Beginning To Think

Or: Why The Cross Is Important For Intellectuals

I recently stumbled across an article by Relevant Magazine titled “Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?” and it really got me thinking.[1] The topic of the article is disturbing for numerous reasons and it begs a number of questions.[2] Personally, I find it difficult to read an article on “intellectualism” without such a vague notion being defined. The very idea of being “smart” is subjectively loaded. This is why we have standardized testing and the likes; they are an attempt to bring some level of objectivity to something that is inherently loaded. In doing so, we find that even this is difficult.

good-will-hunting-oral-history-2

Though based off a fictional character, there will always be the Will Huntings of the world; prodigals who “flunked” out of our standardized education systems early on and yet remain, by those very standards, absolute geniuses. Furthermore, very few people can argue with the fact that if you put someone with a PhD in Applied Mathematics on a deep sea trawler in the middle of the season, they’ll likely be (practically speaking) the dumbest person on board.[3]

Thus I find myself reeling in the world of academia, struggling to find some sort of solid ground on which I can actually stand. If I spend my life building a perpetuated genius on one set of intellectual assumptions, I spend that entire time risking the reality that I’m simultaneously a complete moron in another. Likewise, if the assumptions on which I base my life are subjective notions on which my castles of sand are built then the whole thing is inevitably going to come crashing down anyway. Thus (are you ready for this leap of logic?) to begin the very act of thinking, to take my place at the beginning point in the pursuit of knowledge, I must find myself starting at the foot of the cross.

Right. I'm on it.
Right. I’m on it.

The greatest lie we can believe is that we are intrinsically important. This is one way in which the Enlightenment really screwed us. Descartes’ notion of “I think therefore I am” constituted that his existence was in some way affirmed or confirmed by his ability to put two and two together and come up with four. This was some jolly good philosophy on the part René, but the issue is it fueled an egocentric manner of viewing the world. Jumping off this springboard, enlightenment teaches us that reason was the answer and every human being can be reasonable so we have determined the answer (Oh hello, relativism…where’d you come from?).[4]

We can look at this with several different examples, but for kicks and giggles lets start with evangelical subculture. Since the enlightenment we Evangelical, sola-scriptura, bastards de Rome have wasted eons of hours asking questions evolving around ourselves. Questions such as “what’s my purpose in life?”, “how do I know that God actually exists?” and “why do bad things happen to good people (read: ME)?” before finding ourselves remarkably frustrated and confounded when we don’t have an answer (if we’re atheists) or God doesn’t drop whatever the deuce he’s doing and answer (if we’re everyone else). In our narcissistic views, we’ve adopted the notion that something is real only if we can confirm it’s real. But the reality is that reality is real whether or not we realize it to be reality.

hate it

Because without a proper understanding of our role in the grand scheme of things, without at least the attempt of a subjective view of the cross, any perceptions of “truth” or “objective realities” (the building blocks of intellectualism) quickly becomes entwined with emotions. This evolves into the language of “feelings”.[5] Hence, in many evangelical small group discussions on morality, you hear things like:

calvinism

Prompting the rest of us to be like:

feelings“Well,” the answer becomes, “I care. And I was important enough for Christ to die for so why shouldn’t my word in this matter be heard?”

This egocentricity and inflation of self-importance is the root of the lie behind Satan’s fall from heaven and his proceeding temptation in the garden. In his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, Milton attributed the quote “Better to be a king in hell than a servant in heaven” to Satan for this very reason.[6] The question of authority lay behind the devil’s rejection of God.

This egocentricity and inflation of self-importance is the root of the lie behind Satan’s fall from heaven and his proceeding temptation in the garden. In his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, Milton attributed the quote “Better to be a king in hell than a servant in heaven” to Satan for this very reason.[6] The question of authority lay behind the devil’s rejection of God.

The timeless beauty behind Dostoevsky’s infamous chapter “Rebellion” from The Brother’s Karamazov, comes when the older brother Ivan admits that there is a God but he rejects God on the basis of his personal moral inclination.

