If you’re going to read one article about Christianity this year, it should be Nathan Schneider’s “The New Theist” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. This is a great piece of reportage, examining one of the most important developments on the battlefield of ideas in our time: The rapid rise of Christianity–and I mean serious Christianity–as a legitimate and academically reputable worldview in classrooms at America’s leading mainstream universities.
Of course there are Christian chaplains and chapels and Christian student groups at most universities. But these are extra-curricular phenomena and Schneider isn’t writing about that. He is writing about regular, accredited studies in constructive Christian theology that are now being offered at leading universities by philosophers whose prestige and academic standing derives from their work building up a modern Christian understanding of the world. In fact, there are at this point more than 1,000 members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, a professional organization for academics whose scholarly output includes works such as Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000), William Alston’s Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1993), Richard Swinburne’s Does God Exist? (Oxford University Press, 2010), and Nicholas Wolterstorff’sDivine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks (Cambridge University Press, 1995). In other words, these are books published by the top academic presses in the world, whose aim is to offer highly educated readers an alternative to the atheistic materialism that is still the going intellectual currency in much of the university system.
Mind you, these are not “Creation science” types arguing that the geological evidence should be thrown out because the Bible says the world was created less than 6,000 years ago. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know quite a few Christian philosophers in recent years and they are very impressive people, both on the professional level and personally. Impeccably educated and endlessly inventive thinkers, they are well versed in the physical sciences and in the latest word in cognitive science, philosophy of mind, epistemology and philosophy of science. Most of those I’ve come to know are decent and good-hearted people too. And what they are offering students at universities across America (and increasingly in Europe and other countries as well) is an unflinchingly orthodox Christianity that is nonetheless carefully synthesized with the findings of science.
Put this in perspective. Fifty years ago Christianity was dead as a force within academia. The official point of view was that Hume and Kant had completed the demolition of religion a century and a half earlier and that there was really nothing left to talk about. A serious scholar in any discipline would be someone who had studied Hume and Kant with care and knew that this was the situation. A serious scholar would therefore have to be an atheist. Everyone knew you could still find Christian intellectuals here and there on the fringes of academic discourse–teaching in a theological seminary, say. But these were just a holdover from an earlier age and you could safely ignore them because it was only a matter of time before they disappeared altogether.
No one thinks that anymore. In the early 1970s, Christian scholars rallied around a young philosopher named Alvin Plantinga who had published a painstakingly rigorous book called God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (Cornell University Press, 1967). Together, they developed a strategy for putting Christianity back on the map as a force that absolutely had to be taken seriously by the modern world. The strategy: Take on the arguments of atheist philosophy in works of such outstanding academic competence that professional philosophers would have no choice but to concede their quality. Recruit the smartest Christian students available to get Ph.D.s in philosophy and work to place them in tenured positions in the leading mainstream philosophy departments in the world. Leverage these beachheads in the philosophy departments to challenge the reigning atheist materialism across all disciplines in the university–and then to move outward, projecting a highest-quality, highest-prestige version of Christianity out into the media and the general marketplace of ideas. In 1978, this strategy was given organizational form with the founding of the Society of Christian Philosophers.
Just a generation later, the strategy that the Society of Christian Philosophers represents is proving itself in the most dramatic fashion possible: Christian philosophers such as Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Peter van Inwagen have been elected to the presidency of the American Philosophical Association. No philosophy department can at this point afford not to hire one or more scholars who can offer undergraduate courses and train Ph.D. students in “philosophy of religion”–the current academic euphemism for Christian theology. And if you sit with the graduate students at dinner at almost any academic conference, you’ve got a good shot at hearing them going around the table and sharing whether or not they’re “theists”–the current academic euphemism for Christians.
It’s frequently said that the very public debates over the “new atheism” of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and philosophers like Daniel Dennett is a response to the legislative efforts of creation-science advocates who are threatening to overturn the status quo in the way science is taught in public school system. There may be something to this, but I have suspicion that these aggressive anti-Christian campaigns by leading academics have a cause that is much closer to home. The resurrection of Christianity as a live option among university professors who publish and teach about ultimate issues has created a new reality in the universities: A reality in which Christianity and atheism are fast becoming two legitimate alternatives conducting an ongoing debate between them–alternatives that find expression in formal courses, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, which call upon the students to put their minds to the issues that divide the two sides and to take up a position on one side or the other.
