Harvesting the Fruits of Relativism: An Opportunity for the Revival of the Liberal Arts in the Western Civilization Tradition

by Mar 30, 2018

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. Hosea 8:7a[i]

In March of 2017, student protesters at Middlebury College shut down a planned lecture by Charles Murray. Murray was there to discuss the subject matter of his recent book, Coming Apart. The protesters themselves were wholly ignorant of anything that Murray had ever written or what he was going to say that evening. Nevertheless, they shouted and chanted and accused Murray of things he has never said or written. This event is incredibly disturbing given the Western understanding that the university should be open to diverse ideas and debate as part of an endless pursuit of the truth. After all, the actions of the students were wholly closed minded. Of course, we have been warned about the spread of this mindset. For instance, Allan Bloom caused quite the academic stir in 1987 when he published his book, The Closing of American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.[ii] In that book, Bloom argued that the rising commitment of students to a thoroughgoing relativism that rejects any notion of absolute principles was destroying actual scholarship and learning on college campuses.

The current disruptions on college campuses provide an opportune time to ask several questions about today’s universities. Should we be concerned about the disruptive behavior of some students or are they a small minority that will eventually fade into the woodwork of university life? Will these protests escalate and spread throughout universities everywhere? What is the underlying ideology driving the actions of the protesters? Is there hope for a revival of an unfettered pursuit of the truth? If so, what can the Christian scholar and university do to promote that revival? Let us address these questions.

To begin our consideration of these questions we need to have a clear understanding of the nature of knowledge and the pursuit of it. That is, we need to understand the conditions necessary to foster such a pursuit of truth. In his book, A Christian Critique of the University, Charles H. Malik did an excellent job of identifying the roots of the modern Western university.[iii] In that book he pointed out that the Western university owed its origin to the Greeks who displayed an unbounded pursuit of knowledge. They wanted to know the whole of human existence. Christian scholastics embraced that passion as they developed the Western university. As Malik put the matter, “More than anything else, Western civilization is defined by the total fearlessness of and openness to the truth.”[iv]

At this juncture, it ought to be noted that genuine knowledge needs an anchor or a fixed point of reference. For Aristotle and the Greeks that anchor was the logos or the unmoved mover. As they saw it, the ultimate reality was an impersonal spiritual essence from which all things emanate. For the Christian that anchor is God himself whom we know in Jesus Christ. From the Christian perspective, we can know things because he already knows everything there is to know. Thus, Christ and the word of God provide us with a fixed reference point from which we can explore his creation and discover things about it. It was this insight that provided the early Western university a foundation for the development of the various fields of inquiry. Based on that foundation, theology, that is the study of God, was the “queen of the sciences” holding together a wide variety of disciplines.

It is also important to note that the rise of the university occurred in the context of the rise in scientific inquiry. The tool of induction was used to make numerous discoveries about the world we inhabit. Of course, early scientists, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, pursued their investigations on the presumption that God had created the natural world and that God is an orderly being. Thus, by using reason and experimental investigation a real understanding can be gained of the principles upon which God’s created universe works.

That premise was challenged by the intellectual tide of the Enlightenment. Men, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume, argued that such religious notions were unnecessary. They embraced an underlying atheism and thought that God was not necessary for science to proceed. Thus, “the beliefs of the Enlightenment were diametrically opposed to the doctrines of the Christian churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike.”[v] In arguing this way, the Enlightenment thinkers were severing the university from its Christian anchor. While it is most likely true that many academics of the early Enlightenment were aiming for the revival of an Aristotelian anchor, that is not the ultimate direction the academy took. In fact, the Aristotelian anchor proved to be no anchor at all in the new scientific age. As Geisler and Bocchino show in their book, Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions About the Christian Faith, pantheism’s notion of truth follows much the same path as that of atheism.[vi]

Looking back, the primary aim of Greek thought was that knowledge was to be gained mainly using logic. In the new era of inductive science, Greek pantheism was a halfway house to atheism. Thus, dispensing with theism, the university was casting out to sea on a voyage forever adrift in a world that in the final analysis cannot be known. This was done as scientists increasingly embraced the idea that nature is all there is or ever will be. In short, they revived materialism. Malik observed that this move perhaps made sense to them since their studies only focused on nature. Moreover, lacking the humility of subjects they did not know, they cut themselves off from the study of theology altogether.[vii] And, “because scientific naturalism is deeply entrenched in the university, the university has become the principal disseminator of atheism.”[viii]

The problem naturalists face is that there is no foundation upon which the various scientific fields of inquiry can be integrated. Rather, they remain forever fragmented into a billion pieces of information and that information cannot be supposed to be actual knowledge at the end of the day. As Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley have observed:

