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Essay

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

By August 28, 2012 2 Comments
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Lynn Japinga is substituting for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell while he is on sabbatical.  She teaches religion at Hope College and studies recent RCA history.

Todd Akin’s recent assertion that normal female physiology is suspended in the case of rape has led to a number of discussions about the role of science in questions of global warming, evolution, abortion and homosexuality.

I’ll leave it to others to reflect on the degree of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party, but the debate has reminded me of an old column in the Church Herald by Howard Hageman. It was called “With All Thy Mind” and appeared on May 30, 1969. Hageman was pastor of the North Reformed Church in Newark, New Jersey and a regular columnist.

He wrote: “I have never been able to understand that strain in evangelical piety (and we have a good bit of it in the Reformed Church) which seems to make the assumption that the Holy Spirit makes no use whatever of the functioning of the human mind but insists that [the Spirit] manifests [it]self only in emotional experiences, or even in extraordinary exhibitions of one kind or another.”

Hageman said that had recently been told by a critic to “pray more,” with the implication that once Hageman prayed, he would come to agree with the critic! Hageman wondered why people assumed that thinking, discussion and analysis were not as spiritual as prayer. The mind was capable of evil, yes, but so were the emotions. Hageman concluded, “I am all for a praying church. But I am also for a thinking church which is not afraid to examine its situation in the light of both the facts as they are and the word of God.”

Classes start today at Hope College, and my role as a religion professor is to “complexify” the issues. My students often find this quite annoying.  It is hard work to think critically, to evaluate, to ask why. And it is often scary to ask hard questions about the Bible, or about the gender roles they have lived with for two decades. But they need to learn to use their minds in the realm of religion just as they are using their minds in other subjects.

In politics, religion, education and many other fields, there is a lot of “dumbing down” or oversimplifying. But the big questions, whether of tax rates or national defense or health care, are rarely as simple and clear cut as our friends on facebook or the commentators on the news would like to suggest.

What if those of us in the Reformed tradition (though all would be welcome!) saw it as our particular vocation to “complexify” the issues during the next two months of sound bites and mud slinging? What would that look like? Could we model what it means to be a “thinking church?”

Lynn Japinga

Lynn Japinga is Professor of Religion at Hope College.

2 Comments

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Well and concisely stated, Lynn. Thank you. I don't know if I'm heartened or depressed by that Hageman quote. On the one had, I guess it's somewhat comforting to know that the anti-intellectualism (anti-expertism, anti-factism) we observe among some Christians today is nothing new. On the other hand, are we getting nowhere? Or worse? I guess we should just keep going to work every day championing the combination of faith and intellectual vigor that is our tradition's heart and gift. Fight on!

  • Al Janssen says:

    For an interesting perspective on this, see Thomas Bergler's "The Juvenilization of American Christianity," a somewhat disturbing analysis of what has happened to the American church in the twentieth century. It's an historical piece and worth the read.

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