Of course, the great majority of scholars are still not theists, and if you asked for a show of hands it’s clear who would win. But you can’t understand the dynamic that’s unfolding in the universities by asking who is in the majority. The fact is that this debate between Christians and their opponents is itself a deeply ingrained part of the Christian tradition going all the way back to the earliest missions of the apostles. The medieval university was to a great extent the invention of Christian philosophers (the “Scholastics”) who saw themselves as the heirs to this tradition of debating for and against the Gospel, and who placed public disputation over Christian doctrine at the very heart of the university curriculum. Works such as Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica reflected this culture of debate by presenting Christian theology in the form of propositions, objections, and responses to objections.
The return of Christian philosophy as a force within the university curriculum is therefore much more than just a simple offering of courses on Christian theology to those students who are interested in such things. It would be more correct to say that the renewed presence of Christian philosophers on the faculty–and of Christian philosophers who are willing and able to speak their minds across a wide range of important issues in philosophy, religion and science–places the entire prevailing materialist ethos of the university in a new and unanticipated situation. Suddenly, materialist assumptions have to answer to a battery of sophisticated challenges emanating from an updated version of the tradition of Christian philosophy that preceded Hume and Kant. Things that no scholar could have said publicly a few years ago are now open for discussion. The university setting has been transformed into one in which the arguments of Christian disputationists once again rise to meet the challenges posed by their skeptical opponents.
No wonder people like Dawkins and Harris are upset.
But despite their objections, the trend is clear. The universities, with philosophy programs in the lead, have moved to bestow legitimacy on a once discredited worldview by including its advocates in prestigious faculties and publishing their arguments in leading academic venues. And where the universities go, the rest of society tends to follow.
What should Jews learn from all this?
Well, first of all, we should be very impressed that the Christians have succeeded in pulling this off. The university system was until recently the single most significant bastion of opposition to Christian modes of thought and values in the Western world. And philosophy departments in particular tended to embrace views such as that of A.J. Ayer, whose Language, Truth and Logic (1936) insisted that arguments over God’s existence were literally meaningless and nonsense. The fact that Christian philosophers have been able to brook an ocean of hostility to make a place for themselves at the table within academia is a monument to what a brilliant and determined group of scholars can do to change the face of the civilization around them.
To be clear, I’m not myself a huge Alvin Plantinga fan as far as the details of his philosophical system go. I don’t find his theory of knowledge persuasive and so I don’t find the justification for Christian belief that he has built upon it terribly convincing either. Nevertheless, the sea change that has taken place in the standing of Christianity in the universities since the founding of the Society of Christian Philosophers is something I can’t help regarding with awe. Christian philosophy is today not only a remarkable intellectual edifice, but a rapidly growing movement, which continues to engender new initiatives well outside of philosophy departments, in universities around the world, and outside of academia as well. Knowing some of the personalities involved, I have no doubt that what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning. This is a movement whose influence will be felt for generations to come.
Second, I think that Jews need to think carefully about the opportunity that the success of Christian philosophy opens up for significantly upgrading the standing of Judaism in the university setting. I find it strange that we Jews have remained virtually a non-player in this struggle to shape the content of a university education, and through it the course of Western intellectual life in our time. To be sure, there are a handful of Jewish academics who have sought to contribute a systematic Jewish alternative to Christian philosophy–Lenn Goodman, David Novak and Shmuel Trigano are obvious names that have to be mentioned, among others. But on the whole, the Jewish professorate seems to have been oblivious to the rapid rise of Christian philosophy, or unable to understand its implications for Judaism. While Christians have seen the philosophy departments as an environment in which professors and students wishing to build up a plausible Christian conception of the world could receive institutional support for pursuing this aim, no such understanding seems to exist among Jewish academics or their philanthropist allies.
