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Nuancing My View That Christians Don’t Think: Using Christmas as an Example (Miniblog #163)

by Carson T. Clark on December 26, 2012

For quite some time I’ve had trusted friends and mentors challenge me on the same point. They say I need to give your average Christian more credit for how much he/she actually does think. That is, just because it’s not intensive academic discourse doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate contemplation. Having pondered this for several years, I’ve finally come to a tentative conclusion: My sense is that for most Christians meaningful reflection is encouraged, deep thinking is seen as helpful albeit ultimately unnecessary, and rigorous thinking is discouraged. ‘Tis the season for a Christmas example. Every Christian I’ve ever met has valued taking time to reflect on Christ’s birth and savor times with loved ones around the holidays. Some Christians I’ve met encourage others to really consider the reality of the incarnation as not only God becoming man but as a foreshadow of the coming reunion of heaven and earth. Very few Christians I’ve met, however, are keen on seriously reconsidering the New Testament birth narrative(s)–reinterpreting and re-translating this beloved story to reflect the actual world of first century Jews into which our Lord was born. My conclusion, then, is that these friends and mentors have simultaneously been right and wrong. It’s not that most Christians are opposed to meaningful thought. There I’ve been guilty of oversimplifying. Rather, it’s that they’re averse to what might be summarized as rigorous thought. It seems to me that’s an important and helpful nuance. That being said, I maintain the thrust of my criticism. The Church tends to be a lonely, unwelcoming place for those few whose souls are fueled chiefly, or even largely, by rigorous thought. To my eyes it remains an obvious tragedy that Christians so often must leave an institutional church context to vigorously pursue the life of the mind.


Addendum: It’s not uncommon for posts to be misunderstood. That’s part of life as a blogger. This one has been particularly subject to misinterpretation, though. So I’d like to clarify my intentions. My thesis is a nuance to previous observation I’ve made about Christians’ aversion to thinking by clarifying how Christians tend to engage different types of thinking. Specifically, encouraging meaningful reflection, being tolerant of deep thinking, and discouraging rigorous thinking. The closing comments then upheld my previous observation that the Church can be a lonely and unwelcoming place for those who need rigorous thought for spiritual sustenance. I simply didn’t address who ought to practice rigorous thought, what it ought to entail, when it should happen, where it’s appropriate, why it’s important, how prevalent it ought to be within the Church, nor any of those sorts of affirmative suggestions. Those things aren’t present in the content and are being read in by readers. 

  • Robert F

    It seems to me that you are faulting most Christians (ministers included) for not being intellectuals and/or scholars. Most Christians (ministers included) never have had and never will have the training, tools, resources or natural aptitude necessary for satisfying your criticism. Even most of those with some understanding of a discipline such as, say, Church history (as I hope that I have myself), to begin with a small minority, are not experts and are not helped by looking to the experts themselves, who disagree on many important matters. Your post seems to require that they also be at least amateur sociologists and historians of first century Palestine, in order to reinterpret and re-translate the New Testament birth narrative(s) from within a first century Jewish perspective. This is the background they would need before they could start to become rigorous thinkers in these areas. I think it’s true that the Church is a “lonely, unwelcoming place for those few souls…fueled…by rigorous thought…,” but such loneliness can be part of the desert sojourn that we all experience throughout this life, and that God uses to shape and mold us into holy people.

    • Carson T. Clark

      “It seems to me that you are faulting most Christians (ministers included) for not being intellectuals and/or scholars.”

      I understand why you read it that way. However, that’s quite foreign to my intention. You’re placing the onus on the wrong people.

      “Most Christians (ministers included) never have had and never will have the training, tools, resources or natural aptitude necessary for satisfying your criticism.”

      See above.

    • Chris

      I’d nuance this one step further by saying most Christians do attempt rigorous thinking on their own, outside the church. What do I mean? I think people want to find answers, but with the social element of church they don’t think a sanctuary is a place where they are allowed to think opening with questioning and criticism. So they keep their deeper questions silent until, often, it is too late and their faith has gone into a coma or has fallen to the wayside. The idea of late nights wh you can’t sleep isn’t unique to scholars or academics. Life is built to force us into rigorous thinking to contend with the many contributions in nature and the human soul. Take Newtown as an example. Most parents have a lot of rigorous thinking going on, but churches across America gave simple, quick summaries and answers like pills for the masses.

    • Chris

      Few typos: wh should be where and contributions should be contradictions.

    • Chris

      Wh should be where and contributions should be contradictions. Sorry.

  • Ken Leonard

    I see your point. I’m not absolutely certain that I agree with it, but my wife and I have had similar conversations, perhaps just worded differently.

    There is a huge element of groupthink, and there might be a general discouraging of intense analysis, especially in terms of traditional understandings. (“Intense analysis” and “rigorous thought” do seem like similar terms, don’t they …?)

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