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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Quest for God in Pursuing the Life of the Mind

Written by: on February 2, 2017

Mark Noll wrote this book in 1994, at a time when the global landscape had quite a different appearance, tone, and structure. But, he presents a timeless thesis in this book which is still relevant and challenging for readers today.  This book is centered on what the author considers the scandalous “life of the mind” of American evangelicals.  For evangelicals the life of the mind means “to think within a Christian framework across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics, political science, literary criticism, historical inquiry, philosophical studies, linguistics, history of science, social theory and the arts.” [1] Noll claims, “Failure to exercise the mind for Christ in these areas has become acute in the twentieth century. That failure is the scandal of the evangelical mind.” [2] This appears to have serious ramifications. No wonder our Dminlgp academic program is so diligent in incorporating a wide, multi-discipline approach in our readings.

Luther and Calvin were staunch proponents of the necessity of higher education to combat anti-intellectual movements that attacked all education along with Roman Catholic dogma. Seventeen-century Puritans instrumental in planting Protestantism in North America also insisted upon a comprehensive engagement with learning.  But, as the revival tradition took a foothold in America, it subdued the life of the mind and eventually led to the decline of active theological pursuits concerning God, Christian life and the world.

Most evangelicals believe “Scripture reveals God as the author of nature, as the sustainer of human institutions, and as the source of harmony, creativity, and beauty.” [3]   Modern evangelicals received this legacy from earlier evangelical leaders and movements that were distinguished by their rigorous intellectual activity as a way of glorifying God. According to Noll, modern American evangelicals have failed to sustain a robust intellectual presence; they have denounced high culture, the universities, and the arts. Unlike their predecessors, modern evangelicals are not diligently pursuing ways of thinking about God or the world.  Noll feels that isolated acts of compassion, social justice, and altruism do not compensate for this failure.

Noll recognizes three dimensions associated with the scandal of the evangelical mind: cultural, institutional, and theological. The “cultural dimension” is pragmatic and utilitarian, propelled by urgencies, not deep intellectual thought. For some twentieth-century evangelicals that translated into apocalyptic fears of fulfilled biblical prophecy and the imminence of the world’s end. The “institutional dimension” relating to evangelical higher education does not encourage Christian reflection on the nature of the world, society, and the arts.  Some evangelical institutions of higher learning are governed by non-Christian or anti-Christian agendas. The “theological dimension” of the scandal is the long-term neglect by the Christian community of the multi-faceted world created and sustained by God for His own glory, especially with respect to the mind, nature, society, and the arts.

Jonathan Edwards understood the ultimate reason for exercising our intelligence, is to gain a better understanding about God and the world He created.  Edward asks, “Who, after all, made the world of nature, and then made possible the development of sciences through which we find  out more about nature?  Who formed the universe of human interactions, and so provided the raw material of politics, economics, sociology, and history?  Who is the source of harmony, form, and narrative pattern, and so lies behind all artistic and literary possibilities?  Who created the human mind in such a way that it could grasp the realities of nature, of human interactions, of beauty, and so made possible the theories on such matters by philosophers and psychologists?  Who moment by moment, maintains the natural world, the world of human interactions, and the harmonies of existence? Who, moment by moment, maintains the connections between what is in our minds and what is in the world beyond our minds?” [4]

When one pauses and contemplates the significance of the above phrases, it becomes clear why we have the Divine directive in Matthew 22:37, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the way we can conceptualize God as a supernatural,  living, Divine Being;  have intimate fellowship with Him; and experience an inner witness of His presence, power, and reality.  Noll informs us that the primary purpose of Christian scholarship is to praise God with the mind and value what He has created.  When we acknowledge His sovereignty over His creation and seek a mind that thinks like a Christian, we find God in the process.

Notes

  1. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 7.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Ibid., 51.

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

9 responses to “A Quest for God in Pursuing the Life of the Mind”

  1. Claire, great post. I worked in a church a while back where the pastor would often state: “I do not need doctrine or theology, I just need more of Jesus.” I would want to scream out, “Doctrine and theology is how you get to begin to understand the mysteries of God.”
    Noll’s book explained it really well, but in your context, why do you think people do not connect with glorifying God with our minds? Do we not preach about it enough?
    Thanks,
    Jason

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Jason,
      I think uninformed Christians have developed an unfounded dichotomy between spirituality and academics/scholarship which is the theology I was influenced by when I was introduced to Christian theology. As a result, I threw out several classic academic and scholarly works because I wanted to devote all my reading time strictly to biblical literature and themes for the rest of my life.

      Noll tells us that the basis of anti-intellectualism stems from the assumption that, “in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to the world.” (p.123) He says that by the 1930s, “Not only were the nation’s universities alien territory for evangelicals, but fundamentalists, the most visible evangelicals, had made a virtue of their alienation from the world of learned culture.” (p. 211). It looks like we are still experiencing the residual effects of that evangelical mentality. We mostly don’t emphasize glorifying God with our minds because individually and corporately as a church we don’t understand its true significance.

  2. Claire you conclusion reminds me of a phrase that someone emailed me last month that said something like the pursuit of science ends with finding Jesus. I think this is so great. When we were in London I was shocked at how many scientists were buried in Westminster Abbey. It made me long for a time when evangelicalism and science could coexist and all of their intellectual pursuits with them.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Aaron,
      Awesome, I agree. Scientific pursuits are not antithetical to theological pursuits. Scientific discoveries aid theologians in understanding the intricate workings of God. Scientific discoveries are the means by which God makes His mysteries and purposes known to humankind which in turn often inspires spontaneous praise and worship of Him.

  3. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thank Claire,
    This statement is the essence of the book, “For evangelicals the life of the mind means “to think within a Christian framework across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics, political science, literary criticism, historical inquiry, philosophical studies, linguistics, history of science, social theory and the arts. ”

    It made me think of Leon Fontaine’s book, The Spirit Contemporary Life that points out many problems facing the church and then a solution is offered. Fontaine says that since we know the message about Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s power to influence our lives is incredible, the problem has to lie with the messengers. It has to be us. We are the problem. He then says there is a simple solution. We need to learn to communicate Jesus’ message in the context of our normal, everyday lives so that what we say and the way we say it doesn’t send people running. This is the framework of a christian mind.
    it is great to share, Rose Maria

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Rose,
      Thanks for your comments. You are correct in your statement about the framework of a Christian mind. According to Noll, Calvinism stressed bringing every aspect of life under the guidance of Christian thinking and sought answers to life based on a Christian perspective. From this standpoint, we are able to witness the gospel effectively and correctly to others.

  4. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:

    Again, another great post. I concur with Noll on several levels also….but I have a question:

    Do you think that an imbalanced, over pursuit of intellectualism, due to the proposed scandal, can result in prideful and self absorbed intellect that is not conducive to propagation of the Gospel? Can we get so “smart” that we no longer need God?

    That has been a concern of academia to me. We become so educated that we no longer have, or see the need of, a personal relationship with Christ – that is too simple!

    Phil

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Phil,
      Your questions indicate some legitimate concerns you are experiencing.
      To answer your questions, I would say no, we cannot get so smart (and still be followers of Christ), that we no longer need God. I do believe that an imbalanced, but not an over pursuit of intellectualism in relation to the proposed scandal, can result in prideful and self-absorbed intellect that is not conducive to the propagation of the Gospel. This happens all the time to Christians who are high achievers or those who attain excellence in any endeavor, and leave God out of the equation regarding their successes.

      But, the “life of the mind” is a theological enterprise that is God-centered or Christ-centered. It is not an intellectualism seeking knowledge for its own sake so that one will become puffed up. Its fundamental purpose is to know and understand God and His creation better through diligent study of the Word, and becoming knowledgeable of ways God is revealing Himself that cuts across all the academic disciplines. This type of intellectualism instills humility not pride. Note what Nolls says about Jonathan Edwards. “The lessons he offers later Christians . . . lies in his efforts to think about the major questions of life distinctly as a Christian, from a Christian base, and with Christian principles.” (p. 79).

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, thank you for a great blog. I can see that you connected well with the book. I also appreciate Noll’s challenge about the importance of thinking critically while thinking Christianly. In the church context we can make the mistake of communicating to people a dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, reducing ministry to only what pertains to the programs of the church. Noll reminds me that there is no division between the two, but they are both one and the same. As you said in your conclusion, “When we acknowledge His sovereignty over His creation and seek a mind that thinks like a Christian, we find God in the process.”
    Pablo

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