Category: Life of the Mind

Evangelicalism and Anti-intellectualism: Two Proposals

American evangelicalism remains an interesting segment of the greater Christian tradition. I personally think that conservative evangelicalism is being reshaped in this country, not least due to the recent political questions and debates that have emerged (see here for what I am talking about). This is not, in my mind, a bad thing, though time will tell if this “reshaping” is going to result in something good or not. We shall see. At any rate, what has become particularly interesting to me is how evangelicals view the role of education in the life and practice of the church. I plan to muse a bit more on this subject down the road, but I want to flesh out some preliminary and provisional thoughts, as well as some observations I have made personally over the past several years.

Here is my thesis: The American evangelical church has a strong tendency toward anti-intellectualism. I am by no means the first to recognize this. But presently, I want to discuss why our anti-intellectual bias is a bad thing—a terribly bad thing.

Over the years, I have heard things like, “Theological education will take the evangelistic zeal out of you” or “Learning about the history of the Bible is not what being a Christian is all about.” I even once heard a person say, “You may read the Bible in Greek, but I read it in the Holy Spirit.”

Huh? I’m not even sure what to do with that last one!

I have come to learn that these reactions are actually based upon more underlying problems within conservative evangelicalism, namely, a stunted view of the life of the mind. It was Mark Noll who said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He was correct. It is all the more unfortunate that anti-intellectualism has become a sort of modus operandi for the church. For example, in some evangelical traditions, people need not prepare to become a pastor; the only requirement is to be “called.” If they are “called,” then that is all that matters. I think this can be dangerous. Interestingly, most people prefer going to a medical doctor who has been educated, someone who has set aside years of their life to study medicine, chemistry, and physiology. I’m sure that God could miraculously equip a person with the knowledge needed to become a medical doctor overnight, “calling” him or her to the medical field; I suspect, however, that he uses other means to equip them—specifically, the discipline to work hard through years of medical school. We applaud our medical doctors for having devoted years to research, study, and practice, but when it comes to matters concerning the evangelical church, education matters little. (I wonder if this is not due, at least in part, to the fact that evangelicals have grown obsessed with “quick fixes” and have little motivation for things that take time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears—things like education.)

Of course, formal education is expensive these days, and so I understand why it is often out of reach for most people, not to mention ministers (perhaps we ought to do something about this?). I am not at all saying that those who are formally educated are better or smarter than those who are not; there have been notable and influential people, after all, who were self-educated. Formal education is neither here nor there; but education itself remains important. After all, our anti-intellectual leanings present a noticeable problem for conservative evangelicals, one that comes with dire consequences. One of those consequences is that evangelicals come off looking silly or confused or both—and that before an unbelieving world. Making statements like the ones quoted above betrays our calling to excellence. As a result, our witness comes off as being irrelevant. And why shouldn’t it? It is always appropriate to question the relevance of any group that shuns knowledge and applauds its own lack of it.  We can do better!

But the fact is that knowledge and education are both necessary components for the existence and well-being of the church. Take, for example, the significance of being educated in the biblical languages. Some evangelicals I have met laugh away at such things as being “too scholarly” and therefore “not relevant.” In light of these charges, a question needs to be asked: Is knowing Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic required for reading the Bible? I say, yes. I will even take it one step further. Without knowledge of the original languages, there is absolutely no way you can read your Bible. It is absolutely impossible.

Obviously, I am not saying you cannot read the Bible if you do not know the original languages. By no means. What I am saying, rather, is that somebody must have known the original languages in order for you to read your english Bible. For you to be able to pick up your Bible and read it, there must have been a person to translate it into English in the first place. So yes, knowledge of the original languages is a must. Either you will need to have been educated in the languages or you will need to rely on an educated translator’s version. But make no mistake about it: Knowledge of the original languages is required—either from you or someone else. In this case, education is not a mere flowery benefit or some abstract scholarly endeavor; it is a practical necessity.

I only mention the language bit above so as to make a general point, namely, that education is important. But I also wish to highlight the fact that, specifically, theological education is necessary for the church. Again, however, many evangelicals continue to think otherwise, feeling as though intellectual pursuits are somehow necessarily rooted in pride and arrogance. But this is simply not true. Some of the most humble people I have met have been scholars; and some of the most arrogant have been those who take pride in their ignorance. For someone to boast about their abundant knowledge is distasteful, yes. But for someone to boast about their ignorance is more than distasteful, it’s dangerous. The consequences of our anti-intellectual bent are dangerous. (I will tease this last part out later down the road.)

