This is a follow up on an earlier post, in which I wrote a review of A. G. Sertillanges classic The Intellectual Life. Here I expand on what it means to be a Christian scholar and defend it as a legitimate calling for the Christian.
Critics of religious belief dismiss the notion of Christian scholarship, maintaining that faith and scholarship are epistemological opposites. For much of the intellectual community, the Christian scholar is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, many Christians would agree with these critics. A survey of the history of the church indicates a long tradition of skepticism (at times hostile) regarding the relationship between faith and learning. Many have latched on to Tertullian’s oft misunderstood words, “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the academy and the church?” These believers would have us hold that God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom are contradictory. If faith is a gift from God, why would anyone feel the need or desire, to study the wisdom of the world? Such a study would be unproductive at best, and potentially damaging to faith. And so, the Christian who finds herself called to pursue academic scholarship faces the unenviable task of being criticized by enemies of the church, as well as the church herself. Why would anyone want to be placed in such a position? The answer is simple –the call to Christian scholarship comes from God. He has ordained it. The reality is that faith needs scholarship.
In his well known address at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, Charles Malik asserted that Christians have a necessary duty to pursue scholarship. “It is not enough to be set on fire for evangelism alone,” declared Malik. He argued that the truths of the Judeo-Christian faith are constantly beset with false ideas and empty philosophies competing for the allegiance of the hearts of men (especially at the university level). Failure to address these, as part of the work of evangelism, is failing to actually do evangelism. “The problem is not only to win souls but also to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world.” Malik’s words reflect a holistic view where mind and soul are both involved in the conversion process. While saving souls is not merely a matter of intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel message, it cannot be accomplished apart from it. If this is so, then it becomes imperative that the evangelist pay careful attention to the ideas she communicates, as well as the ideas she is communicating against. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig supports this notion by asserting that the Gospel is never proclaimed in a philosophical vacuum, “It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieus in which one lives.” Left uncontested, these philosophical and cultural background noises become like thorns choking out a person’s ability to hear and receive the truth. John Gresham Machen said it best:
. . . it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.
If we fail to engage in scholarly discourse, the work of evangelism becomes increasingly more difficult. While God most certainly can transcend these barriers without human involvement, he has chosen to use his church in this process (a point I will make below). The evangelist and the Christian scholar work together in the work of evangelism. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous. In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist.
But need alone does not establish a calling to Christian scholarship. Does God explicitly call men and women to pursue academic study and the intellectual life? In Colossians, the Apostle Paul provides us with an often misunderstood admonition.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
I have long wrestled with the meaning of these words. On the surface, this passage seems to disparage the notion that Christians should pursue the study of human knowledge, and particularly philosophy. It is important to note exactly what Paul is saying in this verse. Philosophy is not categorically condemned. What is condemned is a philosophical worldview that sets itself against the things of God and the truth of the Gospel. It is not philosophy itself that is cast in a negative light; it is philosophy according to human tradition.
In a very real sense, philosophy is unavoidable. We all think. We all have ideas, accept ideas, and share ideas. In many ways, these beliefs and ideas are deeply ingrained in our unconscious thinking. The question is not whether we choose to engage in philosophy. We do it every day without even thinking about it. Our deeply rooted beliefs about the world come through in what we say and do. We are all philosophers. The only question is whether we are good philosophers, or bad philosophers. Have we taken the time to think about the ideas and beliefs that are daily confronting us? Have we allowed ourselves to be unknowingly carried along by things that may very well be contrary to the truth of Christ? If we are to avoid falling prey to bad philosophy, wouldn’t that mean that we have to know what it is we are avoiding? We would have to be able to distinguish good philosophy from bad philosophy. In other words, anti-intellectualism is not an option for the Christian. Failure to make ourselves aware of bad philosophy is to leave ourselves open to its influence. How can we avoid what we can’t identify? How can we ensure that we are not taken captive, if we can’t recognize or distinguish truth from error? Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. . .” These words convey action on the part of believers. God wants us to confront and dismantle arguments that are in conflict with the knowledge of God. This is clearly something that God is calling his representatives in the world to do. Christian scholarship is a genuine work that Christians are explicitly called to do.
