Is the expression “Christian mind” an oxymoron at Harvard? Can the two entities coexist not only in the abstract, but also within the individual? In the rewarding experience I have had studying at Harvard this semester, I have pondered this question seriously., Here at Harvard, the intellect is nurtured, scholarly pursuits are in abundance, and the mind is king. But what about the Christian mind? Can we integrate faith and learning while at an overtly secular university? In short, I believe we can. But before we can explore how this can be accomplished at Harvard, we need to look at the importance of using one’s mind for Christ and to examine the current situation at this university, as I have observed it.
What does it mean to think Christianly and why is it important? A few years ago, I read a book that affected me profoundly: Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In this indictment of American evangelicalism, Noll does not see the scandal in a failure of theology or biblical studies; rather, the scandal is in the “historical experience of an entire subculture” that has refused to confront the “whole spectrum of modern learning.” Indeed, the exercise of the mind for Christ is not merely studying theology. It also does not mean publicly participating in the secular academy while privately having a spiritual life full of “quiet times,” social justice debate during fellowship, and church attendance. All of these are wonderful aspects of the life of faith and should not be disregarded. However, Noll asserts that the Christian life of the mind consists in understanding the entire continuum of learning, relationships, and daily life with reference to Christ, in whom we believe all truth and goodness cohere. We constantly need to ask ourselves this question: As a Christian, how do I think about the nature and workings of the physical world, the character of human social structures like government and the economy, the meaning of the past, the nature and purpose of artistic creation, and the circumstances attending my perception of the world outside myself ?
Some might say: if we diligently pursue our studies, treat others with respect and kindness, and dedicate ourselves to serving as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, both to the world at large and to those at home, what could we possibly be missing? But Paul, the New Testament lover of the mind, demands more. He exhorts us to “not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (1 Cor. 14:20, NRSV). Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget his last five words. Contrary to popular dialogue within Christian circles, our God demands not only the obedience of our hearts and souls, but that of our minds as well. The traditional doctrine of creation holds that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing and intrinsically good. As part of his creation, we are to delight in the world and the cosmos which God created good. We must take the world seriously for its own sake as well as for what it may teach us about God. To study it reverently is already an act of worship, and to deny this is to deny God’s power, wisdom, love, and holiness evidenced by his creative work.
Even more central to the pulse sustaining the life of the Christian mind is God’s incarnation in Christ Jesus. The great truth of the Incarnation is that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us in a time, culture, and place. All too often, we Christians forget this foundational truth, and instead overemphasize Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity– God’s taking on flesh and dwelling among us. Our Lord chose this world—a world embodied by material things as well as spiritual things, a world of human institutions as well as divine realities—as the arena in which to accomplish the salvation of humanity. He has great regard for the material realm. To worship and respond lovingly to such a being demands our contemplation of Him and of the wonders of His creation, including science, politics, the academy, family, the arts, and our relational, vocational, and temporal pasts, presents, and futures.
In a self-help culture of feel-goodisms, material wealth, consumerism, immediate results, and a fevered work ethic, it seems natural to separate the spiritual realm from the corporeal. At Harvard, I have been overwhelmingly impressed by the drive and sophisticated thought occurring in the classroom. At the same time, the level of urgency and expectancy in prayer as students gather for spiritual food and mutual encouragement in the various Christian fellowships has both refreshed and inspired me. The individual’s dedication to a wise stewardship of his God-given gift of intelligence combined with this Truth-seeking community of love and accountability is truly laudable.
I find myself bewildered, however, at the lack of thoughtful dialogue occurring in the arenas of faith and private life when these same people so diligently devote themselves to deep and sophisticated secular scholasticism. How can young persons of such brilliant intelligence neglect the thought life of their Christian walks, and succumb on one level to the pervading American Christian culture of simplistic clichés and quick- fix evangelism, and on another level to the Harvard culture of type-A egoism, self-perpetuated stress, and individualistic success? If we separate the mind from the spirit and thus withdraw from thinking Christianly about every aspect of life, are we not reverting to a mild form of Gnosticism and ignoring the good gifts of a loving God? In our neglect of a Christ-centered mind, not only are we forfeiting the opportunity to impact our peers, the university at large, and eventually, the intellectual forces of the world—all of which mold the conditions of influential public discussion—but we are also displaying a dismaying lack of interest in God’s creation and ignoring the message of the Incarnation.
