The thinking Christian
by Bill Anderson
“In the beginning was the Word (Idea), and the Word (Idea) was with God, and the Word (Idea) was God” (John 1:1). The Lord our God created a big beautiful world of ideas. But there are many dangerous ideas out there too. Just look at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: they saw the fruit, desired the knowledge it would give, and ate it despite God’s command. The Good News is that God had a plan from the very beginning to redeem us from our sin: “The Word (Idea) became human….full of Grace and Truth….[He is] the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:14, 29).
The commandment to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” comes from Deuteronomy 6:5. In the Gospels, Jesus quotes the passage but includes “with all your mind” at the end (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27). The phrase “with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your strength” is a statement of unity and totality of a human being. We are created in the image of God to be in a relationship with him and our fellow human beings. To an Israelite mindset, the components of heart (physical body, emotions, and will), soul, and mind are a whole unit. The Hebrew word for “strength” relates to the “will” of a person. So when the commandment includes strength, the totality means “love the Lord our God with all we’ve got!”
All things are created by God and redeemed for God. Life and the universe were created “very good,” but sin has contaminated all of this now. Yet when we receive God’s gracious revelation through the Word (the lens through which we ought to view life and the universe), we can clearly see God’s goodness and intentions for His creation—as well as what is now wrong with it because of sin. An important part of learning to see the world this way is by using our mind with all our strength. Christians must critically engage the world we live in—something which doesn’t depend on having a high IQ but instead a work ethic (“strength”) devoted to working with whatever IQ points we’ve got!
It doesn’t depend on a high IQ but instead a work ethic devoted to working with whatever IQ points we’ve got!
If we don’t think that this biblical view of the whole person as body, soul and mind with a holistic worldview in relation to the Creator/Savior God is important, we need to think again. As Christians living in the West, we are confronted by an ever-increasingly complex view of knowledge and understanding of the world we live in and the nature of reality. These ideas are everywhere: in newspapers, academic journals, on television, in the movies, in our conversations at the coffee shop, and anywhere else we can think of.
One such bad idea is the belief that we can only know objective truth by sensory perception and those things which are observable, testable, and repeatable. In other words, only hard science has objective truth; all other spiritual or moral values are subjective—and consequently “optional” or “personal.”
I reject this premise categorically and side with Jesus: there are many ways to love God with all our minds. One way is the pursuit of truth regardless of where it is found, including areas outside “hard science.” We can indeed learn about God and his creation objectively by sensory perception and the scientific methodology, through those things which are observable, testable, and repeatable. But hard science is not the only way to love God with all our minds. We can find truth in many areas.
Ways of knowing
As Christians, our foundational source of truth is Biblical and Theological. We confess the Creeds which summarize the Scriptures: “We believe in God the Father Creator of heaven and earth.” Interestingly enough, this part of the creed reminds us that the physical world is itself evidence for the Creator. There is definitely a place for science in a Christian’s thinking; it can point us back to the Creator—to truths found in Scripture.
As Christians, our foundational source of truth is Biblical and Theological.
There is also Historical Truth. Our faith is based on events that happened in real history, and archaeology supports them. For example, the Apostle’s Creed affirms that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Historical Truth verified by archaeology is what makes Christianity different from all other religions. Christianity is not some set of subjective ideas separate from the world; it’s grounded in objective fact.
There is Psychological Truth: When we violate the boundaries of marriage being one man and one woman by involving other sexual relations, we end up with “dysfunctional families.” Likewise, there is sociological truth: when we do not “treat others the way we want to be treated”, there is social injustice. Imperialism (“killing people and stealing their stuff”) is an idea (political ideology) which objectifies people and makes way for the kind of abuse we see Rome committing in the New Testament. There is also Economic Truth: Nehemiah’s economic reforms—including money lending, real estate and tax reform—are a return to economic principles laid out in the Torah.
