The Christian Mind, Part 1

I’ve become more and more interested lately in the way Christians think–the way we see the world, assess our circumstances, analyze problems, and make decisions. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which Christian ways of thinking differ from non-Christian ways. Here begins a series of posts on the Christian mind. 

The Christian mind is a transformed mind. It is a renewed mind, or at least a mind in the process of being renewed. The passive voice here is intentional. We don’t renew our minds. God does. The Christian mind is subservient to the transforming power of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is made possible through Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

 

We need to step up our game.

A friend recently told me about a podcast called “Word on Fire.” It features a Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron, who speaks each week about topics related to the Christian faith. Bishop Barron is decidedly, unapologetically Roman Catholic. I am Wesleyan through and through, but if anyone could draw me into the Catholic (capital “C”) faith, it would be Bishop Barron. He is an articulate, winsome, sensible advocate for this venerable tradition. Perhaps more than anything, what appeals to me is Bishop Barron’s level of intellectual engagement with the Christian faith. It is not only interesting; it is inspiring.

 

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Bishop Robert Barron 

Yes, I want the church, and particularly my own United Methodist tradition, to take more seriously the intellectual life of our faith. I want robust catechesis. I want seminary education that will help students reckon with the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition. I want more serious study of the Bible at every level of the life of the church. I want not just knowledge and vital piety, but knowledge shaped by vital piety.

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“Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety. ” – Charles Wesley 

Asking and answering hard questions

At its best, the church will not shy away from deep engagement with intellectual matters of the faith. We constantly face pressing, difficult questions that we must answer or stand accountable for our own negligence. For example:

  • Who is the true God?

  • Why do we believe this?

  • How does this God relate to human beings, to all of creation?

  • What is a human being?

  • Why does my life matter?

  • What is the nature of the Christian life?

  • How should we live?

  • What is marriage, and why is it important?

  • What is the purpose of the Bible?

  • What does it mean to receive the sacraments?

  • What happens after we die?

  • What about all the things I have done wrong in my life?

These kinds of questions require serious intellectual and prayerful engagement. Answers that are too facile, too quick and convenient, will not satisfy.

Yet intellectual engagement by itself will not suffice, either. We need a particularly Christian kind of engagement if we are to get at the truth of these matters. Our epistemic capacities are distorted by sin apart from God’s sanctifying grace. Thus we need not just a renewed heart or spirit, but a renewed mind.

 

We’re smarter than we think.

To make his case for deeper Christian intellectual engagement, Bishop Barron once used the example of a girl he met who knew virtually everything about Star Wars. If she can learn about Star Wars in this level of detail, he asked, why can’t she learn about her faith in the same way? The difference is that while Star Wars represents a largely inconsequential pastime, our faith is a matter of ultimate consequence.

My older son provides another good example. When he was about twelve, he became fascinated by the WWE. (Don’t judge me as a parent. We’re all just trying to make it through most days.) It wasn’t just that he would watch shows like “Smackdown” and “Raw.” He was like a walking encyclopedia of professional wrestling. He outgrew this phase, and now at age fifteen he’s into something more in my wheelhouse: basketball. And guess what? He’s now a walking encyclopedia of basketball lore. Believe me, I’ve spent my share of time watching NBA games and “SportsCenter.” Yet he often teaches me things about the players I spent hours watching like Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. He studies how great players shoot. He knows the trade rumors that are flying around (and don’t even get him started on LeBron James). He knows all this, moreover, while fulfilling his responsibilities at school and home, going to church, and maintaining an active social life.

There are people you know who can tell you about every intricacy of golf, hunting, or NASCAR. There are folks who could teach you all there is to know about quilting, scrapbooking, or polka dancing. Dog shows, mystery novels, accounting, video games, woodworking, investing, welding, music…. The reservoir of knowledge within our congregations is surely astounding, and yet, when it comes to matters of faith, we often want to settle for what is easy. We set the table with glasses of milk, and the people in our congregations need solid food. When we do this, we are cheating our own communities of the riches available to them in the Great Tradition of Christianity.

No, I simply don’t believe that a deep intellectual engagement with the Christian faith is outside the capacities of most Christian laypeople. I believe we have in many cases opted for pragmatism because it is simply easier, and, perhaps in the short term more effective.

 

The renewed mind

Paul tells us, though, not to be conformed to the spirit of the age, but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. In Greek, the word is nous. It refers to the faculties of reasoning and intellect.

Now here’s where my inner Bible geek comes out, but this is really interesting. The verb metamorphousthe—“be transformed”—is a second-person plural imperative: “y’all be transformed,” as they might say when I was growing up in Texas. Nous, or “mind,” however, is singular. So what we have here is a call for the church to be transformed in the way we think together. Amidst the diversity of the gathered body of Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us collectively toward God’s purposes, shaping not just our deeds, but our thoughts.

Within the community of faith, there is an intellectual task. We were brought into being by the divine logos (John 1:3), a word that can refer to the divine will, reason, and intellect. We were saved from sin when the logos became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14). But the divine will and reason within us has become disordered by sin, and therefore within the body of Christ there is a renewal of the mind that must take place. What has been disordered must again become orderly. The chaotic nature of sin must be tamed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can begin to see things not through what the world calls “wise” or “great,” but according to the very creative power and reason of God.

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“‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa 55:8). Through the renewing of the mind, however, our thoughts can be conformed to God’s thoughts, and our ways to God’s ways.

There is an intellectual dimension to Christian faith that the Church cannot escape, nor should she attempt to do so. Our minds are not renewed to lie fallow, but to engage a broken world with a clarity we cannot otherwise know.

6 thoughts on “The Christian Mind, Part 1

  1. If you haven’t seen Roger Olson’s “The Essentials of Christian Thought,” you may find it helpful in your work.

  2. I think intellectualism that may be beyond ‘everyman’ will cause some people to assume that they aren’t smart enough for the Holy Spirit to guide, handing personal Bible Study over to, for example, priests. Even the UMC seems to have a more Catholic use and dependence on repetitious (as in every single Sunday Service) liturgy.

  3. Dr. Watson,
    I am certainly looking forward to your further posts on the Christian Mind.
    The times surely require a return to the reunion of knowledge and vital piety which interact with one another. Much the preaching and Christian discussion I encounter these days from some of my colleagues in the United Methodist Church and beyond is entirely experiential and not illumined by anything outside that provides grounding. I find myself frequently returning to re-read Bonhoeffer’s notes and essay “Christianity Without a Reformation” (based on his visit to the U.S.). While I don’t want to slight the renewal of the affections, these, too, are fallen and in need of renewal. Answering the “hard questions” you listed provides a corrective to the flight of feelings.

  4. I remember reading JC Ryle’s book on Holiness too many years ago now. he was stimulating the church in the light of God’s Work to respond in a renewed lifestyle of holiness. Perhaps it is time I revisit this.
    I look forward to your further posts.

  5. Dave, It’s Jason Ballin. Just moved to Brookville! Would love to reconnect. My personal cell 9379035221. Hope all is well! Jason

    Sent from my iPhone

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