I suspect that anti-intellectualism is less a problem than it is a symptom. Maybe we need to first address why evangelicalism is prone toward an anti-intellectual bias. I feel the underlying issues here are deep, and I reckon that there are both philosophical and theological reasons for why we are bent that way. (I’m still working through these things, and I plan to lay out some thoughts in the weeks ahead.)

In the meantime, I want to offer two preliminary proposals.

First, perhaps evangelicals should stop and think. Maybe we should re-think our assumptions that education is not relevant for the church, for our communities, for our mission. After all, as we have seen above, education is very practical and beneficial. It is necessary even. We should also consider our Christian calling, for God calls us to a life of right thinking and calls us to flourish in our pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10). Thinking is not an option. We all engage in the act of thinking. The question is whether or not our thinking is informed or uninformed, educated or uneducated, wise or foolish. It has been my experience that the church is hungry for education, for in-depth training, for catechesis. It is true that not everyone feels called to master the Greek New Testament or philosophical hermeneutics or the ins-and-outs of second temple Judaism, and that’s okay. We are all gifted differently, and we each have our respective ministries. But having offered more in-depth classes within a church setting, I can say that there is a huge thirst among our people for it. The question for us pastors and teachers is, Will we feed the sheep?

Second, perhaps evangelicals should stop and thank. Maybe we should take a step back from our anti-intellectual tendencies and thank God for the scholar. This could be good for the evangelical soul. I recall a few years ago having a lively (not to mention informative) conversation with a Catholic monk. In the midst of our conversation, he was quick to assert that, “If it were not for us monks, you wouldn’t have a Bible.” How true that is. If it were not for those who have given their lives over to study, to a life of learning, the modern church would be in a world of trouble. The monasteries were the wombs of our sacred tradition. Likewise, our local community projects would be null and void if it were not for the scholar, for we would never be able to hand a Bible to anyone in our community if it were not for the good people who gave themselves to scholarly pursuits—to years of toiling through the original languages, mastering grammar and syntax. Let us thank God for the scholar. They make the local church’s job possible.

Again, I am still working through my views here. But I am convinced that it would do us well to see education as important precisely because it is necessary. Any bias toward anti-intellectualism should be abandoned. 

More thoughts to come…

Passion & Wisdom in the Modern Age: Musings on Proverbs 29:11 (LXX)

As Christians, we are called to think rightly; we are called to wisdom. But what are the characteristics of wisdom? What does it look like to think rightly, especially in our modern age? The Bible goes about answering these questions in various ways, but one particular passage I have been thinking about lately is Proverbs 29:11. My love for the Greek New Testament has ignited a love for the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). So, wanting to deepen my reflections on this verse, I ran over to the LXX to read it: holon ton thymon autou ekpherei aphrōn, sophos de tamieuetai kata meros. I have loosely translated this as, “The foolish person lets out all of his passion, but the wise person does so reservedly, in a measured way.”

A simple first glance reveals that the “foolish person” (aphrōn) is set in direct contrast to the “wise” (sophos). Here, “foolish” (aphrōn) denotes wrong thinking. It is the opposite mindset of God and his people (cf. phronimos in Matt 7:24 and phroneō in Phil 2:5). There is, therefore, a way of thinking that is characteristic of God and his people—namely, a mindset based upon wisdom, insight, and prudence. Simply, aphrōn (“foolish”) in Prov 29:11 means “not wise” or “unwise.” Biblically, to call someone a “fool” is not to digress into name-calling, but rather to point out that someone is behaving, practically speaking, in a way that betrays their very human calling to a life of wisdom.

The “wise person,” sophos, behaves differently than the aphrōn. In what way? It all has to do with what each one does with thymos (passion, anger). The foolish person does not hold anything back; they have no filter. To be foolish, at least here, is to show no restraint in what one does with his or her passion. The wise person, by contrast, is not necessarily without anger (as the text of the LXX implies); rather, they are simply more reserved and careful with it. That is, they let it come out “in measure.” One gets the sense that the sophos lives a much more quiet life than the foolish person (cf. 1 Thess 4:11ff). The wise person, it seems, is less rambunctious and less imprudent with emotion than his or her counterpart.

