Anti-Intellectualism Topical Study

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Anti-intellectualism is opposition to or dismissal of the healthy life of the mind.

In Scripture

"The serpent said to the woman, `You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (Gen. 3:4 - 5).

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov. 1:7).

"Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. . . . Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight" (Prov. 4:6 - 7).

"An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge" (Prov. 18:15).

"[Jesus] said to him, `You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'" (Matt. 22:37).

"Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds" (Acts 7:22).

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:20 - - 21).

"Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. . . . `For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?' But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:6, 16).

"I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Cor. 14:18 - 19).

"I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2 - 3).

"[You] have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator" (Col. 3:10).

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16).

"You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge" (2 Pet. 1:5).

Points to Ponder

The Bible nowhere praises ignorance. It praises healthy, God-fearing knowledge, the first ingredient of wisdom. It praises wisdom itself, which requires, besides knowledge, a practical ability to fit oneself inside God's world and God's purposes. On the other hand, ignorance is not only a disadvantage for navigating in God's world, but sometimes also a folly, the result of being unwilling to learn.

The Bible does reject "the wisdom of this world," proudly acquired and employed without reference to God. Because worldly wisdom is unanchored in ultimate reality, it is fleeting and finally doomed.

Knowledge for superiority and power: And the Bible does reject the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of personal superiority and power. In fact, in one respectable understanding, Adam and Eve's disastrous sin in Genesis 3 is their desire to know "good and evil," which is synecdoche for "all things." (With synecdoche one invokes a whole by expressing a representative part of the whole, as in "he's a good breadwinner," which means he's a good provider, and of much more than just bread.) So in this reading Adam and Eve want to know all things: They want omniscience, challenging God's prerogative.

Myriad forms of illegitimate knowledge: If the Bible rejects the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of prestige or dominance instead of for the sake of service to God and the world, the list of illegitimate forms of knowledge then grows embarrassingly long. Myriad examples come to mind: People acquire knowledge of the weaknesses of others whom they want to cheat, bully, corrupt, or seduce. People master a field of knowledge hoping to incite envy and awe. Terrorists acquire a pilot's knowledge in order to crash airliners into buildings full of workers.

So in our definition, anti-intellectualism is opposition to or dismissal of the healthy life of the mind. Meanwhile, opposition to unhealthy intellectualism is just what faithfulness calls for.

Education for discernment: Faced with wrong kinds of knowledge, Christians should want education to help discern the differences between good and evil, which are often twined around each other, and to "discern the spirits," which may be of God or of the evil one.

Knowledge for celebration: But faithful Christians should want reasoning, learning, and understanding also to appreciate the grandeur of God's creation, to delight in its richness and complexity, and to have cause for celebrating God's ingenuity within it.

Contribution to the kingdom of God: And because Christians have been called to "seek the kingdom first," their calling is to become productive citizens of the kingdom of God. Knowledge of how to contribute to it often requires discernment, thought, and study.

With all your mind: Christians who want good learning, good thinking, and good understanding may be said simply to be following our Lord, who taught his followers to "love God with all your mind." This command exposes anti-intellectualism as anti-Christian, a form of disobedience to Jesus. And it exposes the healthy hunger for learning as a form of faithfulness to Jesus.

John Calvin on hunting and gathering truth: The Genevan Reformer John Calvin comes to mind. He loved the life of learning. Calvin understood that God created human beings to hunt and gather truth, and that the capacity for doing so is one feature of the image of God in them (Col. 3:10). So Calvin fed on knowledge as gladly as a deer on sweet corn. He absorbed not only the teaching of Scripture and of its great interpreters, such as St. Augustine, but also whatever knowledge he could gather from famous pagans, such as the Roman philosopher Seneca. And why not? The Holy Spirit authors all truth, as Calvin wrote, and we should therefore embrace it no matter where it shows up. But we will need solid instruction in Scripture and Christian wisdom in order to recognize truth, and in order to disentangle it from error and fraud. Well-instructed Christians try not to offend the Holy Spirit by scorning truth in non-Christian authors over whom the Spirit has been brooding, but this does not mean Christians can afford to read these authors uncritically. After all, a person's faith — even faith in idols — shapes most of what a person thinks and writes, and the Christian faith is in competition with other faiths for human hearts and minds.

The establishment of universities: Long before Calvin, medieval Christians established universities in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, centering their study in liberal arts. Before and alongside the universities, Christian monks preserved and extended knowledge to such a significant degree that many historians, Christian and non-Christian alike, credit the monks with saving Western civilization.

To know and love God's work: As suggested above, thoughtful Christians know that if we obey the Bible's great commandment to love God with our whole mind, as well as with everything else, then we will study the splendor of God's creation, hope to grasp part of the ingenuity and grace that forms it. One way to love God is to know and love God's work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: Properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with. Education "develops, disciplines, and matures our humanity" and thus enables us to make a Christian profession that is "humanly significant." The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God's enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into position to praise the goodness of God, to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. Chemistry and history are of course only two samples from the wide menu of good things to learn.

Education as preparation for service: But Calvin and his followers, who wanted to "reform the church according to the Word of God," had yet another purpose in mind when they built colleges. "Reformed" Christians, as they came to be called, have always believed that getting educated is one way to prepare for service in the kingdom of God. It's not the only way, but it's an excellent way.

Gaining wisdom from many sources: Certainly, if you hope to reform a church, a government, or an academy, you will need a standard to go by, and the highest and best standard for reforming all of life, Calvin and others believed, is the written Word of God. Educated Christians therefore need to know their Bible to lead a life that fits with the purposes of God. But to reform a complex institution — or to write a law, treat a patient, or perform any number of other human undertakings — you will need to gain wisdom from many sources in addition to Scripture. You will need to look for truth wherever it may be found.

Shalom as the ultimate goal: The point of all this learning is to prepare to add one's own contribution to the supreme reformation project, which is God's restoration of all things that have been corrupted by evil. The Old Testament word for this restoration of peace, justice, and harmony is shalom; the New Testament phrase for it is "the coming of the kingdom." You can find the Old Testament's teaching about shalom especially in the prophets, and you can find the New Testament's teaching about the kingdom especially in the gospels and in some passages of Paul's epistles. According to Scripture, God plans to accomplish this project through Jesus Christ, who started to make all things new, and who will come again to finish what he started. In the meantime, God's Spirit calls a worldwide body of people to join this mission of God.

So when Christians strive to make God's purposes their own, they tilt forward toward God's restoration of all things, the final coming of the kingdom. They think about it, pray for it, and study and work in ways that accord with it. Thinking personally as well as globally, they want the kingdom to come in their own hearts as well as in the whole world.

Seen in this light, the healthy life of the mind is a Christian's adventure, an entrée into full appreciation of God's creative ingenuity and full participation in God's kingdom project in the world. Anti-intellectualism, then, is, sheer disobedience — a dismissal of the adventure and therefore a shameful rejection of God's daily call to Christians in the world.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.