What Kind of Boldness will the Third Millennium respect?
νουν Χριστου (noun Christou)–Mind of Christ
“But we have νουν Χριστου (the mind of Christ).”—1 Corinthians 2:16
The necessity for Christians of long (perhaps lifelong) faith to examine the precepts of their beliefs with fresh gallantry and stout hearts is made imperative in our time by the radical and dramatic changes that are sweeping through the world like a societal hurricane. The 21st century truly is becoming a brave new world before our eyes. In many respects Christianity as a whole is not showing itself particularly well-equipped to meet the challenge. Though many will vehemently disagree, I think it possible that Christianity could be approaching a time when it may find itself almost entirely losing its potency as a world force.
Some hard-hitting, brutally honest reevaluation of what is going on inside our house is urgently pressing upon us as it has not been since the end of the fifteenth century. Christianity’s survival is not at stake, but certainly our effectiveness in the world is.
In his 1952 Preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis went to great lengths to clarify what he meant by the words of his title. In some ways, that Preface is one of the most insightful chapters of the whole book. As “mere Christianity” was a phrase that Lewis recognized could have been misunderstood, so too are the words of my title. Therefore, I will likewise attempt to explain.
I do not mean boldness of action but boldness of thought. It is natural to equate “boldness” with brazen arrogance, with bluster and outspokenness. That is the very opposite of what I intend by the words. We are not talking about in-your-face Christianity, but bold thinking Christianity.
I happen to believe with all my heart that this is exactly what Paul meant when he coined the term, noun Christou, the mind of Christ.
It is a private boldness, an inward fearlessness. It is the courage to face the foes of political tolerance and learned platitudes and religious clichés that sap the vitality and water down the life-changing truth of the Christian message. It takes courage to buck the pressure to conform to the indoctrinated status-quo beliefs of everyone else in one’s denomination or faction or church or study group. It is hard to question the majority view. It takes guts to say, “I know we have all been taught to believe such-and-such. But I have been thinking and praying and studying about this matter strenuously. I have come to see that some deeper principles may be involved than we previously assumed.”
Statements of this kind are not well received in the religious world. Any religious world. Such, however, is the rare valor of the bold-thinking Christian.
Talk of “meeting the challenge” and “reevaluating” our beliefs probably already has some readers squirming! Expressions such as these will immediately prompt two erroneous responses. We need to clear them away at the outset so we don’t get off on the wrong foot.
Misconception one—that this reevaluation of certain Christian ideas is a mere responsive accommodation to modern secularism and will thus threaten or diminish traditional belief.
Many are so fearful of change that they will reject the call to bold thinking out of hand. I have no intention, however, of rewriting traditional doctrine as a mere feeble adaptation to modernism. That would be a grievous mistake. But neither do I want the challenges of modernity to make me to cling to doctrines that are untrue because I am fearful and too hidebound to examine them. That’s flat-earth thinking. We are therefore trying to recognize the need to weed the garden of our ideas so that its precepts can flourish more effectively in the deep soil of biblical truth. If a so-called “traditional” idea is wrong, let’s weed it out and get rid of it. If a traditional idea is right, let’s add nourishment and nutrients to the soil so that it can grow and bear yet more fruit. The purpose of reevaluation is to eliminate wrong ideas so that Christianity’s right ideas and timeless truths can spread with increased power throughout the world.
Misconception two—that meeting the challenge of our times can be accomplished societally, culturally, or politically. There may be a place for Christians to respond in such arenas. Many are addressing those needs already. That aspect of Christendom’s collective challenge, however, is not the subject of our query here. For the remainder of this book, put social, cultural, and political Christianity out of your minds altogether.
Christianity in today’s world
With these two potential fallacies concerning our purpose behind us, then, we need to look realistically at where Christendom as a world religion presently stands.
Christianity’s impact in today’s world is difficult to measure. It clearly depends on who you ask. Also on what you mean by impact. Catholicism has fallen on hard times recently, while Orthodoxy in America is undergoing a surprising renaissance. Talk to a pastor of a ten-thousand member evangelical megachurch and you will likely be told that the impact of the evangelical message has never been greater. In government, in the court system, in the media, on high school and university campuses, and in Hollywood, however, the shrinking cultural influence of Christianity has become almost negligible. All about us are voices declaring the end of the Christian era.
So we are confronted with two opposing views or theories of Christianity at this moment in the history of western civilization—one, that Christianity as a world force is dying; and two, that Christianity is vibrant and healthy and is continuing to mightily influence the world for good.
