Sunday, June 2, 2013

With All Your Mind?

It’s graduation season. College graduations are over, high school ceremonies just ahead.

I attended one this year: a lovely, outdoor celebration of the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, complete with bagpipe processional. It reminded me of my own UPenn processional, almost thirty years ago, walking down Locust Walk in full doctoral regalia.

I spent seven years at Penn, studying literature, theory, the life of the mind in poetry, fiction, essay.

Before that I attended Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college in rural western New York. I minored in math and double-majored in English and humanities, a cross-disciplinary study of philosophy, history, literature, and art.  

I’m thankful for both institutions, thankful for the chance to read, learn, study.

Thankful I grew up in a state, New York, that took higher education seriously, and funded it generously.

Thankful I reached college at a time – the seventies – when the public will considered education important, and provided ample scholarships and grants for capable students eager to learn.

And thankful – beyond thankful – for the women along the way who encouraged my mind, gave me books to read, challenged me to plan for college, modeled a life of thoughtful engagement.

The churches I attended as a child and teen were not so encouraging.

While Jesus said, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37-38), the message I heard, in various forms, was “We’ll tell you what to think.” “Questions are dangerous.” “Women should be silent.”

I remember coming to a point where it seemed impossible to be an intelligent female Christian. It appeared to me, in my late teens, that I had three options: a lobotomy, a sex-change, or a speedy exit from the Christian faith.

Then, at Houghton, I attended a lecture by a writing professor, Nancy Barcus, on the topic “God doesn’t think I’m dumb.” She’d recently written an article on the subject for a Christian publication. I don’t remember the specifics of her discussion, but I remember listening with relief to her insistence that God intends us to use the minds he gave us, that no question is out of bounds, that Christ’s interactions with women demonstrated a repudiation of the patriarchal diminishment of women’s gifts, intelligence, or contribution.

Not long after, I found myself in my first history class with Dr. Katherine Lindley, head of Houghton’s history department, advisor to its pre-law students, a woman of huge intellect, fierce faith, and ferocious engagement. She started every class, promptly, with a brief reading from her own devotional study: a paragraph from Calvin, an excerpt from Brother Lawrence, an anecdote from Francis of Assisi. Then she’d be off on the subject of the day, moving fast, asking hard questions, the most purposeful, insightful, demanding teacher I’d ever had, or would have.

“Ideas have consequences,” was her mantra. All ideas. Any idea. The universe revolves around man? Trace that out. Watch where it leads. Survival of the fittest? Follow that across decades – down to our own economic times.

Students weren’t late to Kay Lindley’s classes. They didn’t doodle or daydream. They sat at attention, scribbling notes, thinking hard.

I took two semesters of Western Civ from Dr. Lindley, then tried to squeeze in others. She was one of three professors overseeing my Humanities Senior Seminar, the best class of my life: six students, three professors, reading and discussing Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Camus, Sartre, Freud.

Dr. Lindley, and other professors at Houghton, talked often about the integration of faith and learning, and repeated often the idea, paraphrased from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and others, that “all truth is God’s truth.”

The role of women?

Age of the earth?

Creation / evolution?

Comparative religion?

If you start with a narrow, predetermined framework, those can be threatening topics.

If you start from a belief that the world is God’s, the truth is his, and our role is to understand more fully, those topics become intriguing, richly rewarding, fertile ground for awe, amazement, investigation, deep humility.

Jesus said:
 “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) 
Books have been written about the strong anti-intellectual tendencies of contemporary Christians. In 1994, historian Mark Noll wrote about The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with a much-quoted assertion: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

Ten years later, reassessing his earlier work, Noll admitted:

"Some readers have rightly pointed out that what I described as a singularly evangelical problem is certainly related to the general intellectual difficulties of an advertisement-driven, image-preoccupied, television-saturated, frenetically hustling consumer society, and that the reason evangelicals suffer from intellectual weakness is that American culture as a whole suffers from intellectual weakness."

But pointing to an intellectually lazy culture doesn’t excuse intellectually lazy Christians.  Os Guiness, in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, wrote: 
"We evangelicals need to confess individually and collectively that we have betrayed the Great Commandment to love God with our minds. We need to confess that we have given ourselves up to countless forms of unutterable folly. God has given us minds, but many of us have left them underdeveloped or undeveloped.
  • God has given us education, beyond that of most people in human history, but we have used it for other ends.
  • God has given us great exemplars of thinking in Christian history, but we have ignored them or admired them for other virtues.
  • God has given us opportunities, but we have failed to grasp them because we have refused to think them through before him. 

That last point hits me hard: what does it mean to be one of the best educated women in the history of the world, in a culture with instant access to every kind of information, in a nation whose policies influence poor farmers, hungry families, frightened citizens in every nation on earth?

What opportunities do I have for influence, engagement, investment, that demand an active mind?

How can I love God with all my mind, and my neighbor as myself?

To me, loving God with my mind means reading and reflecting on his word, rather than expecting someone else to tell me what it says. I’ve read the Bible straight through on my own, but these days use Scripture Union’sEncounter with God, available in booklet form or online. (Full disclosure: my husband, Whitney Kuniholm, is president of Scripture Union USA, writes regularly for Encounter with God, and also blogs about the Bible at The Essential Bible Blog.)

This blog is also part of loving God with my mind – a record of questions I’m exploring. My "What's Your Platform" series last fall was an attempt to view political issues through the lens of scripture,and I've also been exploring healing and prayer. Right now I’m thinking about mental illness, and the role of pharmaceuticals in treatment. Agriculture and food, and the way federal policy has shaped our diet and undermined small farmers. Invasive plants, and creative ways to help restore diminished habitat.

But loving God with all my mind, and my neighbor as myself, suggests a need to help others receive an education like my own. I’ve written dozens of college recommendations for young people I’ve come to know through youth ministry and missions. Our family has financially supported a Ugandan student through medical school; it’s sobering to think that what we spend on coffee or entertainment could provide an advanced degree in a country where a year of tuition, fees, and living expenses cost less than one Ivy League course credit. 

I’ve also invested in helping friends go back to school, watching their kids, offering academic advice, proof-reading papers, talking through difficult concepts.

I’ve found ways to engage my own mind in loving God and neighbor, and ways to support neighbors, near and far, in training and using their minds.

And yes, my own vote is shaped, in part, by a candidate’s willingness to invest in public education at
every level, and sensitivity to the needs of low-income students.

But I find myself wondering: what would it look like to be part of a community that loves God with all our minds, together?

What could Christ’s church accomplish, if we chose to use the minds God gave us, with humility, grace, wisdom, discipline?

Greg Jao's Your Mind's Mission (an IVP minibook, available as download or in print) might be an interesting place to start - either alone, or with a small group. It's short, practical, and offers interesting application assignments. 

And the Hearts & Minds booknotes blog offers resources, encouragement, occasional discounts on books that could point the way. (Here's a post with more resources on loving God with all our minds, and one on Resurrectionary Reading, with ideas for "resurrectionary reading groups".)

What has helped you most in learning to love God with all your mind?

Where do you see the church helping to make this happen?

What next steps would you recommend?

Please join this conversation!