Transformed by the Removal of Our Minds: Evangelicalism’s Lack of a Life of the Mind – PART 1

Due to the length of this article it has been divided into two parts. You can link to the second part at the bottom of the article or download the PDF here for the full article in one file: Transformed by the Removal of Our Minds

Enjoy!


“Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2:3–5 ESV)


            Charles Malik warned Evangelicals of the dangers of anti-intellectualism, in part due to their zeal to begin immediately preaching the gospel, they “have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past” to develop their powers of thinking.[1] As a result, the enemy gains uncontested ground in the arenas of creative and scholastic fields. Evangelical Christians in particular have favoured feeling over thinking, contenting themselves to a ‘feel-good’ faith of emotionalism borne by experience.[2] It is “what J. I. Packer has called ‘jacuzzi Christianity,’ based on warm, cozy, comfortable, familiar, complacent emotions, devoid of any thoughtful, intelligent, carefully reasoned faith.”[3] If we cannot communicate thoughtfully, we are reduced to only shallow level gossip and small talk, meanwhile, thinking Christians are left lonely without peers to engage intellectually.[4] Though obviously such a harsh critique must be rightly nuanced, for the most part, it seems also to be right on point. This is no small matter, and left unaddressed could lead to untold trouble in coming years—not to mention the fact that the Bible seems to leave no room for an intellectually lazy faith.

            This will undoubtedly be a very general sketch looking briefly at some of the causes of the lack of a life of the mind in Evangelicalism and broadly at the current situations. So, I apologize in advance for some statements which will be broad stroked and left un-nuanced for the sake of space and time. Emphasis will be given to the arguments addressing the lack of a life of the mind biblically, in science and other areas. Not wanting to overstate the case or be misunderstood; the ideal is not higher formal education, degrees or the superiority of intellectuals but rather that we would use every means God has given—including thinking—to know, serve, love, and glorify Him. As John Piper said, “I would like to encourage you to think, but not to be too impressed with yourself when you do.”[5]


Post Modern Relativism

            Though Christians are in one sense ‘not of this world’, we are in it, and the cultural environment does play a big part in forming the perceptions and lenses through which we process reality. The Church is not immune to post-modern relativism and failures of the education system which exact their toll on our minds. The post-modern idea that each person subjectively determines what is true for themselves is horribly prevalent and devastating to the current generations both inside and outside the church walls.

The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue. . . the great insight of our times. . . The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”[6]

            It is obvious the threat this madness poses to a belief system which at its core holds to an exclusive truth embodied historically in the person and work of Christ. The Gospel is never heard in isolation, but rather always against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives.[7] Is it any wonder then that people in modern society find it harder and harder to do the work of Gospel ministry in such a pluralistic culture? How can one claim that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life (John 14:6) if all truth is relative?

            Of course the folly of relativism breaks down easily under any serious thought, as even the claim that all truth is relative is a claim to an absolute. However, what is probably more disturbing is how incapable many are to see this basic logic and it speaks volumes to how much the current culture has fixed distorted lenses on the generation.[8] People may conveniently be moral relativists, but no one is a relativist at the bank. No one thinks that their money is only subjectively quantifiable, nor is anyone a relativist when they sign a contract.

            The truth of the matter is, people don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying.”[9] It allows them the cover to do what they want without the annoying intrusion of an absolute standard. This however is not patently an atheist or postmodern view only. Many Christians functionally take this stance on biblical truth—when was the last time you heard the argument, “Oh well that’s just your interpretation”? If truth is objective—although we must account for human fallibility to perfectly recognize it—it still puts the responsibility on us to endeavour to find it to the best of our ability.


Education, Logic and Critical Thinking

            It used to be that subjects such as logic and critical thinking were part of normal curriculum for schools. However, many educational institutes have abandoned such training and reduced learning to mere rote memorization and parroting of facts. Students are no longer being taught how to reason to arrive at the facts, but rather just given the ‘fact’ with little regard for the process to get there. E.D. Hirsch documented that,

large numbers of American college students do not have the basic background knowledge to understand the front page of a newspaper or to act responsibly as a citizen. For example, a quarter of the students in a recent survey thought Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during the Vietnam War. Two-thirds did not know when the Civil War occurred. One-third thought Columbus discovered the New World sometime after 1750.”[10]

            Furthermore, technology has fundamentally changed the way we process and utilize our cognitive functions. It is well known that any muscle which is unused suffers atrophy. Our brains are similar, and since the invention of writing—man no longer has to remember as much since it allowed for information to be stored. Since the widespread use of calculators, we began to experience how difficult it is for many to perform simple arithmetic in their heads. The advent of the computer and internet probably has most significantly changed us. Information—whether legitimate or poorly substantiated—is readily available at the push of a button without any filtering, critical peer-review, or academic credibility necessary. Anyone with an opinion can post online. Information now is delivered already processed, and perhaps the price we have paid for these advances is the denigration of memory capacity, brain processing efficiency, and reliable source material. I am not arguing for a regression to pre-technological eras, but rather an awareness of how good tools can handicap our capacities to think rightly in the long term.


