Thursday, 20 February 2014

George Marsden on Inclusive Pluralism

I finally finished reading George Marsden's The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. This is another outstanding book by Marsden. I'm amazed that he can seamlessly move from studying Fundamentalism to Jonathan Edwards to Liberal Protestantism while writing first-rate scholarship.

The major force of the book is in the conclusion. After chronicling the influence of Enlightenment principles and optimism on American mainline Protestantism during the 1950s, Marsden steps back and offers his suggestion of how academia might function in today's pluralistic world. He argues that the intellectual elites of the 1950s naively assumed that humanity would continue to progress by implementing new ideas in philosophy and science. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and other sources, however, contributed toward the dismantling of that optimism by showing that scientific discovery had not been building on objective knowledge. Instead, there have been "paradigm shifts" that have shaped the way that humans think. The so-called "secularization thesis" in which religious beliefs were supposedly declining, that most scholars took for granted in the 1950s, proved to be another false assumption since religion (and especially conservative forms of it) actually flourished in the decades going forward. 

Although a series of momentous decisions by America's government took place in the 1960s to create a "wall of separation" between church and state, Marsden demonstrates that the religious beliefs of many Americans continued to influence the public sphere, in terms of politics, business, and education. Marsden further draws attention to the fact that mainline Protestantism, while advocating "tolerance," shunned certain forms of religion, most notably, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, Orthodox Judaism, conservative Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism. In the years ahead, however, conservative forms of Christianity grew exponentially, and open immigration policies in the U.S. brought waves of people to America who brought non-Westerm forms of faith with them. These changes in society, along with the decline of mainline Protestantism, has created a crisis of authority and additional problems of how various religious groups should charitably interact with each other.

Marsden proposes Abraham Kuyper's religious politics as a solution to these problems. Using the Dutch theologian and statesman as a guide, Marsden suggests that we should first recognize that our religious beliefs inform our way of thinking, including what we believe about science. As an Augustinian Christian, Kuyper believed that all humans have been created in God's image, regardless if they acknowledge an ultimate divine being or not. If this is true, then all humans share a commitment to basic moralism, ethics, and the need for justice because these ideals have been implanted in them by God. Marsden puts it this way: "Abraham Kuyper developed his views explicitly as a critique of the enlightenment ideal of a neutral universal reason, yet he was not a postmodern relativist. Rather than holding that various claims to 'truth' were artificial human constructions, he believed that God had created a reality that all people could know, in part if never completely. So he believed there was a place for shared rationality in holding a society together. Even though, as a result of human sinfulness, people were sharply divided as to their first commitments, they were still creatures of God who shared some commonalities in experiencing the same created order. So they also shared some important elements of common rationality and moral sensibilities, such as a sense of justice. Even though differing peoples need to recognize that no one stands on neutral ground, but all are shaped by their highest commitments, they can still go on to look for shared principles on which they can agree as a basis for working together" (168-69). Marsden points out that Kuyper's basic assumption can be labelled "common grace," which John Calvin and other Reformed thinkers had been advocating for centuries. Building upon this model of "common grace" that all people share, Marsden sees the government's role as acting "as a sort of a referee, patrolling the boundaries among the spheres of society, protecting the sovereignty due within each sphere, adjudicating conflicts, and ensuring equal rights and equal protections for confessional groups, so far as that is possible" (169).

I sympathize with Marsden's desire to see a society in which academics of various views can communicate their scholarship in a tolerant environment. I grimace every time that I hear or read about religious pundits saying horrible things while citing scripture as their authority. It is even worse when the media portrays these people as representing traditional Christian convictions. It is unfortunate that it is often the case that all those claiming to be evangelicals are lumped in the same group as outspoken, militant Christians. Thankfully, George Marsden, Mark Noll, and a crop of young religious scholars seem to be making progress in showing that Christians can be intelligent, well-read, charitable, tolerant, and able to interact with scholars who hold alternative views. It will be interesting to see if the ideas that Marsden discusses in the Twilight of the American Enlightenment gains ground in the years ahead.

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