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2C. An Anti-intellectualism Approach

Are we living in an anti-intellectual period of Christian history in USAmerica or anywhere else for that matter? Anti-intellectualism doesn’t mean being anti-academic. There are thousands of colleges and universities that are still growing. Anti-intellectualism doesn’t mean anti-scientific because science is still revered. Anti-intellectualism doesn’t mean anti-technology because technology is booming. Anti-intellectualism simply could be defined as “against the mind.” What we “think” is subordinate to what we feel.

Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, wrote the following, referencing the 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: 1

One of the great culprits in this whole enterprise is anti-intellectualism. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter points out that the Reformed Faith built America’s only indigenous intellectual tradition, and as Puritanism degenerated into revivalism, the nation lost its intellectual balance. While the Reformed evangelists of the Great Awakening were also presidents of Princeton and Yale, evangelists ever since Charles Finney have actually boasted in their lack of education. Evangelicalism has a legacy of anti-intellectualism that has not only crippled its witness to the watching world, but has opened the church itself up to the most remarkable reaches of stupidity and incredulity. 2

Because of the “cult of the individual” and its propensity for dualisms and our need to be correct, i.e., one idea is right while another is wrong, we tend to make emotion our guiding light while thinking takes a back seat. Does our heart (emotions) inform our head? Or, does our head inform our heart? 3 Or, do they work in tandem with each other to bring harmony in our lives? What passes for intellectual conversation often is simply the rhetoric of emotion. Both Left and Right in the political arena make claims of being intellectual while emotion drives their speech. Recently, I read an article in which a pastor argued that there was a standard for the church. His standard was the “church” he had joined twenty plus years ago. That was ground zero. Anyone standing in a different place than the excruciatingly narrow circle he was standing in, was liberal. This kind of reflection is a bane on our society and reflects how the “cult of the individual” leans toward anit-intellectualism.

James K. A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom 4 suggests that we act to know (think). He suggests that “what nourishes or fuels the “I” [individual] is a steady diet of ideas, fed somewhat intravenously into the mind through the lines of propositions and information.” 5 He builds a caricature of the human as a “bobble head.” 6 He thinks that “rather than calling into question this reductionist picture of the human person, the church simply tries to feed different ideas through the same intellectual IV.” 7 It seems that the anti-intellectual could be seen as one who in the race to banish intellectualism has rather produced a rather precocious “bubble head” mentality, which looks intellectual but lacks the power thereof.

Smith, using an Augustinian focus on love, suggests that we desire, then we know. That puts a whole new spin on such passages as, “…he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psa 37.4), which would not mean that we create personal desires and God then gives them to us (most common way of understanding this passage), but that as we delight in him, he puts his desires in our being and from those desires, we think and act. For him, Scripture is about “renarrating the world” and done as community through liturgy. 8 Smith is not “against the mind” (he holds a Ph.D.); rather, he is for practices within a community, which lead Jesus followers toward the thinking process. Community has been left in the dust in the creation of the “cult of the individual.”

There is another concept that feeds the individual devotional reading of Scripture and seems to also raise some problematic issues when reading is done entirely within the “cult of individualism:” What is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting?

EndNotes:

  1. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York, NY: Random House, 1966), 18.
  2. Michael Horton, “Sloth In Our Day,” Backwoods Presbyterian. http://backwoodspresbyterian.blogspot.com/2008/05/sloth-in-our-day.html (accessed June 1, 2016).
  3. These are surely Western dualistic questions. Heart from a Hebrew point of view means the whole person, not a part of the whole person.
  4. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).
  5. Ibid., 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 43.
  8. Ibid., 194.

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