Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Life of the Mind

Our post-modern culture has neglected the mind, apart from material matters like medicine and meteorology. I’ve been told by Washington Square Park/NYU mavens that 40 years ago all manner of political and philosophical opinion were being promoted from the Park by book tables, pamphlets, and preachers. Ideas mattered! One such atheistic observer encouraged me that I am the last Socrates of the Park.

Why the demise of ideas? Well, we’re told that they don’t matter, even worse, that they have no basis in reality. For example, multiculturalism assures us that there are no objective standards by which we can judge other cultures. Consequently, we can’t pass judgment.

This is tragic and prevents us from confronting the problems we find in other cultures. Muslim reformer and former Dutch Parliamentarian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, laments this fact. In her book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, she points the accusing finger at multiculturalism and Western intellectuals who don’t apply this concept consistently:

  • These same liberals in western politics have the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world, while seeing the rest of the world as victims. To them victims are to be pitied, and they lump together all the pitiable and suppressed people, such as Muslims, and consider them good people who should be cherished and supported so that they can overcome their disadvantages. The adherents of multiculturalism refuse to criticize people whom they see as victims…They are critical of the native white majority in Western countries but not of Islamic minorities. Criticism of the Islamic world, of Palestinians, and of Islamic minorities is regarded as Islamophobia and xenophobia. (xvii)
Ali argues that this unwillingness to judge according to abiding moral, universal standards is detrimental:

  • Because multiculturalists will not classify cultural phenomena as “better’ or “worse” but only neutral or disparate, they actually encourage segregation and unintentionally perpetuate, for instance, the unsatisfactory position of Muslim women. State subsidies for nonstate schools allow Muslims to have their own schools…in which young girls are indoctrinated…with very conservative Islamic practices. (63
Western self-imposed moral blindness is ubiquitous and has resulted in neglect of the abused:

  • But in the bigger countries, no NGO yet monitors the number of times an honor killing is committed in a [Western] member state, or the number of times a girl is circumcised, or the number of times a girl is removed form school and forced into a life of virtual slavery. (170
Meanwhile, many Islamic Study departments in Western universities are more committed to indoctrination than in the things that should characterize the university:

  • Yet, in spite of having Arab and Islam faculties, most universities in Europe serve as activist centers to further the Palestinian cause, instead of research and teaching centers for Muslim students. (169)

However, having degraded the life of the mind in regards to moral questions, the West now lacks the heart and rationale to stand against intimidation:

  • The present-day attitude of Western cultural relativists, who flinch from criticizing Muhammad for fear of offending Muslims, allow Western Muslims to hide from reviewing their own moral values. This attitude also betrays the tiny majority of Muslim reformers who desperately require support – and even the physical protection – of their natural allies in the West. (176)
Consequently, the pushiest prevail, undermining the West’s claim of being just. It should come as no surprise that the life of the mind is also disparaged within the church. Doctrine and the Biblical teachings of the church have been set aside, allegedly because “doctrine divides.”

Sadly, many churches have replaced the primacy of Scripture with goal of experiencing God – unmediated mysticism – claiming that the mind and our fixation upon Scripture is just an impediment. The deceased but now popular Henry Nouwen advised that we clear our minds by the simple repetition of a single word:

  • “The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart…This way of simple prayer…opens us to God’s active presence.”
Never mind that Jesus taught against placing our faith in mindless repetitions:

  • And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7)
In The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning has given similar advice:

  • “The first step in faith is to stop thinking about God in prayer…” “Contemplative spirituality tends to emphasize the need for a change in consciousness…we must come to see reality differently.” “Choosing a single, sacred word…repeat the sacred word inwardly, slowly, and often.” “Enter into the great silence of God. Alone in that silence, the noise within will subside and the Voice of Love will be heard.” (Quoted by Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, 83)
Evidently, Manning is content to overlook the counsel of Scripture:

  • Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly…But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:8)
According to Scripture, blessedness is not a matter of clearing our minds of God, but rather, of contemplating both Him and His Word!

Spiritual Disciplines guru, Richard Foster, reinforces the errant idea that the mind is necessarily a hindrance to the Christian life:

  • Imagine the light of Christ flowing through your hands and healing every emotional trauma and hurt feeling your child experienced that day. Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord. In sleep the child is very receptive to prayer since the conscious mind, which tends to erect barriers to God’s gentle influence, is relaxed. (Celebration of Discipline, 39)
Instead of Jesus’ admonition to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind, Foster would gladly have us dispense with the conscious mind, which “erect barriers to God’s gentle influence.”

In contrast to this, the early church understood that the life of the mind – what we understand and believe – is foundational for every other aspect of the Christian life. There had been a conflict between two groups of “believers.” One group insisted that circumcision to become a Jew and to follow the Law was necessary for salvation. Meanwhile, Paul and Peter argued that this requirement would cause Gentile believers to stumble. They recounted instances of God’s miraculous workings among the Gentiles, proving that God had accepted them without circumcision.

James then confirmed their testimony with Scripture (Acts 15:15-19). Although they might have been concerned that the conflict would cause division, they had a greater concern - the truths of God and the preservation of the Gospel. The Spirit had revealed to them that salvation was purely a matter of the grace of God, and this truth trumped everything else! Consequently, to resolve the confusion they formulated this letter to be sent throughout the Christian world:

  •  “The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.” (Acts 15:23-24)

Among other things, this letter reflected the fact that their thought-life was important. As long as thinking was conflicted, they remained “disturbed.”

What we think determines everything else – our self-concept, attitudes and treatment of others, relationships, and even experiencing God! If I believe that He forgives and cleanses me of my sins when I confess them, I am going to feel grateful and intimate with my God. However, if I belief that I must first earn that forgiveness, then I will remain doubtful, depressed and resentful.

The life of the mind is paramount. What we believe is critical to everything we say and do. Consequently, because the Apostles had resolved this theological problem by the Holy Spirit, the church grew:

  • As they [Paul, Timothy and Silas] traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. (Acts 16:4-5)
Burying our confusion will no more “strengthen” us than a house built without a foundation. Without resolving this fundamental truth, our lives rest upon the shifting sands. Indeed, there are many truths upon which our house must find its support. This requires a steady diet of Scripture meditation – the very thing now regarded as counter-productive.

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