With the rejection of theology as a valid scientific discipline, the queen was deposed and the whole concept of university fell with her. To be sure, her demise was slow; but when it came it left an abhorrent emptiness in the school. Attempts were made to fill the void with philosophical alternatives but the handmaiden was treated as rudely as the monarch. Rather than abhorring the vacuum, the West has acted against nature and preferred to leave it vacant. But the price tag for vacancy is exorbitant. Sooner or later the vacuum will be filled, and if it cannot be filled by the transcendent, then it will be filled by the immanent. The force that floods into such vacuums is statism, the inevitable omega point of secularism.[ix]

Beginning in the nineteenth century, without the fixed point of the unchanging character of God and his imposed order, change became the sole focus of scientific inquiry. “The doctrine of evolution permeates university existence at every level.”[x] It is interesting to note that most scholars in the university today are so wetted to evolutionary theory that many believe that it proves their atheism.[xi] But this could not be further from the truth. Their atheism is a premise and not a conclusion since it cannot be proved. It must be accepted by faith. Yet, stripped from any point of reference such scholars are increasingly caught in a quagmire and the very idea of fixed principles of a natural order of things cannot be maintained. We are, thus witnessing the inevitable end of their efforts. Principles are everywhere under attack as postmodernism sweeps through the university. Once you are left with only opinions, and those lack any foundation, winning an argument becomes nothing but a shouting match. This is what is occurring on college campuses across America.

There was never any need to accept the naturalist position. Advocates of the body only hypothesis reduce the human being to the animal level and expose him to animal treatment. As such, this has resulted in the devaluation of human life. As Alvin Plantinga has rightly pointed out:

According to an idea widely popular since the Enlightenment, science (at least when properly pursued) is a cool, reasoned, wholly dispassionate attempt to figure out the truth about ourselves and the world, entirely independent of ideology, or moral convictions, or religious or theological commitments. Of course this picture has lately developed some cracks. It is worth noting that 16 centuries ago, St. Augustine provided the materials for seeing that this common conception can’t really be correct. It would be excessively naïve to think that contemporary science is religiously and theologically neutral. Perhaps parts of science are like that. The size and shape of the earth and its distance from the sun, the periodic table of the elements, the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem—these are all in a reasonable sense religiously neutral. But many other areas of science are very different. They are obviously and deeply involved in a clash between opposed religious world views. There is no neat recipe for telling which parts of science are neutral with respect to this contest and which are not; what we have is a continuum rather than a simple distinction. But here is a rough rule of thumb: the relevance of a bit of science to this contest depends upon how closely that bit is involved in the attempt to come to understand ourselves as human beings.[xii]

Nevertheless, this new form of philosophic materialism has spread relentlessly through the academy. Unfortunately, the premise itself makes no sense. The result is a rising tide of irrationalism. This is so because there is an inherent contradiction in the assertion that the only knowledge that is fit for human consumption is that which can be empirically verified. But, the assertion itself cannot be empirically verified. It is a metaphysical assertion. Despite this obvious fact, there seems to be a refusal among scholars to acknowledge it and return to a theistic foundation for knowledge. Thus, the seeds of relativism are resulting in the fruit of irrationalism.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current situation at the university is that Christian scholars seem content to go along with the shifting tide of the modern university. Consider the fact that you would be hard pressed to find a department of theology at most Christian universities today. Instead you will find a department of religion. Whatever the reason for this, the problem is “that there is a profound difference between the study of theology and the study of religion. Theology’s primary foci are the being and activity of God. Religion, on the other hand, is the study of human activity, often subsumed under the broader headings of anthropology or sociology.”[xiii]

How did this happen? I would assert that it began during the nineteenth century and the Christian responses to the spread of evolutionary theories coupled with a wide variety of attacks on the veracity of the Scriptures. There were two main responses, both of which were wrongheaded. One response was that of the liberal who willingly accepted the higher criticisms being made of the Bible. In doing so they departed from defending the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Instead, they argued that the Scriptures contain the word of God and that is enough. In doing this they separated themselves from our only real means of gaining a fixed point of reference and essentially ceded the university over to the atheists. The other response was that of fundamentalists. They simply asserted that the Bible is true and that they did not care what the critics said. Regrettably, neither response aimed at doing the heavy lifting of intellectually and academically answering the criticisms.

