KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Evangelicals Out of the Box.” A few strident voices and prominent figures define what the word “evangelical” means in American culture. But this way of life and faith describes as many as 40 percent of Americans. It is a vast and evolving tradition, as much a sensibility as a set of fixed beliefs. This hour we’ll open that up.
MR. JAMES K.A. SMITH: There are days when the last thing I want to do is call myself an evangelical, and it’s usually after I’ve heard somebody on Larry King or read some editorial that James Dobson wrote and think, “Oh, if that’s what evangelicalism is, here’s my ticket, you can have it back.” On other days, though, I want to sort of stand up and fight and say, “No, we’re not going to let you have the term. It’s broader and more generous than that.”
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us for “The Biology of the Spirit.”
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Stereotypes tell us this: evangelical Christians are politically conservative, morally judgmental and anti-science. But my two guests this hour defy such generalizations. They’re members of a new generation of evangelical thinkers and teachers. They don’t want to carve out a realm of progressive or moderate evangelicalism. They want the term to be known for the expansive connotations it has in the lives of as many as 40 percent of Americans. They’re critical of journalism about evangelicals and of the evangelical movement itself.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, “Evangelicals Out of the Box.”
It is impossible to create a pat, all-encompassing definition of evangelical Christianity. The word “evangelical” derives from the Greek word euangelion or “good news.” Evangelical faith is centered on the person of Jesus Christ, a seriousness about the Bible, and an imperative to share the good news. But to be evangelical is as much a matter of experience and sensibility as a set of fixed beliefs. In recent years, American cultural observers have been struggling to understand this. Publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Magazine have devoted many pages to megachurches and Christian home schooling and evangelical prayer groups at Ivy League colleges. But my two guests this hour insist that the public is still not hearing the whole story of who American evangelicals are, what motivates them, and what they’ll be doing in the future.
First we’ll speak with Jamie Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the largest Christian colleges in this country. Jamie Smith says he finds his passion in the borderlands between philosophy, theology, ethics, esthetics and politics. He writes two blogs where he reflects on new theology and on periodicals and newspapers, both religious and secular. He’s written this, “Just as Western anthropologists of generations past trudged through island jungles in search of the exotic ‘other’ in primitive societies, so today journalists depart from the safety and civilization of Manhattan to the exotic environs of Kansas or Oklahoma or Florida or Colorado Springs.” He continues, “Their articles read a bit like dispatches from strange lands. ‘I’ve been to red America,’ they seem to say, ‘and it’s stranger and scarier than you could have imagined.'” I asked Jamie Smith what, in his mind, goes wrong when these and other journalistic explorers seek to understand evangelicals.
MR. SMITH: On the one hand one has to be encouraged that there are a lot of journalists who are trying to do a lot better in taking seriously not just the force of evangelicalism or how significant it is, but are trying to get a handle on the nuances of it a little more. I think the piece that’s missing is there’s still an element of this alien feature of treating evangelicals either in a very alarmist way, with quite fearful tones like, “The beast is rising out of Kansas. What are we going to do?” And I guess maybe what’s missing is a certain amount of charity with respect to appreciating, well, why would so many really, you know, basically good, honest, really sincere Christian people be so captivated by agendas that might bother us or worry us? To say that we should be worried by these agendas is not the same — we shouldn’t therefore conclude that we should be worried about these people. Secular media does not always give them the benefit of the doubt.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical Christian Americans?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, and here I’m not even thinking of vocal leaders like a James Dobson or someone like that. But I’m thinking of, you know, my family members who read this material and find themselves nourished by it and identify with it so much. We need to appreciate that that’s coming from fairly sincere concerns about being faithful. And I guess maybe what worries me is whether you could really understand it without being an insider.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean and say that you can’t possibly understand evangelicalism without being evangelical?
MR. SMITH: When you put it that way now, it sounds like “it takes one to know one,” kind of principle. I mean, in some ways I’m not as frustrated with secular journalists as I am with alarmist Christians who themselves sort of demonize evangelicals in…
MS. TIPPETT: You mean other kinds of Christians? Is that what you mean?