Most Christians meet this dichotomy without much intellectual rigor. All across the spectrum, we either ignore the fact that the rest of the world isn’t paying much attention. Or we flatter ourselves that in our own experientially vibrant megachurch everything is hunky-dory and that the world is listening with as much interest as ever. At Saddleback on a Sunday morning, it’s pretty easy to loose sight of the fact that Christianity is losing the battle on just about every front in the world at large.
That there are pockets of vibrancy here and there cannot obscure a sobering reality: The war for the souls of mankind and the heart of western culture is going very badly. In my opinion the reason can be traced directly to the decline of bold thinking among serious Christians. We are not, as a body of God’s people, thinking with Christ’s mind.
Objections to that statement will be immediate and vociferous. But if we are going to get on together you had better know where I am coming from…and that is where I am coming from. Many Christians have lost the capacity to think courageously about their beliefs. That is my conviction and I stand by it.
We fall back on the Bible and give answers to the questions of modernity that smack of platitude and provincialism. The Bible is my guide too, but we must present its truths through the prism of keen intellectual acuity and honesty, not black and white anachronism. We must meet people where they are. Most of them aren’t where we think they are. Our responses resemble political press conferences. It doesn’t matter what question is asked, we answer with a pre-packaged formula. Thus we don’t generally meet people where they are. The disconnect between the church’s method and message and the concerns and outlook of modern progressivism is stark and glaring. We are speaking different languages.
Too easily we lay off blame for today’s runaway unbelief and anti-Christianity on liberalism, on the rise of Islam, on the homosexual movement, on the increasing sinfulness of the end times, on political correctness, on progressive secularism in government and education, on nonsensical social tolerance, on the anti-Christian bias of the media and academia and intelligentsia, on the breakdown of the family, on the social engineering agenda of the judicial system, even on the stranglehold of evolutionary theory on science and education.
What we’re not so adept at doing, however, is asking how much of Christianity’s declining influence is our own fault.
Dual blind spots
In many ways today’s average men and women are inanely ignorant and ill-informed. The world’s literacy rates are higher than ever. Yet American presidential politics has degenerated into a high-school popularity contest, where an unthinking electorate is appealed to at the most base and unsubstantive levels. We might as well be voting for homecoming king or queen or president of a vacuous sophomore class. The heartbreaking truth is that this “style before substance” methodology works. That seemingly intelligent people are incapable of seeing through the smiling personality-facades is positively astounding. Modern men and women can read…but they cannot perceive.
Remarkably, however, in other arenas, the world demonstrates a discrimination and discernment that Christendom has been woefully ill-prepared to meet. The blatant hypocrisy of congressional and journalistic personalities claiming to be “good Catholics” or “good Methodists” or “good Episcopalians,” or whatever, is all too clear as they endorse political agendas that represent the very antithesis of Christian values. Though right and wrong is clear and unambiguous according to its teaching, tradition, and sacred writings, Christianity’s truths are regularly cast aside in favor of modernism and expediency. Abortion and homosexual “rights” represent but two of a host of issues where progressive politics trumps the spineless so-called “christianity” of such media and political leaders. The only reason the world doesn’t laugh in their faces at their pretended faith is because the secular progressivism of such liberal Christianity dovetails so nicely with its own biases. So it conveniently endorses this foundationless form of “christian values,” while turning its attacks on conservative Christianity for its attempt to do the unthinkable—actually adhere to the teaching, tradition, and scriptural truths upon which Christianity (and America’s Constitution, legal system, and fabric of society) is based.
This hypocrisy is easy enough for the intelligent and unbiased to see in the political, cultural, and social arenas. What is not so easily recognized by the church at large is the world’s response to its, the church’s, doctrinal and theological narrowness and sectarianism. Believe it or not…we have our own blind spots too. While the world is not generally sophisticated enough to recognize the biases and hypocrisies of political liberalism, it is sophisticated enough to spot the flaws apparent thoughout the Christian world.
This is due in part to a devastating anti-Christian swing in public opinion over the last generation. It isn’t fair, of course. And the double-standard by which the world judges liberal and conservative outlooks only reinforces its own hypocrisy. Still, these perceptions exist, logical or not, fair or not, and Christendom has to deal with it.
We’re not dealing with it very well. We see the world’s blind spots. It sees ours. Standoff.
The trouble is, we ought to be able to see the world’s and our own. We ought to be skilled, wise, intelligent, objective thinkers on all sides of every issue, spiritual or secular. Our wisdom and objectivity should be an example to the world, providing the leadership in every discipline and area of endeavor. But this is clearly not the case. Christians are one-dimensional thinkers like everyone else.
