There is an old joke about a man who, coming upon a tombstone, noticed the following epitaph: “Here lies a Christian intellectual.” Reflecting for a moment, he then muttered to himself: “Folk must be awfully poor around here, having to bury two people in one grave.”
Faith versus Intellect
The joke raises the painful question: is it possible to be simultaneously both a sincere believer and an ardent intellectual? Unfortunately, for the past two centuries, much of the American church has responded with a resounding “no.”
This sentiment was perhaps best captured by Billy Sunday, an evangelist who addressed over 100 million people in the early twentieth century. He is known for such well-known quotes as: “When the word of God says one thing and scholarship another, scholarship can go to hell,” and, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack rabbit knows about ping pong.”
In recent years, several writers have lamented this disconnect between the intellect and faith. As one sadly concludes: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Another illustrates the point by citing the Tin Woodsman in the Wizard of Oz who, in choosing between his mind and his feelings, says, “I will take the heart . . . for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”
As a result of this perceived dichotomy between reason and piety, the Atlantic Monthly recently ran an article that concluded: “Of all America’s religious traditions, evangelical Protestantism . . . ranks dead last in intellectual stature.” In a similar vein, another writer notes that the United States is unique for having a populace as religious as India but an intellectual elite as secular as Sweden.
Faith and Intellect
This devaluation of the life of the mind is deeply regrettable. Surely, our ability to think is one of God’s greatest gifts. To be created in his image means to be able to reason, create and synthesize.
As such, anti-intellectualism is clearly contrary to Jesus’ first and greatest command—“You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). It also runs counter to a significant stream of church history, from Clement to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to John Wesley and others.
While it is undeniable that our sinful natures diminish the clarity of our thinking (as is true in every area of our lives), we are called not only to celebrate God’s original good creation but also to “be renewed in our minds” (Romans 12:2) and to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Like the apostle Paul, it should be our goal to be “conformed to the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
I sincerely believe that Jesus was the greatest thinker who ever lived. As such, we are to prize the mind, not shrivel into a false piety and, as a result, suffer from fear and insecurity. Rather than embracing an ethos of withdrawal and defeatism, we are to grapple honestly and openly with difficult issues. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the name we bear. Our calling is to bring every inch of creation—including the mind—to the feet of Jesus. Let us do so with resolve and humility.
(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 16:3)