MR. SMITH: Yeah. It’s even Christians who then are doing journalistic-like reporting about things, tend to not be very charitable towards popular expressions of evangelical faithfulness.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, let me throw this at you. I mean, many people would say — and this may have to do with the voices with the people who we put microphones in front of — but, you know, the pronouncements of high-profile evangelicals, people like James Dobson or Ted Haggard — I don’t know, we could list them — and it’s a larger number and it’s a more diverse group than it used to be. It used to be Jerry Falwell, right?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, right.
MS. TIPPETT: But still, I mean, they are not known for making charitable pronouncements, you know? They often seem to be demonizing others, and so I think people would say that they are responding in kind.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. Which would be a very fair response. And I have to say, you know, there are days when the last thing I want to do is call myself an evangelical, and it’s usually after I’ve heard somebody on Larry King or read some editorial that James Dobson wrote and think, “Oh, if that’s what evangelicalism is, here’s my ticket, you can have it back,” and try to find some other term. On other days, though, I want to sort of stand up and fight and say, “No, we’re not going to let you have the term. It’s broader and more generous than that, and you are not representative of, you know, my friends in Wisconsin who are just trying to be faithful, Bible-believing, you know, serious disciples of Jesus. And they do listen to you, but I’m not sure why, and I want to help them to think critically about it.”
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, if I asked you, what voices would you like to hear on National Public Radio, or who would you like to see interviewed in Harper’s that would give a rounder picture that you think of, or a rounder story of what it is to be evangelical in America?
MR. SMITH: The interesting thing is the people that would come to mind for that would tend to not have the sort of public air play that these other figures get. And that maddens me. Like, for instance, I think someone like Miroslav Volf…
MS. TIPPETT: At Yale Divinity School.
MR. SMITH: Mark Noll at Wheaton, who is eminently respected by secular and Christian scholars alike, they have a much more reasoned and balanced perspective on things. But precisely because of that, because they honor the complexity of things, that doesn’t play well to the sound bite culture that both evangelical media and secular media wants to hear. It is, I think you’ve pointed out, a huge lacuna which is that we don’t have evangelical public intellectuals who get the play to offer, you know, a very different vision of what evangelicals are thinking. And, you know, why can’t there be a progressive evangelical radio program? Or why can’t there…
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I’ll ask you that question. Is that a possibility that there would be?
MR. SMITH: I think there are people out there who see the need for such a thing. The question is, the resources that it would take to launch such a project. It takes a lot of money, and for some reason that money tends to go to more conservative, right-wing causes. But one of the things I’m trying to convince colleagues of is Christian scholars for so long have tried to fight and work at getting at the table of scholarship and respected as scholars who are working as confessional Christians and doing unapologetic Christian scholarship. We’ve so much wanted to get to the academies’ table, and I think we’re doing that increasingly, but I think now we need to turn the resources of our critical thinking and scholarship and say we need some of us to really commit ourselves to be public intellectuals, to help the church think more critically about her commitments, and help evangelical Christians think a little more critically about what programs they’re buying into and whose banner they’re flying under, and then also speak, too, intelligently and generously and not so polemically to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, those kinds of outlets, too. And I hope our generation is going to start to take that more seriously.
MS. TIPPETT: Christian philosopher Jamie Smith of Calvin College. He was born in 1970 in Canada. Like many evangelicals of his generation, Jamie Smith has had an evolving faith life. He discovered Christianity during college and later found himself drawn to the intellectual rigor of the reformed Protestant tradition on which Calvin College was founded. He’s also been influenced by the spirituality of the Charismatic Pentecostal movement. In many of our most contentious public debates, evangelical Christian voices seem to emphasize private morality over public morality and social justice.
