Review of Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling, by James W. Sire
By PAUL D. MILLER
A colleague once asked me what makes a good analyst. I thought for a while, and answered “humility, courage, and integrity.” My colleague was surprised, having expected me to answer “a masters degree, high scores on standardized tests, and the ability to read and write.” I explained anyone who chooses a career defined by reading and writing already has, or could get, strong mental acuity and a formal education. But the smartest analyst can churn out the dumbest work if it is marred by arrogance, cowardice, or dishonesty.
James Sire agrees. One of the central insights of his book, Habits of the Mind, is that there is a vital connection between our intellectual and moral lives. His chapter on “the intellectual virtues” does not include mere intelligence on its list of virtues. Instead, it discusses patience, perseverance, courage, humility, and love.
I picked up Sire’s book to continue the thoughts prompted by my earlier discussion of Christianity and the life of the mind (see stupid Christians and smart Christians). One of Sire’s earlier books, The Universe Next Door (now in its 5th edition, 2009), was the best of a half dozen books I read on worldviews, so I was pleased to see Sire had tackled this subject. Sire knows his stuff.
The tie between the intellectual and moral lives makes sense from a Christian perspective because we understand that truth is a Person, and to seek truth is to seek a personal relationship. Try approaching marriage without humility, patience, or love, and you won’t get far. To be a Christian intellectual is to be married to the truth. Sire’s penultimate chapter, on “Jesus the reasoner” makes the case that Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived, suggesting it is a decidedly unequal match.
That means Christian intellectuals (which means [spoiler] all Christians, since Sire argues that all Christians are called to love God with our minds)–Christian intellectuals must be marked by a passion for holiness and a passion not just to know the truth but to do it as well. “If one loves the truth, one will do the truth one knows; if one does the truth one knows, one will be rewarded with more truth.” (112).
This probably seems counterintuitive to a secular intellect. Hitler understood that 2 + 2 = 4; nothing about his rather disreputable moral life interfered with his understanding of some basic truths. Sire wouldn’t deny that non-Christians can know things: God’s common grace allows our minds to function on a basic level, even darkened and clouded by sin as we are. But without God’s grace our minds are prey to a spiral of sin and folly. He quotes Augustine on those who love something other than the truth:
Those who love some other thing want it to be the truth, and precisely because they do not wish to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are indeed being deceived. Thus they hate the truth for the sake of that other thing which they love, because they take it for the truth. They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them. (115).
If we do not fall in love with the truth–with Jesus Christ–we are damned to ever-dimming vision and a hatred of the truth for the sake of some false idol we take to be true.
Sire’s book was refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. His chapter on “how thinking feels” was encouraging because Sire confirmed that many of the habits of thinking I’ve noticed in myself–which I sometimes have thought were undisciplined and messy–are actually quite normal. Thinking is an act of love for ideas; it is driven by passion; it feels fun; it feels like a battlefield between rival ideas; it is often chaotic and messy, like a tumble drier; and sometimes it is even passive. I read books and then, sometimes, have to ignore them for a few weeks while I let stuff ferment unconsciously in the back of my head before I can write or talk about them.
But Sire’s book was challenging as well because he cataloged a long list of things at which I need much improvement. His inclusion of patience and perseverance as intellectual virtues was convicting. He discusses the discipline of “silence,” of just sitting in the presence of God with our minds open. He talks about the centrality of prayer for our intellectual lives. And he concludes with a discussion of the responsibility of Christian intellectuals (again, meaning all Christians) to live in the truth, to learn and talk the truth, to avoid the “treason of the intellectuals” characteristic of so many intellectuals of recent centuries–and, above all, to recognize our responsibility to God in our thinking, as in all things.