The recent controversy surrounding the comments of Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, in GQ magazine and the resulting backlash from gay advocacy groups provides a good example of the lack of intelligence too often displayed by members of the universal Christian Church. I am not speaking of Robertson being ignorant. Rather, there seems to be a lack of understanding between social and legal response on the part of these Christians as some have complained quite loudly in the media that Robertson’s right to free speech is being violated. That is wrong. Free speech protection is from government prosecution not social persecution. Robertson, I am sure, would be the last to complain about the public response. He was speaking, even if in terms some may consider crude, from honest and heartfelt closely-held religious beliefs. Sadly, however, much of the Christian response, even from well-educated and informed speakers, has been emotional rather than reasoned, adding to the ammunition of those who accuse the Church of being mostly rubes and ignoramuses.
This essay was written before the Robertson controversy arose but that sequence of events, I think, justifies the essay all the more. Christians, as becoming the sons of God, have been given access freely to the wisdom of God (James 1:5). This reason should be sufficient unto itself, but with the added incentive to grow into the humility of Christ, Christians should hesitate before speaking too quickly or bluntly in public. Christian thinkers have been among the thought leaders that created open and advanced societies, especially over the last five hundred years. Israel was expected to be a virtuous, and prosperous, example to the world that living according to God’s nature, ways, and will would entice the world to come out of itself and be drawn into the Kingdom of God (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). Today, that is the role of the Church today, to be salt and light to a world desperately seeking its own salvation and hope for a better future, a future only Christ can offer.
Upon reflection, I find this essay to be rather blunt in its assessment and I am sure there are some who will be offended. It is not that I am not interested in being more diplomatic but I do not find in myself the patience to redraft it. Perhaps I will at a later date but for now I will simply ask the reader to forgive me if it comes on too strong.
Much has been written for and against the role of intellectualism in the life of Christian believers and the Church. It would seem the conversation would grow stale and trite and be put to rest as an unproductive waste of time. But to do so is like only half-heartedly trying to revive a critically wounded patient. To stop short of making every effort, when even the least inkling of life remains, is to lose touch with the core value central to every human life: potential. So, I will here again take my turn at beating what some may presume to be a dead horse.
As a starting point, and even at the risk of being accused of prooftexting (because that seems always to be the first retort of contrarians), I will resort to Scripture: Genesis 1:26 – “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” Since God is Spirit (John 4:24), we can rule out physicality as the focal point of the image and likeness. That essentially leaves two realms of human existence open to the discussion: intellect and character. It is not possible to have an intellect (weak or strong) without character (virtuous or evil) and vice versa, but I digress.
God gave us a capacity for thinking that is greater than other creatures. It is facilitated by the brain as a physical organ but the mind is not the brain. The mind can be expanded with learning. It can be corrupted toward evil or heightened to virtue. We lean toward good or evil, again substantiating the argument with a Scriptural view, according to wisdom. It is almost as if we can dissect the functions within the brain between knowledge, which is simply the acquisition, use, and maintenance of information, and understanding, making sense of what knowledge means. This too can be divided into knowing what knowledge means in a practical or physical sense, which requires the discernment (or wisdom) of experience and learning and applying knowledge to solving problems, creating better things for life, etc., and knowing, or understanding, along the lines of morality, determining between right (good) and wrong (evil), which we might also label wisdom or discernment of a spiritual nature.
Interestingly, as a side note, a great deal of the Mosaic Law and the pronouncements of the Old Testament Prophets focused on what we would first consider moral lines but have enormously practical implications: such as not oppressing the poor so they can live in the shared abundance of earthly provision, the shalom of righteous community. Of course this also involves aspects of revelation and worship when the poor witness the goodness of God in the blessings of that abundance. But, again, I digress.
But the digression serves a good point: we cannot understand the integration we see above, of divine command, social structures and justice, personal ethics, revelatory grace, and appropriate worship, without thinking on it more than just a bit. We must engage the intellectual muscle we have been given to grasp the complex integration of these concepts, which point to an ecological whole of our reality, especially in relationship to God.
Somewhere along the line I came across a little book, published in 1965 and now one presumes lost in the milieu of printed things, entitled Just Think, Mr. Berton (A Little Harder). Written by Ted Byfield, a Canadian journalist and high school teacher, the book counters accusations drawn against the Church at-large by an antagonistic popular Canadian cultural critic and Church outsider, Pierre Berton. In the opening paragraph of the book, Mr. Byfield sarcastically captures Berton’s core perception of the Church. Speaking on Berton’s qualifications to criticize the Church from without, Byfield asserts Berton must be convinced that “Going to church often obscures objectivity and clutters the mind with a lot of prejudice.”
Actually, Mr. Berton may have done the Church a great service in offering an assessment from the outside, even if his vision was contorted by peering inwardly through stained glass windows. At the very least, I think, we can assume he was being honest in how he saw things. But the painful truth is, the perception too often rings true . . . even after passing through the doors and looking about with an unimpeded view once inside.
There is to be no doubt there is often an overt anti-intellectual attitude circulating within the Church. Sadly, however, there is also a covert, perhaps completely unrealized, anti-intellectualism that circulates as well. Two comments make my point. I take theology seriously so I write with intention to make my point as clearly as I can. That is not to say it will be presented in mono-syllabic words nor necessarily in short sentences. One comment came from a friend who read my book. He said, “I thought I would just sit down and breeze through it but there was no way.” That pleases me on two counts. One, he found it challenging (one hopes on the conceptual level and not just the structural). Two, he worked through it despite the challenges.
The other comment came after a fellow church member attempted to read one of my essays. He rejected the thesis out of hand. No, I should say, he refused to consider the thesis deeply because he claimed that he could not understand the essay. This is a man who is the head of an international trade association. His unwillingness to slow his mind enough to consider what the text was saying simply cut him off from gleaning anything from the essay. My undergraduate degree is in English literature. If you think what I write is challenging, try reading and comprehending Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” (http://poetry.eserver.org/essay-on-criticism.html).
I say all that to come to a discussion on the lack of critical thinking in the Church. We have given ourselves over to the deception that the Gospel is simple. We sum up our Christian faith in pithy statements and there is a place for those but they should not be the end all of our theological or biblical reflections. Consider: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” As a simple celebratory statement, this is absolutely loaded with assumptions, not the least of which require understanding “what is ‘a Christ’?” and “who is this Christ?” and why should his dying, revival, and return matter to me?
Take John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” This is the “slogan,” if you will, of the Christian marketing schema but, again, it is loaded with assumptions. What God? What does begotten mean? How does it differ from me siring my own children? Why does God love the world? How do we know? Why is his Son a gift unlike any other? What does it mean to believe in him? Believe what about him? And, frankly, the questions, considering we are speaking of an infinite God, are infinite in both number and depth.
When we stop short, assuming we know as much as we can (or need or want to) about God, our pursuit of holiness stops just as short. Without engaging God intellectually, our understanding will not grow and our character development in Christ will come up short as well. That is not to say we are less cherished by God. That is not to say everyone has the same capacity to “love God with their mind.” But it is to challenge us to know him as deeply and intimately as we can. Luke 12:48b: “And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” I am quite sure this appertains to mental acuity as much as physical possessions or the reach of an individual’s influence. Granted, there are some of limited mental ability who, by grace, receive the love and salvation of God just as they are. But those of us who have been given more capacity should exercise it!
When we reject the pursuit of God intellectually, through ever deepening biblical and theological studies, we are, in effect, telling him that we know quite enough and do not care to know any more. We may not need to know any more but that is an approach I might take to a relationship with a car salesman or store clerk in passing but certainly not with my wife or a dear friend. How much more so is it important to know God, to discern his voice, to understand his ways such that we might emulate Christ’s ministry to the Church and the world?
I think two Proverbs are poignant given our cultural repugnance toward learning:
Proverbs 6:10-11: “‘A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest’– And your poverty will come in like a vagabond, And your need like an armed man.”
Proverbs 26:16: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes Than seven men who can give a discreet answer.”
The American people are some of the hardest working, most industrious people on earth and in history. We, along with a few other countries, have set the standard for human productivity. And we assail the lazy ones who will not work, citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” – when exhorting others to go to work, to be productive, to make something of themselves. And all the while, we push away from the Table of God’s Plenty, intellectually satisfied with crumbs and leaving the most succulent and nourishing dishes sit untouched. We seem to abhor laziness until it reaches between our ears because disciplining the muscles is far easier than disciplining and renewing the mind. Compare
Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect,”
1 Timothy 4:7b-9: “On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance.” (emphasis mine).
How can our mind be renewed if the things of the enemy, the flesh, and the world are not replaced with the knowledge of God? How can we understand the value, or even the meaning, of godliness, if not by learning of God and his ways? Romans 12:2 goes so far to say that engagement of the intellect in thinking on the things of God, through a reforming exercise of the mind, is the path to discerning the very will of God.
So as not to belabor the point, if you are one leaning toward acceptance of the Christian faith walk as an easy or simple endeavor, I will end quickly. God has given us each a distinct capacity of the mind. We are to exercise it, like muscles, such that it will grow stronger in Christ, not for the sake of our “becoming smart” but for discerning how to be Christ to the world, to understand how to help, not just why, to understand complex social issues to help direct them toward reconciliation and healing that reveal God’s glory, toward his Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
The Church often wallows in its ignorance, willingly accepting far less than the gifts of the intellect renewed and empowered by the ministry of Christ on our behalf and toward a powerful witness to the world as creative thought leaders. Christians have led the march in the foundations of public education, in modern medicine, in political development, and in economic prosperity. They did so by overcoming the laziness of intellect that is natural to us all. The world often has a dim view of the Church along intellectual lines. But it is fully within our power to lead the world intellectually and to render that view untrue.
Byfield, Ted. Just Think, Mr. Berton (A Little Harder): A Reply to “The Comfortable Pew.” New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1965.
Collins, Kenneth J. “Spirituality and Critical Thinking: Are They Really So Different?” (Evangelical Journal, 16(1), 1998), 30-43.
Sire, James W. Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Stott, John. Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006.