“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
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 the biblical God’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 full well why curiosity is bad. Once you allow people to start asking questions and following them wherever they lead, those questions may very well end up leading them out of the clutches of the very same institutions warning them to accept what they have been told.
Not too long ago, Pope Francis spoke out against the dangers of curiosity:
[W]e 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. (emphasis mine)
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 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. 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, according to the Pentateuch.
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 boss by “coming down” and instantaneously confusing their languages so that they would stop progressing in their institutional advancement. In this some see the mirror image of what happens on 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. 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, since the unfettered pursuit of knowledge struck them as a power grab, an affront to the supremacy of Yahweh. For them, wisdom must begin and end 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.
Related: “Religion and the Nepotism of the Mind“
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 mastery over them?
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 would 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
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 small 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 young children that so endeared them to him?
Younger children are trusting, 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 understood by them 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 Thirst for Learning
So where does this leave the intellectual Christian today? Clearly there have been intellectual traditions within the Christian faith over the centuries, some with rich and sophisticated histories. Some of the greatest western thinkers were Christians, and some of them even made theology and biblical study their primary focus. I won’t deny that.
However, I submit that these highly intelligent people developed and contributed to their various traditions in spite of the pervasive anti-intellectualism found throughout the Bible. These people demonstrate the human desire to understand the world better even in the midst of settings where such ambitions are disparaged. On behalf of the human race, I’m proud of their drive to know more and to make sense of the religion they were taught to believe (in most cases when they were still very young and impressionable).
Some of them will find that their quest leads them out of any tradition that relies on the Bible as a guide for intelligent thought. In time they will come to see that each of the biblical writers brought his own prejudices and incomplete understandings into the process of producing that book. Some will eventually conclude that the book they were taught is perfect gets a large number of things wrong.
For some, this won’t deter them from worshiping the person of Jesus as they understand him from their own critical analysis of the gospels. Personally, I don’t see how one could reconstruct an accurate picture of this man from such a deeply flawed book, but that’s not my fight. As far as I’m concerned, major progress has been made by anyone who has made it over the initial hurdle of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. May their tribe increase, along with any others willing to defy the anti-intellectualism of the Bible.
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