“Anti-intellectualism is a disposition to discount the importance of truth and the life of the mind. Living in a sensuous culture and an increasingly emotional democracy, American evangelicals in the last generation have simultaneously toned up their bodies and dumbed down their minds. The result? Many suffer from a modern form of what the ancient stoics called “mental hedonism” — having fit bodies but fat minds.”
~Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds
The government in recent years has been warning Americans about the dangers of obesity; but from what Os Guinness writes above, it appears that more than the typical Christian’s epidermis has grown paunch. Christianity today is facing a crisis of the intellect, or more precisely, the lack thereof. And as we compare ourselves to our forbears it doesn’t look too pretty. In the 1700s, Christians in their teens went to universities like Harvard and Yale, where the entrance examinations sometimes required translating Bible passages into Greek and Hebrew; but today some Christian teens can’t even be convinced to read the Bible without it looking like a flashy magazine. How have we come to this point? What has changed? As we will see, several forces have been at work in the dumbing-down of Christianity.
At the turn of the eighteenth century the Enlightenment was in full swing. In France, Rene Descartes had crawled into his stove to doubt everything possible, only to realize that he could not doubt that he doubted, thus Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Across the channel in England, John Locke was wiping the slate clean, literally, with his tabula rasa theory of human knowledge. 1 The prevailing sentiment was that if you couldn’t taste it, touch it, smell it, or hear it, it wasn’t real. 2 Man could figure out anything with his brain and with his senses.
Some people didn’t like this extremely cerebral approach to things. They thought that man’s emotions were getting short shrift. Led by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, these people became known as the Romanticists. Emphasizing feeling as a guide to morality, they totally eschewed rationality or reason and gravitated towards religion, particularly Roman Catholicism because of its colorful ritualism, which stimulated them aesthetically and emotionally. In other parts of the church this same type of emotional emphasis took the form of mysticism, which emphasized meditation and contemplation as ways to gain some special ecstatic experience of God’s presence.
The emphasis on the experiential and emotional continued to have an important place in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Frederick Schleirermacher - both of whom influenced theological liberalism, which impacted the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The movements within romanticism rightly reacted against an extreme focus on man’s intellectual capacity. However, just like all pendulum reactions do, they swung too far in the opposite direction. Instead of settling in the middle, they moved far to the left, leaving emphasis on man’s volitional and emotional capacity.
Another movement that took a heavy toll on Christian intellectual life was the fundamentalism that developed in the 1920s. At the time Christianity was under attack from theological liberalism in its own ranks, from a German higher criticism that attacked the infallibility of the Bible, and from Darwinian evolution. Seeing the forces of secular intellectualism lined up against them, many the fundamentalists retreated into a moralistic separation that inspired the mocking pun “Don’t smoke, dance, or chew, or go out with girls who do.” Rigorous theological thought took a backseat to simplistic ethical stands such as Prohibition. For example, D.G. Hart writes that fundamentalist leader William Jennings Bryan, “… Minimized doctrinal and denominational differences and conceived of Christianity as a sure means to improve society.” 3
The ironic thing was that the consequence of fundamentalism was a retreat from society that lasted half a century. This included a retreat from Christian intellectual activity as well, and was opposed by J. Gresham Machen, a brilliant Christian scholar sometimes tied too closely to fundamentalism. Recognizing that what was occurring in the church, he exhorted his students at Princeton Seminary to not follow the main stream preaching style and ignore pressing issues of the day, but asked them instead to face them head on. He said, “You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current. Preach every Sunday morning during your seminary course, study as you studied in college—and these questions will probably never trouble you. The great questions may be easily avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The church is waiting for men of another type.” 4
While it is not widely recognized as a collective movement with a stated credo, another force has contributed to the dumbing down of American Christians, and that is what I will call entertainmentism. Gilbert Highet wrote in Man’s Unconquerable Mind that “The average American would rather be driving a car down the highway than reading a book and thinking.” 5 Mr. Highet’s comments may need to be updated to note that now Americans can have their cars and TVs too - together.
Let me be clear, entertainment is not necessarily bad. God has given us a pattern of both work and recreation to follow. The problem, however, is that we have entertainment of the wrong amount and kind. The average child watches more television than you can shake a stick at. Add to that video games, DVDs, Gameboys, and the Internet, and we have a bona-fide mental hedonist. Maybe we, as Christians, try to give our kids four hours of Veggie Tales instead of four hours of Nickelodeon; but the problem is that it is still entertainment and how much is its challenging them. Let’s face it—television does not develop critical thinking skills (though it may sometimes inform) - it is all too easy to space out and simply absorb. Reading, on the other hand, forces engagement, comprehension, and reasoning, and conversation requires concentration, quick thinking, and thoughtful communication.
The heavy doses of “brainfood-lite” we are being fed today succeed in reducing our overall levels of intellectual activity. It makes us consumers and absorbers, not receivers, processors, and ruminators.
The problem with these three movements is that they have not challenged us to do what God commands: to love Him with heart, soul, and mind. The heart and soul part doesn’t seem too difficult, but it is the mind portion that often suffers today. American Christians have come to think that having warm and passionate feelings about Jesus is the important thing. But, as Christian scholar Charles Malik once said, “The problem is not only to win souls, but to save minds.” 6
Christ has come to redeem our entire man, including our fallen intellects ( Rom. 12: 2). This is so we can become thinking, reasoning Christians. Paul commands us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. This means that as Christians we must be rigorous thinkers, comprehensive thinkers, and most of all, biblical thinkers. This does not mean that every Christian will become a scholar, writer, professor, or critic; for God bestows different gifts in greater and lesser measure among his people. What it does mean is that every Christian should exercise their mind concerning issues of the faith as much as possible. The Federalist Papers, which college students struggle with today, were written for farmers and tradesmen in New York . We need that kind of educated grasp of thought among Christians again today. Let us love God with our minds.
1.Tabula rasa literally means “blank slate”. Locke’s idea was that children are born with their minds as this blank slate, and they begin to develop knowledge as they take in information with their senses.
2. This kind of method of obtaining and verifying information is known as empiricism.
3. Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America , D.G. Hart, Phillipsburg , NJ : Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2003, pages 68-69.
4. Quoted in How Now Shall We Live?, Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, Wheaton , IL : Tyndale House Publishing, Inc., 1999, page 36.
5. Quoted in Habits of the Mind, James Sire, Downers Grove , IL : InterVarsity Press, 2000, page 20.
6. Quoted in Against the Night, Chuck Colson with Ellen Vaughn, Ann Arbor , MI : 1989, page 167.