Adventures in Evangelical Civility, Richard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.
Summary: An intellectual memoir, tracing Mouw’s efforts to find common ground while maintaining reformed and evangelical convictions.
“Evangelical civility.” It sounds like an oxymoron to some. Yet for those who know Richard Mouw’s work, or have the privilege of personal acquaintance with him (which I do not), you know that there is at least one example of a person for whom both terms are true without contradiction.
In this “intellectual memoir,” Mouw shares with us his own intellectual journey and engagement with others. We have closely written chapters on his studies in philosophy and theology, his wrestling with “antithesis” in Van Til, the reformed doctrine of total depravity, and how far common grace goes in providing a basis for common ground with those who are not among the elect.
Mouw also traces his engagements with other thinkers and theologians throughout his career. Perhaps most fascinating was his relationship with John Howard Yoder. What could a Calvinist and Anabaptist find in common? In this and other relationships there were differences to be sure, and yet surprising places of common ground. This is true for him in encounters with Catholics, and more controversially perhaps, with Mormon scholars. Mouw also recounts his work at Calvin College and later as President of Fuller Theological Seminary, a place that allows for “big tent evangelicalism.” In a chapter on being a public intellectual, he writes of a non-Christian academic friend’s challenge:
” ‘You have a problem, Mouw,’ he said. ‘Right now Fuller manages to maintain the highest level of scholarship with a strong connection with grassroots evangelicalism. But that can’t last. Either you are going to start dumbing things down or you are going to move to the ‘ivory tower’ thing.’
In candor I have to admit that my secularist friend may have been a little too optimistic in his reading of the present relationship between the evangelical academy and popular evangelicalism. There is a ‘mind’ within the evangelical movement, but there is a serious gap between what the mind says and how the rest of the body often acts. In our public life, especially in recent years, we evangelicals have consisted embarrassed ourselves by mindless behavior. My friend was offering important advice, however. To the degree that there is some mutual support between the evangelical academy and the grass roots, we need to work hard to keep the mutuality strong. If the creative tension cannot be maintained, the results will be tragic. The two components of evangelicalism need each other. Neither can sustain a healthy evangelical character without the other.”
These words give a good example of the convicted civility in search of common ground that is the thread running through this memoir. In his concluding chapter, he makes an interesting point in noting that conviction and civility are never actually in tension because the Christian is called to both and the practice of civility is itself rooted in conviction. This last chapter exhibited, to me, a great deal of vulnerability. He returns to qualms he expressed in opening pages about whether the quest for common ground concedes too much, and yet argues for this as the way of faithfulness as well as consistent with his own calling in life. And he concludes with the example of one of his predecessors at Fuller, E. J. Carnell, whose call to theological humility in his inaugural address was roundly criticized and whose life ended in a profound depression in a hotel room where ingested an overdose of sleeping pills. He quotes a portion of that address, with which I will conclude:
“Whoever meditates on the mystery of his own life will quickly realize why only God, the searcher of the secrets of the heart, can pass final judgment. We cannot judge what we have no access to. The self is a swirling conflict of fears, impulses, sentiments, interests, allergies and foibles. It is a metaphysical given for which there is no easy rational explanation. Now, if we cannot unveil the mystery of our own motives and affections, how much less can we unveil the mystery in others.”
It has been said more simply, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (Attributed to variously to Plato, Philo, and John Watson). Perhaps this is the common ground of our humanity that calls us to civility in the hard and common battle of life. Mouw’s memoir is indeed an exemplar of civility without sacrificing conviction.