Consider the endless discussions in the organized Jewish community for more than a generation now about what we can do to bolster Jewish “continuity”; or about the pressing need for a Jewish “renaissance.” Or all the resources that have been poured into establishing Hillel on the campuses, and Yavneh, and Chabad, and Birthright. I don’t mean to say that these discussions were unimportant or that the programs they engendered were not worthwhile. On the contrary, there is no doubt whatsoever that these efforts have done much good for the tens of thousands of Jewish students they’ve been reaching.
But at the same time, the stunning success of the Christian philosophy movement does point to a vast opportunity that we Jews have been missing–and will continue to miss if we do not retool now and begin thinking about the universities in a completely different way.
I find it shocking to realize, for example, that all of the familiar efforts at Jewish campus outreach were taking place during precisely the same period during which Christian theologians were working tirelessly to build up their Society of Christian Philosophers and the academic empire it now represents. And in comparing the two efforts, I have to admit I feel humbled and ashamed. I am ashamed that while we Jews were pouring our efforts into the availability of “experiential” Judaism through Shabbat meals and free trips to Israel–all very good things in themselves–Christians were focusing on the much larger picture: They were focused on revitalizing Christianity itself and turning it into an intellectual force capable of holding its own against competing systems in the arena of ideas.
What I mean is this: We Jews have excelled in sending recently married Chabad couples to live in off-campus houses at the periphery of university life, where they cook Friday night dinner and give ‘shmoozes’ to enrich Jewish experience for many Jewish students who had never in their lives felt the joy of Shabbat. At the same time, Christians have been marching into the heart of the university and setting up shop in the most problematic academic departments in the world, successfully making the case that they should be respected and allowed to stand up and teach Christianity to all comers in accredited degree-granting programs just like any other important system of thought.
There are advantages to each approach. I have no doubt that Jewish campus outreach has brought many young people to Judaism, just as I have no doubt that Christian philosophy has brought young people to Christianity.
But there is also a huge difference between these two strategies: The Christian philosophy movement has led to a dramatic change in the credibility, respectability, and standing of Christianity in the universities. Whereas Jewish campus outreach has left Judaism precisely where it was 40 years ago – a non-force as far as the intellectual life of the universities, and therefore a non-force in shaping the future course of Western ideas.
You may wish to say, quite reasonably, that this comparison is not fair. The Christians also have their campus outreach, which should be compared to our Hillel and Chabad organizations. And there are Jewish Studies professors who can be compared to the Christian philosophers I am writing about.
But this, I think, is exactly the problem. That while the Christians do have their Campus Crusade for Christ and many other campus outreach organizations, we Jews have nothing at all that can be compared to the Society of Christian Philosophers. The Society for Christian Philosophers is devoted exclusively to the question of creating a compelling Christian worldview that will work for the professors themselves, for their students, and for the Christian world at large in meeting the challenges of the modern world. Every one of the SCP’s members is an author (or an aspiring author) who writes original books and articles with the aim of building up and improving upon the Christian understanding of reality. Whereas with a handful of exceptions, Jewish Studies professors have no interest in creating a compelling Jewish worldview, or in writing books about it, or in teaching it to their students, or in bringing it out to the greater world. That’s just not what they do. They are historians who write careful studies about the Jewish past; or sociologists who study trends in Jewry today. And that’s about it. They didn’t sign up to “teach Judaism” to anybody. They leave that to the rabbis.
How did this happen? Surely all those tens of millions of dollars that were poured into setting up Jewish Studies programs were intended to strengthen the teaching of Jewish ideas at the university level? To support the creation of great new works of Jewish thought (what we traditionally call tora) that would permit Judaism to compete with other systems of thought in the arena of ideas? To strengthen the standing of Judaism among professors and students and beyond?
I admit I don’t really know whether this was the intention. I wasn’t there in the early days of the Association of Jewish Studies (founded in 1969) and I don’t know what the game plan was, or how it was different from that of the Society of Christian Philosophers founded a few years later. But I know from experience that today you sometimes find something bordering on disgust when you talk to Jewish Studies professors about why they don’t “teach Judaism” in their classrooms. A close friend, a learned Orthodox Jew who has spent his life as a professor of Jewish Studies, brought this point home to me as starkly as possible with a comment he made many years ago:
“All I want to do is wissenschaft,” he said, using the old German term for the putatively value-neutral science that is supposed to be carried out in universities. “My outreach I do outside the classroom.”