MR. SMITH: It is true. It does seem to play out that way, and my burden is to try to get evangelicals to ask themselves why they would live with that distinction. Why is it that too many times when evangelicals talk about justice, it means, you know, giving people what they’re due, and not necessarily rendering the distribution of resources so that we don’t have hungry people in this country? I’m sure that historians could tell better stories about why evangelicals gravitated that way, but I don’t see any reason why it should remain that way. And evangelicals take the Bible so seriously, you can’t sit down and read the book of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos and conclude that this is about, you know, getting your internal attitude right.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. SMITH: I mean, it is that…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s about helping the poor and the weak and the friendless. Yeah.
MR. SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. And so, you know, when Yahweh talks to Jeremiah and he says, “If you want to know whether a king knows me, the question is does he feed the poor?” And evangelicals are equally worried, and this is where I share it, that that doesn’t mean giving up, though, a sense of personal holiness. In some ways I think evangelicals should recapture the language of holiness but stop restricting to it this sort of personal, private sphere and think about almost a sort of public holiness or corporate holiness. And what would that mean about how we treat the poor and children and women, and not living with that divide between external, internal or personal and public? I mean, if you really want to get evangelicals riled up, try to start a conversation about either war, capitalism, nationalism. Those are issues where, if I’m at home with my family and we’re talking about these things, that’s when they start to really get upset with me.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, what would that explosive conversation be? I mean, what buttons would that push now?
MR. SMITH: Well, there is — and I don’t want to be trite or quick about this — but let’s say, and maybe I even have a little bit of an outsider status just because I’m still enough of a Canadian to sort of be on the outside looking in. But there is a remarkable collusion and identification in this country of being a faithful, Bible-believing evangelical Christian and being a very patriotic, pro-business, pro-war after 9/11 kind of citizen. And so to suggest, for instance, that Christians might want to rethink their commitment to the sort of nationalistic pride that motivates participation in war, that feels like you’re taking a brick out of the wall of their Christian faith, because they haven’t been able to distinguish the two. Or if you start saying, “Hey, you know, I don’t know if we should be so pro big business and free markets in the way that we are because, if we think about this a little more carefully, there’s some really serious injustices that are engendered by that.” But then it’s like you might have well as said, “I’m not sure about Jesus is God,” in some places. And that’s so bundled up in a sense of identity and standing up for what’s right that you’re very quickly marginalized as a Christian if you start challenging those areas.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, those kinds of impulses I think are quite American, you know, and of our time and not restricted to evangelical Christians. But I think what you’re suggesting is that your understanding of the core of the Christian message that evangelicals cleave to would question that, would seriously question those concepts or that collusion.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. In other words, do you mean to suggest that there’s a way in which the core of evangelical faith already provides the resources for calling into question this collusion between the two?
MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. That’s an interesting suggestion.
MR. SMITH: And that’s my hope, at the end of the day, is when I try to convince people in an adult Sunday School class in a local congregation to think differently, it’s, with evangelicalism, you need to be able to come back and say, “Look, let’s look at what the Bible shows us about the sorts of things that we should be passionate about, what really matters.” And if you can show that it’s in scripture, for evangelicals, that’s the authority. That’s ultimately the authority.
MS. TIPPETT: And not the United States Constitution?
MR. SMITH: Well, it’s interesting.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, that’s an American bias, too. Again, it’s not just that group of Americans.
MR. SMITH: Right. Right. So, to me, that’s hopeful and encouraging because if somebody says, `Well, look, the only way you can do this is if you show them from the scriptures,’ I would just say, “What better place to go to than to say I’m very happy to derive a very different vision from the scriptures,” and use that as our common starting point.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical philosopher Jamie Smith. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Evangelicals Out of the Box.” We’re exploring perspectives that cut against the grain of stereotypes about who evangelicals are and how they might change American public life.
At speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find extended conversation with Jamie Smith, including more on the religious background and influences in his life. He’s part of a new generation of Christian thinkers and activists who say that we are living now in a post-secular age. They assert that the idea of a neutral public sphere governed by reason alone was an illusion. A plurality of religious and secular beliefs actively form our common life. Jamie Smith has written several books about an emerging idea called radical orthodoxy. Radical orthodoxy would urge Christians to rethink every sphere of life, including politics and economics, in light of core Christian values. But it does not advocate the kind of partisan political strategies at which some evangelical Christians have recently been so successful.
