In Some Notes on Reading, Annie Dillard tells of visiting the Beijing Library with her interpreter Song Hua. Beijing Library was then home to over 11 million books and only 200 chairs. Yet, Song Hua explained, only on rare occasions would a person be allowed to take a book from the library, and then only with good reason.
Dillard asked what a good reason might be. Song Hua said, “You need the information for your work.”
Then Dillard asked, “What if you were an engineer and wanted to borrow a book of literature?”
To her surprise, her interpreter burst into laughter. The idea that an engineer would want to read a literature book was absurd. Why would anyone want to think about ideas outside the scope of his or her duties?
The communist government at the time clearly understood the danger that real thinking poses to the status quo. Fresh ideas can change individuals, communities and societies. They can overturn the established order. For that reason, the Chinese government preferred that its people not be exposed to new ideas. It didn’t want them thinking hard and deep.
Intellectual isolationism, whether involuntary, as in Communist China or – worse – voluntary, as in contemporary America, poses serious dangers. Even in the Church one sees people relying on pat answers while avoiding the world of ideas and the painstaking work of careful thinking.
Yet Christianity has always been a thinking person’s faith. It certainly started that way. Judaism, out of which the Christian faith arose, stressed the importance of thinking. The Bible relates the many invitations to thoughtful dialogue the Lord extended: “Come now, let us reason together.” “Present your case.” “Let us argue the matter together.” God doesn’t call people to mindless obedience, but to thoughtful service.
In the New Testament one finds more of the same. Much more. Jesus never asks anyone, “How you do feel?” but he frequently asks, “What do you think?” The word translated “reason” or “reckon” is used forty times in the New Testament. Other “thinking” words, variously translated as “think,” “debate,” “consider,” “convince,” “persuade,” etc., are in constant use. The prominence given to the role of the mind is impressive.
The Bible calls people to “prepare their minds for action.” God wants thinking people on his side. Intellectual laziness, like any other kind of laziness, is a sin. As C. S. Lewis put it long ago, “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than any other slackers.”
What does the thinking Christian think about? There is plenty of material. St. Paul writes, “[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
Is nothing off-limits for the Christian mind? Some things certainly are, but they might not be the things that come first to mind. The Christian can think profitably (and fearlessly) about almost any issue, as long as he thinks deeply and from a richly informed Christian worldview. Both the church and the world are well-served by Christian thinkers who contemplate the thorny issues of the day – poverty, human sexuality, global warming, racial reconciliation, international relations, and many more – from a thoroughly biblical and classically Christian perspective.
But are there not some things a Christian would do well not to think about? I know of only one. The Christian should not, St. Paul makes clear, think about how to satisfy his own sinful cravings. To do so repeatedly enslaves the mind to the service of selfish desire – and God is no slave-owner. It makes the pursuit of truth a practical impossibility.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/15/2014