Religion 101: “You Shall Be As Gods”

“One of my readers who is preparing for a dissertation defense in history writes with a request. He is a practicing Christian and has been told that he needs to “think like a historian instead of a theologian.” In his words:
This has been a difficult transition as I have studied practical theology since the mid-1990s. I need to be able to communicate my thoughts and ideas to non-Christian professors—some of whom are antagonistic to Christianity—in a manner that they believe is academic. In one of your writings you stated: “As I see it, this is the challenge I face writing as a Christian to a scholarly audience: how to frame what I see through the lens of faith in a way that makes what I see at the very least thinkable, even as I appreciate that many will not be persuaded that what I see is true. This is no easy task, thus the years that it has taken to develop the methodology that I have since publishing my first book in 2002.” I desire to communicate that the methodology I use allows me to interpret events accurately while at the same time not shying (hiding) away from my faith. Any suggestions you have would be welcomed.
What does it mean to write history as a Christian? More particularly, what does it mean to write history in the academy as a Christian? Is it even possible?

Some part of me wants to say, no, it isn’t, but that in itself would not be Christian. It would be to give into despair, and we are counseled to hope. Yes, I am still smarting from the way in which unnamed outside readers dismissed my work last year as “not scholarly.” I have my suspicions about why, but at a guess, the statement that my Christian reader found so inspiring about my method may have been one of the things that they used against me. How dare I claim to write for the academy as a Christian? To quote one of my departmental colleagues, when I made an argument two years ago for the significance of studying religion qua religion from within the academy:
Indisputably, it is the right of all members of the faculty in the History Department at the University of Chicago to exercise free speech, in their academic work, opinion pieces, and personal blogs. Yet it is crucial to point out what is self evident: the hateful beliefs advanced by Rachel Fulton Brown are not the values of the History Department—but solely her own. Her opinion on race, sex, gender, and faith is both so specious and so odious as not to be worth debating. Exercising my own right of freedom of speech, also as an individual faculty member in the History Department, I repudiate her invective in its entirety. 
I also join the faculty questioning the publication of her views on a platform of the University of Chicago Divinity School, which places its editorial and scholarly imprimatur on work appearing on that platform. Notably, passages in Fulton Brown’s piece seem to indicate that she perceives the classroom as a place for conversion of students to Christian religious faith—and the professor as a missionary seeking to advance a religious project: the minds of students should be “filled” with Christian religion to counter dangerous secular ideas. That false proposition hardly counts as opinion based on scholarly research.
What had I said that was so wrong? Perhaps it was this:
Judging from my own experience of over 30 years in the academy, it is considered a terrible breach of etiquette, horribly rude even, to mention your religious faith if you are a Christian, never mind suggest that it in any way affects your work as a scholar. This relic of the self-censoring of the late 19th century is now so deeply embedded in American academic culture that most people are not even conscious of it. The real problem, however, is that while discussion of Christian theology may no longer be at the center of university education, religion still is—we just don’t call it that anymore. 
Of course, in context, I was talking about the response to Milo’s campus tour, about which I had been blogging that winter and on which the editor of Sightings explicitly invited me to comment. But my larger argument was that we in the academy are experiencing a religious crisis and that Milo’s provocative speaking merely brought it out into the open—as, in fact, to my mind, my academic colleagues’ responses proved.

I know what I did. I said it at the time: as a Christian in the academy, I challenge their faith. I challenge their faith in multiculturalism. I challenge their faith in gender and race as their primary categories of analysis. I challenge their faith in their criticism of the Western tradition as the only proper lens through which to see. And yet, I now realize, I did something even worse. Why should my departmental colleague be so horrified at the thought that I might “fill” the minds of students with Christian religion? Because—to her mind—that would not be “scholarly.” It is not “scholarly” to advance a religious project. It is not “scholarly” to raise questions of faith.

Which is how you know that my colleagues worship a different god.

As Christians, our real enemy in the academy is not political correctness or feminism or cultural Marxism or liberal progressivism, although all of these are his servants. Our real enemy is the same enemy that Christians have been fighting since Christ died on the cross when he could have saved himself. Our real enemy is the one who came to Christ in the desert and tempted him to do magic: “Turn these stones into bread.” Our real enemy is the one who says, “If you bow down and worship me, you will have material comfort and the support of your peers and command of the world.” Our real enemy is the expectation that with knowledge comes power—and the ability to wield it over others. Our real enemy is the desire for control.

Augustine called it the libido dominandi, the passion for dominion. My academic colleagues call it science.

Do you doubt me? Here it is in one recent formulation:
A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing—that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives—is just such a principle, since it is based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity. History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism.
Not that it is a guarantee, of course, that “diverse cultures” will make it. Some cling stubbornly to belief in God or nation—a.k.a. “theistic morality” and “romantic heroism”—but no matter. “Science” assures us that consciousness is an illusion—“a global workspace representing our current goals, memories, and surroundings, implemented in synchronized neural firing in front-parietal circuitry”—whose phenomena, “like the phenomena of physics...look exactly as you would expect if the laws of nature applied without regard to human welfare.” Accordingly, “if we want to enhance that welfare, we have to [read: can] figure it out ourselves.” And guess what? We can! “We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”—as long, that is, as we dispense with such nonsense as “religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts.”