MR. SMITH: It’s interesting. The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, which talks about the root of something.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, not something at the fringe, which is the way we use the word.
MR. SMITH: Yeah, exactly. And radical orthodoxy really names or identifies a sense of antithesis between a Christian vision of the world and the secular offerings that are around us, and it wants to take seriously that difference and that antithesis. And in a way, I think that’s pretty close to the heart of a lot of evangelical sensibilities, too. Although it can also be dangerous, I mean, if that falls into fundamentalist, the-world-rejecting hands, it takes a very, very different form.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, I know that where you’re coming from is quite different from the culture war that we talk about a lot right now, but what you just said can sound exactly like that. It can sound separatist. It can sound like a sensibility that might not have room for separation of church and state, you know, that might fulfill that great fear now of theocracy that you hear.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. The culture war was completely undergirded by the failure to distinguish between church and state, in a way, and the thing that I find so maddening in evangelicalism today is on its right wing there is this idea of sort of re-Christianizing or Christianizing the state. In my reading, radical orthodoxy would put much more emphasis on the church as being and exhibiting this alternative community without it being a withdrawal and, you know, sort of…
MS. TIPPETT: And keeping a distance, in fact, from politics and state power.
MR. SMITH: And thinking about we’re going to exhibit an alternative economics by the way we distribute resources within the body of Christ. This will be an aside, but reading a fascinating book right now by Charles Marsh, called The Beloved Community, on the history of the civil rights movement. Fascinating stuff. A lot of the things that I think of as what would be a kind of radically orthodox community, you can see embodied in something like those early civil rights projects, which weren’t fundamentalists trying to take over the state, but they also weren’t apolitical withdrawals from the state either. It was engaging the public from a confessional perspective.
MS. TIPPETT: Kind of creating a new model of engagement.
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, I really kind of want to push you on that because it’s easy to get excited about those ideas at divinity school. I think it’s important to point — and you just did — to point to places where that is concrete and actualized. Are there places you look in our contemporary life for kind of new models of engagement that don’t fit the stereotypes we have of evangelical engagement or Christian engagement?
MR. SMITH: This is the question my wife puts to me all the time. It’s like, “You live in this church in your head.” You know, “Where do we see this?” And yet I don’t want to settle for being realistic. I would rather keep working towards the ideal. There’s a long tradition of Christian political thinking or social thinking which has always been trying to look for this third way, and one of the things I get frustrated with very quickly is that, well, if you’re against Bush or against current Republican policies, then you must be a Democrat. To which I would reply, “No.”
I mean, I don’t understand why it’s always this either/or. And I think what happens is both sides of that game are playing by the rules of what I would call statecraft. Actually I developed this from a fellow named Daniel Bell, a Methodist theologian at Southern Lutheran Seminary. And what he says, both the sort of liberal, progressive Christian Democrats and the more conservative, right-wing Republican Christians, both think that the way to solve problems and the way to be faithful is to marshal the resources and mechanics and engine of the state. And this is where I think there is an alternative which says, you know, I don’t want to play by either side’s rules in that respect, that the church, within a civil society, can carve out its own space to be political as the church. That is, I think, the church is a political space. It is a polis, in the Greek sense. It is a community which has a specific goal that it’s aiming for and is trying to embody — practices to form, virtuous people to achieve that goal. So I think that’s a political space, but I don’t think it should be identified with the space which is the state.
When I say the church, I wouldn’t want us to ever just think of a local congregation, and I wouldn’t even want us to just think of American evangelicalism. What we’re talking about is a body, a community which is a transnational reality. It’s really an alternative, but global, community of people which transcends the borders and citizenships of nation states, and yet that’s our primary citizenship. So that has to make a difference for how we think about our relationship to global realities.
MS. TIPPETT: Professor of philosophy and evangelical Christian blogger Jamie Smith of Calvin College. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more from Jamie Smith on how evangelical churches might model a third way of political leadership on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Also, historian of science Nancey Murphy on what she sees as the artificial conflict between Darwin’s theory of evolution and evangelical faith.
At speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. There’s a “particulars” section with images, details, and a list of the music you’ve just heard. And in the archive section, you can listen to this program again and to our past programs for no charge, or learn how to purchase downloadable copies. Also, sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each interview as well as a transcript of the previous week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Evangelicals Out of the Box.”
We’re exploring perspectives that defy common stereotypes and generalizations about who American evangelicals are and what they stand for. I’ve been speaking with Jamie Smith of Calvin College, where President Bush delivered the commencement address in the spring of 2005. Smith is a young philosopher of traditional and emerging Christian thought. On two blogs he reviews and comments on both secular and religious publications.
He’s been describing a new religious sensibility among intellectual Christians, including some of his fellow evangelicals, which he calls radical orthodoxy. Smith believes that churches are, by definition, political places, but he says they should exert that influence by modeling community and virtues rather than agitating for political policies, either conservative or liberal. I asked him whether this alternative approach could apply to some of the most divisive moral issues in our culture, such as abortion and gay marriage, issues on which evangelical Christians have driven conservative political agendas.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. Very much, sure. And I would want to think differently about those issues mainly because I think the standard evangelical position, or the publicized evangelical position, again, is infected by this identification between what Christians think and what they think the state should reflect. That is, what should be a pluralistic public sphere. So I would make a big difference, for instance, between what the church should think about gay marriage and what the state should think about gay marriage. So that as an evangelical, I think I could still conclude and say, “I can’t imagine how the state could not–on what grounds could the state not permit that?” But then I would say that that doesn’t translate then into a progressive stance about gay marriage within the church.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Those are two completely different processes of discernment, is that what you’re saying?
MR. SMITH: Yeah. And two different sets of criteria, and two different sets of what could count as evidence in an argument about them. It seems silly to me to think that the Bible should have public cachet in an argument about what the state should do. I think it’s a misguided project to try to translate the specificity of Christian confession about abortion, war, death penalty. I confess to not being very hopeful or sanguine or even desiring to translate that into a public policy.
Now immediately I can see the faces of a number of friends who say, “Well, Jamie, that just sounds like apolitical withdrawal. You don’t care about the poor, you don’t care about children.” No, but what I want to do is expand — we’re going to exhibit our concern with those issues by creating a very alternative way of doing this within the body of the church.
MS. TIPPETT: So that within the body of the church it would matter how women who become pregnant who don’t want to be pregnant, I mean, it would be up to the church as communities to model a different way of approaching this dilemma. Is that…
MR. SMITH: Right. We should have a completely different way of relating to pregnancy within the community and model that differently. The church could do very well to just take care of its own for a few years and not go about trumpeting why the rest of American culture is failing so badly morally, because the fact is we’re not doing a great job ourselves. And that’s evangelicals are not doing a great job ourselves. And I feel like we have quite enough on our plate to just try to get evangelicals within the church community to exhibit and live up to the vision of community and being human that’s articulated in the scriptures, let alone trying to then impose that on a broader nation state. And it’s also something that I think is just untenable philosophically.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. But I’m sure someone would be listening and saying, you know, “He’s not evangelical.” Presumably you have friends and colleagues who think the way you do. Or are you kind of a lone voice?
MR. SMITH: Things are a little skewed. I guess your circle of friends is always self-selecting. But, you know, in my local church in which I participate, there would be people who would share this sense with me. And I feel like this is something I have often struggled with. From a distance it’s easy for people to judge, “Oh, Jamie must not be an evangelical because he holds these positions.” But then if you have a relationship with people and say, “Look, you know, at the end of the day, I love Jesus. You know, I could be doing other things if it really didn’t come down to that.” And I would think that if they saw my expressions of worship and what we, as a family, value in church participation and what we try to communicate to our kids and our passion for discipleship and charismatic worship experiences, all of that usually deconstructs the easy claim that, “Well, his positions exclude him from being an evangelical.”
