I came across an interesting article on Facebook recently entitled, “Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?” (link to the original article), written by David Denison. His article is essentially a reaction to a study conducted by the University of Rochester entitled “Studies have shown that atheists tend to be smarter than Christians” (couldn’t find find a link to the study itself; this was the best I could do in a few minutes), which Denison took as the byline for the article I read. Of course, I encourage you to read the original article, but here’s how I would sum it up…
The author argues that increasingly over time, fewer and fewer “intellectuals” are believing in Christ and playing an active role in the church. He cites a statistic originating with atheist Richard Dawkins that “7 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God”, in support of what is essentially a thesis that smart people tend not to be Christians. He then gives two basic explanations / reasons for his conclusion:
- There is an significant bias against theism within higher education
- The present Christian Church culture in America is unfriendly to intellectual scrutiny
I do not disagree with either of these claims. I’m quite sure Denison is right on both counts. And I have nowhere near the credentials to judge or the time to investigate the statistics / his basic conclusion that few intellectuals are Christians, and that even those numbers are shrinking. I will say that I’ve met and certainly read some monstrously intelligent men and women whose godliness I aspire to. Instead, my purpose in writing this response is to expand on Denison’s conclusions and perhaps to redirect the focus of the discussion a bit.
First, two additional reasons why I believe it’s difficult for highly educated people to trust Christ…
Knowledge Has a Moral Dimension
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:18-19, my emphasis)
All knowledge comes from God (c.f. Job 12:13ff, Prov 2:1-15, Deut 29:29). He is the source of all things, created everything, sustains everything, and reveals Himself in and through and beyond His creation. God gives us the faculties to observe, record, and understand. He is not only the source of knowledge, but the means by which it is revealed to man. And God is clear that, in addition to being far weaker and smaller than we think we are, manking is singularly gifted at choosing not to see, not to understand, not to desire the truth. It is extremely common — I have encountered this countless times personally — for the human heart to demand a particular conclusion to a logical debate, because it is unwilling to face the implications of another conclusion.
Jill says, “Science proves that there is no God.”
But what is actually meant, deep in Jill’s heart (perhaps suppressed out of the reach of her conscious mind), “There cannot be a God, because if there were, then that God would, by definition, be someone more powerful and more knowledgeable than me, to whom I might have to give account of my life.”
In this way, men and women (by the billions) “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). I refuse to believe, because I refuse to give up the autonomy that I both deserve and demand, and which my unbelief permits me.
Abundance Is Poisonous to Faith
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)
Speaking of anything except God Himself… The more we have, the more secure we (wrongly) believe we are, while, simultaneously, the more restless and demanding and insatiable we become.
First, the more we perceive ourselves to have, the more foreign the concept of dependence on God becomes. In our abundance, we grow up and become independent. Our money or intellect or connections take care of us, so we no longer need God to. Paul Miller says it well when he lamented how hard it is to understand praying for daily bread, when we have 3 days of bread in our fridge, 30 days in our checking account, and 3,000 in our 401(k). But Jesus was extremely clear that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible only to those who, like little children, depend entirely on God to provide it. There will be no spiritually self-made men (or women) in heaven. The spiritual life knows no home-grown millionaires. Only the poor in spirit, who by God’s grace ultimately inherited the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 5:3)
Second, the abundance of possessions, wealth, human relationships, pleasure, even knowledge do not fill the heart. None of these can produce satisfaction. Anyone who works to fill themselves with worldly things stretches out their soul, and produces in themselves a lust for more, not less. The satisfaction they seek gets more elusive, not less. Instead of getting closer, the oasis is farther away with the crest of every desert hill.
This is satan’s great lie, “Take what belongs to God for yourself. It will satisfy you.”
So the more we fill ourselves with worldly things, the greater and deeper our lust for those things becomes, and the harder it is to see God … who is the only “thing” in all the universe who can fill the human soul. Augustine said it so well over 1,500 years ago, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in [God].” I like CS Lewis‘ take (less than 100 years ago) on it ever better, “We are far too easily pleased.” We should reject the notion that one more achievement or acquisition will fulfill us in any way, and rest in God. Even acquiring theological knowledge is no better than collecting stamps or facebook friends, unless its goal is to know and love God more, not just know more about Him.
That’s not to say that anyone who’s rich or smart or beautiful or has some earthy possession in abundance is thin of soul, stretched out, idolatrous, or blind to the things of God. By no means. But it is to say that they more of any of these things one has, the closer one circles to a black hole. Many teeter on the edge of the event horizon (or have even swirled past it into the abyss) without knowing it, and then they wonder why it’s so very hard to hear God’s voice or see God’s truth. It’s because they have so much of what gets in the way, that they can’t see through it to what their hearts were designed to see in the first place.
