What the Church Could Use More of: Scholarship

Yeah. I said it. And it’s true.

The church has such a rich history of scholarship. Roger Bacon (1214-1292), a church friar, was one of the first people to promote the use of the scientific method. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) wrote history’s most compelling philosophical treatise on the existence of God. The metaphysical philosopher who gave us Occam’s Razor, William of Ockham (1287-1374), was a prominent Christian. The mathematician who invented coordinate geometry (Nicole Oresme) was “a passionate theologian.” John Calvin of was a Doctor of Law. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew. And of course, most Christians are familiar with Martin Luther and C. S. Lewis. Even the “infamous” Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was a devout believer for much of his life.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, either. The Apostle Paul himself was extremely well educated in his day.

So what changed on the way to the 21st century? Why do so many modern evangelicals discourage and outright reject formal scholarship?

Somewhere, evangelicals began viewing public education as secular, evil, a threat to faith. Perhaps it happened when the Theory of Evolution became required learning in science classes. Perhaps it was when the “safe sex” campaign began circulating through children’s health classes. Perhaps it was when prayer was taken out of schools. I don’t know. But it’s truly baffling. And it’s certainly not to the church’s credit.

In recent years, a disturbing dichotomy has arisen in society, courtesy of the new atheism movement: You’re either a Christian or an intellectual. You can’t be both. To be Christian means to reject all scientific theory and natural phenomena; to be intellectual means to reject anything faith-based. Much of that is just noise, a juvenile act of hateful, close-minded ego-stroking by people like Richard Dawkins. (Yeah. I said that, too.) But they also have a point. To a large degree, the modern church has abandoned its scholarship–even when it comes to interpreting scripture. And it’s alienating Christians whom God has gifted with a healthy intellect and who want to explore their faith and the natural world on a deeper level.

For evangelicals, the pursuit of knowledge hasn’t just been discouraged at the secular university level; it’s also been squelched at the theological level. Many of the people filling the ranks of atheism today were once believers who had sincere questions about church doctrines and practices. Instead of receiving thoughtful answers from church elders, however, their questions were met with outright hostility and dismissed as sinful. Visit any online atheist forum, and you’ll see countless deconversion stories that are appalling in their similarity. When the church refused to answer their questions, they sought answers from elsewhere in the world–usually, from people who had long since rejected faith.

Now, many young believers are encouraged to attend Christian universities and Bible schools where their church’s doctrine is reinforced in the curriculum, whether or not it’s intellectually sound. There’s a fear in many churches that if young people study evolution or discover there’s more than one way to interpret the Bible, they’ll leave the church. But asking them to adhere blindly to doctrines and attacking those who dare point out contradictions in teachings is already sending them away in droves.

According to the King James Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote,

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

And the Apostle Peter said,

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15)

If all they meant was to simply study scripture, that’s sufficiently damning of any anti-scholarship, anti-questioning attitudes. People have an innate need to understand what they are taught. If the church refuses to mentor new believers, they’ll never mature in their faith. And immature Christians often lack the ability to witness effectively and become easy prey for those looking to discredit faith in God.

In the old days, religious meetings offered some of the best educational opportunities for common people. Many were farmers who had never completed school and didn’t know how to read. But that’s no longer the case. Educational opportunities are now widespread, and technology has made society very sophisticated. Telling young people in today’s church to “just have faith” whenever they encounter something they don’t understand no longer cuts the mustard. They want to know what other people believe and why, and why their church’s doctrine is superior. They want to know the full context of the scriptures, the history of the Bible and the true meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew words. I believe one reason the evangelical church is steeped in heresy is that it’s kept all the potential Martin Luthers in ignorance–or driven them away.

The evangelical church has also responded badly to those who have chosen to pursue a secular education. Despite my former pastor claiming that God desires to place believers in different fields, including secular ones, he and the rest of the church clearly favored the young people who sought ministry degrees at approved Christian colleges. Offerings were taken up to help cover their expenses. No such offerings were taken up for those attending public universities. The public university students also received less moral support from their fellow believers.

Instead of standing their ground and refusing to bow to worldly influences when public education turned secular, Christians instead retreated to their fundamentalist foxholes and left the unbelievers to their devices. As a result, the number of influential Christian scholars in fields like science and philosophy appears to be dwindling. And the church’s rejection of formal scholarship has only provided fodder for hardline atheists to claim that faith has no place in serious scientific research. Now, what little Christian scholarship exists is often discredited in academic circles, the claim being that Christian scholars allow their beliefs to distort their research. Apparently, atheist scholars are immune to any kind of bias and agenda-pushing.

What’s sad is that people on both sides of the aisle have forgotten that many of the scientific and mathematical advances that set modern objective standards for research were brought to us by Christian scholars. Perhaps it’s time the church remembered.

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15 responses to “What the Church Could Use More of: Scholarship

  1. Well, we certainly do need more mature theological/spiritual formation; but theology is “faith seeking understanding”; not faith.

    Secular post-Enlightenment humanities and science is often excessively materialistic and reductionistic. We need to approach it from a faith perspective that is as sceptical of secular knowledge as secularist are of our theology, which is also reductionistic and often tlacking in an incarnational perspective- so heavenly-minded that it is no earthly good.

