The End of Orthodoxy in America?: Part II – Losing the Battle of the Mind

In this series I am arguing that a certain form of Christian faith and practice, an “orthodox” form, will soon find itself under governmental persecution, and its pastors, priests, bishops and laypersons will likely incur concrete instances of state sponsored oppression. The reasons for this are critical losses on three battlefields of culture: the battlefield of the senses, the battlefield of the mind, and the battlefield of the heart or emotions. In the first post I argued that orthodox Christianity is quickly losing the battle of the senses. In this post I will show how it is losing the battle of the mind.

Orthodoxy vs. Progressive Christianity

Before I try to show how orthodox Christians have lost the battle for the intellect in America, let me first return to the notion of “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy in the context of this series should not be equated with Eastern Orthodoxy, an easily identifiable tradition of theology and practice which separated “officially” from Roman Catholicism and Western Christendom in roughly 1054 AD. Here, rather, I am talking about orthodoxy as it relates to the kind of religious beliefs that term might entail, beliefs which can be said to be held in common by all major Christian traditions in Christianity’s roughly 1,980-year history. In other words, the kind of “Mere Christianity” that Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century, Richard Baxter in the 17th, and C.S. Lewis in the 20th century would have agreed upon. I laid out five criteria by which an orthodox, ecumenical church could be recognized. I will not review those criteria here, but try to expound on the term “orthodoxy” so as to get in sight more precisely the kind of Christianity I expect to see fall on hard times.

In addition to the actual beliefs then, orthodoxy refers to the kind of believers who hold such orthodox views, and who arguably will be (or already have been) most affected by concrete forms of persecution in America. For those who think that this cannot or has not already occurred in part in the United States, I would make reference to the following cases: the Jack Phillips case, the Little Sisters of the Poor case, the case of the 2016 Bill 1146 in the State of California. Other examples could be easily multiplied.1 I am bound morally to acknowledge that each of these cases has had positive outcomes for the religious institutions or persons involved. However, these cases show a few things: one, how extraordinarily important it is to have non-constructivist judges on the Supreme Court, and second, that cultural leaders in America are very willing to pursue such litigation against conservative Christian organizations and persons. Third, the idea that such litigation will simply stop, arbitrarily, is naive.

One way to bring orthodoxy more clearly into sight is to look at its main alternative. The primary alternative then to this orthodox form of Christianity, right or wrong,2 I am not arguing about the truth values of orthodox claims vis-a-vis progressive ones. I am only trying to define and distinguish the two. is what we might call “Progressive” Christianity. It is Progressive Christianity that I expect will be less affected by any persecution by the state or through culture. Progressive Christians will be less likely than orthodox Christians to experience any real blow back from secular authorities or pressure from culture.

Thus, let me lay out some possible features of this Progressive Christianity. It is better to speak of “features” here rather than “criteria,” since Progressivism is not something that can be defined apart from its deviation from orthodoxy. Progressive Christianity is itself only clear in so far as we recognize some essentials of orthodoxy, and, as such, there is not a fixed set of criteria by which one could identify as progressively Christian, especially considering that the term “progressive” implies an embrace of change or flux. These features are, therefore, by no means exhaustive, and there will be exceptions in so far as there may be some churches that label themselves “progressive” yet do not display all these features. Nevertheless, here are five features by which we might better understand the distinction between orthodox and progressive versions of Christianity:

  1. Progressive Christianity will likely hold to some form of “correlation” or “correlative” theology. Correlation theology and the methods that define it are known both in the Protestant world and Roman Catholic one.3 I imagine that there are Eastern Orthodox theologians who apply this method as well, I am just unaware of any. A prime example of a Protestant theologian who advanced the theory of correlation would be Paul Tillich, while a Roman Catholic example would be Yale theologian Margaret Farley. In short4And I mean very short, correlation theology is a rich concept and I cannot do it or its proponents justice in this short space., correlation theologies argue that Christians and Christianity are in an open dialogue with the words of the Bible. While the words of the Bible and the propositions found therein might be considered inspired and edifying to any given Christian community, those same words and propositions do not necessarily contain or refer to a fixed, universal, and binding moral or theological content.5 For a comprehensive take on the idea of fixed, universal, and binding theological propositions, see Catholic theologian Eduardo Echeverria’s Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. At a minimum, the moral and metaphysical content and theological truths presented in Scripture must be repackaged to answer the questions of our modern (or post-modern) times. As such, Christian answers are ultimately subject to what drives us existentially today, and what drives us most profoundly today will ultimately determine what we need to retrieve from the Scriptures, or Church History, and what we might conveniently leave behind: what we have in a sense “progressed beyond.”

    This dialogical approach6 This term, I believe, was coined by Margaret Farley to the sources of Christianity that shapes Christian communities often takes broad, biblical themes such as “love,” “justice,” or “liberation” without taking into account the specific moral commands enshrined in the text of Scripture. As such, biblical themes which are still important to us today can nevertheless be detached from specific moral laws found in the Bible or pronounced through the church’s historical teachings.7 One Roman Catholic theologian and personal friend roughly put it this way: correlation theologians and their followers don’t like what might be called “Churchianity” whereby “Churchianity” stands in for fixed, universal, and binding pronouncements of the Church that apply today just as always. The result of a correlation theological approach is often, but certainly not always, an elevating of philosophy and contemporary experience as the norms by which we gauge the validity of biblical truth. In sum, the church today confers authority on those parts of Scripture which correlate best to our current existential experiences and normative judgments about the world.
  2. In light of feature 1, progressive Christian churches will tend to evaluate moral claims differently than orthodox churches. Non-negotiable moral judgments that orthodox Christians make, especially in the areas of life issues (e.g. abortion and euthanasia), human sexuality, and the nature of marriage, will likely find revision among progressive churches that hold to the correlation approach. For these churches, contemporary lived experience and the judgments of certain sciences will demand theological claims be revised to answer the questions which emerge from those experiences and those judgments. Theologian Margaret Farley puts it this way regarding sexual ethics,

“New philosophical links between sex and freedom, sex and power, sex and history, gender and just about everything else, are in some respects so important that there can be no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience.”

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

In other words, going back to how pre-modern, biblical authors like Paul “experienced” sexuality when he wrote the sixth chapter of his first letter to Corinthians is no longer possible in light of new “philosophical links.”8 Notice, however, that Farley actually goes beyond just sexual ethics here, stating that “just about everything else” is open for revision as well. Philosophy and the sciences have trumped the theological judgments of Paul and maybe even Jesus, each of whom had different cultural experiences of sexuality and no sense of modern science.

3.Progressive forms of Christianity will, unlike orthodox forms, tend to reject the exclusivity of Christ with regard to salvation, instead opting for a religious universalism that allows many (perhaps all) to be saved through means other than Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

4. Progressive forms of Christianity will often see ongoing human experience and the process, or “progress,” of history as equally revelatory of God’s nature and will as the Biblical revelation itself. In other words, the “canon” of revelation is not closed.

5. Progressive forms of Christianity may also be more likely to deny or underplay the metaphysical realities that ground the truth claims of many creedal statements of the historical Church, as well as downplay the supernatural aspects of the biblical witness. In other words, references to demons, angles, spiritual powers or perhaps even a personal God, are often seen as merely symbolic or metaphorical.9 One look at the statements of belief by divinity schools like Wake Forest will demonstrate that the biblical language about God is itself primarily symbolic and therefore contingent upon its historical conditions. As such, it is not a binding revelation to refer to God as “YHWH” or “Father” since those terms are relative to the cultures that produced them. Today we can freely call God “mother” or perhaps just “Ground of Being.”

In sum, any churches or Christian communities that exemplify these features can reasonably be called “progressive.” Moreover, these features of this form of Christianity help us better see what orthodoxy is, and, finally, it is more likely that the churches and communities which exemplify this form of Christianity will not experience the kind or degree of persecution that their orthodox brothers and sisters will have to endure.10 I am not trying to set Christians against each other, I just think it is an obvious truth that churches which are more open or more in sync with the conclusions of the culture in which they live will have a far easier time surviving in that culture. Again, I am making no arguments here as to whether progressive forms of Christianity or orthodox ones are true or false.

With this now in mind, let me turn to the claim that it is on the battlefield of the mind that orthodox Christianity has lost much ground. Perhaps too much to recover the land.

Second Sign: Losing the Battle of the Mind (or Intellect)

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was truly a shocking turn of events in recent Supreme Court history. Considering what it took to get such a devoted and brilliant conservative Catholic a seat on the highest court in the land, however, shows the resistance in the culture to thoughtful Christianity.11 I am not unsympathetic to the arguments from Christians who found the way in which Judge Barrett was nominated less than entirely virtuous, although this in no way should diminish the obvious excellence and competency of the nominee herself. The fear of dogmas living loudly in the hearts of men or women with equally powerful minds is palpable among many in positions of social and political power. But, perhaps more shocking than Barrett’s nomination and appointment, is the fact that there even is someone like an Amy Coney Barrett– a serious Christian executing serious social functions in the present culture. When one considers, for example, the rates of conservative Catholic and Evangelical voices in high academia today in comparison to liberal, agnostic and leftist ones, it is amazing that women like Judge Barrett even exist. It is perhaps a credit to her alma mater, Notre Dame, that at least some semblance of orthodox Christian faith remains acceptable among the academic elite. References to the evidence of these astounding disparities between conservative scholars and liberal ones can be found here, here and here.

That said, my argument rests on an assumption, that being that Christians who tend to vote Republican or who identify as politically conservative will be more in line with the criteria of orthodoxy which I set out in the previous post. The corollary to that assumption is Christians who are politically liberal and vote Democratic will also tend to find themselves in churches or denominations that display the features of “Progressivism” I listed above. While I think there is good prima facie reason to think that these correlations hold, I also recognize that there will be exceptions: for example, orthodox Christians who for whatever reason find it more appropriate to vote for political liberals, and progressive Christians who vote for or support Republican candidates for office. Nevertheless, there is data that suggests that political views matter to how one views Evangelicalism in America12 I would extrapolate the same to apply to Roman Catholics. Indirectly then, one might infer that if Evangelicals are mostly viewed by Democrats negatively and by Republicans positively, and if the social agendas of the Democratic party line up better with progressive forms of Christianity13We might also call these forms “mainline Protestant”, while the agendas of Republicans with orthodox forms, then we might conclude that in the academy when we see a tremendous disparity between political liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans), this shows that the influence of orthodox Christian voices or ideas in the high academy is marginal.

The President of Ratio Christi, Corey Miller, highlights more directly the fact that there are few Evangelical voices in the high academy:

According to Harvard’s recent Crimson Survey, the single largest religious group of the class of 2019 is atheist/agnostic. 4 Erstwhile Harvard student Bill Gates dubs Enlightenment Now, by Harvard atheist professor Steven Pinker, his “new favorite book of all time.”5  Pinker, like a great number of his colleagues, is a self-proclaimed atheist and liberal. From top to bottom, Harvard isn’t what it once was. He points out that in 1990, 42 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, 40 percent moderate, and 18 percent conservative, for a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 2.3 to 1.6 Today, for those ages 65 and older preparing for retirement it is 12:1; and for younger scholars ages 36 and under it is 23:1.7 In Religion departments it is a whopping 70:1!8  There is extreme bias against hiring evangelical Christians.9  It seems there is an all-out assault on the Christian faith where the major battlefield is the universities. Some professors explicitly target Christian faith: “Employing universities in the struggle against faith is a cornerstone in the larger strategy to combat faith, promote reason and rationality, and create skeptics.”10

