There’s a mass exodus happening across the Western church, and anti-intellectualism could be to blame.
As I’ve been reading (and writing) about trends in the modern church, I noticed a recurring theme. More and more people are giving up on church because they can’t get adequate answers to questions.
In the book Life After Church, Brian Sanders writes:
So many leavers express that they need to move on because they aren’t able to ask the serious questions that deeply disturb their hearts and the simple faith they have always known. As their faith moves beyond conversion, they begin to ask deep and more destabilising questions … finding that clichés about God no longer seem to satisfy … Some leavers call these answers ‘Sunday-school answers’, a pejorative expression that simply means answers that would be given to a child.
There’s been a worrying anti-intellectual trend in Christianity in the past century. Firstly, we don’t talk about the importance of good thinking and seeking knowledge. Secondly, we tend to think of our intellect as a stumbling block. We think of “simple faith” as not asking too many questions, and we try to content ourselves with pat answers that don’t satisfy.
When we do question, we can feel outnumbered by others in our church who are nodding and smiling. We wonder if something is wrong with us. In the end, we get really good at hiding what we’re thinking.
Meanwhile, the world tends to regard Christian thinking as terrible – and not without reason. One writer observed that we’re at a point the term “Christian scholarship” sounds like backsliding to members of the church, and a hilarious oxymoron to everyone else.
Learning how to approach faith intellectually has been neglected in the church, but it shouldn’t be this way. Not only is it selling our faith short – it’s just plain dangerous. Here’s why.
Anti-intellectualism denies a key part of the faith experience
In Western culture, most people see reason and faith as concepts on two different planes – two concepts that can’t be reconciled.
There’s some truth in this. Using our brainpower can’t give us every answer about our faith. But that doesn’t mean human wisdom has no value.
Looking at the Bible, you can see all kinds of intellectual objections from believers. Think of Job, who argues with God. Or Moses, who questioned God relentlessly. And Paul did intricate mental gymnastics to reason with his Gentile and Jewish audiences.
Engaging our intellectual faculties is a key part of the experience that God has given us. The more you think about God with a desire to learn, the bigger God becomes. One writer put it this way:
The Christian religion flourishes not in the darkness but in the light… [T]he true remedy [of unbelief] is consecration of intellectual power to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We shouldn’t shut off our minds but submit them. Surely this is the real meaning of 2 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 5:
… we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Anti-intellectualism means you’re less defended against a faith crisis
Being convinced of your beliefs is one thing, but sometimes, Christians are content to sit back and let their church leadership do their thinking. We get intellectually lazy, uncritically accepting Christian writers and leaders, because, well, they’re Christian.
But as one person put it,
Intellectual slothfulness is but a quack remedy for unbelief.
If you haven’t put in the time to think intellectually about your faith, you’re left defenceless to respond to intellectual questions when you hit a crisis. As another person said:
… you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.
How do we expect to “demolish … every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 5) without the knowledge in the first place?
Anti-intellectualism prevents understanding of others
In the past, most people in the West were nominally Christian and knew the basic tenets of Christianity. That’s no longer the case. For years, Christians have been pegged as gullible and naïve. But as society abandons cultural Christianity, it will surely get worse.
William Lane Craig describes it like this:
A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the Gospel which a person who is secularized will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ.
Remember those naff bumper stickers that proclaimed, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it”? That’s great and all for Christians, but to anyone else, it sounds mad. (It’s true because – you believe it? Bit circular, isn’t it?!)
It’s just an example of how Christian anti-intellectual rhetoric puts up barriers. When we’re making an argument for our faith, whether it’s in politics or anywhere else, we will be playing on an intellectual playing field. If we believe but can’t explain to others, how can we have a meaningful conversation?
So what do we do?
Places of worship may serve many functions. But we can’t underestimate the importance of learning, questioning and critical thinking. As Jaroslav Pelikan, a Yale historical theologian, said once:
The church is always more than a school… But the church cannot be less than a school.
We can be conscious of taking questions seriously, not dismissing them or treating them as heresy. Faith evolves over time, and it’s important to engage with those questions honestly.
We can also think humbly about our own presuppositions and keep weighing them up. What are our intellectual blind spots?
God isn’t scared of my questions. Let’s read widely, think critically, and remember to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter at a major non-profit in Melbourne, and blogs at Twenty-Six Letters (twentysixletters.org). You can follow the blog’s Facebook page.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter and lives in Melbourne.
You can follow her blog on Christian issues, creativity and culture at Twenty-Six Letters.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.