The Bible’s Attitude Toward the Life of the Mind

The Bible’s Attitude Toward the Life of the Mind December 4, 2016

books

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” —Ecclesiastes

Secularists like me became legitimately concerned when we first learned that our new president-elect selected billionaire right-wing megadonor Betsy DeVos to be his Secretary of Education. It was bad enough discovering that the woman soon to take over the management of our nation’s education department has no education degree, has never taught or worked for a public school system in any way, did not attend public schools herself, nor did she send any of her own children to public schools.

More than that, she is a Christian dominionist of the Reformed variety, which does not bode well for advocates for the separation of church and state. Rob Boston, spokesman for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State once called DeVos a “four-star general in a deceptive behind-the-scenes war on public schools and church-state separation.” Later this week I want to unpack some of the things she has said on record about her view of the church’s role in shaping public education, but before moving on to this morning’s Godless Walk Through the Bible I wanted to mention her presence in our new presidential administration because it’s relevant.

Contrary to what many have already suggested, DeVos herself most likely isn’t a Young Earth creationist, but the bulk of her work for the last decade has focused on redirecting taxpayer money from the public educational system to reinforce private Christian schools which will teach Creationism whether she would do so herself or not. She and her husband have poured millions of dollars into a massive multi-state push for vouchers which allow parents to use public money to pay for a privately controlled religious education. I see this as a highly unethical move* which shows blatant disregard for the Establishment Clause, although a majority conservative Supreme Court will almost certainly rule in favor of it.

I fear Margaret Atwood‘s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale may soon become as much a prophetic work as the irreverent film Idiocracy. I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that Hulu will be releasing a new film adaptation of that work three months into first year of the Trump/Pence administration. Incidentally, I will typically mention the president and VP together as a single package because I suspect the former has delegated the majority of his practical decisions to the latter since he has no interest in actually running a country. He’s only in it for the rallies and the boost to his Twitter readership.

But back to the subject of today’s post.

What is the biblical attitude toward the life of the mind? Is the Christian faith pro-intellect? Or does it maintain a fundamentally antagonistic posture toward learning, toward education, toward research and development, and toward academic and scientific endeavors in general? Does it value free inquiry, or does it compulsively control the inquiry process to ensure that only pre-approved conclusions are drawn, which is not real learning at all?

It is my contention that the Bible is a fundamentally anti-intellectual book, and I want to show you several clear examples of that tendency woven throughout the story of Yahweh’s dealings with humanity. It’s not just in one place, it’s everywhere.

Don’t Eat From That Tree

The very first story in the Bible reads like a cautionary tale for those who are “too curious,” who want to know things they were never meant to know. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the first human couple was warned not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But why? What could possibly be wrong with humans wanting to understand more than they understood before? What is so bad about curiosity?

Religious institutions know good and well why curiosity is bad. Once you allow yourself to start asking questions and following them wherever they lead, those questions may very well end up leading you out of the clutches of the very same institutions warning you to accept what you have been told.

Do you recall when Pope Francis spoke out against the dangers of curiosity? Not too long ago, he said:

The spirit of God…helps us to judge, to make decisions according to the heart of God. And this spirit gives us peace, always! 

[In the Gospels] we find ourselves before another spirit, contrary to the wisdom of God: the spirit of curiosity…The spirit of curiosity distances us from the Spirit of wisdom…the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.

Pope Francis seems like a nice guy, as far as I can tell. But he’s employed by one of the most controlling institutions in human history, and one which knows all too well how badly things go if you don’t squelch this “spirit of curiosity” as soon as possible.

Adam and Eve were banned from the Garden for listening to the serpent, who showed them that this forbidden tree “would make them wise.” Evidently that wasn’t okay by Yahweh, and for this all humanity is now bound for hell, barring any divine intervention to spare them the consequences of this dastardly deed. That’s what we got for being curious, and for wanting to understand more than we were permitted to understand.

The Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys

Moving forward through the first couple of books of the Bible, we find that the “seed of the serpent” and the “seed of the woman” mentioned in Genesis 3:15 will eventually grow into rival tribes and ultimately rivaling kingdoms. The original compilers of these stories seemed quite determined to contrast God’s people (“those who call on the name of Yahweh”) with the people who serve the enemy of God, even if unbeknownst to them at the time.

Some would argue this enmity manifested itself as early as the very first children of Adam and Eve. While the favored brother maintained livestock and offered an animal sacrifice from among his trade to appease Yahweh, the other brother grew crops and offered Yahweh a sacrifice from among his produce as well. It would seem Yahweh was less pleased with Cain’s agriculture than he was with Abel’s animal husbandry, perhaps revealing the remnants of an early rivalry between conflicting cultures of the ancient Levant.

This antipathy toward technological and cultural innovation would continue for the duration of the story of the history of Israel. According to the Bible, it was Cain (the evil brother) who first urbanized, building a city for himself and for his descendants. It was his descendants who first invented musical instruments, who developed tools and weapons of bronze and iron, and who developed housing and husbandry into profitable trades. Meanwhile the descendants of Seth, the third child born to Adam and Eve, were merely known for “calling upon the name of Yahweh.”

In other words it was the bad guys, not the good guys, who were the cultural pioneers. The good guys—the ones who enjoyed the favor of Yahweh—were the ones who devoted themselves to prayer and to being content with doing things exactly the way their ancestors taught them to do things. Progress and innovation were the province of the wicked, not the righteous.

Yahweh Has an Edifice Complex

In Genesis 11 we find one of the most fascinating stories of all. No longer content with the tents and huts of their forebears, some industrious individuals adopted a new way to make bricks, binding them together with tar so that they could build much taller buildings that reach up into the sky. Yahweh didn’t like this one bit, since he seemed to view the sky as his own personal domain. They were talking as if almost anything were possible if they pooled their resources together, and who would ever call on the name of the Lord then?

He showed those cheeky humans who’s the boss by “coming down” and instantaneously confusing their languages so that they wouldn’t continue progressing in their institutional advancement. It was sort of the mirror image of what happens in the story of the Day of Pentecost when a single group of people were suddenly and miraculously enabled to speak (or at least be heard in) the languages of dozens of nationalities from around the known world.

This wouldn’t be the last time the Bible portrayed the bad guys as obsessed with building programs or technological innovation. Despite the confusion of their languages, later empires would rise and fall on the strengths of their own urban development and military innovation. The various kingdoms of ancient Egypt remain famous even today for their mind-boggling structures (which our study of history has demonstrated owes nothing at all to enslaved Hebrews, which were almost certainly a fiction), many of which are still left standing today.

And let’s not forget that insightful little comment left for us in Judges 1:19 where it says that Yahweh (not Judah) was unable to take the lowlands of a region “because they had chariots of iron.” Israel could very well have developed this strength of weaponry for themselves, but they seemed unmotivated to acquire that capability since from their perspective they were supposed to trust God to determine the outcome of their battles.

Imagine for a moment what that mentality would do to a country. I’m sure there are arenas where piety is an asset, but governing a country among adversarial rivals doesn’t seem to be one of them. I would argue the same could be said for a robust educational system, not to mention for industries which rely heavily on scientific curiosity and technological innovation.

Hebrew Wisdom and the Retooling of Education

Moving forward through the Bible, we come to the prophets, the psalms, and writings of poetry. The latter two in particular speak a great deal about wisdom, which was the favorite word for learning among ancient civilizations. The pursuit of wisdom was the ancient version of education, only the Hebrews had their own peculiar way of addressing it.

For the Hebrews, wisdom was never about learning for its own sake. It was never about free inquiry per se, as such an unfettered pursuit of knowledge-as-power struck them as an affront to the supremacy of Yahweh. Remember what happened in the Garden, folks. No, for the people of ancient Israel, wisdom begins and ends as an act of worship. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge,” the writer of Proverbs tells us at the outset. Steeped in thoroughly pietistic philosophy, this collection of sayings drives home the same point again and again, restating the same principle in slightly different ways:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Prov. 3:5-6)

Knowledge and learning, according to the writers of the Bible, are ultimately implements in the worship of Yahweh. They are not tools for the betterment of humankind. As a humanist, of course, this is one of the many places I have to part ways with the biblical view of the life of the mind.

History and personal experience impress upon me that knowledge and inquiry have to be free from sectarian constraint if they are ever to guide us into a greater understanding of the world around us. The religious approach to science gets in the way of this since it typically begins with its prescribed conclusions already in place, then reverse engineers the parameters of research to insure that the outcomes turn out the way that they’re supposed to.

Come to think of it, with all these limitations, how were we ever supposed to exercise dominion, “ruling over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth?” Wouldn’t that last category also include microbes like viruses and bacteria? Shouldn’t we provide our scientists the tools they need to experiment and explore the boundaries of such things in order to achieve this mastery of things?

Yet how many scientific and medical breakthroughs have been denied us thus far because pietistic groups and wealthy individuals refuse to allow funding on account of their religious hang-ups? How many cures for diseases are we currently denying ourselves because they require advancing research into the use of stem cells, and wealthy fundamentalists simply won’t allow anything that infringes upon their own imagined demarcations of “personhood?”

The anti-intellectual bent of the Abrahamic faiths holds back any culture which feels bound by its prejudices. I know that may not have always been the case in every generation, but it certainly is in ours, and that is the one I have to deal with.

Anti-Intellectualism and the New Testament

It seems to me that Jesus himself was no fan of intellectualism, either.  He boasted that his message could only be received by the simple-minded because God chose to hide the most important things from the wise and learned (Matt. 11:25).  He would often point to a child and say that you must become like one of them in order to really “get” what he was offering. But what is it about children that so endeared them to him?

Children are trusting and uncritical thinkers who automatically believe what their caregivers tell them about virtually anything and everything. Along the same lines, he went on to discourage planning for the future—a characteristic trait of intelligent beings—as if that were somehow a sign of weak devotion to the faith, a failure to trust God (Matt. 6:19-34). In my estimation, Bertrand Russell was right:  “There is not one word in the gospels in praise of intelligence.”  On the contrary, at times Jesus seemed positively against it.

But no one denigrated intelligence and education more blatantly than the apostle Paul, the man supposedly responsible for writing 13 of the 27 New Testament books (and whose travel companions Mark and Luke are traditionally credited with writing a large portion of the rest of the New Testament). He boasted that his ministry deliberately avoided “wise and persuasive words” because faith, according to him, must not be founded on “words of human wisdom”(1 Cor. 2:1-4).

Like Jesus before him, Paul revelled in the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of his followers were not well-educated or highly intelligent (1 Cor. 1:26). He bluntly declared that the message he preached was “foolishness” to those not enlightened by supernatural revelation (v.18), nor could it be otherwise because the human mind cannot properly grasp spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:13-14).  Paul clearly worked within a thoroughly dualistic framework which drew a sharp line between rationality and spiritual profundity.

A Recipe for Mediocrity

The Bible’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) deprecation of expertise and of knowledge and learning may ultimately be our undoing. I fear sometimes that my country cannot survive its own decidedly anti-intellectual bent, a posture which seems to have evolved as a natural consequence of two oddly complementary commitments: our staunch devotion to Abrahamic piety and our easily manipulated love of democracy.

True freedom cannot thrive except within a democracy in which every voice matters. But if every voice matters in everything, then the word of the novice counts the same as that of the expert, and there are far more of the former than there are of the latter. Our current administration seems bound and determined to put people in charge of national departments who know virtually nothing about how to manage their respective responsibilities. In fact, the president-elect is himself a newcomer to national politics, and has never held a public office or worked for another person in his entire life.

Time will tell how bad we let things get in my country. But I fear for now that people love the fact that experts are being overlooked in their own fields in favor of people who know virtually nothing about them. This tracks perfectly with the book that teaches that a little Hebrew boy with a slingshot is as powerful as a giant Philistine trained for combat.

But in real life, the giant with the sword kills the kid with the slingshot every time.

[Image Source: Unsplash]

Note: Much of the content of this post appeared in an earlier article entitled “Anti-Intellectualism and the Bible,” but as I am both a perfectionist and a glutton for punishment, I decided to revisit whole topic again today from scratch, reproducing only one small portion because I couldn’t really say it any more succinctly.

__________

* I consider the work of DeVos and other like her as “highly unethical” for at least a couple of reasons. First, in practice it disproportionately advantages the already privileged, worsening the educational gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” despite the flowery rhetoric about competition helping everyone including those at the bottom of the economic food chain. This is what progressive Christians call “institutional sin” (see also Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Moral Man and Immoral Society).

Second, in order to push their dominionist agenda onto a public square designed to remain neutral on matters of religion, they consistently cloak their interests and aims by naming their efforts in a deceptive way, concealing the overtly religious principles governing everything they do. It’s ultimately a marketing ploy, and an effective one at that. But for a bunch who pride themselves on “transforming the culture,” this strikes me as a highly opportunistic and commercial strategy. So much for being “in the world but not of it.”

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