These things remind us that there are Legal and Ethical Truths: some things are right and some things are wrong. Moreover, we cannot just look at our objectives in life: how we get there is often just as important as the goal. There are good causes and right ways to make them happen. We need to think about it!
Finally, there is Artistic Truth and Beauty: I see God and hear him speaking in the movies all the time. But there’s no Gospel in these movies—and it’s pretty clear that the characters have little clue as to what they really need or want. They are simply “lost.” Our culture provides many opportunities for Christians to proclaim the Gospel in non-judgmental ways.
If we want to see a contemporary example of the inter-relatedness and multiplication of sin in Genesis 3-11, watch the movie Crash. I see the truth of the pain of a messy breakup in Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” in both the lyrics and music (though I do not agree with all her expressions). As a pastor in a university setting, messy breakups are one of the most common pastoral care issues I deal with regularly. With around 75% of Concordia’s students not having any faith, it is an opportunity to intellectually discuss the reasons boundaries are good and why crossing them is bad (sin according to the Law)—but also how Christ died to save them and redeem their sexuality and sexual relationships (Gospel). Even an atheist’s work (Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name) provides an opportunity to discuss the mystery of life in the universe beyond the physical realm.
All these truths (biblical, moral, artistic, and so forth) are part of a larger theological reality which can be apprehended by the mind—not by scientific methodology but instead by thinking.
Scholarship is sacred to me for so many different reasons, but primarily because it teaches us how to think—how to love the Lord our God with all our minds. It provides tools and patterns for critical thinking. It helps ensure objectivity by making us aware of our presuppositions. Scholarship teaches us how to handle evidence and texts (including biblical texts) in objective ways. It helps us to analyze the pros and cons of various ideas and positions and to critically evaluate them. Scholarship also teaches us how to make practical applications of good ideas.
Luther was very pro universal education. He also was very pro Liberal Arts Education (see companion article “Luther on love, liturgy, and learning”). He understood that we need to love the Lord our God with all our minds if we want to protect ourselves from false doctrine and bring the Gospel to a lost and perishing world filled with false ideas. God’s Truth can be found everywhere in the world—but the world has been contaminated by sin. It is necessary for Christian thinkers to learn to discern truth from error in the many competing ideas around us—and to critically engage them by doing Law and Gospel. Many ideas have some truth but are tainted by sin. These ideas need to be critically engaged to distill their value in keeping with Scripture.
It is necessary for Christian thinkers to learn to discern truth from error.
Christians too are still affected by sin in our thinking. I am uncompromising with both my doctrine and values as a professor of biblical studies and theology. But I also point out to students that I too am contaminated by sin, and that sometimes I don’t always get everything right, or live consistently. While both my thinking and actions are sadly tainted by sin, the good news is that we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus—who has given us the Holy Spirit for the “renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). Having said that, it is important to realize that we are not saved by what we know (intelligence, education, or doctrine) but by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, there is intellectual content to our Christian Faith. The three Ecumenical Creeds are the basis for right doctrine, and the Lutheran Confessions help us to accurately interpret the Scriptures. But such knowledge is received by God’s gracious revelation—not intellectual assent.
So what are some practical ways in which Christians can love the Lord our God with all our minds? First of all, regularly attending church for liturgy and the means of grace. One of the main reasons Luther wanted to keep the liturgy was precisely because it taught right doctrine which was self-reinforcing. With so many competing ideas out there to distract us, we need to be in church regularly. Reciting the liturgy and Creeds remind us what is central to our faith—and keep us focused on God with a holistic worldview. They remind us that everything we think and do ought to relate back to God.
Another way Christians can love God with all our minds is through regular Bible study. Bible study is essential—not optional—for the development of faith. It encourages us to think about how the Word of God relates to the fallen world we live in. Read Scripture and think about what you’ve read!
Christians can also love God with all our minds through regular prayer. While there is a place for formal prayer of course, I think that once we understand that God is omnipresent and involved in every aspect of our lives, we will recognize God in every thought and action. This is the essence of what St. Paul means when he says to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If we involve God in our thought processes constantly, we are communicating with God constantly. We become aware that He is present and active in all we think and do. This is the heart of prayer.
