As you can see, from the previous article – Redeeming the Christian Mind, Part 1 – I’m pretty passionate about the Christian mind. I was not always concerned about this facet of Christian living, however.
I became interested in the Christian mind when traveling around South Carolina after my freshman year of college, preaching in a Revival Team sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. At that point, I was a leadership-oriented Christian who had been active in my youth group for several years and active in Christian clubs in college throughout my Freshman year. Permitting a few Christian catch-phrases, I had already “answered a call to ministry.” I was “sold out” for Jesus. I understood that I was “giving my whole heart to God,” but I did not yet understand how my mind was involved in the process.
That summer, traveling and speaking, I found out that I loved preaching and teaching, but I also found that I have a lot to learn. When I’d inspect my sermons I’d realize I was blurring opinions and fact. I’d see where I didn’t know the scripture references or misquoted verses. And I wasn’t sure about the theology behind other claims. I have never had a problem sharing my opinions about things, but if I was going to be preaching and teaching, I better have more than just “opinions” to offer people. Overnight I became an avid reader largely because I was scared that I’d misinform or mislead people. James 3:1 explains that “teachers will be judged more strictly.” I take that verse seriously. teaching is an important and influential role, and we should understand and appreciate how we answer to God for the way we exercise our influence – educating well or poorly, teaching truth or lies, speaking in wisdom or foolishness. Teachers, wither from lecterns or pulpits, have a heavy responsibility that way. I reached out to books so I could have some extra help in lifting that weight of responsibility. To this day, it’s hard to find me traveling anywhere without a book in my hand. If I’m going to preach and teach God’s word, I better know what I’m talking about.
Seminary or Cemetary?
By the end of college, I was applying to go to seminary. Occasionally people would warn me, “Oh, be careful or they’ll educate you away out of the faith!” Or, “Beware of those cemeteries, I mean seminaries.” They were warning me not just against bad teaching (that’s a fair warning), but against something more. Some of those people were cynical about higher education entirely, especially graduate level religious education. They were warning me about formal higher education generally. In some people’s eyes, the academy is no place for a thriving Christian faith. Academics, they thought, was a soul-crushing force; and my heart-life can only survive at the expense of my mental life. To feed my heart the head must starve. That’s anti-intellectualism.
A Note on Intellectual Pride
Now, before I get too far along here, I should admit that we are all prone to make our strengths into idols. For non-academics, we can make an idol out of practical wisdom (street smarts), or relationships, or emotional experiences. Really athletic people risk making an idol out of sports. Great salespeople can make an idol out of sales and marketing. Business people can make their corporate work an idol. Intellectuals and academics are no exception. Intellectuals are just like every other human being – we tend to favor our strengths and find ways to make an idol out of them. We should be alert to this error, and always let Christ and the church correct and critique our efforts. Pride is a sin, no matter our motivations, and despite all our accomplishments. The proper use of any of our gifts, whether business savvy, street smarts, athletic ability, caregiving, friendships, hospitality, or schooling — all of it is properly used as worship of the living God. We should never fashion any of these into false gods.
A Note on Anti-Christian education
I should also point out that the academic world can be very hostile to the Christian faith but not because of Christians can’t handle learning, education, and flexing our intellect. Instead, the true threat of higher education is anti-Christian bias and hostile educators, programs, and institutions who compromise their own academic integrity so they can take pot-shots at the Christian faith, especially the conservative Christian beliefs of many students.
The kind of anti-intellectualism I was encountering was more basic than all that. It was an implied assumption that academics, and professional-level training in the Bible, in theology, in philosophy, was somehow opposed to true Christian ministry. I know the stories of people who never went to school, but they read their bible and became a famous evangelist. And I know the stories of people who abandoned Christianity by the time they finished college. I know that there are real dangers latent within the academy. I admit that college and graduate school, and even some seminaries, can be quite hostile to the historic Christian faith.
But Christianity isn’t a call to safety, it’s a call to war (Ephesians 6:10-17). If Christianity was entirely about keeping Christians safe and secure in their churches then there would not be all that much use for liberal arts colleges and universities or graduate schools. We might not have any need for formal seminaries. We could evacuate most of our bookshelves and keep the Bible and maybe a few prayer books. We could retreat to monasteries or something equivalent, where we focus on shunning all influence from “the world. ” But Christianity is not simply about keeping Christians safe, keeping Christians secure, or keeping our church registries from shrinking. Christianity is not even about Christians. Christianity is about Christ. Christ is the namesake in Christianity. Christ joined our family, becoming human so that we might join His family, the family of God. But make no mistake, our Christian faith is not about this world, or about us, or our safety within it. Christianity is about advancing Christ’s kingdom, and that’s an act of aggression. That’s spiritual warfare.
Paul identifies this spiritual warfare as intellectual combat.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
In this passage, we see that this war zone is largely a battle of ideas. That means you and are on the field without a rifle until we’re finally willing to develop and use our minds in advancing the cause of Christ.
Another Comfortable Christian
In my own personal experience as a Christian, I have seen some of that conflict Paul is describing. But I’ve mostly been a comfortable, affluent, American, Christian. When I’m around Christian friends, or talking to fellow believers in my family, or watching agreeable media, or reading affirming books, I can get a little too comfortable, forgetting how sheltered my experience is within American Christianity.
It can be a real effort for me to stay alert, keep training, and keep my mind sharp and ready for “anyone who asks me to give a reason” for my Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15). I have however come to appreciate Paul’s “combative” language as I’ve seen the war of ideas raging on college campuses today, paraded across news channels, and seeping into popular television, movies, and even sports.
Underneath those anti-intellectual objections, I think, is a deeper spiritual insecurity, an abiding fear that Christian faith can’t survive rigorous intellectual effort. Seminary, grad school, and colleges can destroy the simple Christian faith. If all we need is that mustard seed of faith to be on good terms with Jesus then, supposedly, we don’t need all that extra schooling making us proud, complicated, and faithless. Right?
Intelligent Christian Faith is Good Stewardship
Whatever those other anti-intellectual excuses may say, I still have a mind, and I owe it to God to cultivate my mind to the best of my ability. He is the author, and owner, of everything so I should take care of his stuff (Psalm 24:1). Just as I need to be a good steward of my money, my possessions, my time, my family, my friendships, and my body, I should also be a good steward of my mind.
Stewardship is a deeply biblical concept which, unfortunately, has come to be a nickname for church fundraising campaigns (for example, here, here, and here). Whenever church budgets are reaching the end of their fiscal year, pastors are liable to get nervous and start dedicating weeks and months to the sermons about generosity, charity, tithing, and loving God with all our wallets. And any time there is a new building planned, churches have to divert a lot of energy to fund-raising. But talking about money, directly, is not as marketable to Christian audiences as the word “stewardship.” So, they tend to use words like “capital campaign” and “stewardship” to hide the fact that they are trying to raise money for a new fellowship hall. Of course, things go absolutely bonkers when we start talking about Health and Wealth Churches (AKA, prosperity gospel). But I’m not even talking about those (cult groups) right now.
Money matters. I don’t fault churches for talking about financial stewardship; that’s a biblical concept (Matthew 25:14-30). I do, however, want to point out that we are supposed to be good stewards of all the resources God has entrusted to us, and that’s more than just money, tithing, and charitable donations. We are to be stewards of our intellect. In other words, intelligent Christian faith is good stewardship. In this way, the Apostle Paul can say:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24)
Colossians 3:23-24 is one of my favorite passages because it helps me to understand how everything I say, do, or think should be an act of service to God. In other words, I should be doing everything worshipfully, that is, to the glory of God. If I’m going to read a book, I should read a book with the aim of honoring God in it. If I go to school, I should not expect God to be honored in my laziness, skipping class, or refusing to learn. I should treat school as a showcase for God’s glory, honoring him in what I study, how I study, how I use my studies, and how I conduct myself in the classroom, with peers, with teachers, and on campus, all in the course of my studies. Colossians 3:23-24 reminds me that if I wait till Sunday to start worshipping God then I’ve wasted the other six days of the week. If I reserve “worship” for a few songs on Sunday and Wednesday, a few prayers over meals and at night, or tithes and offerings at church, then I’ve wasted every other activity in the week.
Most Christians and churches I’ve encountered are not overtly anti-intellectual. That is, they will typically find tactful ways to say they support a “good education” and admit that God gave us our minds. If I ask them about stewarding our intellectual resources I hear no objections. I don’t expect to find anti-intellectual errors prominently displayed in the storefront like that. Anti-intellectualism can sometimes surface openly like that (see the billboards below). But more often it manifests in a subtle cynicism about intellectual pursuits, or in a general neglect of higher level learning. People don’t necessarily think they are anti-intellectual since they admit a “pro-education” platform. Underneath that platform, however, are pillars of anti-intellectualism. You can imagine the poor quality structure that results.
The big enemies of the Christian mind, therefore, reside in the disconnect between contradictory beliefs. They are like foundations that don’t quite align with the building. A little slant, a little gap, and little cracks in the foundation and lead to the collapse of the entire structure. Worse yet, there can be gaps between what people say they believe about the intellect versus what they actually believe about it. These gaps are more structural instability arising from anti-intellectualism. With this kind of shoddy construction, there is no great place for a robust Christian intellect to stand up straight.
Anti-intellectualism persists covertly much of the time. But there are blatant forms too. Sadly, a lot of churches act like the Christian mind is an enemy, whether or not they realize the full impact of what they are saying. These are actual church signs. You can imagine the message these signs are sending to people outside the church.
The message is clear, church is the kind of place where you check your brain at the door. Independent thought is discouraged. Faith and spiritual feelings substitute neatly for all reasoning and evidence.
I’ve encountered this overt anti-intellectualism in and out of the church, in “high” church and “low” church settings, from men and women, fundamentalists and progressives. Now, I can’t speak very well for secular and non-Christian forms of anti-intellectualism, though I suspect that anti-intellectualism is a growing trend across all society, at least as far as society has been shallowed by the internet. But I can speak from my experience and my study primarily within Christian circles today. In the eyes of many Christians, the intellect is something to scorn; it’s idolatry waiting to happen, a covert enemy of faith, goodness, and truth. It masquerades as rational enlightenment, wisdom, and discernment when in fact it’s “autonomous human reason,” rationalism, intellectual idolatry. From that perspective, a strong intellect is a deadly threat to the pure child-like faith we should be having in Christ (Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).
Somewhere along the line, the Christian mind has acquired the baggage of secularism, atheism, and immorality, as if, thinking hard, somehow, militates against the truth of Christ.
Your Mind Matters
What I want to demonstrate in Redeeming the Christian Mind is that anti-intellectualism is catastrophically bad for the Christian faith. It is not just a bad idea or bad practice, it is also dangerous, stupid, and insulting to God Himself. I want you the reader to appreciate how your mind matters, and for Christians reading this, I want to encourage you to cultivate the wisest and smartest mind you can, just as anyone should take good care of and cultivate the resources God’s given us.
I’m not urging everyone to go to seminary, or saying that we need to have every church person enrolling in online classes or learning Koine Greek. But I am saying that everyone has intellectual gifts, even the people who didn’t do well in school. Thank heaven that God did not imprison all learning within the confines of classrooms. Dyslexic people still have an intellect that can function best in glorifying God. People with ADD and ADHD still have a mind that is made for worshipping God in good stewardship. People with other learning differences, or who were bullied in school, or who were C-students, or who dropped out of school, they all have an intellect that can work it’s best as an instrument of glorifying the living God.
In this series, I intend to show the importance of redeeming the Christian Mind, that is, cultivating a rich and meaningful intellectual life among believers. This demonstration happens in the course of answering three big questions:
- What does the Christian mind look like?
- Why does it matter?
- And how do we redeem the Christian mind?
We’ll address each of these questions, in order, over the next three posts.