An Informed Faith
In the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll writes a lament about what he perceives to be the lack of cultivation of the mind in American evangelicalism. He writes as an insider, identifying himself as an Evangelical fundamentalist from the reformed tradition.
Laments tend to have an emotional tone that focus on the negative, with minimum attention to the positive. Despite this tendency, Noll manages to express his disappointment with an academic tone that is well documented.
By paying close attention to the history of evangelicalism in North America, Noll identifies a dichotomy in how people see the world and engage with it. On the one hand, the fixation with eschatological fulfillment has created a mindset that minimizes the need to engage with this world in arenas that go beyond evangelism and church ministry. Consequently, evangelicalism has failed to influence other areas of human development, including the arts, science, sociology, and political philosophy. On the other hand, because the evangelical approach to biblical interpretation tends to be built upon the foundation of “common sense,” many evangelicals are blinded to their own cultural assumptions that permeate the way they see the Scriptures. This combination of a naïve Biblicism and obsession with eschatological fulfillment has resulted in an evangelical church that emphasizes activism but devalues the cultivation of the mind in intellectual pursuits. In Noll’s view, that is the scandal of the evangelical mind.
I became a Christian in a fundamentalist evangelical context and did my graduate studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Consequently, my experience reading the book was like a husband sitting down in a counseling session hearing his wife complain about what a horrible marriage they have. Thus, it is natural to feel the need to clarify or defend; yet, by focusing on the disputable we can easily overlook the truths that must be acknowledge in order to grow deeper and closer.
Noll is not the first one to point out the lack of intellectual depth that characterizes part of the evangelical world. Philip Yancey, for instance, has masterfully written about his own experiences with fundamentalism (see his books “What’s so Amazing about grace?” and “Church, why bother?”). As I read Noll and Yancey, I can identify with much of what has been said, because like them, I am also a child of fundamentalism.
Growing up in Chile, I remember hearing some Christians at church question the need for academic studies. “What if the Lord returns and finds you studying in college? Wouldn’t that be a waste? Wouldn’t be better to be involved in ministry instead?” Needless to say, evangelism was valued over academics. As an adult in Dallas, I remember talking to a lady who was convinced that if a person was alone in an island with a Bible, the person would become a Baptist. In her mind, the meaning of the biblical text was indisputably obvious. I have met Democrat Christians and Republican Christians that cannot understand how anybody who is truly a Christian would be from the opposite party. In their minds, political identity and Christian identity are two sides of the same coin. As Noll points out, I have seen how naïve Biblicism and fixation with eschatological fulfillment do tend to minimize the need for critical thought and can lead to isolation rather than insulation from the world.
In my own journey of cultivating the mind, I had my biggest faith crisis during graduate school. While studying textual criticism, and after two years of studying Greek and Hebrew, I realized that my Christian upbringing taught me what to believe, but it failed to teach me why to believe it. My faith crisis felt like a child who had his Lego creation nicely sitting on the table, only to see it destroyed by a heavy hand—no piece was lost, but it required reassembling. I now appreciate that crisis, because it forced me to have to pick up each piece of my theological framework and start building it again—not out of indoctrination but out of seeking understanding. It seems that the outcome of acquiring more education is not so much the realization that we know so much, but quite the opposite. It is the realization that there is so much we do not know. It seems to feed a sense of intellectual humility that is commonly absent when we live in ignorance.
All of these experiences have shaped my approach to church ministry. From my point of view, emphasizing activity over understanding leads to a busy faith. Emphasizing rules over understanding leads to a legalistic faith. Emphasizing emotions over understanding leads to a susceptible faith. Yet, when understanding is the glue that keeps our activities, rules, and emotions together, it leads to a mature faith. At Ethnos, we emphasize understanding from the way we explain the gospel to the way we mentor new believers and teach Bible classes. In our membership agreement we differentiate between what we consider essentials and non-essentials beliefs, and we agree to create an atmosphere were people can openly ask the tough questions as they seek understanding. I want to equip disciples that are taught from the beginning not only what to believe what how to think. I want them to learn what to believe, why believe it, as well as why others believe differently. As John Stuart Mill said his book On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Perhaps, this is the reason that led me to pursue my doctoral studies outside my comfort zone and into a broader circle of the Body of Christ.
Even though I get the main point that Noll is trying to denounce, the apostle Paul said something to the Corinthians that came to mind when reading Noll’s book. It may be true that evangelicalism may not have produced winners of Nobel prizes or composers of genius symphonies. Yet, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:2-4, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” So even as we join Noll in his lament, it may be helpful to remember that there are many masterpieces that will never be known by the masses and amazing minds that will never be published.
Finally, Noll’s lament made me wonder about three things. I wonder about the emphasis found in the patristic literature. Noll contrasts fundamentalism with authors from the Reformation and the Enlightenment, but what do the Church Fathers emphasize? I also wonder about how personality types affect the level of interest in intellectual pursuits. After more than a decade of ministry experience I know that there are people that prefer to be told what to believe but do not want to spend too much time thinking about the why. They prefer action instead. In light of psychological studies, we now know that these different tendencies are the result of our psychological makeup. I also wonder how the cost of living and the cost of education is also a factor that limits the opportunity to cultivate the mind. So apparently, there are other external factors that Noll does not consider in his assessment and I wonder if they would in any way shape his conclusions.
