Is the church anti-intellectual?
I’ve been reading (and writing) about the mass exodus we’re seeing across the Western evangelical church, and I noticed a recurring theme. There are many other reasons why people are leaving, but studies show that more and more people are giving up on church because they can’t get adequate answers on important matters.
Niggling questions include all sorts of issues, including science, sexuality, doubt, and exclusivity of Christ. These questions can be asked for numerous reasons, but what’s clear is that churches haven’t been a good place to wrestle intellectually with doubts.
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.
Questions and intellectual engagement are getting short shrift, just when the culture is markedly losing its Christian values. The result is that people are starting to drift.
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.
With our culture moving into a post-Christian phase, it appears these answers aren’t enough for many.
William Lane Craig said that “Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral.” It amounts to an anti-intellectual church. And this anti-intellectualism is harming the church in more ways than one.
You could say that much of Christian history is a conflict between intellectual and anti-intellectual impulses. Rational thought and heart faith are in constant tension.
Historically, intellectualism has been known to cause massive problems. The late 19th century, for example, saw an influx of intellectual elites that argued against Christianity with a rigidly rational approach. Christians regarded intellectualism as a slippery slope into disbelief, and promptly retreated.
Tension between faith and intellectual thought continues to this day. Christian communities can regard thinking intellectually about faith, and coming up with logical questions, as threatening or divisive. It’s just a sinful desire to go our own way, we’re told, or we’re not trusting God with “child-like” faith.
Without realising it, some Christians act as though being anti-intellectual is the moral high ground. If you never doubt, you have a badge of honour. Think of those terrible bumper stickers that proclaimed, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” (Argh.)
So 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. Christian communities tell us that we question because we love our sin and reject the truth. In the end, we get really good at hiding what we’re thinking.
Meanwhile, the world tends to regard Christian thinking as terrible. 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.
Surely this can’t be right. Guarding our minds is one thing, but my sense is that the pendulum has swung too far in the anti-intellectual direction. Atheist philosophy may undermine our faith, but ignoring all intellectual inquiry can undermine it as well – if not more.
Theologian RC Sproul said that God’s Word isn’t limited to intellectuals, but the Bible’s content is addressed to the mind as well as the heart. What we need is thorough knowledge of our Bible and of Christian teachings, and a desire to understand our world through the Bible’s lens.
We need this because thinking about our faith is more important than ever – for ourselves and for others. Here’s why.
Thinking to deepen faith
When we don’t think deeply about our faith, we miss out on a whole dimension of our faith life.
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 all the answers about our faith. Human wisdom is “foolishness” to God and can only go so far. Paul talks about it here:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
Human wisdom is limited. But this doesn’t mean it has no value.
Looking at the Bible, you can see all kinds of intellectual objections from believers. Think of Job, who argues with God over the noise of his theologically conservative friends. Or Moses, who questioned God relentlessly. Solomon urged young men to keep pursuing wisdom (Proverbs 4), And Paul did intricate mental gymnastics to reason with his Gentile and Jewish audiences.
By not using our minds, we’re neglecting a key part of our experience that God has given us. The number of Christian intellectuals there have been just adds fuel to the idea that faith and intellectualism can co-exist. (Just think of C.S. Lewis, the famous author, apologist, and probably the most quoted person in the history of sermons.)
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. Just like our emotions, and just like everything else about us. Surely this is the real meaning of 2 Corinthians 10:5:
… we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Not ignoring arguments, or letting others think for us, but being discerning and humble. God gives us our intellect, and when we use it for his purposes, we can glorify him with it.
Thinking well about our faith can also help Christians process questions. When doubts and false teaching come our way, we’ll be that much stronger to evaluate them.
Sometimes, Christians are content to sit back and coast in their faith or let their church leadership do our thinking. We can also uncritically accept 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.
Sure, you can get by without thinking too hard about your faith. But you’re running a risk – 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 10:5) without the knowledge in the first place?
Our ministry to the world
Finally, intellectual engagement makes us more effective in reaching others.
Anti-intellectualism prevents understanding of others. To make a difference in the world, it can’t be optional to understand and think carefully about other people’s viewpoints.
Why is this important? William Lane Craig describes it like this:
… the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. 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.
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.
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 can’t speak the language, how can we understand or communicate?
As Charles Malik says:
For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.
In other words, anti-intellectualism keeps us from deeper faith, but also from witnessing well.
So what do we do?
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.
Places of worship may serve many functions. But we can’t underestimate the importance of learning, questioning and critical thinking. Faith always requires a leap of faith, but it doesn’t have to be an unreasonable faith. Here are some things we can do to help our churches avoid becoming anti-intellectual.
We can be conscious of taking questions seriously, not dismissing them or treating them as heresy. We can engage sensitively.
We can start to recognise that spiritual evolution is understandable, and even okay. Not every Christian will be completely on board with every doctrine at every point in their lives – whatever the reason. If we’re doubting because we don’t want to believe or act, we need to confront that. But if we’re doubting because of legitimate questions, that also needs to be addressed. Ignoring the question doesn’t mean that the feeling goes away; we just get better at hiding it.
We can also think humbly about our own presuppositions and keep weighing them up. What are our intellectual blind spots?
Ministers and church staff can encourage their congregation to read broadly, beyond what they hear on Sunday. They can help to teach critical thinking and logic from the pulpit.
We can make spaces where questions are allowed – not Q&As where experts just give a one-way answer, but spaces where people can really wrestle with what they’re thinking about, and recognise that these may not be resolved for a while.
Most of all, let’s remember to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind.