Catholic scholar George Weigel writes that in June 1959 the commission preparing the agenda for the Second Vatican Council asked all the Catholic bishops of the world what they would like to talk about. A 40-year-old auxiliary bishop of Krakow named Karol Wojtyla – the future Pope John Paul II – sent a single, sharp question: What in the world has happened?
How did the 20th century, which had begun with such high expectations for the human future, produce within a handful of decades two world wars, three totalitarian systems, Auschwitz, the Gulag, mountains of corpses, oceans of blood, the greatest persecutions in Christian history and a Cold War that threatened the future of the planet?
What happened, Karol Wojtyla suggested, was that the great project of Western humanism had gone off the rails. As John Paul’s biographer, Weigel summarizes the thinking of the late pontiff, “Ideas have consequences and bad ideas can have lethal consequences.”
Our purpose in developing our minds is our love for God. Our mission, however, is to contend with the darkness for the sake of the light. We do not exercise our intellects merely to explore ideas and arguments. Those who study the history of Christianity as merely an intellectual history miss the point. As Robert Louis Wilken noted: “The study of... Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas…. Its mission... [is] to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives.”
This is a clarion call for the Christian mind to engage in apologetics, which is arguably one of its most needed functions. From the Greek word apologia, which means to defend something, apologetics is giving a defense of the faith, reasons to believe and answers to the questions of the day. Through apologetics, the mind supports the task of evangelism, clearing away barriers and objections so that faith may be examined at face value.
Historically, Christian apologetics has leaned toward providing rational evidence for the faith, but there is a growing need for something even more basic—a clear explanation of faith. In the world today, the deepest question regarding the Christian faith is, “So what?” This is at the heart of both thinking Christianly and communicating Christianity to others. As Thomas Oden has observed, the fact of the resurrection may be maintained in the church but there is often little interest or communication regarding the significance of the resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead. So what? The Bible is true. So what? You can have a personal relationship with God. So what?
This is what the Christian mind must understand in order to challenge the world’s mind to consider. If we cannot rise to this task, we will have lost our place in the most critical of conversations—indeed, the only conversation that matters.
The mission of the church is paramount and what propels the mission forward is an awakened mind, a mind ablaze with God and the things of God. This is the heart of the cultural commission within the Great Commission. The Great Commission calls us to reach out to every person with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The cultural commission calls us to lay hold of every nook and cranny of our world for the Kingdom of God. They are not separate endeavors—they are the two edges of the single sword we are called to wield. Though frighteningly few Christians embrace the true dynamic and practice of the Great Commission, even fewer take hold of the cultural commission inherent within it. Too often we retreat into our Christian subculture, with its self-concerned books, magazines, radio stations and bumper stickers, sticking our heads in the sand oblivious to the world around us.
Henri Nouwen writes of a priest who told him that he cancelled his subscription to The New York Times because he felt that the endless stories about war, crime, power games and political manipulation only disturbed his mind and heart, and prevented him from meditation and prayer. “That is a sad story,” writes Nouwen. “A real spiritual life does exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.”
This is the difference between a Christian who is intelligent and a Christian who has an intellect. No one, argues Richard Hofstadter, questions the value of intelligence, that excellence of mind employed with narrow, immediate, predictable ranges that are undeniably practical. Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative and contemplative side of things.
It is also the activist side of things.
For our minds to break free and loom large on the world’s stage, we must recapture the lost art of thinking itself. Having a Christian mind means to think—and to think widely and broadly. This goes beyond the practice of reflection, important as this practice is, for reflection is more of a discipline or skill to be embraced. But now we are talking about application—prayerfully setting the mind to the task at hand. Nouwen’s friend purposefully avoided the New York Times. Nouwen’s reminder should not be lost: the point is to purposefully engage it.
This brings us to the heart of the mind applied. It is not simply thinking Christianly, for to know is to do. Our goal is to think in such a way as to know how to live. So what does it mean for Christ to lay claim to medicine? To law? To politics? To the economy? To a child in the womb? To sexuality? Consider the words of the prophet Micah:
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
It is not enough to simply understand the nature of justice and love from within a Christian perspective. “We must go on,” writes Dennis Hollinger, “to think about the strategies of justice and love in issues like poverty, race relations, abortion and political life.”
This is the vanguard of Christian thinking—knowing how to live, and then working to make the kingdom of God a reality for others to be able to live as well.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Mind for God.
George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic.
Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
Dennis Hollinger, Head, Heart and Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Actions.
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 and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.