Gordon T Smith Thinking Christianly Series Posts
In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of the Christian Mind - Thinking Christianly. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on what vital place of the mind to the Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful and intentionally Christian approach to life and work. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.
The Christian Mind and the Ordering of the Affections
As I noted in a previous blog posting, the genius of the Christian intellectual tradition is that it seeks the integration of head and heart – intellect and affect, understanding and the emotional contours of our interior lives. We are not sentimentalists, dismissive of the intellectual life; we are not rationalists, discounting personal subjective experience. Rather, and instead, the Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition affirms that the life of the mind matters and that we engage the truth with open hearts. We do not buy the “four spiritual laws” notion “that the train only needs facts and that feelings only follow faith and obedience . . . and that the train can run without the caboose.” Really? Actually, this flies in the face of the biblical witness.
To the contrary, Paul noted that the Thessalonian believers received the Word with joy. The book of Acts speaks of the conversion of Lydia, in Philippi, and references how she opened her heart to Paul and Silas – her heart and her home. The book of James urges readers to be slow to anger, for anger does not produce righteousness, but to instead receive the Word with meekness. In other words, we cannot receive the word – we cannot have faith that engages truth except come with open hearts, even, we could say, that we come with joy: a willingness to learn, to be open, to be vulnerable – to delight in what we are seeing and learning.
The Christian spiritual tradition – from Athanasius to Augustine to Bernard of Clairveaux, to Ignatius Loyola to Frances de Sales to John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards – has always recognized that there is no learning, no engagement with the truth, no growth in understanding that is not equally matched and what is happening to us emotionally. It is a completely false notion to suggest that “feelings” come later – after a thoughtful engagement with “facts”. And yet, there is an element of truth here – perhaps we can speak of it as the proverbial half-truth, which does not make it partially true but does nevertheless call something to our attention: that when the ancient spiritual writers of the church speak of the ordering of the affections, the refinement of desire, and thus the capacity for joy and delight in the good and with all of this, the movement of the heart, there was an assumption: that what we feel is congruent with the truth. And more, that if there is depth of emotion, including delight and joy, that this is informed – it is infused with understanding, knowledge and growth in wisdom.
Several years ago I was invited to speak at a gathering and those who invited me stressed that they wanted “inspiration, not information”. I was a little nonplussed. This is, of course, a false polarity; it is an attempt at a feel good experience that is not connected with what is actually happening or has happened. Without information, without data, without truth and the facts, we are left with vacuous sentimentality.
The genius of all great preachers is their capacity to engage head and heart; the master teacher in the classroom – same thing. Whether they are teaching 2nd grade elementary children or graduate theology students, they refuse to manipulate emotion. That is, to merely use stories or illustrations that are “moving” in order to create a supposed ambience of teaching or learning – but they know that illustrations, metaphors, spiritual experience will all inform any genuine depth of engagement with knowledge that leads to understanding that leads to wisdom.
Nowhere is this more powerfully evident for the Christian community than in the Old Testament Psalms. Each Psalm is an engagement with truth – a revelation of the nature and character of God who is the Creator and Redeemer of all things – but in such a way that our hearts are informed and infused with a vision of God as God. But also, a thorough reading of the Psalms captures the breadth of human experience and thus emotion – from anger to lament to uncertainty and foreboding . . . through till deep comfort, joy and delight. But in each and every case, the feeling or emotion in question arises from – precisely from – the revelation of the truth. But more, the Psalms illustrate the principle that we come to the truth with an honesty about what is happening to us emotionally; we cannot park or discount or suppress emotion in our engagement with God’s revelation. Thus, the Psalms integrate heart and mind and therefore there is a deep logic that the Psalms would be standard fare in our worship – a Psalm every Sunday, read or sung – as a basic ingredient of the Christian liturgy.
And we would be grateful for those hymn and song writers who in the tradition of Charles Wesley know what it means to be both theologians and lyricists, such that what we sing informs both heart and mind. We grow in understanding as we sing; our hearts and affections are ordered as we sing.
