A Thinking Christian

In reading through St. John of Damascus’ trilogy (Fountain of Knowledge, Heresies, and An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith) I am struck by a pattern that I believe Christians have missed.

The first book, Fountain of Knowledge, deals with philosophy and logic. The entire book (about 60 pages) explains to readers in an lucid fashion how to think properly. He doesn’t tell the reader what to think, but instead how to think.

His next book, Heresies, deals with the heresies up to that point. What is interesting is with most he doesn’t say why they are wrong or even that they are wrong. Merely, he points out what each heresy taught and moves onto the next one.

He finally comes to An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, the biggest book in the trilogy. It is here that he lays out, in order, what we should know about God, what we should know about creation and God’s interaction with creation, what Christ accomplished on the cross, and how all of the above applies to Christians. Essentially, if Christianity had a “Buyer’s Guide” that explained Christianity (including the Bible) in detail, this book would be that guide.

What is interesting is the structure of his trilogy seems to imply that in order for a Christian to come to a deeper understanding of his faith, he must first know how to think and then know what is false. This is not to say that before one comes to Christ one must know logic and what heresies are out there, but instead before one begins to truly have a deep relationship with Christ, one must think properly.

Such a structure does make sense in light of the greatest commandment, stated by Christ in Matthew 22:37, that we shall love our God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. While I would love to give an exposition of the entire passage, for now it is best just to look at the Greek word used for “mind,” which is dianoia. This Greek word refers to the whole of the mind; it refers to our moral or immoral thoughts, to our creative thoughts, and to our faculty of reason. When Christ said to love Him with all our minds, He meant that everything we think should be done for Him, which means that it should be our best.

Since reason is included in the mind, it follows that we should understand how to reason. Proper reasoning will generally lead to proper beliefs. Improper reasoning (or an abandonment of reasoning, or even an Escape from Reason) will generally lead to improper beliefs. Likewise, where the mind goes the actions soon follow. If we believe it is good to help the poor and more good to help the poor than to spend excess money on ourselves, we will usually help the poor and think of ourselves later. The more we understand Christianity, the more we begin to live like Christ. The less we understand of Christianity, the more likely we are to deny aspects and then invent in our minds how Christ would act.

Is it any wonder that Western Christianity finds itself in such a crisis? In America, around the time of the Second Great Awakening, churches began to stop teaching members how to think properly. It wasn’t emphasized. Instead, a personal experience was emphasized far more than an intellectual acknowledgment of Christ (both are important, but often one is elevated at the expense of the other). As time progressed, around the 1960s and 1970s, the Church began to deemphasize the teaching of heresy. It became taboo to label something “heretical.” Today, the moment a person uses the term “Heresy” in a negative way, that person is immediately viewed as a fundamentalist and loses all credibility. To use the term “heresy’ is anathema in our culture. Now, we see churches ceasing to teach the basic doctrines of the faith (i.e. we don’t see many sermons on the Trinity, on the Incarnation, on the problem of evil, etc).

The reason we see a downgrade on the emphasis on major doctrines is because our congregations simply don’t know how to think. Paul said that as Christians we are to move from the milk to the meat. A new Christian doesn’t need to learn about the Trinity in detail or even the incarnation in detail; simply acknowledging that Jesus is God and human and died for our sins and rose again is sufficient. But a growing Christian must eventually move away from milk and eat meat, just like a child must do. Unfortunately, modern Christianity has moved away from the milk, but not in a good way.

We begin with the milk and as we grow older, we eat our ice cream before the main meal. We eat our desserts (the emotional feelings, the “feel-good” theology, which is important, but not the main course) before we eat the main meal (the deeper doctrines that help us to understand God and give meaning to the “feel-good” doctrines). As we get older, we might even eat our dinner salad (e.g. predestination vs free will, pre-trib rapture vs post-trib rapture, etc) or even attempt to eat some of the side items with our meal (e.g. a proper church government, when baptism should occur, etc). But very rarely do we eat our main course (e.g. who God is, what the Trinity means, what the Incarnation means, why God created, etc). In fact, we hardly nibble at the main course.

The reason for this boils down to the fact that most American Christians, like most Americans, do not think properly. If they could think logically, then teaching the deeper doctrines of Christianity wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, they have become mentally overweight. They have eaten the desserts and the fatty side items to create a feel-good Christianity. They think the dessert is the main course. Because of this, their minds become fluffy and cannot handle the more complex doctrines.

What this then leads to is poor practice in Christianity. Emergents wonder why conservatives are so obsessed over building mega-churches, having ministries for everyone in the congregation, and entertaining their congregations to death while avoiding helping the poor or helping the community. The reason is such churches don’t understand the deeper doctrines of Christianity and so the doctrines that flow from Christianity don’t make sense. Conservatives wonder why Emergents seem to care about social justice, but not about who God is or the deeper teachings of God. The reason is Emergents don’t think properly. They don’t understand the deeper doctrines of Christianity and so they focus on particular doctrines – that are only supposed to have meaning in a certain context – and ignore the universal doctrines.

What we end up with is two groups of Christians at each other’s throats and distrustful of each other, but they are both suffering from malnourishment. Neither side is thinking properly. Both sides take particular doctrines and make those particulars universals. In such a context, these particular doctrines lose their meaning and we have to put our own meaning into them.

The solution is for churches to start putting an emphasis on the mind. Follow St. John of Damascus’ example. Teach your congregation logic. Teach them how to think properly. While they don’t need to be qualified to be logician professors, they should have enough that they can begin to think in a proper way and recognize a fallacy when they see one. Once that is done, teach what heresies exist, but do not teach why they are heresies. Simply say, “This is what Christians for 2,000 years have viewed as a heresy and here’s what the heresy taught.” Finally, teach them the orthodox faith. Teach them the deeper doctrines. In doing so, they will learn why the heresies are wrong and will, hopefully, begin to live in accordance with what they believe. When that occurs, we will see revival. If it does not occur, we will see the death of Christianity in America.