Anti-intellectualism: a problem for the church?

Is contemporary Christianity marked by an anti-intellectual streak?

That's the question being asked by Rick M. Nañez, an Assemblies of God missionary who recently penned a book tracing anti-intellectual trends in the Pentecostal tradition. Christianity Today has a lengthy excerpt from Nañez' Full Gospel, Fractured Minds, as well as an accompanying interview with the author. Both are well worth reading, as they raise some serious questions about whether Christians today--influenced by recent church history and certain practices within the church--are sidelining the life of the mind in favor of what Nañez calls "mindless spirituality" that is lacking in "intellectual achievement, cultural cultivation, and critical thinking."

Fightin' words, to be sure. But Nañez isn't out to insult Christians, deride "practical theology," or denigrate Christians who don't have much formal education. He's trying to point out anti-intellectual trends that, if allowed to continue without discernment, can actively hinder our Christian work. Quoting Nañez from the interview:

Anti-intellectualism keeps us from affecting our institutions and their various departments with solid Christian thinking. It hinders our ability to think in terms of worldview, that is, to understand the hundreds of otherwise fragmented areas of life in a coherent way. If we are suspicious of the intellect, we are hamstrung when it comes to providing well-thought-out answers to difficult questions from critics and skeptics. Anti-intellectualism can also lead to dangerous forms of mysticism and a type of superstitious faith.

I believe that anti-intellectualism tends to lead Christians into relatively superficial spiritual lives, at least, in comparison to the impact they could make if they engaged in "thinking on purpose" for the glory of God. Also, mediocrity in the "life of the mind" leads the Christian subculture to criticize, fear, and condemn the secular institutions that their anti-intellectual, evangelical, and Pentecostal parents and grandparents abandoned the generations before.

In other words, neglecting the intellectual side of faith and life leaves us unable to respond to or communicate with the culture around us in a meaningful way. His book is directed specifically at the Pentecostal movement, but he is quick to note that many other Christian traditions--particularly in, but certainly not limited to, American Christianity--are also vulnerable to charges of anti-intellectualism. He sees the root cause in the recent history of the church:

Though Pentecostalism has built within it some elements that make its adherents more susceptible to anti-intellectualism, I think that evangelicals struggle with the problem almost as much as we do. We have common roots in the pragmatic, revivalistic, and romantic era of America in the 18th century, so both our nation as well as our nation's homegrown movements tend to battle with the temptation to pit doing against thinking, and spirit against mind.

I'm reminded of Mark Noll's excellent Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which presented similar arguments about the evangelical community over a decade ago. (Here's a good roundtable discussion of that book, and a 2004 essay in which Noll looks at the church's intellectual progress since the publication of Scandal.) Among other things, Noll found the lack of intellectual and artistic achievement by the church alarming, especially when contrasted with the brilliant cultural contributions of the church in past centuries.

What is your experience, if any, with the "anti-intellectual" side of Christianity? Is your church working to encourage a "life of the mind" as a healthy part of being a Christian? While I'll certainly agree that there is far to go, I must say that what I've seen in my own church and in other nearby churches is encouraging: little things like book discussion groups, the cultivation of artists within the congregation, more discerning approaches to "secular" literature--these are positive signs. What about you?

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Most Christians I know do ignore the intellectual side of their faith.  This is also a worldly trait among most non-Christians where they avoid intellectual conversations as if they are anathema.  I believe our society as a whole, Christian and non-Christian,  shies away from intellectual discussion. 

As it pertains to Christianity, the faith is full of opportunities for intellectual discussion and learning.  I find my Christian faith has educated me in ways I never would have considered were possible.

While I agree that many Christians do avoid swimming in deep water; it is also true that we are all on different levels of understanding when it comes to spiritual things.  Therefore, we need to be careful that we don’t assume that a babe in Christ should be swimming in deep water when in fact they still haven’t learned how to swim.  Of course, those who have been appointed as leaders within the church should be teaching people how to swim. But many of them still haven’t learned how to swim either.

While I agree with the idea that many Christians are standing in shallow water; it is also important to note that there are different stages of faith.  Therefore, those who might be in shallow water at this time may be exactly where they need to be at the moment, because they still haven’t learned how to swim.  Indeed, it is important to have good leadership within the church to give instruction on these matters.  Unfortunately, many who hold such positions within the church haven’t learned how to swim yet either.  And some whom they deem to be incapable of swimming in deep water are often the best swimmers among them.  What irony! 

Then again, we shouldn’t assume that just because someone is capable of arguing with the most intellectual of atheists that it means they aren’t standing in shallow water too, that is, when it comes to discerning spiritual things.  For I’ve encountered many Christians who are quite smart, but act unwisely when it comes to choosing their battles.

Blessings to you…

Few things said in church pulpits turn me off faster than the assertion of “head knowledge versus heart knowledge.” Preachers use reason (a function of the head/mind) to discredit “head knowledge.” When will Christians realize that without “head knowledge” we will NEVER discern if we are actually and accurately in the faith? Heresies and cults thrive on false assertions and false conclusions. If we are not more inclined toward scholarship and reason as tools of our faith (i.e., the collective body of beliefs by which we are assured that we are following the Christ Jesus of the Holy Bible), then our hearts will lead us astray. “Heart knowledge” alone will only lead us into whatever feels (a function of the heart) right and not necessarily the truth.

One other comment, if I may…
The anti-academic attitude so freely propagated by many preachers is a turn off to many of the unsaved intellectuals in the world. If Christianity requires that one who may be gifted with a brilliant intellect divorce himself from it, then what appeal should our faith have to any reasoning person who is not in Christ? Is Christianity only for the ignorant and the dolts of the world? No! Is Christianity merely organized superstition that intellect should pierce straight through? No!

We do our faith a great disservice by asserting that intellect or even intellectualism is unwelcomed among our congregations. How then do we appeal to the unbeliever about the veracity of our faith and the Holy Scriptures upon which we base our faith? It takes reason (of course illuminated by the Holy Spirit) to persuade unbelievers that our religion is not mere fantasy, folklore, or fairy tales! Real-world intellect has to be embraced by Christians today to reach real-world skeptics who otherwise have no compulsion to believe in Christ. We have to be thinkers and ready to reason through what we believe and why we believe it.

A Christianity that shirks from the scrutiny of reason is a Christianity that has no power to save and deliver a sinner.

Perhaps we should consider a few things from God’s word lest we be wordly wise.  Jesus- remember him- our savior- was a carpenter.  Not sure a carpenter would cut it on the intellectual tour but certaintly he had a sharp mind- Who could come up with parables like he did that explained and nailed (carpenter pun) the theology he was trying to get through to the non-intellectuals…yes those idiots that he came to save!  Remember Col.3 It says to set our minds (intellect) on things above not on earthly passions…It just maybe just as unhealthy to follow passions of art, music, and literature as it is to follow passions of lust, sex, and greed.  Just consider it like the Bereans did…compare your intellect with the bible…I just maybe dumb enough to believe God’s word over any public intellectual of days gone by or current!!!

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness - teach and training indicate two verbs that require critical thinking, not emotionally or experience driven.  The word intellectualism seems to be a bad word, but on the contrary, it is a word that shows a man’s desire to deeply understand Our Lord & Savior beyond the translation of a text into a tapestry of richness that includes culture, language and historical fact.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and understanding.

I know I’m years late to this discussion, but this is a serious problem with the Christian church in America (and I’m sure worldwide, really).  Your choices as a new Christian are basically 1) support a progressive church that somewhat supports intellectualism but is horribly institutionalized, often leading to very ungodly decisions as a result, or 2) support a non-institutional conservative church that completely shuns all intellectualism, often leading to very ungodly decisions as a result, or 3) don’t go to church.

I’ll probably choose 3 for the rest of my life.  People just seem to refuse to understand the true message and true power of Christ’s message.  They would just rather be “religious people.”

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