If the mind of Christ doesn’t give us the capacity to think with more wisdom and clear-headedness than the world Paul described in Romans 1 as lost in its own foolishness and darkness, then something’s not working as it should.
The imperative tool for the times
Many Christian responses exist to the changes the world is hurling at us. As I have tried to make clear, but it bears reemphasis—this book will not call for a frontal assault against abortion or the homosexual hijacking of the political agenda, or a campaign to reinstate creationism and prayer in schools or elect a born again president to the White House. However others may be led toward such efforts is their concern. Our objective here points in another direction.
To strengthen the undergirding fiber of Christianity’s power and truth, and to meet the anti-Christian bias that has infected the world like a fog of moral, ethical, and relativistic decay…we have to look inward.
It’s time we do learn to think with the mind of Christ. It’s time we discovered the wisdom, objectivity, and multi-dimensionality that ought to have characterized Christian thinking long before now. Rather than expending valuable energy on external social and cultural tangents, the tool we need to learn to use more effectively is the mirror. As Christians we have not been self-evaluative or self-correcting. We have grown doctrinally lazy and stagnant.
It is no secret (to us at least) that the world is not thinking clearly. The unbelievable influence of the homosexual lobby, is all the evidence one needs that the world has not merely lost its moral compass, it has lost all capacity to think with logic and acuity. Everything has been turned upside-down. Black is white. White is black. Deviancy is normal. Believers in morality are shunned as intolerant.
But we Christians aren’t thinking clearly at every point either. We may be thinking correctly about certain social issues. But within our house, we remain insular, shallow, formula thinkers. We discern the world’s inconsistencies…but not our own.
This is why the world has ceased to respect Christianity as a force. It is not because, in the decay of its rationalism and morals, the world has put forward homosexuality and abortion, for example, as “normal” and entitled “rights,” and is mad at Christians for calling homosexuality aberrant, and insisting that no woman has the right to kill an unborn fetus. These are red herrings to the central crux of the problem. They are important issues, to be sure. Life and death is at stake in both. I am as infuriated as the next man by modernity’s unthinking promotion of an institution as absurd, repellant, and disgusting as “gay marriage.”
But I am also a practical man. I recognize that such issues as these, or the illegality of a Christmas crèche or Ten Commandments plaque on public property, or a liberal bias on the bench that outweighs fairness and justice, do not represent the true battle line in Christianity’s polemic war for relevance on the world stage at this critical hour. Our stark differences on such points (maddening, yes…but not germane) do not in themselves explain why the world has largely stopped listening to Christianity’s central message.
The problem lies deeper. As Christians, we have to look at why the world respects our viewpoints so little.
It’s not because we oppose gay marriage or abortion rights. It is because we have lost the ability objectively to scrutinize ourselves. It is because we are not cutting-edge thinkers. It is because we do not as a body of people demonstrate the mind of Christ.
Our ineffectiveness in communicating the reality of the Christian faith into the brave new Orwellian world of the 21st century is rooted in a lack of bold thinking on the part of Christians about the precepts of our faith. Our reluctance to examine inconsistencies within our own belief systems, in the world’s eyes, justifies not listening to us at all.
What the mirror reveals—formularistic faith
We are a people far too satisfied with clichés. The vast majority of Christians are fearful to engage in a thoughtful, knowledgeable, prayerful scrutiny of belief. Their own beliefs. They are eager and quick to pick apart those of everyone else. There are few things they enjoy so much! But scrutinizing their own…that’s an unpracticed discipline within Christendom.
It is exactly this reluctance that makes us appear as non-thinkers to the modern world. Catholics are afraid to think outside their boxes. Evangelicals are afraid to think outside their boxes. Liberals are afraid to think outside their boxes. Mormons are afraid to think outside their boxes. Pentecostals are afraid to think outside their boxes. Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists…superficial thinking infects Christendom everywhere. So we all circle the wagons and hole up within the safety and security of our own well-entrenched orthodoxies…and gradually the world stops listening.
When unbelievers do not accept our formula-prescriptions as truth, we tend to write them off as closed-minded and unspiritual rather than look within ourselves to see whether certain aspects of our dogma might require a more probing look.
Remarkably, it is not primarily the content of the Christian message the world objects to. It is rather put off by the clear demonstration of sectarianism in a religion whose impact is supposed to be measured by unity, and the palpable close-mindedness to ideas outside the confines of each little private camp of tightly defined orthodoxy.
