Alan Wolfe Turns Evangelical

After a century or so of spiritual fervor seemingly unchecked by theological self-doubt or other intellectual inhibitions, American evangelical Christianity is trying to overcome its reputation as a religion for energetic simpletons. In a cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly, sociologist Alan Wolfe lists the elements of a renaissance in conservative Protestant thought. In the beginning, of course, is money. Over the past decade, the Pew Charitable Trusts have made it their mission to invigorate evangelical intellectual life, pumping $14 million into the cause. Now there’s a new Christian book review, Books & Culture, to which serious people contribute. (Literary scholar Gerald Early, for instance, has an essay in the current issue.) Hundreds of books with scholarly ambitions and titles such as Encyclopedia of Christianity are issued annually by the Christian publisher Eerdmans. Evangelical colleges such as Wheaton in Illinois are now able to attract students whose average SAT scores are as high as those at the University of Virginia and Oberlin and who are willing to debate controversial topics with unmade-up minds. Wolfe himself was just named the director of a new center for religion and public life at Boston College where, presumably, part of his brief involves publishing articles like the one in the Atlantic.

If Wolfe’s is an accurate account of what’s going on, this is an important development in American cultural life. Nearly one-third–29 percent–of all Americans describe themselves as conservative Protestants, with about half of these identifying themselves as fundamentalist and the other half as evangelical. But there’s something curious about Wolfe’s piece. Though he tells us a lot about the institutions expanding as a result of this Christian awakening, he tells us little about its ideas. Wolfe approaches intellectual life like the sociologist he is. He measures it quantitatively, by the amount of money spent on it and the test scores of students seeking admission to the relevant universities and the number of departments obtaining outside accreditation, rather than qualitatively, by asking whether the thoughts in question are fresh or true or suggestive or even particularly interesting. In fact, he never really explains what they are.

Wolfe’s enchantment with evangelical colleges seems to stem more from a disenchantment with the secular academy than from anything actually being taught in them. He sprinkles his piece with bitter comments such as the following on the subject of some professors he met at Wheaton, “They are the kind of people one hopes to find more of in the humanities departments of elite universities: they read actual texts, from many different fields; they believe such texts mean something; and they dedicate their lives to conveying what those meanings might be in both scholarly venues and venues designed for the serious scholarly reader.” This is an overstatement, possibly a cynical one: Wolfe must know that humanities departments are filled with people who read, believe that what they read means something, and write for as many publications as possible. Wolfe’s allusion is to the stereotype of the trendy postmodern academic, but this particular kind of professor has fallen from favor in the past decade.

Oddly, Wolfe overlooks the boldest and best-known flowering of the new Christian thought. It can’t have escaped his notice, though he never mentions it. Unlike the other tendencies that have sprung up, this one has a name and a well-funded, well-publicized institution dedicated to spreading its ideas (the Discovery Institute in Seattle). This movement has been extensively  discussed in Books &Culture and just about every other conservative Christian venue you can name and debated on television networks and in the print media–particularly, at enormous length, in Commentary magazine. The precepts of the movement are taught at Wheaton and Fuller Theological Seminary in California and Baylor University in Texas, the top evangelical schools. In fact, after surfing around on the Wheaton Web site for about 10 minutes, I came across a test of these principles offered under the auspices of a sophomore biology course.

I’m talking about Intelligent Design, which, as you’ve probably guessed from the name, is a theory about the origins of life. A scholar Wolfe identifies as one of the most respected of the new evangelical intellectuals, theologian Mark Noll, deems Intelligent Design the most noteworthy of all the “substantial intellectual endeavors” that have taken place since the conservative Protestant revival began. (It came about largely as a result of Noll’s own excoriation of evangelicals in a 1994 book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.)

What is Intelligent Design? It is, as Noll puts it, a “challenge to evolutionary naturalism.” Naturalism is the notion that only natural causes are required to explain the workings of nature. Naturalism lies at the heart of the scientific method. (To the Christian mind, naturalism is the opposite of supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is the gospel of God’s ability to intervene on earth, which Noll calls the “shared commitment” of all evangelical thought.) In short, Intelligent Design is a new and vastly more sophisticated iteration of creationism.

It’s important to differentiate ID-ers, as they call themselves, from old-school creationists, particularly of the young-earth variety. The latter are people who believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago and that the fossil record, which appears to indicate otherwise, is actually an artifact of how the earth resettled itself after being churned up by the great flood. ID-ers don’t fly so baldly in the face of scientific reason. Their target is more limited: the theory of evolution as currently taught in most biology departments.

ID-ers dispute evolution in three ways: first, by chipping away at small, seemingly weak spots in Darwinism (see this “Dialogue” with Phillip Johnson in Slate, for instance); second, by invoking what ID-er Michael J. Behe calls the “irreducible complexity” of things (particularly for Behe, who is a biochemist, the cell); and third, by returning to 19th century theology. That is, the theory of irreducible complexity is largely a restatement of the ideas of William Paley, the author of the 1802 Natural Theology, who argued that if we find a watch in a field, we have to assume that any device so well suited to its ends must have had an intelligent designer, rather than being the product of chance. Behe argues that no mechanism as complicated as the cell, in which no part will work unless all other parts work, could have evolved over time. How could a complex machine ever start to work before all of its gears are in place? It couldn’t, says Behe, which proves that some intelligent agent must have somehow engineered that machine.

Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, the author of a book called Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (1999) that offers a remarkably clear exegesis of creationism and Intelligent Design as well as a definitive refutation of them, gives a more compelling answer. He says that if you can show that any complex mechanism can evolve over time, then you can show that more complex mechanisms can, too. There is plenty of evidence that some primitive gizmo, such as the eyespots on bacteria that vaguely sense light, became a more advanced one, such as an actual eye.

It would be hard to overstate the value of Miller’s book to anyone attempting a serious consideration of new Christian thought. The debate between science and religion has become one of the tensest of our era, and it has immediate implications, such as the attempt by a Kansas school board to play down the teaching of evolution. As a practicing Christian, Miller brings a deep sympathy to his analysis of Intelligent Design–he has his own critique of evolutionary theory, particularly when it strays out of the natural sciences–but as a dedicated biologist, he won’t let the ID-ers get away with bad science. So, like Wolfe, Miller is willing to listen to evangelical Christians. Unlike Wolfe, he does them the favor of evaluating their ideas on their merits. Wolfe’s decision to avoid even naming them seems, by comparison, disturbingly political, as well as eminently wishful. Evangelical thought surely is getting interesting; indeed, in some ways, it always was. It doesn’t need to be made to seem better than it is.