Dave’s most recent post in favor of ‘thoughtful atheism’ (as opposed to the less thoughtful atheism of the Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens types) came at an interesting time since I’m in a reading group with other faculty and students that is wrapping up discussion of Mark Noll’s new book ‘Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.’ Noll, of course, is famous for his 15-year-old indictment ‘The Scandel of the Evangelical Mind’ in which he pointed out all of the ways evangelical Christian thinking lacks substance and, well, thought. A big part of this deficit, as Noll and many others have pointed out, is a sort of buy-in to the modernist notion of single causality, the idea that once something has been explained one way, all other explanations must fall by the wayside. Thus, because the Bible is God’s word and the Bible describes creation in a supernatural way, any purely natural explanation must be disproven or disregarded. Or because God is preeminent, nothing else can really be important. Of course, this way of thinking isn’t unique to evangelicals. We see the same thinking in our shallow atheists – when a natural explanation is possible, God cannot possibly be a consideration. So there is weak thinking all around. One worrying result of this I sometimes see is that more thoughtful people of faith sometimes adopt the opinion that developing the life of the mind simply isn’t very important – that discerning reading, careful consideration, and thought development simply don’t really matter. The cultural impact of post-modern relativistic thought (so helpful in so many other ways) hasn’t helped much in this regard.
So how do we develop the life of the mind beyond this? In this latest book, Noll makes the daring assertion that the way to do that is to actually take God (and especially Jesus) much more seriously than evangelicals recently have. He argues that in Christ God has a given us both a reason and a method for developing the life of the mind. The reason is the Incarnation. God’s choice to interact with world history and then to enter into it in a physical form is for Noll a validation of creation. God’s entry into a specific cultural and historical context makes the study of that context extremely important, which in turn makes the study of all cultural and historical contexts extremely important. The method is given to us by Christ, who doesn’t ask us to consider him or to think about him, but rather to ‘come and see’ if he is good. Noll takes this as an imperative for research. If we want to know how the world works, we need to go and see and be entirely confident that whatever we find can only lead us closer to the One through whom all things have been made. Taken together, these ideas should remove any resistance we have to developing the life of the mind and should indeed convince us that this is a vital part of what it means to follow Christ.
It also seems to me that this approach to the life of the mind dissolves a (false?) tension we might sometimes encounter on this blog between taking ‘experience’ as fundamental to faith rather than ‘belief.’ Noll’s ‘life of the mind’ is not about developing one-dimensional doctrinal stances, but about developing an integrated approach to a thought-culture that takes experience (‘come and see’) as its primary basis and spurs us on to holistically thinking deeply about our own cultural and historical context. Hopefully, such thinking would also spur us on to relevant and meaningful living.
I have a feeling I may be preaching to the choir a bit here, but what do you think? How important do you think cultivating the life of the mind is in the Christian walk? Do you spend much time on it? What do you do to actively develop your thinking?