Open & Closed Minds

I teach at a Christian university. A concern I’ve expressed before in this blog is that sometimes Christian academics have a tendency to think they are lesser scholars than those in the more prestigious centers of higher education. Then they make the mistake of trying to become respected by secular academia by minimizing their faith publicly.

I’m not saying that’s the norm for Christian academics, but it is a temptation for some. There sometimes is a haughtiness emanating from the confines of Ivy League and other “top” schools that tells us we don’t really match up.

However, God disagrees. We’re told in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That last verse goes on to say, “And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

When we jettison that first step—reverence for God—we set out on a path that leads to foolishness, not genuine knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It’s as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.

When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

All the talk in circles of higher education of having an open mind sounds nice. Sometimes, those of us who teach at a university that has a basic statement of beliefs are considered close-minded. Yet as Lewis reminds us in his The Abolition of Man,

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

I’m reminded also of an incident related by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness. As a child, he once said something to his mother about God creating the world. His mother, decidedly nonreligious, told him that he had to think for himself, to have an open mind. He was not to accept other people’s opinions, she declared. Then she followed that with this statement: “The world was formed by gases cooling in space.”

Chambers continued,

I thought about this many times. But it was not the gaseous theory of creation that impressed me. . . . What impressed me was that it was an opinion, too, since other people believed something else. Then, why had my mother told me what to think? Clearly, if the open mind was open . . . truth was simply a question of which opening you preferred.

In effect, the open mind was always closed at one end.

I have no problem saying I begin my understanding of history (which is what I teach) with the knowledge of God. After all, history came into being by His creation. Why would I ever omit Him from an analysis of history?

My mind is open when it comes to the facts of history and whether I need to change my perspective on particular events. My mind is blessedly closed, though, on matters of ultimate significance. Neither do I suffer from feelings of inferiority for saying that. Staying faithful to God’s truth leads to proper understanding and wisdom.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part One)

C. S. Lewis with BookI believe I’ve read most of C. S. Lewis’s essays sometime during my life, but some of them I read so long ago I have forgotten the pearls within. I recently re-read his “Learning in War-Time” reflections as Britain was engaged in WWII and was reminded why others have commented on it so often.

The big question he asks and attempts to answer is why should people continue to be interested in what are considered the normal, routine matters of life when the whole fate of Europe may lie in the balance of the outcome of the war. Why focus on learning, philosophy, history, and similar pursuits when others are sacrificing their lives on the battlefield? “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” he asks.

His response undoubtedly shocked some people when he stated, “The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” Lewis then adds a large dose of common sense:

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.

He doubles down on that premise as he continues:

We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.

As a historian, I can vouch for the accuracy of Lewis’s statement. I’m aware of periods in American history that are usually considered peaceful, but if examined in greater depth, one finds turmoil always bubbling under the surface, if not openly. Lewis further notes,

C. S. Lewis 12Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.

It is no different for the Christian, Lewis concludes:

An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.

I like this splash of reality from Lewis. It’s worth contemplating today.

Lewis: Logic the Cornerstone

Some people think that scientific knowledge is somehow better than other types of knowledge. While it’s true that the scientific method is important, we need to have the proper perspective. I think C. S. Lewis provides that in an address he gave during WWII that showed up later in a collection of his essays as “De Futilitate”:

C. S. Lewis 1The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels “science” to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken.

Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought.

The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought. I mean, the proper distinction for our present purpose: that purpose being to find whether there is any class of thoughts which has objective value, which is not merely a fact about how the human cortex behaves.

For that purpose we can make no distinction between science and other logical exercises of thought, for if logic is discredited science must go down with it.

I think this is important to grasp because sometimes those of us who are not in the narrowly defined field of science may be tempted to think our thought processes are somehow inferior to “pure science.” Not at all. If we become proficient in basic logic, we have the cornerstone for all understanding. In fact, those too focused on a narrow definition of science can often be tunnel-visioned, and cannot provide real answers for life.

So don’t feel inferior, but do everything you can to develop your powers of thought. The Christian faith is not an emotion; it begins with a reasoning that flows logically: man is sinful; sin destroys the relationship with God and others; God intervened in human history to provide a way to redeem those relationships; if we turn from sin and turn to Him, we can be restored.

Pure science can’t reveal that, and even pure science is dependent on clear, logical thinking.

Snyderian Truism #1

When I teach, I try to impress upon students certain truths. I know that sounds impertinent to the ears of some. “What is truth?” they may say. I seem to recall a historical figure named Pontius Pilate who asked the same thing. Jesus, standing before him, had already made it clear He was the truth.

So, yes, I believe truth exists. There are certain things I’ve gotten in the habit of telling students over the years, so last summer, before the new fall semester began, I attempted to catalog as many of them as I could recall. I even put them on slides to incorporate, at appropriate moments, in my PowerPoint presentations in class. I needed to give them a title. Rush Limbaugh, I remembered, came up with his Undeniable Truths of Life, so that was taken. Eventually, I settled on “Snyderian Truisms.” I thought the title was at least unique, if a little strange. But it does make it clear these are statements that I personally believe to be true, and students have seemed to enjoy seeing them light up the screen from time to time.

They are in no particular order of importance; the numbers assigned to them are in the order that I recalled them. What I call Snyderian Truism #1 is the first one I use in my American history survey courses as I attempt to show students that they should be interested in what we will be studying. So what is #1?

Since God gave you a brain, He undoubtedly expects you to use it.

I’ll let you decide how profound it is, but I do believe it’s important to communicate it to students, some of whom would rather shut down in class and coast. My survey courses are part of our General Education requirements, so when some students take them, they are expecting an easy course, something where they can receive a high grade with little or no effort. I try to disabuse them of that mistaken proposition.

On that first day, I give them a quote from nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney, which instructs thusly:

It has been no part of my aim to spare my pupils or anyone else the trouble of intense thought. . . . You were made to think. It will do you good to think; to develop your powers by study. God designed that religion should require thought, intense thought, and should thoroughly develop our powers of thought.

Biblical WorldviewAll too often, Christians want to shelve intense thought and depend primarily on feelings. God does give us those feelings, and we should rejoice that we’re made with them. However, He never intended for our emotions to guide our actions. He wants us to think seriously about what we believe and why. He wants us to learn as much as we can about this world—its history, cultures, etc.—and then use that knowledge to accomplish His purposes in this world.

Thinking Christians need to be leaders. They need to be the best at analyzing their culture and pointing to Biblical solutions. By doing so, we fulfill Jesus’ desire that we be light and salt in our society. I hope my emphasis in this Snyderian Truism will stay with my students. And I hope it will stay with you as well.

More truisms to come in future posts.