Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

On Cultivating a Christian Mind (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Last monthÕs instalment pointed out that the present generation of Evangelical and Reformed believers are not known for their great contributions to the arts and sciences. Apart from making valuable contributions to theological and ethical studies, orthodox Christians have not shown much interest in other branches of human knowledge. Even more serious is the failure to cultivate a Christian mind or the ability to think within a specifically Christian framework across the whole spectrum of modern learning. This is in contrast with our Reformed and Puritan ancestors who did show a keen interest in developing not only a Christian heart, but also a Christian mind. They were avid students of GodÕs special revelation in His Word as well as His general revelation in nature or the creation.
The PuritanÕs Goal in Education
The Puritan ideal in learning was a liberal arts education. Its goal was to produce capable and qualified persons. John Milton gives what is perhaps the best definition of what the Puritans aimed at in this respect: "I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public."

In this view a liberal education is comprehensive. It prepares a person to do well in all that he or she may be called to do in life. Of course, learning will not by itself make an educated person. A truly educated man or woman is one who has a good grasp of Biblical truth and a comprehensive understanding of the world around him or her. Also, this knowledge must be productive; it must somehow benefit others as well as oneself.

Today education tends to focus on the latter, namely on qualifying the student for a job or vocation, which is increasingly defined in economic terms. How much money will I make if I qualify for this job, is the question that seems to be uppermost in the minds of modern students? Milton's phrase "public offices" covers much more than that, however. It includes being a good church member and a positive contributor to the community. What are the "private offices" Milton mentions? They include such things as being a good friend, spouse or parent. Also, they include the most personal world of all-the inner world of the mind and imagination. One of the best tests of whether a person is well educated is what he or she does with leisure time. Puritans believed that knowledge, while useful for others, is its own reward even if it is not directly useful. Richard Baxter spoke of a person "taking comfort of his learning and wisdom by making discoveries in arts and sciences which delight him ... by the very acting."

The Loss of the Puritan Vision
I started out by saying that the problem for many Christians today is that they lack a Christian mind. Few, also in our Reformed circles, have the ability to think Christianly about the world around them. The Puritans had no such problem. Why is it such a problem for us? There are several reasons, I believe.

1. An aversion to deep and disciplined thinking. Most Evangelicals--and again I have to include many in Reformed churches--suffer from a mental laziness which comes to expression in demands for simplicity. Keep it simple, is the constant refrain coming from many in the pew as they challenge the preacher to deliver short and easy to follow sermons. The same attitude is carried over to other areas of life. As N. K. Clifford puts it: ÒThe Evangelical mind does not relish complexity. It always tends towards over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection.Ó

2. Distrust of reason. Although, as we have seen, the Puritans showed a healthy respect for reason and its role in all areas of life, including the spiritual, we, their modern descendants, have been influenced by an anabaptistic, pietistic outlook on life. It views the human mind and its powers with suspicion and draws a false dichotomy between faith and reason.

3. Related to this is the notion that the only thing that matters is the salvation of our soul. We only live a short while and therefore have no time for pursuing the things of the world. Science and culture are the domain of the unregenerate and will always be enemy territory for the Christian who is a stranger and pilgrim in the earth. There is much truth to this, but we must distinguish between the world as created by God and the world as sinful humanity living in enmity against God. The former is our Father's domain and as such worthy of our interest.

4. A fourth reason is that we have allowed ourselves to become intimidated by atheistic evolutionary scientists who seem to have a monopoly on human knowledge and allow no alternative hypotheses as to the origin and meaning of life. This is true, but even if no one will listen to us, we should still study God's creation and try to expose the myths by which modern man lives.

The Need to Recapture the Puritan Vision
But is it really that important to study the book of nature or God's general revelation? Given a choice, is it not better to be well acquainted with God's most important book, the Bible? This is the wrong question to ask. God has not given us a choice here. True, our priority must be to know the written Word of God. But we must not neglect His Word in nature, for that too is a "most elegant book wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity" (Belgic Confession, Art.1)

If we, Evangelical and Reformed Christians, do not cultivate our minds, we will lose the battle with secular humanism. There are many who feel the battle is lost already. But we should not give in to such a defeatist attitude. That will only paralyze us and tempt us to give up the fight. What we need to do is to size up the situation we are facing today. About 20 years ago Charles Malik, a Lebanese diplomat and scholar, said in a speech at Wheaton college, "At the heart of the crisis in Western civilization lies the state of mind and the spirit of the universities." He went on to say that Christians must realize that it is not enough to win souls, but that we need to save minds as well. The Church has to recapture the spirit of Augustine, Calvin, Perkins, Owen and Edwards--giants one and all in intellect--who understood their times and were abreast of the culture of their day.

Although it is true that intellectual labour has never by itself led to a healthy church life and vital Christianity, yet if one examines Church history carefully, one will come to the conclusion that the Church's best times have been those when piety and learning went hand in hand. As Mark Noll says,

The links between deep Christian life, long lasting Christian
influence and dedicated Christian thought characterize virtually
all of the high moments in the history of the church. On the
other side of the picture, the history of the church contains a
number of sobering examples of what happens when a spirituality
develops with no place for self-conscious thought. The path to
danger is not always the same, but the results of neglecting the
mind are uniform: Christian faith degenerates, lapses into gross
error, or simply passes out of existence.