It seems apparent to me that to be faithful to this calling, the Christian scholar must be committed to two things. First, the Christian scholar must be committed to grounding all truth in the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is the framework for how we view and approach the world. This is not to say that the Christian scholar blindly accepts belief in God and then forces all other beliefs to arbitrarily conform. It means that once we come to accept the truth that God has created the universe (philosophers and theologians disagree on how we come to that knowledge), it necessarily guides us. It is all encompassing. John Piper conveys this idea succinctly:
It is an abdication of scholarship when Christians do academic work with little reference to God. If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is not scholarship but insurrection.
Failing to do as Piper suggests, will only lead the Christian scholar away from truth. God is the hermeneutical key to all knowledge. If we accept that he has designed the world, then we cannot approach it, interpret it, or describe it from any other reference point. James Sire elaborates on this in Habits of the Mind, within the context of discussing Henry Newman’s notion of the perfection of the intellect. As the rational creator of the universe, God necessarily imprints his rational nature both on the created order and upon thinking human beings. This results in a thread of rationality knitting together all knowledge into one whole. That thread of rationality originates in God. Therefore, our knowledge of God is the key to understanding the universe. The Christian scholar sees all things through the lens of the Christian worldview, the eyes of faith. Attempting to see the world any other way is to force upon it a pattern that is not inherent within it. All truth originates in him, points to him, and should be used to proclaim his glory.
Secondly, the Christian scholar must be committed to living the truth. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice). Sertillanges provides the insight that, “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.” He stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.” Sertillanges uses the imagery of a garden to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.” Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life. To think true thoughts, we must have a true (pure) soul.
I have focused a great deal on Christian thought. While it is true that Church history demonstrates the dangers of anti-intellectualism (which is why we desperately need Christian Scholars), it also demonstrates the dangers of over-intellectualism. I am not advocating scholarship and academic pursuit at the expense of love and devotion to Christ. No one wants an overly rational faith. I believe that properly exercised, Christian scholarship should result in increased spiritual fervor and a changed life. As John Piper shares, “the mind serves to know the truth that fuels the fires of the heart.” Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. Knowledge should properly result in faith, passion for truth, and a changed life. If it doesn’t, then it is not true knowledge. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact on our actions and affections.
So, what are we to make of this notion of Christian scholarship? In the past, pastors were not only seen as spiritual leaders in the community, they were also looked upon as intellectual leaders. Contrast this with today, when doctors and scientists are seen as intellectual authorities, and pastors are ridiculed as buffoons. Sadly, it is our failure as a Church to cultivate Christian scholarship that has led to this situation. It can only be rectified by once again placing a high value on Christian scholarship. As Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind . . . modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.” Os Guinness goes much farther than simply declaring anti-intellectualism a scandal:
At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.
These words represent a serious charge. While much of the church has not overtly adopted an anti-intellectualist stance, her failure to fully embrace scholarship represents a sin of omission. To take Christ’s command seriously, she must seek out ways to cultivate this calling in all facets of her mission. This means that Christian scholarship is not relegated to a Bible study only reserved for those curious enough to attend. A proper representation of faith and scholarship needs to be reflected in sermons, Sunday School lessons, missions work, financial contributions, and doctrinal statements. Only then will the church once again take her proper place as the definitive source of knowledge and truth, both spiritual and intellectual.
Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.
Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23, no. 4 (December 1980): 294.
William Lane Craig, “In Intellectual Neutral,” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copen and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 8.
Here I am making an allusion to Mark 4: 18-19. The thorns in Christ’s parable represent all the things in the world that prevent the word of God from fully taking root in a person’s life. While the passage specifically refers to cares and desires, it is not hard to imagine that false ideas and beliefs could also serve to choke out the word.
J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11, no. 1 (1913): 7.
Colossians 2:8 (ESV)
2 Corinthians 10: 3-5
John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 168.
James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2000), 60.
A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 19.
J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 188.
Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.
Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 11.