What can we, people of the 21st century, learn from this verse? Ours, after all, is an age of passion, of hype and hysteria—a time when access to social media affords us a quick outlet for every little thought and every whim of passion that enters our mind and heart. People are—and always have been—passionate, whether over their religion, their non-religion, their entertainment, or their politics (I have written briefly about that last one here). In this way, the 21st century is no different than other times. But having been thrown into our modern, technological age, our passion has the unique ability to go public in an instant, sometimes to our detriment (not to mention others’). There is nothing wrong with going public with our passion. Sometimes it is necessary. But indiscreet passion is unbecoming for anyone, and unreasonable passion is dangerous to everyone. While anger and passion are never wrong in and of themselves (both have a place, as I say), each person is obligated to show measure and restraint. This is the essence of wisdom. Passion, of any sort, is never beneficial if it is allowed full reign without sound reason and self-control restraining it. I do not make an idol out of human reason (I do not buy into rationalism), but I do think wisdom and understanding, sophia kai phronēsis, are indispensable to the life that God requires. It is the wise person, after all, who shows constraint with emotion. How come? Because he or she, as a prudent thinker, understands the consequences that an overly-rash life tends to bring. 

As Christians, we are said to embody Christ in the world (1 Cor 12:27); if that is so, then may our fervent passion be the pursuit of wisdom and right thinking. May every passionate thing we say (or do not say) be founded upon sound reason. May we be a passionate people who think rightly, carefully, and wisely. 

Two things that prevent Christians from thinking well

Part of the reason I started Trinityhaus was because I wanted to encourage Christians to think deeply, clearly, and carefully. It’s been my conviction that modern Christianity–particularly within the evangelical tradition, of which I am part–has failed at this God-given task. I don’t call this a “God-given task” flippantly. Jesus himself says, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The word for “mind” is dianoia. It connotes the idea of using one’s intellect rightly, that is, reasoning well and the ability to reach truth by means of critical, logical, thinking.

My hope in life–as both a pastor and director at Trinityhaus–is to help Christians glorify God with their minds, spurning their relationship with God to go beyond just flutters of the heart. My calling is to provide believers with the resources they need in order to learn Scripture and engage other thinkers (whether Christian or non-Christian) in a critical way. By doing all this, my hope is that each learner will get closer to truth and therefore closer to God himself. (Truth, after all, always leads to God.) In short, I want Christians to learn how to think carefully, to reason well.

But what are some things that keep us from being careful thinkers? I’ve identified two items below: The first is a false belief, the second is a misguided attitude.

(1) We believe ignorance is a virtue and thinking is unbiblical. A Pastor once told me that the Bible never tells us to use our head; the point of the Bible, he urged, was to simply love and trust God. This is the classic problem with what is wrong with much of modern Christianity. Has God not called us to think, to use our minds at all? The truth is that he has. Even the slightest glance at our own religious writings tells us so much. Take the wisdom literature, Proverbs, for example. Here, an entire section of Scripture is devoted to urging God-followers to think wisely. The book of Job, too, is an invitation to encounter God while pondering the blessed reality of the good and the harsh reality of evil and suffering. In the New Testament, Paul likewise encourages his readers to engage his meticulous arguments in his letter to Rome, a task not for the faint of heart. The truth is that the Bible not only calls us to think, but it actually requires us to think if we are to engage it in a meaningful way (again, think of how Paul depends on the logic of his arguments. Jesus, by the way, is no exception; he can argue quite well, too). Therefore, ignorance is not a virtue; it’s actually a vice (Prov 18:2; 19:2). And thinking is not unbiblical; having knowledge and knowing how to use it is thoroughly biblical, a Christian virtue in fact (2 Peter 1:5).

Moreover, thinking is also essential to our being human. Central to the Judeo-Christian worldview is that God has endowed us with his image and likeness. This entails the gift of volition, of free agency. That is, we have the ability to make meaningful choices. And God expects us to make good choices, wise choices, choices that result in blessings and not curses. But such choices, by definition, assume deliberation. Every wise person will, before making a hard decision, engage in reasoned and diligent deliberation (Prov 14:15; 21:5). A person is to ponder their decisions well, carefully weighing in their mind the potential consequences of future choices. It’s a myth, therefore, that God has not called us to think. It’s clear that he has not only called us to think but to think well.