The Christian Mind as a Hospitable Mind
We live and work in deeply polarized social, political and religious communities and institutions. Christians have always, of course, had to navigate substantive differences. We see witness to those towards the end of the book of Romans where the Apostle Paul is speaking to what were clearly deep differences of opinion that were threatening to divide the church in Rome. And throughout her history, the church has been marked by century after century where Christians were deeply divided around matters of faith, piety and morality. So I am not about to suggest that we are more polarized now than at any time in our history; and yet, there is no avoiding that the level of polarization today is the worse that many of us have seen – at least in our lifetimes.
The deep polarization within our society – notably in the political realm – is reflected in the church. This has been very ably analyzed by Timothy Dalrymple, in his Christianity Today essay [April 16, 2021], entitled The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul. He writes:
New fractures are forming within the American evangelical movement, fractures that do not run along the usual regional, denominational, ethnic, or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.
Part of what makes this an insightful piece is that he gives attention to how opinions and convictions are formed and how it perhaps has come to be that even those within relatively close communities have come to see the world from dramatically different perspectives. But it is something else that I suggest merits attention, and it is this: if there is any hope for our world and for the church, we need to lean into the ancient spiritual practice of hospitality – a hospitality that will be offered to the other, including when the other differs with us on fundamental matters.
Hospitality is not the answer, necessarily, to what ails us. But, what we can affirm is that we will not find a way forward without the fundamental capacity to offer hospitality – to be hospitable to one another, particularly with those with whom we differ. That is, the issues are so complex and seeming intractable, that it would be much to facile to simply say that with some good will – that is, some basic or minimal hospitality – we can overcome these differences. Not quite. And yet, what we can speak to is this – as an essential capacity for Christians and for faculty, staff and students at a Christian university: the Christian mind at its best is a hospitable mind. It is marked by the ability to listen twice as much as we speak, by the capacity to be present to those who differ with us and, actually, whose views we might find to be not only troubling but also offensive and, finally, that we keep attentive to how engagement with another opens up new avenues for insight, learning and growth in wisdom.
That is, can we be women and men of conviction – resolved to know and live by the truth – and be hospitable? Can we agree that we do not need to choose between truth and hospitality? We can hold and need to hold to what which has emerged for us as something about which we are convinced; our minds have come to clarity about this or that or the other. But, we can also be hospitable to the other even when we are convinced that are quite mistaken in their views or perspectives – even if we think their views will have a detrimental effect? That is, can I be hospitable to you even if I think your political views might lead to an election of a government that will implement legislation that is problematic? I am suggesting that there might be no other way.
Can we insist on civility and even generosity towards the other – contra, for example, the way that Liz Cheney was treated when she greeted President Biden when he addressed the joint houses of the US congress? She was severely criticized for this, but it was basic civility: they are colleagues. In the Canadian system the prime minister and the leader of the opposition differ and differ markedly, but they can and must sustain a fundamental good will towards the other.
Can we go further and recognize that the other has the right to speak and thus the right to be heard – that is, that in the civic square and in the classroom of a Christian university – and thus that we will be able to engage in opinions and perspectives of those with whom we differ? We will not categorically dismiss them.
And finally, and without doubt the biggest step, can we be women and men of conviction and a commitment to truth but still be able to learn from those with whom we differ?
Paul in Romans 15:7 summarizes the whole debate in Rome in a single stroke: he does not resolve the differences of opinion but instead urges his readers to ‘welcome one another as the Lord has welcomed you.’ He was not asking them to change their minds; but he was insisting that the posture of hospitality needed to could mark their shared life.
Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 3, Partisan Propaganda
Part of our vision for the Christian life, and thus for what it means to be a university, is that we diligently foster our capacity for critical confident, creative, and compassionate thinking: we cultivate the life of the mind. But unfortunately, this is not always encouraged. There are forces or movements that go against this grain and seemingly undercut this vital dimension of the life of the Christian community. I find it helpful to speak of three such threats: pragmatism, sentimentalism and, to be considered here, partisan propaganda.
