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After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
David A. Hollinger
Princeton University Press, 2013
248 pp., $49.95

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Whose Pluralism?

David Hollinger on liberal Protestantism.

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That being said, I find Hollinger's fears greatly overblown when he warns that more openness to various explicitly religious viewpoints in the post-Protestant mainstream academy might threaten its freedom from religious dominance. Hollinger sees mainstream academia as having won a hard-fought struggle to establish critical distance from Christian hegemony and he fears that victory may be reversed. Outside the academy, he warns, conservative Christian views are still largely the norm rather than the exception. So he fears that more openness to explicitly Christian scholarship might somehow lead to a reversal of that valuable historical development.

I can agree with Hollinger that the disestablishment of Protestant hegemony in mainstream universities in the early 20th century was a necessary and desirable response to the demands of a more pluralistic public culture. But that happened generations ago. Nobody younger than Hollinger or myself remembers even its last stages. As Hollinger suggests, ecumenical Protestants and their many allies "won" in the past half-century in establishing a more diverse and open public culture. The mainstream academy is not a place where such openness could be reversed. But I also think that the disestablishment of Protestantism involved an overcorrection that favored non-theistic outlooks and marginalized religious views more than was necessary. So now a willingness to evaluate religiously-based outlooks on their merits, instead of as covert efforts to regain lost political authority, would be a step toward a more healthy balance of various religious and secular viewpoints.

The other historical force that Hollinger identifies, in addition to demographic diversification, as having disrupted mainstream Protestantism's hegemonic accommodation to the Enlightenment, is "cognitive demystification." In the face of modern scientific findings, many honest people have found it impossible to credit the supernaturalist claims of traditional Christianity and biblical revelation. Hollinger speaks of this demystification as though the issues involved were definitively settled long ago. So he says: "If Christianity is basically right and its hold on the North Atlantic West is justified by its truth value, the logic of mystification proceeds, then its decline among the intelligentsia must be the result of misunderstanding or fraud." He goes on to observe that being more open to Christian viewpoints in the name of pluralism typically "means accepting forms of evidence and reasoning that were once plausible within disciplinary communities in the social sciences and the humanities but no longer are." He sees the good reasons for the academy to set up its secular epistemic boundaries as "too obvious in the intellectual history of the last three hundred years to bear repeating here." He also repeatedly applies the term "Christian survivalist" to those who are committed "to the survival of Christianity amid the influences that appear to be diminishing it in the North Atlantic West."

I find these arguments to be astonishing, coming as they do from such a sophisticated intellectual historian. They seem to assume a simple progressive history of modern human thought, where the more advanced dominant beliefs of one era, particularly those bolstered by the authority of modern science, replace the more primitive views of earlier eras. The latter will struggle to survive for a time but eventually will have to succumb to the advance of a consensus of collective human truth. That is a view that was common when Hollinger and I came on the intellectual scene in the mid-20th century. C. S. Lewis, who was no slouch as an intellectual historian himself, referred to it at the time as "chronological snobbery." Particularly Lewis was referring to the supposed demystification of reality based on generalizing from the practical successes of the naturalistic scientific method. Lots of mid-century people agreed with Rudolph Bultmann when he said it was impossible to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles in the age of "the electric light and the wireless." It turns out that Lewis was right and Bultmann was wrong. Just as an empirical fact, a great many 21st-century people, including many Christian intellectuals, do find it possible to believe in such things in the age of modern science. Hollinger and others may think they are benightedly wrong-headed in doing so, and he may want to argue with Christian philosophers about what are legitimate warrants for their beliefs. But it is not a good argument to claim that there is a consensus among the educated that these issues have been settled.

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