“We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization”.[i]
These words from theologian, R.C. Sproul, seem a harsh diagnosis. Anti-intellectual seems an odd adjective for the age that has seen numerous advancements in the fields of science, politics, and human rights. University attendance in New Zealand is rising with every new year, and yet here is Sproul arguing that these statistics do little to stem the tide of anti-intellectualism.
So what then is meant by anti-intellectualism? If it doesn’t mean anti-scientific (as demonstrated by the leaps of mankind in scientific understanding and technological development), and it doesn’t mean anti-academic (as demonstrated by the authoritative role tertiary education continues to play in the Western world), what does it mean?
Sproul argues that anti-intellectualism is defined as the general distaste of, and aversion to, acute reasoning and solid logic in developing good answers to big questions.[ii] We live in a society today where a particular argument is deemed truthful not because it is true, and has shown to be so through logic and reasoning, but rather because it is helpful. You can choose your various beliefs and convictions from here and there, like a greedy and uncomprehending child running for the Pick N’ Mix. Little do you know that the more you grab, the less sense the final package will make (and the sorer your tummy will be). No serious thought of any kind is put into distinguishing between views of reality that make sense and those that don’t and can’t. The sovereign self reigns supreme. You call the shots on what is true or false often with blaring contradictions. That is anti-intellectualism.
As mentioned in my last article, the Church has allowed itself to be enticed by this way of thinking (or rather lack of thinking), resulting in a body of believers that looks identical to the world. One of the first things to go down the gurgler when the Church falls into this mire is a biblical view of Christian spiritual growth.
What is spiritual growth?
This is a huge question with a vast number of key biblical texts that need to be considered in order to even begin formulating a definition. Due to the nature of this forum, I will only consider one and try to let the text do the talking for me. Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, looking specifically at chapter 12, verses 1 and 2:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In these two verses, we have been graciously given an overview of what the Christian life should look like. Paul appeals to the Roman church to completely devote their lives to God in worship. On what grounds? Because this is the path to acceptance and favour with God? Because then He will love us? No. Paul appeals to them on the basis of God’s mercy, clearly expounded from chapter 1 through 11 of Romans.
- The depraved and sinful state of man, and the just punishment he faces in hell (chapters 1-3)
- The love that God demonstrates in dying for sinners, and the realisation that He loved the same before time itself and will never, ever, let them go (chapters 3-11)
- The brain and heart melting statement that God “justifies the ungodly” (chapter 4).
All of these truths and many more sing out of the pages of Romans, providing the reader with a glimpse into life as it truly is.
The point is this – Paul spends 11 chapters stating truths upon which he will build his calls to live and grow in Christian discipleship (expounded in chapters 12-16). Rather than thinking like the world does, with its countless man-centred ideologies, we are commanded to have our minds continuously renewed with the truths of the gospel; truths that couldn’t be more against the current of modern thought. In other words, Christian discipleship and growth is made possible when we believe the right things/ have correct theology. When we believe, and consequently cherish, the truths of Christianity, our whole lives are transformed. And because I can’t help myself, here are a few other references that make the same point (Matt 22:37, 2 Cor 3:18, Eph 1:15-22, 3:14-20, 2 Peter 3:18).
A false dichotomy is often drawn at this point by many Christians. They see the study and pursuit of good theology as “necessarily lifeless, spiritually draining, and prone to head-knowledge without heartfelt passion”.[iii] A distinction is drawn between theology and devotion; head and heart; being a Pharisee or being a devoted disciple of Christ. The problem with this view is simple – the Bible is silent on it. In fact, God’s Word speaks overwhelmingly in the opposite direction – theology (literally, the knowledge of God) is to be at the core of the Christian life. R.C. Sproul responds to the objection in a way that few people can:
“Christianity is an intellectual faith. This does not mean that it flirts with intellectualism or restricts sainthood to an elite group of gnostic eggheads. But though the Word of God is not limited to intellectuals, its content is addressed to the mind. There is a primacy of the intellect in the Christian life as well as a primacy of the heart… The primacy of the intellect is with respect to order. The primacy of the heart is with respect to importance.”
To conclude, thinking matters. The answers we have (or don’t have) to big questions can tell us a lot about the health of our Christian walks. As demonstrated above, the Bible clearly places the utmost importance on believing the right things before we do the right things. In fact, the things we do (loving our neighbours through acts of mercy, being good at our jobs, stewarding our gifts well) are made right only through the things we believe (that none of those things can save us, but we do them out of gratitude for God’s grace in saving us). If we as the Church allow ourselves to be swayed by the dominant thought patterns of today’s culture, rather than having our minds shaped by the Word of God, then we stunt our spiritual growth and miss out on the intellectually fulfilling and passionate faith that our Father desires for us.
[i] R.C. Sproul, Burning Hearts are not Nourished by Empty Heads, Christianity Today, Sept. 3, 1982
[iii] Trevin Wax, Why You Should Love God With Your Mind, The Gospel Coalition, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2007/08/29/why-you-should-love-god-with-your-mind/, accessed on 1 August, 2014