand, liberal rebuke of dogmatism.. it often purports to be. It is actually a deliberate default of our critical intelligence.’ We should help our students, he suggests, ‘to make certain normative distinctions that reflect our commitment to discriminating analysis and critical intelligence’ (Raschke, 1986: 135-136).
Theologian StanleyHauerwas of Duke University echoes the same warning about our preoccupation with pluralism and tolerance and how this affects our attitudes towards religious cults.
… we live at a time when the more orthodox forms of Christianity refuse to pass judgment on any religious phenomenon on theological grounds for fear that such judgments might violate the norm of tolerance. Like all good secularists, Christians today do not condemn the beliefs of cults but rather criticize them only for practices that seem to violate people’s autonomy. After all, beliefs are a matter of personal choice, not subject to claims of truth or falsity (Hauerwas, 1982: 160).
The tragedy of Jonestown, as Hauerwas sees it is that Jones’s followers lacked discernment; they had so little religious substance (dogma if you will) that they could not identify heresy when they saw iL ‘A people who have lost any sense of how religious traditions are capable of truth and falsity can easily fall prey to the worst religious claims, having lost the religious moorings that might provide them with discriminating power’ (Hauerwas, 1982: 159).
Someone has said that ifs nice to have convictions, so long as you don’t believe they are true! McKenzie’s fundamentalist students obviously have firm convictions, perhaps even dogmatic convictions. The problem with his students, I suggest, may not be their commitment to absolute truth and an inerrant Bible, but their inability to realize that within the boundaries of that commitment they can still use their minds creatively and critically. The role of the Christian teacher is to help such students to explore their minds more deeply without abandoning their strongly held convictions.
This relates to perhaps the most glaring inadequacy of McKenzie’s essay – his inability to recognize the fact that there are multitudes of people, including many competent scholars – who are ‘true believers’ in the best sense of that word and who nevertheless are committed to critical thinking, careful analysis, and academic rigor. He disdains those students (and by implication, all others) who believe that the Bible is literally true and authoritative for our lives. He fails to acknowledge that there are those in every academic discipline who affirm a high view of Scripture with complete intellectual seriousness and honesty.
McKenzie is condescending towards those of us who affirm both the trustworthiness of the Bible the life of the mind. As an evangelical Christian (Presbyterian by label), I have a high regard for biblical authority. In no sense do I feel I have committed intellectual suicide or become a religious fanatic because I happen to hold what McKenzie denigrates as ‘an absolute allegiance to the Bible.’
McKenzie is misinformed and incorrect when he flatly states that ‘educated clergy and theologians around the country know the Bible is not literally true’ and that ‘it is logically impossible to believe the literal truth of scripture.’ He is guilty of gross overstatement and distortion when he declares that in fundamentalism ‘the Bible is worshipped rather than God.’
Surely McKenzie must be aware of the many competent writers and Christian thinkers (not dubious scholars on the fringe) who combine a belief in the truthfulness and infallibility of the Bible with a commitment to the life of the intellect. I challenge him to introduce his sincere but immature students to such books as Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton; Your Mind Matters (and many other books) by John R.W. Stott; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis: works by Carl F.H. Henry, Clark H. Pinnock, J.1. Packer, James Sire. By making reference to these authors (with whom his students should be able to relate), he can help them, in John Stott’s words, to ‘use their minds Christianly.”
McKenzie is correct when he observes that there is anti-intellectualism in some extremist fundamentalist circles. What he fads to mention is that there are many evangelical observers (who believe in the absolute authority of the Bible) and even a few moderate fundamentalists who agree with him and who have said so repeatedly in print. McKenzie is correct when he states that ‘what evangelism most often lacks … is respect for other persons.’ However, he again makes no mention of the many respected evangelicals (who are committed to creative and critical thought) who concur with him and who demonstrate that respect is possible. To his students who lack respect in this regard, he should recommend John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World (InterVarsity Press, 1975). In so doing, he can point them to role models without offending their strong commitment to the Bible.
McKenzie refers to his early, difficult evangelistic encounters with Muslims. Why not refer his students to Stephen Neill’s sensitive work, Christian Faith & Other Faiths? True, Neill is ‘dogmatic” about the uniqueness of Christian truth. “Christians are bound to affirm that all men need the Gospel. For the human sickness there is one specific remedy, and this is it.There is no other (Neill, 1984: 31). Yet, he stresses that the Christian who shares his/her faith with someone of another religion must do so with the deepest humility. ‘He must endeavor to meet them at their highest, and not cheaply to score points on them by comparing the best he knows in his own faith with their weaknesses, weaknesses such as are present also in the Christian scheme as it is lived out by very imperfect Christians’ (p. 32). McKenzie needs to expose his zealous students to the moderating views of authors like Neill and Stott, writers who combine a solid orthodoxy with a sensitivity to the views of others.
McKenzie is correct when he notes the negative aspects of charismatic Christianity. But again, he overgeneralizes; he cites the extreme examples while ignoring the more moderate elements. He identifies Maranatha Campus Ministries (a group I have researched extensively) with certain undesirable characteristics but fails to mention that other, more moderate charismatic Christians, are equally concerned about the questionable practices of the group. To be intellectually honest, McKenzie should balance his comments about charismatics by telling his readers that some charismatics do excel in academics. For example, Russell Spittler (PhD., Harvard University) is Associate Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest and most respected seminaries in America. And, in 1982, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary installed a charismatic, Robert Cooley, as president.
McKenzie is correct when he cites the powerful and sometimes unhealthy influence of TV evangelists on the masses of fundamentalists who support the electronic church. He fails to note, however, that some of the most outspoken critics of the abuses of the electronic church are evangelicals who are committed to the infallibility of Scripture and who do not discourage critical thinking. An example is sociologist James Davison Hunter who, in an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, exhibits the balance I see lacking in McKenzie’s piece: The greatest temptation … is to unfairly assume that the anti-intellectualism, superficial piety, and hypocrisy that might be imputed to the Bakkers are characteristic of all conservative Protestants’ (Hunter, 1987).
McKenzie concludes his essay with perhaps the most unfair, unqualified generalization. He states that dogmatic fundamentalism is “extremely dangerous” and “immoral, resulting in experiences in which fundamentalists have abused their children by withholding health care or physically exorcising demons.’ I am currently writing a book on the topic of aberrational or ‘fringe’ churches and I can document the kind of excesses and destructive behavior Professor McKenzie is referring to here. But it seems to me that it is inappropriate, even irresponsible, for him not to qualify those assertions at the conclusion of an article that is devoted in large part to a denunciation of the Southern Baptist Convention and the linkage of ‘religious dogmatism” to all those who adhere to ‘the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible.” To then suggest that ‘dogmatic fundamentalists’ are all potential child abusers, exorcists, and idolators is simply sloppy scholarship.
In conclusion, there surely are students who resist disciplined thought and who wallow in subjectivism and personal experience. Some are dogmatic fundamentalists; some are committed secularists. For those of us who are academicians of whatever stripe or ideological label, our common task is to assist our students to see the value of an examined life.
Bloom A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York. Simon & Schuster.
Hauerwas, S. (1982). Self-sacrifice as demonic: A theological response to Jonestown. In K. Levi (Ed.), Violence and Religious Commitment. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press,
Henry, C.F.H. (1984). The crisis of modem learning. Faculty Dialogue, 1, 7- 20.
Neill, S. (1984). Christian Faith & Other Faiths. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Raschke, C. (1986). Religious studies and the default of critical intelligence. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54, 131-138.
Ronald Enroth is professor of sociology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California. His latest book, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions, was published (1987) by InterVarsity Press.