Higher Education and the Discipleship of the Mind

In the previous blog, I mentioned that there are several noetic effects of the Fall that have a direct impact on the quality of our American college education. In this blog, I want to address the first major issue regarding American higher education: a growing lack of mental discipline from students.

This growing lack of mental discipline is observed in three basic ways: ignorance, distractedness, and fatigue. Because of the noetic effects of the Fall, we are all subject to these issues in varying degrees. The Fall has clouded our ability to understand the world around us and has weakened the mental capacities of our mind. Therefore, to some extent, a sense of ignorance, fatigue, and distractedness is axiomatic.

However, it does appear that our intellectual ignorance is growing, despite the claims of a more enlightened society. What cultural forces have contributed to “dumbing down” of the American mind and what impacts do these have on the quality of college education?

A Common Diagnosis

Many commentators have monitored these issues and the most cited cause of this is the transition from print media to video media. Unsurprisingly, print journalists are among the loudest voices that decry our current situation and they were among the first to note that this trend has accelerated with the past decade or so because of the explosion of social media. Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds his perspective:

The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.

I believe that Pierce has targeted a symptom of a deeper problem in his above statement. The social media revolution in particular (and the internet revolution of the 1990s in general) has given us unprecedented access to information and news, but it has also devolved the American mind in its wake. Despite having 24/7 access to news and events, we remain ignorant of many basic things and we tend to only have a surface-level/partial understanding of the things that we know.

The age of social media has trained us to become very adept at skimming large amounts of information, but it has also deteriorated our ability to think critically. Since we are losing our critical analysis skills, this means that we are also losing our intellectual discernment. We are losing the ability to determine what is intellectually valuable, who is intellectual credible, what is trivial, and what is purely speculative. In essence, we are the generation that is “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

Since our minds our withering away, we are now much more prone to distractedness and mental fatigue. This is not merely a commentary to the young generation, but it also applies to many of us who went through higher education before the internet revolution and have become progressively dumber due to its gradual impacts on our mind. Many of us have gotten to the point where we would agree with the modern adage of our day “Why spend time learning about history and dates when you can google it?”

A New Diagnosis

While it’s convenient to point the finger at the current generation because of its addiction to the internet, I want to ask a question that is rarely asked: Why has this change in media become so attractive? If it has been documented that the internet is dumbing us down, then why are so many still drawn to? I believe that the honest answer is that this mentality is the fruit of a long history of pragmatism and anti-intellectualism within American life. In other words, we have forgotten the primary and central purpose of formal education – the discipleship of the mind.

If we would be honest, the social media revolution (as well as the internet revolution of the 1990s) caters to what the modern American mind wants: a desire to know things and to appear intelligent without having to apply the necessary mental work.

The modern American mind seems to have a strong aversion toward deep, challenging, and penetrating thought and the media revolution gives us a way to remain constantly distracted without being focused on anything in particular. Because we have abandoned the very notion of the discipleship of the mind, it’s easy to understand why technological innovations that allow us to bypass the mind would become popular. The progression of anti-intellectual and pragmatic thought has borne their fruits in our generation. Those who thought that it was unnecessary to demand intellectual rigor and discipline from their children have produced a generation of unthinking, uncritical, and ignorant young adults.

Now, before we point the finger at the outside world, it’s important to realize that these cultural forces have also invaded young Christian minds. In many places, young Christian minds are just as vapid as their secular counterparts. How many of us have heard the expression: “Don’t give me theology. Give me something practical”? As mentioned previously, the mode of Biblical spirituality is more intellectual than mystical and the Christian faith places significant importance on the value of the mind for the purpose of godliness. However, the pragmatism of previous generations has led to the stereotype of the slow-witted, willfully ignorant Christian.

The Present Trajectory

This trajectory that we have observed has a very profound effect on the state of higher education. If we no longer value intellectual discipline as a nation and would rather google search all of our information, then it will be reflected in our colleges. In many ways, this means that the very mission of colleges and universities has changed. To put it bluntly, we don’t desire to educate people anymore… we train them to get jobs. This means that many degrees will be considered as worthless (i.e. most humanities) and many degrees will be created simply because the job exists (i.e. construction management).

