Life of the Mind Series Introduction
In the early 1990s the prominent Wheaton (and now Norte Dame) historian Mark Noll wrote a a book entitled Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. He concluded that there was no Evangelical mind, which initiated a heated debate among religious scholars. His purpose was not to demean Evangelicals. Instead, he was hoping to inspire a much deeper conversation among all Christians about the depth of intellectual faith. Those words are important ‘intellectual’ and ‘faith’. They are not contradictory. In fact, Noll’s keen analysis shows that Christians in the later half of the 20th century were quite unique in the sense that they had abandoned strong intellectual and critical roots. From the early Church fathers, through medieval mystics and Renaissance humanists to the 19th century Holiness and social gospel movements . . .they all developed broad intellectual capacities and contributed greatly to the western canon of literature, thought and debate. Dallas Willard notes “Too easily we forget that it is great thinkers who have given direction to the people of Christ in their greatest moments: Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Wesley to name a few.” Noll was sounding the alarm that Christian culture was becoming remarkably shallow. Unfortunately, nearly thirty years later and the crisis has not abated. Christian culture has not disappeared or even weakened. Christian Music is alive and well, mega churches are still growing, specialized Bibles are still being published, evangelicals still pack a mighty political punch, and cultural warriors are still fighting hard. But despite the breadth of Christianity, it lacks depth. American Christianity may be a mile wide, but it is about an inch deep.
This does not mean that Christian intellectuals are completely absent. The recent and unfortunate death of Rachel Held Evans brought together many diverse voices. Her writings are controversial and even condemned in certain circles. But the testimonies of her work show a strong desire for critical analysis and debate from all sides. Furthermore, there are many great resources available to access Christian thought. For example two websites like Patheos and First Things publish articles by numerous authors everyday, and the majority of them are Ph.Ds or accomplished writers. The thinkers and opportunities are readily available. Which begs the question, why the shallowness?
Answering the question is complex. A recent article in Patheos puts the blame squarely on the ‘worship industry’. This is overstated. The past fifty years of Christianity has been one of great transition. Denominations and main line religion have been declining for over a generation. Simultaneously, great cultural shifts have also occurred. Some conclude Christianity is dying. There is plenty of evidence to suggest this is not the case. Christianity has changed as well as the culture, but it is not dying. Unfortunately, the intellectual underpinnings of Christianity are part of this tectonic shift. In other words it is tempting to dwell on why Christian culture is shallow and view it as a post-Morten on the culture wars. A far more productive exercise is discussing the solution.
To that end, the following blog series is a curriculum for engaging the Christian Life of The Mind. This is familiar ground. The proposed solutions are disciplines long advocated by Spiritual leaders and saints. But they are re-imagined for a post-denominational world. More specifically it is a working plan for engaging faith and intellect. When done well this is a powerful art form that dynamically challenges and changes the world.
There are four areas for development, each of which are sub-divided and discussed in separate blogs. First is the origin of all thought; the creation and conception of ideas. Ideas are not random, and in fact they can be trained and cultivated. Second is the power of images. The mind’s eye is the rudder that guides conceptions, and shapes reality, both spiritual and physical. The third area is the collection of data or information. The cliché “Garbage in, garbage out” might be old, but it is a basic truth. And the final category is critical analysis. This is the most complex and demanding discipline. Simply stated it is a skill set designed to make sense of everything based in truth.
The world is rudderless and aimless. Christians can do much to cultivate love and caring where it is needed most. Part of completing that task is shaping a capable and living mind. Again, Dallas Willard says it perfectly “The prospering of God’s cause on earth depends upon his people thinking well.”