A beautiful mind
The world we live in places a high value on intellectual ability and applauds academic achievement. From playing classical music to your unborn baby in the womb, to brain-stimulating black and white mobiles for your new-born, to selecting the best nursery schools for your toddler, to spending a fortune on educational toys for your pre-schooler, to paying huge deposits for admission to the best private schools – the message is all about stimulating, motivating and nurturing brain power measured by comparison and percentages. It is all about boosting cognitive development.
Intellectual ability 'über alles'
We celebrate intellectual ability, award it, applaud it and take pride in it.
If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop on a school car park conversation with moms reading report cards or gate-crash a school prize-giving or university graduation and watch the parents. Listen to keynote speakers at these annual functions – the striving for higher intellectual and academic knowledge is usually the motivational theme. Take note of how grandparents speak about their grandchildren when they whip out their brag books: ‘She is as bright as a button.’
Homeschoolers are not off the hook on this one. They have their own version of promoting intellectual snobbery and academic elitism.
As an educator and parent, this narrow-minded and exclusive pursuit and elevation of academic achievement is worrying and concerning. I have seen postures slump at prize-giving and young and older faces crushed as they learn that you are only really worthy if you are clever.
Clever kids get the teachers’ attention. Clever kids get the opportunities. Clever kids get the praise. Clever kids get the awards.
The lesson learnt early on is that your identity and value are bound up in your IQ.
This message begins in kindergarten and continues throughout school and university. That is a long time to have a wrong message reinforced. I have witnessed the resulting casualties when one is pressured to achieve in the academic realm at all costs.
I have listened to the expectations and the external motivations voiced by parents. I have overheard the opinionated messages: ‘You must take Maths Core and Science. If you don’t, you won’t have options and you won’t get into Varsity.’ ‘Seriously?’ Apparently so. If you take Maths Lit, ‘Well, shame.’ You have definitely settled for less. Your tertiary study options are very limited.
The one escape if you don’t have a beautiful mind is to have a beautiful face. Who needs brains if you are beautiful? (Opportunities are seemingly endless in our superficial world.)
A more drastic means of escaping this subversive message and pressure is to become completely counter-cultural and join a new age hippie community with its yoga, dreadlocks, tie-dyed bandanas and tree hugging demonstrations of adherence. Saving mother earth is justified as higher road and nobler pursuit.
(No offence to new age hippies – I have met some and they are nice people).
For the rest of us, the mediocre world of minions is our lot; operating in the shadow of the intimidating and elite world of academia.
We have to be satisfied with ‘lesser’ degrees and seemingly softer career choices such as Teaching, Nursing, Marketing, Graphic Design, Public Health etc. As the saying goes: 'Those who can, do...those who can't, teach.' This prejudice is not necessarily based on earning power but on apparent academic status.
The 'idol' of intellectualism
A friend’s son matriculated with 8 distinctions. He was top student. He was bright. He worked hard. He was respected by peers and staff. Would he become an Actuary? Perhaps he would apply for Medicine? Definitely an Engineering field? His brightness would ensure him a bright future. But no, he headed off to Bible College. ‘Can you believe it?’ To become a pastor. ‘What a waste!’ This was verbalised in whispers in the school parking lot and over tea and coffee cups at Church.
Unfortunately, we are not immune to this in the Church. We bring our baggage from the world into the Church. We bring our worldly idols into the Church.
I am not downplaying the value and privilege of good education and academic excellence. I realise our beautiful minds are part of us being created in the image of God. I am attempting to highlight the idol we have made it into.
Idols cannot be spiritualised or sanctified. Idols need to be smashed.
Idolatrous thinking needs to be renewed. In the striving for the highest scores or the extra degree, we can end up idolizing ourselves.
In Kathryn Butler’s article on Desiring God entitled, ‘God desires your heart, not your degree’ she says the following: 'As we immerse ourselves in study, we must keep at the forefront of our minds not only what we study, but for whom.’
Do we believe that our worldly academic accomplishments and achievements will truly bring us the happiness, satisfaction and status we crave?
Solomon clearly reminds us in Ecclesiastes that the answer to that is NO. It is an accomplishment that will pass away. It is vanity. A chasing after the wind.
The issue is not necessarily what you are studying but why you are studying what you are studying. Is your motive to impact society with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Are you foremost about God's agenda?
If your motivation in studying is purely to obtain a qualification so as to pursue a career, then you are in real danger of missing God’s purpose for you in your studies. He wants the outcome to be far more than a degree. Your sanctification and faithful service are of far greater value.
A kingdom mindset is about promoting and exalting Christ’s name rather than being concerned about letters behind your name. Only a kingdom mindset has eternal value and significance.
