Engaging the Life of the Mind
Anselm, the great theologian philosopher of the 11th century, embarked on an ardent quest for God through his writings. In his famous Proslogion, Anselm described his quest as “faith seeking understanding.” He did not see faith as a stand-alone virtue in the life of the Christian, nor was reason the quintessential key to fully understanding God.
Rather, in passion and humility, Anselm sought to better understand the God whom he loved, so that he could even more fully love Him.
My fear, as I observe the current church culture and the contours of my own heart, is that Christians today have been lulled into an intellectual stupor regarding our faith, avoiding reason and understanding for emotionalism and experience. I am not advocating a complete disregard for feelings or experience, however Scripture tells us that eternal life is knowledge of God (Jn 17:3), which is intrinsically (although not exclusively) cognitive and rational – it involves the life of the mind. And we must reclaim this aspect of our Christian lives.
Therefore, I submit to the reader answers to two main questions concerning the Christian and her rationality in faith: First, why is thinking, reason, & knowledge so utterly crucial to a robust christian life and spiritual formation? And second, what are simple steps toward engaging the life of the mind in one’s Christian faith?
“Isn’t faith in Jesus enough?”
I think the question is well intended, but wrong-headed, and pits knowledge and reason against relationship. Nowhere in Scripture will one read that seeking to understand God through the intellect is disconnected from one’s personal, love relationship with Him. In fact, the very essence of man as created in the image of God clues us into the fact that reason is an indispensable aspect of our relationship to God.
Firstly, humans are innately rational creatures. We have been endowed by God with the capacity to reason through ideas and concepts and come to logical conclusions. In fact, we do this everyday.
When you manage your budget, explain to your children not to touch the hot stove, or when surveying various options when contemplating plans for you life, your cognitive abilities are at play making common sense conclusions, in efforts to rightly align yourself with reality. In many ways, we view living “rationally” as the most stable way to live; however when it comes to our relationship with God, we often appeal to our emotions to make claims about God’s character or what he might have for us.
Because thinking about God, exegeting Scripture, understanding doctrine, historical theology, etc. are challenging, many of us choose the convenience of past experience or our feelings to put meat on the bones of our theology. This lifestyle is often contrasted with the dry, cold-hearted, and “stiff” theology found in 800-page systematic textbooks and theological journals. However, when our understanding of God is based primarily on experiences or emotions, we are not living as whole people; we are neglecting that part of us that reflects God’s beautiful intellect, logic, and reason. Looking at the world around us, the laws of nature, the perfect alignment of many crucial aspects of the universe, it is easy to see that God is intellectual.
The primary concern in answering this question is authority. What is your authority? What do you perceive as credible and reliable in answering not only the big questions of life, but even those haunting doubts and temptations in the quiet of your soul? How do you assess your authority? At this point, we will address the second of our two questions: What are easy steps towards engaging the life of the mind in our walk with the Lord?
Simple steps to engaging the life of the mind as a Christian
As Christians, our preeminent authority is the Word of God. We believe that this divinely-inspired text reveals God to us, as well as the story of our world. So, one way to begin engaging the mind might seem odd at first: recognizing what is called the metanarrative of Scripture. What I mean by that is, an account of events that provide or structure for a set of beliefs. Christians believe that the story we find in Scripture provides the objective, overarching story for the world. The basic, four-part narrative presented is Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. In a nutshell, these four parts make up the metanarrative of Scripture.
Understanding the metanarrative of Scripture sets the basis for answering off of life’s big questions; it provides a place to explain the longing we all have for wholeness, the brokenness we see in the world, and it frames our hope for the future.
Here is a simple explanation of the metanarrative of Scripture:
God created the world for His glory and pleasure (Gen 1,2); He created a habitable place for which His creation could multiply and flourish. On the earth he placed a garden, and in that garden He placed the first man and woman, made in His image, who were commanded with the pleasure to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the earth. In this venture, the pair quickly strayed, rebelling against the one commandment of their Creator not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3).
This act brought judgment upon the earth, which explains the suffering, hardship, and evil seen in the world today. The world is broken, isolated from its Creator through that rebellion, the Fall. But the Creator is intimately connected to His creation, and sent His only Son to seek and save the lost. He was truly divine and truly man, lived a sinless life, and became the appropriate substitutionary sacrifice in the place of sinful and broken man. He redeems the earth to the Father through His shed blood. And one day that salvation will be consummated at the end of time. This is the hope for those who have been redeemed by the Son.
It is within this narrative that one finds truth—answers to life’s most important questions. Within this framework, the Christian can begin to examine the questions that surround her–about the world around her, the contours of the human heart, etc.
This leads to a second suggestion – embrace and chase questions! All too often we are either too lazy to chase truth or too scared. Questions like how could God be good in the midst of such evident suffering in the world are not easy to answer, but the Christian has the privilege and duty to engage not only her heart in compassion but her head in competent answers of the truth of Christ.
It is crucial not to ignore those tugs in your heart to understand more. “How is this so?” “Why does this happen?” “Does this thought reflect reality?” These kinds of questions can be true companions in your relationship with Christ, because 1) Christ is not scared of your questions. If he can handle your sin, he can most assuredly handle your questions or doubts, and 2) Christ has the answers. Does this mean that he is going to write answers in the sky? No, probably not. However, as the Creator of the world, He holds within Himself all the wisdom necessary to understand what is necessary to flourish in this life.
Be bold sisters to chase those questions, to pursue truth in your walk with Christ. For being a follower of Christ means intrinsically that you seek to follow the truth as well.