Dr. Corey Miller, “How We Lost the Universities and How to Reclaim the Voice of Christ” in CRI online

Further, one Barna survey shows that when Democrats think of Evangelicals they think of very different traits then when Republican think of the same subgroup:

The terms chosen most frequently by Democrats were: politically conservative and religiously conservative, narrow minded, homophobic and uptight. The ones that Republicans selected were: religiously conservative (but not politically conservative), caring, hopeful and friendly. It would almost appear that these partisan affiliations are talking about two completely different religious groups. Democrats seem to be pointing out some of the worst qualities they perceive about evangelicals, while Republicans are quick to emphasize positive characteristics.

Ryan Burge, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis”

At the end of the day, many Christians do vote based on individual persons and specific policies, so any claim here does fall prey to the fallacy of hasty generalization. Still, considering the immense discrepancies in numbers at major universities, it is quite reasonable to think that of those very many liberal or left-leaning professors some may be progressive Christian, while of the very few conservative or Republican ones, some may be adherents to orthodox Christianity. Or there are predominantly atheistic Democratic professors in higher education who despise orthodox Christianity, even if retaining some sympathy for Progressive Christianity. Either way, and in conclusion, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that orthodox Christians have lost the battle of the mind in virtue of losing a place in the university.

But the loss of the battle of the mind has not come solely through the discrimination of Christians by scholarly adversaries, even though that discrimination is real and has been clearly documented here and here. Students of Evangelicalism in America will be familiar with the tragic turn away from the academy in the early 20th century by fundamentalists looking to carve out a subsection of culture for themselves, a section separate from what they saw as an academic will that had little capacity for truth due to the noetic effects of sin on skeptical minds. Rather than contending with the skeptic on the battlefield of ideas, many Evangelicals decided to retreat into their own intellectual realm, a realm safeguarded by common assumptions and orthodox presuppositions. While not an intrinsically bad thing, this move left a lacuna of rigorous academic scholarship to offset the domination of the universities by atheistic naturalists.

Others, like some mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, did stay in the academic arena, but rather than contest the rise of scientistic naturalism, or its atheistic counterpart, post-modern existentialism, they capitulated much intellectual territory, especially in the areas of Metaphysics and Morality, to their more socially acceptable interlocutors. With the exception of neo-Thomist moves in Catholic Theology and the advent of analytic philosophy of religion grounded in the work of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, the academy was left to be fought over between the intellectual offspring of Betrand Russell and Karl Marx (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Michel Foucault). Conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals may have had the better arguments, perhaps not unlike Intelligent Design theorists today, but their social clout was not sufficient to stand up to the all too human pressures of their scholarly peers. In the end the will is more powerful than the mind, and winning the sociological battle is just as important as developing the better arguments.

The result of this loss on the battlefield of ideas between the 1910’s and 1990’s has been a culture that takes naturalism as a given. The classical liberal side of this materialist coin may share some common features with orthodox Christianity, for example in its embrace of instrumental reason as a means to objective knowledge,14 Right now there are strange alliances forming between atheists who would otherwise be contending against orthodox Christianity, but who are now locked arm-in-arm with orthodox Christians in the battle against intellectually harmful movements such as Critical Race Theory. Examples would be philosophers like James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. while the Marxist socialist side of the same coin other ones, like its emphasis on the material care for all people. However, neither is truly a friend or ally of a historical Christian worldview which assumes a reality beyond nature and the truth of transcendent purposes and rewards. In the end each of these worldviews and the manifold causes and movements they birth will inevitably be in competition with Christian orthodoxy in some foundational area. And, as with orthodox Islam, these two cannot peacefully coexist if one becomes too dominant in the culture, for Christian orthodoxy will always attempt to curb, correct, or resist certain flaws inherent in those systems and the (im)moral demands that flow from them. A true Christian orthodoxy will play the prophetic voice to systems not grounded in the reality of God and in the natural law embedded in His creation. This is what Cardinal Francis George was gesturing toward in 2010 when he uttered his now famous phrase. Concrete moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and transgender rights are all examples of cultural phenomena which orthodoxy can never accept and is called to repudiate.