Kathryn Butler continues by reminding us that all disciplines of academia can corrupt us. Academia is a system that "rewards ambition over charity and egocentricity over humility. It (academia) is an imperfect framework that prizes narcissism. Our culture’s preoccupation with success traces its origins to the fall, when Adam esteemed his own paltry capabilities above God’ mercy. Our challenge is to honour God in this desolate landscape." Then she reminds us that that in our studies, "the trajectory must be upon God rather than our own self-aggrandisement."
At the forefront of our minds there needs to be these inspired words from Paul: "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve."
John Piper articulates this so beautifully:
"If you want your life to count, you don't have to have a high IQ and you don't have to have a high EQ. You don't have to be smart. You don't have to have good looks. You don't have to be from a good family or from a good school. You just have to know a few basic, simple, glorious, majestic, obvious and unchanging eternal things and be gripped by them and be willing to lay down your life for them, which is why anybody can make a worldwide difference, because it isn't you. It's what you are gripped with."
Toppling the idol of 'superior knowledge'
We need to renew our minds. We are called to love God with all our mind. But we are also commanded to love God with all our heart. The outflow of loving God with all our heart and mind is to love our neighbour as ourselves.
We need to remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:26: ‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’
Loving God with all our mind cannot be in isolation. It should never be an end in itself. When it does become this superior end in itself, we create modern day Pharisees, walking around all puffed up with their ‘knowledge’ of God and proud of their spiritual intellectualism.
A scholarly study of God without heart affection is eternally fatal. John Piper is very wise in his observation: "The aim of drinking the word is tasting the Saviour." He further cautions us in "making theology God instead of God God. Loving doing theology rather than loving God."
Do we love thinking about God more than loving God?
The Pharisees, who were the intellectual elite in Jesus’ day, knew God’s word yet they missed God’s Word. They loved God’s Law but not His Son.
Their theology was their confidence and their pride. Jesus' response to them was to call them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs. They missed the point and they missed Him.
"Theology can be a soothing, subtle, superficially spiritual god….We have often loved what we learned about God more than God Himself." (Marshall Segal)
This has subtly manifest itself in the Church throughout Church history. Gnosticism aside, it is still prevalent in the church today
If the goal of the church is to push for ‘doctors of theology’ instead of disciples of Christ, then perhaps we have missed the point.
Please don’t misread me. I am not advocating for mediocrity and underachievement.
I am not proposing spiritual dullness or ignorance and spending our time playing on the swings of spiritual experience. (No offence to doctors of Theology – I have met some and they, too, are really nice people.)
I am trying to shine a light on our tendency to idolise the pursuit of intellectual knowledge, be that spiritual or scholarly, instead of pursuing Christ.
I am a church girl. I grew up in the church (a perk of being a pastor’s kid).
I have witnessed the pride in parroting off answers to Catechism questions. I have seen the respect awarded to those who can impress with intellectual spiritual jargon. I have also seen how this often has not reached hearts. I have seen the truth of Jesus’ words in Mark 7:6: "They honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me."
I have watched as new Christians feel intimidated and discouraged in such ‘lofty’ company.
I have seen outsiders justified in their accusation that Christians are hypocrites as they witness the inconsistency between words and actions. I have seen the damage done by knowledge that puffs up.
I think Paul’s testimony is the most telling. He had a CV to outdo any CV. He had the Honours, the Masters and probably even the Doctorate. His intellectualism was far superior. He got the cum laude. He had the accolades.
And yet listen to his testimony in Philippians 3:7-8: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." In the opening paragraph of his letter to the Philippians, his life goal is this: "For me to live is Christ."
To the world that is completely upside down. But that is exactly what Jesus came to do; to turn our lives, our thinking and our worldviews upside down. He died for us and calls us to live for Him. He calls us to sit at His feet. He beckons us to meditate on His Word. That is what knowing God looks like. That is the pursuit of God. (It makes sense why two of the best classic Christian books are titled ‘Knowing God’ by J.I Packer and the ‘Pursuit of God’ by A.W. Tozer)
It is this upside down thinking which rights everything.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1 are instructive and humbling: "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
That is how we renew our minds and smash our idols.
May Paul’s resolve become our own resolve: "But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’"(Philippians 3:13-14).
May this be your resolve as Christian parent, a Christian scholar or university student, or a Christian in the corporate world. It is about making much of Christ, not much of us. That is what a beautiful mind looks like. It is a mind transformed and renewed because a heart has been captivated by Christ’s grace and mercy.
A man I greatly admire and respect has no tertiary education or degrees or academic awards to his name (in fact he did not complete high school) and yet his wisdom and discernment far surpass his ‘knowledge.’ His love for Christ and the Gospel are contagious and consistent.
He sacrificially and humbly loves his brothers and sisters in Christ as well as his neighbour. If I could write his testimony for him, it would start with the words of Paul: ‘Follow me as I follow Christ.’
May we know Christ (with all our hearts and minds) and make Him known. That is our noblest pursuit.
I can only close with the well-known and familiar words from C.T. Studd’s poem:
"Only one life, 'twill soon be past
Only what’s done for Christ will last."