Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Intellectualism

Following on from my last post about 'isms', let's have a closer look at intellectualism.

Recently I was at a meeting where the gifted speaker mentioned in passing that in the West we are far too intellectual. The eastern mind, he suggested, was more open and appropriate to ‘real’ Christianity; intuitive, imaginative appropriation by the heart was of higher value than mere intellectual assent.
There are two issues which need uncovering here.


Firstly the erroneous idea that we can divorce our imaginative faculties from the intellectual. Just as the Greeks tried, and failed, to compartmentalise human experience — most notably by the Platonic divorce of body and soul — so we divorce imagination from reason at our peril. This was Kant’s project in the 18th century which resulted in ‘sensible’ things being treated as subordinate to the exercise of ‘pure reason’, religion being consigned to the former category. The subsequent view of religion as mere fantasy grew from these roots, as did the idea that irrationality was at the heart of it, leading to a conviction among many that religion was a bedfellow of the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

I strongly believe in the need to rediscover imaginative, experiential faith in an age where formulaic religious rote has supplanted vibrant life, but we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. The gift of reason is God’s gift to us, as is the gift of imagination, and both are needed if we are to function as whole people — people of integrity. The truth is, they are not only both needed, but are inseparable. If we become over-cerebral, true, we become dry theoreticians; but if we become over-imaginative there is the danger of developing a theology based on consciousness or personal experience, divorced from reality. It is through this error, for example, that many — in the face of the apparent triumph of evil over good — have wrongly deduced that God is a monster with no moral qualms about the destruction of innocents.

So the second issue is the implicit assertion that a theology derived from experiential consciousness is more real that anything that has been thought through. If this was true, then the east would be full of those who have discovered the truth about God and his ways. As it is, people argue like the proverbial blind men feeling elephants. It is probably ‘consciousness theology’ that Timothy had in mind when he predicted that people would ‘gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want[ed] to hear,’ and that they would ‘turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths’. Myths not based on biblical teaching or the church’s historical interpretation of the walk of faith, or even on the consensus of the believing community, but on nebulous experiential phenomena and dominant controlling teachers. The former are at the heart of so-called ‘post-modernism’ where any interpretation of psychological experience is valid in the eyes of the practitioner; the latter are those who assume that, just because they have had a particular revelation or encounter with God, all other believers should feel and behave likewise.

I agree wholeheartedly that we must be experiential and imaginative Christians, after all, Christianity is all about relationships — both with Jesus and with each other. Only boring relationships are ‘platonic’: real, vibrant, passionate relationships are sustained through imaginative encounters. So it is with faith — we definitely need imagination and passion, but we also need wisdom and rational thought. Unfortunately the tendency to dismiss the intellectual without distinguishing this from intellectualism has resulted in a generation of passionate believers who are in mortal danger of repeating the errors of their forebears and worshipping an imaginative god who bears no relation to the real one. In any other language this would be called idolatry.

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