Spring 1997

Volume 16, Issue 1

Are Evangelicals Impacting Education, and Vice Versa?

Q and A with Nathan O. Hatch

Nathan O. Hatch is Provost at University of Notre Dame, and has served that institution in various capacities as dean since 1983. A former history professor, Dr. Hatch has served as president of the American Society of Church Historians and is a member of the Johns Hopkins Society if Scholars. His 1989 book The Democratization of American Christianity has won numerous accolades and awards, including the 1990 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize for the best book in American Studies. With Mark A. Noll he co-edited The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History and with Harry S. Stout he co-edited Jonathon Edwards and the American Experience. In the following he discusses the impact evangelicals are having on education, and the need for evangelicals to be exposed to the lessons of history.

Q. What do you think are the prospects for evangelical influence in higher education today?

A. You can tell a real positive or a real bleak story. Overall I think that American higher education has been secularized. Surprisingly, even through the mid-decades of this century, a good deal of public and church-related education still had at least a Christian veneer. Much of that has passed. On the other hand, in the United States - unlike a lot of European countries or in Canada, where education is more centralized and run by the state - we do have a huge variety of institutions and various kinds of Christian education, whether Catholic or evangelical. And they are prospering. There are roughly a hundred colleges associated with the Christian College Coalition. There are thriving catholic colleges and universities. So while mine is a minority point of view, viewed internationally, one can see that there are very promising places where genuine Christian education can go on.

Q. What has been the most significant recent development that has helped evangelical influence?

A. I don't see one dramatic thing, but what I do see is a lot of young people who are interested in going into higher education and exploring various disciplines - but with a real Christian conviction. I have been involved with the Pew Charitable Trusts, in something called the Evangelical Scholarship Initiative. We give graduate fellowships and fund professors with research fellowships. It is very heartening to see how many Christian scholars are at work and how many young Christians want to approach scholarly life as a vocation.

There are no easy answers but I think that there is a lot more interest in Christians being involved in higher education. There are some dramatic breakthroughs. I think what Christians have done in the field of philosophy through people like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff - and a whole range of people in terms of establishing "theistic" claims - I think that is very important. In my own field in the history in America you have Christian scholars like Harry Stout at Yale or Grant Wacker at Duke or George Marsden or Mark Noll at Wheaton who are among the best of their generation in what they do. They do so with a forthright Christian conviction.

Q. What do you see as the value of historical studies for evangelical Christians preparing for missions and ministry in the 21st century?

A. I think historical studies provide the best way to understand our own times. I elaborated on this point in my book The Search for Christian America. One of the chapters explains why I think history is important for the church. I think that historical understanding is one of the few ways that we can assess where we are and where we are going. It was C.S. Lewis who called historical studies the "clean sea breeze of the century.” It gives us other points of view for our own times and identifies the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of them. It really provides a lot of balance and points of orientation to know where we are. Otherwise I think that we have no other framework but what our contemporary culture or church is like.

Historical studies provide examples of what God's people faced at other times. Sometimes we tend to think that our own days are exceptional and sometimes we are too positive and sometimes too negative. I sometimes think things have never been this bad. But when you study the past you find out that sometimes we romanticize the past, and we think that there were these great heroes who didn't have struggles. You start to see that in most eras life has been a struggle. People didn't understand everything that was happening. They were called to live day by day faithfully. After the fact people see them as heroes, but they lived life in the same kind of ways we do.

Q. What are the greatest potential areas of influence for evangelicals in higher education today?

A. I think that most of the critical questions in higher education upon which Christianity would have a bearing are: What is the nature of meaning? How can you have truth that crosses different cultural boundaries? What is the nature of language? Evangelicals need to look at those, not in any narrowly evangelical way, but in a broader way. Regarding many of those questions I think Catholics often have a stronger intellectual foundation than we do. So when you are dealing with intellectual questions, I think you have to create alliances with other people - Jewish people as well - who argue for the reality of theism and for the reality of truth claims.

I really have to admit that our greatest contributions as evangelicals have not been intellectual. They have had to do more with activism, evangelism, and popular movements. So in some ways, our intellectual legacy is fairly weak. Viewed overall, that has not been the distinct gift that we have given to the church.

Q. How significant is what happens in academia intellectually as it relates to what happens in the church spiritually?

A. My own view is that there is a lot of misconception that spiritual life and intellectual life are inversely related. That is, that if one increases then the other decreases - like a pie. That is a wrong way to view it; in that sense I think history has helped. If you look at John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards you will see that these two things are not inversely related and can in fact actually reinforce and clarify each other. Edwards' great work, The Religious Affections, is terrific, because on the one hand he criticizes arid intellectualism- which assumes that the mind alone could be self-sufficient and comprehend divine things - saying what is important is what you will, and what you want and what you love. Affection was at the heart of things. On the other hand, he is very analytical to show that having a religious experience does not authenticate it. He uses his mind to assess and clarify the nature of religious experience in very profound ways.

We are in danger if we get to the point that our intellectual life is not informed by deep spirituality, or on the other hand, if we have a spiritual life that is not rigorous in its thought.

Q. Do you agree with Mark Noll regarding his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind?

A. In the main I do. Mark and I are long-time friends and colleagues. We graduated from Wheaton in the same year and have since collaborated. I agree with his thesis that in many ways evangelicals' efforts have not supported the Christian mind.

In a lot of areas, such as the relationship between Christianity and science or Christianity and politics, he states that we have not done so well, accepting easy answers and simplistic solutions. You believe in creation or evolution, so choose which one. We haven't looked at the hard questions. These issues are very complicated and in a sense we have to admit that and find ways to convey that honestly to our children.

I think that some of the so-called "scandal" is also, in a sense, no one's fault. Evangelicals, like I have said, have over a hundred different colleges, none of which will support a faculty that has the resources to do research in the same way that a modestly good state university does. At the same time you have this energy and all these students being trained, and yet there is nothing close to an evangelical university. We are so atomized - that in itself is a certain scandal because it means that as an evangelical community we can't free up the best scholars to do tough thinking and writing.

Q. So do you think we should combine our efforts?

A. In some ways I don't think we can. What we have to do, and this is encouraging, is combine the efforts of Christian scholars in collaborative projects, wherever they are, not necessarily institutionally. I think that is happening in many ways.

Q. Is there anything else that could be done?

A. It is not feasible to think of starting an evangelical university or a conservative reformed university. I think it takes too many resources, and I don't think it is going to happen. Evangelical seminaries and colleges can work together toward certain goals and projects. This could be very important.

Q. What do you see as the chief challenges to Christian faith in the century ahead of us?

A. In this culture I see materialism. People, even those of us who are Christians, are too easily caught up in the lifestyle of ease and pleasure and we even want Christianity to fulfill us in those ways. I think that as our culture becomes more secular and as our children grow up in those institutions the danger is that we will lose the basic Christian point of view about the world.

Another big danger is that we live in an extremely pluralistic society that helps spawn "culture wars," when people that have radically different assumptions don't interact. Christians are not called to fight but to be faithful to the Gospel. We also have to be civil and understand the world in which we live. We have to be compassionate, too. That is a big problem when you have such sharp disagreements.

Q. And often it seems to degenerate into "you're wrong - I'm right," doesn't it?

A. That easily breeds a self righteousness. In the end, our chief call is to love, and so through all our battles and differences, we have the final command to love our neighbors as ourselves. As these cultural tensions are around, we must hold to what we believe but at the same time guard against thinking that we are better than other people. We must hold out hands of friendship.


Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1
Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 8-10-99.