Is Christianity Anti- Intellectual?

A look at the not-so-smart side of faith.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus when He was a kid.

It took three days to find Him, but there He was, “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Jesus was in the Temple, the center of worship.

It was also the center of learning. “And all who heard him were amazed at His understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).

Our Bibles give us only one glimpse into Jesus’ boyhood, and that scene depicts Him as an avid learner and a diligent student, actively engaged in lively theological discussion.

So why is there so much suspicion toward Christian scholars today who, like the 12-year old Jesus, have a penchant for hanging out in centers of learning and engaging in lively theological discourse? Why the anti-intellectualism in the Church today?

To be sure, Jesus was no intellectual elitist. Marveling over His brilliant teaching, some folks once asked, “How is it that this man has learning, when He has never studied?” (John 7:15). He lacked advanced, formal training (unlike Saul of Tarsus, of course). When Jesus unfurled the Isaiah scroll that day in Nazareth, it was likely with the rough, calloused hands of a laborer. His was all blue-collar erudition, a rags-to-academic-riches kind of education like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting. (Can anything good come out of Nazareth … or the Boston South End? Yes.) And we love the scenes when Jesus confounds the religious scholars as we enjoy when Hunting gets in a fight at a Harvard bar. They are sticking it to the academic Man.

But Jesus’ lack of academic pedigree did not make Him anti-intellectual. He did not tolerate sloppy study—“have you not read … ?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; et. al.). He did not put up with slowness of understanding—“do you not yet perceive or understand?” (Mark 8:17).

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered by quoting from a passage in Deuteronomy called the Shema which promoted hard, theological work:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-39).

The greatest commandment, the most binding demand on our lives, is to love God with everything, including our minds. Most of us know about this highest of commandments. But we may be less familiar with its Old Testament context. The context of loving God with everything in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the expectation that we will devote ourselves to the rigorous study and discussion of God’s words. Love God with everything …

“and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children [intensive theological training], and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise [continual theological discourse].” 

Devout Jews in Jesus’ day recited the Shema twice daily. It was instilled into their consciousness that the life of the mind and the study of Scripture were central to their worship. So again, why such anti-intellectualism in the Church today when Scripture summons us to continue in such a rich intellectual heritage?

Part of the problem is that in the name of keeping the first commandment, we often break the second.

Jesus attached to the greatest commandment of loving God with everything the inseparable companion commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Anti-intellectualism is embedded in America’s national consciousness for a number of historical factors, but it is fueled in the Church today when our (so-called) love of God is divorced from love of neighbor in our intellectual endeavors. There is a great deal of unloving, doctrinal warmongering going on out there in the name of treasuring God and His truth.

Another part of the problem lies with those of us who look askance at academic learning. Some of us assume we will lose Jesus if we are serious about study. Yet when Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they found Him passionately engaged in theological discourse with lecturers.

It is easy to bash the academy when we are still scarred by those faith-assaulting pedagogical jabs of our cynical Religious Studies professor. Let’s not miss the reality, though, that so many of those cynical profs entered their field because they were joyfully grasped by insights penned by theologians long dead, because they were moved by the literary artistry of the Gospel writers, because they fell in love with the raw honesty of the psalmists … and it was the classroom, not their church upbringing, that introduced them to these wonders. Then—after years of arduous intellectual work, countless sleepless nights and the accumulation of massive educational debt—these bedraggled but eager students are often greeted by an anti-intellectual church that says, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

No wonder there is so much cynicism in the (even Christian) academy.

And 18 years of sitting in Sunday School classrooms seems to do little in preparation for just 10 minutes of serious theological discussion in one of these professor’s classrooms. In neglecting to saturate our own 12-year-old kids with God’s words (“teach them diligently to your children”), in failing to nurture continuous theological discussion over those words (“you shall talk of them”), the Church may be at fault as much as the academy for the self-perpetuating cycle of tension between them.

Breaking this cycle between the poles of anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism requires a generation who will refuse the temptation to overreact on either side (like on comment streams, for starters!). We need a generation who will persistently commit to keep the two greatest commandments bound together. Love the oppressed and marginalized neighbor … but on the foundation of robust, theological thinking. Love God with all the mind … but turn the pages of books with hands calloused from serving our neighbors.

Andrew Byers leads University Christian Fellowship and is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Likewise Books / IVP). He blogs at Hopeful Realism. Portions of this article are taken from Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers. Copyright(c) 2011 by Andrew J. Byers. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com. You can read the first chapter of that book here.

56 Comments

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Anonymous commented…

Point #1. In the interest of promoting a good discussion (iron sharpens iron) let me state that the greatest commandment in the Bible is not the first commandment as quoted by Jesus. Anyone know what I mean?Point #2. Peter's accurate confession that Jesus is the Christ was attributed to a personal revelation from God and not his studies in theology.

Point #3. The Gospels reveal that "the common people heard Him (Jesus)gladly.

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Revchandramohans commented…

Let me quote the sayings of Dr Ambedkar the great leader who struggled hard for the liberation of the Dalits Untouchables in India
In every country the intellectual class is the most influential class. This is the class which can foresee, advise and lead. In no country does the mass of the people live the life for intelligent thought and action. It is largely imitative and follows the intellectual class. There is no exaggeration in saying that the entire destination of the country depends upon its intellectual class. If the intellectual class is honest and independent, it can be trusted to take the initiative and give a proper lead when a crisis arises. It is true that the intellect by itself is no virtue. It is only a means and the use of a means depends upon the ends which an intellectual person pursues. An intellectual man can be a good man but he may easily be a rogue. Similarly an intellectual class may be a band of high-souled persons, ready to help, ready to emancipate erring humanity or it may easily be a gang of crooks or a body of advocates of narrow clique from which it draws its support.(Dr.B.R.Ambedkar)
"

Corky Rliey

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Corky Rliey commented…

A great essay. I was told when I began my education that ''all an education can garantee a person is that we can hold a more intelligent conversation in the unemployment line.'' I have been in the Church over 30 years and I really support a blend of Secular and Biblical education. This gives a person a chanceto work in and out of the Church. My education has served me well and now experience is considered education and it should be. I have found there is a competition or a fear of some types of education in the Church. There are people who still believe that there are some types of education that draw attention away from Christ. I guess this is possible but it depends on the person. If a person puts his faith in the field of psychology instead of Jesus then there is a problem. Psychology is a tool that God has given us to use. We need educated Christians in every field because there are people that will and need to be reached by their co workers or clients or people needing to be reached by those providing a service.Education is a great investment. No one can take it from you andyou can't loose it. It opens doors and provides opportunity and nothing wrong unless we worship it or put it before God. Corky Riley

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history needs to be read! commented…

Actually there are some huge historical problems with that argument.

Athiests are actually guilty of some of the worst inter-religious violence in the 20th century. In the soviet union the communist party insisted on scientific materialism -( there is only physical matter) and Athiesm. Any one who did not agree with either of those was considered disloyal to the communist party and a subversive threat to the government. In other words the Soviet Government said there is no God and if you believe in one you are dangerous and subversive. this started after the communists took over Russia in 1917.

Lenin declared Jews enemies of the communist party And the soviet government murdered or imprisoned many Jews. they carried out and encouraged attacks called pogroms.

the communists also cracked down on the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church, Priests, and many of their prisoners were murdered and sent off to Political prisons (forced labor camps) usually people died quickly in thee prisons. much of the forced labor was done in mines, or other dangerous industrial operations. many of these mines and camps were in the Kolyma region of Russia (then the USSR)
the prisoners were seen as a disposable source of free labor for the Russian government and were worked until they dropped dead.

there was even another group of Christians called Tolsotoyans (becuase Leo Tolstoy was their founder.) He had been excommunicated from the Russian orthodox church for criticising it, you might sort of call him the Russian version of Martin Luther.

the tolstoyans were absolute pacifists they believed that Christians could not serve in the military because killing was wrong for them to do. they were also anarchists as they believed that working for or supporting the government was supporting War and War was Murder. They had very reformation-like ideas as they believed everyone should read the bible for themselves and, follow their own conscience as long as it is captive to the bible and to the love of God. the tolstoyans also met in their homes as they did not have churches. the reason that you have probably not heard of the tolstoyans is that the vast majority of them were killed by the communist government and the few who survived had to go into hiding. ironically the pacifist Christians were thought to be a threat to the Soviet government.....

the Russian orthodox church which had millions of members before the Russian revolution was reduced to far lower numbers, as the Orthodox church had to go into hiding for the next 60 years! things did not change untill Mikal Gorbachev started reforming the human rights policies of the communist government. these reforms were from 1988 untill the soviet union collpsed in 1991. from 1917-at least 1988 practicing Christians had to keep their faith secret under the threat of imprisonment and death at the hands of a Communist -atheist government.

the point is that the Athiest Soviet Government imprisoned and murdered hundreds of thousands to millions of people who were jewsish or Christian and meant no harm to anyone! simply because of stereotypes and bigoted ideas that TruthisLove! is himself purporting. Athiests like to say that religion kills but in the end it is people who decide to kill each other. And atheists also were perfectly comfortable confiscating or burning churches, and killing people on the orders of Lennin, Stalin and other per-Gorbachev leaders of the soviet union.

the world has seen what happens when atheist bigots are in power and it looks a lot like genocide. Athiests would have to also be anti-intellectual to feel the need to kill people with different beliefs, or even to view pacifists as a threat to the Soviet Government.

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KJ commented…

Materialism, determinism, the idolatry of strength and power.

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