We are all products of our culture, and Christians, let alone Harvard students, are no exception. What is unfortunate is the higher calling we seem to have ignored in our mindless acceptance of Americanized Christian, and in this specific case, “Harvardian” norms. Countless Christians throughout the country regard scholarly matters as of secondary importance if not as direct impediments to the urgent business of saving souls, and have so intertwined culture with faith that it is almost impossible to think Christianly without cultural blinding. Harvard Christians, while obviously not disregarding the world of learning, appear to have inherited the separatist tendencies of American evangelicalism. While their hands and mouths proclaim good works on a macrocosmic level, they have a limited reputation for scholarship with a holistic and informed biblical worldview. Ironically, Harvard also holds claim to perhaps the strongest reputation in elite academic circles, and yet its students are so goal-oriented that their potential for Christ-like character gets eclipsed in place of the more immediate and seemingly superior goals within reach. What results is not only a somewhat sectarian, particularist understanding of the Bible, but also a disengagement of a biblically-informed mind from the rigorous classes, ongoing academic dialogue, and relationships embodying grace, patience, and Christcenteredness (rather than self-centeredness). Some students also seem so fearful of the politically and culturally loaded “Christian” label that they refuse to say anything in the public forum that even hints of normative conviction founded on a Christian worldview. Instead, a reticence to engage in Christ-centered discussions (even within gatherings of supposed believers!) is perpetuated. On the rare occasion when students boldly decide to speak up, they are so out of practice and paralyzed by an overwhelming awareness of all of the possible conclusions on the part of the listener that they do not conduct themselves in a manner reflective of a considered biblical worldview—loving, steadfast, open, honest, and sufficiently nuanced to reflect the complex truths of Christ’s teachings. As a result, discouragement and defeat set in as their spiritual selves retreat into the private realm, escaping the needed exposure and nourishment from outside dialogue as they refuse (perhaps unconsciously) to engage the world of contemporary culture and learning.
On another level, the pervading influence of Harvard student status—stressing, striving for the perfect GPA, strategizing to construct the most compelling resume—can creep unawares into our Christian walk as we worry in unnecessarily depressing tones about what bad Christians we are, or strive to prove one’s “spiritual accomplishments” publicly in a moralistic and self-righteous manner. How much freer would we feel if we lived humbly in God’s grace and rejoiced in His overflowing mercies that allow us to love life and one another without the self-afflicted and selfdirected pressures of perfectionism! We each have distinct personalities and ways of expressing our love toward God and others, and I’m definitely not advocating the hunky dory behavior and fake smiles unfortunately associated with much of Christian culture. But I am encouraging a healthier perspective toward life and the world, in which God is recognized and praised genuinely for His supremacy and goodness, not simply as the cosmic crutch to which we turn upon realizing our limits.
I fully empathize with the hard fact that time is short and college can feel like all of life compressed into four breathless years. We struggle to keep our heads above water as new information, ideas, relationships, and fresh levels of awareness overload our senses without pause, and the idea of adding the unpopular and unappreciated endeavor of thinking Christianly can seem like too much to ask of students who already fight to fan the flame of their faiths in an unsupportive environment. I also feel more forgiving toward myself and fellow Christians here when I realize that the lack of “integration” is due in part to originally pure intentions. Indeed, part of the genius of the Christian groups on campus is their populist approach toward outreach. Such evangelism and openness is a good thing. But we need to beware of allowing too much of our creative energy to be pulled away from the sustaining of serious Christian intellectual life and consistent Christian behavior. If we overemphasize the conversion experience and the larger-than-life social justice agendas without developing our Christian minds, we shortchange our potential for far-reaching influence and also miss out on the joyful investments in reciprocal, compassionate, selfless, and Godgiven friendships and interactions at the present time—with believers and unbelievers, students and faculty, strangers on the street and roommates in the dorm. We forget that “saving the lost” is not the sole purpose of the gospel message. It is more critical that we ponder the more indirect, difficult, even mundane ways in which God may be known. We must think carefully about how the Christian life might be lived out in the institutional settings of politics, science, the arts, the marketplace, and relational interactions on an individual level. If we do not, not only will the world never be able to distinguish us from our non-Christian cohorts (and if they do, we will only be seen as inappropriately activist and extremist), but we forfeit an opportunity to obey God in allowing one of the three major gifts he gave us (mind, body, and spirit) to become atrophied.