A belief in universal, absolute moral values is central to Christian theism. It is the necessary by-product of belief in an absolute, unchanging God. Undermine belief in the one, and the collapse of the other is sure to follow. The notion that one can build an ethical system that is rooted in scientific experimentation, or that empirical research should have any bearing on our moral deliberations and judgments, would seem to do just that. With this in mind, the goal of Experiments in Ethics is to present a positive case for just such an ethical naturalism. Arguing against any notion of a transcendent, autonomous ethic, Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to construct a more immanent one, removing the wedge between moral value and science (185) and returning philosophical ethics to its scientific roots (when psychology, economics, anthropology and sociology were commonly referred to as the “moral sciences”). His premise is simple: what we should do depends on how the world is. Appiah begins this task by acknowledging the worrisome questions that such a venture may elicit. “What happens when moral theory is called before the tribunal of psychology – when fact interrogates value? Will the blurring of boundaries advance the aims of ethics or lead to its eclipse? Can moral philosophy be naturalized?” As Christian Theists, it is up to us to determine just how far the relationship between ethics and science should be taken and what our response to naturalism should be. While it is clear that Appiah does not have a Christian audience in mind, it is fitting that this work has its origins as a lecture series given at Bryn Mawr College, as part of the 2005 Mary Flexner Lectures. Bryn Mawr’s Quaker history was not lost on Appiah, especially since he cites the Quaker abolition movement in one of his illustrations. Given his propensity to incorporate numerous allusions to popular and intellectual culture throughout this work, I do see several veiled references to religious ideas, and feel that he is most certainly challenging the traditional notions of morality most commonly articulated by those who would denounce science as quickly as they “denounce Satan.”
This book will force Christians to re-examine the question of the compatibility of science and ethics. While Christian philosophers have been making significant ground in regard to the integration of science and Christian faith as a whole, much more needs to be said concerning the appropriate relationship between science and Christian morality. With the rise of naturalistic ethics and experimental philosophy, the question of whether Christian ethics should maintain a noninteracting, compartmentalized approach to science needs to be adequately addressed. J.P. Moreland states in Christianity and the Nature of Science, “If the church is to speak to the modern world and interact with it responsibly, it must interact with modern science.” While such words have generally been misinterpreted to apply only to the integration of science and the question of origins, it is time for the Christian intellectual community to more fully explore their application to the field of ethics. Albeit, not in the manner in which Appiah suggests. Why should this one area of theology continue to be dichotomized from science? I believe it has a great deal to do with fear and bad theology.
In regard to the fears we have, one can see many dangerous ideas present in Appiah’s proposal. The ethical world which he advocates is one which is heavily influenced by the situation. For Appiah, this is a natural conclusion based upon empirical research demonstrating that moral intuitions fluctuate and depend upon circumstances (most of which are insignificant, yet have substantial impact). This is the point of his chapter entitled The Case Against Intuition, which does not set out to destroy intuitions all together, but seeks to redefine them in light of scientific investigation and observation, ultimately showing that they can’t be trusted as reliable guides. Far from being self-evident transcendent absolutes, intuitions are little more than primal gut reactions that have been shaped by our “evolutionary and cultural histories,” changing on the basis of such things as circumstances, framing effects, cue words and ordering, emotional traction, and the like. In other words, our morality is a function of whatever situation in which we find ourselves. This has significant consequences. How we are psychologically constructed and the cultural context in which we live cannot be irrelevant to how we should be expected to conduct ourselves. Stated more bluntly, “we cannot be obligated to be a kind of creature that we have realized we cannot become.”
Out of the moral flux generated by incoherent subjective intuitions, Appiah turns to psychology for assistance. “Empirical moral psychology can help us think about how to manage our lives, how to become better people.” It does this, not through character education, but through behavioral engineering. It seems the new moral authorities are not self-evident absolutes, but rather lab-coated psychologists seeking to discover the circumstantial stimuli that trigger desirable tendencies in human behavior, adjusting the environment accordingly. Appiah enthusiastically quotes Gil Harman, who says we need to have “‘more emphasis on trying to arrange social institutions so that human beings are not placed in situations in which they will act badly.'” Here, psychological considerations and our cultural/communal situations merge. “What would be the point of norms that human beings were psychologically incapable of obeying? . . . If you say somebody ought to do something, you must be supposing that it is something they can do.” Appiah is proposing the derivation of an “ought” from an “is.” This exposes ethical naturalism to the criticism that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. Appiah vigorously defends this jump from the observation of what is, to the conclusion of what ought to be, on the basis of the practical nature of ethics.