The fact that I have conversation partners about these issues across the country and colleagues teaching at Christian colleges across the country, who would think in ways very similar to me, tells us that there’s this other layer that secular journalists seem to not find. Now, I think in some ways they’re not put on to it because we also have not done a very good job of marshaling the airwaves the way that conservatives have. I mean, I confess to just being downright envious and jealous of how savvy the more conservatives evangelicals are at capturing a really national imagination.
MS. TIPPETT: I think a lot of liberal theologians feel the same way, that same envy.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. “Why can’t we have radio shows?” “Why can’t we have,” you know, “Web sites that draw people all this attention?” And there’s the way in which, for all the times that I’ve been absolutely frustrated with and maddened by what happens under the banner of evangelicalism, I’ve never felt released to not be identified with that and to not be a part of that community, and probably have felt more impassioned to say, “I need to sit here and stick with this community, and if I think it can be something different, try to be part of the solution and not just part of a nitpicking problem or pointing out the problem.”
I know this really hit home for us. We were in Cambridge England on sabbatical last fall when the election happened, and my wife and I watching from a distance, having to get up really early in the morning, and being pretty disheartened but not entirely surprised, and not like I thought John Kerry was a great alternative. And we went and had tea together at the Orchard Garden in Grantchester, and it hit me that morning to say, “OK, if I am so frustrated that so many evangelicals could be so thrilled and excited about George Bush’s re-election and his foreign policy and his domestic policy, if that really upsets me, then I have a lot of work to do to try to transform, challenge, and re-educate the imagination of my brothers and sisters, because I actually think that the conclusions they’re coming to are not consistent with the scriptures that we share.” I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant, but just the sense of, if I think that they should be coming to different conclusions, then I should be one of the ones trying to help them to think about different possibilities and different conclusions.
MS. TIPPETT: James K.A. Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship Program at Calvin College. On our Web site, you’ll find links to his works and his extended remarks on America’s post-secular society, also what he calls the “fundamentalism of the left.” That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Evangelicals Out of the Box.”
Some evangelical Christians in contemporary America have openly taken issue with modern science. My next guest, Nancey Murphy, is an historian of science and a Christian philosopher. She is a member of the Church of the Brethren, a denomination often identified with the evangelical movement, though not strictly belonging to it. She teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, a leading center of evangelical learning. Nancey Murphy is a frequent participant in an expanding, international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers. She’s written a book with a cosmologist, George Ellis of South Africa. She advises the Vatican Observatory on its conferences on science and theology. But in this country, collaborative work between science and religion is currently overshadowed by the furor of intelligent design. This new idea proposes to refute evolution outright. I asked Nancey Murphy how she views this divide.
MS. NANCEY MURPHY: Oh, I am terribly saddened by it. I have a friend who, up till recently, taught one thousand freshman biology students every year, and he believed that somewhere in the 90s percentage of those students believed that they could not both accept what he was teaching them about evolution and also maintain their faith. And I think that this was not just Christians, but cut across some of the other religions as well. These were primarily science majors, pre-med students, etc. He couldn’t, of course, talk with all of them, but he believed that a lot of them simply gave up their church connections. So that is absolutely tragic.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s not what he wanted to happen, is what you’re saying?
MS. MURPHY: Oh, no. He was a Christian himself, but teaching in a state university, he was not in a position to teach, you know, a week on science and religion. But I just know from listening to him what a huge problem this is for young people if they’re taught that they can’t accept both of those points of view. My objection to the intelligent design movement and other predecessor creationist movements is that they misunderstand the nature of divine action. They’re assuming that events that happen in the natural world either have to be caused by natural causes or else caused by God. That’s really, really bad theology. Every orthodox theologian, going all the way back, has said that God is always at work in everything that happens in the universe, and God mostly works through natural causes.