This particular individual was good to his word. He has indeed done a great deal of Jewish outreach in his spare time outside the classroom. I have a feeling that when he reads this letter he’ll write to me and tell me again that it’s best for Jewish Studies professors to leave Judaism out of the classroom.
But I’ve always thought this was a mistake. And today, when I look at what Christian philosophy has accomplished, I know this for certain. In the last generation the universities–and by this I mean to include the leading “secular” universities in the world–have showered untold benefits on Christianity: They have poured incalculable sums into paying tenured professors to spend their time building up Christian theology, publishing books about Christian theology, teaching students Christian theology. They have allowed Christian students to take academic degrees and get doctorates in Christian theology, thereby supporting the creation of a whole new generation of razor-sharp Christian thinkers and teachers bearing the stamp of the top research universities in the world. In most cases, they have also subsidized these students heavily to make this possible. They have opened the doors of the most prestigious, beautiful and expensive academics facilities in the world to this work of building up Christianity. And in doing all this, they have given Christianity its legitimacy back, bolstered its self-respect, and greatly contributed to its attractiveness to others, Christian and non-Christian alike.
In other words, Christians have put the gargantuan resources of the universities to work for Christianity. Whereas Jews prefer to do Judaism on the side: And then Jews wonder: “Why are things so bad on the campuses? They are our future, you know.”
Of course, not everything that works as Jewish “outreach” is going to be relevant as academic research and instruction in Judaism. There are a great many works of popular Jewish thought that don’t meet professional academic standards for scholarship, just as there are ways of teaching Judaism in a popular vein that would be, for this reason, inappropriate in academic courses. What the Christian philosophy movement has demonstrated, however, is that constructive Christian theology can be conducted in a way that does meet the highest professional standards for academic research and instruction. And where this is achieved, what is created is something that can be of great worth to Christianity and of great worth to academic scholarship and instruction at the same time.
How is it possible that Christians know how to do this and Jews are so completely clueless?
Could it be just this: That Christians feel at home in academia, whereas Jews do not? Christians founded the universities–nearly all of which were established and functioned for centuries as centers for developing the Christian understanding of the world and teaching it. No one is going to tell a Christian scholar with a straight face that he has no right to teach Christian theology in the philosophy department at Harvard or Princeton, Oxford or the University of Paris. Christians know they are there on those campuses by right and not by suffrance.
Maybe Jews still feel, deep down, like they are guests in someone else’s institution? Maybe this explains why we’ve been so very timid: Why Jewish professors aren’t interested in teaching their students Hebrew Bible, Talmud and Midrash, and rabbinics as constructive, philosophically relevant disciplines. Why Jewish students–and especially Orthodox Jewish students–can’t imagine getting a Ph.D. in philosophy or an allied discipline and setting up shop on a university campus and becoming the leading “Judaism person” there. Why Jewish donors build strategies for dealing with the crisis on the campuses that are systematically skewed toward dealing with the periphery of what’s taking place on campus, rather than going after a change in the heart and center of the university as an institution.
I don’t know if I’m really right about this–that Jews don’t really feel at home in academia. It’s just a thought.
But here’s something that I do know:
The time is ripe for a Society of Jewish Philosophers or something like this. (Don’t get hung up on the name; send me suggestions if you’ve got a better one.) The universities are now shaping up as the principal arena in which the very best in Christian ideas are being pitted against the most sophisticated versions of the materialist worldview that the world has known. Jews should want to see a third alternative rise: A Jewish alternative that is different from each of the others, and that can contribute to each of them while retaining its own unique integrity. A Jewish alternative that can vie with Christianity and with the various materialist systems for truth and glory. First on the campuses, and then out from there into the broader world of ideas.
The Christians have proved this can be done. They have paved the way.
Let’s be inspired by their success. Let’s do this.