Christians and Intellectual Endeavors

Foreword: I am currently working on a project dealing with developing a Christian community in a post-Christian world. So periodically I will use this blog to look at important elements that I think need to be in that Christian community. This entry is the first one to do that.

In a previous post, I discussed my crisis of faith and how my intellectual search saved that faith. I soon realized that the challenge to my faith was emotionally, and not intellectually, based. Reluctantly I worked myself back into my Christian faith. I have not had such a crisis of faith since then and I believe that it is largely due to the intellectual work done by Christian scholars and thinkers.

I know that there are many ways individuals develop their faith in Christianity. Intellectual appeal is not the only path. It may not even the path used by most Christians. But it was the path that helped me. And the strength of Christian intellectualism is such that we really do not have to fear an intellectual examination of our faith. Indeed we should welcome it, challenging those who use intellectual arguments against Christians and we should challenge their belief systems as well. If we do that, I am confident that our Christian worldview will intellectually and consistently fair well against the worldview of our challengers.

But the sad part is that often Christians hide from intellectual pursuits. They fear that they will not have the answers for those who intellectually challenge them. They hide behind vapid reasoning and assertions of blind faith to avoid doing the hard work of thinking through the implications and support for our Christian faith. We have to acknowledge “anti-intellectualism” as a common problem among Christians.

I find it confusing that some Christians not only do not want to engage in such scholarly pursuits themselves but also want to discourage other Christians from doing so. Some argue that efforts at studying apologetics distract from the simplicity of the Gospel. Other Christians may wonder about whether we should put forth effort in such an endeavor. After all, we cannot argue people into the Kingdom of Heaven right? Some of these concerns is a continuation of the myth that religion and science cannot co-exists. Christians are often hesitant to use intellectual tools because they see themselves as working with worldly forces of sciences. They forget that science was created by God, and it is here for us to use and to benefit from. Our Christian communities will always operate at a disadvantage as long as we do not use the intellectual resources available to us. It is fear of science, rather than fear of the Lord, that robs us of these resources.

We need to move beyond these fears. Christianity is not only intellectually viable, but in my opinion, it is the most intellectually viable worldview out there. I am not saying there are not hard intellectual questions we have to deal with because there are. I am not saying that there are not good arguments out there against Christianity because there are. But I know that my faith can stand up to this scrutiny because when I was motivated to leave my faith, those intellectual arguments were not nearly as daunting as I thought they might be. If we develop a comfort in addressing the intellectual challenges out there, then we will have more impact in a post-Christian world that often seeks to mock us as unable to critically think and unintelligent. Our intellectual confidence can be one of the best ways to deal with such unfair stereotypes.

My stance in Christian intellectualism is not just a personal preference but it is also scriptural. When God came offering Solomon anything, remember that he chose wisdom to serve his people (I Kings 3). God was so pleased with his decision that he gave Solomon everything else. God prioritizes wisdom, as long as it is used in service to Him and each other. But we are not stuck with just that passage. A non-exhaustive list of the Proverbs verses that deal with wisdom is 1:7, 2:6-7, 4:5, 6:6, 8:1, 11:2, 12:8, 13:1, 14:33, 16:16, 18:4, 19:20, 24:3, 24:14 and 29:15. Of course we see other discussion of wisdom throughout the Bible, most notably in Psalms, Ecclesiastes and 1 Corinthians.

Intellectual endeavors should always be part of our Christian community. But the need for us to cultivate our minds as a resource is even more important in a post-Christian society. When Christianity was the dominant culture, anti-intellectualism was not as great of a problem since Christians had non-intellectual resources to maintain their communities. Culturally it was a given that individuals tended to define themselves as Christians. They often did so without really thinking about what it means to be a Christian. This often left us with intellectually, and morally, shallow Christians. This obviously brought its own set of problems, but often those problems did not manifest themselves until Christians felt pressure from a post-Christian culture.

For example, Christian students have not, for a long time, been ready to deal with the intellectual challenges offered by their professors. But before the development of a post-Christian culture, professors often were hesitant to make statements that would anger Christians, or if they did, they were dismissed as just angry leftists. Because Christians had garnered so much deference from the larger society, these intellectual challenges were easily ignored. Today those intellectual challenges often cut right to the heart of our Christian worldview and have more power to discourage Christian students.

There are clearly moral and emotional challenges to our Christian worldview. Overly relying on intellectualism will not always help us to overcome those challenges. However, the rise of the intellectual attacks must be addressed as well. Given the power of those attacks in academia and the new wave of aggressive atheism, we need to be equipped to deal with those seeking to decenter the intellectual bases of Christianity. In the past such individuals would lack the cultural support to engage in such a wide scale fight against Christianity. But now in a post-Christian society, we often find ourselves on the defense and must be prepared. We no longer have the freedom to wallow in an anti-intellectualism approach.

Those with Christianophobia often use stereotypes about Christians being anti-intellectual to justify limiting the rights of Christians to engage in the public square. Many of the respondents in my Christianophobia study indicate that they feared that Christians were ignorant, non-critical thinkers who were being manipulated by evil leaders. They saw Christians as an enemies to democracy and freedom because we are not able to think for ourselves. These sorts of stereotypes can be powerful in justifying efforts to remove Christian organizations from college campuses or punishing Christians who do not support same-sex marriage. We dare not feed these stereotypes by retaining our anti-intellectual propensities.

There are three steps I suggest Christians should take to move away from anti-intellectualism. First, we need to be prepared individually for the intellectual challenges we will face. The most basic intellectual challenge is the question of whether it is viable to be a Christian. The answer I obviously came to was yes after my time of doubt. But each Christian must discover this for himself or herself. Before I went to graduate school I anticipated that I would be pushed intellectually in many different ways. I sought out the work of apologists such as Paul Little and Josh McDowell to prepare me for that time. Turns out that when my season of doubt came, the arguments I read in those books gave me the assurance needed to stay in the faith.

