Wednesday, 15 March 2017

My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge . . .

Anti-intellectualism is antagonism towards the life of the mind and the mistrust of experts. However, it is not anti-thought as such, because each human possesses the God-given gift of thinking: to make sense of its environment and its place in the animal world, to try fresh ideas, to learn new things and to reflect on them, and to make decisions and take action on the basis of those reflections . At the risk of displaying an extraordinary level of ignorance or misunderstanding on my part, even those who have special educational needs are able to think and learn, even if not especially well according to certain pedagogical standards. Thus anti-intellectualism is a stance that attempts to deny a major element of those things that make us human and seeks to attack those who profit financially or otherwise from attending to the life of the mind.

Anti-intellectualism is also a matter of authority, of whose authority is acceptable. It will not do to romanticise the attitudes towards specialists of previous generations or the past more generally; but once upon a time, the expert—the one who has sacrificed his* life (and perhaps the lives of others, too) in the attempt to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding—and his learning together were considered valuable, his advice and wisdom worth heeding. Now, that very same expert is vilified because his education is regarded as suspect in a world where not everybody is considered necessarily equal but is nonetheless equally considered. The current wave of anti-intellectualism is a refusal to accept that my own knowledge and understanding are in any way limited. Such a refusal takes flesh by demanding a podium in the marketplace of ideas alongside those whose knowledge and understanding are not quite as limited. The content of the speech is nothing, but the act of speaking, the voice, is everything. Once, the expert had authority because his voice proclaimed meaning and wisdom sourced from learning; but now people are able to cast themselves as enlightened authorities due to the wealth of information at their fingertips (though often with an inability to process that information wisely) and a newly discovered confidence in the related powers of gainsaying and self-assertion.

This is why anti-intellectualism is especially egregious in the Church. The Church is the body of Christ and the new humanity living the life of the age to come in the here and now. While many people in the world welcome the death of some experts and witch-hunt others, the Church is called to champion the life of the mind renewed in Christ. When the Church is committed to ignoring the specialist in favour of an ill-defined egalitarianism; when Christians dismiss the relevance of theological thought or its need; when the body of Christ ignores the advice of those inside and outside the Church who have gained knowledge and understanding through a lifetime of dedicated study; when these things happen, the Church has betrayed its Christological foundation by accepting a disenchanted materialism impervious to the transformation of the Holy Spirit. An anti-intellectualist Church ignores the fact that it is comprised of human beings and denies what human beings in Christ already are and are becoming.

Perhaps the Church’s anti-intellectualism arises from a perceived lack of equality among equals in the body of Christ. But the way to address this is not to reduce theological learning to the lowest common denominator but to raise the lowliest members of our churches to the unimagined heights of an expanded, Spirit-enlivened theological imagination. The way to address this is not to ignore ‘expertise’ (the quotation marks are deliberate) or to presume that the specialist desires the splendid isolation of her ivory tower but to challenge everyone to aspire to become experts themselves. And so the way to address this is not to deny Christians the oxygen of theological thought but to inhale the breath of God so necessary for good theology so that, in the name of Jesus, prayers may be exhaled for the world.

* In ages past, the expert was invariably male. Oh, and the title of this blog post is from a quotation by Isaac Asimov.


  1. Yes. I wholeheartedly agree! Anti-intellectualism is rife in the church and it is scary. Often it's hardly even anti-intellectualism, it's anti-common sense. Like when I heard someone say that the reason the church they went to had had 'problems' was because it was built on the site of a former Masonic lodge. And in an entirely separate conversation another friend said of the local Anglican church that she didn't want to go there because it had Masonic symbols in the stained glass windows. I would wholeheartedly agree that Masonic symbols are distasteful and wrong within the walls of a church, but this sort of thinking becomes a kind of superstition and that really p****s me off. God gave me a brain in order for me to use it. To subvert the beauty of Christ with superstition is pernicious and wicked.

    1. Yes . . . though the issue of Masonic symbols for me is an interesting one. I'm always hesitant about these sorts of things, though I'm sure it's down to my Jack-Chick-speaks-absolute-truth days!

    2. Don't get me wrong - I am in no way a fan of the Freemasons. There are Freemasons in my extended family (a situation that makes me very sad) and I always knew it was wrong, even before I knew why - after all, why is something kept so secret if it is for good?
      What I'm getting at (clearly your post has sparked something in me here - forgive me from going off on a bit of a tangent!) is that Paul tells us very clearly in Ephesians 6:12 that our struggles are as much spiritual as earthly - but if we believe that Christ has not overcome all evil what kind of faith is that? If I don't believe that Christ has overcome I might as well not bother - I'm thinking of Romans 8:38-39 in this instance:
      'For I am convinced [and continue to be convinced—beyond any doubt] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present and threatening, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the [unlimited] love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Amplified)
      Your post also reminds me of Proverbs 1:7 'The [reverent] fear of the Lord [that is, worshipping Him and regarding Him as truly awesome] is the beginning and the preeminent part of knowledge [its starting point and its essence];
      But arrogant fools despise [skillful and godly] wisdom and instruction and self-discipline.'
      I think that sums up your entire point, really!

    3. You're right, Sandy. But knowing that Christ has overcome doesn't mean I don't feel creeped out at times! Whether this is just some kind of superstition on my part or some kind of tacit perception of the spiritual battle is anyone's guess!

    4. Yeah, well, you're human. Humans are weird.

      Btw, kudos on the Asimov quote :-D

    5. Human? :( I was aiming for some kind of cyborg.