Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Jelly Minds

"And [Jesus] said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'"-Matt. 22:37 (ESV)

I remember my very first college class was Intro to Psychology at 11 AM every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the third floor of the Cook Building. It was the class where I sharpened my academic teeth, took my first college exam, got my first C on a test, and learned that college isn't like in the movies where glorious adventures and wild stories await around every corner. The adventures are what you remember, the main thing is the work. This class paled in comparison to work loads I would have later, yet it was uniquely draining since it was a class over which I had expected to more or less gush. Unfulfilled expectations can really punch a hole in motivation.

One concept which always bothered me was the Nature/Nurture debate. It wasn't because I was very strongly in the biological/cognitive or behavioral camp. Rather, it stemmed from how the debate was framed. After all, we had been told on the second day of class that psychology came from the Greek meaning "study of the soul". It was also supposed to be the fusion of philosophy and science. However, the discipline quickly shed any such "pretensions" to the soul or philosophy because the soul is not scientifically demonstrable. Therefore, the only legitimate realm of discussion within psychology was between those two positions. Had there existed a branch of psychology dubbed "philosophical psychology" as there do "cognitive psychology" and "behavioral psychology", perhaps I would not have been so perturbed. After all, what if people aren't just a product of their society nor of their genes? Could not some fundamentally immaterial thing remain which is the true source of what man is? As Aristotle said, "The whole is more than the sum of the parts." "Maybe so," answers the academic psychologist, "but that question is not appropriate for scientific discourse. And what is psychology but a science?"

I was so bothered by this that I remember bringing it up with a young psychology major a couple of years later. She was a believer and I thought maybe she could shed light on the deplorable lies of her favored discipline. It was a casual conversation and perhaps I was expecting too much, yet I was even more disappointed by her response than by the original dilemma. She replied that she hadn't much thought about it; she simply disagreed, took the notes, and passed the next test.

The troubling thing about this response is not that she didn't freak out and remember it for years to come like I did. The bothersome fact is that she never dealt seriously with the argument presented to her. Rather than dealing with a potential challenge to her faith, she just ignored it. She blew off all the credibility of her instructor and his ideas--whether or not she agreed with him--simply because she found it unpalatable. It wasn't that she had a reason to disagree; it simply made her faith in Christ uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians are guilty of having jelly minds. Like a jellyfish, when they encounter some kind of intellectual opposition or challenge, they just drift right past it like no obstruction were there at all. If an answer or resolution to the problem is not immediately forthcoming, they forget about it and drift on with the currents of shallow faith. They don't take it home and wrestle with it. They don't meditate on what a critical impact this might have on their lives as followers of Jesus. They just drift on with their feel-good spirituality. Oddly enough, this isn't how Jesus was.

Jesus found opposition coming from men who had years more experience mastering a subject than He did. In Luke 20:27-40, the Sadducees come to Jesus and try to lay a theological trap. These are men who don't believe the whole Bible, only the Five Books of the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Jesus takes the whole Old Testament (Genesis-Malachi). This means that He disagrees with them on a fundamental level. Particularly in the book of Daniel, there are sections which overtly talk about the afterlife--something the Pharisees didn't believe in at all. Yet Jesus, with little formal education compared to theirs, bests them.

Some will immediately say, "Yeah, but He wrote the thing. And He's God! Of course He knows it better than them. But I'm not God, so how can I be expected to tango with people who know their stuff better?" They're wrong. Jesus is our Christus Exemplar, Latin for "Christ the example" (more or less). That means we're supposed to be like Him. There's huge sections of a decent-sized book of the Bible talking about it (Hebrews). My point is that Jesus didn't do something that we can't do without the Holy Spirit.

So what did Jesus do? First, He met those guys on their level. Rather than quote from Daniel or Psalms or Job or some other book the Sadducees wouldn't agree with, He reasoned from a portion of Scripture that they did believe (that is, Exodus). This is why Christians are wasting plenty of good oxygen by simply pointing at the Bible and saying, "Read this! It has all the answers you need!" If I'm the naturalist arguing that man is just an animal, I'm thinking, "Thanks for ignoring my point. I guess you want me to take and read a book I don't really care about to further convince me how ignorant you are." So don't do that.

