I want to talk about the primacy of the intellect today – it’s necessity and inevitability, but first I’d like to set that up with an observation I saw recently of the new film Sound of Freedom from Angel Studios.
I have not seen it yet, but it looks good and given the hate coming hard from the Left, it makes me want to see it even more. And right on schedule several of the more sophisticated Christian artistes have bustled up their intellectual skirts and sallied up to the microphone to share their very deep thoughts on this very, er, troubling phenomenon. As the Babylon Bee headline put it: “Hollywood Confused by New Movie that Depicts Child Sex Trafficking as Bad.” Apparently, some of the evangelical elites are also confused.
Chick Tracts for Relativism
For example, one Jeffrey Overstreet had a few thoughts about it on Twitter, complaining about the (very real) problem of bad Christian movies, closing with a screenshot, defending his complaints with a quotation from “the great Rowan Williams.”
“And this needs saying as well: art, whether Christian or not, can’t properly begin with a message and then seek for a vehicle. Its roots lie, rather, in the single story or metaphor or configuration or shape which requires attention and development from the artist. In the process of that development, we find meaning we had not suspected; but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand: whereas the creative activity opens up what we did not understand and perhaps will not fully understand even when the actual work of creation is done. That is why the artist is never the sole or even the best judge of the work, which rightly and properly escapes into the interpretive field of its public… …I wonder, incidentally, if this is not something we ought to be seeing in the process of the composition of the Gospels: not a story repeated, nor a story invented to make a point, as the more mechanically minded critics might argue, but a set of narratives constantly being retold, and altered in the retelling because of what the very process of telling opens up, shows or makes possible.” – Rowan Williams, “Making it Strange: Theology in Other(s’) Words,” Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts.
Now, let us first give honor where honor is due: have you seen that guy’s eyebrows? Speaking of great art, there is definitely some story or metaphor or configuration or shape that requires attention and development there. But to the point, what Williams has written is nonsense. While he begins by saying something that might be reasonable, by the time he applies it to the gospels, we know we’re dealing with a former Anglican Archbishop, which is to say, somebody that shouldn’t be trusted.
No, sir, the gospels were not told and retold and altered in some kind of mystical Hegelian blender of meaning. In the same way that you can’t mix up dirt in a bowl for a bazillian years and eventually get Rowan Williams. Only intelligence can create, and our work of “sub-creation,” as Tolkien once called it, begins by seeing what is already truly there. Certainly, good art doesn’t manhandle media into a message, like clowns twisting balloons into poodles. That really is schlock, and, let us be clear, there is plenty of so-called Christian schlock to go around. Twisting every bit of God’s world into a chick tract isn’t good art. But by the same token, pretending that art is something that just mystically develops is its own chick tract, pretending that God hasn’t spoken clearly in creation and history and in His Word, and pretending that we cannot understand what is “clearly seen and known” is a chick tract for the false cults of mysticism and relativism.
Frankly, it is dishonest to pretend that truth is something that develops. Whatever Mr. Georg Hegel’s original intentions, Hegelianism is the Mother of Relativism. And Relativism is the mother of tyranny. Relativism pretends to be all mystical and ambiguous and evolutionary, and then it leans its tolerant rainbow knee on your neck until you submit or die. So let us be done with this muddle-headed anti-intellectualism. It’s not really anti-intellectualism, since it is patently dishonest, like the stores that sell pre-ripped jeans for a hundred dollars, where you can buy “authenticity” in a mass produced t-shirt that says, “I’m a unique sucker” or something like that.
As many have pointed out, the claim that “there are no absolutes” is an absolute claim. Which means the people claiming that are either stupid or lying. But this is what the former Archbishop with the glorious eyebrows is doing with art and the gospels, pretending that a true artist has no idea, no preconceived notions, no message at all until he falls into some project like those poor people who do those polar bear plunges midwinter – which, come to think of it, is mindless. But human beings are made in God’s image, and they are made with intelligence, rationality, and even when they claim that they are not thinking, they have just ordered that sequence of words in an effort to express, we assume, an intelligible truth claim.
