Probably the greatest defender of Christianity of all time has been profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Nathan Schneider.
The article is titled “The New Theist”, which is an allusion to “The New Atheism”. The subscript is “How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy’s boldest apostle”.
What I like about this article is that I learned new things about Dr. Craig’s big plan:
Along the narrow basement hallway that was home to the Biola philosophy master’s program when I sat in on Craig’s class in 2011, there was a map of the United States on the wall. On it were labels with the names of universities you’ve heard of—Notre Dame, Cornell, Rutgers—and some you probably haven’t. The labels were fastened by pins in three colors. Blue signified alumni enrolled in doctoral programs. Red meant programs where alums had been accepted, and yellow meant where they held full-time teaching jobs. There were several more pins in the Atlantic Ocean: Oxford, King’s College, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
This is a not-unusual sight in the hallway of any placement-minded graduate program. But at Biola—a name derived from “Bible Institute of Los Angeles”—the map had particular significance.
“My goal is for Christian theism as a worldview to be articulated cogently and persuasively in the academy,” says Scott Rae, an ethicist who co-founded the master’s program in the early 1990s. The purpose of the program was not simply to train evangelical Christian students for evangelical Christian schools, but to send those students off to doctoral programs, and eventually professorships, at leading secular universities. “We figured if we ended up with 30 or 40 students, and maybe we sent 20 of them to Ph.D.’s before we retired, that’d be awesome,” Rae added. “The thing just snowballed.”
The program’s other founder, J.P. Moreland, was already in high demand as an author and speaker on apologetics, in addition to being a philosopher of mind. Rae and Moreland invited William Lane Craig to join their team, though he comes to the campus only for brief, intensive courses in the fall and winter. Before long they were attracting more than 100 master’s students at a time (including women, generally, in only single digits); as many as 150 have continued on to further graduate work. Despite having only a handful of faculty, perhaps no philosophy master’s program in the English-speaking world enrolls so many students and, even if by that measure alone, few can claim to be so influential in shaping the next generation of analytic philosophers.
Still, many in the profession aren’t even aware of it. The Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks philosophy departments by the reputation of their faculty members, doesn’t mention Biola on its Web page about master’s programs. “No one has ever called to my attention that Biola’s M.A. program should be included,” says Brian Leiter, of the University of Chicago, who edits the report.
Among philosophers—Christian or otherwise—who have worked with the Biola program’s alums, the impressions tend to be positive. According to Laurence Bonjour, a philosopher at the University of Washington who has supervised the Ph.D. work of program graduates, “Biola students, especially those interested in epistemology, are often very well trained.”
“But,” he is careful to add, “I doubt if the Christian aspect of the program has much to do with that.”
For the program’s architects, however, the “Christian aspect” is everything. “What makes this program different from other philosophy programs is the distinctively Christian setting,” says Rae. Students take courses in the Bible and theology as well as in logic, ethics, and metaphysics. On their application forms, they’re asked to sign Biola’s century-old, page-long doctrinal statement and note any points of disagreement; on the campus, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling are prohibited. Craig begins each day’s lecture in his classes with a personal reflection on integrating the life of scholarship with the life of a Christian—covering such topics as marriage, prayer, and regular exercise. Everyone basically agrees on where, in the end, all the flights of argument and inquiry need to land.
Gail Neal, a retired administrative coordinator for the program, says she always noticed a culture of mutual support and encouragement, rather than competition, among the students. “Their whole purpose is to help people know Christ and to make a difference in the world for him, and to bring people into his kingdom,” she told me. “They just empty themselves of themselves, like Christ did for us.”
In a now-decade-old lecture, “Advice to Christian Apologists,” Craig outlined his view of the university as “the single most important institution shaping Western culture.” He argued that it’s a lot easier for people throughout the society to accept Christ as their savior if Christianity appears reasonable in higher education, if the academic conversation takes it seriously, and if there are Christian professors to serve as role models. The Biola master’s program is thus a strategic intervention designed to resound everywhere.
“In order to change the university, we must do scholarly apologetics,” he reasoned. “In order to do scholarly apologetics, we must earn doctorates. It’s that simple.”
And a bit more about how students respond to apologetics:
Most outsiders are familiar with the caricatures of evangelical anti-intellectualism, from the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925 to televangelists and the faux-folksiness of George W. Bush. So are evangelicals themselves. Almost 20 years ago, the evangelical historian (and historian of evangelicals) Mark Noll warned, at book length, about The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This, as much as secularism itself, is an ill that Craig and others at Biola have set out to cure.
“Biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closet of Fundamentalism,” he writes in the introduction to Reasonable Faith.”Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside our best weapons of logic and evidence, thereby ensuring unawares modernism’s triumph over us.”
Craig Hazen, who directs the apologetics department at Biola, calls the problem “blind-leaping.” He told me, “The idea that we’re blind-leaping into faith is actually reinforced by evangelical churches all the time.”
With close ties to the philosophy master’s program, the apologetics program teaches a couple of hundred students at a time how to defend their faith with reasons. There are master’s and certificate tracks, and about half the students take courses online from around the world. The program also organizes high-profile events, such as Craig’s 2009 debate with Christopher Hitchens, and seminars at churches around the country. Part of the purpose of these is recruiting students, and part of it is advocacy; Hazen and his team have to convince fellow Christians that reason is not merely a dead end for faith, and that a grown-up faith in modern society requires grown-up reasons.
“Frankly, I find it hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics,” Craig has written. “We’ve got to train our kids for war.”
The students in Craig’s classes at Biola, it’s true, bear a kind of battle scar. A common story among them goes something like this: When they were teenage boys, growing up in evangelical households, their childhood faith began to buckle. Their classes in school and their classmates and the Internet posed questions they didn’t know how to answer. Their parents and pastors couldn’t help; they only recommended more prayer and faith, more blind-leaping. It didn’t work.
Then someone would lend them a book by William Lane Craig or J.P. Moreland, or send them a link to a debate on YouTube. All of a sudden, their questions were being taken seriously. They could chew on the latest science and philosophy while still going to church with their friends and families. They went to Biola to study philosophy or apologetics because they knew it would be a safe place to ask any question they needed to, with whatever rigor and detail they craved. Afterward they take the answers they get there back to their friends and to the Internet, and the entrepreneurs among them start apologetics ministries of their own.
They’re born again: rebaptized in philosophy.
Go read the whole thing! And share it! The article is balanced, and that’s what I would expect from a mainstream article. There’s a lot more to the article that I couldn’t excerpt here, so read it all!
Now for my comment: we really need to get to the point where people look to Christian scholars like Dr. Craig as the best representatives of Christianity. The scholars are doing the real work in a time when Christianity is being challenged in the culture. The real heroes of the faith are the scholars. Not the end-time fiction writers. Not the blind-faith preachers. Not the Christian music rock stars. Not the Hollywood celebrities. And especially not the Christian athletes.
Christianity is and has always been a knowledge tradition, and we should be familiar with and appreciative of our scholars, first and foremost. We should be especially appreciative of our philosophers, scientists and historians who deal in logic and evidence every day. These are the real heroes of the faith, in my opinion. We should be paying more attention to them and their work, and reading their books and learning how to apply the knowledge in our daily lives.
One of the things that I try to do in my role in the Kingdom is to try to support Christian college students in philosophy, science and history programs with guidance and awards for good grades. Every semester, I get e-mails from a group of people who report their grades and future plans to me, and then I reward them with items from their list of desired books. My favorite Christian student just completed a Bachelor and Masters degree in a scientific area and is now applying for PhD programs. Another Christian student I am supporting did NINE courses last semester, including TWO graduate courses. I have been sending him academic books to help him in his research twice a year since 2011. He is also planning to go on to a PhD program in philosophy and law.
I want everyone reading this post and ask yourself a question – what are you doing to help support the development the next William Lane Craig? He was an undergraduate student once, you know. And then he was a graduate student. Are we doing our best to support the Christians who are willing to pay the price to infiltrate into the secular university and bring back the PhDs we need? I am doing my part, and I want you to do your part, too. Think about it!
One thing that you can do to impact young people is to visit the Biola University apologetics web store and purchase some of the debates featuring Dr. William Lane Craig on DVD, and try to show them in your church. I recommend the first Craig-Dacey debate at Indiana U, the re-match Craig-Stenger debate at Oregon State U, the Craig-Crossley debate, and the Craig-Ehrman debate. This will help to encourage more of our young people, especially young men, to study hard things in university and go on to get their PhDs. Parents – you really need to be exposing your kids to Christian heroes, because they are the ones who will have an influence in the future. Don’t neglect this precious resource!