My colleague Dr. Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose University, speaks of “partisan reductionism” and he defines it as:
. . . a set of ideas or beliefs, often economic or political in nature, that serve as the rather simple, one or two variable, all-encompassing theoretical prism by which one sees, analyzes, and behaves in the world, almost to the exclusion—or worse, shaming—of other more complex, nuanced, and even competing frameworks. Those who hold this approach also tend to refute the possibility that they could be wrong.
This seems to me to be a variation of what Jacques Ellul spoke of as propaganda: the use of data or information solely for a political or ideological agenda. Media and journalism then become the means for disseminating an ideological agenda rather than fostering true understanding. Opposing views are demonized; critical thought and thus discussion are viewed as a threat to views of those in authority – whether in the civic square or in denominational leadership. The critical value is compliance – whether in the political realm or within the church: unquestioned deference to authority or interest only in a narrative or “facts” that reinforce group identity.
Society and the church have always faced this of course; this is not a new phenomenon or a new threat. Within the Christian community, there are Evangelicals who simply refuse to acknowledge anything in scripture that seems to speak to the priority or necessity of baptism; they have already decided that baptism is optional and they are part of a church group that has always preached this despite the clear evidence from scripture to the contrary. Or, a person identifies as Wesleyan or Calvinian or Evangelical and they are simply deaf to anything that is from another Christian stream – Wesleyan or Calvinian or Catholic – that might challenge their group assumptions. That is, it is not a new phenomenon, but it would seem that this is a particularly overt form of anti-intellectualism in our day.
I wonder if a corner was turned in late January of 2017 when Sean Spicer, the press secretary in the US White House, looked into the camera and, to his viewers across the US and around the world, defiantly declared that the size of the crowd at the inauguration for Donald Trump was larger than the size of the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration. He was wrong, of course; the evidence clearly indicated otherwise. But that is not my point here. The point is that Spicer knew he was wrong; he knew he was not speaking the truth. With no shame or hesitation he declared this, presumably out of loyalty to his boss. It was the “fact”, one assumes, that he wanted to be the truth, and as such it was the “truth.” It is a classic example of what we mean by when and how information or data has no other purpose but to reinforce the position of a tribe or clan or group or ideology or political persuasion. My point here is that this happens within both church communities and the society at large. Political leaders only want you to subscribe to a newsfeed that affirms them and their views; all other news sources are declared inherently biased or suspect. Church leaders want compliance and they view hard questions or any kind of dissent as an indicator that a person is not a genuine “team player” or sufficiently loyal to the denomination.
I am not for a moment suggesting that we do not affirm a theological and intellectual heritage in the church. Nor am I saying that those of a particular ideological persuasion cannot or should not make a case for their views. Not at all. What needs to be challenged is, rather, the polarizing dismissal of critical discussion and views that might challenge the prevailing assumptions. What needs to be called out is the inclination to declare that another view is fundamentally flawed and to label as such – “socialist” “fascist” “marxist” . . . or within the church, if it is “Catholic” or “Wesleyan” or “Calvinist”: just give a label to an opposing view and now you have cast a shadow over that perspective or idea. You have dismissed, or worse, demonized the other.
Can we foster the capacity for critical thinking? Doing so, means at least two things. First, can we actually face the facts, name reality and know both our history and the circumstances in which we find ourselves? Rather than re-writing history or only seeing our circumstances through a lens that reinforces our views or our deeply held convictions, can we attend to truths and realities that might actually create unease if that is what the facts suggest? Surely as Christians we do not shy away from naming reality; there is nothing – literally nothing – that can undermine our faith. We might feel discomfort; we might wish something otherwise, but in the end we believe that truth can and must triumph. Even if it is messy laundry, so be it.
Second, can we learn from those with whom we differ? Can Evangelicals learn from Catholics, social democrats learn from progressive conservatives, and do so through a process of listening and learning, through hospitality and grace filled conversation, that allows for us to genuinely hear the other? We might not change our minds; but we can at least be open to another perspective, another angle or way of seeing or feeling something. And who knows, if we are genuinely open we might indeed learn something and might actually change our mind about something . . .and when we change our minds, this is not a sign of weakness but actually of intellectual strength. It means we are still learning!
Naming reality – telling the truth – and learning from others with whom we might differ: all part of cultivating a Christian mind.
Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 2—Sentimentalism
We need to make the case for communities of teaching and learning that have a fundamental commitment to cultivating the life of the mind – something that is essential to the mission of the church but also to what we mean by Christian formation and discipleship. As noted, though, this commitment and resolve is under threat from at least three sources: pragmatism, sentimentalism and partisan propaganda.
With regard to sentimentalism, I am not sure if there is a better word for this, but what I mean to highlight is the craving for experience that bypasses critical intellectual engagement – depth of emotion without a corresponding engagement of the mind. Whether it is the sentimentalist, the enthusiast, or the more ancient term coming out of Spain, the “alumbrado” (who spoke of an inner light that guided them – not theological understanding or wisdom), I mean to profile the inclination both in society and in the church to pursue experience, heightened religious experience, without reference to critical thought. We see this in the desire for preachers and speakers for our churches or our church conferences or assemblies who are more likely to be revivalists than thoughtful expositors: the rhetoric that appeals to the longing for inspiration through exciting stories and the failure to see that without engaging the mind, the sentiments are fleeting and superficial.
Sometimes, the feeling is nothing more than nostalgia, the kind of “old time religion gospel hour” that hearkens back to a previous time of supposed religious ferment. But most typically, it arises from an assumption that if something feels right, feels good, that it is somehow transformative. Emotion and affect become an end in themselves; the church is a place to feel good; worship is little more than a “happy-clappy” escape from the drudgery of life and work. The Holy Spirit in the end is nothing other than an agent of emotional intensity, and we assume that if the Spirit is present that this is felt, and the more present the Spirit the more intense the experience.
Few have challenged this propensity as powerfully as the 16th century Spanish mystics, notably John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and then later the spokespersons for the evangelical renewal of the late 18th century, notably John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. All four of these giants in the history of the church are more relevant than ever; we need to hear them and especially on this score when they challenge as misguided the craving for religious experience that is not informed by depth of theological reflection and intellectual rigour. For the 16th century mystics, they actually insist that we only mature in our faith when we are weaned from the longing to “feel” God. This longing, they stress, is actually a distraction from the deep work of God – and thus John of the Cross speaks of the “dark night of the senses” as a way to profile how the Spirit’s deep work in our lives is as often as not happening in the quiet, in the actual lack of sensory awareness of the Spirit’s presence.
For Evangelical Christians, we turn to the towering genius of Wesley and Edwards. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest of all American theologians, spoke of sentimentalism as dangerous – spiritually dangerous – stressing that all true religious affections are informed by clarity of understanding. The genius of his British counterpart, John Wesley, was very specifically the articulation of a spirituality that sought for the integration of affect and intellect. Edwards and Wesley are not for a moment suggesting that matters of the heart are to be dismissed; they are not rationalists. Rather, they insisted that all authentic religious experience is grounded in clarity of understanding, depth of theological reflection and thoughtful engagement with our world. That is, they believed in the integration of head and heart.
Here is where I seek to make the case that the greatest of all hymn writers in the history of the church was Charles Wesley – John’s brother: his power and significance was precisely that he was a theologian and song writer. He knew how to capture depth and nuance and understanding and express this through song such that what we are singing shapes and informs and transforms; we sing heartily the great truths of our faith. And I long for contemporary song writers to follow this example: learn what it means to engage head and heart through song. And with this realization: true worship and transformative preaching is thought-full; we are transformed by the renewal of the mind. Or, as the Apostle puts it in Colossians 1 – he prays that his readers would be “filled with the knowledge of God in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . . “(Col 1:9).
Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 1—Pragmatism
There are at least three ways by which and in which the work of scholarship and the tending to the life of the mind is being discounted and undervalued – ironically or tragically when it is most critically needed. In these postings, I will be speaking of three threats: pragmatism, sentimentalism and partisan propaganda. All three of these in some form or another discount, if not actually undercut, the vital place of the work and contribution of the scholar, and as such the life of the mind in the life and witness of the church.
