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TEXAS FAITH: The Intellect and Religious Faith


The following ran on the April 10, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology Professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

April 17, 2012

By William McKenzie

What is the role of the intellect in discovering and maintaining a religious faith?

That is the question for this week, and it is spurred on in part from two thoughtful columns drawing attention to a lessening of an intellectual emphasis in two major wings of American Christianity: liberal Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism.

The first column is a  Wall Street Journal review of author Marilynne Robinson's new book When I was a Child I Read Books . In it, the review says, Robinson argues that mainline Protestantism got sidelined "by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as of condescension. "

The second column is by the  Washington Post's  E.J. Dionne, Jr. He chides (gently) Christians in general and evangelicals in particular for diminishing the role of the mind in exploring faith. Writes Dionne:

"Popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry. This not only ignores Christian giants of philosophy and science but also plays into some of the very worst stereotypes inflicted upon religious believers."

Later on, he says:

"Some Christians encourage a view of their faith as profoundly anti-intellectual. Faith is seen as more about experience than reason, more about loyalty than dialogue. The desire to assert The Truth takes priority over exploring productively and honestly what the truth might be."

At the end, after quoting with admiration evangelical scholar Mark Noll, Dionne concludes:

" If Easter is about liberation, this liberation must include intellectual freedom."

Perhaps you agree with these assessments, or perhaps you don't. Either way I would like to hear your thoughts about the role the mind plays in opening one up to a religious faith and then sustaining it over time.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

What is the role of the intellect in discovering and maintaining a religious faith?

For Christians who take the teaching of Jesus seriously, the use of the intellect is a central act of discipleship. When he was asked to identify the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus replied that it was to "love the Lord...with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." The intellectual activity in which Christians engage is not a matter of idle speculation or theoretical posturing. It is an act of love toward God, an expression of adherence to God's law, and a way of exercising Christian devotion.

For some who espouse the Christian faith, a rejection of intellectual endeavors is promoted as a demonstration of true spirituality. Piety is perceived as the enemy of rationality.

Such assertions are contrary to the scriptures, contrary to vital spirituality, and contrary to the word of God. Jesus engaged in abundant intellectual work. He vigorously conducted his own critique of standard teachings by declaring "you have heard it said...but I say to you..." He showed the futility of engaging in human ventures without using smart calculations of the cost. He said clearly in the gospels that a failure to understand is a failure to follow God.

The intellect is a contributing factor in grasping the truth of God's word. The intellect is a sacred gift for expressing love toward God. The intellect is a guide on the path that disciples must travel if they are truly to follow their Lord. That clearly is a fundamental principle of Christian teaching. And any Christians who abandon intellectual virtue are straying from the way of the Lord....