Ivan Plis | Monday, 23 August 2010 18:46In my experience, 21st-century American Christians are characterized at best as compassionate and gentle, and at worst as hypocritical and credulous. Unfortunately, Christians aren't often seen as deep thinkers, despite the great heritage of Christian scholarship, intellection, and inquiry.
I'm not going to pretend that this just is a matter of bad P.R. It seems that "the life of the mind" is a genuine weakness for many Christians, and this puzzles me, because Jesus called upon his followers to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind," (Luke 10:27) particularly adding "mind" to the original commandment at Deuteronomy 6:5.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, with the rise of the scholastic movement, the Church began to create a division between reason and the emotions. Reason was for scholastic theologians to use in confronting God, while the emotions were for the common worshipper. In the decades after the Reformation, emotional engagement with God took precedence. This suspicion deepened with the Enlightenment's rejection of conventional religion, so that when sticky controversies arose, like those over the ideas of Darwin, the average faithful Christian in the West was more likely to mistrust their reason when confronting Creation. In 1994, when Mark Noll bemoaned that "there is not much of an evangelical mind," few people were surprised from either inside or outside the evangelical movement.
Of course, my explanation is a gross simplification. But when Robert A. Fryling, publisher of InterVarsity Press, dedicated a chapter of his 2010 book The Leadership Ellipse to the spiritual role of the mind, I was pleasantly surprised. In his third chapter, Fryling insists that the mind needs to reclaim its place among the ways a Christian comes to know God, inspired by Paul's exhortation to the Roman church: "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2).
He begins to trace this tension between nonconformity and mental renewal with the great biblical nonconformists, such as Moses and Abraham, who rejected the strictures of their surrounding world and willingly, mentally chose instead to follow God's path. For Fryling, focusing on our thoughts helps us continuously and deliberately turn our thoughts to following Christ and overcoming conformity to the world.
Fryling goes further, by taking the instruction "Prepare your minds for action" (1 Pet 1:13) as a condemnation of intellectual laziness. He reminds us that a starved mind leads to an impoverished soul. Given how much of the book addresses the responsibility of stewardship, the neglect of our minds in encountering God would amount to ignoring some of the gifts with which He entrusted us. Fryling affirms the importance of the mind in many human actions — from contemplating creation, to consciously recognizing our creaturely place before God, to interacting with our neighbor in a godly fashion.
With a back-to-the-original impulse which I owe to my Eastern Orthodox upbringing, I looked up the original Greek of the verse from Romans. The word used for "mind" is nous, used throughout Scripture and by the early Church Fathers to refer to the receptive, perceiving part of human consciousness; not the dianoia, or active, imagining, reasoning mind, which is in the verse from Peter's first letter. This indicates that Paul's "renewal" isn't necessarily a change in our patterns of logical thinking and reasoning (though that too may be required), but rather rearranging our readiness to perceive and commune with God. In fact, reordering our nous is what will ultimately transform us and make us "able to test and approve what God's will is."
Though Fryling's book is directed to Christians in positions of leadership, its observations, such as this reflection on the renewal of our minds, are useful for anyone. We all need to be reminded of the need to redirect our attention to God; in fact, this may very well be part of the injunction to pray without ceasing. As we continue to renew our minds and be transformed by communion with God, let us remember that turning outward to face the world is part of our creaturely response.