By Cheri Lynn Cowell
Intellectual and snob were companion words in my childhood home. When someone displayed intellectual acuity, whether haughtily or not, they were considered snobs, “and everyone knows a good little Christian girl does not want to be seen as a snob.” I was told these know-it-alls were simply trying to make the rest of us look bad. Furthermore, they were not showing Christlike humility—the highest of Christian virtues—by lauding it over the rest of us. Before long and without realizing it, I quietly set aside my intellectual curiosity and interests.
The Battle Within
After high school I sought a degree in theater arts—not an overtly intellectual career—and began serving in youth ministry at a local church, again a very humble position. However, my intellectual bent was never fully hidden. First, I was a voracious reader, and not of the little paperbacks many friends my age were reading. I read the classics and big thick how-to books. Politics also caught my fancy; I loved to debate complex ideas. Yet, none of this really fed the growing hunger for intellectual stimulus my mind sought. I began to study my Bible and acquired a library of biblical resources—all of which I read from cover to cover.
Finally, at dinner one evening, my husband asked, “So, when are you going to start seminary?” I thought he hadn’t noticed the catalogues coming in the mail.
I fumbled for the right words. “I’m not really that interested.”
“Come on Cheri, I know you need to be challenged. You’ve read every Bible study out there; you use a Greek concordance. Who does that but someone in seminary?”
Immediately the battle within rose to a new crescendo. The idea of unleashing my intellectual curiosity excited me; it made my heart leap. But how could I do that and not become an intellectual snob? My solution: I’d insulate my intellectual pursuits with prayers for humility. Perhaps I could walk the tightrope between intellectualism and snobbery. I enrolled in seminary.
True to form, before my first class even began, I devoured the assigned books. True to God’s form, he spoke directly to my confusion through one of those books and changed the course of my life. The book, Habits of the Mind (InterVarsity Press, 2000) by James W. Sire, was written to address the very questions I was secretly asking. Can a Christian legitimately aspire to become an intellectual? Can the intellectual life be a Christian calling? In the first chapter Sire states that because Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived, we can and should accept the challenge to think as well as we can. Wow! Could using my mind really be a virtuous act?
Intellectuals: A Warning
Many of us were taught that intellectuals are not to be trusted. After all, the man or woman who worked with his or her hands was someone with the “real job,” and those following intellectual pursuits simply had too much time on their hands. Whether out of misunderstanding, a feeling of inferiority, or from resentment stemming from an intellectualism that looks down upon others, this is green-eyed jealousy, plain and simple.
Christians are to celebrate the blessings and gifts of others, not covet what they have. When one needs to reduce others so he can feel better about himself, this says more about the person needing to take others down than it does about the person being taken down.
“But what about what the Bible says?” you may ask. Yes, both Jesus and Paul had stern warnings about the evils of intellectualism. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2, NIV 1984). “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1:20-25). Many have interpreted these and other passages like them to mean that intellectual pursuits are ungodly. But those who think like this are taking the passages out of context. Clearly Paul and Jesus were not anti-intellectuals. Instead they were warning about puffed-up thinking and placing one’s faith in one’s own capabilities rather than God’s.
As I read Sire’s book I felt as though I were reading an autobiography. Since that time I’ve talked to many who say they were raised in a similar fashion. How freeing it was for me to learn that I no longer had to choose between my faith and my intellect. I had been made in God’s image, and that included how my mind worked. I was creative and loved ideas just like my Creator. My mind constantly popped with new concepts, solutions to problems, and questions to be answered, just like my Creator. In fact, it was through this creative process that my Creator would impart his answers to those problems, prompt the questions I should seek answers for, and offer shape and direction to the concepts birthing in my mind. Just as God spoke to the man and woman who worked with their hands through the avenues that best reached them, God spoke to the intellectual through the way she used her mind. God used my intellectual curiosity to direct my thoughts toward him.
The Mind of Christ
First Corinthians 2:16 reminds us that Christians have been given the mind of Christ. To be honest, I’ve had trouble squaring this proclamation with the thoughts that sometimes swirled in my mind. That is, until I accepted that when placed in the hands of God, my mind was a communication tool. This Scripture is speaking about the Holy Spirit who, while working within our minds, helps us understand and interpret truth. Without our minds (our intellect), the Holy Spirit would be at a disadvantage; but God in his perfection gave us a mind like his so we might understand, if only in minute and tangent ways, the very ways of God.
But could it be that simple? I wanted to know. Could just using my mind the way it was created be all that Paul and Christ meant? Sire had one more point to make that placed all the rest of this in perspective. First, he made it clear that simply
being an intellectual does not make someone a Christian intellectual. Yes, God made each of us in his image, but a Christ follower has an added responsibility when using his mind. “A Christian intellectual is everything an intellectual proper is, but to the glory of God.” First Corinthians 10:31 puts it this way: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
An Act of Worship
As I finished the book, tears flowed freely. The intellectual had been set free and she’d been approved and confirmed. It was then that the most amazing thought came to my mind and I recognized it as from God. The thought is as new and fresh to me today as it was that first day. How we use our minds is an act of worship. The most used Old Testament word for worship (shahah) has for its first meaning, to “bow down.” When we use our minds to the glory of God, we are essentially bowing down before him with our minds to acknowledge the one from whom all blessings flow.
Perhaps my mother wasn’t that far off base. To be a Christian intellectual is to worship God with my heart, soul, and mind from a position of humility. The world is full of intellectual snobs, but it is my prayer that the world begins to see a different kind of intellectual—one who is using his mind for the glory of God and doing so with a bowed and humbled heart.
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
Thoughts on Christianity and the Intellect
“A Christian intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up their pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life to the glory of God.”
—James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind, (InterVarsity, 2000).
“The intellectual is not self-begotten; he is the son of the Idea, of the Truth of the creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in his creation. When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy. When he gropes and struggles in the effort of research, he is Jacob wrestling with the angel and ‘strong against God.’”
—A. G. G. Sertanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Catholic University of America, 1998).