How to Protect Christians from Intellectualism (in Ten Easy Steps)

24 Apr

Before I student taught, I was required to take a largely useless class called “Teaching Bible Principles.” (A Reformed friend quipped that classes with “Bible principles” in the name tended to be useless in general.) The class was taught by a good professor (poor man) who had been saddled with a textbook that nearly all the students hated. (Of the four history education majors in the class, three objected to the chapter on history.) The book also warned against the dangers of intellectualism. At the time I thought the warning ridiculous, since most of the people who would read the book were more in danger of ignorance. But it occurred to me that people concerned with the problem of intellectualism in the church could use some guidelines for combatting it. So here they are.

  1. Do not define the word “intellectual.” This one is perhaps the most important. Maybe you’re really upset about higher criticism of the Bible, but don’t simply say you have a problem with higher critics. “Intellectuals” is much broader and includes more. Never mind that some scholars don’t like to be identified as “intellectuals.” And never mind that most ethnomusicologists have no opinion on the date of the Exodus.
  2. Do not distinguish between a veneer of intellectualism and actual intellectualism. In some Christian circles, sounding “intellectual” is popular. This can be most easily accomplished by constantly quoting from C.S. Lewis’s simpler works. Never mind that being an actual scholar—as Lewis was—might involve some less-than-easy things, like reading through Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Make sure that people do not know the difference between the two.
  3. Avoid acknowledging that American culture is anti-intellectual already. The intellectuals that Americans are most likely to respect are scientists (especially those involved in medical research) and computer scientists (so teenage girls can listen to One Direction on ever-more-efficient devices). Intellectuals are partly to blame for the situation, since reaching out to the public is frowned on in some academic circles. But scholarship has never been America’s strongest point. It’s easy to criticize something that most people don’t like anyway.
  4. Warn against the dangers of intellectual pride. Although some intellectuals do get stuck up, pride doesn’t magically appear after you write that thesis on the Peloponnesian War. But don’t acknowledge this fact. Never mind that getting stuck up is a good way to ensure that all your future ideas are junk. Never mind that the more you know, the more you should realize you don’t know.
  5. Do not warn against the dangers of anti-intellectual pride. Yes, this exists. Some Christians are very cocky about the fact that they are not intellectuals. Being glad you’re not an intellectual when you never really liked school may seem pointless, but if you word things right, most people won’t notice.
  6. Do not acknowledge that the Bible includes many godly “intellectuals.” Their number includes Moses, Jesus, and Paul. They weren’t ivory tower intellectuals, so sometimes their scholarly knowledge gets overlooked. Make good use of this fact.
  7. Avoid understanding the intellectual ideas you dislike. You never know—understanding the ideas could be dangerous to your spiritual health. Misunderstanding things will keep you from becoming interested in them. It also will help you make fun of them.
  8. Make fun of intellectuals and their ideas. This works best if you don’t actually know any.
  9. Avoid meeting any orthodox Christian “intellectuals.” If you make fun of them enough, most will just avoid you. And if they are avoiding you, your assumptions about them will remain safe.
  10. Never, never let scholarly types warn against intellectualism. They actually know what they are talking about, which is obviously a weakness in opposing something so insidious.

Sarcasm aside? The Western academic world isn’t exactly healthy today, so it’s no wonder that many Christians have been turned off by it. But I’d like to offer two cautions: first, if you don’t enjoy academics, avoid intensively criticizing “intellectualism.” That’s like a miser trying to offer advice on overcoming greed. Instead of criticizing “intellectualism,” try reading a book and critiquing that instead. You might develop a little insight along the way.

Second, we live in a culture that values entertainment and instant gratification, not wisdom. Most Christians don’t struggle with being too academic. And the few who are of a more scholarly bent tend to suffer from “uprootedness,” to use Simone Weil’s terminology. Already feeling alienated from mainstream culture, these Christians desperately need the support that the church can provide. And learning to serve in community with other followers of Christ is one of the best correctives to intellectual pride available. But that won’t happen if you make “intellectual” Christians feel as though scholarship is somehow unholy.


Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Humor


Tags: , , , , ,

2 responses to “How to Protect Christians from Intellectualism (in Ten Easy Steps)

  1. Philip Iszatt

    March 24, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Clever sarcasm that misses the point: when we deified the human intellect in EDEN we fell into satan’s trap: hypostasos is the relevant Greek here and means: to take yourself from a submissive position underneath and to place yourself alongside on an equal level with God. That was the birth of intellectualism and Plato and friends merely copied it two millenia later and 500 miles north west. The result was a distorted human anthropology that damages relationships and is killing the planet. The answer is not to get christians to respect intellectuals but rather replace them as masters of our knowledge systems by representing Jesus as the master of relationships in a RELATIONAL UNIVERSE. There is more I could write but perhaps not here and now. I am just completing my thesis ‘Reality is Relational’ and if you were interested a PDF copy could be available soon.

    • A. Carroll Crowe

      March 25, 2015 at 1:06 am

      My working definition of an “intellectual” in this context is someone who pursues scholarly knowledge. No more, no less.

      Adam and Eve wanted to have greater understanding, certainly–but is “You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” only restricted to the intellect? I think it is much broader. For instance, Adam and Eve seem to have wanted power, not understanding alone. They were certainly not asking for the brains to write a philosophical treatise! As for Plato–I am not a Platonist, and I strongly disagree with many things that Plato wrote. But, if he came up with the wrong answers, he did at least ask many of the right questions, and there are things we can learn from his mistakes. Plato was very concerned about what justice is and how it can be applied in a community. I believe his conclusions are mostly wrong. But that is still a very relational concern–one Christians are still debating today (using, of course, Bible texts to which Plato had no access).

      I included several non-sarcastic paragraphs at the end of the post that clearly emphasize the importance of the church in helping intellectuals achieve balance. Scholarly Christians have always existed (e.g. Christ and Paul, both very relational people), and in healthy churches, they are able to work side-by-side with non-intellectuals (like Peter), with everyone benefitting from the practice of each other’s gifts. Churches can create a dangerous situation for scholarly-inclined people, however–especially younger ones–if they marginalize them, argue that scholarly callings are inferior, or suggest that scholarly people are more prone to sin than average. As I said in the post, many godly people have been scholars or had a scholarly bent. Bible examples include many very relational people–Moses, Jesus Christ, and Paul are a few of them. Many of the Church Fathers were very scholarly, as were some of the Protestant Reformers. Jonathan Edwards, most famous for his preaching, was also the most important philosopher in colonial America. I could go on, but I hope you see my point–which is that true knowledge and true Christianity are never in conflict.


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