Intellectualism vs. Intelligence

1:59 AM

One of my dearest friends has the simplest and sincerest form of Christianity: faith alone. He doesn’t take any gift from God for granted; his dealings with trials and problems are simple and straightforward; he doesn’t overintellectualize and he doesn’t fundamentalize. His wit and wisdom haven’t suffered a bit—he knows the core of Christianity: a relationship between Creator and creature, between Redeemer and redeemed. And he knows how to stay there, unrocked by personal opinion, popular opinion or anything in between.

I’ve learned much from the profound simplicity (which isn’t simplistic at all, really) of this young man’s faith. Me, I could give an oral presentation on the differences between dispensational premillennialism and plain premillennialism and the gamut of isms in between—but I struggle to bare my soul before my God. It’s not a light issue on my soul.

Another thing I struggle with—connecting the simple complexity of faith to the study of truth, which isn’t a restful stroll through the park, if you get my meaning. How does it work? And simplisticfying (pardon the neologism) isn’t allowed. You know me. I get frustrated when people tell me that the hard stuff, the deep stuff, doesn’t matter much in the long run, just so we love Jesus and share the gospel and attend the weekly prayer meeting.

Perhaps they don’t put it like that, but “really,” it seems to be implied, “we don’t want to be overly intellectual.”

Just as a side note, this post will ramble. Sorry for those of you who are lost already. I am too. (Hint: The last four paragraphs are the main point.) I just don’t know the answer—it’s such a personal issue with me. Do we forgo deep theological discussion to ensure that our childlike faith isn’t tainted? If I throw out the debates and diatribes of the last few years, will I automatically have a chance of reconnecting with God without preconceived, stuffy ideas? But on the flipside: If we get rid of the hard stuff, are we in danger of becoming simplistic instead of simple and childish instead of childlike? Isn’t it possible to have the innocent-as-a-dove faith and the wisdom of a serpent? Is it either-or?

In other words, can one say supralapsarianism and still be a by-faith-alone believer?

Some people seem to say no. We’re simple folk, they plead. Our pocket’s too small for ten-dollar words. Give us the stuff we understand. That’s what we need. Or the theology-is-akin-to-evil crowd will add that we don’t need the isms and the ologies in order to get to heaven. It’s one and the same: they desire the basics, the 101 class, the most practical knowledge to get by in life and be a decent person. Anything bigger than two syllables or two pages is too much.

I get that. In a sense, there is a danger of becoming “too intellectual”—of throwing out faith alone to grasp onto reason alone, devoid of relationship and trust and full of empty (and impressive) knowledge. Good Christians don’t want that—rightly so. But I don’t get the alternative—throwing out sound doctrine altogether.

Christianity is hard. Our God is complex. The gospel is a mystery. Christ Jesus refuses to be boxed up and tied with a Christmas ribbon. Peter admits that “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (one of my favorite verses in the Bible, people). Because we encounter roadblocks in understanding, because smart (or perhaps bored) people slapped huge labels onto difficult-to-pin-down concepts, because we aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, that does not excuse us from studying out the hard things. When things get tough and our understanding thin, we don’t have the option to shrug our shoulders and mention something about our puny IQ.

That’s a simplistic, unorthodox view of doctrine and Christianity. That’s a cop out. That’s a head-in-the-sand way to politely tell God, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I want to learn that lesson. Try something more in my comfort zone.” Christianity is a relationship, yes—but it is a relationship built and sustained through the washing of the word and the preaching of sound doctrine. We worship in spirit and truth—that’s the key.

There is an intellectualism that approaches God on a worldly understanding of “reasonableness.” It’s an impersonal God populating dusty tomes and cutting-edge New York bestsellers, who looks good in convoluted arguments and who makes for interesting lectures at the state university. That intellectualism has traded the living, breathing God for a paper god who can be pinned to a card and labelled, if you will—along with all the other religious paraphernalia both false and true. We avoid that like the plague—that’s not knowing God. That’s not Christianity.

But there’s also the pendulum swing back, and it’s where many people are without realizing it: an overly piestic Christianity that builds up a heartwarming, traditional deity in the prayer room. Because the pious fellow refuses to learn who exactly he’s worshipping and how exactly he ought to be worshipping, he worships in spirit and in ignorance. His ideas of God are drawn from upbringing, old gospel greats, pithy sayings and down-home preachers, personal preference that he mistakes as gospel, and anything else that appeals to his sincerity and simplicity. He may be dead wrong, but he’s all right with that—change is wronger. Any journey further into grace and truth must back up his preconceived ideas of God, conviction and Christianity or he shuts off in a second. Forget growth and challenge. (He just doesn’t want to get too intellectual.)

My question is, Where’s the happy medium? I’ve fallen into the trap of mistaking knowledge for wisdom, of thinking bookishness was a thirst for God, of trading sincere worship for technical theology. But it’s not all that way. When I studied—theological terms included—the mysteries of God’s sovereignty, of His salvation, of His redemptive course throughout the entire Biblical narrative, I was constantly driven to my knees in awe and thanks. This was studying who God was and how He worked—the sum and substance of theology, or what it ought to be, anyway. This trumped corny daily devos and cliched Sunday school lessons on obeying parents and surviving high school. It was so practical and personal. It was knowing God—studying at the feet of Christ, learning to speak His language and living my life because I knew the Life who still lives and will forever.

