Why Christians Don’t Think – Part 1

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Christians & Culture, Theology

Dumb and Dumber 2 Movie

“Most Christians would rather die than think – in fact they do.” –Bertrand Russell

Os Guinness wrote a powerful book nearly 20 years ago that I just discovered a few weeks ago. Though written to a previous generation, the truth rings more clearly today. The title of the book is Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think And What To Do About It. The book addresses the problem of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical community – a problem that is creating theological, apologetic, evangelistic, cultural, and political problems for Christianity. Guinness refers to it as both a scandal and a sin. He states: “At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to the first of Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds.”[1]

But why is this the case? Why are 21st century Christians so anti-intellectual? How did we go from our Puritan roots in colonial America – inclusive of the great minds that framed our constitution – to the sorry state we are in today? For there once was a time when Christians held the intellectual high ground. Pastors were hailed as the intellectual elites of the community, men whose opinions were sought on matters ranging from theology to politics to business and social life. Christians founded the great institutions of higher education – colleges such as Harvard and Princeton. But in 21st century America, this reputation is no more. Christians are now considered emotional, unintelligent people that offer nothing for the serious thinkers. Often for good reason, Christianity has been relegated to the church and the private life – there is no room Evangelicalism elsewhere.

In his book, Guinness outlines sixteen reasons for this problem, eight specific to the church and eight specific to the broader culture. In this blog post and posts to follow, I will summarize these reasons for our intellectual demise (and hence our cultural effectiveness) and then offer a solution for how we can improve our situation and return to the intellectual life God intended. So let’s look at the first two unique to Christians.

Polarization

During the 1700’s, around the time of the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, there was a push to move Christianity away from the creeds, formal doctrines, and institutions that had dominated the Christian landscape. And to be fair, much of the church was cold and dead, and a reaction was necessary. But as is often the case, reaction very quickly and easily turns into an overreaction. In steps the tent revivals and the minister of horseback.

The new American preachers and revivalists (e.g. Charles Finney) were delivering a message for the common man, the farmers and laborers that dominated colonial America. Many of these traveling ministers believed the Bible and the message of Christianity was for the unlearned and the learned alike – a worth cause as far as it goes. The goal was the spiritual conversions of the masses. Doctrines and learning took a back seat to the heart. Emotional heart change was favored over learning and study of the Christian faith. A dilemma was created and you must choose: head or heart? Doctrine or conversions? Study or win souls? Reason or faith?

These false dichotomies did not die with their founders, but have endured. Consider this quote by 19th century influential evangelist, Billy Sunday: “If I had a million dollars, I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education.” Or William Jennings Brian, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.”[2] But is this really the case? Is it an either/or proposition? Must we give up the mind, and with it reason, doctrine, and learning, if we are to save souls and live the Christian life? Certainly not!

Consider this warning from Charles Malik: “ The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out you have actually lost the world.”[3] Christianity does not require the abandonment of the mind, or any other part of the human being, rather it requires full integration – a wholeness submitted to the lordship of Christ. To reject the mind or the fullness of truth as expressed in doctrine is to reject that which God created for his purposes. This polarization is unnecessary, wrong, and destructive.

Pietism

Pietism is a good thing. It is a heart religion, placing total life devotion at the center of our faith. The Bible demands piety, Jesus was pious, and we should be pious. But with all good things, there is a danger. Piety can be distorted to become a vice. And this is exactly what has happened to many Evangelicals over the last 200 years and what still plagues the church today.

In the last two centuries, the church has undergone a shift from the objective to the subjective. Individual experience has taken precedent over the truth of Scripture. Doctrine has been replaced with what we feel and experience. A Christian faith that is about God, his creation, and his purposes has been transformed into a faith for the individual. Inward experience has replaced outward transformation. Doctrines and truths of Scripture are replaced with “I know God” and “I feel him working.” To quote Guinness: “Whenever evangelicals have an experience of direct, personal access to God, we are tempted to think or act as if we can dispense with doctrine, sacraments, history, [etc.] – and make our experience the sum and soul of our faith.”[4] Now experience certainly is part of the Christian life, indeed a vital part, but experience alone devoid of truth is just that, experience. God’s intention is for experience to play a role subject to truth, meaning experience should be guided by truth – not the other way around.

Conclusion

In the next few weeks, I will attempts to cover the other reasons that have created a spirit of anti-intellectualism in the church.

Jordan

[1] Os Guinness, Fit Bodies Fat Minds. pg. 11.

[2] Ibid., pg. 32

[3] Ibid., pg. 33

[4] Ibid., pg. 38

Comments
  1. Daniel Cecil says:

    Great topic. Now I want to read that book.

  2. Erin J. says:

    Could you please continue this series? I found this quite valuable and pertinent.

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