Churches and Intellectuals

Churches and Intellectuals October 31, 2013

Stephen Mattson has written a piece for Sojourners, “Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals?Here is a sample:

By their very nature, intellectuals are curious. They analyze, theorize, and love to ask questions. These attributes are often criticized by church leaders and seen as an attack on traditional and established institutionalized beliefs. Innocent inquires are often met with an “How dare you question what we say?!” type of response, often followed up by cold-hearted exclusion and derision.

Many churches stubbornly hold theological, political, and social positions simply because they've always been that way, and changing them would be admitting defeat. Change itself is viewed as dangerous.

The amazing thing is that Jesus condemned those who were the most certain about their beliefs — the Pharisees. And much of Christ’s ministry revolved around trying to get people to change! Maybe we should start doing the same.

In many faith communities, certainty is preferred over doubt, answers are preferred over questions, compliance is preferred over objections, contentment is preferred over conflict, and conformity is preferred over disruption. Oftentimes, intellectuals simply give up on the church not because they don't have faith, but simply because they're ostracized by church leaders and excluded from their faith communities.

Click through to read the rest.

I am reminded once again what a special place Crooked Creek Baptist Church is. It provides a wonderfully welcome place for intellectuals, without alienating everyone else in the process!


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  • Brian P.

    In my experience, I would differ with this statement: “…simply because they’ve always been that way, and changing them would be admitting defeat. Change itself is viewed as dangerous.” I have enough decades lived that I have seen churches and their styles, emphases, leadership, and theologies *profoundly* change over time. Yet… it always seemed that which is is claimed to have been that which has always been. In my experience, “because they’ve always been that way” is a gross misunderstanding of the causation. It is more explanation than causation, it is a backstory offered to heighten credibility having certain possible parallel’s with George Orwell’s, “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” This means that it is not “change itself” that is viewed as dangerous. No, it is a certain type of change that is dangerous. It is change that I, or we, those of us on the inside, in the seats of power and influence, those of us who knew we are on the good graces of God do not control. It is not change that is dangerous. It is loss of control that is feared. And frankly, in my opinion, it is a sad way to live. I for one will no follow those who lead this way. What if more simply did not follow those who lead in such way?

  • Give me that old time religion
    give me that old time religion
    Give me that old time religion
    It’s good enough for me
    Makes me love everybody
    Makes me love everybody
    Makes me love everybody
    It’s good enough for me
    It was good for Hebrew children
    it was good for Hebrew children
    It was good for Hebrew children
    And it’s good enough for me

  • James Pate

    “It provides a wonderfully welcome place for intellectuals, without alienating everyone else in the process!”

    That does sound like the ideal setting!

  • Gary

    I wish a different word was used to describe a group of people. Having been in school, when Mao’s cultural revolution took place, “intellectual” has a bad connotation for some. It also implies everyone else (non-intellectuals), are stupid.

  • RustbeltRick

    Yes, they alienate intellectuals, contrarians, introverts and God knows what other segment of society. The mega-church of my youth was located in the heart of UAW country yet seemed to be the most white collar place imaginable; it was located in a city that was diverse, yet Sunday mornings were lily white. Talk about lost opportunities.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    Wikipedia defines intellectual as “a specific variety of the intelligent, which unlike the general property, is strictly associated with reason and thinking.”

    In my experience, it isn’t so much the church that alienates such intellectuals, but rather certain people inside the church who do so. I consider myself an intellectual according to the Wikipedia definition above, but I am also a very active Catholic. In fact, I head the lay pastoral team for my parish.

    But here’s the thing: the more closely I’ve worked with the formally religious (bishops, priests, deacons and nuns), the more aware I’ve become of their own willingness to look beyond the formal restrictions of The Church (with a capital C) and towards a more inclusive vision of church with a small C. This doesn’t means that they’re all willing to abandon dogma at the drop of a hat; far from it. But it does mean that they don’t see inquiry and doubt necessarily as manifestations of evil.

    There is room for disagreement within the large tent of the church (again, with the small C). Devout Christians don’t have to turn of their brains and walk in lock-step without question.

    Your mileage, as they say, may vary. There are tremendous differences in openness from one denomination to another and from one constituency to another. That’s why dialogue in forums like this one is so important.

    • Gary

      I would not call myself an intellectual. I’d be embarrassed to say that. By saying I am an intellectual, I am implying that others are not intellectuals. So I am implying that others are not using their intellect. Rather offensive, I think. But maybe I am over sensitive. I do not like the word intellectual.

      • Shaun G. Lynch

        Gary, I don’t know why you think that applying the word “intellectual” to oneself implies that one believes that others are not using their intellect. It merely describes an approach to understanding the world. But I agree that it’s not really being employed appropriately in this article. It might be more correct to speak in terms of people who take a predominantly “cognitive” approach to understanding their world, as opposed to affective, spiritual or conative approaches.

  • I’ve become skeptical to many things because of people’s commitment to doctrine–my own included. We’re all going to evaluate and measure each other’s faith, and I find it’s better to measure by miles than millimeters.