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The Place of Religiously Informed Scholarship in the Contemporary Academy

Michael Murray, Transcript of a presentation made at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin–Madison, in April of 1998.

My presentation today has its origins in some conversations that George Write [Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Superior] and I have had about the potential role of faith-based perspectives in philosophical theorizing and in academic research programs generally. Our conversations began as a discussion about the emergence of what is regarded as distinctively Christian philosophy within the philosophical mainstream in the late 20th century. While those outside of philosophy are often surprised, shocked (horrified?) to hear of such developments, it is truly old news for those in philosophy.

The emergence of this movement traces its roots roughly to the late 1960’s when philosophy was getting its legs again after the dramatic decline of logical positivism. The positivists had argued that since religious claims were not subject to empirical verification, they did not even have the good grace to be false–they were downright meaningless–mere gibberish. With positivism out of the way, philosophers with religious leanings were freed to begin to apply the resources of analytic philosophy to traditional questions in philosophy of religion, natural theology, and philosophical theology. In the ten year period leading up to 1978, a significant number of philosophers began engaging in research programs which were admittedly rooted in their distinctive faith perspectives. The ground swell of interest in and pursuit of research programs along such lines led to the founding, in 1978, of the Society of Christian Philosophers, a society that has now grown to be the largest special interest group in the American Philosophical Association, with more than 1000 members.

In 1984, the Society began publishing its own journal, and the lead article in the first issue of the journal was written by the philosopher who is, undoubtedly, the leading figure in the emergence of this movement within philosophy, Alvin Plantinga; the article was entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” In the essay, Plantinga argues that the Anglophone philosophical community in this century has counseled philosophers who took their religious beliefs seriously to check their dogmatic baggage at the door. This endorsement of a sort of methodological naturalism was regarded, argues Plantinga, as a first principle of philosophical practice. But, Plantinga continues, for the religious believer to adopt such a principle in their own scholarship is duplicitous at best. If the religious believer is firmly committed to certain claims that are deliverances of their religious commitments, claims which in turn might play a foundational role in the development of a variety of fruitful research programs, then he or she is obliged to pursue them. Thus, Plantinga argues, the religious believer needs, at least in some contexts, to set aside the presumptions and, in many cases, the research programs undertaken by the secular philosophical community, in order to consider the traditional areas of philosophical inquiry from distinctively religious starting points.

For the most part, the emergence of Christian philosophy has gone unnoticed by those outside of philosophy. In 1994, however, the historian George Marsden wrote a book which brought the issue of religiously grounded academic research into plain view. Marsden’s book, The Soul of The American University, traces the secularization of American institutions of higher learning from the mid nineteenth century up to the present. Marsden argues that pluralist pressures on these institutions lead them to adopt a form of methodological naturalism which, to the minds of these reformers, would preserve the integrity of individual religious commitment while allowing the institutions to serve the needs of the citizenry of a liberal democracy. As he shows however, the move away from religiously informed scholarship became a stampede towards methodological naturalism and later de facto naturalism of a sort that no longer accommodated, but instead vigorously and dogmatically excluded, religious presuppositions or belief from mainstream academia.

In a postscript to the book, Marsden, himself a devout religious believer, argued that such antipluralist exclusions of religiously grounded or informed scholarly perspectives is simply intellectually unsustainable. And this claim was accompanied by a call to academics of religious faith and to the scholarly community at large. On the one hand, Marsden enjoined religious academics to re-think the connections between their faith and their scholarly endeavors. On the other hand, he appealed to the academy for an end to the unsustainable, dogmatic exclusion of religious perspectives from the scholarly enterprise.

Marsden’s postscript was widely attacked. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, fellow historians were calling Marsden a crackpot. And the sustained attacks led Marsden to write a follow-up work entitled The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. In the book Marsden addresses the arguments which were raised against the ideas advanced in the postscript. Most of Marsden’s critics argued that religious perspectives ought to be excluded from scholarly research programs for one of two reasons. First, some argued for the exclusion because such scholarship was obliged to take as starting points presuppositions that were not or could not be “verified,” or which were not universally or widely assented to. The flimsiness of such arguments hardly deserves comment. Such critics cannot help but realize what a wide wake such arguments create. If our disciplines require anything like agreement on universally assented to verifiable presuppositions, we are all sunk.

Most of the remaining critics argued simply that adopting such perspectives would be useless since they could not possibly have any impact on one’s academic research program. What, critics asked, would a distinctively religious research program in chemistry or horticulture look like? Of course, it is fair enough to ask whether religious presuppositions can potentially contribute something to academic scholarship. I am not in a position to answer for the chemist or the horticulturist. But philosophy is another matter, and here it is clear not only that such background assumptions can make a difference, but that they have.

But before I mention a couple of examples, let me add a word or two about what sorts of presuppositions folks like Marsden and Plantinga have in view here, and how such might function in a research program. Do Marsden and Plantinga think it appropriate to begin an article in a journal of anthropology or musicology citing relevant passages of a purported divine revelation as evidence? If so, then the views of those critics who have claimed that such research cannot have a place in the modern academy simply because it must take as its starting point claims which are rejected by the majority of scholars seem to have at least some force. One cannot simply begin an article by citing passages of purported revelation as data, can they?

The answer for the likes of Plantinga and Marsden is: “that depends.” The community of Christian philosophers in our era has conducted their research programs on two distinct levels. On the one hand, they have sought to approach the traditional issues in philosophy in a way that is informed by their religious beliefs, but in ways that do not utilize the religious beliefs as evidential. So, for example, a religious believer might well be committed to some or a number of the following claims: mentality is not essentially physical, there is an objective structure to the physical world, moral claims are objective, human cognitive capacities are suitably equipped–by design–to come to know at least some truths about the objective moral and physical structure of the world, the world is not eternal, natural laws are not inviolable, human beings consciously survive physical dissolution of their bodies, human beings are free in such a way that they can bear moral responsibility for their actions, etc. Such assumptions do not need to figure into a research program in an evidential way, though such presuppositions might limit the alternatives one is willing to countenance when developing theories on the nature of minds, or free choice, or ethics, to name three examples. Thus, if one thinks that moral responsibility is incompatible with causal determinism, one will look to defend views of action and the mind that preclude determinism. If one thinks that physicalism precludes individual conscious survival of bodily death, one will look to defend a non-physicalist theory of mind. And so on. Religious beliefs do not have to figure in as evidence in the defense of such positions within the larger community, but they will provide prima facie (and maybe ultima facie) direction for research for the religious believer with such commitments.

On the other hand, Christian (and to a lesser extent Jewish) philosophers have been quite active in what might traditionally be called philosophical theology. When wearing such a hat, religious philosophers might address intramural disputes among those who are willing to take purported religious revelation as commonly accepted data. Thus, journals focusing on the philosophy of religion, and even generalist philosophy journals, will include articles discussing distinctively religious doctrines such as atonement, the Trinity, the Incarnation, post-mortem punishment and reward, petitionary prayer, etc. In such cases, taking purported revelation as data might well be appropriate.

In this way, however, religious believers differ little in the way conduct their research programs from others who approach their disciplines from distinctive perspectives such as Marxists, Freudians, feminists, what have you. Each group attempts to argue for their perspective on the broader issues in the discipline on generally accepted grounds, on the one hand, while seeking to resolve intramural disputes by invoking claims not accepted outside of the narrower circle.

The larger issue that these recent developments present to the larger academic community are obvious. The emergence and advocacy of such faith-based perspectives on scholarship will force us all to be reflective on what sorts of presuppositions and research programs we are willing to countenance in our disciplines. But however we come down on this issue, mere ad hoc exclusions of the sorts of faith-based perspectives described here are unwarranted.