What of the slippery slope of intellectualism? What of the warnings about frivolous controversies and endless genealogies? First off, ignorance is just as bad as intellectualism. It isn’t knowledge of the true God by any stretch—and that lends itself to idolatry, weakmindedness and bad doctrine (the three plagues of the church today). Secondly, the warnings about meaningless disputes are a call to the wrestling with sound doctrine. And quite frankly, “things that are too deep for me” don’t fall into the meaningless/nitpicking/avoid-like-the-plague category. The cure for the dangers of division and pettiness isn’t cutting oneself off from challenge and stimulation. The cure is replacing ignorance with truth. That requires a bit of digging, a lot of prayer and a lot of sweat and sleepless nights.

Where people get into trouble is that both intellectualism and intelligent study is a conscious attempt at learning—the difference lies in the object of its conscious effort. Intellectualism runs something like this: This is how so-and-so believed way back when and this is how it relates to this concept over here, though modern thought now says otherwise, etc., the end. Intelligent Christianity runs a bit different: This is how so-and-so believed back then, and it ties into this concept over here, and that is how it shows that this is the truth and this is how I ought to respond to that truth.

The former is a clinical examination of something that ought to be alive and personal—it doesn’t ask whether it’s true, just how it works; it doesn’t ask “what I ought to do about it,” just “what people over the centuries have thought about it in general.” The latter is an examination of how it works, how it came to be, is it true and what am I to do about it. There is an end beyond examination, in other words. We don’t study it to write a paper (though there’s nothing wrong with teaching it in a classroom and grading an essay on it); we study it to understand and respond to it, as a good husband studies his wife. So we study God, His work and His word.

I think that’s the difference—the focus, the end goal. And that end goal is truth. Anything short of that is, well, untruth—and that is not an option for any believer.

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5 impressions

  1. C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is partly at fault for all of this:

    "It may be replied that some meddlesome human writers, notably Boethius, have let this secret out. But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn't bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the 'present state of the question'. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge -- to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour -- this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded."

    THAT'S intellectualism. Run.

  2. Gotta love "Screwtape Letters"... and CS Lewis of course! :)

    Great post, and I like the Screwtape quote. I think it really highlights the whole issue of knowledge for the sake of knowledge (which is ultimately nihilistic), versus knowledge for the sake of embracing Truth - which is ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I'm reminded of a verse in 1 Tim 2:4 which says that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." For the Christian "intelligents", this would begin with the belief that there IS an absolute Truth, and that truth itself is revealed first of all in scripture. If we forget the importance of scripture, as the old children's song goes, "we will shrink, shrink, shrink!" The Bible itself emphasizes clinging to sound doctrine, meditating on deep mysteries, and growing in the knowledge of the Lord.

    Personally, I've found it difficult to arrive at the balance between a healthy thirst for godly understanding and the heady but ultimately empty search for intellectual knowledge. Nonetheless, the more I get to know my God as He truly is (and that does include the 'isms), the greater He seems to me. Strangely, wonderfully, the more I know of Him, the more aware I am of the fathomless mysteries of His person that I will never fully grasp, and I am left with a profound sense of awe. Wrestling with the biblical truths of predestination and free will last year, I was left with a deeper understanding of my own mental frailty, and a stronger trust and faith in the God who is beyond human reckoning, but who deigned to reveal Himself to us.


  3. You did ramble a little bit, but you came to a very strong conclusion there, Bailey. Thank you. Your thinking definitely made me think.

    (Did you get my email?)

  4. Nina -- I just loved your comment.

    Aemi -- Yup, I did get your email. First thing to know about me is that I dawdle when writing emails. But I will reply eventually. :)

  5. I wrote this long (too long) involved comment yesterday and then Blogger ate it! :-(

    So here is my attempt to recapture the gist of it.

    Great post! Very thought-provoking. Also rather serendipitous for me, because when I read it I had just returned from lunch where I had been reading an article that seemed to me to be addressing the same or similar concepts from a different perspective with different words. The article is "Before Words" by Doug Mulder in UU World (the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations). You can read it online here if you are interested:

    Mulder describes the spiritual emptiness that can happen when you over-analyze: "It's the life in which experience and description seem identical. I don't notice anything I don't have a name for, those things don't have any relationships other than the ones I can define, and those relationships don't evoke any emotions other than the ones I can list. What I know not, what I can't describe, just doesn't seem like knowledge." This struck me as comparable to the Chistian over-intellectualism you discuss in your post.

    And just as you say ignorance is just as bad, Mulder also talks about the risks of going too far the other direction: "Spiritual seekers go bad when they try to defend the gap between description and experience by shutting down the progress of description: . . . Don't let Galileo look through his telescope, because he'll screw up the mystery of the Heavens. Their mistake is believing that mysteries are an exhaustible resource. . . . I have faith that our potential experiences are infinite and our powers of description are finite. Go ahead and learn, then, because you'll never run out of mysteries." I like that last bit about never running out of mysteries. We are never going to know everything, understand everything. Similar to what Tina said in her comment, studying and learning and thinking only increase my awareness of the wonder and mystery.

    I love that you close by saying "the end goal is truth". This is one of my all-time favorite verses (or part of a verse anyway): "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." ~ John 8:32

    Well, so much for just posting the "gist". I think this ended up longer than yesterday! Sorry about that.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking!



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