Is Christianity anti-intellectual?

“Imagine the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all… I personally resent it bitterly.”

That was how science fiction author Isaac Asimov described religion. He was expressing what was then, and still is now, a fairly widespread aversion to ‘religion’ in general. This popular distaste is particularly directed against ‘organised religion’; ‘institutions’ like the Catholic Church get considerably more flak (or at least are viewed with a greater baseline of disdain off the bat) than other, more ‘liberal’ and less ‘organised’ branches of Christianity. Bertrand Russell even called organised Christianity, “the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” And we Orthodox, with our priests, ‘magic rituals’ and our ‘bells and smells’ are in the same boat as the fusty old Catholics. We’re equally culpable for holding back Western society, equally to blame for stifling free-expression, oppressing women and propagating superstition.

St. Justin Martyr, wearing his philosopher’s robes.

So the popular ‘intelligentsia’ would like us to believe that institutional Christianity is fundamentally opposed to good, rational and scientific thinking. But we Orthodox/Catholics are told in Church that the ‘One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church’ is the guardian of the most important truth of history; one through which the entire Creation (both human and non-human) will be, and is being saved. What’s a good ‘apostolic’ (i.e. Catholic or Orthodox) Christian to make of all this?

Well, to put it more explicitly, the charge is really something like this:

Institutional Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-scientific.

For me, this criticism has always seemed a little spurious, purely because of the ‘institutional’ Christians around whom I have lived and grown up. My father, for example, is an Orthodox priest, who is also undertaking post-graduate studies in Philosophy at a secular university (and doing ridiculously well thereat). He uses the same fingers which type and footnote his essays on phenomenology, morality and metaphysics to swing the censer in prayer and select an offering for Eucharist. It was hard to feel threatened by the charge of anti-intellectualism in a household were Dawkins and Hitchens (with notes on the margin of every page) were already sitting along side the complete works of Pope Shenouda III in the library upstairs.

That impression only grew stronger in university. One of the most treasured friendships I developed there was with a mathematics PhD student doing research in neuroscience, whose Orthodox faith could not be more important to him. He too, without blushing, attends liturgy frequently. He doesn’t cease being a scientist, or turn off the curiosity that drives his research while singing the hymn of the Cherubim and Seraphim before the soon to be transformed bread and wine.

And then of course, there are professional thinkers like Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, the scarily well-read philosopher and cultural commentator David Bentley Hart (both Orthodox), C.S. Lewis (who as a High Anglican, believed in the Eucharist) and J.R.R. Tolkien (a committed Catholic). Historically, the Alexandrian Church (the modern Coptic Orthodox Church) has been a centre of both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ philosophy (as artificial as that distinction is) – John Philoponus for example, is still considered one of the most important commentators on Aristotle, despite being a devout Orthodox Christian.

Of course those are just the ‘highlights’. My point isn’t: ‘intelligent people are institutional Christians, therefore institutional Christianity is true.’ Rather, my point is that institutional Christianity and good academia/science do not at all appear to be mutually exclusive. I’ve lived among and read the works of too many counterexamples to find that accusation plausible. Christian scientists and academics weave their spiritual lives seamlessly together with their intellectual lives. The two complement each other, rather than conflict with one another.

Needless to say, not all apostolic Christians are PhD’s in philosophy or neuroscience; and thank goodness for that. The Church would be rather ineffective (not to mention boring!) if they were. The Church is made what it is by the beautiful, heavenly dance in which all its members perform their own peculiar functions, working towards a common goal (1 Cor 12:12-31) – the Church is necessarily made up of members with diverse skills and interests. But the key thing is this: if institutional Christianity really was anti-intellecutal and anti-scientific, then one would expect the scientists and academics to be immensely uncomfortable there. But from what I have seen, the proportion of scientists/academics to non-scientists/academics among Orthodox/Catholics is no smaller than it is among the irreligious.

How can this be? I think it must be because Christianity embraces the beauty and complexity of Creation. And apostolic Christianity connects us both spiritually and physically to its source: Christ the Word. Especially, Christ made flesh. The historian knows that the priest officiating the Eucharist was breathed upon by a man who was breathed upon by man who was breathed upon [x 100] who was breathed upon by the historical Jesus of Nazareth, attested to by Jospehus and Tacitus. The scientist offers the Eucharist to God in thanks for the Creation which she studies and explores, and receives it back from Him as a means of being connected to the Divine Logos who designed, ordered and brought the Creation into being. The philosopher sees in the broken body and spilt blood of Christ the answer to all questions of ontology, ethics and phenomenology: love that creates and sacrifice that redeems. And all the members of the Church together, the scientists and the preachers and the teachers and cleaners and the musicians and the poets and the doctors, kneel and sing and greet one another every liturgy, using their whole bodies to worship God. The true purpose of liturgy is to unite diverse members into one glorious whole. The living and the reposed, the physical and the spiritual, the heavenly and the earthly, the rational and the emotional and (most inexplicably), the divine and the created, are all united in the liturgy. It has been this way since the first Christians officiated the Eucharist in houses at Rome and Corinth.

“Make us all worthy O our Master, to partake of Your Holies unto the purification of our souls, bodies and spirits. That we may become one body and one spirit, and may have a share and an inheritance with all the saints who have pleased you since the beginning.”  ~ St. Basil’s Liturgy


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