• A Hobbit a Wardrobe and a Great war


National Review: A Christian Prophet’s Unheeded Warning to the Academy


This article was originally posted at National Review.

The intellectual and moral chaos that is ravaging American higher education — typified by the campus protests and outbursts of antisemitism — is serving as a wake-up call to religious conservatives. In fact, the wake-up call was first delivered more than 40 years ago by a leading Christian public intellectual.

“No civilization can endure with its mind being as confused and disordered as ours is today,” declared Charles Malik, the first Lebanese ambassador to the United States and an architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to a gathering of Evangelical leaders in September 1980. “At the heart of the crisis in Western civilization lies the state of the mind and the spirit in the universities.”

Speaking at the dedication ceremony for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Malik described a “total divorce” in the secular academy between the life of the mind and the truths of biblical religion. The elite academic institutions in the United States and Europe, he said, were awash in materialism, atheism, nihilism, and the will to power. As a result, “all the preaching in the world, and all the loving care of even the best parents . . . will amount to little, if not to nothing” if the universities remain indifferent or hostile to faith. “The enormity of what is happening is beyond words.”

A scholar, educator, and diplomat, Malik understood the intellectual currents of 20th century. He went to Germany in the late 1930s to study philosophy with Martin Heidegger, but the political climate forced him to change plans and complete his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. Returning to Lebanon, he established the Department of Philosophy at the University of Beirut. He was soon tapped by the Lebanese president to represent his country at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. His political career — including a stint as president of the U.N. Security Council — deepened his awareness of the ideological forces enveloping the academy.

The decline of the humanities, Malik observed, was at the center of the problem. The humanities —the disciplines of philosophy, politics, history, literature, the arts, and theology — explore the most important questions about the meaning and purpose of our mortal lives. As the humanities go, he said, so goes the university. “It is there,” he said, “that the foundations of character and mind and outlook and conviction and attitude and spirit are laid.”

Malik issued a summons to the Christian community: Christians of all denominations should produce, within a decade, an exhaustive study of what was occurring in the field of humanities in the great universities of Europe and America. Malik challenged his Evangelical audience to assemble the finest minds — including scientists, philosophers, poets, and preachers — to explore how the humanities could be renewed by the reintroduction of ancient wisdom and “right reason.” The task was never taken up by the Christian leadership of any denomination.

Next came a warning. Malik embraced the Evangelical emphasis on Scripture, salvation by grace, and heartfelt faith. “I speak to you as a Christian,” he said. “Jesus Christ is my Lord and God and Savior and Song day and night.” Yet he rejected a form of piety that neglected the life of the mind. “I must be frank with you,” he confessed. “The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”

It was a sobering thing to announce at Wheaton College, then considered the Harvard of the Evangelical academy. Nevertheless, anti-intellectualism was “an absolutely self-defeating attitude” that led to one result: the abdication of the arenas of cultural influence to the adversaries of biblical religion. “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ himself, as well as for their own sakes, Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.”

Malik could hardly have anticipated that this problem would be aggravated by political activism. In 1979, a year before his address, the “Christian Right” had burst upon the American political landscape with the creation of the Moral Majority. Since then, Evangelicals have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in national political campaigns but barely a fraction of that amount supporting Christian scholars or building new academic centers to counter the reigning orthodoxies. With the recent closure of The King’s College, for example — where I taught Western civilization for a decade — there is not a single Christian institution of higher learning in New York City.

With remarkable prescience, Malik warned that the outcome of this crisis concerned Jews as much as Christians. Ideologies that cannot abide the claims of revealed religion undermine the foundations of Western civilization. “If the highest Christian values be overturned,” he said, “so will the highest Jewish values.” Militant secularism and antisemitism march in lockstep: It is thus unsurprising that Jews no longer feel safe on many of America’s elite campuses.

There is a profound sense of urgency to Malik’s message, flowing from a life devoted to working for a more just and humane social order, built on Christian ideals. Malik was burdened by the reality that the most prestigious universities in the world, captured by bankrupt philosophies, could not address the deepest ills afflicting the soul of the West: hedonism, cynicism, breakdown of the family, corruption of character, and “the dearth of grace and beauty.”

He implored his fellow believers to step into the breach. “If Christians do not care for the intellectual health of their own children and for the fate of their own civilization, a health and a fate so inextricably bound up with the state of the mind and spirit in the universities, who is going to care?”

The cognitive and spiritual turmoil of the academy suggests that Malik’s challenge remains unanswered.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.

Leave a Reply