Let's hear the bad news first. As Christians, we must concede that intellectualism in and of itself is ultimately inadequate. I am not here speaking of placing a "limit" on intellectualism, because this would constitute an externally imposed restriction, and this we cannot abide if we intend - to use Francis Schaeffer's marvelous expression - to "think with the windows open." (One might also recall Augustine's statement in this connection that as Christians we "think in believing and believe in thinking.")
What I want to suggest is that intellectualism is intrinsically inadequate - it looks through the keyhole of transcendence but does not possess the key. Like the waves on the seashore, it extends only as far as it does, and no further. It is not a question of intellectualism being truncated or stultified, it is simply a question of what is there, and what is there is inevitably inadequate. (I will leave aside the question of whether it is intellectualism itself that is inadequate, or simply our imperfect state of being. We will thus consider the idea of intellectualism as it relates to us practically.)
When Paul was witnessing before King Agrippa (Acts 25), he was abruptly and dramatically interrupted by Festus, who was shouting incredulously: "Your great learning is driving you out of your mind!" As we know, Paul was perfectly sane. However, if we are paying attention, this little incident seems to imply that there is an observed phenomenon of learning and intellectualism driving people insane. As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy:
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man's mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. (1)
Chesterton is writing about imagination here, but his point is applicable to our discussion. It is the chess-players - not the poets - who go mad. We will see why in a moment.
What has plagued intellectualism through the centuries is a colossal confusion between means and ends. Listen closely: this is the meat of the matter. Rational thought, our God-given faculty for apprehending and interacting with our Father's world, has been itself perversely transformed into a deity. This is the point of departure in the process of debasement described in Romans 1 - an intellectualism that knowingly abrogates God. The end of this road, of course, is nihilism, which is man giving up on making something out of nothing.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools... they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator... they did not see fit to acknowledge God. (2)
Now for the good news. The above passage, while condemning the deification of the intellect, makes it abundantly clear that God has made Christianity both intellectually and existentially honest. Christianity does not stifle the intellectual life: it emancipates it. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The Church, when it is active and thriving, has always encouraged thinking. The trouble enters only when intellectualism is embraced as a philosophy rather than a tool.
But wait a minute. Jesus said very plainly that unless we become like little children, acknowledging and loving our Father in innocent simplicity, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. What, then, is the value in intellectualism? Multitudinous, as we will see.
We must thoroughly debunk and repudiate the notion that intellectualism and child-likeness are somehow mutually exclusive. Jesus was calling us to innocence, not to ignorance. Paul himself writes in 1 Corinthians: "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men." (1 Cor. 14:20) The soft heart of a child and the hard head of a man: that is the characteristic of the Christian.
Someone has said that simplicity on this side of complexity isn’t worth dink, but that simplicity on the other side of complexity is incredibly valuable. Our intellectual journey as Christians is not about making things complicated - it's about rescuing things from complexity and making them simple again. It is the process of becoming like a child, and it is hard work. In the words of Oswald Chambers, "We have to be intelligently more than intelligent, intellectually more than intellectual, that is, we have to use all our wits in order not to worship our wits but be humble enough to worship God."(3)
Profound things come in simple packages. As G. K. Chesterton says, "No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world."(4) We do not learn big words so we can string them together like floats in a parade to impress our peers. We learn the big words so we can understand the little words. The journey to a real understanding of words like truth, hope, story, peace, pain, love, and giving often leads through the jungle of metaphysics, sanctification, epistemology, post-modernity, and anthropomorphism. Our constant objective ought to be to say less and understand more - wise as serpents, innocent as doves.
If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age, into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save those who believe
And though their foolish hearts may break, they will find peace
And I'll meet you in that place where mercy leads-Rich Mullins, Brother's Keeper, "Let Mercy Lead"
(1) G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(2) Selections from Romans 1, ESV
(3) Oswald Chambers, Disciples Indeed (The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 2000), 409
(4) G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 13
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