We must speak of the priority of scholarship and the intellectual life to the life of the church and to the vocation of each person, regardless of whether they are called into business, education, the arts or religious leadership. And we need to demonstrate that cultivating the life of the mind is fundamental to what it means to be a university. We need to do so, in part, because this kind of work and this kind of commitment is under threat. I am not going to be so melodramatic as to say that it is under threat like never before; that might be an overstatement. But it is under threat.
By the threat of pragmatism, I mean the reduction of “education” to a narrow outcome – a job or career. Students, often reinforced by their parents, are very concerned with their careers. They come out of high school obsessed with getting a job – a well-paying career with the potential for promotions and ultimately financial security. For them a university is not so much a place for growing in wisdom with the capacity to think critically and write well and cultivate character and moral intelligence, but rather a way to get a powerful resume that will land a “great” job.
Further, both government and church denominational agencies typically assume that they invest in post-secondary institutions so that universities and colleges can provide “workers” – women and men who can contribute to the economy or make churches happen because they have the requisite skills to deliver certain outcomes. They have been trained; or, as sociologists put it, education is about credentialing. Graduates are not valued for the depth and breadth of their minds but for their ability to do things. The Government of Alberta has only one criteria for investing in a university: high paying jobs with the requisite tax returns that fuel economic growth. That is, a university is a job factory.
Denominational leaders also want to see trained clergy. I use the language of “training” intentionally. By this they mean the value to higher education is whether graduates have the skills to provide entrepreneurial leadership for congregations. There is little patience with the long trajectory that is needed for the true and complex formation of leadership – for society or for the church. They want leaders and they want them now and at low cost. The pressure on this score is intense; as denominations face a crisis of leadership for congregations, they are moving towards minimalist criteria for being credentialed for ministry. My contention is that the result might be a generation of church leaders who have minimal skills but lack a full orbed education that equips them for a lifetime of effective ministry. As Dr. Pam Nordstrom, the Ambrose Provost has put it, “you train dogs; you educate people.” Ouch! But that gets at the heart of the matter. Of course we train; but education is much more than training and all good training is located within a broader vision of life and work and relationships.
Few have spoken so aptly to this trend as Martha C. Nussbaum. See in particular her Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Her focus is government expectations of colleges and universities, but what she has to say is equally applicable to denominations that have a similar propensity. She tackles the ways in which governments focus entirely on education as a means for economic gain, discounting the need to foster the capacity to think critically and creatively. And these capacities are as often as not cultivated through the humanities, yet these disciplines – history, English, philosophy – are viewed as less than economically helpful. Marc Spooner, Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, has also written a brilliant piece that demonstrates that treating universities as job factories is short-sighted, for both the student and the economy.
When it comes to professional training for the church, we must resist the current press for what is typically termed competency based education (CBE). The irony is that the most fundamental competency for the Christian, regardless of calling, but especially for leadership in the church, is theological depth and breadth, and the capacity to see how all practice in ministry has some kind of theological rationale or basis. I am not for a moment questioning the need for skills or competency or for being credentialed for a profession or for leadership in the church. Yes, of course, the society and the church need competent and capable university graduates, and all universities should be vibrant communities where good work is celebrated and students are equipped to discern their vocations and enter into a life-time of fruitful service, in the church and in society. Rather, the concern is two fold: that we have too narrow a definition of what we mean by skills for the economy or for the church and, second, that we fail our young people if we do not equally foster the capacity to think critically and imaginatively, and along the way cultivate emotional and moral intelligence.
There are two other threats to the Christian mind – which I will speak to in two upcoming blog postings: sentimentalism and partisan propaganda.
The Christian Mind is a Crucified Mind
Tomorrow is Good Friday and while it is possible to ask about every season in the Christian calendar and the implications for a Christian mind – what does Advent or Easter or Pentecost mean for how we think about the Christian mind? I am choosing here to focus on this day and ask: can we speak of the Christian mind as “crucified” – all as part of exploring what it means that the Christian mind is shaped and informed by the God story.
