In 1995, Thomas Cahill came out with the provocatively titled book How the Irish Saved Civilization. “Ireland,” contended Cahill,
“had one moment of unblemished glory... as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature.”
Then missionary-minded Irish monks brought what had been preserved on their isolated island back to the continent, refounding European civilization.
And that, Cahill concludes, is how the Irish saved civilization.
But there is more at hand in Cahill’s study than meets the eye. Beyond the loss of Latin literature and the development of the great national European literatures that an illiterate Europe would not have established, Cahill notes that something else would have perished in the West: “the habits of the mind that encourage thought.”
Why would this matter?
Cahill continues his assessment, “And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans—just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity.” Without a robust mind to engage the onslaught – and a Christian one at that – the West would have been under the crescent instead of the cross.
Never before have the “habits of the mind” mattered more. As Winston Churchill presciently stated in his address to Harvard University in 1943, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, reflecting on Churchill’s address, notes that Churchill’s point was that a great transition was taking place in Western culture, with immense implications for all who live in it. The powers of the new world would not be nation-states, as with empires past, but ideologies. It would now be ideas, not nations, that would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind.
But this time we may need more than the Irish to save us.
“We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ. But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean?” writes John Stott. “Not a victory by force of arms...This is a battle of ideas.” Yet there are surprisingly few warriors. Those who follow Christ have too often retreated into personal piety and good works or, as one BBC commentator I heard said, Christians have too often offered mere “feelings” and “philanthropy.” Speaking specifically to the challenge from Islam, he added that what is needed is more “hard thinking” applied to the issues of the day.
What remains to be seen is whether there will be any hard thinkers to do it. The peril of our day is that when a Christian mind is most needed, Christians express little need for the mind and, as a result, even less resolve to develop it. There is even a sense that an undeveloped mind is more virtuous than one prepared for battle. Richard Hofstadter, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, identified “the evangelical spirit” as one of the prime sources of American anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter points out that for many Christians, humble ignorance is a far more noble human quality than a cultivated mind.
Such devaluation of the intellect is a recent development within the annals of Christian history. While Christians have long struggled with the role and place of reason, that the mind itself mattered has been without question.
Even the early church father Tertullian (c. A.D. 160- c. 220), who had little use for philosophy and was famed for his statement “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” never questioned the importance of the mind. Tertullian’s conviction was that Greek philosophy had little to offer in terms of informing the contours of Christian thought, akin to the apostle Paul’s quip to the Corinthian church that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men (I Corinthians 1:25). But Tertullian, as well as Paul, would have held any anti-intellectualism that celebrated an undeveloped mind in complete disdain.
Deep within the worldview of the biblical authors and equally within the minds of the earliest church fathers, was the understanding that to be fully human is to think. To this day we call ourselves a race of Homo sapiens, which means “thinking beings.” This is not simply a scientific classification; it is a spiritual one. We were made in God’s image, and one of the most precious and noble dynamics within that image is the ability to think. It is simply one of the most sacred reflections of the divine image we were created in. It is also foundational to our interaction with God. As God Himself implored through the prophet Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).
This was certainly the conviction of Jesus, who made it clear that our minds are integral to life lived in relationship with God. When summarizing human devotion to God as involving heart, soul and strength, Jesus added “and mind” to the original wording of Deuteronomy, as if He wanted there to be no doubt that when contemplating the comprehensive nature of commitment and relationship with God that our intellect would not be overlooked. The apostle Paul contended that our very transformation as Christians would be dependent on whether our minds were engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ (Romans 12:2-3).
All the more reason to be stunned by the words of Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis’ at Oxford, who claimed that “there is no longer a Christian mind.” A Christian ethic, a Christian practice, a Christian spirituality, yes—but not a Christian mind. More recently, historian Mark Noll concurred, suggesting that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. “If evangelicals do not take seriously the larger world of the intellect, we say, in effect, that we want our minds to be shaped by the conventions of our modern universities and the assumptions of Madison Avenue, instead of by God and the servants of God.”
And even if we do not lose our own minds, we will certainly lose the minds of others. This is the double-edged threat of our day, apart from a Christian mind: Either we will be taken captive by the myriad of worldviews contending for our attention, or we will fail to make the Christian voice heard and considered above the din.
Either way, we either begin to think, or lose the fight.
James Emery White
Adapted from the introduction to James Emery White’s A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press), available here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.