In regard to bad theology, let me refer to Appiah’s use of Socrates’ question in the Euthypho: “Is an act loved by the gods because it is good or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” This question harkens to the essentialist/voluntarist debate. Is something good simply because it is willed thus by God, or does God will something as good because it is already essentially so, in accordance with his nature? William of Ockham maintained the voluntarist position, arguing that if he so willed, God could have decided differently about what he declared to be right and wrong. Empirical research seems to support the criticism that such a view is arbitrary. Appiah makes reference to a survey of Amish students conducted by Shaun Nichols. One hundred percent of these students responded that it would be all right to work on Sunday if God had made no such rule against it. When asked how they would react if God made no rule against hitting, the majority responded that hitting would still be wrong. This seems to reinforce the essentialist position that things are right or wrong regardless of any divine pronouncement. Universal moral values flow from God’s rational, moral character, and are thus essentially good. While it is inappropriate to adopt Appiah’s approach and build an ethic from the bottom up, basing it on what is, it seems theologically correct to expect a correlation between morals and science, built from the top down. Faith is not blind and opposed to reason and scientific evidence, as many would suppose. If God created the universe and it bears his imprint, then it cannot be contrary to him. Science will support morality as an apologetic of moral absolutism. What we should do, will correspond to how the world is.
This fact is demonstrated in an interesting chapter on the varieties of moral experience (although Appiah is setting out to demonstrate the exact opposite). Appiah draws upon recent developments in experimental moral psychology to provide the reader with a rudimentary “taxonomy of moral cognition.” He cites several specific moral modules, originally elaborated by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. Among these are compassion, reciprocity, and purity. Taking compassion for example, we see that the human psyche is hardwired such that “people everywhere seem to be able to distinguish between violations involving harm or suffering and violations of convention.” Reciprocity helps explain our universal intuitions about fairness and the notion that we should act as we would have others act. As expected, Appiah approaches this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, maintaining that these phenomena are the result of natural selection genetically inscribing behavioral dispositions. However, might these moral modules also reinforce the theistic contention that we are designed by God? If Christ’s command that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us is to be taken as a moral law of the universe, then might we expect to find it hardwired into our minds (as part of the neural architecture of the brain)? This is exactly what the moral module of reciprocity shows. To play on Appiah’s words cited earlier, God is not going to give us a command that we are not able to obey.
One interesting facet of Appiah’s work is its analysis of what is referred to as “quandary ethics.” At times Experiments in Ethics comes across as a sort of compendium of moral dilemmas. All of the most famous dilemmas make an appearance, most notably is Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s runaway trolley and footbridge scenarios. While “trolleyology” makes for fascinating discussion, Appiah points out that such moral problems are “too abstract,” ignore “our particularity,” and make the mistake of presenting “moral judgment as a solitary act.” These weaknesses strike at the very heart of what Appiah is hoping to accomplish in arguing that ethics is a shared human endeavor. However, they do serve a valuable role in making his overall thesis for ethical naturalism. Surveyed responses to these and other such conundrums reveal the shortcomings of basing our moral judgments on intuition. Appiah argues that intuition must be brought under the authority of rational reflection and empirical research. We must draw upon the perspective of the Sinnenwelt, the world of the senses, making use of scientific data to confirm, refine or reject our subjective moral evaluations to make a better life.
There is at least one thing in Appiah that the Christian ethicist can find agreeable: moral dilemmas reduce morality to a form of “clinical intervention.” This is dangerous because it gives students the false idea that ethics is only concerned with moral emergencies that are far removed from the reality of everyday life (practical for generating lively discussions, impractical for real life application). The truth is that ethical considerations should pervade every aspect of our lives. If our goal is to get students to be moral people, then we need to present a picture of ethics that is true to its nature.
With this in mind, I believe that this book presents a popular case for naturalism and would thus be a fitting secondary text for an undergraduate course in Christian ethics. Appiah’s clear and engaging style makes for an enjoyable read, at least for those theists whose skin is not too thin. While he makes frequent references and allusions to key philosophers and ethical concepts, he does so in a manner that even the philosophically uninitiated may understand. Appiah provides approximately fifty pages of notes that are equally lucid, providing additional commentary to help fill in any gaps that a novice may encounter. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past in putting up a dividing line between Christian faith and science. Doing so will result in religious leaders (the traditional beacons of moral guidance) being left out of the contemporary discussion. We can embrace the findings of the moral sciences, knowing that they provide much needed support for ethical absolutism. We can be confident that in this rationally constructed universe, faith and science should naturally work hand in hand. In our apologetic endeavors, we must incorporate a proper understanding of the relationship between ethics and science, and be able to articulate a proper response to Appiah and other naturalists. In the final chapter Appiah dares us to take on this challenge, quoting philosopher Richard Joyce, who says, “‘If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults.'”
Experiments In Ethics. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. 274 pages.
I will begin posting some write-ups on books I am reading as part of my program. While a bit time consuming, I find this exercise allows me to get a better grasp of what I’ve read. Critical reflection is a valuable part of the process of learning and growing as a person. It’s an investment that a student can’t afford to pass up. And that’s your free lesson for the day!