This way of speaking about the Christian mind recognizes and affirms that pain demarcates the human condition and that this pain touches the heart of God – that is, that God is not immune from how suffering intersects human life, work and relationships. Thus the Scriptures witness to the Holy Spirit who is powerfully present to us and to our world, sighing with groans too deep for words, as Paul states in Romans 8:26-27. And more, that Christ suffered with us and for us and invites us to be joint heirs with him, with Christ, in his suffering (Romans 8:17). The cross, then, is central to how we comprehend the ways of God in our world – that is, in our understanding of God and how God acts. The Scriptures speak of the cross, of Christ Jesus, as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Years ago, when I lived in the Philippines I came to read the great Japanese theologian who at that time was active in ministry in Thailand: Kosuke Koyama – author of many publications but notably No Handle on the Cross: An Asian Meditation on the Crucified Mind (Orbis 1976). For Koyama, the Cross is the ultimate declaration of God that redemption and victory come not through the exercise of power, but through weakness and suffering – a way of thinking that flies in the face of the standard assumptions of the societies in which we live. Thus, a crucified mind is one that bears the cross, and serves the neighbour sacrificially and lives graciously and works graciously through times of difficulty, pain and suffering. A crucified mind does not view either the Cross or our suffering as an aberration. Yes, of course, we know that Easter is coming. Thus Paul echoes the language of the cross in his own experience when he observes that “death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” 92 Cor 4:12). He knows that death and evil will not have the last word. Elsewhere he can observe that we do not suffer as those who have no hope (Romans 8:18-19). And yet the way to the triumph of Easter and the glory of the Ascension is through the Cross. And Christ does not merely do this for us and for the world; he urges us to take up the cross and Paul reminds us that when we do, we are joint heirs with Christ – we are with Christ and engaging our work with Christ—when we go to the cross with him.
Thus, the Christian mind is marked by a deep identification with the pain and suffering of our world – in our experience and in the work and relationships of others. We do not despair; but also, we do not grumble and complain. Rather, with patience and perseverance, we allow our own experience of pain and disappointment to draw us – not only, but especially on Good Friday – into the Passion of our Lord, so that increasingly we can see and respond with a Christian mind, that is a “crucified mind” to the life and work to which we are each called.
The Christian Mind and the Pursuit of Wisdom
When we speak of the Christian mind we inevitably speak about the pursuit of wisdom. This is because the Christian mind is not merely about rationality or understanding or being smart or educated or informed—though it is all of those and more. It is ultimately about becoming wise women and men.
Wisdom is foundational to life. To speak of wisdom is to speak of life; those who long for wisdom and seek wisdom are seekers after God and the ways of God. Wisdom is a powerful and tangible gift from God, and the longing for wisdom and the pursuit of wisdom is not incidental to our human identity. It is rather another dimension of our longing to live, to fulfil our identities as those created in the image of God. We have this palpable longing to see and discover and live in the truth, to know the light and walk in light. This is wisdom.
As a person grows older, they should by design and intent grow wiser. This is basic to what it means to be human and, more, to what it means to grow older. The implication here is not that a young person cannot be wise but rather that wisdom is the particular mark of those who are older. To grow older and not wiser is to live poorly, to fail to achieve the purpose for which one lives. It rightly breaks our hearts when we meet an older person who is foolish in their understanding and ways of being. We wonder what happened that they did not grow wiser as they grew older. Something was lost; a life has been, one might almost say, wasted. For in the challenges of life, work and relationship, through both times of blessing and difficulty, part of the unique dynamic of life and one of the blessings of growing older is that one grows in the capacity for wisdom.