The liberal response set in motion a steady capitulation of all the major doctrines of the Christian religion. So much so that by the 1930s J. Gresham Machen argued that liberalism was the greatest danger to genuine Christianity since, even though it used the same words of the religion, they were made to mean something totally different.[xiv] Hence, the new liberalism was simply another religion altogether masquerading as Christianity. In truth, it is one that is much more aligned with the atheism of the naturalists because it embraced all the main features of their scholarship. Specifically, it embraced behavioral positivism reducing humanity to the animal level. In the case of the law, it promoted the legal positivism of Bentham and other subsequent philosophers who sought for a foundation for law apart from the absolute moral values of God. But this embrace took us far afield of the concept of law as constrained by God. Thus, we have paid, and will continue to pay, a heavy price for this acceptance. As Machen observed:

The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man. . . . It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although ‘welfare’ is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds. The result is an unparalleled impoverishment of human life. Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. . . . When one considers what the public schools of America in many places already are—their materialism, their discouragement of any sustained intellectual effort, their encouragement of the dangerous pseudo-scientific fads of experimental psychology—one can only be appalled by the thought of a commonwealth in which there is no escape from such a soul-killing system. . . . The truth is that the materialistic paternalism of the present day, if allowed to go on unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge ‘Main Street,’ where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens.[xv]

Machen’s warning, though true, has been basically ignored. The truth is that there have been far too few Christian scholars who were willing to do the heavy lifting of defending the Christian faith in the process of engaging their scientific field of study. But today this provides us with a great opportunity. If Christian scholars would commit themselves to the old foundations of the Western university, we would have the opportunity to offer the most satisfying answers to the questions raised in our disciplines. To do so means that each should individually pursue an ongoing study of theology. In doing so we must recognize the possible errors that may be made. If all truth is ultimately God’s truth, then we can err when we embrace bad theology over against sound science. Likewise, it is possible to embrace bad science over against sound theology. Therefore, we must be diligent students of both and humbly engage in our scholarship and relentlessly pursue the truth in an open dialogue with our colleagues.

In the pursuit of our scholarship we must be willing to challenge the underlying premises of our disciplines when they arise out of secular skepticism. In my own study of economics, I cannot engage my understanding and articulation of the principles of the subject by embracing the underlying utilitarianism that implicitly undergirds modern macro and micro economics. At heart, Bentham’s utilitarianism is an outright rejection of theism and God’s created moral order.[xvi] Instead, if my scholarship in the field is to be more accurate, I must reject this premise and recognize that Jesus is a much better moral philosopher and economist than was Bentham or his most famous student, John Stuart Mill.

The university today appears to be driven by a collection of spoiled children. This collection apparently includes many students and professors as well. In his book, Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver argued that bad ideas lead to bad consequences. The notion that knowledge is something internal and subjective is a bad idea and it is producing bad results.  As Weaver put the matter:

The spoiled child has not been made to see the relationship between effort and reward. He wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold for it. His solution . . . is to abuse those who do not gratify him. . . . The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it is to be a man. That man is a product of discipline and of forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow. . . . This citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind. . . . [If he could realize the reality that something greater than himself exists, if he could recognize the virtue of God] and not simply respond to coercion—he might genuinely realize human progress.[xvii]

As applied to the current situation in the academy, it seems clear that it is becoming increasingly more juvenile. In many areas of inquiry, you can say and write the most nonsensical things and be rewarded for it. It is time for adults to enter the room, but that will take effort and sacrifice. The question is, do we trust Jesus with our scholarship? We need to maturely pursue the Truth.

[i] R. C. Sproul, editor, The Reformation Study Bible, ESV, (Ligonier Ministries: Orlando, FL).

[ii] Allan Bloom, The Closing of American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1987).

[iii] Charles H. Malik, A Christian Critique of the University, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1982)

[iv] Ibid, pg. 19.

[v] John B. Harrison and Richard E. Sullivan, A Short History of Western Civilization, (Alfred A. Knoff: New York, 1960), pg. 454.

[vi] Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions About the Christian Faith, (Bethany House: Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2001), pp. 31-53.

[vii] Malik, pp. 42-44.

[viii] Ibid., pg. 44.

[ix] R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984), pg. 10.

[x] Malik, pg. 45.

[xi] A good example of this is Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. However, in a debate over the matter he was very much outmatched by John Lennox who accurately defended a theistic position. Audio recordings of the debates can be obtained from the Fixed Point Foundation.

[xii] Alvin Plantinga, “Methodological Naturalism Part 1”, Origins & Design, 18:1.

[xiii] Sproul, et. al., pg. 11.

[xiv] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (The Macmillian Company: New York, 1934).

[xv] Ibid., pp. 10-15.

[xvi] I have written about this elsewhere in more detail. See, “The Failure of Utilitarian Ethics in Political Economy,” The Journal of Private Enterprise (Fall 2002): 57-68.

[xvii] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948).

Paul Cleveland

Boundary Stone was started by Dr. Paul Cleveland. Working as a professor for over 35 years has allowed him to study and think deeply about issues of political economy. He has discovered ways to communicate these sometimes illusive concepts to today's students, often through story telling, which makes understanding these principles more accessible to all of us.


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