Halting the Brain Drain by Creating Space to Think

The brain drain within conservative Protestantism is a trend with which those in a position to know are well aware.[1] There are many factors which may lead to this disaffection: reduction of worship to entertainment, irreverent humor and general lack of depth, an absence of certainty, unity, and authority, a stunted history and tradition, a counter-liturgical casualness. . .  Among intellectuals all these factors may play a part but ultimately many find themselves in something of a homeless condition – the shallow intellectual tradition of evangelicalism means they are without any sort of organized or institutional support. Especially among those who would devote themselves to theology, many soon discover they have educated themselves out of their own communion.

For many, Roman Catholicism provides a rich intellectual and institutional alternative. Catholic universities engage a breadth of the theological tradition and foster a depth of exploration that is often (the exceptions are often non-Protestants working in evangelical institutions) only matched in the Anglo-Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition. In turn, Roman Catholicism has a host of institutions, both at the high school and college level, that might employ a theologian.

In short, for many Christian intellectuals, Catholicism is the alternative to evangelicalism’s rampant anti-intellectualism.[2] What might at first be obstacles: Scriptural authority, transubstantiation, Immaculate Conception, the high view of Mary, papal infallibility, the sordid history of Roman Catholicism, prove to be mere hurdlesFor many, these problems can be nuanced, acquiesced to, or simply overlooked, when compared to the intellectual desert of evangelicalism. The conversion of ETS president Francis Beckwith to Catholicism is only the most public marker of a long and widespread trend.

I was at the center of this “problem” for the decade I worked in a Bible college in the United States. The president of the school asked me to establish and direct an honors program for the institution. In a meeting, when this was announced, the beloved founder and former president of the school objected. He maintained that this would only serve to over-educate students and they would be dissatisfied in serving the local church.  After several years, I came to understand he was absolutely correct and that his insight applied across the Restoration Movement (RM). Rigorous biblical and theological education is not only at cross purposes with this institution but with the various forms of evangelicalism with which the RM is entrenched.

I was in a position to witness students educated out of fundamentalism and evangelicalism and made to see the same inadequacies in theological liberalism. I never considered this in terms of a negative result but neither did I fully realize I was contributing to the seeming homelessness of those committed to an orthodoxy they consider to have been abandoned in modernity.

Part of the bizarre nature of this story is my own cluelessness and misplacement in this institution and, perhaps, with what the RM had become. For the fifteen years, prior to this, during which I taught at a Bible college in Japan, I had developed a style of inquiry that was not subject to the parameters – spoken and unspoken – that serve to delimit thought in the American evangelical context.  I was more theologically conservative than I had ever been but this did not entail the sort of anti-intellectualism and anti-theology which had come to dominate in Independent Christian Churches during my 20-year absence.

The very nature of the missionary task had involved engaging philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural theory, and a wide range of religious thought, unsuited to the provincial soil of the typical North American Protestant context. In Japanese terms, I was the bonsai which, taken out of its pot, could not be made to fit into it again. It only slowly dawned on me, I was recreating this experience in my students – freeing them from, while at the same time making them unable to fit, the constricted form of a tiny American fundamentalist pot.

JP, who now helps us at FP as one of our regulars on podcasts and blogs,  tested the soil in both the college and church setting.  He came straight off the farm to develop into an outstanding student. His research was recognized when he won the “Promising Young Scholar Award” from the Stone Campbell Journal.  He regularly lectured in my place and was granted the top scholarship, the “President’s Scholarship,” at seminary.  Yet, precisely due to his excellence and his serious theological engagement his abilities were duly punished by both church and academy.

The fairly large church where he preached for two years was controlled by “elders” i.e. local businessmen, with no theological or biblical training, formal or otherwise. One elder explained that for him, flag and country come before religion.  This had come in response to JP’s suggestions in his preaching and teaching that racism and notions of white supremacy were not Christian. He resigned his position.

He fared little better at his alma mater. His awards and scholarships were never mentioned and he was subjected to various forms of academic hazing by the dean. The point was clear in both instances: Christianity is not a platform for broad inquiry but a mode of intellectual constraint.

I have seen JP’s experience duplicated many times over. The turn to Roman Catholicism may appear to be the only choice for many. It may appear there is no room for thought anywhere else.

At Forging Ploughshares, on a very small scale – in mustard seed form, a community has taken shape which has a demonstrated appreciation for the broad learning of a radical orthodoxy.  On November 1st we are opening registration for Ploughshares Bible Institute (PBI).  Individual discipleship and dialogue, a form of learning tried and tested in the first Church, will form the core of the learning. In this community of believers, Forging Ploughshares, there is a space for thought. Our hope is to organically extend this space through Ploughshares Bible Institute.

[1] For example see Scot McNight, “FROM WHEATON TO ROME: WHY EVANGELICALS BECOME ROMAN CATHOLIC,” (JETS 45/3 (September 2002) 451–72).

[2] Adam Omelianchuk, “WHY DO EVANGELICALS CONVERT TO CATHOLICISM?” (First Things 3.25.10).

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.