I must admit that such intentional mental exercise for Christ and the lifestyle choices it produces are often difficult. In my own recent faith journey, despite enjoying a classical liberal arts education combined with an abundance of meaningful relationships rooted in a Christian worldview at Wheaton College (IL), the past two years have not been easy. The experience at Wheaton has furthered both my certainty and confusion surrounding the proper manner in which to think Christianly. Yes, I have come to treasure my courses in international relations that discuss political forgiveness and a biblical code of peace and justice, bioethics classes agonizing over the morality of in-vitro fertilization, and literature professors delighting in the timeless beauty of words and profound Christian truths through poetry and prose. And I cherish the long conversations with thoughtful friends who have helped to erode my partial subscription to “cultural Christianity,” and instead encourage a methodical, thorough, and prudent exploration of God’s created order and my activity in it. However, while I now possess a nuanced and biblical framework on which to rest my opinions, thoughts, and decisions, the actual realization of my response to the world at times seems paralyzed by an awareness of all the gray areas. I have been persuaded that no complex question has a simple answer, and thus I sympathize with the frequent reticence of Christians at Harvard. The sophisticated addressing of such questions requires the scrupulous investigation into foundational and fundamental questions about ourselves and our world, and such exploration is difficult, frustrating, and at times seemingly fruitless.
How can we cultivate this precious frame of mind at a place like Harvard, where there is no spoonfeeding and the forums for spiritual nourishment and discussion are few and far between? Individual internalizing of God’s call to wise mental stewardship is the first step. We must revel in the beauty of His created order and understand the significance of the Incarnation in order to see through the eyes of faith while still on this earth. This worldview must then replace the cultural spectacles distorting our vision, and in that separation, we can then successfully engage that very culture with our newfound sight. Reading the Bible critically and often, outside reading and reflection during breaks and free moments, and intentional conversations with small groups and believing friends can help us engage every discipline—academic, athletic, humanitarian, extracurricular, social—with our Christian lenses firmly in place. Group sharing and accountability is indispensable in helping us to be consistent in our private and public spiritual lives—we must use discernment in how to spend our free time, what movies and music we expose ourselves to, how we treat our blockmates and the homeless persons in the Square. We must listen to one another both thoughtfully and openly, always guided by a firm theological roadmap and wary of judging quickly from first impressions to final conclusions. We must become “bilingual”—addressing the world with our well-loved and oft-used words of faith while simultaneously learning to translate those words into the vernacular of public academia. Ultimately, however, we must rest in knowing that God, who places supreme value on wisdom and understanding, will continue to help us cultivate intellectual virtues (i.e. wisdom, discernment, love of truth, interpretive sensitivity) while avoiding intellectual vices (i.e. willful naiveté, sinful ignorance, closed-mindedness, egoism). By prayer and obedience, God can train the cognitive faculties of Harvard students to mature excellence so as to win important truth and live out to the fullest our love for Christ.
Interestingly, the first devotion I had in my Harvard dorm room was a reading of Deuteronomy 4:39: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.” In heaven above and on the earth below. I am convinced that the integration of faith and life is a simple response of obedience to a loving Creator who is Lord of all. Only in this way may our love “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (NIV, Phil 1:9-10). In taking seriously the life of the mind, we are picking up the Cross and asserting the sovereignty and lordship of God over the world he created by his power; that he redeemed through Christ’s death and resurrection; that he continues to sustain through the power of the Holy Spirit. No longer can we in good conscience do any less.
Anne Snyder ‘07 is a Philosophy and International Relations double major at Wheaton College, IL. She is a Visiting Undergraduate at Harvard for Spring 2006.