Habits of Mind

Habits of the MindHabits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling builds upon a line of publications, decrying the ascent of mindless Christianity that according to the author, James W. Sire, diminishes the effectiveness of the gospel to contemporary cultures.

The difference between Sire’s work from those of Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind or Guinesses’ Fit Bodies, Fat Minds is that the author focuses on the value and development of the intellectual life, rather than chastising the church. It is not intended as a polemic to change the prejudices of mainstream evangelicals or relativists. Instead, it is designed to provide content, definition, and substance to the Christian intellect.

Specifically, he leads the Christian through a rare-used labyrinth of concepts intended to help them think with more accuracy, more attention to implications for life, more experience, and awareness of the presence of God.

The question arises, “Why should Christian educators concern themselves with the lofty theme of intellectualism?” After all, Christian school teachers are focused on basic skills, to prepare students for higher learning.

Whether acknowledged or not, Christian educators are in the career of developing the intellect. As such, it is endemic to the profession to understand what the intellectual life entails.

The author acknowledges that intellectuals have been the objects of scorn and deemed irrelevant in evangelical circles. The contrived conflict of the spiritual and the intellect has had an iron grip in many quarters.

As such, many of the brightest minds have gone into disciplines other than Christian service where their gifts could be acknowledged and rewarded. There remains a widely held belief that intellectuals erode and undermine a student’s faith. As such, intellectual pursuits continue to be in disdain among the church community.

Sire, himself, reflected on the social ostracism and struggles he faced while attempting to follow the Lord’s calling to serve as an intellectual. He notes the tendency to equate this calling with snobbery, arrogance, and even radicalism.

However, Sire does a good job of exposing misinterpretations of I Cor. 1:20-25; 8:1-2, and Col. 2:8 by anti-intellectualists. Here he accentuates the point that those verses are not wholesale repudiations of scholarship and philosophy, but of false ideas.

In a later chapter, he details Jesus’ use of scholarship, reason, and various forms of logic when explaining truths. Jesus displays an unusual understanding of Scripture from his youth. Sire claims that

Jesus uses a fortiori arguments. He reasons from evidence. He constructs arguments. Also, he exegetes the Old Testament to explain the kingdom (p.188-195).

Contrary to evangelical instincts, the author begins this journey with a 19th century Anglican-Dissenter who fell into Catholicism and eventually became a cardinal in the Roman church by the name of John Henry Newman. In Newman’s classic work, The Idea of the University, he details characteristics of the fully developed Christian mind. In it, he said the mind is “clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it (p.30).”

Although Newman’s theology took twists and turns, his intellectual acumen was recognized by both Protestants and Catholics alike. He saw that, “Truth is too sacred and religious a thing to be sacrificed to … the prejudices of education… (p37).”

How then is truth acquired? Newman’s answer was the arts and sciences. How about religious truth? He held it was through both reason and revelation. Contrary to historic Protestantism, revelation was derived through the Scripture, Christian tradition, and conscience.

Newman argues that the fully developed intellect is disciplined. This intellect, “has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and 

events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect… cannot but be patient, collected and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, and the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another (p. 54).”

These, among many other such quotes, provide a framework by which Sire can expand Newton’s analysis. He points out that intellectuals are dedicated to clarifying ideas, developing them, criticizing them. Intellectuals see ideas that are “ill-conceived, poorly formulated, twisted out of shape by bile or bias, they bring it into focus, straighten it, examine its implications and determine how true or accurate it is in doing what it claims to do (pp. 77-78).”

Also, scholars bring ideas into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought. He notes, “True intellectuals have a clear view of the panorama of worldviews this allows them a breadth of perspective and enables them to see every idea in a larger context of new twenty-first-century alternatives (p.85).”

Since Christians believe all that exists is contingent upon the self-existent Creator. The knower and things known stand in the same dependent relation to the absolute truth which is in God alone. As such, no higher panorama can be attained, making Christian scholars uniquely poised to apply ideas to these variant worldviews.

For the Christian, intellectual pursuits are far more than the development of ideas. The value of any idea is in direct proportion to its grasp of truth. Not contrived truth, formulated by traditions or consciences of fallen men, but what Francis Schaeffer called, “true truth.” That is, truth as reality in form, substance, and interpretation as revealed by God’s written and natural law.

Like his progenitor, who was driven by a passion for both truth and holiness, Sire turns his pen to define what makes the Christian intellectual distinctive. According to him, a Christian intellectual is everything as other intellectuals, “but to the glory of God (p. 88).”

For Sire, the Christian intellectual embraces four categories of virtue.

They are not enamored with vacuous ideas, cleverly constructed phrases, or titillating novelties. The Christian scholar has a passion for truth, holiness, consistency, and others. Their passion for truth leads them to being inquisitive, teachable, persistent, and humble.

Their pursuit of holiness drives them to do what they know, with love, courage, and integrity. Their compulsion for consistency leads them to tenacity, perseverance, and patience. Finally, their compassion for others, moves them toward clarity of expression, orderliness in presentation, and aptness of illustration.

So the question becomes, “How does one pursue the calling of being an intellectual?” Dr. Sire then underscores the disciplines that accompany this calling. He notes this life is characterized by solitariness. These attend to a single problem for lengthy periods of time. They develop the ability to think outside of norms and predictable linear thought patterns. Overarching this is a spirit of prayer that graces the process throughout.

The author accentuates that the intellectual life is characterized by reading. As a Christian intellectual, he underscores the lectio divina, or sacred reading. This is not so much a technique as an atmosphere while reading, which lends itself to deep contemplation.

He culminates this work by detailing the responsibilities of a Christian intellectual. First, we are responsible to God to use or mental abilities to his glory. We are obliged to devote our minds to the truth as revealed in God’s written and natural law. Finally, we owe obedience to God for what we know. We live in the truth.

As a Christian educator, do you cultivate richness in your own intellectual capacity? Do you focus your instruction with students on the development of their ability to think in clear, consistent, and God-honoring fashions?

Published one time for exclusively educational purposes. Resource for the compendium provided by The Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling by James W. Sire (2000, Intervarsity Press)

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