Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and a sequel titled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind traces the decline of intellectualism in the Evangelical world of the United States and how a deep commitment to Jesus Christ must drive the Church to embrace intellectual exercises rather than withdrawa from it. Quoting N.K. Clifford, Noll points out that “The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection (Noll 1994, 12).” I realize how true this is not only in North America but also in my context of ministry in India.
The church in India is growing among the subaltern people of ‘little traditions’. They are the oppressed, marginalized and down trodden, also the less educated and underprivileged. Being people of little traditions they have no written doctrine, their beliefs and practices are passed down orally from one generation to the next. It is observed that most of these growing indigenous churches lean toward the Pentecostal and Charismatic orientation and transfer some of their pre Christian traditions and worldviews into their new belief system. In such a situation, what kind of influence will the church have on the community in the three dimensions that Noll talks about: cultural, institutional and theological. The answer to this question is simple: none.
The staggering numbers of new believers belonging to these churches that have multiplied over the last two decades have far exceeded those of the traditional and historical mainline churches. A huge chasm exists between these two. These new churches continue to survive on oral tradition in their new Christian faith. Lack of liturgy, adequate Christian education, theologically grounded leadership, all add up to what is bound to result in: a Church that is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’. How long will Evangelical Christian leadership remain apathetic and withdrawn from this reality? What needs to happen to change this trend? It is not enough to remain satisfied with the growing numbers of new Christians. Their spiritual health is vital and it cannot happen void of an intellectual pursuit of the faith.
Noll reminds us: “The links between deep Christian life, long lasting Christian influence, and dedicated Christian thought characterize virtually all of the high moments in the history of the church. On the other side of the picture, the history of the church contains a number of sobering examples of what happens when a spirituality develops with no place for self-conscious thought (Noll 1994, 43).” This is a poignant reminder of an urgent and pressing need in India that calls for the immediate attention of Christian leaders. There is much to learn from history. We would be naïve if we ignored the realities of the past and the present.
Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
—. The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.