The Blessed Madness of Reason

Now as he [Paul] thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!”

Acts 26:24

To my fellow Christians: would any unbeliever ever have warrant to accuse our vast learning of driving us mad?  If not, why not?

Our times are marked by increasing irrationalism and anti-intellectualism, even — perhaps especially — in the church.  The Enlightenment (c. 1680 – 1780) enthroned man’s reason and dethroned God’s revelation.  During the Romantic reaction (c. 1790 – 1840) and into postmodernity (1970 – ), Christians banished reason from the court altogether.  Today, illogical arguments are paraded as “deep spirituality,” and “community” is a substitute for theology.  This is a central theme of Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, which reconfigures Christianity into a Great Conversation.  Reason, by contrast, demands clear arguments and sharp distinctions; “community” erases those distinctions.  The emerging generation (= Emergent church) longs for the cuddly warmth of religious community unencumbered by intellect and creed and doctrine.  An immediate problem is that of all the major religions, Christianity is the most theological, and at critical points it makes strenuous demands of the mind (Rom. 12:1–2).

Kevin Vanhoozer once wrote that if the besetting sin of modernity was arrogance, the Achilles’ heel of postmodernity is laziness.  Hard thinking requires hard work, and Christians increasingly deplore hard work, preferring entertainment, notably on Sunday mornings — dazzling rock shows, lukewarm lattes, and self-help sermonettes.  This lazy self-indulgence is simply a reflection of the surrounding culture.  Personal consumption is life’s new objective: “The world exists to please me.”  The Christianized version is “Jesus and the church exist to please me.”  In Love God With All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland argues that this interiorized anti-intellectualism banishes the church to the social margins and thereby assures the victory of anti-Christian forces in the culture.  Cultural engagement requires the exercise of intellect, and if Christians refuse this exercise, they will lose cultural battles.  We have refused, and we are losing.

A huge solution to this problem would be a revival of intellect-cultivation in the church.  Ministers must re-commit to rigorous Biblical exposition in the pulpit.  Members must again read gutsy books on doctrine and theology — and philosophy and culture.  The church must claim — with justification — that it has the answers to modern man’s problems: from unbelief to broken marriages to addictions to sexual deviance to economic apostasy to virtual realities.  We won’t have these answers if we refuse to cultivate an intellectual Faith, which is a huge part of our Christian heritage, despite the fact that it has been squandered in the last 200 years by a lazy, worldly, and sometimes cowardly church.

Intellect is not our problem.  Rebellious intellect is our problem.

And ignorance — especially pious ignorance — is assuredly not the solution.

May God grant us an island of intellectuals in a sea of irrationalists.


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