There is a certain assumption about Christians that is reflective in societal stereotypes about Christians and even statements that Christians make about ourselves: Christians are not intellectuals. We are supposed to live by “faith” so we don’t know to reason and think. Now, this certainly tends to be descriptively true of Christians today in many places, but I would suggest this is more a matter of self-fulling prophecies and self-selection bias, but it doesn’t represent anything inherently true about Christians. There is a sort of somewhat romanticized version of this Christian identity, which often legitimates anti-intellectualization, that suggests the early disciples and Christians were just uneducated nobodies; the early Church was a group of societal outsiders with little training, skills, education, or knowledge. However, scholars like E.A. Judge, Wayne Meeks, and others have poked holes in this romantic myth of anti-intellectualization.
Instead, there is evidence that the people of the early Church were actually deep thinkers; Roman historian E.A. Judge argued that the early Christians formed scholastic communities. Anyone who reads the Apostle Paul can see a bit of evidence of this. Anyone who has taken more than 10 seconds to try to understand Paul’s letters can see how incredibly difficult it is to penetrate what he is saying. Speaking as someone who has spent many years trying to understand Paul, this doesn’t change for me. For instance, I must have spent close to 40 or 50 hours in this past year trying to think about 1 Corinthians 2. This is true while I have a working knowledge of the Greek language and of the culture.
The widespread difficulty in penetrating Paul his observation could be explained by one of three possibilities: the Apostle Paul 1) was a peddler in absolute nonsense that no one could understand, 2) Paul was an incredibly oblivious teacher, trying to convey complex and complicated ideas to people incapable of thinking in such a way or 3) Paul was teaching Christians communities he had a reasonable expectation would be able to engage with his thinking at some level.
Now, #1 could be the view of some people like the Roman governor Festus in Acts 26:24, but Festus and other people like that made call people senseless and crazy when they simply lack the ability to comprehend; Agrippa who was much more familiar with Jewish teachings was more amendable to Paul. We might try to say #2 is true, but the whole Pauline corpus show Paul’s flexibility in content and style, plus a sense of self-awareness as in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul shows all the signs of being very conscious about the state of the people he is trying to teach. Which leaves us with #3; Paul had good reasons to expect believers in Christ to be able to think. In fact, it is probably the case that Paul is actively trying to encourage believers to think critically.
This is not to mention that Jesus took on the orle of a rabbi, who regular mentor and challenged the thinking and reasoning of his disciples, and occasionally taught in ways that would perplex and mystify people.
Early Christians were critical thinkers of sorts. They didn’t have the modern day markers of such intellectual thinking such as education, wealth, status, etc. But that was because education, wealth, and status were a much more limited and less accessible than they are today. While these modern day markers are certainly correlated with the capacity for intellectual thinking today, there are not the same thing. The ability to think is something different from formal education.
If all this is the case, then the anti-intellectual tendency within the Church today is at odds with the initial makeup of the Church. But before we simply condemn anti-intellectualism, there is something important that Christian anti-intellectualism gets right. Thinking can lead you astray; reasoning can lead you to false conclusions. Modern psychology has noted the many ways in which our biases and heuristics impact the way we think and can lead us to make poor decisions and terrible blunders of thought; this is not to mention of all-too-human predilection to rationalize why we are right in the face of what might seem insurmountable evidence of why we are wrong. This is even true for “smart” people. Reasoning can lead you astray, and if you value your reasoning about your trust in the God made known in Jesus Christ and working through the Holy Spirit, guess what: you might be prone to reject faith. Christian anti-intellectuals would probably agree with this.
Where I would say their criticism go awry is, first, the conclusion that all reasoning leads astray: valuing reasoning simply because you assume your reasoning is always or almost all of the time correct will lead you astray, but this is not a problem with reasoning but the way we value reason. Not all forms of reasoning give the same results; we may have the very same rules of reasons that we employ, but the way we value reason will impact a) when we apply those rules of reason and b) how confident we are with its conclusions, leading us to determine whether to cease critical thinking or not. Our heart makes reasoning what it is. So reasoning isn’t inherently antagonistic to the Christian faith, but reasoning with a heart biased towards certain conclusions, including the quasi-religious valuing of reason itself as happened in the Enlightenment, can be.
Secondly, the Christian anti-intellectual may work with the assumption that it is worse to stop believing in Christ than it is to believe in Christ but to believe in the wrong way. But if Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the statements about wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers, and saying “Lord, Lord” not being enough say anything, it is that professing Christian faith is not any better than not believing. I would contend, for many reasons, it is, in fact, worse to profess faith in Jesus Christ but to never challenge your thinking and motivations to the point that your “faith in Christ” masks an evil heart that has rationalized away and justified its evil. In fact, in my observation and experience, when people shun thinking critically or reasoning as a whole, they aren’t as concerned about you believing something false as it is they are concerned about you not being accessible and controllable to their suggestion. While there are times people over analyze, and this can lead to a host of problems including rationalization, this is different than Christian anti-intellectuals devaluing reasoning and critical thinking as a whole. In other words, anti-intellectualism creates an environment where people do not think and listen, where they do not pay attention to the fruits of people, and thus are led astray by appearances. And if we look at Jesus, Jesus shows more compassion and openness to the sinners who get all sorts of things wrong, than the religious leaders who have all sorts of rationalization for their teachings. If Jesus is my standard, then I would say it is better to have no faith than to express a faith that is a cover for evil.
So, for those two reasons, I think what the anti-intellectual tendency gets right, the possibility that reasoning can lead you astray, doesn’t lead to the anti-intellectual conclusions.
So what then? How do we move from Christian anti-intellectualism to the Church as a community of thinking? It will entail challenge a lot of our standard practices, customs, beliefs, and expectations. Here are a few suggestions, gleaning from hearing a lot of other voices combined with some of my own experiences:
1) Spend more time focusing on the process of learning and less on the content – Commonly, we think of preachers and teachers as giving us the answers that we need to believe, but not necessarily how to reason things out. Even teachers who try to be more amenable to encourage thinking through including good exegetical and rational reasons for their conclusions still make the content of ideas the central, most important factor. This produces an environment in Church’s where people are encouraged to conform their beliefs, as the role exegesis and reason play in the sermon is simply to validate the conclusion. But if we look closely at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I would suggest it is an exercise in exposing the faulty processes of thinking the Corinthians engaged in that lead them to get so much wrong, even though they clearly valued knowledge and wisdom.
2) Lovingly challenge justifications for people not learning to think – “I am not smart enough t do it.” “I am doing fine as it is.” Etc. All sorts of reasons can be presented from us not engage in learning how to think well. Generally, there are certain myths that undergird these things.
For instance, the myth surrounding IQ makes people think only “smart” people can think well. False. For instance, and I promise this isn’t a form of humblebragging, but people say I am brilliant, although I don’t have any real intellectual accomplishments to my name. For the people know me outside of intellectual communities, there seems to be some aura around me that I am genius. But want to know the truth? A genius has an IQ of 145, I have an IQ somewhere between 135-140. Sure, close to genius technically, but there are plenty of people who are on my level of intellectual capacity that you probably know. What is the difference? Part of it is social perception as I openly express my intellectual side, having grown up in a home that valued that, but there is more to it than that. I have spent the time honing in, trying to learn various fields that I didn’t initially understand. Just this past year, I have had to engage in the analytic philosophy of epistemology (what is knowledge? how do we arrive at knowledge? etc.) and much of it was rather difficult and hard for me to comprehend. But the difference was that I had a belief that I could learn it, and spent the time to do it, and slowly I have become more comfortable with it, although by no means mastering it. Positive beliefs that you can learn and hard work and time to learn are just as important, if not more important than IQ. IQ may reduce how much time it takes to learn, but most people, unless they have an actual learning disability, can engage in critical thinking if you are optimistic about the possibility of doing it, willing to put the time in, and are willing to endure the discomfort of mistakes, failures, confusion, etc.
As for beliefs that people are fine within all that learning and thinking, this is commonly reflective of an overconfidence about oneself and insulating oneself from the truth. If you are not concern about when you get things wrong, then you will likely believe you don’t ever get things wrong. Either that, or you will restrict yourself to areas of life where you have an intuitive sense of mastery you don’t have to think and never broach outside of that, making you averse to change, novelty, and uncertainty. Critical thinking can show you how wrong you just might be, and provide you the tools to learn how to adjust, but this entails the emotional strength and willingness to be wrong.
By leaders learning to identify the myths people believe about themselves and encourage them to think differently, leaders can slowly and hopefully guide people into new practices of thinking, as they themselves focus more time on teaching people to think.
3) Fight against expectations of UNASSAILABLE expertise in teachers – Every church I have gone to as a pastor, I have been seen as “smart.” This created expectations about me that a) I had to know everything and b) created a vast gap between me and other people that they could not cross. While I do have some degree mastery when it comes to the New Testament, particularly the Apostle Paul, and that should not be discounted if and when I return back to the pulpit, this neither means I know everything about the NT or Paul or that I can not be wrong.
