I’ve noticed in church culture, there is a very strong anti-academic feeling that fills most of it. In broader Evangelicalism, this feeling is evident in the music that is chosen for worship on Sunday. The music is often shallow and focuses on the emotional relationship that believers have with God. Not to be out done, Fundamentalists have fallen into an equally dangerous trap. Sure, the Old hymns of the faith are still sung. But they are sung for precisely that reason–they’re old. The traditional approach is usually a desire for nostalgia or a fear of change. In my experience, two objections to academic Christianity are raise: it kills passion for God and it kills faith in God.
As far as killing passion, nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s talk about academia in general. Biologists, physicists, and architects–I have never met one that is not passionate about his/her work. It is precisely passion that drives them on to perform their research. Sure, there are some that are disgruntled with their job. But probably not with their subject of study. The same is true for theologians. I have never met one that is passionless. All that I have met have an intense passion for God and long to know him more.
As far as killing faith, this also is a lie from hell. Knowledge of God only brings you to your knees in trust. There is this tricky thing about knowledge–the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. And it’s not just you are incapable of absorbing more facts. It’s the uneasy fact that scholarship has significant gaps in its knowledge.
For example, how did the Gospel writers get their information? How was this information circulated? How was it transmitted? We have some clues on this, but not the details we’d like. The data is even more spars when dealing with the OT. We don’t know who wrote most OT books. We don’t have manuscript evidence of these books from before 200 BCE. And there are some significant variations between the documents that we do have.
Academics will uncover all these questions for you. And it will make your gut turn as you wade through the material. The more you try to find answers, the more you realize they cannot be conclusively found–from an academic point of view.
It is here where the faith of the theologian or historian is critical. Here he is brought to his knees before God confessing his faith. In fact, it is these theologians who have greater faith in God because they cannot answer questions. They must cry out with Paul:
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
This is not to say he does not have answers to the critical questions of faith. For example, that Jesus claimed to be God and proved it with the resurrection is beyond dispute. There are too many witnesses, to much evidence for the resurrection to conclude otherwise. Sure other theories are offered, but none of them are rigorously academic.
Now, to the second part of my title–it’s your heart that will lead you from faith and passion for God. It is the heart that is desperately wicked and sick. It is the heart of stone that needs to be replaced. And if the heart is hardened so that it refuses to submit to God, then all the data in the world will not convince a man.
Academics only exposes the heart of a person. For example, Bruce Metzger was a prominent leader of academia who also was a believer till death. However, his best known protege, Bart Ehrman, became an agnostic under his tutelage. It wasn’t the rigor of the academy that turned Bart away–it was his heart.
I guess the only thing left to do in my post is to offer a reason for the avoidance of academic Christianity. I can only think of two reasons: ignorant fear and/or laziness. Fundamentalists have done a good job of beating the fear of the academy on people. There have been many sermons that have preached against the necessity of colleges and the like. Broader evangelicals on the other hand have stereotyped the academy as cold and aloof. It is often said that it takes 5 years of practical ministry to undo the coldness brought in by a year at seminary. This ignorant fear is perpetuated from pulpits across the land.
There is also the fear that you will find information that will undo the faith. What you will find, however, is that the better you get at academics, the stronger your faith will be.
As for laziness, I think this is often the heart of the matter that is often covered by a shroud of piety. Academics is work. It is hard work. It is sleepless nights and long days. It’s failing grades and embarrassment.
But like all areas of life, it is often the hardest route that provides the greatest rewards. Do you want to grow your passion? Get a masters. Do you want to grow your faith? Get a doctorate. From personal experience, my studies have grown my faith in God each day I study.