Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars

Image result for called to the life of the mind“You don’t need to go to seminary.  Jesus never went to seminary.”  I still hear the echo of these words stated to me by an ministry aspiring young man.   This is a young man I recognized as gifted by the Lord.  This is young man I enthusiastically encouraged to acquire sound biblical and theological education.  This is a young man whose religious tradition views theological education as somehow alien and with great suspicion.  Upon reflection of this encounter, I went ahead and read some small books that speaks to the importance of education and the essential necessity of cultivating the life of the mind in the service of Christ.

American philosopher and theologian and former President at Fuller Theological Seminary Richard J. Mouw wrote a small book entitled Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014) that makes some salient points in regards to the anti-intellectualism winds that blow from some particular places in American evangelicalism today.  While directed to the evangelical scholar community and not at the church, I will attempt to review some of its main points and close with some critical and practical questions.  My hope is that potential ministers, church leaders and Christ followers will be encouraged to cultivate the life of your mind and not just your heart.  After all, Scriptures invites us and exhort us to do so. Luke 10:27: And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30; Matthew 22:37).

Called to the Life of the Mind begins by Mouw’s personal testimony of his journey into the world of Christian scholarship.  Mouw recalls the ‘simple Gospel’ emphasis and its implications.  Messages were as follows:

  • “You don’t need exegesis, you just need Jesus!” (p. 1)
  • “Education is a good thing only if you get the victory over it.” (p. 1)
  • “The only school any Christian needs to attend is the Holy Ghost’s school of the Bible.” (p. 1)

Mouw narrates that while he was in college he fell in love with the liberal arts.  But then as an evangelical preacher’s son he was worried.  “I worried much that not only was I disappointing my family’s hopes for me, but I was also rebelling against the plans that the Lord himself had for my life.” (p. 3).   However, an encounter with a guest speaker who insisted that “Christians must insist that our intellectual life is infused with faith” (p. 3) inspired Mouw to pursue ‘a lifelong commitment to Christian scholarship.” (p. 4)  Called to the Life of the Mind offers some lessons and wise words regarding the value, dichotomies, meaning, perils, pitfalls, victories and dilemmas that Christ followers who commit to the life of the mind may face in their journeys.

Called to the Life of the Mind underscores some of the accusing voices that Mouw faced as he was to enter the intellectual life.  “They were Christian voices from my past, and they spoke the familiar language of that long line of preachers, Bible teachers, and family members. You have compromised with the world, this voice said.  You have followed ways of thinking that are not fitting for a child of God.” (p. 5).  After much struggling, Mouw was grateful for those voices and for the need to keep in dialogue with them because he acknowledged that there is a spiritual struggle and because of the tendency of the intellect to favor the wrong side of this struggle.  Faithful cultivation of the life of the mind (knowledge) go hand in hand with living a life that pleases the Lord (experience).  Called to the Life of the Mind acknowledges that assuming that loving God implies having, gaining and mastering certain concepts of God can be very elitist because “not everyone in the Christian community needs to be seriously involved in intellectual pursuits.” (p. 10)  The crucial thing is for the Christian community to recognize and encourage some people to cultivate the intellectual disciplines.  The church needs good teachers and scholars.

Called to the Life of the Mind insists on the need for the Christian to do practical exercises (pragmatics) that seemingly may look unrelated at first to the Christian life but that actually would someday contribute to the growth and spiritual formation and maturity of such.  And equally, Called to the Life of the Mind asserts that “a sustained and disciplined intellectual life has also value apart from its pragmatic results.” (p. 15).  Cultivating the life of the mind in itself is a good thing.  Called to the Life of the Mind calls out the false choice between withdrawal or takeover when engaging the culture and to “doing the best we can to be an influence for the good without actually gaining any sort of cultural control.” (p. 19) Called to the Life of the Mind reminds us that we are finite and fallen beings and thus must “take a humbly modest approach to human knowing” (p. 23) heeding the Christian message that we are “tempted to arrogance and self-centeredness.” (p. 23)  Called to the Life of the Mind calls us to “live in the tension between epistemic humility and epistemic hope” (p. 26) lest we fall in the temptation to use knowledge in a triumphalist tone “moving from separation to an attempt at domination.” (p. 26)  Called to the Life of the Mind reminds us that the task of scholarship is a communal task.  Historically speaking, intellectual communities have been undergird by spiritual virtues.  Likewise, evangelical scholars today take a vow “to nurture a healthy tradition by a shared commitment to creative teaching and scholarship.” (p. 33)  Called to the Life of the Mind urges Christian higher institutions to become safe spaces for intellectual explorations and reminds us of the diversity of gifts in academic communities.  Called to the Life of the Mind urges evangelical scholars to acknowledge hopes and fears and its accompanying “frequent encounter with loneliness.” (p. 47)  evangelical scholars should procure communal involvement and consider appropriate “to invoke the support of the everlasting arms” (p. 47), a spiritual support system the church do not seem eager to develop.  Called to the Life of the Mind claims that critical thinking can be one way to serve the Lord and urges evangelical scholars to be “lovers of created reality,” (p. 56) by honoring, celebrating and beholding creation.  Called to the Life of the Mind urges evangelical scholars to Christ-like suffering and self-sacrificing collegiality by observing and practicing   the spiritual virtues of “humility, faith, self-denial and love” (p. 65) and by displaying “the kind of patience that is capable of tolerating complexities and living with seemingly unconnected particularities without giving into to despair or cynicism … a Christ-like ministry.” (p. 71)

Called to the Life of the Mind is a succinct yet meaningful reflection and advice to evangelical scholars by a premier and influential leader in the American evangelical academy and seminary community.  One reads Called to the Life of the Mind and senses the voice, dilemmas and challenges that only a seasoned scholar and administrator has experienced.  For that I commend Richard J. Mouw.  And while Called to the Life of the Mind is directed at evangelical scholars one can certainly use it and read it as an occasion to ask some questions to the evangelical churches and their leaders as follows: Does one’s faith requires sacrificing one’s intellect?  Do our churches provide safe places for intellectual explorations and for the cultivation of intellectual virtues, dispositions and habits?  How can our churches nurture a spiritual support system for the preparation of scholars and good teachers for the proclamation of the Gospel?  How can our church leaders promote an environment that holds in tension hope and humility?  Perhaps, the young man’s claim that attending seminary is unnecessary since Jesus never went to seminary would be unnecessary if some of our places of worship and their corresponding traditions create and cultivate a space and a culture where one’s faith can actually be married to the pursuit and development of the intellect.  Faith and reasons are friends rather enemies, albeit the latter is the maid of the former.


The author David