On Commonalities and Differences: How Intellectual Complexities Can Increase Worship

TreeWritten by John Lancaster

John Lancaster is a husband of 1, a father of 5, a campus minister who is in need of Jesus’ grace all the time. Just ask my family! I have been with Cru for 19 years in the Upstate of South Carolina while the last 6 years have been with Faculty Commons, the Cru ministry to professors at Clemson University and other colleges and universities in the Upstate.

When Aaron Simmons asked me to write something for Philosophy goes to Church, I felt appreciation and fear. I felt appreciation because the integration of faith and scholarship/work has become a passion/interest of mine over the past 8-10 years of ministry to professors and college students. I felt fear because of my worry that my writing would be judged as subpar by those very professors with whom I have worked. But I will try.

As a young Christian in college, it bothered me when friends stated after failing an exam, “It will burn anyways,” as an excuse for not studying. It seemed to me that college was a great place for ministry because of the people, but it should be a great place to learn about God’s creation whether it is Bernoulli’s Principle, or Thermodynamics, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Self-Actualization. To dismiss the importance of the life of the mind is not to take Christianity more seriously, but to downplay its relationship to serious thinking. Now years later as I have transitioned from working directly in college student ministry to faculty ministry, this realization can provide Christian professors with a God-given purpose to their teaching and research.

In this challenge to integrate my faith with and my academic setting and interests, I was influenced early on by two books: Love God with all your Mind (1997) by J. P. Moreland. and Darwin’s Black Box (1996) by Michael Behe. Moreland makes the general claim that from the Second Century C.E until 150 years ago, the Christian pastor was the most educated person in a community. Now, however, too many Christians are seen as anti-intellectual, Illogical, bigoted and ignorant. Sadly, for many Christians, there is good reason for such labels. Moreland compellingly argues that Christians have drawn back from intellectual and academic engagements with their faith, and have resorted to a simplistic response of “Take it by faith.” Despite such a situation, Moreland gives hope that the Christian community can recover its intellectual foundation in order to give hope and blessing to this world. While Moreland opened my eyes to the wider world with his account of the historical context, Behe opened up the molecular world to me in his account of the way that life itself requires serious intellectual consideration. He used several chapters to discuss the molecular complexities of such common items and events such as the cilium, the bacterial flagellum, and blood clotting. I am still amazed whenever I or one of my children have a cut or scrape because the body begins 27 chemical switches to make the blood clot so we don’t bleed out. Being aware of those complexities increases my worship, not decreases it.

As I have thought about this struggle between Intellect/the Academy and Faith/the Church, I wanted to think through what values are inherent in these two as well as the challenges and opportunities that these values represent and those for which they allow.

In my limited experience, here are some things that the Academy values:

  • Books (peer-reviewed, intellectual, not popular bestsellers unless it matches the Academy’s priorities and focus)
  • Research
  • Logic
  • Position
  • Credited sources

It does not value:

  • Personal feelings or opinions unless supported by logic and/or research or a respected source

Alternatively, the Church values:

  • Faith
  • Humility
  • Authoritative Scripture/sources
  • Logic

One might think there isn’t much common ground between these two areas, but I would offer a few areas of commonality:

  • Humility: This is valued in the church by name. In the Academy it is not valued by that term, but in all articles, books, papers authors cite their sources. One does not take credit for someone else’s work. There is a humility in giving others credit. There is also the threat of plagiarism but its root is in honesty and not taking credit for something one didn’t do.
  • Authoritative sources: The two groups don’t agree on which sources are authoritative, but they do value sources.
  • Logic: Both groups value logic and supporting their claims, yet probably most in the church have not been trained in Logic or Critical thinking skills like professors have been, and what counts as support might look different in the different communities (in some ways this results from the different authoritative sources operative in the different spaces).

In light of these commonalities, there are still important challenges that remain for a substantive engagement between the church, specifically the Evangelical church, and the academy.

Generally the evangelical church as a whole:

  • Doesn’t read much (a lot depends on specific denominational tradition here)
  • Fails to think about the other person’s point of view, but instead reads disagreement as a sign of someone’s being immature or immoral
  • Can be Argumentative in ways that stifle genuine argument
  • Fails to appreciate the expertise that professors have as an important resource for the church

Alternatively, generally the Academy:

  • Reads voraciously, but this can create a situation in which it is difficult for the church to catch up
  • Is particular about words in ways that can put off outsiders without the technical background and vocabulary
  • Fails to think about the other person’s view, especially when that “other” is not also an academic
  • Can be argumentative in ways that assume all engagement must be argumentative

Importantly, however, these differences can make for unique opportunities that should not be missed by either the church or the academy. 

Within the Church: By embracing the Academy, the Church can re-open a world of history & science that has been hidden. This leads to greater worship as we discover the complexity of life. In the past, I would gloss over the miracles that Jesus and others accomplished like they were cool magic tricks. I didn’t put much thought into them. But as I am beginning to understand the need to worship well and to think deeply, I see biblical miracles not as magic tricks but as a matter of complex healing. In order to heal someone of blindness Jesus would need to repair the optic nerve, rods, cones, lens, pupil, etc. He must understand it and control it all on a molecular level, even an atomic and subatomic level! So knowledge can lead to greater worship, not less.

Within the Academy: Professors want to meet life-long learners. Generally, faculty are thrilled to find someone interested in their work. They can be surprised when Christians demonstrate humility and interest in academic pursuits which in turn can open doors to further dialogue.

I would love to see the church value higher education in substantive and theological ways, not just as a matter of bragging about what college one’s child gets into. Instead, higher education should be a place where Christians pursue graduate degrees, cultivate trust in God for answers to tough research questions, and welcome truth seekers. Ultimately, the university can be a place where doubters are encouraged by Christians who are professors, rather than simply a place that pastors warn their congregants to avoid for fear of their becoming atheists, or even worse, liberals. When we pay attention to the commonalities and also the differences between the church and the academy, we can better appreciate the ways in which differences do not need to be signs of antagonism, but rather sites for mutual understanding, and more effectively appropriate the commonalities as foundations for continued work together.


One thought on “On Commonalities and Differences: How Intellectual Complexities Can Increase Worship

  1. Amanda

    Thank you for this great article, John. As a Christian professor who has been encouraged by your ministry and who felt very alone for a very long time in academia, I hope and pray that the Church will see the necessity and importance of embracing scholarship, academia, and higher education. Christian professors and students need such support, and faith without intellectual understanding and engagement is missing something very important.


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