In sum, philosophers like Charles Taylor have made it clear that we no longer live in a cultural context where religious belief, at least not metaphysically significant religious beliefs, appear plausible to the average person. Taylor puts it this way:

The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the ‘immanent’ involved denying–or at least isolating and problematizing–any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and the ‘supernatural’ on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 15-16.

And once the metaphysical realities that underlie the moral claims and spiritual practices are undermined, the atheistic materialist of either camp can sit back and slowly watch actual churches began to cave to social pressure. That pressure creates even more skepticism about orthodox moral claims. And, if social pressure is stronger than even the strongest argument, the willingness of those who would otherwise hold to historical Christian dogma is additionally weakened.

While Taylor’s analysis goes far beyond a simple “naturalism” versus “Christianity” narrative, it nevertheless is the case that at one time all of the major educational institutions in America were Protestant universities dedicated to the pursuit of divine Truth and the clear explication of that Truth for the sake of building a more moral and just society. That this is no longer the case has been absolutely undeniable for over 100 years now. In this sense, it really is no wonder that the beliefs of women like Amy Coney Barrett seem incredible to other women, like Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Nevertheless, the gradual loss of the research university and centers of academic engagement in the 20th century have made orthodox Christianity only a near lost cause in 21st century America. For even losing the intellectual battlefield and the battlefield of the senses is not a sufficient condition for the decline of orthodoxy in a nation. For that a final condition must be met, and that condition is the loss of the heart of a nation. In my next post I will argue that in losing the heart of America, orthodoxy must prepare for its inevitable demise.

4 thoughts on “The End of Orthodoxy in America?: Part II – Losing the Battle of the Mind”

  1. This is a very interesting and well thought-out post. Thanks very much. There is much to unpack, but I think that my first comment, which must be general, is the following: Assume that everything about Orthodox Christianity is true. It nevertheless is still not of this world and it remains a mystery that for so long it was the dominant cultural narrative. Ultimately, the corollory of Christianity is that we are not home and should expect hardship where we are. This seems to be inevitable given that our world view is not from this world. Another is that we are not alone and really do not know, except in a general sense and only in terms of final outcomes, what the future holds, because that future is determined by One who cares for his created images to a degree we struggle to understand. This affection for us is part of what makes it difficult to predict what will happen. I suspect that this second reality (God’s affection for us) has dominated the first (the fact that we are not home) throughout history in the West. Moreover, it is difficult to see, but it may well be that Christianity will take hold in those places that could dominate the planet in the future, not part of the West. Think of China. Or Africa. This to say that you paint an accurate picture of Christianity in the West. And it may well be that Christians here will find it more difficult not to be progressive. But I think that whether this becomes a world-wide situation in the coming years is an empirical question for which I am unsure, in the short term, of the answer.

    1. George,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. And, I am planning to address much of what you stated here in the concluding post in this series. A few quick points: 1) there is something mystical about Christian persecution, on the one hand it is tragic, painful and sad, but, on the other, it seems to be an integral part of the story of God’s people that cannot be detached from the ultimate sanctification of the Church, 2) I think that a demise in one area of the world often does mean an emergence in another area, like China, but also 3) the fact that we live in such a globally connected world today, what with our advances in technology, does make me think we may be about to see not just a demise of Christian orthodoxy in America, but a global persecution of God’s people. I always refrain from any specific predictions about the time of the end times, but the conditions seem much more viable for the second coming now that we are such a global community.

      Thanks for your excellent comment.

      in Christ,
      Anthony

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