Monday, May 15, 2006

Reason and Revelation at Patrick Henry College

Patrick Henry College in Purcellvile, Virginia, was founded six years ago as an evangelical Christian college promoting conservative politics. The school was specifically designed as a college for Christian conservative students who had been home-schooled by their parents. The college made a name for itself quickly because many of its first graduates found jobs in the Bush administration, which indicated the influence of evangelical fundamentalism in the Bush coalition.

About two months ago, I was contacted by Erik Root, a professor of government at Patrick Henry College and a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at Claremont Graduate School. Root had written an article in the school newspaper about Augustine's view of education, in which he spoke of the philosophic tradition of natural law. Root quoted some comments from me about how natural law might be rooted in human nature. College President Michael Farris responded to his article by criticizing him for quoting me, since I was a "known Darwinist." I advised Root to be careful about what he said, and I suggested he might be better off not quoting me.

Now I have learned that President Farris has fired Root. In response to this firing, four other faculty members have resigned in protest. Consequently, 5 of the school's 16 faculty members are leaving. News reports have quoted President Farris has saying, "I believe what the Scripture said, and that is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."

So it seems that studies of science and philosophy must be subordinated to the authority of the Bible. The five faculty members who are leaving argue that Christian students need to be open to the knowledge that comes from rational inquiry outside of Biblical religion.

Beginning this summer, the College will have a new president--Graham Walker. In explaining his vision for the College, Walker says: "Most colleges today, even many evangelical schools, have veered away from truth because of their infatuation with human reason."

Isn't there something disturbing about a Biblical conservatism that thinks that college students must avoid any "infatuation with human reason," and that any college professors who defend human reason should be fired?

Wouldn't it be wiser to say that faith and reason have nothing to fear from one another, because God speaks not only through the words of the Bible as revealed to faith, but also through the works of nature as comprehended by reason?

As suggested by the quotation from Francis Bacon about God's "two books" that is the epigram for Darwin's Origin of Species, Darwinian science is open to both Biblical faith and scientific reason. So religious conservatives can also be Darwinian conservatives.


Anonymous said...


You ask in your post whether it might "be wiser to say that faith and reason have nothing to fear from one another, because God speaks not only through the words of the Bible as revealed to faith, but also through the works of nature as comprehended by reason".

I have been wondering, would such an appeal to wisdom be compatible with Paul's teaching in First Corinthians: "Do you not see how God has shown up human wisdom as folly? Since in the wisdom of God the world was unable to recognise God through wisdom, it was God's own pleasure to save believers through the folly of the gospel. While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness... God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong, those who by human standards are common and contemptible - indeed those who count for nothing - to reduce to nothing all those that do count for something..."?

I don't mean to suggest that Michael Farris and Graham Walker are right about "the wisdom of this world" being foolishness. My concern is that their views might actually be consistent with the teachings of their faith. If they are consistent, then wouldn't the problem really be with Scripture as opposed to the way that Farris and Walker interpret it?

Further, is Darwinian science open to a Biblical faith that replaces strength with weakness, something with nothing, the exemplary with the common, the laudable with the contemptible, and the foolish with the wise?

All the best,
Lewis Slawsky

Anonymous said...

In response to your last question, David Sloan Wilson and others have done quite a bit of research demonstrating how a religion like Christianity could actually be selected for by evolutionary processes. Certainly at the level of individual selection a system that "replaces strength with weakness, something with nothing, the exemplary with the common, the laudable with the contemptible, and the foolish with the wise" would not survive long. Natural selection occurs at various levels, and at the group level a religion like Christianity can be adaptive.
With regard to your earlier point, I also wonder whether the problem is not with Scripture itself. We both know that it is easy to take things out of context, but insofar as Paul created the Christianity we recognize (which may be debatable... I don't know enough about it) his views of worldy wisdom as divine folly would seem problematic. Professor Arnhart, any thoughts?
Lauren Hall

Larry Arnhart said...

In First Corinthians 1:17-3:23, Paul is contrasting the true wisdom--"the wisdom of God in mystery" revealed by Christ--and the false wisdom of human beings who are too vain to see the wisdom in Christianity.

When Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), he spoke to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in a manner that suggested that they had a partial grasp of the truth that was fully revealed by Christ.

We might conclude then that Paul sees the Greek philosophers as having attained a partial truth that anticipated the fuller truth brought by Christianity. So the Christian might properly study pagan philosophy with the thought that all truth comes from God, whether revealed naturally to the human mind by reason or revealed supernaturally through the Bible by faith.

This reading of Paul was developed early by Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria in the second century. This has supported a Christian openness to reason as compatible with faith, which should sustain Christian institutions of higher education.

When Darwin began the ORIGIN OF SPECIES by quoting Bacon's remark about the "two books" of God, he was appealing to this long tradition of thought in Christianity affirming the harmony between reason studying nature and faith studying the Bible.

Even if there is always going to be some tension between reason and faith, it seems sensible to me to explore their possible compatibility.

Anonymous said...

Dear All,

Whether Mr. Farris fired the professor or the professor quit, as Mr. Farris says, it seems that Mr. Farris acted in a way that is consistent with his beliefs. Patrick Henry College was founded in order to advance evangelical Christian views in American politics. There are two problems here that are not stated. First, Protestantism of all kinds stands in the intellectual stream of modern liberalism. This is so because the Bible is not the ultimate authority for Protestants, including evangelicals, but rather their authority is the Bible as each individual reads it. Thus the ultimate authority for an evangelical is his own mind. Like a good rationalist, the evangelical will not accept any truth from Scripture unless it passes the bar of reason as he reads. This helps explain why, for example, evangelicals do not believe that the wine and bread of holy communion become the body and blood of the Savior (even though He says it is). This is too hard to believe. They ordain women as pastors (or anyway, many of their groups do), even though St. Paul forbids this. Their women do not cover their heads when they pray as commanded in the New Testament; they remarry people whom the Scriptures command are not to be remarried, and so on. All of this because they have no external authority, for Protestantism rejected the idea of Holy Tradition at its inception.

The second problem is that both sides of the evolution debate have staked out faith-based positions. It is true that the existence of God cannot be rationally proved, but neither can the non-existence of God be rationally proved. Moreover, it is at least reasonable to conclude that a God of some sort must exist. Naturalists assume the non-existence of God without proof (or even good evidence), and so theirs is, like the evangelicals they chide, a faith-based position. This is seen in the just-so stories many evolutionists tell; stories that begin with phrases like It may have been, or It is possible that... It is seen also in their irrational refusal to consider any of the evidence against various parts of naturalist evolution theory.

Mr. Farris may be a rigid fellow, but for evolutionists to assert that he is is truly the pot calling the kettle black.

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