Called to the Life of the Mind: Read an Excerpt

Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
Called to the Life of the Mind
Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars
By Richard J. Mouw

Book Excerpt

There is more to the Kingdom of God than academic pursuit. That is an obvious thing to say. God certainly wants us to acknowledge the gifts of people who function outside of the academy—even to absorb their wisdom.

At a gathering of seminary faculty members representing a broad spectrum of church traditions, we were discussing the purposes of theological education. The formulation we were focusing on was the idea that theological education should aim at "the knowledge of God." In a lengthy discussion of what it means to "know God," one person proposed that to know God properly requires that we have a fairly technical grasp of various concepts related to God's nature. This proposal seemed to go over well with most of the other participants, but it made me uneasy. I was disturbed and so I asked the group: Doesn't this make the knowledge of God primarily an intellectual exercise? After all, if knowing God properly requires that we grasp certain concepts about God's nature, then we would have to conclude that those people who haven't thought a lot about those concepts really don't know God as truly as those who have done a lot of thinking about those concepts.

"Well," a colleague responded, "what would be wrong with saying that?" I replied that I found his suggestion to be very elitist. And then I added what I thought was an impressive rhetorical touch: "Surely you don't think that Mother Teresa would have understood God better had she gone to seminary!" Much to my surprise, my colleague confessed that he did think that Mother Teresa would have known God better if she had received a seminary education.

I think that this perspective is seriously misguided. Not everyone is called to cultivate the life of the mind in a disciplined manner. Some servants of the Lord are fitted for different things. Certainly that was true of Mother Teresa. Our job as intellectuals is not to disdain her calling, but to respect her gifts—and perhaps even to study her—in the way that, say, musical theorists might study a prodigy who plays the violin marvelously with almost no formal training in the art.

Not everyone in the Christian community needs to be seriously involved in intellectual pursuits. But it is important—crucially so—that the Christian community have some people who are cultivating the intellectual disciplines. While I do not regret, even in the smallest degree, that Mother Teresa was not well educated, I am glad that she could serve, and draw strength from, a larger Christian community that supports the intellectual enterprise.

Engaging in serious scholarship is not a prerequisite for an individual's serving the Lord effectively, but the overall patterns of effective Christian service will not be very healthy unless there is communal support from and for good teachers and scholars.

When I was teaching in the Philosophy Department at Calvin College, one of my older colleagues liked to tell a story about a conversation he had once overheard between two undergraduate women. The two students were talking in the hallway outside his office. His door was slightly ajar, so he could hear what they were saying—especially since the conversation was impassioned. The boyfriend of one of the young women had just broken up with her, and she was distraught, sobbing loudly. Her friend tried to comfort her, but none of her therapeutic strategies seemed to be working. Finally, the would-be counselor made a bold pastoral move. "Look," she said, "you've just got to be philosophical about this!" "What do you mean?" the distraught young woman asked through her tears. To which her friend replied: "Just don't think about it!"

This is a story I have told often, not only to philosophy students the first day of a course, but also when praising the scholarly life in general. Whatever pastoral value that piece of advice may have had to the grieving college student, it is not a good understanding of philosophy or any other academic pursuit. A healthy Christian community is one in which at least a segment of that community is encouraged, on behalf of the whole, to "think about it" in consistent and rigorous ways.