Volume 32 - Issue 3
What Is Mindless Christianity?
One of the great joys for me as a young Christian, converted from a non-Christian background, was the discovery that I did not have to check my brain at the church door, so to speak. Reading the works of men such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, J. I. Packer, and D. A. Carson, I very soon discovered that there were indeed Christians out there who thought deeply about Scripture, about what it means, and about how it should be applied to the world around.
It was not long after I discovered these writers that I came across the term ‘Christian world and life view’. This phrase is now so commonplace in Christian circles as to be a veritable cliché of the calibre of ‘beginning the healing process’, ‘defining moment’, and ‘let’s touch base’. What it refers to, of course, is a desire to see Christianity applied in all areas of life. Most frequently, it is used with reference to Christian approaches to cultural pursuits, whether artistic, political, literary or whatever; and, as such, it is certainly a useful term and a laudable ambition. If the Bible speaks to us as flesh and blood humans, then it surely speaks to all areas of our flesh and blood existence.
Well, not quite. It is arguable, for example, that the Bible does not speak directly in to all areas of life. Food, for example. There is no biblical view on cooking, as far as I can tell. Then, it is always a little perplexing as to how the discussion of ‘world and life view’ often tends to focus on what might be called intellectual, if not very middle class, concerns. There are not many books published on the Christian worldview approach to, say, street sweeping or karaoke or bingo calling. Nevertheless, many of us have benefited greatly from those Christian scholars in the areas of literature and the arts who have sought to bring their Christian faith to bear upon how they pursue their disciplines.
Joking aside, then, the quest for the Christian mind is not a bad thing. Indeed, the discovery that Christians can use their brains and be faithful is surely a source of joy to many of us. Yet it is unfortunate that we often tend to neglect the one passage in Scripture which explicitly describes the Christian mind: Philippians Philippians 2:5–11:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father [English Standard Version].
In this passage, the essence of the Christian mind is not cast in epistemological categories. In other words, the Christian mind is not ultimately about the question of how we know things. Nor is the Christian mind about knowing the latest material on the most recent Christian fad or talking-point. The Christian mind here has little to do with those things we find most interesting and exciting in the world around us; and there is nothing here about ‘relevance’; in the way that most of us might conceive of that term. Rather, the accent here is on humility. It is not exciting; it is not glamorous; it is not something we naturally desire for ourselves; and yet here it is.—The Christian mind is above all the humble mind.
The imperative nature of the passage is underlined by the interconnection of the biblical story with the claims of systematic theology. Knowing that the pre-incarnate Christ was God, that this was the context for him to assume human flesh, to come down to earth, to live a life of absolute obedience to his Father’s will, and to do so even up to and including his terrible death on the cross. That is what makes this passage so striking and so demanding for us as Christians. If the one who is God can stoop to such depths, and thereby come to true glory, how much more should we, poor, sinful creatures that we are, be willing to be humbled in the course of our Christian lives.
Yet, so often much of the Christian life is devoted to other things. We have a tendency to fill our lives with matters which, while good in themselves, can distract us from pursuing the demands of a passage like Philippians 2. In our churches we have various programmes to keep running: youth groups, singles’ clubs, old peoples’ lunches, young marrieds’ outings etc. Then, for those who love theology, it is very easy to find ourselves totally absorbed in the intricacies of various theological debates or movements. This is good: all these people need to be reached with the gospel and nurtured in the faith. Orthodoxy and right belief are critical to the health and well-being of the church. Yet such outreach, nurture and health also depends in large part upon cultivating the mind of Christ.
How do we do this? First, it is surely vital that we develop a clear understanding of who God is and who Christ is. Without this, we can scarcely understand what Paul is saying in Philippians 2. That can only be done through regular exposure to the Word of God, and transformation by the Word of God. That is the thrust of the teaching about the happy man in Psalm 1. Of course, we should do this privately every day. The discipline of daily personal Bible reading is important to our spiritual lives; but it is even more important that we sit regularly under the careful and sound preaching of the Word. Only as God’s words come to us as spoken by other people can we have a reasonable degree of certainty that our exposure to God’s Word is not simply being filtered through our own prejudices and preferences. When I am in church and the minister chooses a passage of scripture to read, and then expounds and applies it, I can be fairly sure he will do both a more brutally effective job of tearing down my pride and a more gentle job of building me up in grace than I am generally capable of doing for myself.
Second, we need to look at ourselves long and hard. I have just spent a few sad moments looking at the web page of a very popular leader in the Emergent Church movement. His web page begins with a list of the great things other people have said about him: One of the church’s most important and provocative thinkers … One of the 50 Most Influential Christians in America … No church leader understands better how to navigate the seas of the 21st century … A writer of vast imagination, poise and charm.’ There was a time when I would have mocked such silly self-promotion. Now, I simply feel sad about something which is so bad that it cannot be parodied. What is so depressing about this is how absolutely antithetical to the mind and spirit of Christ it is. It is, in effect, anti-Christian. Now, all publishers in the business of selling books will put blurbs of praise on the covers of their products. But it is a foolish man who believes them; and an even more foolish man who then parades them on his own web page as a means of attracting others. And foolishness is the essence of pride: when we begin to think we are something special and lose sight of the fact that we are what we are, neither more nor less, only through grace. And that grace has been obtained by the one described in Philippians 2 whose attitude we are commanded unconditionally to cultivate within ourselves.
Yet the task which Philippians 2 lays at our door is not that of seeing and mocking the absurd pretensions and pride of others, whether Emergent or orthodox. It is to cultivate the mind of Christ within ourselves, and there is surely enough prideful junk there to keep us occupied. If the attitude of this Emergent web page is of a piece with the spirit of the age, it is in a very real sense the attitude of all of us who stand as fallen in Adam. Not only are we prone to forget who we are before God; left to ourselves we positively suppress this knowledge because it hurts us to remember that not only are we not gods but, left to ourselves, we are in active rebellion against the one true God.
Soaking our minds in the Word of God; applying our theological convictions first to ourselves and only then to others; remembering the greatness and holiness of God; reminding ourselves consistently of the grace of God shown towards us in Christ—none of these things is glamorous, trendy, dramatic, or particularly spectacular in the bright-lights big-city celebrity culture which so dominates the world in which we live today. But it is absolutely essential to the development of the Christian mind; and that mind, according to the New Testament, is a non-negotiable of Christian existence.
The prophetic Christian, indeed, the prophetic church, is the one which challenges the dominant culture at its deepest roots; and that means that, when all is said and done, the ability to apply Christianity to friends or Shakespeare, the environment or world capitalism, is not really of the essence of the prophetic Christian mind. Only the truly humble Christian and the truly humble church can claim that mantle and speak with true prophetic insight into the world as it is.