Thinking matters

The world is changing. I feel it in my fingers. I feel it in my toes.

Anti-intellectualism is sweeping through Western civilization and there is no high ground, no safe haven from the rushing tides. Constant technological advance is making modern life easier and more convenient every day, and while there are definite benefits to this, there is also a clear downside.

Shaking the lucky-8 ball of Google whenever a question arises has taken the effort out of thinking, and the ease with which modern people can get the answers has actually been demonstrated to have a negative impact on intellectual health. Even universities, the institutions of knowledge and learning are not free from this unstoppable force, albeit in a different way. While culture at large falls prey to not thinking hard about much at all, many academics have fallen prey to only thinking one way, blind and deaf to the cogent and coherent alternatives of opponents.

As with most cultural contagions that ravish the Western mind, the Church also falls victim, despite our allegiance to Another Land. I have seen this most notably in the following ways:

  • A separation between theology and piety (what you believe and how you live)
  • Redefining childlike faith as childish faith
  • A disdain for the past and the history of the Church
  • An over-emphasis on being led subjectively and directly by the Holy Spirit, to the neglect of his promised means of grace (the Word preached)
  • The belief that doctrine divides (an example being the existence of denominations)

I don’t sound the alarm as a concerned scholar, sitting in my ivory tower and nodding at all your indiscretions, but rather, as Mark Noll put it, a “wounded lover” of the intellectual gold mine that is Christianity. Apart from missing out on having your mind absolutely blown by the truths that the Bible teaches, an aversion to thinking in the Christian life is actually a sin. The command to love the Lord our God with all our hearts does not stop there, but is a call to devote every fibre of our beings to the pursuit of grace and knowledge, given to us through Jesus Christ. Attempting to love God without knowledge of Him is tantamount to attempting to love your partner or spouse while avoiding learning any of their hobbies, joys or deepest fears.

The way I see it, anti-intellectualism in Christians will result in three things:

  1. Stunted spiritual growth
  2. A hollow worldview
  3. Robbing God of glory that is all His.

I pray that you will join me as over my following few articles, I attempt to delve into these consequences, demonstrating not only the harm they are causing us, but also the joy and satisfaction that we are missing out on.

The Incompatibility of Anti-intellectualism and the Fullness of the Spirit

[pk_box width=”600″]”The fact that Jesus called the Holy Spirit ‘the Spirit of truth,’ and gave such a prominent place to his teaching ministry, is of great importance in the anti-intellectual cultures of the world. I do not hesitate to say that anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible, because the Spirit with whom we claim to be filled or desire to be filled is the Spirit of truth. In consequence where the Holy Spirit is free to work, truth matters.”[/pk_box]

John R. W. Stott in “Biblical Expositions” (The Anglican Communion and Scripture), page 27.

[Source: Joseph E. Gorra]

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll

Few sentences have had as great an impact on evangelicalism in the late twentieth century than the opening of Mark Noll’s 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” he wrote, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” For many, the book was a wake-up call to the anti-intellectualism of the church and the state of evangelical scholarship.

Seventeen years later, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame returns to the topic in a new book released this month: Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

Read more

On Intellectual Defeatism and the Retreat into Mystery

For myself I’m ok with “mystery” in theology. I think that is a natural consequence of being a finite being trying to understand an infinite God. It is also a result of the purpose of the Bible not being philosophical theology. Now when theological difficulties arise because Biblical revelation is ambiguous on a certain subject,[1] the temptation is to retreat into mystery. You hear phrases like “It’s a mystery.” Though I’m not against “mystery” I do often cringe when that is said. That’s because “mystery” here can be used and understood in two very different manners and entail two very different responses.

First, it can mean that we should accept that resolution to the problem is actually (metaphysically) impossible. That is to say, one must assent to believe mutually exclusive propositions.

This would be acceptable if it were not for the fact that any theology that is logically incoherent is also false. Not only is it false, but its necessarily false. For example, the spoken statement “I don’t speak a word of English,” is logically incoherent and therefore necessarily false. This first option is unacceptable for at least two reasons. One, we have an epistemic duty to believe that which is true. Two, assenting to believe that which can be shown to be necessarily false is irrational.

Second, it can mean we should accept that the resolution to the problem is simply unknown at present. This second option is to be preferred over the first, but that is not to say that we should default to this position at the first sign of difficulty. That would be intellectual laziness.

There are many reasons to continue to probe deep theological conundrums. For one, the discipline of study; of perseverance in thinking hard until a resolution is found is tremendously satisfying on a personal level, and yields colossal benefits for ministry. It is the glory of kings to seek out a matter (Prov 25:2) Such a project should be considered worship, for it is just one way to love the Lord with your mind. (Matt 22:37-40) Second, it glorifies God. Satisfying answers to profound and penetrating questions will always unveil the beauty and perfection of God and his revelation to us. Third, (as If those reasons were not enough,) it is one way to show respect and honour to our brothers who have gone before us. The Apostolic Fathers of the church shed endless hours of sweat – even blood – to enshrine in creeds resolutions to the difficult questions they were facing, and so give us a biblically faithful, philosophically robust and intellectually respectable faith.

Now it may be that we will never discover the perfect answer. It may be that after a prolonged period of study we despair of ever finding resolution, and so throw in the proverbial white towel. This, I think, is an acceptable option. (Indeed, humility may require it.) In the absence of a suitable solution and if the text so demands, we shall always have the option of holding seemingly disparate themes in tension. But that is not to say that there is no resolution available already – or yet to be formulated, and certainly not to say there can be no possible resolution at all.

For clarification, I am not against mystery in theology. I am against “mystery” being used as a mask to hide laziness, intellectual defeatism, anti-intellectualism and irrationality.

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[1] Such as how Jesus can be both God and Man, or how God can be both one and three at the same time, the issue of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility that is the flashpoint in the Calvinist/Arminian debate, the problem of evil, etc.

The danger of intellectual compromise

In his massive work on postmodernism and evangelicalism, Don Carson drew attention to the perils and pitfalls of the Christian community’s navigation of pluralism. Although the Gagging of God is no longer as perhaps contemporary as it once was (his Christ and Culture Revisited or Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church might be slightly more relevant) I still find myself returning to it as a source of invaluable insight and and clarity on broader cultural issues and theology. Today we might be witnessing a greater vibrancy and growth of Christian thinkers in philosophy, but I believe Carson’s words should still resonate with us:

In other words, I worry less about the anti-intellectualism of the less educated sections of evangelicalism than I do about the biblical and theological illiteracy, or astonishing intellectual compromise, among its leading intellectuals. Evangelicalism has many sons and daughters whose primary vocation is the life of the mind: writers, thinkers, scholars, academicians, researchers — in field after field. They are not inferior to other thinkers in similar fields. But with rare exceptions they have not made the impact they might have because their grasp of biblical and theological truth has rarely extended much beyond Sunday school knowledge. In the main, they think like secularists and bless their insights with the odd text or biblical cliché. They cannot quite be accepted by the secular guilds (unless of course they keep their mouths shut completely about heir faith), and they cannot revolutionize intellectual life in the West because they do not think like consistent Christians who take on the status quo and seek to replace it with something better.

Carson is the research professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and the author of over 40 books on theology, hermeneutics, and Christian living .