Faith and Scholarship: What does it mean to be a Christian Intellectual? Let’s see…
By Mark D. Harris
Years ago my wife and I were buying Christmas gifts for our children and we ran across some information cards that proclaimed in bold letters “It’s OK to be smart.” I was a little surprised that anyone would think that it is not OK to be smart. Having that announcement on a stack of cards is a little like printing “It’s OK to be healthy” on a bag of apples; who would dispute it?
Nonetheless, the marketers for those cards put it there. Over the years I have noticed the same message again and again. It is on products, in the media, and even on the playground. Hearkening back to my childhood, I remember the “nerd” and the “pencil necked geek”. The “jock” would get the girls and the “brain” would get the scorn. This is not a new phenomenon.
Why? Is it because the “scholarly” are arrogant? Is it because the “non-scholarly” are envious? Is it a primarily an American thing, with the idea that any differences between people are elitist and somehow undemocratic? Is it primarily a Christian thing, because as the common saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”, so the ground must be level in every other endeavor as well? Is it a combination of all of the above? I do not propose to definitively answer these questions in this paper, but I do intend to explore the relation between the Christian faith and scholarship; specifically “What does it mean to be a Christian intellectual”. This includes what a Christian intellectual is, what he knows, what he feels and what he does.
What is a Christian Intellectual?
Our first task, of course, is to define our terms. For our purposes, having a Christian faith means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and having a basic understanding and practice of the teachings of the Bible. In the seminary context, being an intellectual means spending significant time and effort considering some of the deeper questions of life, such as God, origins and meaning, and communicating those thoughts to others, typically in writing and teaching.
Having defined the terms Christian and intellectual, our working definition of “Christian intellectual” is a faithful follower of Jesus Christ who spends large amounts of time in reading, writing and thinking deeply about God and some of the foundational questions of life. This is irrespective of that individual’s particular job or other sources of income. One can be an intellectual without having a job in a university or even making any money at all, as many PhDs already know.
What does a Christian Intellectual Know?
Fundamentally, a Christian intellectual is committed to the truth that God comes before all things and that ontology comes before epistemology. Since Christianity encompasses all of life and provides guidance on the person of God and the deepest questions of existence, and since this information is contained in two primary sources, Creation (general revelation) and the Bible (special revelation), the Christian intellectual must know the Bible and have a general knowledge about the world at large. He is an expert in the Bible, having a broad and deep understanding of each part, how it fits into the whole, and how people are to live as a result. The Christian intellectual also reads widely in science, economics, history, politics, and other fields to bring a broad knowledge to his work. He also knows that truth is not only composed of facts but also of beauty and goodness, Hume and Kant notwithstanding.
While it is important to understand doctrine, the basics of the Christian faith, more vital still is to act on what you know, to live the life of faith in Christ. Ellen Charry in her book By the Renewing of Your Minds makes the point beautifully, that “a central theological task is to assist people to come to God.” Building the image of Christ in believers, not merely giving them knowledge, is the task of the Bible.
Since the Enlightenment Western civilization has been enthralled with the Cartesian man, the rational creature who holds natural sciences as the king of knowledge and human reason as the key to unlock every door of truth. While the Christian intellectual knows that natural sciences declare much about their Creator and that reason is a powerful gift to reveal Him, he also understands that reason is corrupted by sin just as every other part of the human being. Reason cannot be trusted to lead man; it must be directed through faith by the God who can be trusted.
What does a Christian Intellectual Feel?
Thinking is not the only important human activity, because God made humans to feel. Even as our Lord cries (John 11:35), becomes angry (Psalm 7:11), and laughs (Psalm 2:4), humans do the same, whether they want to or not. The Christian intellectual, however, learns to feel as God feels. He becomes sad at the death of others, even if they are wicked (cf. Ezekiel 18:32), mourns with those who mourn, and rejoices with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). The Christian intellectual tries to avoid unrighteous anger (James 1:19-20).
While Christians sometimes try to control their emotions in an attempt to pretend that everything in their lives is OK, and intellectuals tend to fear emotions, the Christian intellectual neither hides (in the long term) nor fears this important part of the makeup of man. Abraham, Moses, David and Paul are all examples of God-followers who were not afraid of feeling.
What does a Christian Intellectual Do?
James KA Smith notes in his book Desiring the Kingdom that man is not primarily a thinker or even a believer but is primarily a lover. To him, “to be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” The Bible states that love is central to the character of God (1 John 4:8). Since love is fundamental, the Christian intellectual does what she loves. As a Christian, love for God is the central feature of her life, and her thoughts, words and actions will align with His. She will love all of Creation and love the Scriptures, as He does.
The Christian intellectual will think of the great things. He will meditate on the Scripture, ruminate on the Great Philosophers, and cogitate on the natural sciences. He will consider how to use what he has learned to help those around him. The words of a Christian intellectual will be sweeter than honey (cf. Psalm 19:10). He will use his body as well as his mind to meet the needs of those around him. Jesus, the ultimate intellectual, was also the ultimate helper of mankind. He pondered the highest thoughts, and then went to the lowest places to bless those in need.
Specifically the Christian intellectual will help her family, her neighbors, her church, and others. She will impact everyone that the Lord has placed into her path for His glory. She will gather young people around her and disciple them to be like Jesus, thus providing Christian teaching for the next generation.
The Christian intellectual will speak but also write. He knows that his work can never equal his presence, but as a mortal he must put pen to paper to reach people outside of his circle. He researches carefully, always pushing deeper to get to the true meaning of a text or artifact. He writes with skill, discipline and joy. The Christian intellectual enters the conversations that are ongoing during his lifetime and moves them towards Christ.
The Christian intellectual is imaginative, appreciating Einstein’s feeling that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” She will be creative, synthesizing old information and old experiences into something new and beautiful.
Finally, the Christian intellectual will be a person of joy. Knowing that all truth is God’s truth, she will crave knowledge and especially wisdom. Whether she learns about trees or Timothy, caves or Colossians, she is discovering her Creator. The Christian intellectual will look at the subject matter, enjoy it deeply, and then see God in every moment.
People in modern Western culture may need to be convinced that it is OK to be smart, but the Christian intellectual is already convinced. Defined as “a faithful follower of Jesus Christ who spends large amounts of time in reading, writing and thinking deeply about God and some of the foundational questions of life”, a Christian intellectual does everything possible to make himself and those around like Jesus. He will know deep and important things. He will feel with a human passion and godly restraint. He will do good works with everything in his power, as directed by his Creator. He will make disciples, because success without successors is failure. Ultimately, the Christian intellectual will know and live for Jesus, the author and finisher of his faith.
Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Good Reads. “Quotes.” Albert Einstein, Quotes, Quotable Quote. Last modified January 28, 2015. Accessed January 28, 2015. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/556030-imagination-is-more-important-than-knowledge-for-knowledge-is-limited.
Sire, James W. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Smith, James K A. Cultural Liturgies. Vol. 1, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.