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Featuring guest Molly Worthen

Molly Worthen | Science and the Journey to Faith

Molly brings her research that explores the history of evangelicalism in America to her newfound identity as an evangelical herself.


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Jim Stump and Molly Worthen on stage

Photo by David Buller

Molly brings her research that explores the history of evangelicalism in America to her newfound identity as an evangelical herself.

Description

Molly Worthen is a historian by training and wrote the book, Apostles of Reason, which explores the history of evangelicalism in America. When she wrote the book about 10 years ago, she approached the topic as an outsider, even an agnostic. Then in 2022, she rather surprisingly found herself getting baptized at the front of a large evangelical Southern Baptist megachurch.

In the conversation she tells the story of her conversion and questions she asked, including questions about miracles, science, and what it means to be intellectually engaged and also believe in the resurrection of Christ. 

This conversation was recorded in front of a live audience at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on February 21, 2024. 

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Titan Sound, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • Originally aired on March 07, 2024
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Worthen:

It is really hard to turn off my critical faculty. I’m constantly, I’ll have a glimmer of Christiany feeling and then I’ll immediately step outside of it and be like, “Isn’t that interesting how I am being socialized by the ladies in my Bible study?” I feel like a scientist who has entered her own experiment. There are some days when I find that really stimulating, but often, I wish I could just turn it off. I envy people who’ve grown up in it and, I don’t know, just have all of these habits and instincts that I’m having to learn from scratch.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. The voice you just heard belongs to Molly Worthen, our guest for today’s episode. We recorded a conversation with her before a live studio audience a couple of weeks ago on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Molly Worthen is a historian by training. She’s been interested in the history of religion for a long time. She wrote the book, Apostles of Reason, which explores the history of evangelicalism in America, particularly what she calls the crisis of authority for evangelicals. We do talk some about that book, but that’s not the main reason we wanted to have this conversation with her.

When she wrote the book about 10 years ago, she approached the topic as an outsider, even an agnostic. Then in 2022, she rather surprisingly found herself getting baptized at the front of a large evangelical Southern Baptist megachurch. Over the time, she was considering what it would mean to be a Christian. She was fortunate to have the help of many wise voices, including Francis Collins, Praveen Sethupathy, Tim Keller. They and others helped guide her through questions about miracles, science, and what it means to be intellectually engaged and also believe in the resurrection of Christ. Her story is really fascinating in itself and it gives her a new inside perspective on this people group she’s been studying, and she’s really fun to talk to. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

We’re pleased to be recording in front of a live studio audience on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where the L. Russ Bush Center and its director, Ken Keathley, have hosted us. I’m talking to Molly Worthen tonight, who is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill right down the road from us. We’ll talk about her specialization, some which has been the history of religious movements in America, particularly that movement known as evangelicalism, and in an interesting twist over the last couple of years, she herself has converted to Christianity and now identifies with this people group that she’s been studying. There’s got to be an interesting story in that, right? Would you please join me in welcoming to the podcast, Molly Worthen? [applause]

So Molly, there are some very interesting ideas and topics for us to talk about tonight, but I like to start these interviews more on the personal side and things like who you are and where you come from. I hope a historian can appreciate adding a little context to the present. So why don’t you start by telling us where’d you grow up? What was your family like?

Worthen:

Great. Thank you for having me. It’s really fun to get to talk about all of this and start at the beginning. I grew up about 20 miles west of Chicago in a town called Glen Ellyn, Illinois. My house, my childhood house is two miles from Wheaton College campus. I grew up in a totally secular family. I was vaguely aware of Wheaton as that funny school where my parents said they weren’t allowed to dance. I wasn’t quite sure why. I went to school on the East Coast at Yale University where I took a lot of classes in history and philosophy and religion. Became steadily more and more aware as I both took classes in history and also got to know people coming from various religious communities and talked to them about their experiences that religion was just hugely important for how 99% of humanity processed their lives.

I think, too, I started to develop a sort of envy for people who had answers to the ultimate questions. I became particularly fascinated with Russian history and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Took Russian language. I spent a really formative summer with some grant money from my college in the middle of nowhere in rural Alberta doing what was very amateur ethnographic field work with a community of Russian Orthodox old believers, who are, you might caricature them as the Russian Amish, that’s not accurate, but for our purposes it’s okay. Spent a summer learning to pluck chickens after they’d been slaughtered and going to sewing parties with some of the girls in the community. Fell in love with the endeavor of trying to get as close to another worldview very different from my own as possible.

So I think that’s really been what I’ve tried to do ever since. I thought I would be a journalist. I had a couple of internships at Metro newspapers, Time Magazine, the Toledo Blade. I wrote for my college paper. I had a detour with my first book, which grew out of an undergrad project.

Stump:

That’s what I was going to ask. So Apostles of Reason or there’s one before that?

Worthen:

No, there’s one before that.

Stump:

Which was what?

Worthen:

It’s a biography of a diplomat called The Man on Whom Nothing was Lost. That’s a long story, probably not relevant for our purposes. That took me into diplomatic history, but my first love was still religious history, and I wanted to be a religion journalist, but I knew nothing, really, about religion in the United States. I had some esoteric knowledge of Eastern Christianity, medieval monks here and there. Unfortunately, you cannot sell too many magazine articles about 14th century Carthusians or the Russ school in the Russian church.

So I went to graduate school thinking that I was filling the well, reading some books in order to be a competent journalist. I had this vague sense, and I’m not really sure where it came from, that conservative Christians, in particular, got pretty lousy journalistic coverage in the mainstream secular media. I think I focused on that tradition out of curiosity and out of a sense tactically that editors would be interested in it. Culture wars, right?

Over the course of my time in doing my PhD, I think both I became spoiled by the luxury of investigating these things in the context of a university, and the bottom really fell out from jobs in the journalism industry, even more so than in the academic humanities, which is saying something. So I now do those.

Stump:

So you became a history professor to follow the job market.

Worthen:

That tells you something of how crummy jobs in journalism were. I’m also very risk averse. That’s my temperament. You need to really love risk to be a freelancer, and I realized that wasn’t for me. So now I try to do both. I do as much journalism as I can while doing the usual history professor stuff.

Stump:

So connect the dots for us a little bit then from that period to you becoming a history professor and particularly writing this book. I just mentioned Apostles of Reason. How did that come about? We were joking beforehand. This was 10 years ago now. We won’t force you to remember every detail of it, but at least set up a little bit. How did that project get started and what did it do for your interest in this area of study?

Worthen:

I, as you do when you’re a grad student, was reading my way through all of the important books on the history of American evangelicalism. The majority of them, it appeared to me, were written by confessing Christians who are coming out of a reformed background and really emphasizing the reformed core of the story of American evangelicalism, at least as a history of ideas. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” There’d been a few, there’d been some people like Donald Dayton coming from the Wesleyan tradition trying to chip away at that narrative, but I set out thinking that I was going to explode the story of reformed dominance in the recent history of American evangelicalism.

So I set out to try to take core samples across a reasonable spectrum of majority White conservative evangelicalism, very broadly construed, so including everyone from Assemblies of God to the Mennonite Church, Southern Baptists, some churches of Christ sprinkled in there. Went to university archives, Bible college archives, as well as denominational archives. Actually, what I found was that the reformed tradition had had this disproportionate influence. I found myself trying to explain how is it that this incredibly diverse subculture full of all different kinds of intellectual traditions and tools when it comes to negotiating the relationship between traditional religion and Western modernity, how is it that this messy tradition is represented in the mainstream public square, in the big media by a fairly narrow slice of the intellectual and political and social options?

So I found myself telling the story of the disproportionate influence of a particular set of reformed theological ideas, presuppositionalist, apologetics, a reformed approach to culture, the influence of particular thinkers. I ended up writing a lot about Francis Schaeffer, and the civil war, the intellectual civil war that I see as the backstory to the more familiar story of the culture wars.

Stump:

So I think this book, and if any of you out here haven’t seen it or read it, I really recommend Apostles of Reason as a way of understanding this movement that we’re part of. I think it’s been widely read not just by people within the guild of historians of religion, but by people on the inside of evangelicalism for whom it’s been enlightening to see some of that context. I will say that, having just gone through it here in the last week, that I say it’s insightful and find you charitable and sympathetic throughout the whole thing, but particularly in an institution of higher education like we’re sitting in right now, the charge of being anti-intellectual stings a little bit maybe to some of those.

I’d like to have you respond to the charge of anti-intellectualism, not that this comes from you particularly, but some of the movement that you’re investigating that this is used quite a bit. I want to have you respond to it by unpacking this quote from page 261. You say, “The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture or the assurance that God will eventually corral all nonbelievers, but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God’s word and the defensive reflexes that outsiders skepticism provokes.” Unpack that a little bit, the anti-intellectualism that evangelicals are often accused of stems from those sources.

Worthen:

I guess I can’t say the question is hard. I can’t complain because you’re just quoting my own line back to me is—very crafty. Let’s be clear that I wrote the book in large part because this was something people tossed around all the time, this charge that, well, evangelicalism is anti-intellectual, and I just thought it was a little glib. I think there’s a few things going on in that overly lengthy sentence that you read. One is that regardless of what one’s metaphysics are, what you believe about God’s intentions, historians are studying the human manifestations of God’s desired will and community, and humans are fallible and make all kinds of mistakes and need to somehow find their way through the march of time in an increasingly pluralistic civilization.

So I think evangelicals have been at a disadvantage in not having solid institutions that keep them, that compel them to stay in conversation with people with whom they disagree, that provide them with explicit mechanisms in the way that the Catholic church has or the LDS church for negotiating their way through the tensions that arise between traditional doctrine and challenges that come up with the advances of science and technology and pluralism, the demands of especially Western democratic societies.

I would have said, when I wrote the book, I believed that for liberal protestants, for secular people, a kind of idea of empiricist enlightenment reason embodied in mainstream secular universities functioned and as a magisterium that helps negotiate that, that serves that role of authority on the left. I think that started to fracture a bit. I think there’s more anti-intellectualism, more running away from evidence that contradicts your worldview on the left now than I would’ve believed a decade ago.