(2) We refuse to read widely. Another way Christians will fail to fulfill their call to think well is to refuse to consider the opinions of differing people. In evangelical circles, I’ve noticed something. Often, we evangelicals get “cliquish” in our beliefs and convictions. For example, we often find ourselves reading and listening only to those authors–pastors, theologians, philosophers–with whom we happen to always agree. It’s not at all bad to have favorite authors. Neither is it wrong to primarily associate yourself with a group of thinkers that you can easily and comfortably identify with. There’s no problem with being proud of, and comfortable within, your own respective ecclesiastic distinctives (most reformed believers find themselves in a reformed church, charismatics in a charismatic church, etc). The problem, though, is that all too often evangelical Christians never get outside their comfort zone. Rather, they remain content never to read, for example, another author that might challenge their own tertiary beliefs, even when these new ideas spring from the pen of a fellow believer in Christ. I think this is dangerous for a couple of reasons.

First, if you never read outside your tribe’s own wise men, then you may not fully appreciate your own tribe’s convictions. One of the reasons I enjoy reading other thinkers with whom I most definitely disagree is because it actually serves to strengthen and solidify my own convictions. By reading other authors, I come to realize that their counter viewpoint is fairly weak and how mine is actually to be preferred. I’m sure a fish appreciates the water most when it finds itself flopping on a dock.

Second, you may actually be wrong about your beliefs. It may be the case that your conviction or belief is actually the result of, say, a bad interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps you’ve always believed you were right about “________” but, in reality, you have been wrong the whole time because you didn’t have all the right facts. Or maybe you simply mis-arranged the facts such that the truth became distorted and you have been, despite your firm confidence to the contrary, wrong the entire time. To be sure, this describes all of us at some point in time. In fact, I’d venture to say that both you and I believe some falsehood right this very second. Unless we have come to believe we are infallible creatures (a claim I’m not willing to make), perhaps we have some more learning to do in the future?

But here is the deal: You will never come to find out you are wrong if you never read opposing opinions. What’s interesting is how many evangelicals (again, I include myself on this charge) are so quick to point out how “the opposing side is wrong,” yet actually never take the time to listen to the other side at all. This isn’t smart (Prov 18:13). Do we read other works from other sectors of the Christian world in order to be challenged and learn truth? We should: Semper Reformandathey say. Do we stop to listen to other viewpoints, even those that don’t come explicitly from Christians? We need to. Even the Church Fathers saw glimmers of truth in the Greek philosophers. So did St. Paul, who found an opportunity to quote a pagan philosopher and poet (Acts 17:28). I’m glad the Apostle read widely, outside his tribe. If we–modern Christians, not least those in the evangelical tradition–fail to do so ourselves, we will portray ourselves as poor thinkers. We will also continue to exist in ignorance in the presence of an unbelieving world, displaying an arrogant folly too self-infatuated to be cured. The truth is that our Faith urges its adherents to do the opposite: to think deeply, clearly, and carefully.

 

From personal experience, that’s why I’ve enjoyed being a research student. It’s been sanctifying. As a grad student, I’m actually required to engage with, and leave ample room for, other thinkers who would disagree with me. Uncomfortably, I’m constantly being challenged by opposing views. It has even been the case that, after spending time in study, I’ve had to change my own beliefs. I’ve had to admit that I was wrong. There is a certain level of humility involved when you are forced to confess that. Maybe even embarrassment. But at the end of the day, humility and confession have always been part of the Christian way. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). It’s good to be examined. We should admit more often that there really does exist areas of the ocean that we, like our proverbial fish above, have yet to explore. You don’t have to be doing a PhD to come to that realization. This is common sense stuff–truth that any sound, well-reasoned mind will reach on its own.

So, let’s not be mistaken: ignorance has never been a virtue, especially in traditional and apostolic Christianity. Let’s commit ourselves, then, to loving wisdom, seeking understanding, and reading widely. By doing so, we will become better and more careful thinkers, the very thing God has called us to be.