Christian Anti-intellectual and the Disciple's Worldview, as understood by Jason Goble
This is the third essay on the Disciple’s Worldview.
Before your eyes glaze over at the title, ask yourself these questions:
1. How is the anti-intellectual bias common among many disciples;
a. Hurting our mission?
b. Endangering our children’s faith?
c. In direct opposition to Christlikeness?
d. On the verge of making Christianity irrelevant to our culture and country?
2. What can I do to reverse this momentum in my church and my city?
What follows may be heavy going, but like everything of value it is worth the effort. And, it is critical to heading-off the spiritual catastrophe that we are heading for.
There is a mysterious and ominous movement in evangelical Christianity that quietly threatens our hope of reaching the next generation of lost. It is the belief that the Christian intellectual is not needed, or worse, is a detriment to one’s spiritual walk. While it may be true that an individual, Bible talk, or even a church may get along in the short term in relative biblical ignorance, as a movement we stand on the cusp of irrelevance to our culture, our country, and our congregation. Similar to the anti-theistic movements that have swept over Europe for the last 200 years, America has now slipped into a decline of Christian thinking that allows our enemy free range over the minds of tomorrow’s thinkers through the formative kilns of our media and universities.
Christians have argued that the human heart hasn’t changed over the last two millennia. This is generally true, but something else has changed. If we are going to reach all nations, we need to consider how our minds are different today.
Recognizing the Times
There was a time prior to the enlightenment when the common man saw a deity in or behind everything. What caused the sun to rise? – the gods. What caused the rain to fall? – the gods. For the Christian at this time, “Jesus” really was the answer to every question. Then came the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science. Suddenly there were different answers to everyday questions, answers that didn’t immediately need God as part of the explanation. Now it would be good to say that the Christian community applauded these (mostly Christian) scientists for discovering how God did it. But that isn’t what happened. They saw this new knowledge as an attack on God’s sovereignty. So instead of embracing, they rejected. And in doing so, they set up a chasm; splitting society between the two camps and demanding a choice be made: science or faith. Each side proselytized in an attempted to win converts. Ultimately, this led to two groups of people: knowers and believers. Today, as the intellectual descendants of this conflict, knowledge has been limited by worldview to what can be empirically proven and that trumps everything else. In the eyes of the average unbeliever, Christianity has become the realm of myths and legends; a quaint social system that is leftover from an earlier unenlightened time. What was once considered moral knowledge has been downgraded to “belief.” It no longer makes sense to even talk about how one should live, since “should” can’t be proven in a laboratory. Our culture now places the highest credibility on the rational, intelligent, and systematic. We may want to pattern ourselves after the first century church, but we need to remember we are not reaching out to first century minds.
Consider another difference between today and first century mind. How many times have you reached out to someone who had never heard of Jesus? In Romans 15:20, Paul speaks of his ambition to preach where Christ was unknown so that he “would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” With a look around our local evangelical fields, it is not hard to see why. It is almost impossible to share the Good News with someone today that hasn’t already formed an opinion about Jesus without getting your passport stamped. (And even then it is getting tough.) Unfortunately, much of what is assumed about Christianity is a mixed bag of conjecture, sensationalism, and bad experiences. We are faced with people whose slates are not clean. They are filled with misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian. We have to sweep away the intellectual debris that clutters the building site just to lay a solid foundation. This process is called pre-evangelism, and it is something Paul never had to do. Consider that the only people we can usually get to study with us are those who already believe in God and are predisposed to believe the Bible is His Word. In light of the current state of mind as detailed above, we should expect this number to continue to dwindle. Have we been trained to answer when told, “I believe in God, just not the Bible.” Or, “The Bible is just a 2000 year game of ‘telephone,’” Or my personal favorite, “What about all those missing gospels I heard about on the History Chanel?” To answer “You just have to have faith” is no answer at all to a man whose worldview only values concrete knowledge, and it is intellectual laziness on our part. How many times in asking someone to study the Bible have we had no good response to, “I don’t believe in God,” and just moved on to the next person.* There are intelligent and rational answers to these questions that are accessible to all of us. We just have to put in the intellectual effort. Are we helping to condemn these people because we haven’t learned how to reach the modern mind through pre-evangelism?
