Neglect of the Christian Mind

“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.)

 

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