In Men in Black 3, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) turns to Will Smith’s character, Agent J, and says, “You know how I live such a happy life?’
This takes Agent J by surprise, because Agent K is perpetually surly and grumpy, so he says, “How YOU live a happy life?”
Unfazed, Agent K says, “I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answer to.”
It’s funny, partly because it’s essentially a stupid thing to say, but partly because, well, a lot of people buy into it. It’s a restatement of the old axiom, “ignorance is bliss.”
I experienced this firsthand when I was at seminary where I regularly heard fellow students warn about taking classes from certain professors because they weren’t “biblical.” Usually, these were also the same professors who had a reputation of being challenging
Also among many students was a general attitude that one should not to take any class too seriously because it would ruin your faith. They’d jokingly refer to the school as a “cemetery” instead of “seminary.”
And now I find myself the subject of such discussions around my campus. I’m the professor that students are warned about. And many students refuse to take my class for fear of what I might do to their faith.
On a personal level, this hurts. The last thing I would ever want to do with any student is to weaken their faith.
On another level it’s quite frustrating. Universities exist to equip students to think. This means we must challenge presuppositions. We encourage students to think through why they believe what they believe. We teach them to be critical and analytical. And then we guide them as they develop a mature theology.
Inherent in this process is that they must be willing to change their minds. And that’s where the difficulties start. Many students would rather have their beliefs reinforced, not challenged. They don’t want to be taught how to think. They want to feel good about what they already think.
And for some reason, changing one’s mind in many churches is viewed as a slippery slope to apostasy. You see, once you begin to doubt that Moses wrote the Torah, then the next thing you know you’re running naked through the fields on your way to a commune where you are going to take drugs and read Stalin and write an essay about the death of God. Afterwards, you are going to head home and declare to your parents that you want to become a philosophy major and backpack Europe and join the Democratic the party.
And so THAT’s why it’s just best to not ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to. Just believe what you’ve been told to believe.
The great tragedy is that this attitude is slowly draining the life out of the church.
When I first started teaching, I used to start off the first day of class with a quiz as a way to get to know the students. I asked what I thought were humorous questions because the answers were so obvious. Even so, the quiz was to be graded so the students had to give serious answers. The reason I mention this is so that you don’t think that what I’m about to say was an attempt by some students to be funny. This represents their actual answers.
Question number one was this: Who founded Christianity?
The answer is, of course, “Jesus.”
Now, some of the brighter students would overthink the question and give me “Paul,” which I would actually allow. But a sizeable number of students (close to half) would regularly get the answer wrong. They would say things like “Billy Graham” or “Moses” or “the Pope” or my two favorite, “Those guys who founded our country” and…wait for it…
Yes, this is funny. But it’s also tragic, because these are the very same students who are convinced that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I ask them to think through their interpretations of the Bible.
In 1980, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College invited Charles Malik to give the address at its opening ceremony. Malik is an Eastern Orthodox scholar. Mark Noll records the event in his classic work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind because it became the driving impetus for writing his book
Anyway, you have to imagine a room filled with professors and dignitaries and donors. You also need to understand that Wheaton was originally founded as a reaction to the threat of modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. So a part of its heritage was a subtle anti-intellectualism.
It is for this reason that Malik showed up at the Billy Graham Center with both barrels loaded for bear. In Noll’s own words, “With great gentleness and magnanimity of soul, but also with great courage, Malik took us evangelicals straight to the woodshed.”
Here’s an excerpt of Malik’s speech:
“The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy.”
Malik outlined the situation succinctly with this, “If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.”
We would do well to remember that the Early Christians responded to their critics by becoming smarter than them, not dumber. One reason for Christianity’s triumph in the Roman Empire was because of the dazzling brilliance and scholarship of men like Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine. The first intellectual center of Christianity was Alexandria, the same location of the greatest library in the world, where men like Clement, Alexander, and Athanasius befuddled the critics of the faith.
Yet today, as Malik pointed out to his stunned audience at Wheaton, in most of the western culture, “evangelical scholar” is viewed as an oxymoron. Some of the reason is due to prejudices. But a large part is due to a growing sentiment in the church that one has to choose either a life of faith or the mind.
And this has to change:
We need to encourage people to read challenging books, not just devotionals and Amish romance novels.
We need to read works from people who think differently from us, especially those from other traditions and religions.
We need ask hard questions, be playful with our answers, and respect others who disagree.
We need to throw out words like liberal and conservative that tempt people to believe something merely because of the label attached to it rather than the value of the idea.
And if we need any more encouragement, then perhaps the words of Adolf Hitler will sober us up:
“What luck for rulers that men do not think.”