I just finished reading The Intellectual Life by the Dominican priest A. G. Sertillanges (translated from the original French). I love this book. And why wouldn’t I? I’m Just starting off in a PhD program and I have to admit that I’ve been a little overwhelmed. I have had my doubts. Should I be doing this? Can I do this? What was I thinking? Sertillanges speaks directly to these questions. In fact, I truly believe that God was using his words to speak directly to me. At times it feels like the author specifically has in mind graduate students who are preparing to write a thesis or dissertation. That’s me! There is no doubt that the book is targeting those who are called to pursue intellectual study. However, his audience is much wider. The majority of the work is addressing the intellectual life in general, especially as a lifelong calling. As someone who has wrestled with this calling for many, many years, Sertillanges’ words have helped give me the reassurance and confidence to follow God’s call and press on. This is what God has called me to do.
If you find yourself wrestling with that same call, or just starting off on the journey toward an advanced degree, this book should be required reading. There are two things about this book that might be potentially off putting. First, it’s structure is based largely off of a letter attributed to Thomas Aquinas (The Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge). It definitely has a Thomistic bent. Sertillanges is unmistakably Catholic. But trust me – if a “dyed in the wool” Baptist like me can love this book, then so can you. The audience is all Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation. The other thing that might turn off readers is that it is quite dated. Sertillanges was not only writing well before the age of the personal computer, he was also apparently writing long before the advent of the index card (in an unintentionally droll manner, he walks students through the process of making their own). But while first published in 1921, the advice provided is timeless and imminently practical for today’s student. While the archaisms can be humorous, Sertillanges’ passion for intellectual study is quite refreshing. Put aside the chronological snobbery and don’t allow preconceptions to prevent you from discovering this treasure. You will not be disappointed.
What I love most about this book is how he characterizes the intellectual life as a calling. What a concept! As I just mentioned, I have struggled with my own calling to the intellectual life. Over twenty-five years ago I graduated from the University at Buffalo and headed off to grad school to study Christian philosophy. I wanted to be the next great apologist. Having studied under Paul Kurtz, his debate with Christian philosopher Norm Geisler was an inspiration to me. I wanted to be just like Norm. He was THE MAN! You can still see snippets of the debate on YouTube, and find the entire audio recording on the Apologetics 315 website. Unfortunately, the reality of graduate school was more than I expected. After just one year of work I was burned out. I ended up leaving seminary study to pursue full time ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ (now simply called Cru). My reasons were rooted in my own personal struggle with God’s call on my life. I wanted to be on the “frontlines” of what God was doing in the world. I wanted to lead people to Christ, giving back to a ministry that was instrumental in my own conversion and growth as a Christian. I was convinced that evangelism had to be more important than wrestling with the great philosophical and theological problems of our day. Reading books, doing research, and writing papers certainly wasn’t as important as sharing Christ with young college students. Or so I had convinced myself.
I had bought into a false dichotomy within Christian thinking that pits evangelistic efforts against intellectual study. One is considered spiritual, and the other worldly. These two pursuits are actually more closely related than one would think. They are both concerned with truth. Evangelism seeks to communicate truth to the world, truth about Christ, and the good news of salvation. Intellectual study, if properly focused, seeks to discover and clarify truth. Intellectual study grounded in God, must necessarily precede evangelism to ensure that truth remains uncontaminated. So just as God calls some to be evangelists, he also calls others to be intellectuals. But aren’t we all called to utilize the intellectual gifts that God has bestowed? Yes. But the general call that we all have to use our rational faculties to the glory of God, does not preclude the need for some to pursue the intellectual life as their primary mission. We are all called to do the work of evangelism, but we are not all called (or gifted) to be evangelists. It was at my initial Cru training in Colorado that God made this abundantly clear to me. One of the speakers specifically addressed the need for Christian scholars, especially in a world inundated with bad philosophy. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous. In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist. I was running from God’s call on my life. And while Sertillanges is right that the call to the intellectual life is not easy, failing to heed the call will only lead to misery. “All roads but one are bad roads for you, since they diverge from the direction in which your action is expected and required. Do not prove faithless to God, to your brethren and to yourself by rejecting a sacred call.” Who am I to argue with God? And so after a year with Cru, I returned to seminary.
