Intellectualism and Christianity

From Clement of Alexandria’s volumous work entitled Stromata (the word literally translates to “carpets”), we find his interesting perspective on the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology:

For “you will not stumble” (Proverbs 3:23) if you attribute all good things to providence, whether it belongs to the Greeks or to us. For God is the source of all good things, some directly (as with the Old and the New Testaments), and some indirectly (as with philosophy). But it might be that philosophy was given to the Greeks immediately and indirectly, until such time as the Lord should also call the Greeks. For philosophy acted as a “custodian” to bring the Greeks to Christ, just as the law brought the Hebrews. True philosophy was by way of a preparation, which prepared the way for its perfection in Christ. [1]

Many theologians and philosophers alike have written extensively on the subject regarding the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology [2], however, I want to see if I can stretch the subject more so to the relevance of philosophy, history, literature and other subjects in relation to Christian theology so that evangelicals can better see the intellectual atmosphere carried with their own religious worldview. Christian academics and scholars within the evangelical tradition have noticed this problem among other particular Christian evangelicals who indulge in a more so “ant-intellectualistic” framework. Richard Hofstader for instance writes:

One begins with the hardly contestable proposition that religious faith is not, in the main, propagated by logic or learning. One moves on from this to the idea that it is best propagated… by men who have been unlearned and ignorant. It seems to follow from this that the kind of wisdom and truth possessed by such men is superior to what learned and cultivated minds have. In fact, leaning and cultivation appear to be handicaps in the propagation of faith. And since the propagation of faith is the most important task before man, those who are “ignorant as babes” have, in the most fundamental virtue, greater strength than men who have addicted themselves to logic and learning. [3]

Hofstader thence finishes: “At bottom, this proposition, despite all the difficulties that attend it, has been eminently congenial both to American evangelicalism and to American democracy” [4]. This horrifying evangelical spirit in regards to academia and learning is quite appalling in regards to the task of administering the gospel to unbelievers.To make this point clear and short, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” [5].

Christianity and Classical Culture

Jaroslav Pelikan (1993) once wrote in respect to Greek speaking theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, commenting on the subject of Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian theology: “For him, the supreme example of how the believer could properly benefit from pagan learning was Moses, who had, according to the Book of Acts, “‘received a paideia (education) in all the sophia (wisdom) of the Egyptians,” a powerful speaker and a man of action.’ Therefore ‘the paideia of the outsiders’ was not to be shunned, but cultivated” [6]. Gregory of Basil (330-379) wrote in respect to Moses on this regard:

[E]ven Moses, that illustrious man, with the greatest name for sophiaamong all mankind, first trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and then proceeded to the contemplation of the one who is. [7]

It is quite difficult to dismiss the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology not only here among the Patristic period, but also the Medieval thinkers’ (as seen in the thought of Thomas Aquinas) integration of Greek philosophy (particularly Aristotelian philosophy).The reason I bring up this issue is because surely you as the reader might have questions in regards to this supposed “relation” between Christian theology and secular culture.

Since, “[i]n what way could the ars poetica (“the poetic art”) be adopted and adapted by Christian writers, anxious to use such classical modes of writing to expound and communicate their faith?” [8] Justin Martyr I think respectively has adequately answered that question so as to “draw upon classical culture, in the knowledge that whatever ‘has been said well’ ultimately draws upon divine wisdom and insight” [9]. As Justin says,

And those who live according to the Logos are Christian, even though they may have been accounted as atheists – such as Socrates and Heraclitus, and others like them, among the Greeks … Whatever either lawyers or philosophers have said well, was articulated by finding and reflecting upon some aspect of the Logos. [10]

In the full force of Justin Martyr’s statement, he finishes: “Whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians.” To finish our discussion here, consider Alister McGrath’s usage of analogy for this subject:

[T]he situation is comparable to Israel fleeing from captivity in Egypt at the time of Exodus. Although they left the idols of Egypt behind them, they carried the gold and silver of Egypt with them, in order to make better and proper use of such riches, which were thus liberated in order to serve a higher purpose than before. In much the same way, the philosophy and culture of the ancient world could be appropriated by Christians, where this seemed right, and thus allowed to serve the cause of the Christian faith. [11]

Christians and Academia

I am quite intrigued by Mark Schwehn in his essay “Where Are the Universities of Tomorrow?” (2002) where he writes in respect to his religious worldview and his “scholarly calling”:

For the record, I view my own sense of calling as a scholar who happens to be a Christian as twofold. First, I have found that my own intellectual gifts are more actively engaged in shaping an institution of higher learning that is in important respects different from the dominant model. But, second, I resolutely oppose a sectarian retreat into an intellectual enclave. [ … ] Christians must draw upon whatever resources they have at their points of disposal in order to engage others who do not share their assumptions but who share with them a commitment to learn the truth of matters. [12]

This becomes distinctively important in regards to Christians within the atmosphere of higher education and their worldview subject to the line of fire. Though there are other respective material to view on this subject [13] for more justifiable treatments, I only wish to address the vocation of Christians to fulfill the call of the life of the mind. Since, as Mark Noll (1994) once noted,  ”For a Christian, the most important reason for exercising the life of the mind is the implicit acknowledgement that things do not exist on their own. This characterizes much of the scholarship that shapes our lives so decisively” [14].

Furthermore, “When we study something, we are of course learning about that thing. But even more, we are learning about the One who made that thing” [15]. Thus, for the Christian, “the mind is important because God is important” [16].

 

_______________________

Notes:

  • [1] quoted from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. (Blackwell Publishers: 2001) pp. 5-6
  • [2] See Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, reprint edn. (University of Notre Dame Press: 1991) for one of the best discussions on this matter.
  • [3] Richard Hofstader, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage: 1962), quotation, pp. 48-49; “The Evangelical Spirit,” 55-80
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1994) p. 3
  • [6] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture (Yale University Press: 1993) p. 10
  • [7] St. Basil, ibid.
  • [8] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd edn. (Blackwell Publishers: 2001) p. 16
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Justin Martyr,quoted from McGrath (2001), Ibid., p. 16
  • [11] McGrath (2001), Ibid., p. 18
  • [12] Mark Schwehn, “Where Are the Universities of Tomorrow?” inReligion, Scholarship and Higher Education, ed. Andrea Stark (University of Notre Dame Press: 2002) p. 54
  • [13] See J. Budziszewski, How to Stay Christian in College, new edition (Think: 2004) for some insight into this subject. This book, for apologetic and spiritual purposes (mostly), is a great read for Christians about to enter into college or who are already in college.
  • [14] Mark Noll (1994), p. 50
  • [15] Ibid., p. 50 – emphasis mine.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 51
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