I am delighted to serve as interim pastor of First Baptist Church of Peoria. I want you to know that I have a passionate commitment to the church and the nature of the church in our secular culture. It begins with my commitment to a faith that honors the power of the mind.
I confess to an insecurity surrounding intelligence because I am a Southerner and folks are dubious about whether or not we are smart. “You are not from here, are you?” is the question I am often asked in the Midwest, and it infers more than my funny accent. It suggests that there is something lacking in the Southern mind. So I admit to spending more than thirty-five years, standing hat-in-hand, before the citadels of higher learning, reading in every discipline, hoping that if I can’t be smart at least I can be in the company of smart people.
American versions of Christianity have contributed some unusual concepts to Christianity. We gave the world “the simple gospel.” Problem: The simple gospel turned out to be too simple for the complexities of modern life. Then we gave the world the literal gospel: Problem: The literal gospel failed to take into account the complexity of language. As Ellen Davis reminds us in The Art of Reading Scripture, the Bible has literary complexity. The language of the Bible is often symbolic, mythological, imaginative, analogical, metaphorical, and apocalyptic.
Actually, being smart is in the church’s DNA. The church has a history of being smart. The Apostle Paul was the best educated convert of the first century. The church Paul bequeathed us was led by highly educated and skilled clergy. The bishops of the first five centuries read like the Hall of Fame of the brightest minds in the world; often they were rhetoricians and philosophers. The church invented the university. The church, within the universities, was the incubator for Western science (See the fascinating history of this development in David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science). It is a failure that the church and the university divorced, with the university claiming mental cruelty. Think of a reunion: church, university, science. Now, there’s some intellectual firepower.
The church needs to rediscover her mind without losing her heart. Mark Noll begins his powerful book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with these haunting words: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” A few years ago I read a book entitled Can a Smart Person Believe in God?. That this even became a book tells you that we have a problem. The church seems almost embarrassed by intelligence, afraid to walk in the magnificent gardens of metaphorical splendor.
I believe it is time for the church and the university to remarry. I believe it is time for “Smart Christianity.” If this sounds elitist, it is a charge I will have to face. I am challenging the very presumption that the church can survive just on emotions. Charles Taylor, in his magisterial work, The Secular Mind, forces us to grasp that the default setting in America is no longer belief in God. People are perfectly content not believing in God and as a result they are abandoning the church in droves. The church, as the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard predicted, is being killed by boredom.
I am interested in a church that can love God with mind and heart. I want a church that faces the philosophical and rhetorical claims of postmodernism with intellectual integrity. I want a church with the courage to stand up and battle the powers and principalities of secular culture because it turns out that the secular gospel has little power and is not nearly as interesting as you might think. It only sounds interesting because we the people who worship a crucified God have somehow managed to make church so boring. I want a church that searches for wisdom the way treasure hunters search for the gold in sunken ships. Perhaps we already possess right here in Peoria two powerful institutions that might become partners in creative ways: FBC Peoria and Bradley University. In a world that markets almost every product, from phones to self-driven automobiles, as “Smart,” please give me Smart Christianity.