Admittedly, one can emphasize the role of the intellect too much. There are those who look disdainfully upon simple believers and their piety. Of course this is wrong; not all Christian can excel in knowledge and engage in academic pursuits. But one can also go wrong in the opposite direction by so stressing the importance of Christian experience or "heart" religion that all intellectual activity is viewed with suspicion.

I believe the Bible calls us to exercise all our faculties. When God converts us He converts the whole person, mind, heart and will. True, some Christians will be stronger in one area than in another. In keeping with the Bible's teaching concerning the various tasks given to different parts of the body, we should expect that there is a kind of division of labour within the body of Christ as well. The danger comes when parts of the body that are to complement each other--in this case piety and the life of the mindÑ rival each other.

The Problem with Pietism
Much of the current neglect of intellectual activity in Evangelical and Reformed circles can be traced to various pietistic movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pietism, in distinction from Puritanism which, as we saw, firmly believed in cultivating a Christian mind, was basically an anti-intellectual movement. It stressed the importance of experiential or "heart" religion at the expense of what they considered mere "head" knowledge. One could say that the Pietists were interested in the subjective rather than objective aspects of the Christian faith.

The thrust of Pietism was to draw believers back from cold, formal, dogmatic rigidity toward warm and living Christian experience. There was much to be said for such an appeal because the churches, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, were plagued by dead-orthodoxy.

The problem with Pietism, however, was that it often went too far with its emphasis on Christian experience. Gradually, experience took on a life of its own and lost its moorings in objective truth. Christian faith was increasingly seen as a life rather than a doctrine. This in turn led to fascination with spiritual experience and absorption in the psychological dimensions of the faith. There was little interest in theological study and reflection on the wider implications of the Christian religion.

Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher, was raised in a pietistic family. He is remembered for splitting up life into two compartments, a lower sphere called the phenomenal realm in which he placed things we can know empirically, and an upper sphere called the noumenal realm which includes things that cannot be known but only believed and experienced. This separation or splitting up of human knowledge into two compartments has had enormous influence upon subsequent philosophy and theology. But the interesting and disturbing thing about it is that this Kantian revolution as it is often called, is traced by many to KantÕs pietistic upbringing, which prepared him for viewing life and reality in terms of subjective religious experience divorced from objective truth.

The well-known nineteenth century German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, also brought up in a pietistic home, taught that the foundation of Christianity is located in the believer's "feeling of dependence" rather than the truth of Scripture. This basically subjective theology of "feeling" in turn paved the way for liberalism's fascination with romanticism and mysticism. Increasingly it became difficult for Christians with a pietistic background to distinguish between those forms of feeling that remained within the Christian orbit and those that had spun off as meteorites with no fixed centre.

Thus Pietism, in spite of much good that has sprung from it, has also paved the way for liberalism--unintentionally, to be sure, but just as inevitably. Where religious experience becomes the one thing needful so that it occupies most of one's time and energy, there is little time or energy left for thinking through the implications of the Christian faith. In such an environment there may still be interest in studying Scripture, but there is little or no interest in studying God's other book, that of nature or the creation. Even Bible study in this context will tend to focus exclusively on the soteriological elements of revealed truth, the so-called doctrines of grace, at the expense of other themes.

Lessons for Us
What lesson or lessons should we draw from this sad development which has had an impact on all of us in varying degrees?

For one thing, we should realize that although Pietism with its emphasis on experience has put its finger on something very essential, it has made the serious mistake of making experience the sum-total of the Christian religion. By neglecting the mind it has made it hard and in many cases impossible for Christians to do battle with the enemy in the gate. Most conservative, Evangelical Christians are ill equipped intellectually to answer the challenges presented by secular humanists.

Also by neglecting the life of the mind, Pietists and their modern successors have all but conceded intellectual pursuits to "the world." This may seem very pious and orthodox to some, but in reality it means adopting the views of Manichaeans, gnostics and docetics.

What is the solution? To go back to Calvin, the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards.

Let me say something about the latter. Jonathan Edwards has been called the greatest philosopher and theologian America has produced. Most of us are acquainted with Edwards, the theologian who wrote much on experimental religion and revivals. But unlike many of his modern admirers, he was also keenly interested in science and culture. While still in his teens, he wrote an essay on a spider and its web, giving a detailed description of its shape, construction and purpose. Not only did young Edwards point out many interesting things about the physical character of the web, but he also stressed that the ultimate thing shown by the spider in its spinning is "the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects." Later he said, "true knowledge is not, in the last analysis, an abstract correspondence of our thinking with reality. Rather, it is " the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God."

Because it is God who created the things we study and Who made it possible for us to understand something of the world, Edwards said, "all the arts and sciences, the more they are perfected, the more they issue in divinity, and coincide with it, and appear to be as parts of it." As Mark Noll puts it:

For a Christian, the mind is important because God is important. Who, after all, made the world of nature, and then made possible the development of sciences through which we find out more about nature? ... Who created the human mind in such a way that it could grasp the realities of nature, of human interactions, of beauty, and so made possible the theories on such matters by philosophers and psychologists? ... The answer in every case is the same. God did it, and God does it.

Let us then as parents, teachers and others who have been given the awesome responsibility of training our children, be sure to see them as whole persons, persons with a God-given heart and mind. Both need to be devoted to God, so that by His grace they may learn to think God's thoughts after Him (H. Bavinck) and in so doing may bring glory to His Name and promote the good of society.

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