In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues for a renewed dedication to science, reason, and humanism to guide us down the path to progress.
Pinker’s philosophy of life has plenty to offer, as well as plenty to leave by the wayside. As Christians, we should stay attentive of what lies beneath (and what doesn’t)—eagerly embracing the God-given gifts of human reason and creativity even as we turn our backs to the idols of rationalism.
So how do we elevate the Christian life of the mind to its proper place?
Or, as Greg Forster asks in a recent lecture for the Oikonomia Network: “What role does reasoning and thinking have in God’s plan for all things?”
“The God of the Bible cares intensely about understanding and wisdom and insight,” Forster explains. “The God of the Bible also cares just as intensely about whether the hungry are fed and whether the naked are clothed and whether the stranger is welcomed and whether the isolated person is visited.”
Forster cautions us against an over-indulgence in pursuing reason unto itself, and steers us toward using our minds to meet the needs of others. Our meaning and purpose is not to be found in simply gaining knowledge, but in channeling our reason through wisdom and, most importantly, in love.
In doing so, we are not to be dogmatic rationalists—overly confident and indulgent of our own powers and creative capacity. It turn, our views of “progress” are not to be filled and fattened by the same materialistic daydreams of modernity.
It is here—in the space between idolatrous rationalism and escapist anti-intellectualism—that the church needs to find its voice and sing:
After we have stopped being rationalists and believing that reason can conquer everything and organize everything and control everything, we still need to recover a sense of what is the place of reason…What role does reasoning/thinking have in God’s plan for all things?
As we [the church] come out the other side of the cataclysm of modernity and the critique of rationalism, we are in a moment where we can be reconstructing the life of the mind…The life of the mind, if it’s going to be properly ordered…has to be restorative of God’s plan for all things — including building bridges and feeding the hungry.
The temptation to overly relish in our own designs is real, and the failures it’s bound to bring—moral, material, and otherwise—have only served to further distort the prospects of personhood. Without a proper foundation and framework for human flourishing, the march to “progress” can quickly devolve into hubristic, materialistic self-indulgence. But without the proper respect and appreciation for the gifts God’s given us and to what we’re called, we risk a church that is disempowered and detached in its witness.
Our reason is not our own. As we steward God’s creation and seek justice and progress across the economic order, let’s not forget it.
Image: Ivan, Brain Nebula (CC BY 2.0)