11 responses to “An Informed Faith”
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Your paragraph that begins, “All of these experiences have shaped… Emphasizing rules over understanding can lead to a legalistic faith… etc,” is one of the best things I’ve ever read. It is quintessential Pablo: calm, reasoned, accurate.
I don’t have a question about that paragraph; I simply appreciate how your brain thinks.
If you do run into resistance to thinking within Ethnos, what form might that/does that take? How might you deal with it?
This book is 20 years old. It will be interesting to read the newer book this coming week.
Marc, thank you for your encouragement. You asked, “If you do run into resistance to thinking within Ethnos, what form might that/does that take? How might you deal with it?”
On the one hand, new believers are the easiest to train. They have great questions and benefit tremendously from our mentorship program. So with this group I have not experienced resistance or close-mindedness. On the other hand, people who have been believers for a longer time tend to have more formed opinions. However, I have not had struggles at the doctrinal level with the church yet. People who have left throughout the years have done so more for leadership issues rather than doctrinal ones. I imagine that there might be some people who quietly disagree with some of my opinions but not to the point of breaking fellowship.
Yes – people do leave, for a variety of personal reasons. My only hope is that they will (a) have the courage to tell me face to face, and that (b) they aren’t wriggling out from under discipleship when they leave. (I’ve seen both happen.)
Once again you were very academic in voice as you expressed what I felt on a much more raw level. My concern is with the intellectual approach toward Jesus. Jesus pointed out that they knew (knowledge) about God but didn’t know God. Paul killed Christians because of his “knowledge” and had to be radicalised to change his course of life. Not so sure that the focus of the whole book is anything that I have ever wondered about or been concerned about. I do know that I have talked to students who are going to Bible school to not let themselves be talked out of faith by a professor who sounds exactly like this one.
Thanks for your post. In your crisis of faith or your Lego moment, what was your most important take away?
I believe that the cultivation of the mind proposed by Noll is different from college professors that lead students away from their faith. In his case, he agrees with the need to be born again and the centrality of the Scriptures. In his lament he denounces the dichotomy that we have created between the sacred and the secular, challenging us to bring these two dimensions under one umbrella that seeks to bring glory to God. I agree with much of what he says in this regard. However, I do feel in moments that there is an arrogant tone, as if he were saying, “Why aren’t there more intellectuals like me in the church?” This tone seems to imply that unless I am of a reformed tradition and accept darwinian evolution, then I am not trully engaging the mind and I am an uninformed and close-minded Christian. Perhaps Noll would clarify that this is not what he means, but for sure it feels like it.
What helped me in my “Lego moment” was to be surrounded by a body of believers that were able to listen, engage in intelligent dialogue, and pray with me. I approached some of my professors and friends and asked them to pray for me and shared some of my questions. Having an atmosphere that welcomes this type of interaction is of utmost importance. In contrast, many Christians do not feel free to share some of these epistemological crises for the fear of being judged. In other cases, they are not surrounded by people who are equipped to engage at a deeper level of theological reflection. Consequently I see the importance of having both elements in the church.
You said the following: “Consequently, evangelicalism has failed to significantly influence other areas of human development, including the arts, science, sociology, economy and political philosophy.” I agree on one plane, but do you sense that there was an imbalanced approach to the cause and heart of evangelicalism when Noll seems to long for the intellectual and practical expression?
I am not attempting to justify the lack of scholarship, but where is the balance? Can we step over the line, due to the scandall, a be more concerned with self actualization than Christ?
Phil, I agree with you that the book does not seem to be balanced. Maybe because he is writing a lament, his goal is to be critical rather than balanced. There are many positive aspects of evangelicalism that are not highlighted in the book, and that makes the reading a borderline depressing experience.
Can we step over the line and focus more on self-actualization than in Christ? I believe so. However, Noll connects the cultivation of the mind with the goal of bringing glory to God, so I am not sure that he is implying we go over the line.
Reading this book was an interesting experience. It was a mixture of agreeing with his critiques, disagreeing with his portrayal, feeling the need to defend, and also feeling the need to clarify what he really meant. As I said in my blog, it felt like being in a marriage counseling session with a couple in crisis.
Very well said! I really enjoyed reading about your personal journey of not what but why and how you had to rebuild. I also liked you opening observations that laments always seem to go negative. Last, you Corthinian reference. I agree that the true work for good or bad is still yet to be seen. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, Aaron!
Great blog. You suggested that Christian traditions never taught you the ‘why’ we believe. I also agree with this belief because while I was an active leader in the church, I didn’t learn much about theology or great biblical truths until seminary. Although this comes at the expense of minimizing theological knowledge, I will also that there has been progress. We saw a lot of miracles growing in Jamaica so we used that as our basis for Christianity but when I came to America and the Healing’s weren’t as frequent, it revealed how little I knew of my faith. This book definitely challenged me to ensure I don’t use the activities of a God as a basis for intelligent theology.
Wonderful blog Pablo. No I mean it, it is full of your “wonderings” and that to me proves you are definitely not one of the people Noll is talking about. You are a deep intelligent thinker my friend.