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.