A solution, therefore, does not begin by trying to outlaw abortion or gay marriage, but learning to be shrewd Christian thinkers. We may still vote against such obviously flagrant violations of gospel truth. But we can’t deceive ourselves into imagining that doing so will change the world’s view of Christianity. The world won’t start listening until they see us thinking with objective rigor, and then being willing to live by the ideas of our faith not just talk about them, debate them, argue about them, and judge those who disagree with us about them.
Don’t get me wrong here either. I am not contending that the world can think and Christians can’t. Good heavens, the world is worse at bold thinking than we are. If self-scrutiny is not practiced by Christians, it is altogether unknown in secular progressivism. One of the best kept secrets of our time is that greater narrow-mindedness and bigotry per square inch exists in political liberalism than anywhere else on the planet. Its intolerant and prejudicial clichés are far more lethal to the future of our society than any clichés of conservatism.
That is why we have to lead the way with bold thinking. The world is so far gone in liberal insanity (I use that word not bombastically, but in its technical sense: a complete inability to judge rationally) that it is incapable of sound judgment at any level.
But we have to grasp with sobriety that bold thinking begins at home. Attacking the other side accomplishes nothing in the end. It’s fine if one relishes in the continuing clash of opinion but doesn’t really care if there’s ever any progress. If we truly care about a solution, however, and far more importantly, if we care about Christianity’s long-term impact and effectiveness, it’s time to silence the guns of attack, argument, and self-defense…and pick up the mirror.
If the world sees that we cannot think with acuity about our own doctrines, it has every right to ignore us when we speak on issues related to the culture. It may seem like creation and Noah’s ark and the trinity and evolution have nothing to do with abortion and homosexuality and the slide of western civilization into an abyss of moral relativism.
But they have everything to do with it. The world is watching us. If we are knee-jerk, formula thinkers, unwilling and unable to examine ourselves keenly, and if we offer little more than learned maxims about the dating of Genesis, salvation, the afterlife, God’s character, the meaning of the atonement, hell, the nature of Jesus, science and the Bible, and a hundred other points of uncertainty and debate, they won’t listen to us about anything.
Reevalution is part of our tradition
Many will of course reject the call for reevaluation and self-scrutiny. There are always those in any movement or enterprise so entrenched in the methodologies and doctrines and perspectives of the past that they cannot budge.
So the familiar jargon and formulas of Christianity’s separate and divided mini-orthodoxies will persist. Those steeped in the orthodoxies will always march under banners that proclaim, If it was good enough for Paul…if it is good enough for pastor…if it is good enough for the Pope…if it was good enough for Luther and Calvin…it is good enough for me.
This illuminates a third misconception—that the orthodoxies of Christianity have always been set in stone. It is not so. Paul had to reevaluate some things too, just as Christian theologians and thinkers continued to do long after Paul was gone. Christianity has since its inception been a developing faith. What are we afraid of in allowing that process to continue?
The Christians of the first century were taught that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. It was a false teaching. Even Paul was swept into it. Gradually the apostles and everyone else had to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t true. That reevaluation of a widely held orthodoxy didn’t compromise the supernatural foundations of their faith. They simply realized that they had misunderstood the timetable. They had to interpret Matthew 24 through different eyes. There were deeper meanings involved. Their interpretations of the second coming had to adapt and change and develop and evolve. Most Christians have little idea to what extent the tenets of their beliefs derive more from Augustine or some ancient church council than from Jesus himself.
This is exactly our challenge today—to find the deeper meanings to some of the important doctrines of Christianity. In other words, to remove the weeds from our garden of truth.
Humble example not argument or persuasion
In my opinion…this is where we are. Over the last thirty to forty years we have largely presented Christianity as a series of doctrinal, experiential, social, and political clichés. We haven’t continued to grow as a wise and objective thinking people of faith. And predictably the world has stopped listening.
To be honest, I don’t know whether even bold thinking within Christendom is capable of slowing the runaway train of liberal secularism that is careening western civilization toward a wreck of epic proportions. No one can see into the future. Maybe we are thundering toward Armageddon, who can tell.
One thing I do know is that Christians will never “convince” the world to abandon secularism and return to the values and absolutes upon western civilization was founded by persuasion. Such is the failed methodology of the past.
Example changes culture, not argument. Christians will increase the reach of their voice only by wise, integritous, and incisive thinking and humble example within its own ranks. When the world observes Christians speaking with intelligence, open-mindedness, and wisdom and humility rather than formula, pomposity, and cliché, it will stand up and take notice. Where the world will be by then, and what will be the effect, is anyone’s guess.