U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching "Toward a Secular Culture"

I have a tender spot for evangelical students (it is tender in both a soft and a painful way) because I grew up as an evangelical and my parents and many friends are still in that world. One of the reasons I moved out of that world was because learning about interpreting primary sources and higher criticism of the Bible led me to think about the Bible as just one of many historical sources. This is anathema to the way I was raised. The preacher at my parent’s church has the parishioners hold their Bible aloft every week and pledge their devotion to it as the one true word of God. It seemed to me to be impossible to hold the Bible as inerant and as a contingent historical source. I am fully aware that many people, friends included, have found compromise positions within this debate, but in my mind I could not let the Bible-as-historical source dictate my life to me.

I’m thinking about this as I read over the beginning of the American Intellectual Tradition, which focuses on the movement “Toward a Secular Culture.” When I first saw that heading in the table of contents LD kindly supplied, I wondered if that was really the most important intellectual theme of the second half of the nineteenth century and I wondered whether twentieth century America could really be called a “secular culture.” After reading the intro to the section (thanks Oxford for my desk copy!), I realized that what is meant by a “secular culture” is one in which the Bible is analyzed as a historical source, and not quoted as proof-positive of the way the world works. In other words, reason is used as the primary basis of learning and the material world is the primary source for that learning–materialism, rather than the Puritan era when the material world was interpreted through the lens of scripture–i.e. the massive storm that was God’s wrath on mankind.

So what does this have to do with evangelical students and my tender spot?
The soft side of that tenderness is that I don’t want to upend anyone’s faith. I know how important that faith has been to many people dear to me. The hard side is that I tend to want to challenge the ideas of evangelical students even more rigorously than other students. I don’t want to put anyone through the massive soul searching I had to do, but at the same time, I struggle to accept reasoning that I recognize all too clearly as being the party line of the evangelical movement.

As I write this, I’m realizing that I tend to avoid either side of the bias by often leaving religion out of my syllabi or else by presenting Christians who have done good things alongside critical questions.

But if I teach my spring survey according to the American Intellectual Tradition, I will be taking on the exact center of my reason for leaving the church–the higher criticism of the Bible.

Do you ever worry about contributing to the “liberal bias” of the university, or do you delight in challenging students with world views other than yours? I had a professor once who showed a Canadian movie with blatant sex scenes, did not warn the students, and told us TAs she liked to watch the evangelicals in the class squirm during those scenes. I thought her attitude was intensely rude. Do we have a duty to warn students when they are about to encounter something deeply distressing? At the same time, I know many of my liberal professors who attempted to ask us questions without revealing their own answers, in an attempt to remain/appear neutral. I know I have little hesitance challenging students’ assumptions about race, but I do hesitate challenging a student’s faith.

Hmmmm, what is the best way to teach materialism (“toward a secular culture”) to evangelical students, especially considering that it represents this massive shift in thinking about reason that most Christians accept? For those of you who have taught using AIT, have you encountered a contentious discussion of religious faith during the first unit? How did you negotiate it?

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am new to teaching, but I think creating an environment of intellectual generosity is important. In my opinion, this includes an open discussion when religion is involved. The trick is to get students to think critically while still respecting their faith. One way to encourage this critical thinking might be to emphasize that the focus in class is on better understanding the past–it takes the pressure off the students from feeling they have to defend their religious beliefs in the classroom. If they then find themselves delving further into these questions on a personal level outside of class, then at least you can provide them with the tools to do so.

    I was raised Buddhist, and I found it very interesting to hear comments on religious topics last semester. I made it clear to openly Christian students that I respected their belief in God while also pushing them to analyze Christian beliefs from a historical perspective. I think when students can clearly see your respect for them and their beliefs they are more open to discussion.

    In terms of sex, I am planning to teach an American history survey course this fall through the lens of gender and sexuality. I plan on informing students in advance if something could potentially cause an uncomfortable situation. I also plan on letting the students know that they can discuss any issues with me throughout the semester.

    Ultimately, however, I feel that at the college level students should be active in their classes. They should expect to be challenged and part of education is learning to deal with those challenges, especially when they have an impact on a personal level. The classroom can provide an open environment where various ideas and perspectives can be shared. This might not be true of every class, but it is an environment I try to cultivate in my own classes.