So what does it take to be an intellectual? First and foremost is consecration to the task. The intellectual vocation is not one to be entered on a whim. It is a call from God to pursue truth, and those who are called are under a grave obligation. To be successful at it, Sertillanges stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.” It takes will, methodical effort, determination, studiousness, and disciplining the body. “The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity.” Sertillanges does not limit his discussion to general exhortations; he delves into the very practical aspects of diet, sleep, prayer, rest, exercise, and hygiene. We will not have the ability to fulfill our calling if our body fails us. But even more than this, Sertillanges emphasizes the importance of good character. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice). “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.” Sertillanges uses the imagery of botany to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.” Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life.
The remainder of the book focuses on the specifics of doing the work of an intellectual, from reading and research, to creating notes and writing a paper or book. Sertillanges is convinced that one can fulfill the obligations of the intellectual life by giving simply two hours a day to the task. Of course, this time must be focused and consistent. In regards to reading and research, the importance of comparative study is stressed, as well as the role of philosophy and theology (making sure we bring these disciplines to bear upon whatever topic we have chosen to study). In regard to taking notes, Sertillanges lays out a plan for utilizing index cards (what he calls slips) and a filing system to help organize one’s research. When it comes to the specific act of writing, Sertillanges admonishes the aspiring intellectual to write primarily to give clarity to his or her own thoughts and ideas. It can be frustrating dealing with mental blocks and the fear of criticism of others. If we keep in mind that we are first and foremost writing for the sake of truth, then we will find the strength and inspiration to make it through these times of struggle. Our reward is the work itself, and the personal growth that accompanies it. Over the next four years that I will be in this doctoral program, facing challenges that will undoubtedly test my resolve, it will be important to remember Sertillanges’ admonition.
If you have Sire’s Habits of the Mind on your reading list, read The Intellectual Life instead. Sire quotes heavily from Sertillanges and repeats much of his points. Likewise, if you are familiar with Moreland’s Love God with all Your Mind, I found Sertillanges to be less academic and more personable. Even if you have already read either of these works, adding this gem to your wish list will simply give you a more robust and inspiring picture of the call to intellectual study. The message needs to be heard. We need Christian intellectuals; Men and women of God who understand that their calling is no less important, no less spiritual than any other in the body of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable (I Cor. 12:22, ESV).” Read it, share it, live it.
Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.
It seems like a lifetime ago since I had the privilege of teaching for Howard Payne University’s El Paso campus. It was truly an amazing experience that lasted over ten years. One of the classes I taught regularly was Christian Doctrine. Next to Hermeneutics, it was my favorite. This was due largely to the caliber of students who had to endure my so-called “hairball” theologies. I cherish the interactions with these gifted brothers and sisters in Christ, and I actually believe that the absence of those interactions is what has lead me to start this blog. I learned a lot from them, as they regularly challenged me both intellectually and spiritually. It was a great experience.
The first class of Christian Doctrine always began with a quiz I playfully entitled Am I a heretic? It was a simple agree or disagree sheet designed to expose the little heresies that we all undoubtedly hold to as Christians. It is not that we set out to be heretics, mind you, it’s just that we often hold them in ignorance. When we fail to reflect on our beliefs, or properly take the time to explore God’s word, we fall into beliefs that are less than orthodox. It’s understandable. It’s our nature. I always made sure to include a few statements on the quiz that represented neither heresy nor orthodoxy, just to see what kind of discussion it would generate. I generally referred to these statements as heterodoxical in nature. While some equate heterodoxy and heresy, it should more properly be understood as other than orthodox. Heterodox beliefs are not orthodox (not the commonly accepted views of the Church through the ages), but not quite heretical either. They exist in the gray areas; the areas the Bible does not definitively address.
Hairball Theology #1: Did Adam and Eve have children prior to the fall?
A totally frivolous question, right? What one believes regarding this question does not matter one bit in regard to accessing one’s status as orthodox. For me, I am convinced that Adam and Eve had children prior to the fall. It is one of my little eccentricities. I’m even convinced that it is somewhat important. Does that make me crazy? My HPU students would have emphatically said yes. Of course, I like to think that is what they loved about me.
Why do I think this question matters? It matters, because I spend my time wondering about who Adam and Eve’s children married. Did they marry their siblings? Did God somehow spontaneously create other people in order to provide non-incestuous sexual partners? Would the whole question of incest even have mattered at that time? Mind blowing questions, right? You may be wondering how it is that you have never before considered this important issue? You can thank me for bringing it to your attention.
