The “intellectual” magazine Prospect has put forward its list of the world’s most important thinkers.
Comedian Russell Brand was voted fourth.
No, that was not a misprint.
Fourth most important thinker in.the.world.
Above Indian writer Arundhati Roy, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and U.S. economist Paul Krugman.
The magazine described Brand as "the spiritual leader of Britain's disaffected anti-capitalist youth," adding, "Dismissed by his opponents as a clownish opportunist, he is nevertheless the most charismatic figure on Britain's populist left."
Number one on the list?
French economist Thomas Piketty.
Okay, at least that one I get.
But I will give the magazine credit for one thing: Never before has 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, which would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind.
But will Christians ever be found on any list of important thinkers?
Those who follow Christ have too often retreated into personal piety and good works, or as one BBC commentator I heard over the radio while jogging one morning in Oxford, Christians have too often offered mere “feelings” and “philanthropy.” Speaking specifically to the challenge from Islam, he added that what is needed was more “hard thinking” applied to the issues of the day.
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 (~A.D. 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 in which we were created. 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.
Yet apart from a Christian mind, we will either 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.
We either begin to think, or lose the fight.
So whether you make a list or not, as a Christian,
…you should be one of the world’s most important thinkers.
James Emery White
“Russel Brand voted the world’s fourth most important thinker,” The Telegraph, March 26, 2015, read online.
James Emery White, A Mind for God.
Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
Tertullian, On the Proscription of Heretics VII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson.
Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think?
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, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.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.