Professor Pinker is here making the case, as he sees it, for the values of the Enlightenment, but what he is actually arguing for is a wholly different religion: he is arguing for the worship of the world as a machine, not a creature, and for the role of philosopher as Magus, imbued with the power to control that world. Remember what the serpent told Eve, if she and Adam ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? “You shall be as Gods.” It is has been the dream of humanity ever since. Simon Magus offered to buy that power (Acts 8:9-24). The medieval alchemists hoped to harness the powers of the elements so as to transform base metals into gold. Isaac Newton renamed the elemental powers “gravity” and “inertia” (see above, on the phenomena of physics) and thus bequeathed to the Enlightenment the prospect of bringing even the effects of consciousness under “scientific” control.

As Baron d’Holbach put it in his Système de la nature (1770):
Man is the work of Nature: he exists in Nature: he is submitted to her laws: he cannot deliver himself from them; nor can he step beyond them even in thought.... Man is a being purely physical: the moral man is nothing more than this physical being considered under a certain point of view, that is to say, with relation to some of his modes of action, arising out of his particular organization.... His visible actions, as well as the invisible motion interiorly excited by his will or his thoughts, are equally the natural effects, the necessary consequences, of his peculiar mechanism, and the impulses he receives from those beings by whom he is surrounded.... His ideas, his will, his actions, are the necessary effects of those qualities infused into him by Nature, and of those circumstances in which she has placed him.... The universe, that vast assemblage of every thing that exists, presents only matter and motion: the whole offers to our contemplation nothing but an immense, an uninterrupted succession of causes and effects; some of these causes are known to us, because they strike immediately on our senses;... The moral man, is he who acts by physical causes, with which our prejudices preclude us from becoming acquainted.
In Professor Pinker’s words:
The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you. 
And yet, paradoxically, other people do care about you even if the laws of the universe don’t.

Accordingly, Professor Pinker insists:
We all have a responsibility to use the laws of the universe to enhance the conditions in which we can all flourish.
Over the past two and a half centuries, modern philosophers, a.k.a. scholars, a.k.a. university professors have striven mightily to follow the tenets of their materialist faith. Some focus on the interactions between self-interest and the market. Others focus on the struggle between capital and labor. Others focus on the war between the sexes. Others, more recently, have focused on the purportedly inescapable laws of race. All depend on describing human behavior according to some system—and all hope, thereby, to find a way to bend that behavior to certain ends. Again, do you doubt me? What do you think “social science” means?

Christians have an irritating way of challenging such aspirations. We insist on such irritating premises as the existence of grace and the gift of free will. We see the universe as not impersonal and indifferent, but as the creature of a loving Creator who made us with reason that we might understand the glory of his works. We acknowledge ourselves as sinners in need of redemption, but also as children beloved by God. And we refuse to divide the world up according to race, class, and gender because first and foremost we see our fellow human beings as creatures of God, not just accidental ephemera of a pitiless universe, for all of whom our Savior was willing to become incarnate and die that we might be reborn with him through baptism. We also insist that “human flourishing” means more than material comforts or social success, not to mention that it is evil to desire dominion over the world.

And for that, we are called “hateful,” just as Our Lord said we would be.

For my continuing adventures as a Christian in academia, go here.


  1. in a word, the Enlightenment project...

  2. Any attempt to become as God without His Grace is futile and founded on evil, as Christians are to seek to become like Christ through Grace what He is in essence. Knowledge of everything and anything with His Grace is as nothing, -- history, is or ought to be the studying of the Mind of God as seen through the story of Man* in time and how theology**, broadly defined, influences Man's social, physical, and spiritual interaction with each other, Creation, and God.

    You're at your best here Fencing Bear!

    *Man is used here in the classical sense to describe all people, not a specific sex.
    ** Theology is used here to describe what Man thinks about the really real and can include that which is commonly seen as theology but includes ideology as well since ideology is simply the raising of an idea to the level of either personal or group deity.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your identification of the enemy. As we know, faith and reason have walked hand in hand since the very beginning of our Catholic Christian faith. Did not Thomas insist on proof and ask the questions others may have hesitated to ask? We follow the example of Our Lord and place humility, not pride, as a virtue. But some in the academy mistake that humility as acquiescence to the bias they promote, not having heard the doors of their own minds slam shut as they were busy spinning rhetoric for the enemy. Quiet contemplation and softer speech may not be easily heard above the roar of the current storm, but we must remember that God whispers. If we keep our focus on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and if we work, persevere, and love accordingly, God will surprise us in ways we cannot imagine. Remember, to be meek is not to be weak. Greater strength is shown in restraint than in bluster.

  4. Very Important point Dr. Fulton Brown makes. The other side argues as a religion, and that religion considers us apostates/heretics. Where many on the Right/Conservatives fail is this silly rear guard action of acting as though we believe nothing but freedom to express ideas, no matter how silly or wrong (failure of the so called Enlightenment in general). Instead, we should affirmatively be defending what we know to be True from Christ, through the Church fathers to today.

    Irenaeus would not have had the same success battling Gnosticism if he adopted some sort of defense of freedom of expression rather than defending Christ's church. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, "If it just about 'free speech' To hell with that." We believe in Christ's ability to save the world and our Holy Church. That is a little more important that some freedom to blather at a conference...


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