There is a notion in our culture that if you become a Christian, you are committing intellectual suicide. It accuses Christians of “ignorant bliss” and checking one’s brain at the door when walking into a church. The charge is summarized by what Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe said in edition of Atlantic Monthly, “Of all of America’s religious traditions, evangelical Protestantism, at least in it’s current forms, ranks dead last in intellectual stature”.
It’s part of a larger campaign to write off Christianity as irrelevant, unstimulating, and to ultimately avoid moral accountability to a Creator. Perhaps you have bought into that notion. Is it true that becoming a Christian is committing intellectual suicide? We are going to explore and challenge that notion, and go so far as to say that if a man is not in Christ, he is living below his intellectual potential.
Committing intellectual suicide as a Christian is a curious charge from a society that is being dumbed down at an alarming rate. Abundant studies show American young people rank near the middle to bottom among industrialized countries in basic reading, writing and math skills. But if the church is being dumbed down just like the culture, perhaps it’s because the church is reflecting society more than affecting it.
To some extent, Dr. Wolfe has a point. A recent Barna Poll reported that 50% of church goers “can’t remember having received any new spiritual insight in the last six months.” There is a trend in church leadership to bypass formal theological and language training, trusting the Spirit to make up for a lack of study. Exposition of the Scriptures has given way to the sermonette and film clip. Antics and delivery are emphasized over sound doctrine and substance. Relationship theology has diminished critical thinking and discernment. The repetitive chorus has eclipsed the deeper theologies of the great hymns of the faith. Electrically charged worship services are becoming antagonistic to the time tested spiritual disciplines of silence, serenity and reflection, or “zeal without knowledge” (Rom 10:2). Dr. Wolfe may understand on some level that there is a structure that better engenders the spiritual disciplines.
Thomas Edison had a placard on his desk that read, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking”. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and Christians do it all the time. One reason for the charge is that there is a wedge between the ivory tower and the church. Theologian Troy Miller writes, “the gap between the academy on one side and the church on the other is wide…too wide. The academy is deemed to be about…the business of thought, argument, and mental reflection…the church is held to be the doing of the Christian faith…The separation is artificial.”
The Context of Our Times: Where We’re Coming From
We live in an age of scientific materialism upheld by rational thought. We only believe what we see in a test tube, microscope or telescope. We view with suspicion the immaterial side of man such as a soul or spirit, or the existence of morality or authority. If man just an overgrown blob of biology descended from some pre-biotic slime and a product of a random collision of molecules, there is no such thing as moral law. Truth then is relative.
To be sure, rational thought has done wonders in elevating the quality of our lifestyles on a physical level with advances in science and healthcare. Skepticism has righted the ship from the irrational fears and myths of primitive cultures, like the Navaho Indians who feared rock formations in the desert as dried up creatures and the domain of gray monsters.
But rational thought, reason and science have also caused confusion as to what it means to be human. Christianity is logical and reasonable, but closed system naturalism gives the impression that life is about as exciting as an IRS 1040 form, with it’s precepts and instructions. Eldredge writes, “not all truths help us descend with the mind into the heart. There is a way of talking about truth that can actually deaden our hearts…Western culture rejected the mystery and transcendence of the Middle Ages and places it’s confidence in pragmatism and progress, the pillars of the Modern Era. But once we rid ourselves of the Author, it didn’t take long to lose the larger story.” Christianity brings a balance back to life. It’s hard to imagine passing along family values in a quantum mechanics textbook.
Pragmatic Effects of Scripture In History
Is becoming a Christian committing intellectual suicide? We can start to answer that by briefly exploring the pragmatic effects of Christianity in history. The great minds of the founding fathers of the United States were forged between the anvil and hammer of Scripture and intentioned biblical principles into the founding documents. Our system of law, derived from British Common law which goes all the way back to the magna carta some 900 years ago, is sourced in Judeo Christian values and has proven to be the fairest the world has ever known.
Traditionally, as keepers of the great manuscripts, the most learned were the clergy. The great Ivy league institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were originally founded as theological seminaries. Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest theologians, was asked to serve as president of Princeton. The Scriptures were the primer for basic reading and writing skills in schoolrooms for centuries. At minimum Scripture is superb mental fitness, to say nothing of the spiritual benefits, as the Bible is great literature. Bernard Ramm commented: “From the apostolic fathers dating from AD 95 to the modern times is one great literary river inspired by the Bible. Statistically speaking the gospels are the greatest literature ever written”.
In an age that is being dumbed down, it’s possible that the average mind of yesteryear was greater than that of today. Old books are more thought provoking. C.S. Lewis advocated, “for every modern book you read, read an old one. Old books tend to correct the errors of the modern era.” As the quintessence of literature, Scripture has inspired more classics than any other work. In some respects, Scripture is the most concentrated accumulation of the wisdom of the ages that has been passed down in the human tradition, written by the most intelligent and discerning men of their cultures. Regarding the book of Romans, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright made this observation, “[It] is one of the intellectual masterworks of the ancient world…supplying a massive framework of thought.” Another scholar said Romans “is the profoundest piece of writing in existence.”
If a student desiring to go into the ministry enters a ThM program, he is required to complete 120 hours to graduate. That is still a master’s level degree but is 3 times the coursework of a master’s degree from a secular university, which is normally about 30 hours. And two of those years in the ThM is spent studying the extremelly complex ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek. It is questionable whether there is a category of people on the planet who studies the value of words, their order and selection more than one committed to the Scriptures. Intellectual suicide?
The core of progress in the world today is Western thought. And the core of Western thought is Christianity. It was Scripture that sounded the death knell for the polytheism that pervaded Rome. And it was Christianity that launched the renaissance, the reformation, the age of science and the industrial revolution. Until the Middle Ages, the world lived in a technological straight jacket, restricted by Platonic dualism that matter was evil and only the spirit realm was good. But it was the great mind of St. Thomas Aquinas that reconciled Christianity with Plato, effectively proving from Scripture that matter was good all along and launched the world into a spree of progress that hasn’t slowed yet.
Even the scientific method was birthed from the hermeneutics and the laws of interpreting Scripture. Astronomer Hugh Ross says, “What makes the Bible’s claims about the origin, structure, and history of the universe all the more remarkable is that it stood alone for so long making such claims. For centuries the Bible was the only text offering such precise and voluminous detail about the natural realm.” Scripture is actually ahead of science; it’s not irrelevant.
Theology was the “queen of the sciences, and philosophy her hand maiden”. Before the age of skepticism, discovery affirmed the mysteries of a Creator; it didn’t compete with it. Science used to be just another avenue for seeking truth, like theology. Today, being a scientist is almost a contradiction. They pursue truth, but if discovery leads to absolutes, they deny them.
There has been the most profound difference Christianity has made on the world. It’s difficult to see how anybody can be a thinking person and deny the great contributions of Christianity. Western thought, progress, architecture, literary classics, science, democratic governments, charities, ministries, ethics, social virtues, were all set into motion because of Christianity. Griffith Thomas wrote, “Christianity has attracted to itself the profoundest thinkers of the human race, and is in no way hindered by the ever-advancing tide of human knowledge.”
Scripture And The Love of Wisdom
How is becoming a Christian committing intellectual suicide if the inspiration for the contributions in history are sourced in Scripture? Scripture is replete with exhortations to get knowledge. Colossians 1:10 says to “increase in the knowledge of God”. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Here’s one for a materialistic culture running towards the safe harbor of gold: “Wisdom is better than gold, and to get understanding is to be chosen above silver” (Prov.16:16). There is Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” There is a correlation between effective living and expansion of thought according to the Bible.
One philosopher wrote, “to be able to discern what is true is true, and what is false is false is the mark and character of intelligence”. In fact, the word “intelligence” comes from the Latin which means “to pick apart or discern”. Apparantly, the ability to discern right and wrong have more to do with intelligence than the ability to grasp concepts. The Proverbs are in a section of Scripture called the “wisdom” literature. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, “phileo” or love, and “sophia” or wisdom: the “love of wisdom”. Scripture is not at odds with the love of wisdom and thought. Universities may give knowledge, but the Bible gives wisdom, the application of knowledge.
What is intelligence and how does wisdom bring a needed corrective to knowledge and data? To illustrate, consider the story of Dr. Zinkhan. In April of 2009, Dr. Zinkhan, a University of Georgia professor, picked up his kids from school and suddenly detoured to drop them off at a neighbor’s house. When the kids asked why the sudden change in plans, he simply replied “it was an emergency”. What he didn’t tell his kids is that he just killed 3 people, including his wife and two other professors. After dropping off his kids, he walked into the woods and killed himself.
What was so mystifying was that he had a distinguished and impeccable record during his tenure as a professor. Dr. Zinkhan may have had a complicated psychological profile, with pathologies traceable over many years. But these incidences can also be categorized as resentment, malice, and bitterness which Scripture addresses. There was something else going on here besides pure intelligence. Mass murderer Ted Bundy was a law school student and was very intelligent, misappying it as he did. The charge of Christians committing intellectual suicide seems to come from a bankrupt secular source. Without a spiritual warfare worldview, we will misinterpret most of what happens to us.
What does intellectual stature in itself accomplish? Some of the most brilliant people teach at institutions of higher learning yet their minds don’t get the connection between the spiritual and physical worlds. If intelligence is merely the capacity to grasp concepts, how do we explain thoughts of lust, stealing, or murder that interrupt a mind and short circuits logic in what was an otherwise rational and sane thought process? If the spiritual realm doesn’t exist, how does the materialist explain temptation? There is something else going on here. Theologians say the mind is the spiritual/physical interface in the body. Maybe that’s why Oxford and Cambridge scholar C.S. Lewis said, “men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner”, something Dr. Zirkhan didn’t consider or rejected somewhere along the line.
So what is intelligence anyway? Christianity brings wisdom to IQ, knowledge, and intellect. Psychologists have discovered many types of intelligence other than IQ. There is emotional intelligence where people have an ability to understand the effects of pain and tragedy in others, called empathy. There is social intelligence where some have the ability to fit in and rub shoulders with a wide range of people. There is athletic intelligence, where the dumb jock who was previously considered stupid, is now shown to have exceptional abilities to understand concepts and perform dexterous activities.
And then there is spiritual intelligence, where those who have an innate sense that right and wrong, justice, purpose, destiny are best met in the gospel of Scripture. This is where the faith becomes extremely logical. In fact, Christianity becomes more logical the longer one studies it; life makes sense through a biblical grid. Scripture speaks with more sober authority on the most essential matters of life such as eternity, purpose, and origins than any other writings, ancient or modern. Christianity has the best balance of all the world religions between spirituality and pragmatic reality. That’s because the founder, Christ, was both God and man.
Having seen the contradictions of rational thought, that true intelligence may be spiritual intelligence, and the pragmatic effects of Christianity in history, there is another reality that evidences Christian intelligence. And that is the Divine Design. The world vindicates the divine design everyday and doesn’t even know it. Isaiah wrote in 750 BC the following words that marry the concepts of humility and supremacy: “For this the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is holy says, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, in order to revive the spirit of the lowly” (IS 57:15).
With God low is high and God defines reality even if it doesn’t always sound profound. Godliness says the Old Testament is caring for orphans and widows. The world revolves around this principle and doesn’t even know it. Highly educated people solve basic matters of ethics and problems. Professors work on hunger problems for the malnourished. Lawyers work to stave off corruption on Wall Street. Engineers design complicated medical equipment for the most neglected in society. Doctors do research to cure common diseases. Think tanks are tapped to solve economic and security issues. The highest of intellectual pursuits serve the most basic needs of average people.