A New Direction with the Discussion
But on top of these two points, at the core of it, I am somewhat concerned with the underlying implications of the article. Again, it’s not that I disagree with either point he makes, but I think the undercurrent of his argument might take us where we really shouldn’t want to go. Here’s what I mean…
From my perspective, the author is saying that we need to be more willing to engage “thinkers” on the hard questions. There are too many Christians giving pat answers to very difficult questions, and effectively adopting (and espousing) a blind faith. Too many Christians neither ask tough questions, nor think through complex issues, nor challenge rote answers. And what’s worse, when others DO ask tough questions or raise complex issues or challenge rote answers, many Christians discourage our even outright disparage them. And I agree with the author that this has to stop. We should be less lazy and more confident. God’s truths have stood up to unparalleled scrutiny for thousands of years, and not because the Hubble telescope or the quantum microscope weren’t invented yet. It’s because God is actually real, and is who He claims to be. There is no question that the most hardened skeptic could bring to God that He (or for that matter many Christians through the ages) would find intimidating. Go crazy. Ask away.
BUT… There are a few fundamental starting points — an essential orientation of perspective — that I believe Christians should adopt when wading into this much needed openness to intellectual scrutiny…
Adopt the motto, “Credo ut Intelligam”
This is not the first time in Christian history that this argument has been made, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. One previous incarnation occurred about 1,000 years ago during the lifetime of a man named Anselm of Canterbury. In his day, as Europe emerged from the dark ages and science was soaring to amazing new heights — handily explaining away all the mysteries in the world (in the eyes of Anselm’s contemporaries) — “Medieval Scholasticism” sought to intellectualize Christianity. People were asking the tough questions. They worked hard to define God more succinctly. They wanted to better understand. All so that they could develop a better, deeper, more intellectually-grounded faith. But in response to this movement, which for sure had some positive sides, Anselm responded the same way I responded when I read Denison’s article, by saying, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”, or in the Latin, “Credo ut Intelligam.” Here, here!
It is right and good to approach God (and the church) with questions. God is not turned off or intimidated by honest skepticism. And neither should Christians be! But let us not come to believe that somehow we will understand our way into faith, or domesticate God in some way. God is too large for that. And the deepest truths about God and the universe He created are revealed by God. We will not find God in knowledge. We will find knowledge in God.
Reconsider the “pat” in “pat answers”
In his article, Denison makes quick dismissive work of a number of Christian platitudes, such as “His ways are higher than our ways” or “it’s a relationship, not a religion”. And I agree that these cannot be answers designed to shut down deep or even uncomfortable conversation. For that matter, let’s all work on getting uncomfortable far less quickly. Questions are good. Doubt shouldn’t scare us. Nor should not having all the answers. In all things, we go to God and His Word.
But I want to caution us not to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The truth is that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). It is a relationship, not just a set of truth claims (John 14:6, 11:25, and many others). And Christianity isn’t a religion at all; it’s completely different from every other form of faith for exactly that reason. Again, the danger of looking with disdain at the “pat” answers is that we would lose sight of the fact that these pat answers are some of the truth claims Denison is advocating we ferret out. There is simply no way to approach God, for instance, without the acknowledgement that we are never going to come close to fully understanding him. At the very heart of what’s “messier than the Sloppy Joes” (see his article) is the ability to live with the mystery and ambiguity and difficult balances between opposing forces that are at the heart of Christianity. If you’re not prepared to do a lot of head scratching and looking at each other muttering, “Deep, brother! Deep!”, then you’re going to have a really tough time digging too deeply into theology (the “discourse about God”). If you approach God with a box you’re hoping to fit Him into, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, no matter your IQ or academic credentials.
Ask God for wisdom
Again, all knowledge comes from God. The cold hard truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, you are not wise. Neither am I. But God is, and He has clearly stated that He gives wisdom freely without reproach (James 1:5) … or one might say, without holding our weakness and smallness against us, or favoring one “asker” over another. If you want answers, ask the author of all knowledge. Every other plan is … um … inferior.
Summing it Up
In my opinion, Denison’s article is a really good one. Much needed, and important for the Church to hear. But we must also guard against losing ourselves in academic questions. God is not just a topic of study. Christianity is not just a set of truth claims. We only approach God on His terms, and His terms are far more about trust and dependence, than about knowledge and self-confidence. And when we strive to acquire data about God, let’s make sure we are striving to know God so that we might love Him more, not so that we can have Him all figured out.
The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church — the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.
— J. I. Packer