Another way Christians can love God with all of our mind is by being critically engaged with the world we live in. By “critically engaged,” I mean that we try to be open and objective, rigorously thinking about the ideas we encounter, how they work, what they mean, and where they lead us. Some ideas may look good, sound good, and feel good—but in the final analysis they take us to bad places. Just remember how desirable the fruit looked to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
We try to be open and objective, rigorously thinking about the ideas we encounter.
We don’t have to be super intelligent or formally educated to be critically engaged. Christians need to think about how to creatively and faithfully proclaim the Gospel in the midst of so many complex, competing ideas. Christian mission is often ineffective in the West because we have failed to be critically engaged and instead have become simplistic and judgmental. There is some truth to the adage that “the medium (means) is as important as the message.” How we proclaim the Gospel requires wisdom motivated by love—and that means thinking about it!
We can also love the Lord our God with all our minds by enrolling ourselves or our family members in our church’s college or seminaries. Concordia University College of Alberta (CUCA), for example, provides a solid basis for an excellent Christian Liberal Arts Education—where students can learn to understand all kinds of subjects in the light of Scripture and Christian values—from the sciences to English literature to business, and everything in between!
Another way we can love the Lord our God with all our minds is by supporting and being involved in the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith (CCSCF). This organization headquartered at CUCA exists for the purpose of loving the Lord with all our minds. Note the centre’s tagline: “Scholarship Informing the Christian Faith and the Public.” This centre is not some isolated and elitist circle of intellectuals. The Director’s Message makes it clear: “We also share a passion for disseminating knowledge and learning amongst the general public. We think that education is a gift to be shared in community.” The second annual conference of the CCSCF will take place in May 2013. It will discuss “The Social Sciences and the Christian Faith.” Check out the webpage at http://www.cancscf.ca.
Loving the Lord our God with all our minds has a bearing on mission and evangelism. In my view, the most revealing aspect of the sinful nature is the “breakdown of reason” (even though faith is a gift of God’s grace). The Lord indicates this in Isaiah 1:18 when he says “Come let us reason, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” God is asking people to be reasonable by recognizing that our sins are a transgression of His good boundaries (Law)—and to receive his merciful grace and forgiveness (Gospel). Look around you: people everywhere are just not thinking deeply. They are thinking superficially about how to have more stuff, status, and pleasure. But they are not thinking about the “big picture”—the meaning of life—and what happens after it’s all over. They are distracted by bad ideas. Christians need to think critically about mission and evangelism—and how to creatively and wisely proclaim the Gospel in intelligent, non-judgmental, and loving ways. God is not looking for more smart people; He’s looking for more deep people who love the lost like Jesus does.
God is not looking for more smart people; He’s looking for more deep people who love the lost like Jesus does.
Maybe I’m obsessed (I prefer to think of it as “passionate”): when I think about my existence in relation to the Infinite Living God and His atoning sacrifice for me, I don’t understand, and can’t relate to, anyone who doesn’t want to live flat out for God with passionate love in the totality of their being and experience! When I exercise my body, or sit on the deck looking up at the stars, or sit in a restaurant analyzing individuals and social relationships, I can’t help thinking about God and involving him in my thought processes. A world without God just doesn’t make any logical sense to me at all.
Loving the Lord our God with all our minds is not the purview of so-called intellectuals in academic settings (though such studies can certainly help). But if I can do it, anyone can do it! Intelligence doesn’t impress me. I don’t think it impresses God either. After all, He is the Source of our very lives and the Giver of whatever IQ or education we may possess. But He calls us to do something with that IQ—to use wisdom motivated by love. Loving the Lord our God with all our minds is simple to me, because it is simply the Christian’s way of life according to Scripture—a way of life we can all embark on with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Bill Anderson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University College of Alberta and the Director of the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith.