It is time once more to reach into the Feedback Files, which is where I answer questions sent to me by readers. This question comes from a person who may just be wanting to have me do his homework for him. A quick check of my university transcript would prove this to be an exceptionally poor idea. While I did graduate with a degree in history (summa cum averaga) my real major was euchre. I became an absolute master at euchre and at playing all sorts of the antiquated online computer games popular in the infancy of the Internet. But I digress. Here is the question:
I am reading a book called “God in The Wasteland” for my Christian Perspectives class. I have been thinking about you as I read it because you are doing so much work on the church. Check out this question from my professor. I would be interested in your awnser [sic].
Wells points out a tendency among some Christians to avoid involving the intellect with their faith: “…evangelicalism has bought cultural acceptability by emptying itself of serious thought, serious theology, serious worship, and serious practice in the larger culture. And most evangelicals appear to be completely oblivious to this sellout or at least unconvinced that the deal was a bad one” (Wells, p. 27). Do you agree that evangelical Christianity is anti-intellectual, and why do you agree or disagree? What do you think is the role of serious intellectual reflection in Christianity?
Before I begin, I should point out two things. First, while God in the Wasteland is on my wishlist, I do not have it and have not read it. Thus I am ignorant of all but the general theme of the book and this brief excerpt. I was suprised to see that I have one of Wells’ previous books, No Place For Truth or Whatever Happened To Evangelial Theology, but as I received it only this week, I have not read it either. This answer may be a case of the blind leading the seeing. Two, I am not going to answer this question in a way that would be appropriate for submission to an instructor, mostly because I have long since forgotten how to do this. Instead, I will rant and rave and invite you along for the ride. As I told my friend Carla the other day, I may not know much, but I sure am adept at pretending I do. So here goes.
Let’s break down Wells’ various points. He contends that evangelicalism has sought and found cultural acceptability. This has been done by:
- emptying itself of serious thought
- emptying itself of serious theology
- emptying itself of serious worship
- emptying itself of series practice in the larger culture
Is evangelical Christianity anti-intellectual?
Wells pulls no punches in his evaluation of evangelicalism. To the surprise of no one, I generally agree with his assessment. Allow me a moment to reflect on each of Wells’ points.
Serious Thought – Christians have stopped being thinkers. While it would be simplistic to assign fault to any single person, the false rift between the intellectual and the experiental seems to have begun primarily with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who lived between 1768 and 1834. Schleiermacher did much to redefine Christianity as a religion of subjective experience rather than objective truth. Modern evangelicalism has borrowed much from Schleiermacher and those who followed him so that feeling and experiencing God has become much more important than intellectual knowledge. Meditation, which since the early days of the church has been a time of intense thought about God, is being redefined in the Eastern context of non-thinking. More recently, prayer has come under attack teachers telling us that contemplative prayer is more valuable than the earnest, seeking, wordy prayer Christians have long practiced.
Serious Theology – For some time now I have been pondering the idea of Theological Correctness. Any member of our society is familiar with political correctness, which is “avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Political correctness, while in many ways a good and necessary thing, has gone too far so that it has changed our ability and freedom to express ourselves. It has changed the way we interact with others, to the point that some men are now afraid even to hold a door for a woman, lest he be accused of being sexist. Evangelicals have fallen prey to a similar disease called theological correctness. We can define it as “avoidance of expressions of belief that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who hold different beliefs.” Thus when a person in our church expresses a viewpoint consistent with Open Theism, or perhaps even his open approval for that doctrine, we avoid confrontation, believing theologlical correctness to be the lesser of two evils. Just as we may let a door slam shut in the face of a woman rather than having her confront us as sexist, so we may let theological error pass by to avoid confrontation.
Serious Worship – At some point in the history of evangelicalism, it was decided that worship needed to be entertaining. In part, this has been an attempt to make it more appealing to unbelievers, who are unable to worship God at all! Recently I heard a worship leader say “Just sing along! The words are easy! You don’t even have to think about them!” While I suspect this person did not mean to belittle the value of intellectually engaging in worship, it shows that in this person’s mind, worship engages primarily the emotions, not the mind. This was not always so, for in the past worship was as stimulating to the mind as it was to the heart. One need only read the words to the great hymns of days past and compare them to the songs of today to prove this true. Consider that worship used to revolve around the reading and exposition of the Word, while today it so often revolves around drama and music. Consider that congregational prayer has all but disappeared, being relegated to the prayer closets of a few members of a prayer team.
Serious Practice – Regular readers of this site know that I am currently doing a thirty-one day study through the book of Proverbs. A point that the author has made abundantly clear through only the first four chapters is that God makes no clear distinction between faith and practice. Proverbs 2:1-2 reads “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…” Solomon assumes that what we learn, we will put into practice. I believe that evangelicals have made a false dichotomy between thinking and doing. We have times of worship, times of learning, times of witnessing, always make neat distinctions between them. Yet where does the Bible tell us evangelism begins and end? When are we to cease worship? These are activities that have no beginning and no end. Our practice is to be continual, ongoing and passionate. It is to flow from our knowledge of and love for God.
To answer the question, yes, evangelical Christianity is distinctly anti-intellectual. In this way it is vastly different than other forms of contemporary Christianity and from Protestantism of the past. Evangelicals are delighted to be known as those who experience God (as the best-selling book encourages us) rather than those who know God. The mind is out and the heart is in.
What is the role of serious intellectual reflection in Christianity?
The importance of serious intellectual reflection cannot be overstated. Many evangelicals would have us believe that the mind will always trump the heart so that those who are intellectually engaged in Christianity will be paralyzed into inaction. “Better to love a little than know a lot,” they might say. But this can and must not be the case. In days past, the men who did the most were those who knew God the deepest. Consider men like Charles Spurgeon or George Muller – men who knew God deeply and intimately, yet lived lives marked by doing! This used to be the norm. Today, sadly, this is not the case. We have constructed a mostly-false impression that Christians of deep theology do nothing, while those with little or theology do all the work.
Every generation of believers has had a battle to fight, and it seems that in our day we may be fighting a battle of and for the mind. Experience seeks to make us downplay the mind, yet we must give primacy to the mind. Only a sanctified mind is capable of filtering experience and of discerning right from wrong. Experience comes second, for it is not a reliable standard by which to judge truth. When we reclaim the mind, experience will be so much sweeter, for what we do and feel will be born of our knowledge of who we were, who we are, who we shall be, and most importantly, by whom we have been created and redeemed.