The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective
A review of Clifford Williams', "The Life of the Mind. A Christian Perspective."
Williams, Clifford The Life of the Mind. A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2002 95 pp. Paperback. ISBN 0-8010-2336-X.
It is telling that a book explaining the value of thinking and learning needs to be written in our time. The life of the mind is an endangered species in our culture. The author Clifford Williams, professor of philosophy at Trinity College, begins the chapter on the relationship of the life of the mind and popular culture with these words: ” If we stretch our imaginations a bit, we can picture a culture that values the life of the mind. It would be a culture in which poets and astrophysicists were esteemed more than entertainers and sport heroes” (72).
In less than 90 pages, professor Williams manages to take us on a tour through the excellencies of the mind, the joys of thinking and learning, what exercising of the mind does to us and how to engage in such an exhilarating life – the life of the mind. The overall purpose of the book is: “to explain the value that thinking and learning have for Christians. The answer: Possessing intrinsically valuable knowledge is a way of loving God” (36-7).
Going through the reasons why we like to think, he compares the excitement of learning with the wonder of a child in his first explorations of the world around her. In searching for coherence and unity of our beliefs we naturally rely on clear thinking. We seek to avoid contradictions in order to make sense of the world we live in. Other motives in pursuing the life of the mind include understanding ourselves with our emotions, drives and fears, discovering the meaning and significance of our lives and finding out what is worth living for. It is due to the nature of human reflection and thought that we can feel keenly the magnificence and the tragedy in life, learn to respond appropriately to our experiences with delight, exhilaration, wonder and admiration or sadness, sorrow, remorse and repentance. It is due to our uniquely human quality of intelligence that we can sense the divine and seek fulfillment for our craving for permanence and eternity.
Although it is undeniable that thinking has utilitarian value in getting things done, the point that is usually underestimated is that thinking is good in itself. One important thesis of the book is that thinking is intrinsically good. Just like a beautiful mountain view of the Colorado Rockies is good and worth enjoying in itself but is also good for a postcard, the joy of thinking and contemplation of items of knowledge is good in itself although it might have great utilitarian value as well. “In coming to have knowledge we are doing what artists and poets do: create beauty,” writes the author (32). Just as an artist arranges on canvas a harmony of shapes and colors, or the poet brings forth in writing the beauty of thought, in acquiring knowledge we do the same as thoughts are harmonized and fitted together in the structure of a cultivated intellect. Williams says: “Beauty, of course is intrinsically good, whether it be the beauty of a landscape, the beauty of a virtuous person, or the beauty of a cultivated mind” (32).
The conviction of the author is that studying and learning enlarges our lives, therefore while the book may be of great value for students beginning college, it is insightful and invigorating for all thoughtful readers. While Williams acknowledges that not everyone should pursue the intellectual life in the same way or at the same degree, not being involved in the life of the mind impoverishes one’s life. Is it not impoverishing to go through life without plumbing the depths of one’s own self, missing the awe that arises in knowing nature’s intricacies, not experiencing pathos for tragedy or exhilaration for magnificence, possessing fewer ways of sensing the divine (41)?
Viewing the landscape of the life of the mind from a Christian perspective, the author points out how possessing intrinsically valuable knowledge is a way of loving God, a way of cultivating a virtuous character and taming the ego. He also deals with some specific challenges that are inherent in the nature of an exploring mind as it relates to faith and Christian devotion. The apparent incompatibility of faith and inquisitiveness, faith and imaginativeness, as well as the relationship of thought and devotion are given careful attention in the book. By highlighting the example of Jesus as one who combined perfectly astute thought and godly passion, Williams points to the opportunity for thoughtful devotion where thinking enhances the personal experience and relationship with God. After reading this book it becomes clearer what it means to love God with all our minds. This is one of the major contributions of the book.
I could not agree more with the author’s alarm call that the life of the mind is seriously endangered by the pervasive values of the popular culture with the influence of mass media, television, entertainment and the reign of technology. But one area that is not very clear with regard to the Christian response to contemporary culture has to do with the author’s view of postmodernism.
After a short but clear critique of the Postmodernist view of truth, Williams writes: “We ought not be too categorical in pointing out the antagonism between postmodernism and Christianity, however, for postmodernism contains lessons for Christians… Postmodernism also teaches us to tolerate diversity” (79-80). But can Postmodernism teach us tolerance? In tolerating diversity postmodernists assume that no particular view has a claim to absolute truth since it doesn’t exist in their reckoning. Therefore, the reason and motivation for their kind of “tolerance” is not love, concern or sympathy, as much as it is a cold logical conclusion of their view of truth. (For a good analysis of the postmodernist view of truth and its consequences from a Christian perspective see Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000].) When postmodernists confront those views that they consider intolerant, namely, views claiming to have absolute truth like Christianity, they are not as tolerant as they are portrayed to be. In what sense Postmodernists can teach Christians to be tolerant is not, therefore, clear. I would also wonder if “the aim of being a Christian voice among them” (80) means just presenting one justifiably held belief among many, namely Christianity, or if it includes the ultimate aim to introduce Christ to the world as Jesus commands us in Matt 28:19-20.
Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book on the stretching of the mind, which contributes to applying the exhortation in 1Tim.4: 6-8, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”