Second, He took their charge seriously. He didn't say He'd get to it later. He didn't say that He didn't care. He didn't even say, "Oh well, agree to disagree," without explaining Himself. Instead, He challenged their ideas in a very open-minded yet succinct way. Jesus heard the Sadducees out and then explained why they were wrong. Even though their motives were sinful (since Jesus denounces them just after this), He still addressed their ideas as legitimate.

Finally, Truth can stand up to scrutiny. If you believe that Scripture, right philosophy, and/or just plain common sense teach that man has an eternal soul, then don't retreat! Don't brush aside challenges you shall face in the classroom or in difficult books or from jerkwads on the street with more degrees than intelligence. Because no matter how smart or sophisticated or all-encompassing any explanation of life apart from Truth is, it will fail if it isn't true. Anything that cannot withstand the critical eye isn't Truth at all. Sift through it all and keep what's good.

Like I said when Artery Bloggage started, Truth is personal: the Person Jesus Christ is Truth. A Christian's faith in Him should be steadfast for He shall save us. So don't worry if you're challenged. You might find that you were wrong about something all along. That's what makes learning such a humbling experience and why teachers CRAVE teachable spirits. Be like Jesus; be humbly teachable and eternally dedicated to seeking Truth.


  1. That first detail, about Jesus responding on the same level as the Sadducees, reminded me of an Augustine quote:

    Augustine's Latin is relatively complex, and a perfectly literal translation sounds clunky unless you know what you're looking at, so I tried to make this sound as functional as possible (NB: words in brackets are added to the text for clarity):

    "For when [non-Christians] catch anyone from the number of Christians erring in that matter which [non-Christians] have come to know best and [that such a Christian] asserts their empty opinion about our books, once this has been stipulated, are [non-Christians] about to trust in those books about the resurrection of the dead and about the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of the heavens, when they think [those books] to have been composed deceitfully about these things [science/astronomy], which now [non-Christians] have been able to test and to secure with indisputable numbers?

    "For what trouble and sadness cavalier and presumptuous people bring against their sensible brothers, enough is not able to be said, because, if ever [the cavalier ones] will have begun to be caught and refuted in their evil and false opinion by [non-Christians], who are not held by the authority of our books, then [the cavalier ones] endeavor, toward [the purpose of] defending that which they said with very trivial rashness and very open falsehood, to bring forward those same books, whence they approve of that [rash statement], or they even proclaim from them many words from memory, which are judged to be strong in support of that testimony, understanding neither what they are saying nor about what they are asserting."
    - St. Augustine, "The Literal Meaning of Genesis," book 1, chapter 19, paragraph 39; translation mine

    For anyone who might have been too thrown off by the grammar of even my Anglicized translation, the long and short of it is that it is detrimental to the faith as a whole when uneducated persons proclaim truths in science (physical, social, or pseudo-) and philosophy and then, when they've been caught in a mistake, try to quote Scripture as a justification. As you said, David -- the Sadducees didn't accept the Book of Daniel, and non-Christians don't accept any of the Bible as evidence. Quoting it at them will just get you ignored and the Book you're quoting -- that is, the Holy Word of God -- will get marginalized and perhaps even maligned.

    Right at the end of that quote, by the way, Augustine is referencing 1 Timothy 1:7, which is talking about people who, "missing the mark, have wandered into empty talk, wishing to be teachers of the law, not understanding either the things which they are saying or about what they are insisting upon." (1Ti 1:6-7, translation mine)

    The words Paul uses there aren't his usual words for sinners and false teachers (although they have similar meanings), but I think Augustine is clearly trying to say that anyone who speaks ignorantly of secular science and philosophy is like one of the false teachers who lead people astray.

    Anyway. I just wanted to throw that in there.

    Good post, as usual.

  2. Thanks for this. Your last paragraph was the best.

    When I've seen Christians struggle with theology and not believing they need to really push themselves further (and in so doing, they believe they just take things "in faith"), what truly convinces them to dive deeper is that we are changed by the Truth as a person, not just propositions.

    I still get antsy when people talk about truth claims in impersonal faith is some weird pixie dust from God that I need to shake on my spiritual life then think a happy God thought and I'll be a better Christian.

    Keep up the good posts!!

  3. Mr. Turner--Most times that I'm on the same page as Augustine, I'm in good company.

    Daniel--I guess I should have written a longer conclusion.