Intellectualism vs. Intelligence1:59 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.