There are many resources available today. Authors such as Nancy Pearcy, Frank Turek, J. Warner Wallace, Gregory Koukl, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga provide important intellectual material. Beyond their books, many of these same authors have YouTube video that also impart valuable information. In this day and age, there is no excuse for us to not have a basic knowledge of the arguments that sustain our faith. This is not to say that everyone should be prepared at a drop of the hat to go into a deep discussion on the historical evidence for Christ or to be able to explain fully several of the ways the universe is finely tuned. But we should each have, at a level that is cognitively comfortable for us, some basic ideas for why we believe what we believe and the evidence that substantiates that belief.

Second, Christians must prioritize the value of intellectual discourse. If we do, then we will be able to impress those outside of our community as we encounter them. We will learn how to discuss issues, whether in person or on social media, in a cognitively grounded manner that produces more light than heat. This is not to say that non-believers will be dazzled by our intellectual brilliance and instantly become Christians. But it does mean that they will become less open to the stereotype of Christians as intellectually vapid. Even if they do not become Christians themselves, we can elevate their overall respect for Christians in such a way that they will be less willing to keep Christians out of the public square. After all, do we want to keep people we intellectually respect from making decisions in our society?

But our discourse with each other is at least as important as discourse outside our in-group. Encouraging our fellow Christians to engage in intellectual pursuits will have another important benefit. It will help individual Christians to develop a faith that is their own. Children who become healthy adults learn to think for themselves. We should help each other to learn to critically think and come to our own conclusions. Will some of those conclusions be wrong-headed and foolish? Yes, but we can minimize that with healthy dialog in relationship with each other. Some disagreements are going to come from each of us developing our own intellectual take on Christianity. But given what I have learned about the foundations of the faith, I am confident that the vast majority of Christians who engage in this type of critical thinking will find their faith strengthened, not weakened.

Third, beyond the responsibility of individual Christians to engage in critical thinking, Christians also have a responsibility to support efforts that collect the information and data we desire and can support our goals. Some Christians underestimate the value of what Christian academics can bring to the church and the larger Christin community. Having Christians trained in academic studies can provide a useful defense against some of the excesses of bad research that is sometimes turned against Christians. For example, in 2015 a badly done study came out arguing that Christians and people of other religions were less generous than those without religious faith. While religion and generosity is not my area of specialty, I was familiar enough with the research on that area to know that this study was an anomaly. But unfortunately this study was featured in places like Forbes and the Economist. However, others and I trained in social science methodology were able to point out how badly the study was done. Without Christians who are knowledgeable about how science works, this study may have contributed to some of the already potent anti-Christian stereotypes out there.

Christians need strong intellectual leadership. The sort of leadership that can serve to protect Christians from unfair intellectual attacks but can also provide direction. This is not an argument of providing unbridled power to those Christians with academic training. Having academic training is not a guarantee of critical thinking or wisdom. In fact, given some of the values that have invaded academia, and the sort of biases that are alive and well among scholars, it is worth being a little hesitant to follow the direction of academics. But I have found that generally Christians in academia face philosophical challenges that improve our insight. There is nothing like being in an environment where almost everyone around you is smart but disagrees with you on the basic philosophical ideas about life, eternity and society that sharpens your own arguments. You will either capitulate under the intellectual pressure in the environment, or you will learn what is valuable about your faith and worldview while jettisoning that which is not.

Because many Christian academics, especially those who have obtained their graduate training in a non-Christian school, have learned to balance their Christian worldview with a more humanist perspective to find the best of both worlds, looking towards them for intellectual leadership provides another important benefit. It can help protect Christians from insularity. Sometimes Christian communities engage in harmful practices such as shepherding, whereby Christian leaders become authority figures who control almost every part of the lives of the members. But we can reduce the possibility of becoming too insular by listening to Christian scholars who have a foot in both the Christian world and academia. We can also protect ourselves, by concentrating on developing the critical thinking skills of other Christians. It becomes harder for one charismatic figure to become too influential when we are a community of independent critical thinkers.

So I hope that my fellow Christian brothers and sisters will take my challenge towards accepting intellectualism. We need to combat the anti-intellectual instincts some Christians possess. In doing, so we can strengthen our Christian subculture and make it more sustainable in a post-Christian world. Furthermore, we will be in a better position to serve the larger society and be the type of salt the Lord wants to sprinkle unto the world.


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2 responses to “Christians and Intellectual Endeavors”

  1. Well said. It would be interesting to see how seminary professors are viewed by Christians with anti-intellectual inclinations. Does the anti-intellectualism apply across the board or just those disciplines deemed potentially ‘harmful’ in some way or those perceived as hostile.

  2. This is an unnecessary conundrum. If people knew the true functions of the soul, and the place of the born again spirit, there would be much less confusion. The soul is the organ of expression. It is not the source of knowledge or wisdom. As Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

    The danger to the emotion-driven Christian is that they will seek good feelings to validate their experience and beliefs rather than truth. The danger to the intellectually inclined is that doctrine and the pursuit of knowledge becomes more important than a vital relationship with our heavenly Father.

    I was born with a thirst for knowledge. While my 7 year old peers were reading Disney comics I was reading the Encyclopedia in our home library. I brought this inclination to my Christian life when I was born again at the age of 20. “Study to show yourself approved….” Hey, I was in the top ten! However, having an encyclopedic knowledge of the bible was useless to me when life went pear shaped. Truth has to be known in the spirit man, not just memorised in the mind.

    I still enjoy a serious study, getting into the Greek meanings and so on. But I no longer pursue knowledge for the sake of it. I also read, “Knowledge puffs up……”

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