Marilynne Robinson is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead. Her latest collection of essays, titled "When I Was A Child I Read Books," calls mainline Protestants to task for "retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and beauty . . . as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension."
Evangelicals are not much better these days at encouraging the life of the mind, according to the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne, Jr.: "Popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry. This not only ignores Christian giants of philosophy and science but also plays into some of the very worst stereotypes inflicted upon religious believers."
According to Dionne, "Some Christians encourage a view of their faith as profoundly anti-intellectual. Faith is seen as more about experience than reason, more about loyalty than dialogue. The desire to assert The Truth takes priority over exploring productively and honestly what the truth might be." He concludes: "If Easter is about liberation, this liberation must include intellectual freedom."
I write a column each week for The Dallas Morning News as part of their Texas Faith forum. Our panel was asked this week to respond to Robinson and Dionne: what is the role of faith in encouraging the life of the mind? My response follows.
When a boy was asked in Sunday school to define faith, he responded confidently: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." That's what I thought for years.
My father's war experience turned him from the church, as he could not reconcile a loving God with the horrors he witnessed. His doubts became mine. When I became a Christian, my questions didn't go away. In fact, the more I learned, the more I questioned: how do we know Jesus is the only way to God? How do we know the Bible is true? What about creation and evolution, science and faith?
The reaction of other Christians was clear: If you have enough faith, you won't have doubts. Since I had doubts, clearly I didn't have enough faith. Then came the day that changed my life: I was given a copy of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. For the first time, I encountered someone who was willing to wrestle with faith intellectually and honestly. I reread his masterpiece every year with great gratitude.
Over the years since, I've become convinced that doubts are an essential part of faith. If Jesus could cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46), I can ask my questions. The prophet heard God say, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18); the Hebrew actually says, "come, let us argue it out." The more I ask, the more I can learn. Doubts can be the pathway to faith.
Mark Noll was right: the "scandal of the evangelical mind" is that we don't have one. But it shouldn't be so. The donor who gave the academic scholarship that allowed me to attend college told me when I graduated, "The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind."