(From the epilogue to The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life)
Why is it that wherever the gospel goes the academy follows? What does the gospel have to do with the mind? I have tried—across five major themes—to delineate something of the relationship between the Christian vision of God, man, and the world and the intellectual life. The two theses I have argued are:
1. The Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition for the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life.
2. The Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like.
When we look at the five main themes of this book, we see that the Christian understanding of reality provides a coherent account of the possibility of the intellectual life. There is an inextricable connection between the gospel and the mind.
First, I suggested that a doctrine of creation provides a reason to attend to reality, since historically to believe in creation is to believe that we live in a real and ordered and good world. There is something there to be understood and studied, and reality is not simply an illusion. We also saw that there is an important corollary of the doctrine of creation—the centrality of history. For a number of reasons, including the affirmation that we live in a created world, the Christian faith encourages attention to history. At the heart of all of reality lies a series of events that make up the gospel. And this gospel—the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15)—shapes all of human history. It is a past-tense reality that bears on all that follows. Hence at the heart of Christianity lies the impetus to be a people who regard the past as important to the present. Likewise, we saw that often in Scripture God’s people are called to remember, to recall what God has spoken in the past as central to life in the present. Christians, in short, are a people who look both backward and forward.
Second, we noted that the premodern (and generally) Christian world was often shaped by a belief that there was a telos at the center of history. History is going somewhere, and so are we. All of life is animated by a goal. In Paul’s terms, we will one day see God face-to-face, and “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). I maintained that this sense of a telos shaped premodern intellectual life in profound ways, for people knew that their intellectual deliberations had meaning and purpose, and that they were thinking and living in a world guided and governed toward an appointed end. With the loss of this sense of a telos in the modern world there has been a corresponding confusion in thought, for when the denial of a telos is taken to its natural and logical conclusion, it leads ultimately to nihilism.
Third, I contended that the cross is central to the life of the mind. On a biblical understanding, we live on this side of the fall, and sin marks all of who we are, including our intellect. The cross redeems not just part of us, but all of who we are. Thus, it is proper to explore the ways in which the atoning work of Christ relates to the life of the mind. I suggested that the atonement allows us to think God’s thoughts after him, and to see the world in light of who God is and what he has spoken to us. It is a mistake to privilege the human mind as sequestered from the effects of sin. The work of Christ allows—and invites—us to approach the living God, and it is only through the atonement that we can understand both God and the created order. Indeed, nullus intellectus sine cruce: “There is no understanding without the cross.”
Fourth, I jumped into the contemporary fray over the nature of language. These were perhaps the densest chapters in the book. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed bewildering developments in the understanding of language. There have always been pockets of skepticism in the Western intellectual tradition, but trends like deconstructionism, I argued, were the full flowering of the modernist worldview applied to language. Rooted in nihilism, deconstruction denies the possibility of determinate meaning and indeed cuts the heart out of the possibility of meaningful language. I suggested—leaning heavily on Augustine—that a Christian understanding of reality provides a compelling and coherent account of language. We live in a world with a Word—the Logos, the second person of the Trinity—at the heart of all reality. Since God is a communicating being who has created us through a Word to be communicating beings, and since all things cohere in this Word, there is good reason to affirm the possibility of meaning in language. All language is spoken against the backdrop of the Word, and all language should find its ultimate end in the “transcendental signified”—the triune Creator and Redeemer and Word sender, God.
Fifth, I emphasized that on a Christian understanding there is a fundamentally, though often overlooked, moral component to knowledge, and that true knowledge includes within it an appropriate response. I took my cue from John Calvin that “our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him.” To know God is to honor him, and the honoring of God is not a peripheral addition to the knowledge of God; rather, honoring God actually helps constitute the knowledge of God itself. I stressed that knowing is a moral reality, and that our hearts and wills are bound up with our ability to know. Following Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, and Pascal, I suggested that we ultimately do not know or “see” rightly when our loves are disordered (Augustine), or when the eye of our heart needs cleansing (Hugh), or when we do not approach all things through the reality of Jesus (Pascal). In short, all knowing is inextricably moral, and the only way to have our loves ordered rightly is through Christ.
What I have written is a type of apologia (defense) of the Christian faith—perhaps not in the traditional sense, but an apologia nonetheless. If what I am arguing is true, then the recovery of any sort of meaningful intellectual life will be rooted in Christ and the gospel. And this makes all the sense in the world. The God of the Christian Bible is a God who is personal, relational, triune, and rational. (I realize that the word rational needs the proper qualifications.) He is a God who is not primarily sensed or felt—although that is part of our experience—but known. Thus, the fundamental goodness of knowledge is at the heart of a Christian understanding of the intellectual life. This God, who is himself personal, relational, triune, and rational, has made a world, and this world reflects the one who made it. We humans as image bearers reflect God in a unique way (a truth about which there will be pressure to compromise in our day), but the world as a whole ultimately reflects the God who made it. And hence, the Christian faith encourages attention to the world, its structures, and its mysteries.
If what I am arguing is true, then the anti-intellectualism that sometimes marks traditional Christianity needs to be addressed. If the gospel has within it the resources to promote the life of the mind, why do we see anti-intellectualism in portions of the Christian church? I can only offer three brief comments here.
First, it is likely that some persons have been unfairly written off as anti-intellectuals. Christians should be slow to believe what the secular media tells us about this or that Christian group.
Second, much of what passes for intellectual sophistication in contemporary culture is—if we are honest—undeserving of that description. If the acquisition of true knowledge requires—as I have argued in this book—that our hearts and wills be properly ordered, then much of what passes for knowledge is not, in fact, true knowledge.
Third, a pastoral word: C. S. Lewis argued in “Learning in War-Time” that certain Christians are called—by vocation—to apply their minds in a sustained way to the intellectual life. Christians who engage in intensive study should never forget the Christian church. Much like the Dúnedain in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who patiently and faithfully guarded the Shire (even though the hobbits were unaware of their presence), so Christians engaging in scholarship should consider the moral obligation of their task. We engage in the life of the mind—at least partially—because we have a moral obligation to help and indeed to protect other Christians as we are able.
As is often the case with writing, many things have been left unsaid, and inviting trails unexplored. We are finite beings, and time and space are limited. I have not explored in any detail the fascinating world of contemporary science, and an extremely important field it is. I have suggested, however, that all knowledge, at the end of the day, can only be accounted for with the insights provided by the Christian vision of God, man, and the world. I have not suggested that only Christians have knowledge, although I have said that a fuller knowledge requires minds and hearts transformed by Christ. I have argued that it is the Christian understanding of reality that can account for the possibility of the intellectual life.
We are pilgrims traveling to the celestial city, and like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, we encounter various challenges and dilemmas along the way. We are progressing to our ultimate destiny, where, as Paul says, we will see God face-to-face. We will know fully as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12), knowing God more than we do now, though never exhaustively. And that knowledge will always be a gracious gift, as is all of our current knowledge. We will enter into the heavenly city because of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We will one day see the face of God because we have been transformed by the cross of Jesus.
As pilgrims, we live in this “already-and-not-yet” age between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom of God. We may see “dimly” now, but we are still called to see and to know both God and his world. We engage in intellectual deliberation not only with the confidence that knowing is consistent with the Christian faith, but also with an awareness that the Christian gospel itself—and the larger Christian vision of reality—can account for the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever. This should make us profoundly humble rather than proud. We are God’s creatures, and we think and know and engage our minds on his terms. We know now with confidence that all of our intellectual efforts find their true and ultimate terminus in knowledge of God himself. Such knowledge is possible because we have been transformed by God’s most gracious act on Calvary two thousand years ago.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949).