Whatever Happened to the Christian Mind?
Yes, I know, this has been asked before—numerous times and by many Christian philosophers and theologians. A relatively recent classic on the subject is Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994). Francis Schaeffer, especially in his early works, decried Christian anti-intellectualism. Recently a friend sent me this statement by A. W. Tozer, an evangelical preacher and writer of a previous generation (than mine or my parents):
“There is, unfortunately, a feeling in some quarters today that there is something innately wrong about learning, and that to be spiritual one must also be stupid. This tacit philosophy has given us in the last half century a new cult within the confines of orthodoxy; I call it the Cult of Ignorance. It equates learning with unbelief and spirituality with ignorance, and, according to it, never the twain shall meet. This is reflected in a wretchedly inferior religious literature, a slap-happy type of religious meeting, and a grade of Christian song so low as to be positively embarrassing.”
Recently I’ve been re-reading an old book I read many years ago—Hardness of Heart by Edmond Cherbonnier (who, by the way, is still alive at age 97!). The book is a study of the Christian doctrine of sin but begins with a scathing critique of relativism. Cherbonnier scorns the fact that some Christians cannot detect blatant paganism when they encounter it. (One example he gives in this book from the 1950s is an annual Easter performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal” routinely recommended even by some Christians as a “Christian-themed opera.”)
I absolutely hate to come across as a hyper-critical, “old-school,” Christian curmudgeon, but I have so often overheard Christians talking about Christian themes in movies, plays, novels, and other elements of popular culture that I groan inwardly. I remember well in high school being taught by my wonderful English literature teachers that any fictional character with the initials “J.C.” was a “Christ figure.” Whatever happened to discernment?
Just because a piece of popular culture, or even a classic, deals with perennial issues of human existence such as sin and salvation, life’s ultimate concerns, does not make it “Christian-themed.” But I digress…
I grew up in one of the most anti-intellectual of all Christian denominations, and yet…at least my spiritual mentors, for all their faults, emphasized what Hans Frei called allowing the Bible to “absorb the world.” (Or maybe that phrase was coined by Frei’s colleague George Lindbeck to describe Frei’s idea of the Christian mind in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.) From childhood I was trained to “see” the world “as” God’s world and to think about all reality in relation to the Bible’s story of God, creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Sure, there was a lot of confusion mixed in there, but the basic idea was to practice what James Sire called “discipleship of the mind.” After I extricated myself from fundamentalism I still found that to be an essential element of Christian living. Sadly, for too many Christians, it is not.
The problem is not just one of ignorance as in “not knowing facts.” That’s bad enough. Too many Christians, including conservative-evangelical Christians, don’t even know the Bible. How many can even find a book, chapter and verse in the Bible without being told the “page number in the pew Bible?” No, the larger problem is confusion of the Christian story with other stories. We live in a pluralistic culture and I celebrate that. But I also celebrate Christians in this pluralistic culture knowing and understanding their own story—the story of God and us told in the Bible. Unfortunately, many Christians know popular culture better. I know many Christians who saw the 1998 movie “What Dreams May Come” starring Robin Williams and thought it was a “beautiful depiction of life after death.” In fact, its depiction of life after death was a mish-mash of beliefs with no coherence and little to no concurrence with the Bible’s view.
Too many Christians today are so afraid of being called “fundamentalist” or “fanatic” that they flee from memorizing Scripture or learning doctrine, to say nothing of daring to call something parading as “Christian” false. And they not only see no value in, but positively avoid, forming a coherent Christian worldview in conversation with the great minds of Christian history: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Carl Henry, Stanley Hauerwas.
I have taught Christian theology for thirty-four years at three Christian universities and spoken in many Christian institutions of higher learning and churches. I have met many wonderful Christians determined to practice “discipleship of the mind,” to develop a biblical-Christian worldview and see the world through that lens. But I have also met many who simply don’t care, who think being Christian is emulating Jesus in terms of being a nice person. Even some Christian professors spout ideas they learned in graduate school that absolutely conflict with basic Christianity. And they don’t seem to worry about it when it’s pointed out to them. More often than not, pointing it out to them gets one labeled a member of the “evangelical thought police.”
When I taught Christian theology (mostly historical theology) at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college there was a strong emphasis on “integration of faith and learning.” And yet some of my faculty colleagues resisted the idea. Some ridiculed it. And some responded with benign neglect. I will never forget being taught in a faculty workshop led by a Communications professor that “If they haven’t learned, you haven’t taught.” Besides being simply stupid, that maxim is biblically false—however widely believed it may be by Communications and Education experts. It falls into conflict with the biblical-Christian doctrine of sin. I’m not talking about any specific doctrine of sin; I’m talking about the Bible’s teaching that we are all prone to willful ignorance—especially in spiritual matters. What I wanted to stand up and ask my colleague and the others in that workshop was “What about Jesus?” Nothing could possibly be clearer than that he taught and many of his listeners didn’t learn.
I’m not pointing the finger at one person or discipline; I’m using that as one example out of numerous possible ones. Another colleague, a computer science professor, told me he views God as a great “cosmic computer.” Another colleague, a social scientist admitted that he does not believe in miracles or anything supernatural. An anthropology professor told me there is no trans-cultural gospel. I could go on and on. (These examples are drawn from all three of the Christian universities in which I have taught.)
We live in a Christian subculture in America (I won’t speak for others) that has fallen into gross ignorance of basic Christian philosophy, metaphysics, worldview. We do not train ourselves or our young people to “see” the world “as”—God’s good but broken creation. Most Christians’ minds are a confused mess of ideas drawn more from popular culture than Scripture or Christian tradition. The evidence is near total lack of critical discernment with regard to popular culture and messages labeled “spiritual,” “moral,” even “Christian.” For the most part, unfortunately, only fundamentalists care about clear cut Christian ideas and critical discernment toward popular culture and messages labeled “religious” or “spiritual.” We moderates care about ethics and spirituality, but not doctrine or worldview. Christianity, we say, is a “way of life” but not a way of thinking. Is it any wonder we adopt naturalism and New Age ideas? Some of us are more interested in the Enneagram than the Nicene Creed!
Recently I was told in public that the problem I point to is the result of deviation from biblical inerrancy. Nonsense and balderdash. (For a counter example see Scottish theologian James Orr’s outstanding classic The Christian View of God and the World [Eerdmans, 1954]. Orr did not believe in biblical inerrancy but was a great Christian thinker nonetheless.) Unless “biblical inerrancy” just means belief that the Bible is the unique, inspired, and authoritative Word of God. But I know many Christians who would gladly confess belief in even the strictest sense of “biblical inerrancy” and still revel in willful ignorance, anti-intellectualism, gullibility and rejection of clear Christian thinking. The underlying problem is cultural populism and anti-intellectualism invading the churches. We have, as Tozer suggested, dumbed Christianity down to near emptiness.
The solution is simple. Go back and start over. Wipe away the last quarter to half century of sole emphasis on “practical Christianity” to the exclusion of Christian discernment. Start teaching children the Bible, not just “Bible stories.” Return to memorizing key portions of the Bible and singing songs and hymns with meaningful lyrics. Teach everyone that God expects us to worship him with our minds, not just our feelings. Institute catechism classes. Gently but firmly correct church members who protest that “All our ideas about God are equal.” Re-invigorate the idea that biblical-theological education is a must for pastoral leaders and that sermons ought to teach as well as inspire. Encourage “life groups” to study Christian books that teach and stretch the mind. Invite theologians and biblical scholars to speak in the church and (pastors) urge the people to attend. A few years ago I visited a church where the pastor routinely devoted ten to fifteen minutes of the Sunday morning worship service to a mini-talk by a visiting and invited Christian scholar. It’s a beginning.
Christianity in America has by-and-large been reduced to folk religion. A folk religion is a spirituality divorced from tradition and critical thinking. It thrives on clichés, evangelegends, and feelings (mostly of comfort). It lacks intellectual rigor, concern for coherence (among beliefs), thrives on spiritual stimulation devoid of discernment, and regards everyone as an “expert” in his or her own spirituality. The result is a loss of credibility and influence and, tragically, eventually of the gospel itself.