A Clear Statement
I’m not sure this exactly a retraction, but it might be close. I don’t recall ever thinking or arguing strongly against this point. But I think there has been a certain ambiguity or fuzziness in my own thinking on this matter for a long while that deserves a clear statement and ratification. And that is simply the truth that God created human beings with a hierarchy of faculties, placing the intellect at the helm. I believe in the primacy of the intellect. And having written those words, it almost seems silly to need to assert something so fundamental, so plain, so self-evident. Here I am formulating ideas with my mind, seeking to coherently and rationally explain and articulate it in words and language that I trust will be intelligible to others who will read and comprehend and consider the validity of the claim. If God did not create us with the gift of intelligence at the helm of our existence, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing about it or even thinking about. So there it is: I believe in the primacy of the intellect, and it is incumbent upon Christians to believe this.
The best version of the objection to this statement would seem to be objections to various forms of rationalism or positivism, granting the human intellect, reason, and logic the highest authority period, rejecting all other ways of knowing as well as other legitimate authorities. But a distinctly Christian defense of the primacy of the intellect actually begins with the primacy of the Triune God over all, the primacy of His Word, the primacy of His creation, and there in the midst of that supreme authority of His general and special revelation, we find the fact that He has authoritatively created human beings with the capacity of rational thought, communication, and language. Of course, we do not mind (pun intended) hastening to add that God created us with bodies and senses and a created order that corresponds to those great and majestic gifts: sunsets to see, fields to smell, fruit to taste, the chit-chattering of birds to hear, and the feel of soft grass under out feet. Yes, and amen.
Nothing about a Christian defense of the primacy of the intellect need disparage these other gifts. Neither is such a defense an argument that the intellect is better at everything. Not hardly. Hands and eyes and tongues are better at many things than the mind. And yet it is absurd to argue that various body parts or other faculties are thereby superior or equal to the mind. Likewise, we must not reduce the image of God to mere intellectual capacity, as though the unborn or the senile or the mentally retarded lack human dignity. But just as we insist that the husband is the head of his wife, without denigrating her value or gifts, or just as we insist that the husband is the head of the household, even while sometimes a husband is absent by sin or death, so too it is perfectly right and true to insist that the human mind is the head of the body, while taking various exceptions into account.
Perhaps the central point to underline here is that the denial of the primacy of the intellect doesn’t actually result in the dethroning of the intellect, rather, it just turns the work of the intellect into something devious, something highly hypocritical. What exactly is arguing for this non-primacy of the intellect? Is it not someone’s intellect? Words, meaning, ideas, arguments are not the most important thing, he said, breathing heavily into the microphone, with words, attempting to express meaning and ideas in the form of a persuasive argument. If you really believed that you’d stop writing, talking, or generally appealing to ideas, thoughts, or arguments.
J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1925 that the “retrograde anti-intellectual movement called Modernism… degrades the intellect by excluding it from the sphere of religion.” What Modernism has tricked so many Christians into believing is that the intellect is only trustworthy when it comes to the sciences, to hard numbers and facts, but when it comes to truth, philosophy, religion, and ethics, these are matters that are much too difficult for the human mind. In a sort of false humility, and a devious sleight of hand, our handlers have made moral, philosophical, and even religious claims about what our minds may or may not do well. And many Christians have dutifully accepted these claims and surrendered. Like an enemy combatant explaining that our machine gun doesn’t work on this battlefield, many Christians naively believed it and threw their weapons down.
Machen lays the blame at the feet of Emmanuel Kant, who claimed that the world was divided into noumenal and phenomenal realms, with the intellect well-suited for phenomenal things but unable to analyze and decipher the noumenal-spiritual-ethical realm with any clarity, resulting in what Machen called a field of theology and biblical studies riddled with an “indolent impressionism.” From our insipid worship songs to our pep rally sermons and Sunday school lessons and our Christian movie tripe, we are awash in indolent impressionism, and very few believe in the power of truth. And no wonder we are so susceptible to lies.
As my friend Douglas Wilson recently put it to me, when the human mind bows in the temple of the Lord, it is raised to its rightful place. Rationalists insist that the human mind need not bow before the Lord, and those foolish minds are darkened. But the abuse of a faculty does not render its rightful use futile or idolatrous. May God grant a great intellectual revival to His people. May they seek the truth, loving the Lord with all our mind, and may the truth set us free.