  2. You might want to look into how the idea of biblical inerrancy, as distinct from inspired, is really modern itself. The argument of inerrancy was a 19th century defensive position against higher criticism and not a traditional one. What the church held was the trust worthiness of scripture in all it teaches in regard to salvation. The test of the historical or scientific truth was thrust upon the interpretation of scripture by too eager theologians against secularizing forces. I think one can affirm faith and scripture without resorting to modern historical or scientific arguments.

  3. In the fall of 1994 I was a young evangelical in my first semester of college. I was naive and ignorant about academia, science, and life in general. One professor terrified me so bad on the first day of class that I went straight to the registrar after class and dropped the course. The course was Philosophy of Religion. The prof opened the first class by declaring that by the end of the course he would have us all doubting our faith. I just could not handle such a direct challenge, so I ran.

    The next semester I transferred to a bible college and proceeded to get my BA in biblical studies. Turns out it was more of an indoctrination than an education. After college, and after six more years of traveling the world in the Army I finally grew out of faith all together and now embrace a completely secular worldview.

    At 34, I am returning to school this month to get a second BA and hopefully an MA, too, but this time I am goig to a state school and will be studying sociology. And I will enthusiastically seek out of Philosophy of Religion class.

    Sometimes I wonder if that first prof had not been so challenging, might I have stayed and listened to him, and perhaps grown out of my naivety sooner?

    I think it is OK if you challenge your evangelical students, as long as you do it with some degree of sensitivity and openness. They need challenges. They need to be taught about presumption, inference, evidence, criticism, etc.

    I hope you keep us informed on how your course unfolds.

  4. I am long retired from teaching graduate students preparing to enter the profession of mental health counseling. In retirement I’m engaging my life long love of history. I’ve just discovered this blog while searching for reviews of The Age of Fracture and Kloppenburg’s book on Reading Obama. So I have bookmarked it and read today’s blog with interest. I am a life long “mainstream protestant” Christian. I never had to deal with the issue of Biblical inarency. What I find sad is the difficulty a fundamentalist evangelical typically has if somebody or something “spits in his/her soup” to not have to abandon the Bible, his or her faith, and the church. I find deep intellectual richness in my local church. We are a progressive group of serious and practicing Christians. That said, Lauren, it seems to me that you should be free to raise the questions and issues your course would confront and Evangelical Christian with, but acknowledge that this can be painful and disconcerting. The “higher criticism” movement is certainly significant in intellectual history, but for a Christian like me, the Bible is also a book of poetry and metaphor, ever challenging and through which “God is still speaking”, in the motto of our UCC denomination. You clearly care for these students and want to respect their brand of faith, but if they are in your university and in your class they will have to learn to deal with the demand for “independent thinking” and that can be threatening to any young person who is caught up in any form of “absolutism”, especially the religious kind. Your own experiences with evangelicalism should keep you empathic. Encourage their feedback to what you are teaching. Hope this helps.

  5. Thank you all for your interesting comments! I agree that creating a safe space for discussion and challenge is imperative. Perhaps this is a case where I should be upfront about my identity, in so far as I recognize how challenging the ideas can be and that we all will be faced with ideas that challenge us over the course of the semester. That is part of studying history–being challenged to understand and sympathise with, if not agree with, people in the past.

    Maya–I should say that teaching about sex and sexuality is a very important aspect of college life. I think it was my professor’s glee at watching students squirm that was so rude, rather than the actual showing of the film (plus, we didn’t talk at all about those scenes or contextualize them).

    Anon. Biblical inerrancy is definitely a modern concept (with the rapture and several other evangelical theologies). I’ve spent a lot of time personally trying to find a new relationship to the Bible, one very similar to that described by David Cook in his comment. To me, and to me alone, I have found that to be insufficient. To the Christians I know who have made that transition, they find something calming, inspiring, transformational about the Biblical text. After many years of trying to do the same, I simply don’t. It is in part that I cannot escape the demand that it be absolutely authoritative and I only hear that authority as condemnation, and it is in part that I cannot access that emotional zone. I will, however, be indelibly inscribed by my Biblical study for the rest of my life, I am sure. My own inability to access the emotional zone of the Bible is part of the reason I still have so much respect for Christians who can and do. It’s not for me, but I understand why it is for them.

