A response to Anti-intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism in the church has been well documented (Noll 1995) and is still a problem for Christian academics today. It may appear in many guises, but one is what Don Carson calls “blue-collar arrogance”[1]. This is the idea that if you can’t do something practical – so that others can see the direct benefit or fruit of it, your job is fairly pointless. I encountered this recently when I was asked, “don’t you want to become a lawyer, teacher or vicar? In those jobs you can help people, serve the Church financially or serve the Church theologically and pastorally.”

This was not malicious but it was reminiscent of blue-collar arrogance by implying that I’m not following a useful career path. The jobs suggested to me were not “blue-collar”, but it came across as work-related arrogance all the same.

What should be our response as Christian students and academics?  I don’t pretend to offer an exhaustive response, but the following points crossed my mind:

First, we should from time to time let ourselves be challenged by our brothers and sisters in this way. When asked this question I wondered whether I really was doing the right thing,  and this is useful for everyone to think about – not just students and academics. We should examine our conscience and perhaps, if it isn’t clear, consider a different career.

Second, however, we should recognise, and point out to others, that God gifts members of his church with many different giftings. As Romans 12:6a reminds us, 6 [w]e have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” and since God is Lord over all of creation, including the academy and academic research, one of these giftings may be for academic work.

Third, it seems that we should offer a living testimony of how academia can be a valid Christian calling. The Apostle Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” If we truly take every thought captive for Christ, this may mean demonstrating “love for God with [our] minds and hearts, taking on the strongholds of intellectual lostness with exactly the same kind of missionary zeal that we want to take on the strongholds of, say, Islam and Buddhism.”[2] What is “intellectual lostness”? Many of our disciplines are governed by worldviews that are false, that ultimately cannot hold water and are therefore not satisfying. We need to be pointing out to fellow academics, just as we may point out to people of other religions, that their systems of thought ultimately leave one thirsty (Jeremiah 2:13).

Finally, however, our calling to be Christian academics need not necessarily concern apologetics or evangelism. We surely desire, as Christians, to give God the very best that we can in every area of life. Colossians 1:15 reminds us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him…all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Be it caring for wild places, tilling the earth, teaching, defending the innocent in court, administering medicine, building someone’s home, philosophy research, mathematics or ministering among God’s people with the Gospel as a bishop (a noble task indeed) we all need to be offering Him our best as faithful stewards.

Noll, M.A. 1995. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Inter-Varsity Press

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[1] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/christ-and-the-academy/

[2] Ibid

Comments

Thanks for this, Thom!

I think there’s even more to say in defence of following one’s calling as a Christian scholar or intellectual. I’d add the following arguments to your three:

4) Ideas have legs (as in the title of a 1946 book by Peter Howard [ http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Ideas_Have_Legs.html?id=QsBFAAAAIAAJ ], and a 1975 article by Al Wolters [ http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/Wolters/AMWIdeasLegs.pdf ]), and even the most abstruse research may produce ideas that eventually percolate into popular culture and shape the way people think, in ways that no-one may foresee. Both Christian and non-Christian ideas and ideals have certainly done this, and it’s open season for Christians to pitch in as well, in the name of Christ’s kingdom. This should reduce the sway of evil powers and suffering and facilitate the spread of the Gospel. Then there’s a more positive biblical mandate:

5) God’s original purpose for His creation is, if we take Genesis 1 and 2 seriously, the filling, cultivation and civilisation of the earth. If we believe that this cultural mandate still stands – perhaps even reinforced by Christ’s great commission – then we find an important mandate for engaging in all kinds of innovative creativity based on the materials of creation and culture that we inherit in our time. Our scholarship may then contribute to the culture that God is creating (through humans) and redeeming (through Christ). Christian scholars may pray that their work makes a more glorious contribution to the new creation (greater impact, in academic-speak!): if we are being redeemed ourselves, surely the fruits of our labours may more readily be redeemed too? Passages such as 1 Cor 3:10-13 and 15:58 and Rev 21:24-27, for example, are very relevant here.

What do you think? Are you with me here?

At Richard’s request, here is a quotation from a recent article that resonates with this post:
“There is another reason to study, not among those listed above, but more fundamental in the inner experience of those who study, and the presence or absence of practical encouragement affects it surprisingly little. It is, simply, the love of learning. To see a familiar subject cast in a new light, to watch apparently stale evidence yield fresh insight under the pressure of new and imaginative questioning, to see a difficult text illuminated as if the light had been turned on in a darkened room are intellectual pleasures vivid to those who experience them. There are those who cannot cease to study, because it is their way of delighting before the Lord. It is a vocation, even a way of loving.”
Anders Berquist, ‘The Church of England and the Love of Learning’, Theology 117:3 (May/June 2014), 177-181 (p. 180).

Hi Richard,
Yes and yes. Although (5) is slightly more controversial I’d agree.

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