Christians and the Need to be Academically “Cool”

Two semesters ago, one of my assignments for a class was to read an article by Norman Geisler titled, “Beware of Philosophy:  A Warning to Biblical Scholars.”  Geisler is a well-known Christian philosopher and apologist, and in this article he references Colossians 2:8 where it seems to say “beware of philosophy.”  After that, he lists several philosophical movements and philosophers, discusses briefly how each are contrary to Christianity, and pretty warns aspiring Christian scholars to be very wary of them.  The tone of the article is pretty heavy-handed, as Geisler often is, and it can give off the impression that he’s telling Christians to stay away from philosophy altogether.

I honestly didn’t like the article that much for several reasons, chief of which is his very rough treatment of Colossians 2:8.  I know it is not meant to be an exegetical article, but a quick look at the original language shows that the adjective should apply to both nouns, “deceit” and “philosophy.”  In other words, the best translation is not “beware of philosophy” but, “See that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (NIV) or “philosophy which is empty deceit.”  Basically, Paul is not telling his audience to avoid philosophy altogether but to be wary of crappy philosophy or so-called philosophy.  To be fair, a great deal of philosophy out there would fall under this category, but Geisler frankly sounds alarmist in his article at times, and not all of his treatments of the different philosophies are useful.  Granted, for such a short article, it’s tough to summarize everything, but I wasn’t that impressed.

However, what I did find immensely useful in the article is his practical advice for Christian scholars.  In a nutshell, he stresses humility and warns against the vain desire  to be recognized as brilliant, open-minded, or scholarly by the world.  He correctly points out that preserving orthodoxy is more than an intellectual matter; it is spiritual warfare, and as one allows his spiritual walk to slip, his mind will follow (and vice versa).  Also, he emphasizes Christ’s lordship even over studies which will guard against such slippages in the first place.  This is all wise instruction and one, unfortunately, many Christians ignore, whether they want to be “academics” or not.

I am reminded of my high school days in Abilene, TX and how some students thought they were extra cool to be under the label “liberal.”  Since Abilene was, at least at the time, a pretty conservative town, these students felt enlightened in some way to go against it and be “open-minded” and “tolerant.”  The exasperating part was that they normally had absolutely no clue what they meant by “liberal” and couldn’t tell a philosophical argument from a doorknob, but hey, it’s cool to be “liberal.”  This did not change in college; at secular universities like UT (and even purported “Christian” ones these days), the academic and cultural bias is clearly on the liberal, secular side, while conservative people, especially Christians, are scorned.  For Christians who wish to be respected by their peers and professors, they feel the need to hide their faith and leave it back in their bedroom before they go to class.  When professors are openly antagonistic towards Christianity, it is easy for many to adjust their faith to accommodate what is fashionable in secular academics.

I understand this temptation because I’ve felt it too.  Most people want to feel like they’re “open-minded” and “intellectual,” at least in the way the secular world defines it.  It is, ultimately, the “cool” way to go about one’s studies–adopting the newest popular idea, shedding old “outdated” ideas, and blazing new paths that others may recognize and credit to you.

Unfortunately, though, while it might be culturally cool, it is hardly intellectually responsible, much less spiritually responsible.  Being “open-minded” or “tolerant” does not mean one agrees with everything else or does not critique any other position, but somehow this is the definition that these terms carry these days.  Of course, there are clear exceptions to this; for example, it is just fine to openly attack Christianity, but criticizing Hinduism, Buddhism, or even Islam these days is often met with anger.  Also, open-mindedness does not entail that one does not have convictions; if someone wants to convince me that 5+5 does not equal 10 in simple arithmetic, I might be willing to listen, but I’m not exactly going to empty my brain of my conviction that it does in fact equal 10.  The absurdity of this particular notion of “open-mindedness” is seen in how many people vehemently fight against presenting anything resembling Christianity, citing (wrongly) the concept of the separation of church and state as well as their avoidance of “indoctrination.”  Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias has noted the irony:  Conservative institutions typically will present liberal viewpoints to students so that they can learn them (for example, conservative Christian schools will discuss liberal hermeneutical methods), but most secular schools try to bar discussion of religion as truth claims despite the fact that they claim open-mindedness.  It is an amusing inconsistency.

I have a saying: “Life is a giant high school.”  It seems society does not truly grow out of the need to feel “cool” and accepted.  I generally say this to apply to social behaviors, but it definitely applies to intellectual matters as well.  Many students have the strong desire to be viewed as intellectually superior, and for a Christian, this can take him down paths where he starts thinking he’s terribly unique over and against the many, Spirit-filled believers who have come before him.  This is nothing but arrogance, and a very immature one at that.  The Bible talks a lot about vain pride (Prov. 8:13 and 11:12, for starters), and it also has harsh words regarding the “wisdom” of the world:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:20-21)

Paul is of course not saying that the Gospel is actually foolishness, but that to the logic of the world who starts with their own sinful desires and wisdom, it will naturally sound foolish.  So-called Christian intellectuals need to be careful about whether or not their studies are for God or for propping up themselves.  If it’s for the latter, then ironically, they won’t have true wisdom but fall into the world’s fake wisdom, which God has made foolish.  Keep in mind that I am not advocating any sort of lazy studying or anti-intellectualism.  In fact, I think that Christianity is the most rational worldview to hold, and if we understand our responsibilities before God, it will spur those who have the academic opportunities to study very diligently.  What I’m saying is that when people pursue studies to be academically cool, they can become the worst type of fools:  Unwise, yet confidently so because they’ve crammed their head with stuff.  On the flipside, those that study for God can have that happy intersection of knowledge and godly wisdom, even if they are scorned by many in secular academia.  At the end of the day, it’s about choosing to glorify God or glorify yourself.  If Geisler succeeded in nothing else in his article, I think his advice was spot-on here.

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