So what is intelligence anyway in itself? Scripture has said all along the high serve the low. So is becoming a Christian committing intellectual suicide when they are called to serve and love people? This has been Scriptural from the beginning. Wrote Calvin, “we were endued with reason and intelligence, in order that we might cultivate a holy and honorable life, and regard a blessed immortality as our destined aim”. Notice the correlation between intelligence, holiness and immortality.
So is becoming a Christian committing intellectual suicide? Not inherently. There are Christian scientists who are very prolific in their field. And there are non-Christian intellegensia who are distinguished. There are stupid believers and there are intelligent one. So people have a choice, including believers. The point is a believer has the capacity in Christianity for maximizing his intellectual potential, whatever level that might be.
Accepting Christ enhances the intellectual capacity of anyone. God’s Word can unshackle the mind from deep emotional problems that have caused underachievement. Sluggishness, laziness, envy, guilt, pride are real issues but also spiritual issues that Scripture addresses and which weigh the mind down and keep it from optimal performance. Becoming a believer in the Creator can be the shortest path to being freed up to learn and regain intellectual self esteem.
Peter is an example. Peter was one of the disciples of Christ, something of a redneck and a wild hair. He was always speaking without thinking; for him it was ready shoot and aim. But if you read the books of I and II Peter which he wrote some 30 years later, you wonder if this is the same person. The change is amazing. And the concepts he writes about are profound. Becoming a Christian truly made that country bumpkin a thoughtful individual.
St. Augustine, who lived in the 4th century, was probably an intelligent person before he became a Christian. But he never would have come up with this kind of writing while living in his immorality: “In filling all things, you fill them all with the whole of yourself. Is that because all things cannot contain the whole of you, they contain part of you, and that all things contain the same part of you simultaneously? Or does each part contain a different part of you, the larger containing the greater parts, the lesser parts the smaller? Does that imply that there is some part of you which is greater, another part smaller? Or is the whole of you everywhere, yet without anything that contains you entire?” That’s not necessarily a weak mind.
It could be that accusing Christians of committing intellectual suicide is a cover, a deflection from the real issue; the real issue of having a moral responsibility in submitting to an all wise Creator that we all suspected to be true all along. Intellect is just an excuse or alter ego to hide behind when avoiding the real issue of accepting Christ as an act of the will. We’ve shown that becoming a Christian is not without intellectual stimulation. In fact, there is more theology or philosophy as a Christian to study than we’ll you’ll ever begin to digest.
As Christian theorist Phillip Yancey said one time, “Frankly, what keeps me in the faith after all these years is a lack of other options”. If people reject Christianity, it’s not because of a dearth of fact, logic, argument or scholastic pursuit. A man may win the Nobel Prize and forfeit his soul or family in the process. Is he really intelligent? The wisdom of Scripture is the application of knowledge. A Christian is a true visionary, ahead of the crowd, and sees things that have not yet been revealed which are light years ahead of the intelligensia. If Christianity has contributed to the progress of the world, it’s because it makes a difference on the individual heart.
I close with this. A documentary aired on the intelligence of the most trainable dogs. Researchers studied Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Sheep dogs that have a high capacity to obey commands from human masters. The conclusion was that the most intelligent species from the animal world are not only those tamable by man, but capable of trusting in complete obedience the commands of their masters. These animals consider it their fullest pleasure in obeying a higher power. That’s also true for the highest created life form who doesn’t think he has a superior: man. Man is wisest and exhibits his fullest of intelligence when he obeys the commands of his master in heaven.
Since when did Christianity give up the intellectual high ground when the very scientific method, around which our modern world revolves, was derived out of the hermenuetics of studying Scripture? Science is the the law of the conservation of information in action: the sum of the parts of the material world are never greater than the whole from which it proceeded.
How could something like Christianity burst on the scene, last all these years, and shape the progress of the world if it was so simple minded? Because of the wisdom factor, the proven evidences in Christianity in history, and the lack of secular options, we can say “if a man is not in Christ, he has not reached his intellectual potential.” Let no one say he or she is committing suicide when walking through the door of a church.
Copyright by Scott Chandler. All Rights Reserved.