The Church’s Cowardly Fear of Ideas


Ideas Are Inescapable

Christians seem to have a curious sort of love-hate relationship with knowledge, ideas, thinking, and philosophy. They have to love it - to an extent - because without it, you don't have Christianity. After all, the word Gospel means "good news" -- and news is information, and information is communicated through ideas, and ideas are evaluated by thinking, and accurate thinking is the science of philosophy, and once an idea has been thought about and accurately understood to be true, it is held in the mind as knowledge. Therefore, the extent to which a Christian wishes to take Christianity seriously, he will find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with all of that dirty intellectual stuff quite a bit.

I say that he finds himself in an uncomfortable position because it is almost an unspoken rule that a Christian ought to despise intellectual work, at worst, or be highly suspicious of it, at best. The intellect, nowadays, and everything which goes along with it, is considered to be more of a dangerous and necessary evil which should only be consulted when absolutely necessary, than it is considered to be a remarkable and glorious tool to be wielded expertly by all.

In a sense, these Christians have the right idea about the intellect: it is extremely dangerous - for the one who does not know how to use it. It is one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, being used to produce every moral atrocity ever known to man. And the realm of ideas is a treacherous place to find one's self - if one does not know how to navigate it. Therefore, the desperate longing in most men to steer clear of that most dangerous weapon (the intellect), and to escape that perilous realm (of ideas) is almost understandable -- almost. The reality, though, is that there is no escaping it. Man, by his nature, is inextricably inside of the realm of ideas, and cannot ever escape it but by the futile attempt (seen all over culture today) to revert himself back into a 'beast of the field'. And the sword of the intellect is so inextricably a part of man that he cannot ever fully be parted from it -- his only option, if he wishes to renounce his union to it, is to turn it upon himself and to fall on it.

Ideas Are Dangerous

But forget about it being impossible for man to consistently renounce the intellect and the realm of ideas. The modern man (and much less, the modern Christian) cares very little for consistency--he is quite happy to have his evasive, head-in-the-sand cake, and eat it, too. Consider therefore, the more practical, and hopefully obvious, implications of the very dangers which keep so many away from ideas. If ideas are so powerful, and if all of the good powers and institutions in the world are too fearful to come near them, what do you think the evil powers and institutions of the world will do in response? Do you suppose that evil is as afraid of that power as you are? Do you suppose that evil is shy about picking up the sword of the intellect or about reigning supreme in the realm of ideas (the very realm which no man can escape)? As Christians cower on the battlefield of ideas, paralyzed by the fear of appearing 'arrogant' to their brothers, do they suppose that their enemy has stopped its advance; that it has loosened its torturous grip on those very brothers whose superficial judgement he so fears?

Yes, there is danger in picking up a sword. There is danger and a right kind of fear associated with taking arms. But in the middle of a war, it is the height of effeminate indecency to fear the sword more than the advancing enemy. There are many potential dangers to intellectual rigor, but the gravest danger of all is to allow those lesser dangers to keep your from it.

The Cowardice of False Humility

Do you fear that your knowledge will 'puff you up' and make you arrogant? Then, learn how to not be an arrogant fool! Perhaps the only reason that a little bit of knowledge tends to puff you up is because you are only taking in a little bit of knowledge. Perhaps you only see five feet in front of you on the battle field, where your brothers lie wounded on the ground and all you can see is their wounds, compared to your lack of wounds. Maybe looking up (i.e. thinking harder and deeper) in order to see further down the battle field, where your stronger brothers are valiantly riding against the enemy will humble you a bit. Perhaps climbing an intellectual mountain, in order to see the whole scope of the war, will help you to forget about your petty arrogant self so that you can focus on the more important things. There are a million things you could think of and learn about to cure you of your arrogance, but there is one thing that sure as hell is not going to help: sitting on the battlefield, closing your eyes, and saying "I must not be arrogant, I must not be arrogant" as people are slaughtered all around you.

Do you fear that you will make a mistake? Then, focus more, try harder, and get over your weakness! This isn't about you and your ability to handle ideas perfectly. The battlefield is not a pageant, and swordsmanship is not a show. No one is sitting on the sidelines, taking notes on your form. If they are, slay them! -- they deserve it. And if you are one of those side-line judges, passively critiquing aspiring intellectual soldiers on non-essentials, rather than helping them in the battle in every way you can, watch out! The Lord of the battle will not deal pleasantly with those who scoff at His soldiers over frivolities in the face of war.

Whatever your fear of ideas and intellectual rigor may be, there is no excuse for not overcoming those fears for the sake of what is at stake in the battle of ideas. I do not say: don't be afraid of making mistakes, but rather: become an expert, so you make fewer mistakes! Your fallibility is not an excuse to stick your head in the sand and give up.

"Do not say that you're afraid to trust your mind because you know so little. Are you safer in surrendering to mystics and discarding the little that you know? Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life. Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error." -Ayn Rand

Permission Is Not Enough

"But", you might object, "there are lots of Christian leaders who decry anti-intellectualism and encourage people to use their minds -- who are you arguing against?". Yes, there are good Christian leaders who - almost reluctantly - confess that anti-intellectualism is a bad thing and that the mind is a good thing, but that is about as close as these supposed generals get to picking up their swords and doing any real battle. Look at the literature and works of those leaders within Evangelicalism who speak out the most about the necessity of the intellect and observe that even among these, you will find 90% warnings about the dangers of the intellect with 10% mild and vague approval of using one's intellect. In other words, our most courageous generals in the battle are riddled with fear to the point that the most they can offer -- beyond warning of the dangers of picking up the sword -- is to grant you approval for doing so.

But it is not mere permission which is needed, today. Fear-laden generals who pay lip-service to battle are of very little good to the soldiers who need leaders that will actually fight -- and fight well. We need leaders who are so over the fears associated with intellectual rigor that they are experts in the war of ideas. We need generals (and soldiers), who are not only over the fear of picking up the sword, but who have mastered it in such a way that it is now an extension of their own body (like it actually was from the very beginning -- as noted above).

The Kind of Serious Soldiers We Need

This means: the ability to speak critically about a dangerous idea without the need to speak about one's own humility before, during, and after such criticism. It means analyzing major ideas and ideologies for coherence, validity, and value (1 Cor 2:15). It means questioning obscure language to discover any hidden premises or poisonous assumptions being smuggled into innocent peoples' minds. It means relentlessly taking ideas to their logical conclusions in order to track and project the inevitable trajectory of any given idea -- whether true or false. It means discovering the proper criteria for deciding whether an idea is true or false. It means discovering the proper hierarchy of ideas in order to know which types of ideas are foundational (and therefore determinative) for other types of ideas. In other words, it means taking ideas seriously; which means taking reality seriously.

Anything less is nothing more than cowardice. Do not say "at least it's humble". Obsessing over one's own humility in the face of such a battle is the anything but humble. Do not say that it's loving. Love does not stand by idly while one's beloved is poisoned, tortured, deceived, and destroyed. Do not say that it is not your 'gift' or your 'calling'. The extent to which you are involved in communicating or promoting ideas (i.e. the extent to which you are acting as a human being) is the extent to which you are directly responsible for the content, value, and trajectory of those ideas you are communicating to others. It is time for Christians (and people in general) to stop making excuses, and get their butts onto the battlefield -- where the enemy has been (and will continue to be) happy to rage as long and as violently as he is allowed.

Related Posts & Pages:

-The Christian Intellectual 

- Epistemology

- The "Christian" Fairytale

- There is No Such Thing as Scripture "Apart" From Philosophy

- Athens & Jerusalem: General and Specific Revelation

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