Intellectualism and Evangelicalism: Mental Adultery vs. the Rational Gospel

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John PiperEvangelicals have long winced with suspicion toward contributions from intellectual arenas. Whether faced with critiques about the legitimacy of the Flood, the coherency of the Trinity, or the plausibility of God himself, we are well known for responding with the “faith-that-doesn’t-need-answers” refrain. Rather than confronting intellectual challenges and engaging our minds as an act of faith, we twist such faith into a shield to be held over heads, protecting us from such conflicts as we close our eyes and mumble, “I’m not listening.”

In turn, intellectuals are quick to exploit such a response, claiming that evangelicals are nothing but a bunch of mindless zombies, brainwashed by cult leaders and clouded by happy thoughts. As Mark Noll put in his book on the subject, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Oddly enough, such a scandal is evident even among those who evangelicals assume comprise their intellectual front (i.e. the postmodernists). A good example of this can be found in the ongoing Rob Bell controversy, in which supposedly “anti-intellectual” conservative evangelicals are being derided left and right for engaging Bell in an intellectual challenge. Meanwhile, the supposedly brainy and overly nuanced Bell is being defended not on intellectual grounds, but on warm-and-fuzzy, “don’t-judge-me” togetherness. In one quick swoop of a Justin Taylor post and a simple John Piper tweet, Bell was quickly diminished by his defenders to being a mere “artist” rather than an impressive mind or a “serious theologian.” He is just “asking questions” we are told — having a bit of creative fun with the Scriptures in the same way a child might draw fanciful whatchamacallits on his driveway with sidewalk chalk. (“Don’t be hatin’ on the beauty, bro!”)

Making such a topic even more timely has been the entirely different (and far healthier) discussion launched by Matthew Lee Anderson on evangelicalism and natural law. This particular discussion, however, doesn’t indicate a lack of intellectualism in evangelicalism as much as it illuminates that the movement has its own unique view of the mind itself, bringing us back to the original challenge. For the evangelical, there is a transcendental tension between our supernatural understanding and our natural reason, and as is only natural (harty har), it can be hard for us to wrap our minds around it.

(Making this yet more timely still is Donald Miller’s recent post, which argues that the church’s problem is too much intellectual engagement instead of a lack thereof. Seriously.)

To cut through such tensions and offer some clarity, John Piper has released a helpful new book, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (also the topic to last year’s Desiring God conference). For Piper, the supposed faith-reason dichotomy need not be a dichotomy at all. All we need is the proper intellectual alignment.

But how do we achieve such an alignment? How can we live a life constantly guided by supernatural belief while also retaining a healthy and vigorous pursuit of the natural realm? If the fundamental aim of the Christian pursuit is the love of God — which is what the Bell/Miller crowd seems to be prodding with — why bother with our minds in the first place?

As many will be quick to remember, Jesus was clear that such love is impossible with a proper intellectual orientation. By saying “love the Lord God with all your body, soul, and mind,” Jesus was explicitly indicating that thinking is a crucial prerequisite for loving. “Knowing God is the root of loving God,” says Piper, and knowing can only come with the proper submission of our entire intellectual framework.

To disconnect faith from reason, Piper argues, is to diminish one’s love for God. To ignore thinking altogether, as many cushier, more seeker-friendly elements of evangelicalism have aimed to do, is just as treacherous as subverting it, which the Bells and the Millers of the world seem more subtly set on accomplishing (Matt Anderson chimed in with similar thoughts this morning). Each approach inevitably leads to a lackluster, lukewarm love that ends in empty chants of kumbaya rather than an active intellectual pursuit of Truth (i.e. God).

Yet to disconnect reason from faith is to designate and commit that reason elsewhere, leading to a lack of love altogether. But this particular error is not just reserved for atheists. Indeed, the lazy, passive attitude of the aforementioned lukewarm love often indirectly leads to the committing of one’s mind to the things of this world by default. Chances are, if we are ignoring orthodoxy for orthopraxy, our praxy will end up getting pretty laxy (listen up, evangelicals).

To become absorbed in either (or more typically both), amounts to nothing less than an act of mental adultery.

Sound harsh? Blame Jesus, whose words to the sign-seeking Pharisees and Sadducees Piper aptly takes to heart:

We are an adulterous generation. We love man-centered error more than Christ-exalting truth, and our rational powers are taken captive to serve this adulterous love.

Piper continues with his analysis, coming very close to my definition of superrational self-interest by talking about its enemy: “adulterous irrationality” (drawing on Romans 1, as most do):

[A]t the bottom of human irrationality (“darkened in their understanding”) and at the bottom of spiritual ignorance (“the ignorance that is in them”) is hardness of heart. That is, our self-centered hearts distort our reason to the point where we cannot use it to draw true inferences from what is really there. If our disapproval of God’s existence is strong enough, our sensory faculties and our rational faculties will not be able to infer that he is there.