How we Got Here
There was a time in the not too distant past that we valued the scholar and the scholarly. But over the past 200 years there has arisen a class of preacher, often called “evangelists,” who placed a higher value on rhetoric than on scholarship. Because they could talk the talk with all the poetry of a Shakespearean sonnet, people flocked to hear what they had to say. Unfortunately most of them lacked any formal biblical training leading to all kinds of abuses of God’s message. Now they had a choice; put out the effort necessary to gain the requisite knowledge, or downplay the need for it. Laziness won the day. With statements like, “You don’t have to interpret the Bible, you just read it and do what it says” and, “The Bible is written on an 8th grade level” Whole generations of Christians were misled into a loss of biblical knowledge. But this anti-intellectual bias is astounding. Does anyone think Jesus or Paul weren’t the smartest guys in any room they were in? Who knew theology better? And where did they get this knowledge? Jesus grew up under rabbinical Judaism which had a rich tradition of training their children. Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “Above all else we pride ourselves in the education of our children”. Against Apion 1:60. What do we suppose they taught their children? As one rabbi put it, “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him [with Torah] like an ox.” Bava Batra 21a. The training Jesus received would have included an incredible amount of memorization (probably the entire OT) and discussions about the Oral Torah, often in the form of questions. We are given a glimpse of His training in Luke 2:46-47 when, as a twelve year-old, His parents, “found Him in the Temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding and His answers.” We also learn that Paul had similar rabbinical training at the feet of Gamaliel. (Acts 21:3) And talk about deep; even Peter said what Paul wrote was hard to understand and easily distorted. (2 Peter 3:16) If Peter thought it was tough back then, how should we approach Paul’s writings today?
But, the biblical example that most parallels our situation today would have to be; Apollos. He was described as “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.” After his conversion, “He was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” Acts 18:24-28. Here is an example of a man with biblical training who was remembered for the “great help” his education was to the local Christians. Too many of our churches don’t have an Apollos to refute the atheistic and postmodern worldview that is producing a culture of unbelieving “knowers”. They would respect a well reasoned argument, and a rational defense of the Gospel. But where are the respected voices standing in the gap to defend Christianity’s rightful place as the bearer of truth? Who can deny that we have become a punch line in today’s society? Who doesn’t fear getting shouted down as quaint, unenlightened, or intolerant in a public forum for putting forward as fact that the Disciple’s worldview has the best information available for daily life? Where are the Apollos’ of today? And if the Christian intellectual isn’t the enemy of God or spirituality, then whose friend is the anti-intellectual?
But the Bible says…
“Wait a minute,” it is protested. “Doesn’t Acts 4:13 describe Peter and John as ‘unschooled ordinary men’? And in 1 Cor 2:1-2 didn’t Paul tell the church at Corinth that he did not come with ‘eloquence or superior wisdom’ but instead ‘resolved to know nothing... except Jesus Christ and Him crucified?’” These “proof” texts have often been trotted out, though it is unclear what the trotters think they are proving. Are we going to say that the message God wants us to take away from these passages is that we shouldn’t apply ourselves to being the best-informed Christians possible? If ignorance is not the point, then we need to erase that from the list of live options before we even begin to interpret these texts. Yes, Peter and John had previously lacked the formal training of a rabbi in their youth, but the rest of the verse says, “And they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” For three years, Peter and John had attended school with the greatest teacher to walk the earth. They followed their rabbi, absorbing all his teachings, just as every student of every rabbi did. Back then a blessing to such a student went something like this, “May you be covered with the dust of your rabbi.” Meaning, as they followed their teacher through the dusty Judean desert, they should stay close enough to get covered in the dirt kicked up by the one they were following lest they miss something he was teaching. We can be sure the training Peter and John received while collecting Jesus’ dust rivaled that of any of the teachers of the law questioning them that day. We cannot be covered in Jesus’ dust, but our minds can be formed into Christlikness through the rich training available from the scholars of today.
As to Paul’s words to the Corinthians, simply reading the rest of the passage (do you see a pattern here?) shows that Paul was contrasting the Philosophy, or worldview, of their Greek culture to that of the Disciple’s worldview. His point was that they should not allow their old worldview to creep back in, as it had no power to save. It is hard to imagine any scripture more relevant to our churches filled with “worldly Christians” today. In addition, consider the following three scriptures:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' Mtt 22:36-37 TNIVDo not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rom 12:2 TNIVAlways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 1 Pet 3:15b TNIVWe must ask ourselves how one actually goes about loving God with all his mind, renewing his mind, and preparing himself to answer. What part does biblical, theological, philosophical, and apologetic training play in fulfilling these scriptures? How do changes in the modern mind change what we must do to live out these scriptures today?
The Battle Front
Our culture’s worldview is formed and sustained through the leaders in business, politics, science, and the news and entertainment media. Their beliefs pepper throughout society, circling back through ledger sheets, opinion polls, and Nielson ratings to reinforce and readjust the process. Any hope of breaking into this vicious cycle and retaking our rightful place as knowers of moral truths will need to begin where most of these leaders are molded – the university. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, institutions of higher learning were devoted to developing the whole person. It was assumed that when you attended a university, you did so to grow intellectually and morally. You went to school to become a better person. Unfortunately, with the loss of moral knowledge, the university has been reduced to job training. No longer is there any field of study which requires knowledge of God to master it. While it is recognized that Jesus was a good and wise teacher over matters of the church, in the age of the secular intellectual, it is assumed that He has nothing relevant to offer the rest of life.