I think, too, what’s important there and is embedded in one of the sub clauses of that sentence is the way in which American evangelicalism really evolved historically as a kissing cousin with the very intellectual trends in communities that now some evangelicals perceive to be such a threat. So if you look at the history of the development of the modern doctrine of biblical inerrancy, for example, it’s very much intertwined with the history of the enlightenment and the scientific revolution and grows out of a particular set of Protestant thinkers trying to turn the enemy’s weapons back upon them and respond on the terms of emerging modern enlightenment science.

What this has meant is that there’s a way in which American evangelicalism is captive to the paradigms created by what became modern science, modern empiricist, materialist science. I think that has, in some cases, generated really interesting intellectual conversations. I think one of my attractions to evangelical subculture and its history is that these are Christians, I think I sensed early on, who take the ideas, take the truth claims really seriously, who are not content to say, “Well, let’s just agree to separate the life of reason, the life of the mind from the claims of Christianity,” but we have to deal with these problems. However, that’s also made for a history of battles and I think a real anxiety about the growing cultural power of universities, especially as they have become more and more dominated by people who are not coming out of an orthodox Christian framework.

Stump:

So connect the dots for me there a little bit more specifically of why that’s anti-intellectual because it sounds like many of these things you’re talking about are intellectual on steroids of trying to figure out ways. Is it just because that was happening in isolation from mainstream culture that it became more ingrown or is there some other explanation that’s more connected to the lack of authority that ends up being perceived at least by outsiders as anti-intellectualism because you’re not involved in our specific conversations?

Worthen:

I’ll try to talk about maybe one piece of this really complicated story. If you look at the early responses to the first waves of quite radical higher biblical criticism coming out of German universities in the late 19th century, certainly, it’s a story of engagement. It’s not a story of conservative Protestant academics running away, but you do see early on the suggestion that the pretty firm belief that any allowance for departure from traditional readings of scripture, any willingness to treat parts of scripture as a historical artifact like we would treat other texts quickly becomes a slippery slope. We cannot trust the endeavors of these scholars because whatever their declarations, they’re coming out of an atheistic set of presuppositions. So the argument developed very early in the history of American evangelical responses to European biblical criticism. We do not have to engage with unwelcome evidence or claims if we don’t like the presuppositions of our interlocutor.

Now, awareness of one’s worldview and presuppositions is a totally reasonable dimension of a conversation to consider, but to early on develop this intellectual habit of stopping engagement because on the basis of presuppositions and not recognizing that there may still indeed, despite our different presuppositions, be a shared body of objective empirical data out in the world that we can have an argument about. That sows the seeds of a pretty serious intellectual problem because that’s ideally the core thing that any discipline in the modern university is doing often badly, often with many failures, but agreeing, whatever our metaphysics, to look at a body of evidence out in the world and have a conversation about it. So I think that’s one way in which that history particular to conservative American Protestantism created a set of intellectual habits that can backfire.

Stump:

Gotcha. So that quote that I just gave there ended with a little bit about outsiders skepticism, and right after that in the text, the next line is, “The cult of the Christian worldview is one symptom of the effort by many evangelical leaders to fold competing sources of authority into one.” Now, when I was preparing for this and came across that line with outsiders skepticism and the cult of the Christian worldview, I decided to go down that rabbit hole known as ChatGPT, and I asked it—

Worthen:

You would fail my class.

Stump:

—I asked it, “Are there any examples of outside journalists or investigators looking into a cult and then becoming persuaded to join that cult themselves?” It’s answer, are you ready for this? “There are no widely documented cases of journalists or professional investigators joining cults they were initially investigated that are publicly known and verified. This rarity is likely due to the professional ethics and critical distance maintained by journalists and investigators in their work. The closest examples one might find involve individuals who, through their personal journeys, have become involved with the groups they were studying, but these cases more commonly pertain to academic researchers.” So let’s hear—

Worthen:

So does that suggest that there’s some support group I can join? [laughter]

Stump:

Former Outsider Skeptics Anonymous I think it’s called. But let’s transition a little bit to some of that personal journey, and I’d like to introduce this too with another quotation from Apostles of Reason. This one is from page one, “American evangelicals, so maligned as anti-intellectual, have a habit of taking certain ideas very seriously. True conversion is, of course, a matter of the heart. One cannot cogitate all the way to Jesus. However, if your heart is right with Christ, your head must be in order too.” So what’s the story of your heart and your head that led you to commit your life to Christ?

Worthen:

When you read that line back to me, I hear myself daring God, and I suppose you need to be careful when you do that because if anyone cogitated their way to Jesus, it’s probably me in a way that I did not believe was possible. I was in a place of a lazy and apathetic but unsatisfied agnosticism up until about a year and a half ago. I had made, in the time since undergrad, I had made a couple of extremely incompetent attempts to become a Christian, mostly high church respectable denominations like Orthodoxy. Had an Anglo-Catholic, serious Anglo-Catholic phase. It just didn’t take, and I never got to the point where I could even call myself a theist, but I was never happy as an agnostic. Eventually, I would get my act together and eventually become Catholic. That’s what I thought, but I wasn’t working on it as a project or anything.

I was continuing to do journalism alongside my teaching a year and a half ago, and I’ll just tell the short version. You can pull out any bits you want. I pitched to an editor of a new online magazine focused on North Carolina affairs, an article about a giant megachurch in my area, the Summit Church, and the Pastor JD Greear, who recently finished his term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I envisioned a typical story about using this church as a way into the complexities of the culture wars, yada, yada.

So I was going about my business doing my reporting. I had a long, really good interview with JD in March of 2022 in which the conversation mostly went as I thought it would, except that I did find myself breaking my carefully prepared script at one point and saying, “Is there really any room in your church for people who doubt?” because I was just so amazed by the relentlessness of Summit, by just the confidence and just sending out the most missionaries of any church in the denomination for the past 10 years running this thing. These people really believe this stuff in a way that just smacked me in the face in a new way, but I don’t know. That led to me disclosing that I was not a believer. We struck up an email correspondence afterward that then turned into me asking questions I didn’t know I had, nothing profound, just the predictable questions.

Stump:

Like what?

Worthen:

Focused on essentially, “Why are your claims about the gospels any more plausible than the claims that Muslims make about Muhammad and the Quran or that Mormons make about Joseph Smith?” JD would often say, “That’s a really good question,” and take a few days and then send me back these thousands of words in length responses with proper citations. He, very early on, was very clever and flattered me by saying that he had discussed my case with Tim Keller and asked Tim’s advice on books to recommend because at a certain point after these emails had been going back and forth, I said, “I’m an academic. I like homework. Just give me a homework assignment.” So he said, “Well, Tim and I talked.”

I think then I started to realize that I was being evangelized and that I had never been evangelized before, which is an odd thing. I spent my whole adult life in and around mostly evangelicals interviewing them for various things, and the most I ever would’ve gotten would be, and I am always transparent about my own views. If I asked, maybe at the end of a conversation, the person would ask me and I would say, “Well, I’m a seeker, I’m agnostic,” whatever, and perhaps they would say, “Well, I’ll pray for you,” but never did it go beyond that.

I recognized evangelism is a distasteful countercultural thing in our current environment. It’s outrageous to tell someone who may or may not be a semi-stranger that their worldview is totally wrong, let alone that they’re bound for damnation. It’s no wonder that people don’t do it very often, but JD does it a lot. I think he’s always, as he puts it, running the magnet over the sand just to see if something comes up.

The other important thing was that from the beginning, we made fun of each other and leaned into one another’s stereotypes. We were able to bounce back and forth between extremely serious discussions concerning mainly the historicity of the resurrection and just teasing each other. So it happened in the context of a friendship, which I think most successful evangelism usually does.

So I was in this. I had a very intense several months of reading and taking notes. It was almost like writing another master’s thesis in which I was working my way through just a lot of big books by Christian apologists, but also by some of the most famous skeptics. I read a lot by my dear colleague at UNC, Bart Ehrman, and also, I was working on the problem of cosmology of Francis Collins’ book. The Language of God was really important for me, and continuing to my horror to go to this megachurch. I’d always thought of myself as a proper high church snob, but I just felt like I was in this tractor beam and I kept going to Summit and praying. Excited, I thought, “Gosh, maybe I’ll become a Christian,” but surely you can’t just read a lot of footnotes and then at a certain point become a Christian.

Surely, there’s got to be some … I don’t need an apparition of Jesus at the foot of my bed, but there’s got to be some warm and fuzzy something, but I just got nothing. I would occasionally have … I had a Zoom conversations and email correspondence with Tim Keller, and he was a really helpful counterweight to the Baptist intensity of JD. Every other conversation with JD would end in an altar call, basically. Tim was just so relaxed.

I remember the first time I told, and I explained myself to Tim and he sat back and, of course, he was dying of cancer, but he had no interest in talking about that. He was totally focused on me and my issues. He said, “You know, Molly, I don’t know. Maybe this time you’ll become a Christian. Maybe you’ll just stall out again. I don’t know,” and I was like, “Are you using reverse psychology on me? So strange,” but he made me feel non-alien. Well, JD too was very comforting, but also interjected some real realism when I would express my frustration and not having the mystical magical experience. He would say, “God makes everyone in a certain way. You have to accept what He gives you.”

I would’ve called and still call myself philosophically a pragmatist in the William James line, where I strive to hold my assumptions lightly and to be willing to revise my theory of the universe based on new information. So I got to the point and, really, it was after reading Francis’ book, Language of God, was the tipping point. I was looking back at my notes, actually, and after writing up my reactions to that book, I wrote at the bottom, “I have the sinking feeling I’m running out of excuses.”

I realized that the big hurdle, and I think this is true for a lot of skeptics who come from a background like mine, the big hurdle was my anti-supernaturalist bias that just made it very hard to accept even the most well-argued cases for the historicity of the resurrection, but I became less and less confident that I was entitled to that bias and persuaded that maybe the experience I wanted is the experience of faith and that requires entering the relationship.

So I don’t the typical evangelical-ese ways of talking about conversion. I can’t tell you that I met Jesus. My process was so cerebral. I became persuaded that the resurrection is the best explanation for the evidence that we have and, therefore, I have to reckon with everything that follows from that. I’m still assimilating all of that, but that’s what resulted in me being in that tank on the stage of the megachurch while the worship band played with the Jesus in My Place T-shirt, where I had never thought I would be in August of 2022.

Stump:

Well, hallelujah, say we in the audience. [applause]

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

Stump:

I want to push into a couple of the elements of what you said there because we are BioLogos. I’m contractually obligated to ask you about sciencey kinds of things. Were there intellectual hurdle? So just so you know, the second one I want to get to is the resurrection in particular, but I wonder if there’s anything on the science side of thing, and you said you were reading deeply in cosmology and trying to understand. When you talk about a worldview change, the cosmos is a pretty significant part in that, where we came from, how we got here. Were there specific intellectual challenges related to science? Did you have this idea that science was going to preclude you from converting to Christianity and this supernaturalism? I wonder if you’d talk even a little bit about some of the conversations you had with other people. So Praveen, who was supposed to be with us here tonight, I know was one of your interlocutors along the way in working through some of these issues, but what in particular related to science would you say played a role in this?

Worthen:

Well, I was not a theist, and I think I was afraid of embracing a god of the gaps. When I set out on these investigations, I guess I was not persuaded that religion wasn’t simply a bandaid over the dimensions of the origins of the universe that scientists don’t yet understand, and I didn’t want to run to it. I was deeply afraid of converting out of cowardice, out of cowardice because I didn’t want to face the void, out of cowardice because I didn’t like the uncertainty.

So that meant that I had to do some reading about how Christians have reckoned with that. Of course, I knew who Francis Collins was. I had studied his role in evangelical conversations. I knew Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s fantastic book, The Anointed, which talks about dynamics of intellectual authority and American evangelicalism and contrasts Francis’ role with, say, someone like Ken Ham, and so knew him in that context. I had always assumed though that he came out of a Christian background.

So what was so powerful for me about Language of God was not only his extremely clear elucidation of … I recognized some of the familiar arguments about the cosmological constants and the consequences of the Big Bang for the statistical likelihood of randomness generating what we have these things, but for me, it was extra powerful as he wove in to his own autobiography in that book. I learned there that, indeed, he came out of a non-believing liberal background that he, in fact, when he was at UNC, he had lived … I learned this later in a Zoom conversation with him. He lived on the same block that I live on currently. So this drove home for me that even though I like to think of myself as someone who is always evaluating arguments on their merits, indeed, the autobiography of the one doing the arguing made a huge difference for me in that case and made me hear it in a different way.

Another book that was very important to me was David Bentley Hart’s Experience of God in which he talks about the way in which the usual atheist attack on theism is not actually an argument against a God that any of the great Abrahamic religions believe in. It’s an argument against a demiurge who is ontologically part of our reality, and that’s not at all what we’re talking about. I suppose I came to the conclusion that my fear of god of the gaps was a little bit of a category error in this case because no matter what scientists discover in the centuries to come, the best that they will ever do is to push the goalposts back further. So say they discovered that there was some state prior to the Big Bang. Well, then, okay, how did we get there?

Stump:

Where did that come from?

Worthen:

So I realized that that posture, I’m just saying science will solve this and find the answer, if not in my lifetime, is not satisfying.

Stump:

About the resurrection then, we’re recording here one week into Lent, and just last weekend, you wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about Lent. I once read NT Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God for Lent, and I told that to Tom Wright and he didn’t seem very impressed that his magnum opus was a self-flagellating Lenten discipline, but it’s a really big book and it’s really dense, and those 40 days plus Sundays of reading through that, I became as convinced as anything of a historical nature of what you’re saying, that the best evidence for particularly why the first generation of Christians wrote what they did and acted the way they did was because they really believed that Jesus had resurrected from the dead.

Maybe that wasn’t so hard for someone like me who was born into evangelicalism and grew up hearing it all my life, but I know you went through that big book too. How does it sit with you now to be the intelligent coastal elite, 21st century academic who believes that this guy 2,000 years ago was crucified and was dead for three days and then resurrected to inaugurate or at least a point toward the kingdom of God eternally?

Worthen:

Well, I’ve become convinced that it’s no more bizarre theory of the universe than any of the other options, and I’ve come to see secular materialism, especially with the elaboration of multiverse theory and this thing is just as strange. So that gives me some comfort that we’re all oddballs, just some of us are more self-aware about our oddness than others, but are you asking what was so persuasive to me about The Resurrection of the Son of God?

Stump:

Yeah, and part of it, I’m curious of this head in the heart business you talked about earlier, and whether one really does get questions answered and that’s a sufficient reason then for saying, “Oh, I guess I am a believer.”

Worthen:

Right, and it’s something I understand a little differently as I’ve had some time to think about it. Part of the power of that book is its sheer size. The way in which … It is a slog. Every so often, I would read maybe 100 pages and then I would have to go back to that one chapter that Tim Keller has in Reason for God, where he summarizes NT Wright.

Stump:

Cliffs Notes for—

Worthen:

Yeah, I have to go back to that to get oriented like, “Why am I in the weeds of Second Temple Jewish views of afterlife?” The way he unfolds in such vivid, nuanced detail the cultural and intellectual context of the first Christians and makes clear that the different theories in the Greco-Roman pagan context and the Jewish context of what the afterlife could involve, the various fates for souls and bodies after death, and that makes a very persuasive case that whatever the first Christians might have imagined in their state of trauma after the crucifixion, we can be pretty confident would not have been this thing.

Stump:

They weren’t expecting it.

Worthen:

They weren’t expecting this. I think, too, NT Wright pricked me in an effective way when he accused many modern scholars, secular scholars of what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery, just a kind of implicit, usually not declared sense that these people back then, they would believe anything, and he just systematically dismantles that idea that they would’ve believed anything. He also, as much as he is very confident what he’s laying out, he says somewhere I think toward the end that he recognizes he’s not laying before the reader evidence that makes it a slam dunk case. He’s laying before you evidence that ought to be at least a little bit intriguing and invite you to investigate more.

What I have come to appreciate since then, especially as I have goaded various good humored friends and relatives into reading some of this stuff and it does not have the same effect on them, is that I have to recognize that I was already in a place, like the Holy Spirit already had me walking in the direction of Jesus before I even picked up those books. I am persuaded by Tim Keller’s, I think, repeated line, some of his later apologetics work, the podcast that he recorded the year before he died, that the desires have to come first. You need to speak into a person’s desire and get them wanting Christianity to be true before they can be open to the evidence.

I desperately though could not think … It would’ve been fatal for me to think of myself as wanting Christianity to be true because, remember, I didn’t want to be a coward. So I remember sometimes I would go to church and JD would preach about life after death or one and of the nice things you get to believe in if you’re a Christian, and it would make me angry. I felt that he was trying to bribe me. I didn’t want that. I needed it to feel like a cold and rational exposition of the evidence. As much as possible, God made that path for me, although it has meant that I continue to feel deeply insecure about my own faith journey. I hate the word journey, but because it just doesn’t look like very many other people’s.

I will say though that along the way of this, I was really reading scripture with a new enthusiasm. I’ve always read it out of professional duty but always felt I’d rather be reading TS Elliot or something, but for the first time, I was having a new set of emotional reactions to the gospels, specifically to the gospel of Mark, specifically to the healing narratives in which I was just seeing for the first time, number one, the way in which Jesus meets each individual absolutely on his or her own terms, but secondly, all the strange details, the spitting into the dirt and rubbing mud on the eyes, the guy who-

Stump:

It didn’t work the first time, he had to do it again.

Worthen:

Right. I see people, but they look like trees.

Stump:

[simultaneous] Like trees.

Worthen:

Just reading this and having the reaction that CS Lewis records I think in Surprised by Joy, where he says, “Listen, I’ve read a lot of mythology. I know what that genre feels like. This isn’t that.”

Stump:

This isn’t that.

Worthen:

“This is human authors reckoning with something that they saw and that happened that they’re trying to capture in all of its weirdness.” Just as NT Wright’s book helped me see the sheer weirdness of the resurrection, as I was beginning to read the Bible again, it was the weirdness of the gospels that arrested me and that I think drew me in further.

Stump:

I wonder if you might reflect a little bit more on the nature of faith, and I’ll ask it drawing some from my own discipline of philosophy because I’ve always been fascinated with the question in philosophy, which is whether we’re doxastic voluntarists or doxastic involuntarists, so big fancy technical words to say, can you choose what you believe or do you find yourself believing things, maybe not against your will, but not as an act of will? Then particularly in relation to faith, do you understand this commitment that you’ve made as just a recognition that your beliefs have changed or is it something more active in that you say, “My beliefs kind of come and go”?

I just read something on the plane on the way here, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem about believing and not believing and this happening over and over again, but in your own case, and I guess I won’t ask you to speak for all of us as though it’s everybody’s journey is the same, but was it a recognition that, “I have started believing this,” or is it, “Okay. I’m all in here and we’ll see how the beliefs and doubts and uncertainties align with this commitment that I’ve made”? Does that question even have any purchase on your own experience?

Worthen:

Well, I have to talk myself into it again every day. It’s all ridiculous. Let’s be honest. I was encouraged. I had a conversation with a colleague who’s a very serious Catholic, has been his whole life, and he said, “Listen, Molly, I’m an agnostic every morning before my first cup of coffee.” It was comforting and discouraging, and I have more and more conversations with thoughtful Christians who make it clear that you never banish the doubts. They are part of your spiritual immune system is the metaphor that Tim Keller used, that they’re like the antibodies. You have to accept that they will always be present and that they’re not wholly damaging if you know how to respond to them.

I feel as if I have agreed on the terms of my own intellectual integrity. I have agreed to follow my own methods of investigating the world to their conclusion, even if that conclusion is really alien and uncomfortable, and that does not place me in an end state of any kind. It’s simply inaugurated, I guess a new continual, I hope, faithful investigating in which I do, I should be clear, try to balance what is an unhealthy addiction to apologetics. I’m basically like a younger female version of Lee Strobel. That’s really how I’m wired, but that is one slice of the faith I recognize.

So I really try to balance that with all the other things that don’t come naturally, prayer and reading scripture in a way that is prayerful and not totally scholarly, but it is really hard to turn off my critical faculty. I’m constantly, I’ll have a glimmer of Christiany feeling and then I’ll immediately step outside of it and be like, “Isn’t that interesting how I’m being socialized by the ladies in my Bible study?” I feel like a scientist who has entered her own experiment. There are some days when I find that really stimulating, but often, I wish I could just turn it off. I envy people who have grown up in it and have a, I don’t know, just have all of these habits and instincts that I’m having to learn from scratch, but that’s how it is, right?

Stump:

So what’s the terminology you use then? You said you’re not particularly fond of some of the evangelical ease like, “I met Jesus,” or “I said earlier commit your life to Christ.” When you talk about your faith or perhaps just the internal dialogue that you have, how do you describe it? What is it that you have done? What is it that has happened to you?

Worthen:

I believe the Nicene Creed is the most plausible theory of the universe, and none of us are entitled to any certainty no matter what our worldview is. So I walk forward on the basis of my evaluation of the evidence as fallible as that evaluation is.

Stump:

Your faith itself isn’t somehow vacillating along with your critical faculty of how much you can say that you fully believe this right now. Is it?

Worthen:

It certainly vacillates, yeah. It doesn’t take much at all to destabilize it.

Stump:

To destabilize your belief, but is that the same thing as your faith? That’s the question I’m asking, I guess.

Worthen:

Well, you’re making me think about some interviews I’ve been doing lately collaborating with a social psychologist to investigate how American Christians think about divine forgiveness as opposed to forgiveness between humans. So I’ve been doing these Zoom interviews with Christians across different traditions, and one of my questions for them is, can a Christian know that he or she is forgiven? So something you can know in some visceral way, is there a feeling it comes with?

What they have all said to me across from Catholics to Pentecostals and everything in between is some version of, “Certainly, there are days where I don’t feel forgiven, but I have to just decide that I have decided to stand on this truth claim, and that’s where I’m going to stand even on days where I don’t feel it.” CS Lewis, for the most part, I don’t find Mere Christianity to be this very powerful apologetic intervention that I think many people think it is. For me, the space trilogy is absolutely his most powerful apologetic work, but there is one passage in Mere Christianity that really nails something important for me, and that’s where he says, “Listen, when I was an agnostic, I had days where I was uncertain too and where I doubted my agnosticism, and faith is the decision to stay committed to a set of propositions about the world that you worked your way to on your best day.”

I’m paraphrasing him. This is not exactly what he says, but you’ve made this decision based on what you trust to be a reasonable evaluation of your world and the evidence to stand in this place, and you’re going to have days that are not your best days, but if you don’t want your worldview to vacillate along with your indigestion, then you’ve got to just decide to stay standing there even on the bad days. That is my understanding of what the Christian life is, but I’m a spiritual infant. I bring all kinds of book knowledge to this, but that only gets me so far.

Stump:

So that word you used a couple of times in there, commitment, I think is how I have come to understand very much of what you’re talking about there to say my entrance into the faith was a commitment, to say, “I am all in on this,” and on my best days, I believe it wholeheartedly and it’s joyous, and on other days, I’m still committed to it, whether I can suss it all out or not. I know we’re in Baptist country here and there’s separate kinds of questions about, say, eternal security or how all of this caches out, but from our perspective and our understanding of it, I think understanding faith is commitment in that sense goes a lot further than the popular understanding of, “Faith is when I just say I believe something and don’t necessarily have evidence for it, I just have faith in it,” but to say, “I’m committed to this world, I’m committed to seeing the world through these biblical lenses,” that is not unreasonable, but given the fact that there are competing explanations, and this is the next question I wanted to come to a little bit, I can see perhaps how other people don’t find it as compelling as I did.

Do you see any way of explaining that thing of people who are looking at largely the same evidence but come to very different conclusions and end up committing themselves in different ways of seeing this evidence that at least on our best days seems so persuasive to us?

Worthen:

I think you can go through these debates, and sometimes you can identify clear cases where one party is choosing to emphasize certain bodies of evidence and the other is not, but as a broad principle, my big insight into this came on a weekend when I decided I would just spend the whole weekend on my laptop deep in the academic journal databases that I have access to at UNC, just reading as many articles debating Tom Wright’s book and the broader questions, the Jesus seminar and its aftermath as I could possibly pack in without my family going bonkers.

I hoped, I don’t know, I thought it would be deeply clarifying that I would come out the other side really with a winner and a loser, and instead, it just seemed to me over and over again that scholars came into the debate with a set of presuppositions and interpreted the evidence because there’s really not … We’re talking about 2,000 years ago, right? It’s not like the period I study where there’s loads and loads of evidence. We’re always finding new evidence. It’s much less common in the case of biblical archeology or the history of textural transmission to find anything new. So these are debates over a tiny body of evidence, but it seemed very much that people approach the evidence with a certain framework and interpret the evidence to fit that.

I would say this to my husband who’s also a historian, and he looked at me with horror and said, “Molly, you’re turning into Francis Schaeffer. It’s all presuppositions,” which is a bit unfair, and I have admiration for Francis Schaeffer. I also think there are ways in which he was not the model of scholarship that we should strive for, but I will say I have become more sensitive to the classic evangelical argument in the context of higher education, especially, that the presuppositions do matter.

I think personal autobiographies matter a lot. I think while there are some things that I struggle to understand because I’m not an insider, in many ways it’s an enormous advantage to be coming at the claims of Christianity as an outsider with no personal baggage, no relationships, no negative experience in some childhood church dragging down my ability to engage with the evidence on its own terms. I have the luxury of a pretty cold and professional, as much as that’s possible, the Holy Spirit makes sure you can’t be entirely in that mode, but I can put aside considerations that might impinge for many people.

So I think that’s part of the difference as well, but there are … I think we should not shy away from saying that there are good arguments and there are bad arguments. I was persuaded by Tom Wright and others because I thought they were responsible, measured claims about the evidence that did not get out over their skis, that saw the limits of the evidence, and were not trying to make claims beyond what they could support. It passed the smell test for me as a historian.

Stump:

You’ve not been particularly quiet or shy about talking of this conversion that you’ve gone through. Has that led to conversations in the history department or among colleagues that are saying, “Molly, what happened to you? What? You’re a Southern Baptist now? How has that gone?”

Worthen:

People are conflict averse as general rule, and I’m not on social media at all, so I only hear from people who talk to me or send me an email. It’s been hard. It was a complicated decision to speak publicly. Partly, I had practical considerations. Just because of what I write about, there were already, even before I spoke publicly about it, I was running into cases where I was working on a newspaper article and my editor knew about my conversion, and he was beginning to ask, “Is this an article where you need to put your cards on the table?” My first reaction was, “How interesting that when I wasn’t agnostic, you didn’t—”

Stump:

You didn’t have to put those cards on the table.

Worthen:

“—you had no feeling that I ought to do that.” Also though, too, in my context at UNC, I’ve become really focused on questions of intellectual diversity and increasingly concerned about the tendency in our culture at this moment in time to really view the world in terms of friends and enemies and make a lot of assumptions about the people we see on our team and the other team. I thought, “Well, gee, if I’m serious about intellectual diversity, if I’m serious about being able to talk through first order questions,” and I’m really worried that the universities are steering away from first order questions. They’re so focused on applied knowledge and on not offending anyone. “If I believe those things, I need to act accordingly.”

Also, I’m so interested in it. I’m so interested in these conversations about the truth claims of Christianity in conversion stories, in faith as a mode, as an epistemological mode. I’m not publishing on it yet, but I at least want to be able to talk about it not on some bizarre evangelistic tour. I don’t think of myself as an evangelist at all, although I had the insight recently that evangelism, to some extent, is just telling people what happened to you.

Stump:

Bearing witness.

Worthen:

Right, and so that I can do, but it’s a decision I have to constantly revisit because I have a lot of people in my life who wish I had kept it to myself.

Stump:

Let me ask you one last question by quoting yourself to you again from the end of your book, Apostles of Reason. You say, “The term evangelical mind conjures images of a creature of many faces sharing one brain or at least a movement of people who think and act in concert. No metaphor could be further from the truth. This story of shifting and conflicting authorities, evolving alliances and feuds, and debate over the essence of Christian identity means that if we continue to speak of an evangelical mind, if we continue to use the word evangelical at all, and we will, we must allow for room for diversity and internal contradiction, and for those who love the label and those who hate it.” Which of those two camps, those who love the label and those who hate it, which of those two camps do you find yourself closer to these days?

Worthen:

It’s like saying, do you love oxygen or do you hate oxygen? It just is. I accept the label. I accept the label for myself. Even before I was a Christian, I always thought that the debates over whether we should do away, we should banish the word from our vocabulary were a little bit silly. We’re stuck with it. I accept that everyone feels the need to attach 17 adjectives to it if they’re going to use it. I do have more sympathy now. I thought when I was a journalist coming at all of this from a secular outsider perspective that I understood the desire I would frequently encounter among my sources. I would be approaching them as I wanted to get information about their specific church, their corner of the subculture, and often they would say, “Yes, yes, I’m in that Presbyterian church, but I’m a Christian.”

Now I will say I really understand it. I understand that in a new way as I struggle to get secular people in my life to not see my conversion in political terms and to really hear me when I talk about this process of coming to understand the claims about the resurrection in a new way. At the same time, I think the word evangelical in the way, the Bebbington Quadrilateral, my own attempt at a definition in that book which focuses on the shared questions, how do I develop a relationship with Jesus, how do I reconcile faith and reason, how do I live out this personal faith in a secular, pluralistic public square, that’s how I would frame my own situation right now. So I’m not afraid of the label.

Stump:

Well, thank you, Molly. Thank you for your work, your academic work that predated your conversion that even now I think so insightfully holds up a mirror to our own experience, and thank you for following the evidence and allowing your heart to follow your head and embrace this, and thank you for talking to us here tonight. Audience, would you join me in thanking Molly Worthen? [applause]

Credits

Colin Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you’ll also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

Molly Worthen headshot

Molly Worthen

Molly Worthen is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a freelance journalist. She received her PhD from Yale University. Her research focuses on North American religious and intellectual history. Her most recent book, Apostles of Reason, examines American evangelical intellectual life since 1945, especially the internal conflicts among different evangelical subcultures. She created an audio and video course for The Great Courses on the history of global Christianity since the Reformation, and an audio course for Audible, “Charismatic Leaders Who Remade America.”
 
Worthen writes regularly about religion, politics, and higher education for the New York Times and has also written for the New Yorker, Slate, the Atlantic, and other publications. She is currently writing a book about the history of political and religious charisma in America.

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