Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Christian Intellectual Liberty

In thinking about the relationship between science and religion, and considering very carefully the interaction between my faith and the academic world, it seems good to me to consider the more basic questions (and assumptions) which are really at the heart of the matter, rather than endlessly arguing over creation and evolution, the historicity of the resurrection, and so on. From where I sit, conversations between Christians and non-Christians (especially secularists) can feel rather fruitless, even when they are civil. I suspect this is because we have a hard time identifying what's really important to the people with whom we are conversing.

As indicated by the title of this post, I think one of more fundamental questions that rarely gets addressed seriously is that of intellectual liberty. It is useless to keep arguing whether certain scientific theories such as evolution are compatible with Christianity, if we are not going to address the more basic question of whether or not Christians are free to question old ideas.

This question is obviously on the minds of all atheists who challenge Christians on matters of science. That Christians fail to seriously address it is a sign that we have not been listening. It is, in fact, a sign that we have not even been listening to ourselves, much less the secularists who challenge us. All Christians have questions. Whether or not they dare to seek answers has a lot to do with what their answer is to this more fundamental question of intellectual liberty.

By intellectual liberty I mean the freedom to question beliefs. This means both the liberty to say, "This belief doesn't work; I need to fix it," and also the freedom to think, out of sheer curiosity, "I wonder how well this belief really does work?" The case for intellectual liberty is easy to make. It has certainly given us an incredible history of scientific and technological progress, but there is something more basic than that. We all know what it means to be wrong, especially about important things. When we experience the pain of seeing our assumptions about life bring us to tragic results, we realize that we should have questioned those assumptions all along. Even not so tragic results cause us to question ourselves.

It is also worth mentioning that for many of us, questions just surface continually, almost for no reason at all. Curiosity has its external benefits, but for many people it is of value in itself. Or even if you wouldn't call it valuable, you would at least have to acknowledge that it is an unavoidable compulsion, brought on by some mysterious and irresistible force. An intellectual can surely be defined as one who feels this compulsion. The question is then raised, in the culture we live in, can an intellectual be religious? More specifically, is Christianity consistent with that liberty which is so desired by intellectuals?

There is reason to believe that Christianity is inconsistent with intellectual liberty. Being a Christian demands a profession of faith. A profession of faith tells others that I am convinced by a particular claim, so much so that even if other intelligent, thoughtful people disagree with that claim, I am nevertheless willing to define my entire identity by that claim. Questioning that claim is now more than simply a search for better understanding; it is a crisis of identity. It is difficult to imagine how a profession of faith can allow room for true intellectual liberty, since it would seem there is at least one belief that can never be questioned.

And this, I think, is the fundamental reason why Christianity is rejected by so many intellectuals. It is not primarily about the evidence for and against the particular claims of Christianity. It is about the moral issue, which is whether the human mind ought to be free. Can the human mind ever so completely submit to one particular conclusion that no evidence to be discovered at a later time can ever refute that conclusion? Make no mistake: this is a moral issue. Anything that has to do with freedom is a moral issue. It is because Christians overlook this fact that they usually get absolutely nowhere in the quest to defend their faith before intellectuals.

Of course, it is not enough to recognize the nature of the objection. We must seriously consider the objection, and ask ourselves this very penetrating question.

Are we truly free?

The New Testament is full of talk about freedom. "For freedom Christ has set us free." (Gal. 5:1) "Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch'?" (Col. 2:20-21) "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31-32) Does this freedom really apply to us? Does it apply only to our moral lives, so that Jesus makes us free from sin, but not in other senses, such as the intellectual freedom I have described? If we question Jesus, how can we continue as his disciples? Must we become slaves in order to become "free"?

Freedom demands surrender. We must surrender our certainty of ourselves; we must admit that our cherished beliefs are possessions that have become our idols; and we must willingly submit ourselves to the wrath of reason, which has a way of humbling even the most intelligent. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Could this act of self-denial include even a denial of the certainty with which we hold our beliefs? Indeed, it must, for what else other than beliefs so closely defines who we are?

I can hear the objections rising up; I can feel the pious start to get angry. How can we deny our own beliefs, when it is our beliefs that lead us to Jesus? It is faith that Christ demands of us in order to be saved. So you say. And yet, which Jesus is it that you believe in? Is it the Jesus who makes a whip of cords and drives out the sheep and the cattle, overturning the tables of the moneychangers? Is it the Jesus who cries, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" or the Jesus who exclaims, "Are you also still without understanding?" Is it the Jesus who wonders aloud, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?" Is it the Jesus who challenges the traditions of the elders, the Jesus who gets crucified along with the thieves and the bandits?

And so what if it is this Jesus that you believe in? Do you think you've figured it all out, then? Are you finished with all the big questions? On to other things?

Christian intellectual liberty begins with self-denial. Those who prefer it begin with self-justification have never known freedom. You must lose your life to find it.

I hear an objection, "But I don't feel the need to ask all these questions. I believe what I believe. Isn't that enough?" The questions are there whether you would ask them or not. Ask them or don't; I wish you the best all the same. Yet people in our culture--your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends, your children--are asking this question: why is it okay for your to just believe, and not okay for others to just not believe? Or to believe something different? And you don't have an answer, because all you have is yourself. You think being an intellectual requires being smart. It does not. It simply requires self-denial, of a sort that is too painful for any of us to truly bear.

Yet many of us do bear it, as often it is forced upon us. Many atheists have experienced this Christ-like suffering far more than any Christian. I have read the stories of people who slowly and painfully lost their faith in Christ. Prayers that were never heard. Objections that were never answered. Contradictions in Scripture. More prayer, more searching, more not finding. They asked, they sought, they knocked on the door as hard as they could. The suffering all resulted in a transformation that many of them have described as nothing short of liberating. After finally surrendering to the wrath of reason, their old beliefs faded, and they were born again. If you don't believe me, you haven't been looking.

So what may we now say of ourselves? Are we truly free?

It is one thing to surrender ourselves to reason, and there to find liberation. It is quite another thing to have real freedom, which is beyond reason in a way that reason itself cannot describe. I do not know how to say it other than that Christian intellectual freedom is found in being paradoxical, just as Jesus is. God and man, King and servant, righteous and sinner, dying in order to live--this is the Christ we worship. What can I say? Do I believe in this Jesus or not? Of course I believe in him--how else could I deny him? Who else would call me to deny myself so completely? I surrender myself to him so that I might find myself. I will not defend my faith, because my faith is part of me; I must die with it, that it might live.

Indeed, my faith dies every day; not so much my faith in God as much as my faith in me. "God," as so many clever atheists have pointed out, is just a concept. As one site puts it, God is imaginary. And that is true, because we are always imagining God. Does God go away when we stop imagining him? Let us not hesitate to find out. Let us cease to speak our pious thoughts so that we may hear the true God speak out of the whirlwind. And let us not speak judgment on our friends, lest we be made lower than they because of our foolishness.

Jesus said, "But you are not to be called rabbi, for your have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven." Here is the clearest expression of Christian intellectual liberty that I can give. No one on earth is my teacher; everyone on earth is my brother. Since there is only one teacher, I will not hold myself accountable to any teacher on earth; since there is only one Father, I will not limit my love to any family on earth. And if the intellectual life does not serve the function of love, then away with it! For we deny ourselves so that we might find ourselves with others.

Christian intellectual freedom begins and ends with love. I do not have answers to give, but only myself. I am not a warrior for the faith in the academic world; I cannot defend Christianity in the "science and religion debate." Am I a rabbi that I should teach? Am I a father that I should be listened to? I am a student and a child, and this is the only way I know how to be.

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