Intellect as Culture

Below are introductory remarks made at CCL’s 2013 West Coast Symposium in downtown San Francisco last weekend:

We need first to know what culture is. We do that best by distinguishing nature (or creation) from culture. John M. Frame captures this distinction: “Creation is what God makes; culture is what we make.” Culture is quite different from creation; its distinctive trait is the human use of that creation for man’s benefit. Culture is what we get when man intentionally employs creation for beneficial purposes. A tomato is not an aspect of culture; a pizza is. Oxygen is not an example of culture; an oxygen mask is. King David is not defined as culture; Michelangelo’s famous sculpture King David (c. 1504) is culture. Creation plus man’s beneficial interaction with it equals culture.

God’s first commission to man is to steward the rest of creation for his glory. We often call this “the cultural mandate.” God commissions man as his deputy to be the benevolent king over the earth.

If you’ll think about it, this means that creation isn’t sufficient. God made all things very good, but he didn’t make them to stay the way they are. Man was designed to use his ingenuity and diligence to improve creation for humanity’s benefit and God’s glory. God didn’t want the world to have only tomatoes. He wanted man to create pizza (or something like it). God didn’t want to make only oxygen. He designed for man to help his fellow man when he was ill by devising an oxygen mask. Creation isn’t enough. God wants his image, man, to employ creation to fashion culture.

That task requires intellect. It did from the beginning. Adam used his intellect to name the animals. In time, no doubt, he used that intellect to devise simple machines.

Fulfilling the cultural mandate isn’t possible without intellect.

As time goes on and civilization progresses — and this is my main point — intellect occupies a greater role in the cultural mandate. It takes greater intellectual exertion and sophistication to make a wagon than a wheel and pulley. It takes greater intellect to create an automobile than a wagon. And it requires more to fashion voice recognition technology than an automobile.

This progress is true not only for technology. It’s equally true in theology (16th-century theology was much more intellectually sophisticated than patristic theology), politics (our age of political ideologies is much more intellectually grounded than the age of the ancient empires), and medicine (I suspect nobody here longs for the good old days of George Washington and bleeding patients to heal infections).

And what’s true of these fields is true across the board: philosophy, music, economics, investment, architecture, literature, engineering, athletics, health, and so on. Civilizational advance requires intellectual advance.

If this is true, it means that over time, Christian culture must occupy itself more and more with intellect. The point isn’t that all Christians, or most, must be intellectuals — that would be boring and lopsided — and, frankly, dangerous. The point, rather, is that Christians must take with increased seriousness the intellectual task of the cultural mandate. Somebody needs to be doing the intellectual lifting, and Christians need to be first in line to start lifting.

Ironically, our society is increasingly anti-intellectual. How can this be, given the pervasive intellectual advances that surround us? The answer is simple: fewer and fewer people are doing more and more of the heavy intellectual lifting. Our world is hyper-specialized, and intellectuals are quintessential specialists. Unfortunately, Christians have followed this trend and are usually happily anti-intellectual. In this way, they are supremely worldly. We don’t tend to think of anti-intellectualism as a form of worldliness, but it is.

There’s no single solution to this problem, but I’ll suggest one. Christians must recover the intellect as a mission field. They should put money and resources toward getting Christians trained to be engineers and software architects and professors and surgeons and attorneys and economists and pastor-scholars and political scientists and philosophers.

If the cultural mandate necessitates increased use of intellect over time, we need more Christians taking the lead in intellectual fields, and refusing to surrender vast portions of society to the Devil. In 30 years, robots will be doing the tasks many people are doing today. Intellect will increasingly occupy a greater share of culture.

Christians,therefore, must take the lead in conquering intellectual fields as we contemplate a Christian future.


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