MS. TIPPETT: So for you, I mean, how do you think about evolution on the one hand, creation on the other hand? Do you hold those together in harmony?
MS. MURPHY: Oh, absolutely. And the simplest way to put it, which occurred to people probably the day after Darwin’s book came out is, OK, the evolutionary process is the means by which God has created all living things.
MS. TIPPETT: And, again, you are moving in national and international circles of scientists who are working at the cutting edge theories now. Do you still find that idea to be confirmed in everything that’s being discovered right now?
MS. MURPHY: It’s interesting. The mainline Protestant world has been radically divided throughout the modern period into liberals and conservatives. And the liberals were to be criticized for having developed a view of religion and theology that made science totally irrelevant. The conservatives, among themselves, have been divided among those who saw science as a threat, something to be argued against vs. those who began immediately to work on ways of harmonizing the two. So I suppose the answer to the question is there just are these rather different Christian groups, and what you expect to find by way of attitudes towards science is going to depend specifically on whether they’re liberal or conservative and, among the conservatives, whether they are, well, you might say — well, Fuller Seminary, where I teach, is always either praised or criticized for being on the very left edge of evangelicalism. And so at places like Fuller and other institutions from where we draw most of our students, these issues are issues of great interest, issues where there might be minor controversies about how to go about it, how to say it, but a general agreement that Christianity and science are compatible.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, that’s interesting, and I wanted to ask you that question. I mean, I also believe and find affirmed in the interviews I do for this program, I mean, obviously most of us are not on the far right or the far left in politics or religion. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. And I do think that most people in themselves can reconcile science and religion better than the public debate would suggest. And I wanted to ask, I mean, it sounds to me like you’re saying that you think that is also true at a place like Fuller Seminary, which, as you say, some may consider it to be on the left of the evangelical world, but it’s very squarely evangelical.
MS. MURPHY: Yes. Yes. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to be taught that Christianity and evolutionary theory are in conflict, because it wasn’t even addressed when I was in school, and I believe we were taught evolution in the sixth grade. Nobody bothered to sit down and tell us, “Now, children, we read Genesis in the period before, and I need to let you know that scholars have worked out how these can both be true.” No, nobody even bothered to do that. We just figured it out ourselves when we were kids. And so I think what’s happened is that those who are committed to their being incompatible have just done a very, very good job of teaching the public that they have to believe that. I think the natural default position is, “Oh, somehow these things can be worked out.” And the position that you have to inculcate in people is that, “Oh, this is an insoluble conflict.”
MS. TIPPETT: You know, that’s very interesting. There was an article in which you appeared written in the Los Angeles Times in 2003, and I think the tone of it was similar to a lot of writing these days in major publications. This article is titled “Jesus with a Genius Grant.” And I’m going to read this paragraph in which you appear. This journalist is writing about something happening at the New York Academy of Sciences on Madison Avenue. And it says, “Then the lights flicker, and it’s time for Nancey Murphy’s presentation, the first slot on the day’s program, where she says she is a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. No wonder she looks marooned. Usually Christian academics don’t address international bodies of the scientific elite. If they do, they fly in from a liberal school of religion such as Claremont in Southern California or Yale, not from one of history’s bellwethers of the born-again, conservative, evangelical Christian world, a place founded by a fundamentalist radio preacher, a place chartered to train pastors and missionaries and supply scholarly defenses of the Bible.”
I just wonder how you responded to reading that about yourself and the world in which you live and think.
MS. MURPHY: Well, Fuller has a very interesting history. It did, in fact, start out self-consciously fundamentalist. It still has a statement of faith, but the statement of faith it used to have was much more restrictive. One of the scholars came to the conclusion that he could no longer sign that statement of faith in good faith. And so the faculty and trustees got together for a whole day of prayer and discussion. It was called Black Saturday back then, but I think it’s…
MS. TIPPETT: And when was this?
MS. MURPHY: …turned out to be…
MS. TIPPETT: Black Saturday?
MS. MURPHY: About, I supposed it’s been about 30 years ago.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. MURPHY: I’m not quite sure of the dates. And after tough debate, a lot of prayer, a lot of soul searching, they decided to change the statement of faith. And at that point, Fuller moves from what technically would be called fundamentalist into what technically would be called evangelical. They lost a few faculty in the process, but I see this as a story of the triumph of the pursuit of knowledge. These people wanted to be fundamentalists, but they also wanted to be the brightest and best-educated fundamentalists on the West Coast. And perhaps they were, but if you pursue the truth, you will often end up having to change your mind.
MS. TIPPETT: I think some people who are simply observers, outsiders — maybe liberal religious people, maybe not religious at all — would look at some of the things that are happening in the country today, some of these strident voices who are arguing against teaching evolution, for example, and say as evangelicals become more powerful, science is going to be sidelined. I don’t hear that being a fear that you have from where you sit. You know, again, I’m not going to try to call you, either, a typical evangelical, but how do you look at the future and what the challenges are, what might go wrong, what might go right in the evangelical world?
MS. MURPHY: Well, just as Westerners have been urging moderate Muslims to speak up and say that the radical views do not reflect the mainstream, moderate Christians among the evangelicals and also on the left need to speak up and say that those views do not reflect the mainstream of historic Christianity. And I believe that if the situation continues to worsen with regard to this issue, there will be more and more people like me taking the trouble to get out and speak publicly against the changes that are taking place. In the meantime, the sad thing, though, is the damage that’s being done to the scientific literacy of so many students. If the public schools teach evolution, some Christian parents pull their children out and home school them or put them in private Christian schools where they don’t have to learn that “bad stuff.” It does not bode well for the number of students we’ll have in the near future who are competent doing science at the graduate level.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. What are you teaching right now?
MS. MURPHY: I just finished a new doctoral seminar called “Sources of Modern Atheism,” which was quite enlightening for me. People who are believers tend to think of disbelief as the normal position and coming to believe as something you have to explain. But when you consider the trajectory of modern thought, given that the whole of Christendom was Christian, more or less, how did it ever get to be the case that people could come to disbelief. And so I wanted my students to understand the history of the arguments that made atheism possible, and I found it eye-opening for myself as well.
MS. TIPPETT: And now, Fuller is an impressive place in terms of the student body it draws from all over the world, including many countries in which evangelical Christianity and Pentecostal Christianity are really gaining in dominance. I mean, tell me about the students you have and the response that they’ve had to these complicated ideas that blend science and reason and philosophy and religion.
MS. MURPHY: I would say that, suppose I have a classroom with 30 students in it. I would predict that from one to three of those students will be so turned off by what I say as to be uncooperative in class, maybe drop the class, maybe write a paper trying to refute me at the end, and all the rest of the students will be divided pretty much in half. Half of them will already have thought about these issues and will have positions of their own. The other half of that remainder will not have thought about these issues yet, but are open to being engaged, presented with alternative positions, encouraged to think about them. So it’s a very enjoyable and almost 100 percent comfortable place to teach about these things.
MS. TIPPETT: Nancey Murphy is a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She’s the author of Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning and Whatever Happened to the Soul? Earlier you heard Jamie Smith of Calvin College in Michigan.
In an essay you can find on our Web site, Jamie Smith points out that while influential journalists may find much to criticize and parody in evangelical red America, such attitudes of condescension contribute to a sense of victimhood that galvanizes the religious right. I find it interesting and important that neither Nancey Murphy nor Jamie Smith characterizes their own faith in political terms such as liberal or conservative. Instead, they long to infuse the American imagination about evangelical Christianity with nuanced and more generous meaning and possibilities.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Contact us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there, listen this week to exclusive audio of Jamie Smith discussing his religious ideas in greater detail. Speakingoffaith.org contains an archive of all of our past programs. You can listen online at no charge and learn how to purchase downloadable copies. Also, sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each interview, as well as previews and exclusives extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck, and Jody Abramson. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss. The executive producer of Speaking of Faithis Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.