Exploring the Life of the Mind

Mark Noll, a retired historian from Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame, is the author of the award-winning book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans). The book has recently been rereleased with a new preface and afterword.

On every side the conditions of contemporary life threaten careful, clear and purposeful thinking. Interpersonal connections made possible by social media come with a stiff price—runaway conspiracies, instant “experts,” unreflective commercialism and mindless trivialization. Inflamed partisanship makes it difficult to sustain conversations about political differences. The pandemic has added woe on woe by disrupting normal educational efforts. A world with unprecedented access to well-grounded and well-organized knowledge is a world awash in nonsense, gobbledygook, paranoia and blather.

For the life of the mind, Christian communities can provide a respite, but all too often contribute to the confusion. Dogmatic certainties make it easy to dismiss any theological point, biblical interpretation or observation about the world that does not agree with what I believe. The scriptural ideal of minds not conformed to the world is too often inverted as worldly ways infiltrate our personal lives and the church. When the racial, political, economic and social distinctions dividing the general population also divide believers, the world misses the beauty revealed in the mind of Christ.

Contrasting mistakes undermine thinking by Christ followers. From the one side, spiritually minded people may conclude that since the Holy Spirit is the source of all life and truth, it is not important to work at thinking/reading/learning. From the other side, intellectually minded people may conclude that since God wants us to think/read/learn, these activities are supremely important in themselves.

The antidote is balance—hard thinking alongside instincts, assumptions and experience. The main themes of Scripture provide a solid foundation. God as creator, God as revealer, God as redeemer, God as judge—these realities all point to the mind as a gift from God. Understood in this way, diligent thinking can serve worship, belief, holiness, guidance, evangelism, ministry and service. A Christian approach to thinking affirms the validity of intellectual labor, but also ensures that intellectual activity functions for the general good, for others and for God—not as an idol unto itself.

Thankfully, pastors, scholars and lay believers have provided many helpful books to outline a better way. 

The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective by Clifford Williams (Baker Academic) features a philosopher’s calm, patient and sensible argument for calm, patient and sensible thinking.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper (Crossway) dives deeply into the Scriptures to show how disciplined thinking can reflect the goodness, grace and glory of God.

He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Richard Mouw (Wm. B. Eerdmans) tracks human achievements in art, literature, politics and society to their source in God himself. 

Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life by John Stott (IVP) combines biblical exposition and patient insights about daily life to make a compelling case for this book’s title.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press) shows how one of the most respected modern philosophers differentiates between the findings of scientists and the assumptions they (and others) bring to scientific work.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press) offers a compelling survey of contemporary intellectual life, with advice for believers to practice “faithful presence” instead of entertaining grandiose dreams of conquest.

Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation, edited by Harold Heie (Abilene Christian University Press), demonstrates that believers with different political views can discuss those differences with light instead of heat.

The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular by George M. Marsden (Oxford University Press) updates a classic study of how higher education became secularized, and now includes shrewd observations about the present.

Can I Believe?: Christianity for the Hesitant by John G. Stackhouse Jr. (Oxford University Press) offers a persuasive case for Christianity while demonstrating how to make that case modestly and with restraint.