Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
Mark A. Noll
196 pp., 25.00
Christology, Christian Learning, and Christian Formation
Mark Noll's project in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is to make a case for Christians engaging in serious learning and to offer some guidelines for how they should think and act when they do. His discussion is ecumenical; but he indicates that it is especially evangelicals that he has in mind.
He begins his line of thought where most evangelicals would begin, namely, with Christ. "My contention," he says, "is that coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning." But rather than adopting the typical evangelical interpretation of Christ, as little more than our savior from this present evil world, Noll turns for his interpretation to the classic Christological statements to be found in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the declarations of the church councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451). His book consists, at its core, of teasing out the implications of these statements, and of their biblical background, for Christians engaging in serious learning and for how they should think and act when they do.
Let me summarize, all too briefly, the rich and imaginative Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning. It's a seven-fold case.
The Nicene Creed declares that the Lord Jesus Christ, who came down from the heavens "for us humans and for our salvation … and became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary," is "the only-begotten Son of God … through whom all things came to be." The declaration that Christ our Savior is the one through whom all things were created carries, says Noll, "the strongest possible implications for intellectual life. Put most simply, for believers to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ."
In Colossians 1:16-17, Paul declares that by Christ "all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." These claims, says Noll, "are striking and bear repeating. The apostle says, in effect, that if we study anything in the realms of nature or the realms of the spirit, we study what came into existence through Jesus Christ. Likewise, if we study human interactions or spiritual-human interactions, (thrones, dominions, rulers, powers), we are studying realms brought into existence by Jesus Christ."
Paul's phrase in the passage just quoted, "in him all things hold together," alludes to the Christian doctrine of providence. "From the perspective of providence," says Noll, "everything that exists is sustained by the wisdom and power of God." Accordingly, we can be confident that God will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6). "The academic payoff for this confidence in providence," Noll writes, "is the conclusion that, if God rules all things with respect to the individual's salvation, certainly he rules as well the more general events and circumstances of the wider world …. In sum, to believe that we are attached to Christ inspires the confidence that God can be attached to anything we might study."
The fact that the Word was made flesh implies that "the realm that bore the Word, the realm of flesh, is worthy of the most serious consideration …. [T]o confess the material reality of the incarnation is to perceive an unusual dignity in the material world itself." Indeed, if "the reality of Christ points, not simply to an engagement with the world, but to an engagement marked by delight, exuberance, and the aesthetic possibility of redemption," it follows that "the people of God have been redeemed by the action of God in this world … to bestow the potential of drama and delight on human engagement with the world." The Incarnation, which represented not only the humbling of the divine but the dignifying of the human, gives dignity to the "human study of human beings. Put differently, the personality of the incarnation justifies the study of human personality. When people examine other people, they are examining individuals who exist in actual or potential solidarity with Jesus Christ." Last, "the revelation of divine glory in Jesus Christ—as singularly displayed on the Mount of Transfiguraton—might frame thinking about first-order aesthetic experiences …. [T]hrough learning of Jesus Christ we learn of God's chief purpose in creating the world; that chief purpose is the manifestation of his own glory; the manifestation of God's glory accounts for the deep origin of all that is beautiful in the world."
This is a compelling case for Christians engaging in what Noll calls "serious learning"; anyone who accepts the creedal understanding of Christ will find themselves led along by Noll to his conclusion. Noll does not claim that a Christological case for Christians engaging in serious learning is the only sort of case that could be made. He does call it "the most basic possible motive"; but that's compatible with there being other resources in the Christian faith that could be employed to reach the same conclusion. Noll has chosen to articulate the Christological case. I have nothing but admiration for how he does it. It is an important contribution.
Of course, from the fact that Christians should engage in what Noll calls "serious learning" it does not follow that they should engage in learning as it is practiced in the contemporary academy. In principle there might be something deeply misguided about contemporary academic learning; in principle it might be the case that, rather than engaging in it, Christians should go off by themselves and engage in an alternative form of learning.
Noll does not address this matter. I wish he had, since I frequently come across Christians who seem to me not opposed to serious learning as such but rather to what goes on, or what they think goes on, in the contemporary academy. Clearly Noll is of the view that though what goes on in the contemporary academy is to be criticized at many points and for many reasons—along the way he himself offers a considerable number of criticisms—it is not, in general, so misguided that Christians must, in good conscience, pull out. I agree with him on that.
I have said that I admire the Christological case that Noll develops for Christians engaging in serious learning. I am less happy with the Christological guidelines that he offers for engaging in such learning. To explain why, let me offer a brief indication of my own views on the matter of how Christians are to engage in serious learning.
We human beings do not just react to what we experience; we interpret it, as we do the experience itself and reality more generally. And to some of what we experience we ascribe value of one sort and another, as we do to some of our experience itself and to some parts of reality more generally; we valorize these.