These expectations reinforce the myths and justifications for not thinking. If it is only the province of “smart” people, then I can’t do it. Secondly, they create strong feelings of judgment for ignorance or not having it all correct. This leads to subtle ways we as leaders lead congregations and classes to not encourage thinking, lest we get caught in some situation where we don’t have the answers.
4) Encourage the question “why?” and other exploratory questions – Want to know what makes me the person who spends his time thinking? The question “Why?” When I was very young, around the age of 3 or so, my mom tried to read the Bible to me and starting in Genesis 1. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And, as my mom tells the story, out my mouth comes the word “Why?” My life for the next 31 years of my life has been an endless string of questions “Why?” and other exploratory questions as you “Are you/Am I sure?,” sometimes express openly leading to the frustration or hostility of some, sometimes expressed only in my mind to guide my own work. Asking exploratory questions that get underneath what has been said or done is the very act of looking at reasoning. Encourage that with people, especially children. The more they do it and develop a habit of it, the easier it will be for them to do it. This can be an annoyance to some, provoking insecurities in others, but leaders who wish to foster churches, Sunday School classes, and small groups to being thinking communities must be willing to endure those insecurities so that others can explore why.
5) Don’t oversimplify – When we teach young children, there is an importance of simplifying for their minds that are just growing to learn how to accept all these different ideas. When congregations have not really been exposed to a topic, simplifying it down can be a great introduction to something they are unfamiliar with. But simplifying becomes oversimplifying when we a) tell them something that misses or overlooks something important or b) fails to challenge them in ways they are capable.
For instance, when we teach children the story of Noah’s flood as this nice story about God speaking to Noah and building a boat to house animals, we are oversimplifying the story, because the main point of the story in the Bible is about God’s wrath; it isn’t a pleasant story. Perhaps we feel the need to protect young minds from this and there are some good reasons for this. But if you teach an oversimplified version of the story, you will be teaching many children in the future to not pay attention to what the story says when they learn to read the Bible but to either a) hold to the oversimplifying, misleading explanation and never question or b) pose a potential risk if that person see through the guise to think the church oversimplifies and question the intellectual integrity of the church. It is better to not teach something or to say someone isn’t ready for something than to oversimplify.
Secondly, if you oversimplify things so that the congregation never grumbles that your preaching “goes over their head,” they will never be challenged. While it is certainly possible to truly and ineffectively preach over people’s heads, and I of all people have done that a time or two or a hundred, some people will complain if you challenge them out of their comfort level. Resist oversimplification in your preaching and teaching. Find the right point where you are challenging people with challenges they are capable of.
6) Remind people that reason discovers truth through imagination but doesn’t determine truth – One of the eureka moments late in my college career was the insight “Reasoning doesn’t make something true; reasoning tries to discover the truth.” In other words, just because I could come up with a seemingly good and sound argument about something doesn’t mean I was in fact actually correct. Reasoning is about the process of discovery and imagination through reliable rules and processes of thinking But things are true for others reasons. There aligns with a deep theological truth we as Christians hold: that God created the world and thus it is a reflection of His own mind and will. Things are as they are because God created them that way. Reasoning will discover the relationships between everything God created, or maybe even the relationship of God and the world. But in the end, ultimately things are true simply because they are true, and it is my act of reasoning that attempts to discover the relationships between truths, without ever being able to finally, exhaustively, definitively, and determinatively saying why things are the way they are. This a) prevents us from valuing reasoning for reasoning sake and b) train us to be flexible with how we adjust our reasoning so that we can conform our reasoning imaginations to what is real, good, and true rather than the reverse. It makes us better reasoners, able to question our rationalizations.
There are no doubt others practices that can encourage communities of thinking. But in the end, encouraging Christian communities to think is less about a set of rules of what we must do to get people to think, and more about being sensitive to how it is we shut down critical thinking, including in many subtle and unconscious ways. We as humans as a whole are innately curious, and so when we aren’t thinking, critical thinking, and intellectually exploring it is more often the case that we shut down curiosity more so than it is a failure to encourage curiosity. But this is part of the heart of the Christian way of thinking, because when, according to Paul, God chose the weak and foolish things of the world, God was inviting people through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to learn how to think again in order to question, but not necessarily automatically fight and resist, the standard thoughts and ideas of the prevailing, Rome culture. To engage in a counter-cultural community of Christ without jumping into unrelenting hostility towards the world on our part necessarily entails being a thinking community, learning how the whole story of Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and glory leads us into a form of wisdom that directs us to live in the world in a different way through the revelation and discernment that the Spirit brings. Without learning to reason well, a counter-cultural Christian community will be defined more by what it opposes in the world rather than He in whom we trust.