We are already seeing these trends at the college level. There have been numerous reports on historic small liberal arts colleges that are closing their doors because they are “outdated”, whereas there continues to be rapid growth for for-profit institutions (who are notoriously known for producing shoddy education) and steady growth for technical schools. We continue to read reports of students with advanced degrees in humanities from respectable schools working as a barista, while trying to pay off $100K in college debt (a blog for another day). From the academic affairs side, it is truly sad and troubling to see that most of the faculty at colleges and universities are adjuncts because their work and skills aren’t important enough to hire them as tenure-track faculty. If trends continue as they are, then colleges and universities will be qualitatively no different than trade schools, which is a fundamental change in the mission of the university system.

In my view, this trajectory will not change unless our culture repents from its disposition towards the mind. The Christian faith exhorts us to seek wisdom and to turn from folly and to the extent that we abandon that foundation, we will reap its reward. The God who made our bodies also made our minds, and thus, He knows how it should be properly maintained. For this reason, education is not merely training to obtain employment – it is a means of discipling the mind. In other words, education is not merely a vocational issue, but it is an issue of morality. If our culture continues to throw off this connection between education and the discipleship of the mind, then we can only expect to continue to see the “dumbing down” of the American mind and the quality of American education.

This is also an exhortation to self-identified Christian colleges and seminaries. As Christians, part of “not conforming to this age” means that our disposition concerning the Christian mind and Christian education should dramatically change. If we abandon the call to diligently train our minds by yielding to the anti-intellectual disposition of our age, then our graduates (and our future pastors) will become intellectually vapid – much like the culture around us. Our witness to the world not only pertains to matters directly related to salvation, but it involves how Christ transforms the whole man – including the mind.

The Mind in Black Spirituality

In the last blog, I mentioned that syncretism was perhaps the largest barrier between Reformed and Black spirituality. The final blog post in the series is perhaps the most personal for me and has been the reason that I have not been able to be a member at a predominately Black church for over ten years. In addressing the question of how a believer may become more spiritual, I’ve rarely heard any Black Christian even comment on the role of the mind and intellect in Christian spirituality. At times, the impression that one can get from Black Christians is that spirituality is completely separate from the mind. This means that the general mode of Christian spirituality for many Black Christians is thoroughly anti-intellectual.

It’s important to note that this problem was not present historically among Black Christians. This argument has been demonstrated very well in The Decline of African-American Theology by Thabiti Anyabwile (the first chapter of this book can be read here for those who are interested). Historically, Black theology could be characterized by simple words which convey deep meaning. This means that older Black preachers emphasized double meaning language to convey theologically rich ideas. This is seen in many of the classical Negro spirituals such as Were You There? or My Lord, What a Morning. It can be seen by this poem from Phyllis Wheatley

Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too

Once I redemption neither sought nor know.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die,”

Remember, Christian, Negro, black as Cain,

May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.

A more anti-intellectual approach to the faith by African-Americans seems to be paralleled with the growing anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism in general. As mentioned above, this is something that I’ve experienced personally. For a large portion of my high school days, I was an atheist. After my conversion, I was mentored by older Black Christians to which I remain personally indebted to this day. However, as I began to ask more questions about the scriptures, I was generally told that I’m thinking too much about these matters and I need to “catch the spirit” of the text. When I asked questions on how I should study the scriptures, I was told that I needed to read a passage of scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to tell me the meaning of the passage. I was told that thinking about hermeneutics was an academic, unspiritual way to approach the scripture and that I would only learn “head-knowledge”. They warned me that people who attempted to know God in this way would end up walking away from the faith. At one particular instance, I was told that intelligence was a handicap towards true spirituality.

romans12This view was reinforced up through my college years and I believed this for many years until I heard a sermon named Modern Spirituality and Your Mind on Romans 12:1-2. This sermon greatly edified me as I began to devote my mind to the study of scriptures and it introduced me to the role of the mind in Reformed spirituality. In order to truly know God and to know His will, we must devote ourselves to a diligent study of the Word so that our minds may be renewed. This means that the mind plays a central role in Christian development. We are exhorted to discipline our minds for the purpose of godliness and to devote our mind to His Word so that we may become wise for salvation (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15). We are told that our sanctification is based upon our understanding and apprehension of the truth of scripture (cf. John 17:17). Hence, true spirituality is done not by circumventing the mind, but it’s done through the active engagement of the mind.

