The Life of the Mind: A Christian PerspectiveThe Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective
Clifford Williams
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Do purely intellectual pursuits have a purpose in the lives of Christians? Should Christians study subjects that have little bearing on their future careers and ministry? According to Clifford Williams, the answer to both of these questions is yes. To support this view, Williams, a veteran professor of philosophy, offers an examination of the life of the mind. Christians who cultivate the life of the mind read, think, experiment, and engage in discussions. They are interested in the acquisition of knowledge that is both unrelated and directly related to their faith. Williams answers common objections to such activities, describes the virtues of the person who engages in the life of the mind, and asserts that the life of the mind is justifiably a Christian calling. Any Christian committed to developing the mind will enjoy The Life of the Mind, the newest addition to the RenewedMinds imprint.
     

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From chapter seven, "The Hermit and the Explorer," of The Life of the Mind, by Clifford Williams.


Picture two people, one a hermit and the other an explorer. The hermit shuts herself off from contacts with other people and also, let us suppose, from feeling and thinking. She displays few signs of vigor. When she ventures out for supplies, those who encounter her notice her reticence and indifference. She responds to queries with an ambiguous head movement, makes no eye contact, and initiates no conversations. In the privacy of her self-constructed cage, she sits and stares. Hardly anything interests her, and nothing moves her to action except necessities. When she does move, it is with sluggishness. She is a perfect specimen of the living dead.

The explorer, however, is open to what the hermit has closed off. She has an animated interest in the people she encounters and asks about their hopes and dreams. When she listens, her face lights up. She displays spontaneous delight when making new discoveries. She does not wait for adventure to happen to her; she seeks it out, sometimes with a bit of fear but always with anticipation. No cage can hold her. Perhaps she travels, but she does not need to go far, for she finds treasures everywhere. Her inner life is also rich; she has an extensive array of thoughts and feelings. If Socrates or Kierkegaard had encountered such a person in one of their daily excursions, they would have exclaimed, "Aha! Here is one who is fully alive!"

Real hermits, we should note, are often more like the explorer than the above depiction suggests. They may cut themselves off from others in order to probe their inner selves. Or they may do so to pray or pursue wisdom. This is especially true of the early desert Christians. After a dozen years alone, they returned to civilization transformed. That could not have happened if they had simply stared dully at the sand on which they sat.
Real explorers, too, often have some hermit in them. Though they are open and active in some respects, they may be minimally open in other respects. They may, for example, energetically explore the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming but be somewhat reclusive, or they may be exceptionally approachable but unresponsive to art and poetry.

The truth is that we are all partly explorer and partly hermit. We go after new experiences, but only in certain ways. City life may strike us as attractive, but love may seem fearful. Or we may like to dip into classic fiction but avoid sorting out our emotions.

One way to think of the larger life God desires for us is to see it as a way of minimizing the hermit and maximizing the explorer in us. God invites us to feel, love, act, and think. To do so, we cannot sit and stare. We must get up and look around. I do not mean that we must go places and take in new sights, for we can be explorers wherever we are. Those with whom we live and work possess depths that can be endlessly plumbed. Our backyards are unexplored wildernesses. Books contain inexhaustible riches, and so do our own inner selves. Explorers track down fresh life, love, and thought wherever they are.

Writer Wendell Berry vividly portrays the temper of the explorer. Mat, an eighty-year old native Kentuckian, comes upon a stream in a forest behind one of the pastures on his farm. "A water thrush moves down along the rocks of the streambed ahead of him, teetering and singing. He stops and stands to watch while a large striped woodpecker works its way up the trunk of a big sycamore, putting its eye close to peer under the loose scales of the bark. And then the bird flies to its nesting hole in a hollow snag still nearer to feed its young, paying Mat no mind. He has become still as a tree, and now a hawk suddenly stands on a limb close over his head. The hawk loosens his feathers and shrugs, looking around him with his fierce eyes. And it comes to Mat that once more, by stillness, he has passed across into the wild inward presence of the place.

"'Wonders,' he thinks. 'Little wonders of a great wonder.' He feels the sweetness of time. If a man eighty years old has not seen enough, then nobody will ever see enough. Such a little piece of the world as he has before him now would be worth a man's long life, watching and listening. And then he could go two hundred feet and live again another life, listening and watching."
Mat realizes that his unexpected experience is a little like God's constant experience. "For a second he feels and then loses some urging of the delight in a mind that could see and comprehend it all, all at once. 'I could stay her a long time,' he thinks. 'I could stay here a long time.'"[Wendell Berry, "The Boundary," in The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership (New York: North Point Press, 1986), 81-82.] A hermit would not be aware of her surroundings in the way Mat is. She would regard the stream simply as a means of marking her location. The water thrush and striped woodpecker would be nothing more to her than irrelevant objects. The certainly would not be worth watching or listening to. Mat, however, takes keen enjoyment in their movement. He could watch them for a considerable time without tiring, maybe even for a lifetime. He senses that his rapturous absorption mirrors God's, but he cannot hold that thought long lest his mind explode with the largeness of it.

Christian intellectual explorers are like Mat. They watch and listen and become intrigued by the events which they encounter. They put themselves in positions in which they will make new discoveries. Because they are Christians, they regard their discoveries as "little wonders of a great wonder." They also conceive of their intellectual exploration as a response to a number of divine invitations.

One of the invitations is to acquire a diversity of goods associated with the mind. This invitation is based on the intrinsic goodness of the aims of intellectual exploration described earlier--the good knowing of God's creation, the good of thinking coherently, the good of sensing profoundly the magnificence and tragedy in life, the good of knowing one's own inner terrain. The richness in possessing these goods is like the profuseness of Mat's experience after he enter into "the wild inward presence" of the place by the stream.

Christian intellectual explorers also respond to the invitation to understand their faith. This invitation is based on the biblical portrayal of people as holistic--feeling and acting creatures who also think. This concept of human nature spurs explorers to elucidate the content of their faith and to reflect on its nature. It moves them to relate their faith to the various contexts they inhabit. Doing so is similar to Mat's act of connecting his experience of the little place he occupied to the "great wonder" of the universe.
Another invitation is to describe the results of one's explorations to those in secular culture. This invitation is based on the biblical admonition that Christians be witnesses to their faith. It involves understanding the mind-set of those in secular culture and stating Christian truths clearly and thoroughly. If Mat were to tell others of the wonders in the woods, he would be doing something akin to this.

God extends other invitations to us as well; some related to intellectual exploration and some do not. God invites us to make music, listen to the lonely, and correspond with prisoners; to write stores, feed the homeless, and translate the Bible into new languages; to paint paintings, write poetry, and drill wells in primitive villages in impoverished countries.

We cannot, of course, respond to every invitation. Nor should we feel that we must do so. Interest, talent, and circumstance play important roles in determining our responses. Some people, for example, may engage in prison ministry full-time, some part-time for a limited period, and some not at all. It is the same with intellectual exploration. Some may engage in it as a full-time vocation, others as a part-time pursuit, and still others as an occasional activity.

We are called, however, and not just invited, to regard all these invitations as worthwhile--they come from One who values each of them. This means that we should be glad whenever any one of them is pursued by someone, even though it is not one we ourselves have embraced. Intellectual explorers should encourage and admire those who listen to the lonely, and the well drillers should have the same stance toward those who write or draw.

We are also called to accept one or more invitations. Too few Christians do that. The deadly sin of indifference keeps us sitting and gazing. The values of popular culture pull us away from God's values. And suspicion about some of the invitations prevents us from valuing them.

If what has been said in this book is correct, Christians should value intellectual exploration. With our talents and circumstances in mind, we should adopt the aims of the life of the mind and exemplify the habits and virtues of the Christian mind. When we do so, we will, like Mat, listen and watch, reveling in the wonder we encounter at the stream of life. And our lives will be immeasurably enriched.