By Philip Eaton,

The Christian Intellectual and Cultural Renewal

"If Christians are going to engage the culture in any meaningful way, we will need to lift up for new respect and guidance the Christian intellectuals, writers and artists in our midst, and learn even better how to be thinking Christians ourselves," says SPU President Eaton, pictured here with art students in the SPU Art Center Gallery.

I begin here a four-part series of columns for the coming academic year. In this series I want to reflect on one of my deepest convictions: If Christians are going to engage the culture in any meaningful way, as I believe we must, we will need to lift up for new respect and guidance the Christian intellectuals, writers and artists in our midst, and learn even better how to be thinking Christians ourselves. We must renew our commitment to the life of the mind, the world of ideas, and the realm of the imagination.

I believe so strongly that Christians are called to make a difference in the world, to bring light where there is darkness, wisdom where there is confusion, hope where there is despair, and love where there is loneliness. Our profound and compelling mandate is to bring this extraordinary flourishing to all of God's children. We often fail miserably in these efforts, no question about it, but when we are faithful to this call, the world is a better place.

To be change-agents in the world for good we must be culture-shapers. We must learn from the culture, be attentive to its shape, revel in its beauty and its creativity, penetrate its presuppositions, and recognize its power. We must understand as well its destructive tendencies and be willing and capable to confront the culture so that it may become life-giving.

We must be thoughtful, well-read, engaging and engaged, articulate, ready to talk, eager to learn, willing to risk new thinking. We do all of this, not as an end in itself, certainly not just to stir up controversy, but in order effectively to engage the culture toward renewal and change.

Surely we understand that reason without faith can be hugely destructive. I am not talking about reason for its own sake. Some of the great horrors of the twentieth century — I think here, for example, of Nazi or Stalinist experiments in human engineering — were presented to the world as products of supreme rationality. A life guided only by reason, without faith, hope and love, will not only lack vitality but will be ultimately destructive. It is not through reason alone that we flourish.

And yet, in Paul's exuberant call to the life of the mind, we are told to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds." What an exciting venture. What an empowering discipline. While the profound mystery of Jesus Christ is just that, a mystery ultimately beyond our grasp, to which we surrender in faith, nevertheless, let us always be prepared, as we are counseled in I Peter, to give an account, graciously and respectfully, for the hope we find within. Let us find the ways to make the case for hope, thoughtfully.

So here is my main point: The way to engage the culture is by being thoughtful. This is not the only way. We may engage the culture through service, of course. We may engage the culture through simple acts of kindness, through modeling community, through being competent in our profession. But if we do all of these things and yet are not equipped with an understanding of the issues of the day, a penetrating hold on the postmodern world view, a grasp of the powerful ideas that drive our culture, then we have little prospect of cultural renewal.

The Christian community has not always been comfortable with its intellectuals and its artists. Indeed the evangelical church has often been suspicious of too much thinking. I would quickly add that Christian thinkers have not always been kind to those in the church. Our intellectuals have often indulged in totally inappropriate arrogance and intimidation.

Let us leave behind us this divisive scandal, all a part of the "scandal of the evangelical mind," as Mark Noll has called it. Let us move forward boldly to engage the culture. Let us be empowered and encouraged in this hugely important task by the abundance of good thinking, writing and art by Christians that is going on in our time. Let us lift up the extraordinary number of Christian intellectuals as models for how we might indeed become culture-shapers as thoughtful Christians.

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