I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking lately.
Admittedly, as far as attention-getters go that’s probably the worst. Like, right up there with “Let’s talk about this year’s exciting new changes to tax forms,” or “I bet you didn’t know how many types of concrete there are!”
G. K. Chesterton famously said that “there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people,” though, so…yeah. There’s that.
If you can’t be exciting, toss in a guilt-trip.
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I want to say straightaway that this is not a “reasons the Church sucks” post. Bear with me for a minute, though, because unfortunately it needs to be pointed out that the Church—in my experience, anyway—has a problem with thinking. We don’t really have a good understanding of how “thinking” and “being a Christian” fit together. The general feeling, if not explicitly stated, comprises two problematic ideas:
1) Thinking and action are opposed to each other: there is thinking about theology and the Bible and there is active discipleship. At best, these two are seen as lacking any inherent relation to each other in the life of faith. At worst, the former is seen as a dangerous distraction from the “practical” part of actually being a Christian. Yes, we’d all of course assent to the idea that you have to think a little bit about scripture to be a Christian, but this idea—that doing theology or getting too involved in high-minded “intellectual stuff” is a slippery slope that often leads one away from actual faith, from Christ—is powerfully present in the culture of the Church today, even if usually only implicitly. What can be said with certainty is that the Church at large does not understand thinking to be an essential Christian discipline, an integral part of one’s daily pursuit of Christ.
2) There is a corresponding bifurcation in the way the Church conceptualizes the role of thinking and doing in the identity and role of actual persons. Basically, we see those peculiar souls possessed of a natural predilection for intellectual pursuits as a separate phenomenon. This, like the idea above, has a better and a worse manifestation: at best, intellectuals and theologians are seen as thinking so the rest of us don’t really have to (again, this implicitly present but not—at least, not often—explicitly stated); at worst, they are seen either unrelated to the actual life of the Church—or as actually inimical to it. The general feeling is that there thinkers and doers, and the two are seen as either unrelated to each other, or actively opposed.
Like I said above, my intention here is not to criticize—rather, I want draw out the specific ways this general confusion manifests itself in the Church, in order to hopefully clear some of that confusion up a bit. The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
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As is so often the case, it’s Kierkegaard’s fault that these things have been on my mind.
For the past month or so I’ve been doing research for a large paper on Kierkegaard’s ethical philosophy, specifically the way he uses prototypes (people who we are to imitate in our lives, to become like) to spur us on from what he calls the sphere of ethical existence (in which, to put it simply—perhaps simplistically—an individual is trying to become a “good person”) to the sphere of religious, specifically Christian, existence (in which a person is trying to become like Christ). In the process I’ve had to think through the way he conceptualizes the relation between thinking and doing, and I think he provides a model that offers a powerful corrective to the problems outline above.
Basically, Kierkegaard sees thinking and doing as inherently related, in a very specific way. For him, obviously, Christ is the prototype. We are to be like him, and this is something we do. Consider the following quote from his journals:
As soon as there is a prototype, there is the obligation to imitation. What does imitation mean? It means striving to conform my life to the prototype.
Kierkegaard is making sure his readers realize that if you know that Christ is the prototype for human beings (To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps; 1 Peter 2:21), you better get on it right away (And immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him, Matthew 4:22). There is no room for delay. This fact, I think, is what leads some people to think that thinking is a distraction from action. All this contemplation nonsense is just “delay,” after all—right? Or at the very least it isn’t nearly as important as actual doing?
But here Kierkegaard sees things differently, I think—he sees understanding as both that which founds and motivates actual imitation of Christ, and that which is gained in actual imitation. Again, listen to what Kierkegaard has to say in his journals:
The only fundamental basis for understanding is that one himself becomes what he understands and one understands only in proportion to becoming himself that which he understands.
This can be put simply: when we know, we do, and when we do, we know. Understanding and action, for Kierkegaard, are indivisible. Knowing is simply not a merely intellectual pursuit divorced from our active discipleship, or even a necessary step along the way: knowledge is something that, along with active imitation and discipleship of Christ, forms and informs the believer. Doing and knowing happen together. Understanding and knowledge are rooted in becoming, in who we are and who we are striving to be like.
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This, I think, is Kierkegaard’s contribution to the Church today (with regard to these issues, that is): he helps us to see the indivisible unity of thinking and action—the way that, in the life of faith, they are not separate processes but both producer and product of Christian selves. We know Christ because we are striving to be like him; we strive to be like him because we know what he is like. This means that things like theological literacy, thoughtful engagement with scriptures, intellectual wrestling with issues like Church structure, hermeneutical principles, difficult theological issues and contextual contemprorary relevance are all part of being a Christian. They are not extras, not add-ons, not options, and definitely not distractions. They are an inextricable part of the warp and woof of the life of a disciple of Christ and the corporate life of the Church, and they are just as much a part of the essential disciplines of faith as are prayer, the reading of scripture, participation in a local church body, etc.
As John states in his first epistle: We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.
Knowing Christ and becoming like Christ happen together. Stressing action over understanding is just as much an error as getting so lost in thought that one neglects active imitative striving. And it is important to note that this is not a defense of thinking, over and against action, or as a defense of those who like to read theology over and against those who are “doers.” This is an articulation and defense of proper Christian discipleship, which views these things holistically, biblically. We must all do theology well, think well; we must all feed the poor, love others, seek the fruit of the Spirit.
I don’t imagine that any of what I’m pointing out here is profound or new—on the contrary, it is almost patently obvious, on one level: all I’m really saying is that thinking isn’t opposed to action and that it is important for Christians. But it is of great importance to revisit simple Christian truths often, especially when so much in our church quietly, implicitly militates against an active understanding of such things—it is so easy to wake to these truths briefly, only to fall asleep again right after. As one of my favorite poets, William Stafford, wrote: “It is important that awake people be awake.”
That’s all I got. Not ground-breaking—but hopefully upbuilding.