Today, the primary goal of the university is to graduate as many businessmen, politicians, scientists, and artists as can afford the tuition bill. But these are the very people who will take the next leadership roles in shaping our country and our culture. These are the people who are absorbing the current worldviews espoused in universities now, and will reinforce them through the influence garnered by their positions in society later. Or, to put it another way, these are the people who will mold how our children and grandchildren think.
There really are only two choices. Either we in the Christian community are going to shape the thought of our future leaders, or Satan is. As an individual Christian who doesn’t have much contact with a campus ministry, this may seem alarmist and not applicable to the reader. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Beginning in our local churches, we must raise the spiritual IQ. How we might do that will be discussed below, but the importance of this endeavor must be clear.
Let the Little Children Come To…Science
As we prepare our children to leave the nest, we must set them up to win in the intellectual world they are about to enter. Sheltering our children from the ideas and theories common to our high schools and universities only sets them up for a culture shock that has destroyed the faith of too many. To all the parents; science isn’t going to go away! So we need to give our children intelligent tools to reconcile any perceived differences. Presented with a false dichotomy of their faith or intellectual honesty, our worldview’s preference for knowledge will win much of the time. Those who come out the other side with their faith intact, often do so tattered and bewildered, unsure of what to believe.
But preparing them means we may have to rethink some of our convictions. More damage is done to our credibility by not realizing that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it is found. It is amazing at how worked up we can get over issues that don’t really matter to our faith. There have been many good articles written on reconciling science and religion, but here are two good rules of thumb when addressing such issues:
- Our interpretation of the Bible’s teachings could be wrong – particularly if we haven’t been seeking training.
- If a scientific theory doesn’t un-resurrect Jesus and put Him back in the tomb, there are more important things we should be focusing on.
As much as it shames me to say it, when it comes to matters of science, perhaps if we took Paul’s advice to know nothing “except Jesus and Him crucified,” our cause, and our children, would be better off!
In Search of Apollos
Listed below are several suggestions for how we can begin to take back our intellectual birthright:
1. If you have been intellectually apathetic or anti-intellectual – repent! Acknowledge the great importance of deep biblical and theological training for every member of the congregation.
2. Make it the church’s goal to have a biblical scholar on staff (or at least a member of the congregation) and LISTEN to him.
3. If need be, explore borrowing a scholar from another local church from time to time. While practical considerations may make this unfeasible, theological ones should not. In my experience, scholars will often agree on most of the important matters, even if their denomination does not.
4. From the pulpit, make a commitment to raising the spiritual IQ.
5. Bring in experts for seminars on various topics, especially apologetics.
6. While the experts are in town, set up debates between them and a representative from the atheistic community on campus. Make it free and open to the public, then invite everyone. (A note of warning here – DO NOT send the local minister or a lay leader to debate unless he has been trained to do so. A poor argument reinforces our perceived irrelevance.)
7. Bring back Sunday school or some other weekly ongoing training.
8. Give special attention to the education of Bible talk leaders. If they don’t have the answers, make sure they know where to get them.
9. Encourage the local leaders – especially the lead evangelist - to pursue advanced degrees in theology and Christian philosophy.
10. Encourage our children to attend Christian universities and pursue advanced degrees in theology and Christian philosophy.
11. Campus and high school Bible talks should pay particular attention to addressing conflicts between faith and science. Give the students a new paradigm that allows them embrace both their faith and the knowledge they are gaining.
12. Pick up a book. Make it your habit to read theologically deeper books. Many teachers, such as Douglas Jacoby and John Oakes, have web sites with recommended reading lists. Find something that interests you, and read!
As long as we allow intellectual apathy and the anti-intellectual viewpoint to be the foundation of thought in our churches, we can expect to remain a fringe viewpoint in our culture. At best we will gain a convert here and there, but until the population at large can see that intellectual honesty and Discipleship are compatible, and until Christian truth is once again a viable and intellectually respectable option, our effectiveness for God will be minimal. And, the damage done to the faith of our children will only continue to grow. We can not fight worldly wisdom with godly ignorance (as if there was such a thing). People want to believe in something bigger than themselves, but their current worldview doesn’t allow it. For their sake, and the sake of our children, we must again make it intellectually acceptable to be a Disciple, and the first step is to become well-educated Disciples ourselves.
To God be the Glory!
* The next time someone tells you “I don’t believe in God” ask them, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I probably don’t believe in that god either.” Then see where the conversation goes. Most people who say they don’t believe, do so based on a very unhealthy understanding of God grounded more in emotion then on an informed intellectual decision. Help them to see the real God. (This assumes you have a healthy understanding of God yourself – unfortunately, in no way is this a given today.)
All Scripture quotations where taken from the NIV unless otherwise noted.