Joel and I had been cranking out posts on a series called Social Media & Theological Discourse, but since Don Miller’s controversial blog post “Should the Church Be Led by Teachers and Scholars?,” I have found myself writing a number of posts on Anti-Intellectualism in the Church.  (Click here to see where I agree with Miller, here for where I disagree.)

RelevantMagazine.com has been super nice to post an article I sent their way on anti-intellectualism (click on the image to read it).

Is Christianity Anti-Intellectual?

Let me say that I am not directly addressing Miller in the article.  The guy is a writing genius—one of my favorites—and in no way do I get the sense that he is anti-intellectual.  Is he anti-“intellectual elitism”?  Yes, I would think so.  And me, too.  But there did seem to be the scent of anti-intellectualism eking out of the comment streams from Miller’s post (at his blog and eventually at Relevant, where his piece reappeared).  I have a chapter on anti-intellectualism in my book on cynicism, and as a guy with plans to begin a PhD program in the Fall with lots of blue on my collar, I’ve really taken this issue to heart!

In Faith Without Illusions, I briefly explain the historical factors behind America’s curious heritage of religious anti-intellectualism.  This was the air I was breathing in college when I began to take my faith seriously.  With taking faith my seriously came not taking my homework seriously.  The poor grades I began making were viewed as badges of suffering due to my intense devotion to “community” (or, as some would call it, “hanging out”).  I was spending way too much time in prayer to stay awake in class, you know?

When I went to seminary, it was to qualify me for the grand next phase of spiritual awesomeness beyond the horizon, not to learn Greek.  But something happened to me.  I noticed “intercalation” in Mark.  I noticed those “syn-” words in Paul’s Greek.   I was grasped.  Suddenly, intellectual labors became integrated into my spiritual disciplines, only to discover that the biblical commands to do so had been there all along.

(Ironically, now that I feel called to serve the church in academic ministry, it is those poor grades from the undergraduate days that has dogged the process!)

The problem with intellectual pursuits, however, is that they can remain solely intellectual without translating into action and ethics.  This is not biblical intellectualism.  The Bible never divorces the work of the mind from the work of the hands.  Karl Barth writes,

“[Theological work] is not fit for anything unless it also, though in quite a special way, is provision for the poor and sick in the community.”

But this is followed with,

“The corresponding truth is that Christian ministry of this practical type would also not be possible without a minimum of serious theological work.” [1]

Most of our quibbles with one another as Christians seem to come from overreactions to oversimplifications.  Simultaneously clasping tightly to the multidimensional complexities of our faith is a necessary discipline we must vigorously seek to develop and apply.  The arduous labors of serving and thinking must go hand in hand for the Christian.

I will close with some words from Martin E. Marty in his introduction to Helmut Thielicke’s, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.  Commenting on the enemies of theological work in America (this was in the early 1960’s), he writes about “the idolization of the ‘doer’ as opposed to the ‘thinker.'”

“The Big Time Operator or the Good Joe somehow builds more buildings, raises more budgets, preaches louder sermons than does the craftsman who pores over his Greek New Testament.  It is of little consequence to some that he [the Big Time Operator/Good Joe] contributes to a greater divorce between Christ and the meaning of life, between the faith and other verities.” [2]

Thinking and doing—they are as inseparable as the love of God and the love of neighbor.

[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI, 1963), 185.

[2] Martin E. Marty, Introduction to Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (tr. Charles Taylor; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), xiii.

3 thoughts on “Anti-Intellectualism in the Church: Continuing the discussion from RELEVANTMagazine.com

  1. Thanks for your article on Relevant. One of the biggest issues I have seen here in Peru is the lack of balance, as a result of little training. Many people can evangelize like crazy and serve the poor, but their discipleship is struggling. I appreciate people like you that take the time to take complicated concepts, and break them down for those that may not understand.

    So in your intellectual pursuit, how does discipleship fit in that? Who do you find yourself discipling? Who do you find discipling you?

  2. I am concerned that Christians just are incapable of debate. For example, if anyone questions Christianity, Christians just ignore that completely. So for instance, if I were to question the Bible, this comment will be deleted, or ignored, but certainly not considered in a rational or intellectual way (as anything that talks about the fundamental untruth in the Bible will not in any way be discussed by Christians). right?

    1. There are certainly some Christians who would opt for evasion as an approach to these hard questions. But so many Christians are yearning for lively but constructive debate (I would rather use the term “discourse”). You are right that many do not wish to debate, but we have to be careful not to make blanket assertions. I know I am not alone in being open and eager, even, for dialogue over issues related to the Bible. Some, of course, are more than willing to debate but their approach is rather militaristic. The Church is a complex body within which you have many who would avoid tough discussions, many who would want to tackle them head on (and perhaps too eagerly!), and many who would welcome open discussion. I am sorry if you have experienced primarily that first group!

      Thanks for the comment!

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