Indeed, whether we want to call our human reason “hardened,” “depraved,” “futile,” “darkened,” or “foolish,” on a natural, debased, Fall-of-Man sort of level, we are naturally part of a project based in the suppression of truth (for Albert Mohler’s take on this, watch this).

To overcome such darkness and achieve a more constantly engaged, transcendental alignment, Piper urges us to simply “come to faith.” As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ,” and when we participate in an active, intellectual effort to “hear” — when we plant our seed in the fertile soil — we will not only hear the word but understand it. By doing so, we will, as Piper describes it, come into a “rational gospel.”

I have written extensively on the difference between the Love of God and the Love of Man (see here, here, and here), and not coincidentally, Piper’s book contributes much to the core aims of this blog. If we do not align our natural senses to a superrational source, as Piper encourages, Radical Individualism cannot be radical at all, leading us to a humanistic, self-destructive existence. How will we ever know God’s ultimate plan if we are caught up in debased, humanistic reasoning, and how will we execute that plan if we are busy dwindling in detached spiritual daydreaming? In addition, if the proper alignment of our rational senses is the foundation for decisionmaking, it is also the foundation for our community development, cultural formation, and the corresponding societal progress (or decline). What, then, will happen on a macro level if we opt for the “either-or” approach rather than the “both-and”?

In many ways, the views presented by Piper (and this blog) represent a basic salvation message. After all, as mentioned earlier, submitting our minds is simply an integral piece to the larger process of submitting our bodies and souls as well. In the end, we must remember that this is all about the Love of God, which is the only source by which we can properly love ourselves and contribute a healthy, productive, and unadulterated love to our neighbors and the world at large.

By either removing our minds from God or removing God from our minds, we are opting for “mere thinking” over what Piper calls “divine illumination.” In turn, we are avoiding a wrestling match with the truth.

As the Apostle Paul says, such a detached, earthly view of knowledge is bound to puff us up, while real love is bound to build us up. By “real,” I mean a love that is centered on the Truth, the Way, and the Life. As the Apostle John says, it is only by that orientation – along with the active intellectual pursuit that gets us there– that we will ever truly be free.

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  • Aaron Manes

    On one hand, the natural world is not a problem if you believe that at the center of the universe is a good God. On the other side of that discussion is a revealed God and a personal revealed faith. Both parties believe in the same God. Its the God-nature that’s at question. With no specific dictatorial state religions we are left to our open denominational discussions. With no specific revealed God pamphlet for faith direction, we are all leaning on our own personalities. The battle ensues when one side won’t admit that they have a personal opinion about faith and truth – and that it is affecting the discussion. Team Piper falls on the revealed truth idea. Team Bell seems to be saying that our personalities affect “truth.” None of these discussions are new to Christianity.

    In the 1860′s Team Bell would have been thought of as normal. By 1915 and the world wars, all sacred humanist thought was squashed in the US. We now are so influenced by the “in/out” discussion that Billy Graham and the like left us with.

  • the pursuit

    Intellectualism and Evangelicalism: Mental Adultery vs. the Rational Gospel @RemnantCulture:

  • Reyjacobs

    “We are an adulterous generation. We love man-centered error more than Christ-exalting truth, and our rational powers are taken captive to serve this adulterous love.”

    The problem (well one anyway) with this idiotic statement is that it assumes a God who is a egocentric maniac and doesn’t love mankind or care for or about us. The Bible is clear that Jesus came down here because of God’s love for mankind. Surely I need not type out the text of John 3:16, or any other passage that asserts that God sent Jesus because God loves mankind? nor need I type out the text of the passages that say God desires the salvation of all.

    But to the Calvinist God doesn’t love us, he just loves getting glory. And he loves getting this glory not from rational beings with freewill, but from puppets or robots who merely carry out prescripted actions. Theirs is a loveless glory-hog egomaniac God who is not only as thirsty for glory as Obama is for power, but who is so sad and pathetic that he can only get this glory from puppets and therefore disallows freewill because its the only way this sad excuse for a god could ever get any glory.

    The problem then is not that we love man too much but that the Calvinist hates man entirely and views him as nothing more than a robot. As a result they ‘evangelize’ not out of a desire to save souls, but only out of a desire to look like the best robot before their glory-hog god (to hod a little glory themselves even though they claim they never do this) or simply because they believe this is part of the script or programming that their robot selves are supposed to be following. There is no love in the motivation, only guilt or glory-hoggery, just as to them God is only after glory.

    If God really loves mankind, then our loving mankind cannot be at odds with him. If we both love mankind, then we are in agreement! If God loves justice, or mercy and wants to be just or merciful to men, then when we reject a false doctrine like Calvinism because it is both unjust and unmerciful (and thus at odds with God himself) we are not exalting men over God. We are in fact exalting God over men (the Calvinists theologians who are perverting the very image of God).