thoughtful

Three Obstacles to Becoming Thinking Christians

October 23, 2019
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you,

turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding—

indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding,

and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.

For the LORD gives wisdom;

From his mouth comes knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:1-6 (NIV)

 

When he heard that Jesus had answered them well, one of the experts in the law who had come to him because they wanted to hear him asked him, “Which is the most important commandment of them all?”  Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.’  The second is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 (my translation)

 

So, in light of God’s manifold compassion, I urge you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God—which is your reasonable act of worship.  Do not be conformed to the pattern of this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you will know what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Romans 12:1-2 (my translation)

 

These are just three of the many biblical texts that call Christians to a robust intellectual life.  Too often, however, we settle for less than what God deserves when it comes to our minds. We allow anti-intellectualism, over-intellectualism, or pseudo-intellectualism to rob our mental life of its vitality and to inhibit our growth as followers of Jesus.

Anti-Intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism is almost certainly the most prevalent problem among evangelical Christians in the United States.  It is woven into the fabric of several denominational traditions, and it afflicts denominationally unaffiliated churches, as well.  Sometimes, people succumb to anti-intellectualism because of the fears that they harbor about the American higher education system. Sometimes, people indulge anti-intellectual sentiments because they are anxious about their own (supposed) inability to perform well in intellectually demanding tasks.  At other times, people honestly believe that the intellect is contrary to the work of God.

Whatever the reason, anti-intellectualism should have no place in an authentic disciple’s devotion to Jesus.  The gospel is not nearly as “simple” as many American Christians assume. It cannot be so, for it touches upon all of the complexity and all of the ambiguity that characterizes the human story.  Moreover, it involves, as its main actor, a God who is infinite, and its main stage is a universe that we are only just now beginning to truly understand.

If Christians are going to be faithful followers of Jesus, then they must also be thoughtful followers of Jesus.  If Christians are going to be effective witnesses for Jesus, then they must also be intelligent witnesses for Jesus.  If Christians are going to be loving participants in the human story, then they must also be discerning participants in the human story.

Over-Intellectualism

Over-intellectualism is the polar opposite of anti-intellectualism.  Whereas the anti-intellectual Christian refuses to engage the mental challenges that are presented to her or him by the gospel, the over-intellectual Christian thinks, speaks, and acts as if these challenges are the only ones that matter.  Put another way, some people act as if the life of the mind is the only life there is.

Over-intellectualism manifests itself in a number of ways.  Sometimes, it manifests itself in an over-emphasis on jargon and minutiae.  This kind of over-intellectualism often prides itself in its ability to befuddle supposedly less gifted and less important people with the latest theories and the most arcane sources.

At other times, over-intellectualism manifests itself in a steadfast refusal to deal with anything other than the bare facts of Christian commitment.  Sure, the individual, congregation, seminary, etc. in question may have a sufficient grasp of the propositions that make up the Christian faith, but they rarely (if ever) allow those propositions to speak into the non-rational realms of their life.  They rarely confront hard questions and rarely expose their own heart. Indeed, these kinds of over-intellectuals often find questions about the heart to be irrelevant or intrusive—in spite of the fact that the heart is where faith, love, and hope find their natural home.

At still other times, over-intellectualism manifests itself in a dogged devotion to whatever happens to be the scholarly consensus of the day.  This strangely uncritical approach to the fruits of contemporary academic labor leaves the disciple ill-equipped to face the challenges of modern life and leaves her or him vulnerable to all kinds of errors.  

Pseudo-Intellectualism

Pseudo-intellectualism is the most dangerous of all flaws for a disciple of Jesus.  It is, as its name suggests, a false intellectualism, and it is often born out of a need to feel important or to be right.

Unlike those who have fallen victim to anti-intellectualism or over-intellectualism, pseudo-intellectuals have great difficulty recognizing their own error.  For this reason, it is all the more important for the rest of us to recognize the signs of pseudo-intellectualism, both in ourselves and in others, and to address it wherever we find it.

It is not that pseudo-intellectuals are always way off base in what they think or teach.  If that were the case, they would be easy to recognize. Rather, pseudo-intellectuals take otherwise reputable ideas and shade them just enough to make them unfruitful.  They tend to latch on to specific words, phrases, or ideas, often taking those words, phrases, and ideas out of their original context and putting them in a context of the pseudo-intellectual’s own making.  When in dialogue with others, they tend not to be good listeners, for they are always “working an angle,” so to speak. They are always trying to figure out how to get others to adopt their way of understanding reality.

Pseudo-intellectuals “do not play nicely with others” (in the words of a former admissions director at Brite Divinity School).  They are always on a crusade and always complaining about how those who have real expertise or experience are doing everything wrong.  And if they are confronted by someone who really knows what they are talking about and who will not put up with their foolishness, they usually pull up stakes and find a softer target for their attempts at mental manipulation.

Now, let me be clear.  Not every exercise in intellectual novelty is an example of pseudo-intellectualism.  Deep, reflective, creative engagement with the Triune God will often lead us a little off the beaten path.  Nor is every prophet an intellectual charlatan. Sometimes, leaders need a swift kick in the backside to see where they are wrong.  But there is a difference between free thinkers and prophets on the one hand and pseudo-intellectuals of the type that I have described on the other.  It is vital that we know the difference.

What Do We Do?

So, if we cannot get rid of the life of the mind, and we cannot overemphasize its importance, what are we supposed to do?  How do we use the mind for the benefit of our devotion to Jesus, and how do we avoid the false thinking that can wreck our lives, our relationships, and our churches?  These are just some of the questions that I hope we can address in our next conversation.

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