    Jeremy Allen–thank you for sharing your story. I agree that some professors can be much too antagonistic. I try to sympathize with students while pushing them to their best work. It is a difficult balance in many topics, not just this one. How do you understand how hard life is, while continuing to press students into difficult arenas of effort or mental expansion. It can be a tug of war with students all semester as many try to skate along with as little effort as possible. I guess I’m realizing that challenging ideas can fall into that effort zone as well.

    David Cook–thank you for sharing. I’ve always admired Christians like yourself.

  6. Lauren, this post is interesting to me for many reasons — I’ll probably end up blogging about it. But who knows when that will be. So, in the meantime…

    One thing that’s really interesting here is the way your own evangelicalism has been “secularized” but is still functional — perhaps in a way similar to what Hollinger suggested. What I mean is this: you’re no longer a practicing evangelical, but you’re still something of an evangelist — hoping that your students will have a sort of conversion experience, a metanoia that changes their whole epistemology.

    That conversion experience can be very real, as you yourself can testify. But, like evangelical conversion, it can’t be imposed from without. And it’s pretty clear from this post that you are aware of the necessity for it to be a personal transformation from within.

    In leaving evangelicalism, you’ve experienced something very freeing, and you want to invite your students to experience the same freedom — again, very evangelical! And also very admirable. But this is one of those situations where your “witness” — openness, respect, a genuine embrace of pluralism in thought, etc — will offer a reassuring model to those students who will inevitably find their certainties slipping somewhat as a result of being exposed to new ways of thinking in college.

    Yeah, I’ve got a blog post brewing in my brain about profs who think their job in life is to constantly challenge and confront (read: belittle/dismiss/devalue) the convictions of their students. That doesn’t sound like you. I would think you would tend to take a more organic approach — the sower and the seed. “One plants, another waters…”

  7. Evangelical as in wanting to do good in the world, sure.

    Evangelical as in contributing to the suicidal tendencies of distressed gay teens, no.

  8. LD–Ummm, I’m surprised I come across as evangelical in the piece, because I say several times I don’t want to mess with anyone’s faith. I simply know what exposing certain ideas to my younger self did to me and I question doing it to anyone else.

    I am not an academic evangelist, trying to convert everyone into historians-as in PhDs–but I do try to encourage students to contextualize and learn.

    Can we teach and grade without expecting some kind of transformation in our students??

    Shelly–from personal experience, yes, doubly yes.

  9. I said your evangelicalism came across as “secularized” — in the sense that Hollinger pointed out in his OAH address, not necessarily in the sense it is used as a chapter subhead in Hollinger and Capper. Hints of this come through more in your comments than in your original post.

    But this isn’t something particular to you or to this post — as you point out, many of us at least flirt with the possibility that good pedagogy will lead to transformed thinking in our students. To the extent that we aim for that, we are “evangelizing.” But I think William James has it right in terms of understanding the process by which old beliefs/habits of mind are replaced — it’s a much more conservative and much more gradual process than might be suggested by any “conversion” narrative. That this seems to be your understanding as well also came through in your post.

  10. I try to be very conscious about not succumbing my propensity to fall into the pattern that LD 8/05/2011 9:42 PM writes about. All too often, I feel like I’m becoming a secular version of my fundamentalist Christian family members.

    However, at the same time, I also find myself self-assured that the attempt to be as objective, self-aware, and broad-minded as possible is the truest path to being as complete of a human being as possible. Where my upbringing in the Christian fundamentalist evangelical path intersects with my striving-to-be-objective-as-possible path is that I find myself with little patience for fundamentalists of any kind.

    I find myself evangelizing about being fundamentally anti-fundamental.

    Oddly, when I’m in the classroom, I can put my personal philosophy and emotions aside and deal equitably with students of all political and spiritual persuasions. What I don’t countenance is disrespect of others in the classroom, blatant sexism, racism, homophobism, etc. The agenda I push in my classroom is respect for diverse perspectives and back up whatever students may say with evidence.

Comments are closed.