    “My good children, a theologian is one who converses with God and not one who studies theology.” – Elder Ephraim of Katounakia

    “Ideas are mallable and unstable; they not only can be misused, they invite misuse—and the better the idea the more volatile it is. That’s because only the better ideas turn into dogma, and it is by this process whereby a fresh, stimulating, humanly helpful idea is changed into robot dogma that is deadly. The problem starts at the secondary level, not with the originator or developer of the idea, but with the people who are attracted to it, until the last nail breaks, and who invariably lack the overview, flexibility, imagination, and, most importantly, sense of humor to maintain it in the spirit in which it was hatched. Ideas are made by masters, dogmas by disciples, and the Buddha is always killed on the road.” ~Tom Robbins

    This article is a good example of how to combine current research with traditional spiritual wisdom:

    http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-the-spiritual-roots-of-altruism-the-good-samaritan

    • True. There are secular ideas in education that are just as flawed and shaky as anything, which a solid Christian perspective could help bring to light. I’ll always promote the relationship (or conversation with God) over head knowledge any day, but sometimes head knowledge is useful for keeping people grounded and sure when the “warm and fuzzies” have subsided.

      • Quite so! I live in NC, which is not quite the Deep South Bible Belt; but there is still some of that “I don’t need all them books, all I need is muh Bible and JeSUS in muh heart” stuff here, too!

        I don’t know which is worse the all head or the all heart version of faith. Actually, the theological virtue of Faith is neither. It is a trust without reservation in the loving-mercy of God that is not reliant on either logical knowledge or feels good emotionalism. Neither agnosticism nor depression are the opposite of faith, fear is.

        “Fear will quench your faith, and faith will quench your fears. You can choose which will rule you…. Faith and fear are equal in this dimension—both demand to be fulfilled, and both project into the future.” ~ Henry Wright in A More Excellent Way (293)

  2. Thank you so much for the post. You are right on the mark. Knowledge is often dismissed in favor of experience. Scripture is clear that Christians are to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2). It is not possible to please the Lord without growing in knowledge (Colossians 1:10). Because logic itself exists ultimately in the mind of God and is mediated to us through Christ, we have every reason to be the strictest thinkers and most thorough exegetes of any subject we undertake. Christians ought to be the best scholars indeed.

  3. I shared this post on another blog today after I got mildly rebuked for posting comments with “too many words”:

    OMG Carol. I don’t know HOW you do it! I realize you are well versed. No doubt about it. But I just don’t read your lengthy comments. One way to shut me up: just throw a bunch of words at me.

    I just don’t understand why someone would refuse to read a post just because it has “too many words.” Some reflections just can’t be communicated in sound bites or by bumper sticker slogans.

    • Very true. However, I am aware that lengthy statements can be a turn-off for many readers–not because they reject well-thought-out ideas, but because they don’t have the time and attention span to devote to the reading and comprehension required. That’s why I try to keep my comments concise and my blog posts under 1,000 words (under 800 is better). Sometimes that means I go back and edit out excess material or split posts into two parts. For me as a writer, it’s all about readability.

      Some comments are lengthy because commenters have in-depth ideas to share. Others are lengthy because some commenters write in 50-word sentences and repeat themselves 10 times over. Long comments aren’t always the most memorable or informative. It depends on the content. I’ve found that insightful statements written simply and concisely produce the biggest punch–and get a wider reception. Just some food for thought.

      Just keep being who you are, and thanks so much for sharing my posts. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. 🙂

      • Thank you for the tips.

        I am encouraged that “Big Picture” [holistic] rather than simplistic [reductionistic] thinking is becoming more common; but, yes, until the process of connecting the dots has been done, the complexity can be more overwhelming than enlightening.

        I tend to over-react to the Occam’s Razor types, even though I know that Einstein was correct: Everything should be made as simple as possible, just not simpler.

        My Thanksgiving meal was a success. I got a fully-cooked smoked turkey this year, a bit pricey; but the easy prep was worth it. I didn’t even have to check on that little pop-up thingy.
        My ex said that it was the best turkey he has ever eaten and his companion, Kathryn, said that it tasted just like the turkeys that her Dad used to cook. Everyone enjoyed the traditional green bean casserole, my daughter’s special request. Not my favorite veggie side; but there are not many dishes easier to fix than that. The mashed potatoes were “real” and had the lumps to prove it; but no one seemed to mind. I added Heinz roasted turkey gravy from the jars to the few drippings from my pre-cooked turkey and a little extra corn starch for extra thickening and it tasted close to homemade.
        We are having a fully-cooked ham for Christmas. Fully-cooked has become my new Holiday tradition.

        I’m not quite ready for the Redneck Thanksgiving with the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken served on a platter yet, but the older I get, the more I’m tempted to go that route.

        • I hear you. I’m glad you had a good day. I hosted Thanksgiving for friends and made a lovely glazed ham, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy, broccoli and carrot cake. It was yummy.

      • Just hearing about your yummy Thanksgiving dinner makes me suspect that you have been on this earth for a lot fewer than my 70 years!

        • Good Grief! my son will be 50. Even my first-born kid is getting old. I will get to ask Paul what he asked me on my 50th birthday–“How does it feel to be half a century old?” Pay-backs are hell!

          Daughter will be 35–two marriages, 8.5 years apart.

  4. Since I believe in God as Creator/Sustainer as well as Redeemer, I also believe that when there seems to be a conflict between religion and science either our theology is wrong, our scientific theory is wrong or both.

    I am more interested in the “soft” social sciences like psychology and sociology than I am in the “hard” empirical sciences because I find the frequent illogic of human behavior, my own and that of others, to be fascinating.

    This transcript from NPR’s On Being Program speaks about shame/imperfection rather than guilt/sin as the fundamental cause of our feelings of worthlessness:
    http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4932#main_content
    November 21, 2012

    Transcript for Brené Brown on Vulnerability

    The imperfection/shame theory seems be supported by the description of Adam and Eve’s relationship before the *Fall*: The man and his wife were naked, yet they felt no shame. Gen.2:25