In all of this, there is a key and essential sequence that is referenced and assumed within the Christian Scriptures: from teaching and instruction . . . to knowledge and understanding . . . to wisdom. Thus, for example, a wise person is an informed person; they value knowledge and truth and understanding. The facts matter; they want to be informed. And in the Scriptures, knowledge and understanding are the fruit of good teaching and instruction. Thus, teaching and instruction lead to knowledge and understanding; and knowledge and understanding lead to wisdom. There is no wisdom without knowledge; there is no knowledge without good teaching. Indeed, this is the purpose of all formal education, from primary through post-secondary studies: that we would grow in wisdom and in our capacity for wisdom.
If you would be wise, then, you will pursue knowledge and understanding; you will tend to the life of the mind. And to this end, you will lean into and value good teachers—those who lead you into knowledge, not as an end in itself, but as the portal through which we move in order to become wise women and men. Wisdom, then, is practice informed by knowledge and understanding; it is a life that is shaped by, and infused with, truth.
The University Mission: Cultivating the Life of the Mind
I grew up within a religious subculture that was very resistant to the idea of scholarship and learning and the intellectual life; my revivalist upbringing viewed critical thinking as a threat to the Christian life, rather than an essential dimension of what it means to be Christian. But I thank God for my mother, who early on had me reading C.S.Lewis and Jacques Ellul and Russian novelists. I thank God for L’Abri—the Francis Schaeffer-inspired community of learning in Switzerland—which was such a vital community in the 1970s and 1980s, and challenged college-age young people to think. And more, I am grateful to Harry Blamires and his little book, The Christian Mind, along with Leslie Newbigen and others who along the way helped me see that this matters. As a testament to them, beginning with my mother, I offer these reflections and observations about what it means to think Christianly.
Regardless of our vocation—whether called into business, teaching, the arts or vocational Christian ministry—there is something that must both inform and accompany the work that we do: a keen attentiveness to our capacity to think critically, confidently, creatively and compassionately. On the one hand, of course, this is at the very heart of what it means to be a university and a theological seminary. But for a Christian university, this is not only the premise behind a post-secondary education, it is central to what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the Church.
One of the marks of authentic Christian faith and community is that we call for intellectual rigour in our pursuit of what it means to be human and to be Christian. Gerard W. Hughes in his book, God of Surprises, states this very well:
A mark of true Christianity will be its intellectual vigour and its search for meaning
in every aspect of life . . that is why there has been such an emphasis on scholarship
and learning in the Christian tradition.
As such we need to celebrate and affirm the work of the scholar—the calling to and the cultivation of the life of the mind: the work of nurturing critical understanding, discerning perception, and new discoveries or ways of seeing and engaging reality, the reality of God’s world. The life of the mind is fundamental to what it means to be Christian—to mature in faith, hope and love and grow in our capacity for wisdom. And for all of us, the contribution of our scholars is fundamental: they are gifts of God to the church and to the world. I am not saying they are more important than plumbers or nurses; I am, though, saying that without them we are lost. All of us need them to cultivate our capacity to think clearly and deeply, to discern well and to grow in wisdom. This means, at the very least, that we celebrate the work of scholars, learn to lean into and depend on their work, and allow their work to shape and inform the way in which we do the work to which we are each called. We engage our relationships and our world thoughtfully.
I almost want to say to prospective students applying to the university or the seminary that whatever else happens as part of their experience at this institution, they will learn how to think. Without apology we will press this point and insist on it. Doing so is not merely a matter of our mission but also what it means to be committed to Christian discipleship and formation.
In these blog postings, I will speak to what it means to cultivate the capacity to think critically, confidently, creatively and compassionately.
By critical thinking, I do not mean judgmentalism, but rather the capacity to appreciate data and supporting arguments, to find clarity in the midst of false assumptions and flawed logic.
By confident thinking, I mean not arrogance, but the necessary confidence we each need to have in order to express an opinion, to offer an observation and contribute to a conversation about things that matter.
By creative thinking, I mean that we know what it means to see possibilities and innovate and adapt, because a vital imagination is a mark of a Christian mind.
And by compassionate thinking, I mean the capacity for empathy—seeing the world and the situation in which we live through the eyes of our neighbour; seeing our circumstances from a vantage point other than our own.
All to this end: that clear and sound thinking would inform our relationships, our work and our worship.