This emphasis on the mind also explains how Christians develop wisdom. The Bible is clear that all people should seek after wisdom. Proverbs 9 is a single exhortation to see this gift. The question becomes how do we obtain this wisdom? For many Black Christians, this is done primarily through personal experiences. In Reformed theology, wisdom is divinely produced in those, and those only, who apply themselves to God’s revelation in the scripture (cf. Psalm 119:98-99; Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). This means that our ignorance of God’s revealed will is a grave sin. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the sins forbidden in the First Commandment is “ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of him”. Moreover, in the Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the sins forbidden in the Third Commandment is “misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the Word, or any part of it, to maintaining of false doctrines”.

Another question that can be asked is what effect does God’s gift of wisdom have on a person? Here is a place in which the differences in spirituality become quite apparent. For many Black Christians, the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what He has done in a particular circumstance, and what He is going to do next. Some feel that if they were really walking close to God (so that He could impart wisdom to them freely), then they would discern the real purpose of everything (and perhaps even discover the hidden will of God). In this view the Holy Spirit is the one who gives this hidden insight and it’s reserved for those who diligently seek Him.

In Reformed spirituality, the wisdom of God enables us to know the revealed will of God and to know how to respond appropriately to the providential situations in our lives. In particular, Christ is the divine Wisdom in Proverbs 9 and through a saving knowledge of His Word, believers are brought from darkness to light. It is this approach that places a high value on teaching and preaching in the life of devotion and this is the view that is consistent with both the Old and New Testaments. The Judaism in which Jesus was brought up gave a tremendous amount of time to the study of the sacred text, the scholarly exposition of the Scriptures, and the hearing of sermons which applied this scholarly work to the life of the community. Thus, there was a very genuine scholarly piety that is engendered by this approach. The same was true of the early Christian church. Studying Scripture, memorizing it, meditating on it, and interpreting it were regarded as the most sacred of task. They were among the most essential devotional disciplines. Delighting in the God’s law, which is most clearly seen in the diligent study and meditation of Scripture, was understood as worship in the most profound sense. This is consistent with the wisdom psalms, such as Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119, and this approach is also reflected in Reformed spirituality. In Calvin’s commentary on the prologue of John, he says

For knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings. Since, therefore, God reveals Himself to us by Christ alone, it follows that we should seek all things from Christ. This doctrinal sequence should be carefully observed. Nothing seems more obvious than that we each take what God offers us according to the measure of our faith. But only a few realize that the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God has to be brought with.

Therefore, in Reformed spirituality, there is an emphasis upon obtaining a true knowledge of God which comes through a dedicated use of the mind. In other words, God is honored when believers dedicate their affections and their minds to know Him. This explains why there is an emphasis on creeds, catechisms, and confessions within Reformed churches. The anti-intellectual approach of many Black Christians also tends to make many Black Christians anti-confessional as well. Thus, the pursuit of doctrinal precision is an irrelevant and useless endeavor for many Black Christians.  For many Black Christians, you can still be considered deeply spiritual and godly, even if your doctrine is borderline heretical. This is the only way to explain why ordinarily sound Black Christians will also listen to Word-of-Faith/prosperity gospel teachers, like T.D. Jakes, Juanita Bynum, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Jamal Harrison Bryant, Frederick Price, etc.

For these reasons, it is very difficult for many devout Black Christians who grew up in this background to accept this “bookish” form of piety as legitimately spiritual. This approach (and the accompanying theological jargon) sounds too academic for many because in their view, the true mode of spirituality is through internal intuition and through personal experience. Hopefully, this mini-series has helped to shed some light on the differences between Reformed spirituality and traditional Black spirituality. Even though many similarities between these traditions, there are significant divergences that continue to prevent many devout Black Christians from embracing full-orbed Reformed theology. I will end this blog series with a quote from Anthony Carter

Today, we find ourselves in a dark place, yet the light of the truth of the Scriptures continue to shine brightly. All over this country, and indeed around the world, men and women, particularly those of African descent, are falling out of love with the world and the worldliness of popular television-driven Christianity, and falling in love with the biblical, historical faith that was and is found in Reformed theology… We are witnessing the rise of a new generation of African-American Christians who see through the fading glory of the empty way of life advocated by the false prosperity gospel, and are seeing more clearly the faith that has once and for all been delivered to the saints – the faith rediscovered during the Reformation and being re-energized in our time