BrothersKaramazovThe honest brutality of such a declaration rings of the heavenly rebellion; the utterly tragic part about it is that we do not see how our own quips and gripes with The Divine quickly fall into the same category. “Why should you be the one who determines right and wrong?” Lucifer angelically pondered. “What about the rest of us?” Satan wanted to call the shots, or at least bring it before the angelic congress. [7] As it turns out, democracy is not the way of things in heaven. Thus we have Lucifer’s war, his defeat, banishment from heaven and by-the-way-you’re-doomed-to-an-eternity-in-a-burning-lake-of-fire deal.

paradise-lost-milton
“Screw you guys, I’m goin ta hell”

Yet somehow this very line of thinking has seeped it’s way into the undertones of the philosophical and intellectual mindsets of today. We talk about subjectivity as if we have a clue what being subjective could even mean. We wear glasses that are constantly and undeniably jaded by our experiences and yet without removing them for an instant we declare our relative experiences to be universal and ourselves to be the epicenter of moral conjectures.

This is all a little bit of a tangent

ya think

but it is important to make note of the relationship between our egocentrism and the distortion/rejection of Truth. If we are going to discuss the acquisition of knowledge, such a point has to be made. Because when we allow ourselves to become elevated within the cosmos, we put ourselves above the cosmos and are unable to see that we are, at best, little roles in something much bigger than ourselves. We are vastly insignificant, we are terribly unimportant and we are trite and trivial existences within the grand scheme of things. We must grasp this reality; we must accept this undeniable truth.

whyBecause the problem with believing we are important (read: smart and/or valid dictators of truth) lies in a distortion of the gospel. When we allow ourselves to think “I am, in and of myself, of some significance” suddenly the gospel isn’t wonderful at all. It isn’t saving, it isn’t a necessity and it certainly isn’t an absolute truth to which our relative experiences point.

Because if we are inherently important, then why wouldn’t Jesus come and die for us? “Perhaps,”(as in: it is conceivable, understandable and it makes sense that)  “for a good person someone might possibly dare to die” wrote the Apostle Paul. So if we are important then why wouldn’t Christ feel the implicit need to come and die for us? We are, after all, a necessary role in the grand scheme of things—we must be saved so God can be glorified, right?

no

Like the Apostle alludes to in Romans 5, if we hold ourselves up as something worthy of saving then the gospel message is decimated in two major ways. First of all, it destroys the nature of Christ as being fully God and fully human. For a good man someone would dare to die, Paul says. Someone, meaning anyone. Meaning any random person walking down the street who sees a little child about to get run over by a bus…they would possibly dare to die for the sake of that child. It would not take someone who is fully God and fully human to pull off this feat, any bum with spectacles and conscience could manage. Thus the gospel is reduced from the magnificent story of God’s saving grace, to just another happy-ending scene from Forrest Gump.

forrest gump missing the point

Secondly, if by some stretch of the imagination we can view ourselves as possessing true knowledge or as something that has some value in saving, then we have lost a sense of the hopelessness in which we lay, we have lost our perspective on the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice in our life and thus the true value of what He accomplished on the cross. Frederick Buechner says that when discussing the gospel message it is “with the recognition of our tragic nakedness and need for true shelter that we have to start.” It must get really bad, like really, really, aw-sheeet-this-doesn’t-look-good bad, before the gospel can in anyway be seen as something beautiful, wonderful, saving, eternal-

adjectives

When the truth of our state prior to the cross sinks in, it is then and only then that Christ’s sacrifice becomes unbelievably profound. It is then that we understand Jesus Christ didn’t come to save us because we mattered; He came to save us because He loved us to His own torturous detriment. This is contrary to any human love we could possibly know. The love of a husband and wife is mutually beneficial. A husband may lay down his life for his wife, and that may be heroic, but no one can ever proclaim there wasn’t the slightest bit of selfishness involved. I may love my fiancé but part of that love is built upon the love she returns to me. This is illustrated simply in understanding how important she is too me; without my beloved, I would not be a complete person. No, without her I would be an emotional wreck eating unquantifiable amounts of Ben and Jerrys while watching I Love Lucy reruns. She is important to me and so, for her, I would die.

It is not so with Christ and it is not so with the gospel. The gospel must relay the tragic nature of our hopeless and despicable state before it gives us a message of hope and salvation. We must see ourselves as the overlooked, the unwanted, and those who are, at best, soaking in a swimming pool of:

stupidity This is the cold, hard reality with which us intellectual wanna-bes have to start. We are not an innocent child biking down the street in danger of getting hit by a bus. No, we must understand ourselves to be much worse than that. We must understand ourselves to be a rapist sitting on death row with no family and no one who knows of us, save perhaps the relatives of those we violated and murdered, when Christ knocks on the door and insists on that the needle goes in His arm. We must understand ourselves to be the killers of children and beloved spouses, the violators of all that is good and respectable, ready to receive a vindictive bullet when Christ steps in front and takes it for us. Any gospel that does not present this tragic prelude is no gospel at all.

Gospel 101
Gospel 101

When we are able to step back and examine the gospel knowing that Jesus could’ve continued well and fine in the universe (without a few scars, I might add) had He not bestowed His love upon us, then we are able to see the gospel for what it really is and join the chorus of “hallelujah”s across the ages. When we are able to step back and examine the cross from a distance, then we realize that we play no role in even our own immortality (let alone the absolute realities to we aspire to comprehend), that all of our perceptions are blurred by our confinement of morality, that our role in the world isn’t very important and that we must remove our glasses of objectivity before we attempt to examine absolute realities.

mara_cave
…annnddd Philosophy 101

This is the one objective reality on which we can hang our hat; this is the centrifugal force on which the pendulum of human history swings. Too often the cross becomes disconnected from our philosophy. We start our musings with “I think therefore I am and here’s what I think…” and we go from there. We begin our viewing of the world from the view of our bedroom window and work our way out. But doing such immediately confines us to seeing life as shadows dancing across the back of the cave, as Socrates so timelessly put it.

Rather, we must start our thinking, our pursuit of this abstract “intellectualism”, we must start our entire worldview by zooming out of the temporary and then closing in on the one event of human history that transcends all events. With our eyes focused on the cross, with our minds centered on the reality of the gospels, our musings can be covered in the reality that we are a) not important and b)not worth saving. Satan’s fall has shown us that any other subjective viewpoint leads to damnation; we ought to be able to learn from him.

In grasping this truth, we will have centered ourselves on the centerpiece of history, the only truly objective stance from which to view the world. We will have established ourselves with the only logically and philosophically sound starting point for any comprehension of God and all that is within the cosmos. Our perceptions of reality will always come with the jaded perspective of our personal experiences; that much we can be certain. But if we set out at the beginning, before we even get going at the task, to anchor ourselves in the one event that can adequately and satisfactorily claim to transcend all others, then there’s hope.

From the vantage point of a transcendent and universal event there is hope that we can come out of the cave and finally see the world as it is. From our position of clinging desperately to the cross, there is hope that we can find our place in the cosmos with objective grace as our lens rather than our personal experiences.

With the cross as our support and our lifeline, we have a hope of beginning to think.


[1] I’m sure we can all agree that if there’s going to be a discussion on intellectualism, footnotes must be involved. BTdubs, please tell me you caught the implicit irony in my opening statement.

[2] That being said, this post is not intended to be a reaction against/concerning this article. It was merely the spark that started the fire.

[3] One of my part-time jobs is as a kayak guide. To this day, I always dread having any students from Harvard on my trips because (generally speaking) they’ve not an ounce of common sense.

[4] Just adding a footnote often makes something look ten times smarter. I mean no one actually reads these things.

[5] (Insert something smart that no one will read but if they do certainly won’t be questioned).

[6] Shoot. I forgot the footnotes. Woops.

[7] It’s a lost cause, I’ve abandoned the footnotes. I’m not an intellectual.

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4 thoughts on “Beginning To Think

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