The importance of a Christian mind (1)

A while ago I summarised a talk Andrew Fellows gave at this year’s Transforming the Mind conference. He called on us to further the purposes of Christ’s kingdom in our universities. In his second talk, Andrew focused on the relationship between faith and reason, and how this has been viewed in the church over the past 2000 years. 

Andrew FellowsWhat business does a Christian have with the knowledge enterprise? This is a question we are sometimes asked by our fellow Christians. Behind this question often lies the assumption that the academy is a secular institution, and that faith and reason are at odds with each other. However, this is a relatively recent view, going back to the Enlightenment. John Locke famously held that faith falls short of knowledge, and unfortunately, the church has often uncritically accepted this view.

In fact, there is no such divide. Many key Biblical figures, such as Moses, Daniel and Paul, were towering intellects with a first-class education. Throughout church history, God has used rationally-gifted people to achieve his purposes. Examples abound: Boethius, Augustine, Erasmus, Calvin and Luther, to name just a few. The early church father John of Damascus wrote that it is spiritual to cultivate the life of the mind. The reformers encouraged a questioning mind, not just for the elite, but for the masses. For this reason, they made the Bible available in the vernacular and contributed to the democratization of learning. One might even say that Europe is a thinking civilization because of the church.

Having said that, we do need intellectual discernment to navigate what is happening around us, especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture. There is a wide range of options in Christian thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. As I already mentioned, many Christians, as well as much of the culture around us, think that faith and reason stand in opposition against each other. Historically, this Enlightenment idea was influential in pietist movements, and it remains an undercurrent in many evangelical churches. On this view, reason is seen as weakening spiritual experience, and hence a vision of the Christian life emerges that celebrates anti-intellectualism. To be moderately anti-intellectual can seem to be taking the moral high ground, emphasizing simplicity in faith to avoid pride. Thinking is seen as a kind of ‘theology of works’: working towards our own understanding of God’s ways in the world. Instead, people say, we should leave the difficult questions to God’s sovereignty and leave space for mystery.

Three things happen as a result of this:

Knowledge is reduced to the pragmatic. Knowledge is only required when it is useful, and this is also applied more widely to the knowledge enterprise as a whole. This fits well with the new ‘epistemology of numbers’ that is more and more prevalent in academia: knowledge must yield good results, measurable outcomes, not ideas or certainty. However, ideas, like art, have intrinsic value: beauty, truth, goodness, intellectual satisfaction, delight.

Faith is reduced to the volitional. This trend has a long history, starting with William of Occam’s move from the universal to the particular, moving away from ideas. In the Reformation this trend was amplified as faith became more exclusively linked to salvation and an act of the will to accept Christ.

Faith is reduced to the affective. Feelings and personal preference become the new criterion for truth.

The problems of this view are a mental carelessness, a church that is trying to be relevant but becomes populist, and a worldly ethic – because sincerity is seen as more important than wisdom.

It seems clear that this view is not particularly helpful or productive for Christian scholars. Next week we will continue our discussion with two further options that may be more fruitful.

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