Consider, for example, our engagement with music. We don't just react to music. We interpret music; and we valorize both the music we hear and our modes of engagement with it. We learn what to listen for, what to attend to. We acquire concepts that apply to what we hear, these concepts not only enabling us to describe what we hear but also shaping our auditory perception so that we don't just hear some passage of music but hear it as so-and-so—hear it as a fugue, for example. We learn to evaluate one passage of music as better in certain respects than another passage. We acquire capacities for delight; we learn to love certain works of music. All of this, and more, goes into our learning to interpret and valorize music. We acquire what one might call a musical formation, that is, a formation for interpreting and valorizing music and one's experience of music.
Just as we each acquire a particular way of interpreting and valorizing music and our experience of music, so too those of us who are Christians have acquired a Christian way of interpreting and valorizing what we experience, our experience itself, and reality more generally. We have acquired a Christian formation. Such a formation includes doctrines, principles, views. But it is not to be identified with these; in particular, it is not to be identified with what is often nowadays called "a Christian worldview." It also includes habits of attention, modes of perception, habits of evaluation, capacities for delight and love, virtues and attachments of many sorts. A Christian formation is like a musical formation.
I hold that the calling of the Christian scholar is to allow her Christian formation to shape how she thinks and acts within her academic discipline and within the academy generally.
Let me offer one example of how this worked out in my own case. It is generally agreed that a revolutionary development took place in the arts in 18th-century Europe. Europeans had, of course, always had liturgical art of one sort and another: icons, altarpieces, statuary, hymns, etc. What happened in the 18th century was that the emerging middle class began more and more to prize art for disinterested contemplation. Parallel to that development in how people engaged art was a development in how writers thought and wrote about art: art, they said, comes into its own when works of art are engaged as objects of disinterested contemplation and when they are created for that mode of engagement; art has not come into its own when it functions liturgically.
This idea has shaped virtually all thinking and writing about the arts for the past two and a half centuries. Philosophers of art and art critics write about the sort of visual art that one finds in museums and about the sort of music that one hears in concert halls; they do not write about liturgical art. The implicit attitude is that the liturgical way of engaging art is inferior to engaging works of art as objects of disinterested contemplation.
When I first began teaching philosophy of art, early in my academic career, I unthinkingly went along with this dominant attitude. Then one day my Christian formation intruded. The question arose in my mind: is it really true that engaging works of art liturgically is inferior to engaging them as objects of disinterested contemplation? Could I as a Christian go along with this assumption? I concluded almost immediately that I could not; praising God by singing a hymn is not inferior to listening to a piano sonata. It was that thought that led me to spend the next decade or so rethinking how we think about art.
I offer this as one example of allowing one's Christian formation to shape what one does within one's academic discipline. Notice that it was not some Christian doctrine that spurred me to rethink how we think about art; it was the liturgical component of my Christian formation that led me to do so. It was the value I attached to worship and to the role of the arts in worship. In particular, it was not Christological doctrines that led me to engage in rethinking. Perhaps with some imagination one can get from Christological doctrines to the conclusion that the dominant way of thinking about the arts in the modern period has to be rethought; I don't know, I haven't tried. But the point I want to make is that one's Christian formation includes—or should include—more than doctrines, and that the doctrines it includes go well beyond Christological doctrines. Christian scholars should allow the entirety of their Christian formation to shape how they engage in their discipline.
Noll has convincingly shown that Christological doctrines can be employed to make a compelling case for Christians engaging in serious learning. But it seems to me that once that case has been made, and once Christians do engage in serious learning, then it should not just be Christology that guides what they do but their Christian formation in its totality. And though explicitly formulated guidelines are useful, we as Christian scholars must always be open to what our guidelines have overlooked.
Let me add that whereas the Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning seems to me both compelling and rich, the guidelines that he teases out of classical Christology for how we actually engage in learning strike me as rather thin by comparison. Christians, he says, will affirm contingency. They will affirm particularity. With the Incarnation in mind they will insist, by analogy, that ascribing a natural cause to some event is compatible with ascribing it to God as well. They will resist the pride characteristic of intellectuals. All true; but very general and abstract.
Noll goes beyond these four general affirmations when he takes three academic disciplines—history, natural science, and biblical studies—and offers guidelines for Christians working in these particular disciplines. It is in this last of these, biblical studies, that Noll's Christology yields genuinely helpful guidelines for engaging in the discipline; what it yields for history and natural science is mainly guidelines for thinking about the subject matter of the discipline rather than guidelines for engaging in the discipline. Of course, how we as Christian scholars think about the subject matter of our discipine is important; but I would say, and I am sure Noll agrees, that how we actually deal with that subject matter is at least as important.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Yale University and currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.