Few religious conferences ever rate coverage from media like Time, National Review, and local television. But then most religious conferences rarely invite prominent atheistic critics of Christianity.
But a recent gathering in Dallas did precisely that. “Christianity Challenges the University: An International Conference of Theists and Atheists,” sponsored by Dallas Baptist University (DBU), brought some 40 of the world’s finest scientists, philosophers, and social thinkers together to discuss such issues as the existence of God, the origins of the life, and the relationship of religion to morality.
Though many Christians now perceive the need to challenge the university, this has not always been so. Christianity has historically provided the commission for the great learning institutions of Western culture. In 1636, for instance, the court of Massachusetts colony established Harvard University under the motto, “For Christ and His Church.” Yet with Christianity eclipsed by the secular perspectives that now dominate most campuses, Christians in this century have often adopted a defensive attitude toward higher education, intimidated by the seemingly monolithic skepticism of intelligentsia.
“Christianity Challenges the University,” however, demonstrates that growing numbers of Christian intellectuals no longer regard halls of learning as foreign turf. Instead, the conference heralds an emerging confidence among Christian scholars who believe they can and must recapture the university from within, “for Christ and his church.”
Perhaps the most striking element of the Christian intellectual confidence displayed in Dallas was the openness to, indeed, the intentional solicitation of, diverse viewpoints. Roy Varghese, a Roman Catholic doctoral candidate in philosophy first conceived of the conference. Co-director with James Parker, a DBU philosophy professor, Varghese explained the reason for the event. “Our main concern was to restore the confidence of the contemporary Christian by allowing him to see that the Christian position can hold its own at the highest levels of academia.”
The level was indeed high. The sponsors purposely invited not only prominent but outspoken critics of theism renowned in their fields of philosophy, social sciences, and natural sciences. These critics included philosophers such as Marxist Kai Neilson, who recently wrote a book entitled Ethics Without God, and scientists like Dr. Donald Goldsmith, whom many regard as the conceptual mastermind behind Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” programs on public television.
“Christianity Challenges the University” was the second conference brainchild of DBU, following a March, 1983, conference that investigated “Modern Thought and the Turn to Theism.” The perception that the academic milieu has turned toward accommodation of theistic notions was supported by the caliber of theists at the conference. For instance, biophysicist Dean Kenyon, who participated in the natural sciences panel discussion on the origin of life, had sent more than a ripple through the academic world when he embraced Christian belief and renounced aspects of evolutionary theory that he had helped postulate. During the science debates, Kenyon’s atheist antagonists quoted him passages of his own definitive Biochemical Predestination — a book he wrote as an atheist but now believes inadequately accounts for biological origins.
Though scientific hypothesis never renders complete or ultimate knowledge, arguments like those made by Harvard University astrophysicist Owen Gingerich, who acted as respondent to the natural sciences debates, demonstrate that theists have increasingly taken the initiative in many academic endeavors. Gingerich, an evangelical, has traveled extensively of late explaining “big bang” cosmology, which maintains that the universe began suddenly in a brilliant coruscation of light.
Not all the discussions centered on the scientific evidence for or against theistic theories of the origin of life and the universe. In the field of philosophy and social sciences, Alvin Plantinga, Ralph Mcinerny, George Mavrodes, David Martin, and others went up against the likes of Nielsen, Antony Flew, Paul Kurtz, and Nathan Glazer. Peter Kreeft presented a theistic critique of culture and morality. Kreeft’s book, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dramatic Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (InterVarsity), was adapted as a play by Tom Key and performed as the last event of the conference by Key and others.
Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the address given by distinguished British historian Paul Johnson. Johnson, author of the 800-page masterwork Modern Times (Harper, 1983), contends that the unparalleled political atrocities of our century have been perpetrated under the patronage of secular ideologies (like Marxism, Freudianism, or German fascism) that do not place adequate moral or political constraints on the human abuse of power. At the conference Johnson extended this line of thought. Only orthodox Christianity, he maintained, can provide the appropriate moral references necessary to sustain humane society. Johnson’s talk drew one of the largest audiences of the four-day event.
A conference of intellectuals in a city known as the “buckle in the Bible belt” can produce some peculiar situations. One Southern Baptist native was seen indulging the English patience of Oxford atheist Antony Flew over dinner. Undaunted by the credentials of his foreign guest, the believer drew on familiar evangelical diagrams to make an impassioned but unfortunately unsuccessful appeal on behalf of the gospel.
Flew and his fellow atheists no doubt expected to encounter such zeal when they consented to come to Dallas. They most likely did not expect either the breadth or the sophistication of the Christian academic challenge they encountered there. Neither had they yet faced so many of their own colleagues assembled as evidence that secular assumptions will no longer define the whole of academic orthodoxy.