Let’s pretend that this actually is important. Is there any textual evidence to support the idea that Adam and Eve had children prior to being expelled from the garden? Consider the following:
- The curse: In Genesis 3:16 God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply” her pain in childbirth. This might be a stretch, but it could be argued God is implying that Eve had already experienced childbirth. The implication being found in that He will greatly increase what she has already experienced.
- The sending out: The end of Genesis 3 has God sending out “the man” from the garden of Eden (v.23-24). It specifically states that he sent him out. It does not say that God sent them both out, or him and her. And yet, we know that it was not just Adam that was barred from returning. The lack of specificity means that the possibility of children being put out as well, cannot be ruled out. While arguments from silence are not strong, these verses actually support such an argument. Given that these verses are intentionally silent about Eve, it is not unreasonable to wonder if they are also being silent about children.
- The commission: The first few chapters of Genesis repeat the mandate given to both Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Is there any reason to believe that they took their time in acting upon God’s command? When reading Genesis 2: 18-24, you get the sense that Adam is lonely. He sees the partnering of the animals and wonders about his own lack of a partner. He may even see them having intercourse. I can attest that if you spend enough time around animals you will eventually see them mating. I have only been to the zoo on a few occasions and I’ve seen it multiple times. Ever see turtles getting busy? Trust me, it will make you blush. I particularly love the language of verse 23. Reading your English Bible you will notice how these words are formatted differently. It is something we usually see in the more poetic passages of Scripture. I can assure you that this is not polished poetry that Adam is speaking upon first laying eyes on Eve. The original language reveals a sort of staccato nature to these words. The thoughts come across as jumbled and disconnected in the original. Care to venture a guess as to why? Rabbinic tradition holds Eve to have been one of the most beautiful women that ever lived (along with Rahab). You can be sure that Adam was instantly smitten. Who wouldn’t be? These are the stammering words of a guy who is love-struck. If I had been in Adam’s shoes, it would not have taken very long to “be fruitful and multiply.”
- The passage of time. How long were Adam and Eve in the garden? The chapters flow in such a way that it feels like a matter of days. However, there are no textual indicators revealing the passage of time. Were they only together for one day? Two days? A week? For all we know, Adam and Eve were in the garden for hundreds of years. I don’t actually believe that, but we don’t need hundreds of years in order for children to be born prior to the fall. A few years would suffice. Obviously, the longer they were in the garden, the higher the probability that they consummated their relationship and bore children.
You may be asking what difference it would make if they were born before or after the fall. Wouldn’t each child still need to marry a sibling? Correct. However, the issue of incest (and the Bible’s commands against it) would not apply prior to the fall. No sin means no byproducts of the fall (e.g. genetic deformities). No pain in childbirth prior to the fall, increased pain after. No toil in working the ground prior to the fall, thorns and thistles after. Incest is an issue after the fall, not before.
Genesis four proceeds to state that Adam and Eve had relations after they exited the garden. It was after the fall that both Cain and Abel were conceived and born. Wouldn’t this seem to undermine my thesis? Not necessarily. First of all, Genesis 4:1 does not indicate that this is the first time that Adam and Eve had relations. Nor does this passage indicate that Cain was the first child. Even though chapter four only describes the births of Cain and Abel, the passage contains several references to other people. After Cain receives his curse for having killed Abel, he laments the fact that other people may seek to kill him as he wanders the earth. In v. 17 Cain is said to have relations with his wife. In v. 15, even God makes a reference to other people out there in the world. The feel of the passage is that there are numbers of people all over the earth. To be sure. v. 3 does seem to indicate the passage of time between the birth of Cain and Abel and the subsequent murder of Abel by Cain. But if we are going to get to the point of there being numbers of people scattered all around the world, how many years would have to had passed? It seems within the bounds of reason to entertain the possibility that there were other children born prior to the fall and that these children were scattered out across the earth as a result of this traumatic experience.
So, there you have it: hairball theology, part one. For those who might be inclined to think that this was all just a waste of time, I offer the following quote from James Sire:
An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life (Habits of the Mind, p.27-8).
I am not claiming to be an intellectual. I do consider myself an aspiring intellectual. My hope is that a discussion such as this be taken in the spirit that Sire conveys, as a playful wrestling with the truth. If you have found it distasteful, cough it up and spit it out like a cat does a hairball. After all, that’s why I call it hairball theology.
What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts.