Archive for February, 2011

Neglect of the Christian Mind

February 28, 2011

“The greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”

This disturbing assessment was made by Dr. Charles Malik, an old and wise Christian statesman and former president of the United Nations General Assembly, in an essay which one Canadian Christian educator has identified as “required reading for every born-again Christian in North America” Christianity Today (Nov. 7, 1980).

I see two significant kinds of anti-intellectualism within evangelical and Mennonite churches today. There is first of all an outright denial of the mind as important. This is in a large measure simply a reflection of the spirit of anti-intellectualism that pervades our entire society. Subjective emotional experience is all that matters for many people today.

John R.W. Stott tells the story of a minister who believed in the important place of the intellect in preaching. Some didn’t like it. A church member wrote to the minister to complain: “Whenever I go to church, I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never have any use for anything above my collar button.”

There is also the tendency on the part of some to see the work of the Holy Spirit as incompatible with the exercise of the mind. Contrary to Paul, some feel that when a person sings or prays with the spirit, he cannot at the same time sing and pray with his mind (I Cor. 14:15).

As Anabaptists/Mennonites, we like to stress the need to put truth into practice. The old Mennonite motto was “he who would know Christ truly must follow him daily in life.” This is a healthy emphasis, but there is the danger that this is somehow seen as incompatible with the search for truth, as something of value in and of itself. Thus some have expressed concern about the scarcity of theological scholarship in our circles, as well as in the evangelical community at large.

The second kind of anti-intellectualism is more subtle, but perhaps more significant. There are an increasing number in our churches who must in some way acknowledge the importance of the intellect, as discussed above. The level of education of members in our churches has increased substantially over the past several decades. We have many students, teachers and other professionals in our ranks.

But, there is a tragic failure on the part of many of these same individuals to cultivate a specifically Christian mind in their studies or professions. The Christian faith is somehow compartmentalized so that it is only relevant to the saving of one’s soul, not to the thinking that is required in one’s field of study or chosen profession. Thus, Christianity is stripped of a significant portion of its intellectual implications.

Again and again, I meet students who have not begun to think through their field of study from a Christian point of view. There are Christian psychiatrists who deny the doctrine of original sin when they practice psychiatry; lawyers who fail to see how the biblical principles of justice and fairness relate to their practice; teachers who refuse to acknowledge God as the source of all truth taught; businessmen who don’t seem to share the biblical concern for the poor and the needy.

We are generally unconcerned about our children being indoctrinated into a secular frame of mind in our public schools. Where we have provided an alternative to public education, there is a tendency to think that the only difference between our own Christian schools and public schools is that our schools have chapel each day, and the positive influence of Christian teachers. We have not fully appreciated the difference Christ should make to the study of history, science, and even mathematics.

There is a serious need to reaffirm the importance of the intellect. The mind is an essential aspect of human nature. God made us this way, and right from the start, communicated with man and woman as though they were intelligent beings (Gen. 2). We are to love God with our whole being, including our minds (Matt. 22:37). We must be careful that our zeal for God is based on knowledge (Rom. 10:2).  Our thinking must not be conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2).  The fear of the Lord is to be seen as the beginning of knowledge – all knowledge (Prov. 1:7). In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Christians are called to cultivate a uniquely Christian mind.  We are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 17, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)



On Academic Arrogance

February 21, 2011

The know-it-all attitude of the undergraduate student at a university; the willingness to expound at great lengths on any and every subject on the part of the graduate student; the confident airs put on by the college or university professor – all of these are examples of academic arrogance. Academic arrogance is unfortunately all too common, and is enhanced, no doubt, by the attitude that persists in our society that the university-educated person or the educated professional are somehow superior to those who have received only a high-school education.

Arrogance is of course everybody’s problem, but it would seem that the academic is particularly susceptible to this vice. It is most significant that the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was  called a tree of  “knowledge” (Gen. 2:17). The essence of the original sin consisted of man and woman arrogantly telling God, “I know better than you. I think the fruit looks good and I will trust my own senses, my own reason, rather than take you at your Word.” And, ever since, arrogance tends to accompany our claims to knowledge, or even just the pursuit of knowledge (cf. Rom. 1:21-2; II Cor. 10:4-5).

Academic arrogance is wrong, first of all, because there is little reason for it. No matter how brilliant, or how well educated one might be, one’s knowledge is really very puny. Although humans have made great strides in science, there is still much that we do not know. Thus, it is rather appropriate that several scientists have published a book entitled, The Encyclopedia of Ignorance.

Academics also don’t really have an edge over the “simple-minded” in terms of avoiding problems of closed-mindedness, bigotry, or self-deception. Faddishness is common among intellectuals too – just browse through some academic journals and you will observe the frantic chasing after some intellectual fad that appears suddenly, and then just as quickly passes from the scene.

Knowledge is no guarantee of virtue; education is no cure-all for the ills of society, as is so often assumed. There is just as much, if not more, immorality on our college and university campuses, as elsewhere. It may perhaps be cloaked in more sophisticated forms, but sophisticated evil is still evil.

Academic arrogance is not only wrong because it is without much foundation, and hence really un-academic; it is also wrong because of its religious significance. It involves rebellion against God. The Christian academic therefore must be particularly on guard against the sin of arrogance.

Humility is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the truly Christian mind. Christian scholars are careful to maintain an attitude of humility before God, who is their supreme authority. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7; Isa. 33:6).

Christian academics always acknowledge God as the source of all truth. They see themselves, not as the creators, but as the discoverers of truth.

The Christian mind is always aware of its limitations. Christians should always be careful not to give the impression that they have all the answers. We don’t! We only know in part. We only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13: 9,12).

Christian teachers are always a little surprised that they are called to teach.  After all, what have they got that they have not received as a gift from God?

Christian scholars do not shy away from trying to explain their profoundest insights to the layperson, and welcome the criticism this makes possible.

A Christian apologetic has a modest air about it. Our witness should always involve a humble proclamation of the gospel.

For the Christian academic, the discovery of truth should lead to worship (cf. Rom. 11:33-36). Worship is the antidote to all kinds of arrogance, including academic arrogance.

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Oct. 23, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)


Limits of Rationality

February 10, 2011


A central concern of education today has to do with the promotion of rationality. What is meant by “rationality” is not always clear, but there seem to be two essential elements: the providing of good and relevant reasons with respect to one’s beliefs or one’s behavior; and the exercising of a critical spirit. The latter is seen as a complement to reason, because it forces one to critically examine one’s beliefs in order to find out whether they can be supported by good reasons.

Thus, we find that a favorite teaching method of university professors, especially philosophy instructors, is to challenge the beliefs held by students. Sometimes this is taken to the extreme and an attempt is made to destroy the entire belief system held by a student. This will supposedly enable the student to start from scratch in building a new and more acceptable belief system, where each belief is accepted only after it has been shown that it can be rationally defended.

This emphasis on rationality and critical thought has a long history. Plato suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living. An important seventeenth century French philosopher, René Descartes perfected the method of critical or systematic doubt as a method of arriving at certainty and truth. More recently, Bertrand Russell optimistically argued that “rational doubt alone, if it could be generated, would suffice to introduce the millenium.”

There is certainly something to be said in favor of critically examining our beliefs and trying to support all the beliefs that we hold with good reasons. Human nature is such that we tend to believe unquestioningly, to trust authority blindly, and to become enmeshed in tradition without reason. These tendencies can be dangerous in that they can lead us to believe that which is false. As Christians we value truth, and a critical spirit is often an important tool to eliminate deeply entrenched error and falsehood. Thus there is a place for cultivating a critical spirit. The Bible also clearly describes persons as thinking beings, who can and should support their beliefs with good reasons.

But, concern for rationality and a critical spirit can be taken to extremes. The problem with many thinkers and educators is that they fail to do justice to the limits of rationality and criticism.

The basic difficulty with the demand for adequate reasons for all of our beliefs is that it is impossible to satisfy. Suppose I have a belief and a skeptic challenges me to provide a reason for it. I do so, but the skeptic now asks me to provide justification for this reason. The skeptic is still not satisfied and so the process goes on  – ad infinitum or ad nauseam. It is simply impossible for a finite intellect to provide an infinite heirarchy of reasons for beliefs held. We must start somewhere, with beliefs that do not themselves need support. In other words, all knowledge ultimately rests on faith.

A similar problem exists with the concern for cultivating a critical spirit. All thinking, including critical doubt, can only proceed if there are certain assumptions or presuppositions which are themselves not subjected to criticism. Of course one can critically examine these assumptions at a later time, but here again, we can do so only by accepting other assumptions which for the time being remain unquestioned. It is simply impossible to question everything at once. Again, we can only proceed in our thinking by first accepting certain beliefs on faith.

The Christian does not deny the importance of rationality and criticism. He or she only insists that these are put into proper perspective. Rationality and the critical spirit are limited and need to be supplemented by other ways of knowing which ultimately rest on faith. For the Christian, the basic presupposition and only adequate starting point for all knowing is faith in God.

French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way: “One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. Some men run counter to these three principles, either affirming that everything can be proved, because they know nothing about proof, or doubting everything, because they do not know when to submit, or always submitting, because they do not know when judgment is called for.”

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, August 28, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)