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Is Christianity Anti- Intellectual?

Is Christianity Anti- Intellectual?

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus when He was a kid.

It took three days to find Him, but there He was, “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Jesus was in the Temple, the center of worship.

It was also the center of learning. “And all who heard him were amazed at His understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).

Our Bibles give us only one glimpse into Jesus’ boyhood, and that scene depicts Him as an avid learner and a diligent student, actively engaged in lively theological discussion.

So why is there so much suspicion toward Christian scholars today who, like the 12-year old Jesus, have a penchant for hanging out in centers of learning and engaging in lively theological discourse? Why the anti-intellectualism in the Church today?

To be sure, Jesus was no intellectual elitist. Marveling over His brilliant teaching, some folks once asked, “How is it that this man has learning, when He has never studied?” (John 7:15). He lacked advanced, formal training (unlike Saul of Tarsus, of course). When Jesus unfurled the Isaiah scroll that day in Nazareth, it was likely with the rough, calloused hands of a laborer. His was all blue-collar erudition, a rags-to-academic-riches kind of education like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting. (Can anything good come out of Nazareth … or the Boston South End? Yes.) And we love the scenes when Jesus confounds the religious scholars as we enjoy when Hunting gets in a fight at a Harvard bar. They are sticking it to the academic Man.

But Jesus’ lack of academic pedigree did not make Him anti-intellectual. He did not tolerate sloppy study—“have you not read … ?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; et. al.). He did not put up with slowness of understanding—“do you not yet perceive or understand?” (Mark 8:17).

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered by quoting from a passage in Deuteronomy called the Shema which promoted hard, theological work:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-39).

The greatest commandment, the most binding demand on our lives, is to love God with everything, including our minds. Most of us know about this highest of commandments. But we may be less familiar with its Old Testament context. The context of loving God with everything in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the expectation that we will devote ourselves to the rigorous study and discussion of God’s words. Love God with everything …

“and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children [intensive theological training], and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise [continual theological discourse].” 

Devout Jews in Jesus’ day recited the Shema twice daily. It was instilled into their consciousness that the life of the mind and the study of Scripture were central to their worship. So again, why such anti-intellectualism in the Church today when Scripture summons us to continue in such a rich intellectual heritage?

Part of the problem is that in the name of keeping the first commandment, we often break the second.

Jesus attached to the greatest commandment of loving God with everything the inseparable companion commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Anti-intellectualism is embedded in America’s national consciousness for a number of historical factors, but it is fueled in the Church today when our (so-called) love of God is divorced from love of neighbor in our intellectual endeavors. There is a great deal of unloving, doctrinal warmongering going on out there in the name of treasuring God and His truth.

Another part of the problem lies with those of us who look askance at academic learning. Some of us assume we will lose Jesus if we are serious about study. Yet when Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they found Him passionately engaged in theological discourse with lecturers.

It is easy to bash the academy when we are still scarred by those faith-assaulting pedagogical jabs of our cynical Religious Studies professor. Let’s not miss the reality, though, that so many of those cynical profs entered their field because they were joyfully grasped by insights penned by theologians long dead, because they were moved by the literary artistry of the Gospel writers, because they fell in love with the raw honesty of the psalmists … and it was the classroom, not their church upbringing, that introduced them to these wonders. Then—after years of arduous intellectual work, countless sleepless nights and the accumulation of massive educational debt—these bedraggled but eager students are often greeted by an anti-intellectual church that says, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

No wonder there is so much cynicism in the (even Christian) academy.

And 18 years of sitting in Sunday School classrooms seems to do little in preparation for just 10 minutes of serious theological discussion in one of these professor’s classrooms. In neglecting to saturate our own 12-year-old kids with God’s words (“teach them diligently to your children”), in failing to nurture continuous theological discussion over those words (“you shall talk of them”), the Church may be at fault as much as the academy for the self-perpetuating cycle of tension between them.

Breaking this cycle between the poles of anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism requires a generation who will refuse the temptation to overreact on either side (like on comment streams, for starters!). We need a generation who will persistently commit to keep the two greatest commandments bound together. Love the oppressed and marginalized neighbor … but on the foundation of robust, theological thinking. Love God with all the mind … but turn the pages of books with hands calloused from serving our neighbors.

Andrew Byers leads University Christian Fellowship and is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Likewise Books / IVP). He blogs at Hopeful Realism. Portions of this article are taken from Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers. Copyright(c) 2011 by Andrew J. Byers. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. You can read the first chapter of that book here.

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