Historic Faith

            Evangelical Christians and people in general are becoming increasingly ignorant of basic facts of history. Our generation tends to be one of the ‘right now’ and the immediacy which technology usually facilitates seems to have dulled many to the value of studying the past and learning from mistakes. With our twitter generation, trends come and go like passing vapours. Whatever topic of social justice is being outcried today, may well be forgotten tomorrow—taken over by whatever is the newest trending hot topic. There is a significant lack among Evangelicals of knowledge of the most basic of Church history even for their own denominations—far less for the Church as a whole. Very infrequently is anything of Church history, patristic church fathers, didactic traditions or the basic roots of movements mentioned from the pulpit.

            Many, unless they have proactively searched for themselves, have not even heard the names of such as Athanasius, Ignatius, Eusebius, Origen or many other early Christian writers. It may likely be a reflection of both the ethos which started the Evangelical movement—responding to present pressing issues—but also a reflection of society at large. Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” As a result congregations are left unaware of centuries of rich theology, tradition and history—a vast wealth of learning which goes wasted.

            Furthermore, people can live in a cultural time bubble thinking that their tradition is just how church has always been done—or even worse, that their tradition is the only legitimate expression of faith. This sort of historic isolation severely handicaps the capacity for a deepening of faith and wisdom. How can one appreciate the factual reality of the incarnation and resurrection without a knowledge of history? How can one expect to grow and build off the foundations laid before if we constantly are re-building from scratch? How many of the current struggles with culture, heresy and doctrinal debates could be solved easily by learning from faithful, brilliant theologians and scholars of the past who have already dealt with them?


Greatest Strength—Greatest Weakness

            The Evangelical ethos has intrinsic to it an inclination towards being activist, pragmatic and utilitarian. Due to this dominance of the urgency of the moment, it can tend to neglect the space for deeper intellectual pursuit in favour of what is seen as more pressing demands.[11] This emphasis on the importance of addressing pressing issues of social justice, compassion, conversion and revival has had a great positive impact on the Church. However, what is one of Evangelicalism’s greatest strengths also is its weakness since immediacy poses problems for an intellectual life—which takes a lot of time.[12] Fundamentalism, Dispensational Premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism all developed out of reactions to perceived religious crises in the nineteenth century. “In different ways each preserved something essential of the Christian faith. But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.”[13]

            As Evangelicals, we come from a history of reaction and separation—first from the split between Orthodox and Catholic churches, then the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic church, then again in the Great Awakening which birthed Evangelicalism out of a reaction against dead orthodoxy. This historic reactionary nature of Evangelicalism has contributed to the schismatic tendencies of the movement and tended to define it by what it was against as opposed to what it is for. Also, it would seem that this proclivity to recoil to the other extreme of the perceived threat produces an inability to hold certain concepts—a prime example being doctrines such as predestination and free will—in a healthy tension rather than reducing to simplistic either-or, “us-or-them” dualism.

            Even in writing this, I can already feel the coming barrage of reactions against any criticism to encourage a more vibrant life of the mind. Some may react in aghast disbelief—thinking that I am taking a shot at the necessity of revivalists and evangelists like Billy Graham or arguing for Evangelicals to forsake all proactive evangelism and outreach and just become monks shut up in a library. However, for Evangelicals who tend to believe in a crisis point of salvation—where a person is instantaneously regenerated and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit—this focus on thinking is unavoidable, since, much times these sorts of radical conversions necessitate some time to process the implications of the Gospel and their new life.[14]

            Canadian scholar N.K. Clifford observed the Evangelical mind’s general distaste for complexity saying, “its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection.”[15] This was not as apparent in the 18th century rural frontier where Evangelicalism got started, but today, as it has grown into the expanse of the modern world, this flaw is showing itself more poignantly. In this regard, perhaps Evangelicalism is in its adolescent phase—zealous, energetic and perhaps still thinking it knows everything—there is still much room for growth in wisdom and humility to see the value of a deeper life of the mind as older Christian traditions such as Lutherans, Reformed and Orthodox have established.

            G.K Chesterton once chided that what we suffer from is humility in the wrong place. Instead of it being in ambition, it is in conviction. “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”[16] Learning only relatively has a greater tendency to produce pride than other activities. One can be equally prideful in business achievements or boastful in farming accomplishments—all are required to give glory to God through the use of their capacities.[17] American Evangelicalism in particular has had a history of being suspicious of education and intellectualism, from Billy Sunday and going back to Charles Finney lamenting ministers who came out of college with hard hearts.[18]


Fundamentalist Anti-intellectualism

            The majority of American Evangelical seminaries formed separate from other ‘secular’ learning institutions which trained in a wide range of academic subjects. So unlike Europe, serious work in biblical theology did not occur alongside serious work in other academic disciplines.[19] While this separation preserved autonomy and made for a safe Christian environment, it lost the opportunity and benefit of a necessary interaction between theology and natural scholarship.[20] It effectively put our light under a bushel, and in turn, the intellectual drift of the culture was left unchecked to slip deeper into secularism.[21] Furthermore, it has left “a majority of Evangelical minds playing catch up and without a defence to tenuously held convictions” and being unaware “for a large part of the most recent developments and scientific discoveries has sometimes left evangelicals ill-equipped to answer the culture.”[22] However, instead of wrestling with the challenges of scholasticism, many turned to dogmatic fundamentalism.

            Fundamentalist Dispensationalism was important in the promotion of simple anti-intellectualism by promoting right conclusions with the wrong kind of thought.[23] However, this sort of blind loyalty can be evil “in the sense that if any action is defended on the grounds of loyalty alone, it is defended on no rational grounds at all. . . Loyalty is in itself not a moral basis for action.”[24] It is dangerous for Christians to check their minds at the door, since “mindless emotionalism or traditionalism, segmented, fragmented lives and ignorance disguised as simple faith are all terrible deformations of Christian discipleship.”[25] Keswick’s ‘higher life’ movement also contributed to this reduction in biblical theology and scholarship by isolating one doctrine—holiness—and making the false oversimplification, “Give up, let go and let God.” If the totality of sanctification comprises of “letting go” and expecting the Holy Spirit to do all the work, then it is no wonder there is such a lack of scholars and a thought life![26] This problem is especially conspicuous in the arena of the sciences as Edward B. Davis notes;

“The tendency to muster pseudoscientific “facts” to defend the reliability of scripture against biblical critics was absolutely characteristic of much evangelical and fundamentalist literature of the period. This represents a significant change from the general state of affairs in the 19th century, when a number of highly respected Christian scholars had produced a substantial body of literature harmonizing solid, respectable science with the faith of the lay believer. . . These works had the positive purpose of forging a creative synthesis between the best theology and the best science of their day; they were not intended merely to defend a particular view of the Bible or to “prove” the bible against skeptics. However, there is no comparable body of literature from the first half of the present century.”[27]

            Malik asked how can Evangelicals stand up against secular, naturalistic or atheistic scholars and, “Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics?”[28] William Lane Craig notes, “Most prominent evangelical scholars tend to be very big fish in a very small pond. Our influence extends little beyond the evangelical subculture.”[29] Mark Noll notes that, as of 1994, there are no Evangelical research universities or any Evangelical Nobel laureates. A sort of Manichaean attitude has been popular, assuming that we Evangelicals alone hold the monopoly on truth, while nonbelievers or non-evangelicals only practice error. However, even the bible shows the fallacy of such an assumption, as Paul in Act 17 quotes Greek philosophers.[30] All truth is God’s truth. There is simply nothing we could study about the created realm which would lead us away from Jesus, since in the biblical view, it was all brought into existence by Him and everything exists to display the greatness of Christ.[31]


…continued in PART 2 – Click here.


ENDNOTES for PART 1 (Bibliography in PART 2)

[1] Malik, The Two Tasks, 63-64
[2] Gardner, Commending and Defending Christian Faith, 118–119, 122
[3] Lockerbie, Thinking and Acting like a Christian, 14
[4] Blamires, The Christian Mind, 13
[5] Piper, Think, 17
[6] Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 25-26.
[7] Craig, In Intellectual Neutral, para. 20
[8] Craig, In Intellectual Neutral, para. 3-10
[9] Piper, Think, 102
[10] Craig, In Intellectual Neutral, para. 1
[11] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 12
[12] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 152
[13] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 24
[14] Piper, Think, 64
[15] N. K. Clifford, “His Dominion: A Vision in Crisis,” Sciences Religieuses/Studies in Religion 2 (1973) as quoted in Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 12-13
[16] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 38
[17] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 32
[18] Piper, Think, 121
[19] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 19
[20] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 20
[21] Craig, In Intellectual Neutral, 21
[22] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 23
[23] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 122-123
[24] Blamires, The Christian Mind, 23-24
[25] Gill, The Opening of the Christian Mind, 30-31
[26] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 124; Murray, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 72–74
[27] As quoted in Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 187
[28] Malik, The Other Side of Evangelism, 40
[29] Craig, In Intellectual Neutral, para. 27
[30] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 51-52
[31] Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, 25; Piper, Spectacular Sins, 33

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