This piece originally appeared in The Christian Century.

I collect expressions of anti-intellectualism. I even consider myself to be a connoisseur of the sorts of things that fall within this genre. But this is no mere hobby. I was raised in a spiritual environment in which the intellectual life was regarded with suspicion, even with overt hostility at times. The anti-intellectual one-liners of my childhood still echo in my heart. “The only school anyone has to go to is the Holy Ghost’s school of the Bible!” “If you have to get educated, be sure to get the victory over it!”

There were times when those warnings hit close to home. Just before I went off to graduate school in philosophy, for example, a dear family friend sent me a letter expressing concern for my soul. He quoted Paul’s warning in Colossians 2 about not being corrupted “through philosophy and vain deceit.” In quoting the verse he spelled the key word “fool-osophy.”

I take time on occasion to remember my spiritual roots, to examine my collection of anti-intellectual expressions, and to meditate on this or that warning against the life of the mind. Testing the state of my soul against the complaints of those who view people like me—people devoted to intellectual pursuits—with suspicion has led me to practice an important personal exercise in spiritual self-examination. To be sure, that takes some discernment. By their very nature, attacks on the intellect display considerable rhetorical overkill, so in most cases I must separate the wheat from the chaff.

Here is one of my favorite overkill examples, quoted by Richard Hofstadter in his classic study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Peter Cartwright was a 19th-century Methodist circuit rider who observed that he served the cause of the gospel with wonderful results without ever having darkened the door of a theological school. He and his friends, he declared, have “preached the Gospel with more success and had more seals to their ministry” than all of those “sapient, downy D.D.’s in modern times who . . . are seeking presidencies or professorships in colleges, editorships, or any agencies that have a fat salary, and are trying to create newfangled institutions where good livings can be monopolized”—and all of this “while millions of poor, dying sinners are thronging the way to hell without God, without Gospel.”

As someone who occupies both a presidency and a professorship, I take some comfort in knowing that I don’t exactly fit Cartwright’s description of the “sapient, downy” type. But there is enough of me in his account to force me to be sure that I have set my priorities right.

Some of the anti-intellectual statements in my collection force me to probe a little deeper spiritually. A case in point is on the opening page of the great devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, where Thomas à Kempis urges us to forsake the pseudowisdom of “the world” in order to render our lives wholly “conformable to Christ.” He spells out his plea with a couple of choice examples. It doesn’t do us much good, he says, to be able to argue eloquently about the Trinity if we lack the kind of humility that is pleasing to the triune God. What is the merit, he asks, of being able to define compunction if we are not “pricked in heart” by the sins we have committed? And this: “If you knew the whole Bible scientifically, and the words of the Philosophers; what good would it all be, that loveless and graceless knowledge?”

It’s easy to point out here that Thomas is presenting us with some false choices. Of course it is regrettable when a person can set forth all sorts of arguments defending the Trinity but for all of that is living a life that displeases the Trinity, and yes, it is better to experience compunction in your own soul than to offer a learned definition of the word compunction. Graceless knowledge is surely something to be avoided. But isn’t it good to have some people who are able both to speak carefully about trinitarian dogma and also to live in ways that are pleasing to the triune God? Or what about someone who not only has experienced genuine compunction in the soul but also has managed to write a book on the subject? Surely one alternative to pursuing a graceless knowing is the cultivation of gracefull knowledge.

A grace-filled life of the mind will draw on some important virtues, not the least of them being humility and a desire to serve others by showing the kind of love with which we have been loved by God. Simone Weil says somewhere in her writings that the virtues necessary to sustain the intellectual life are pretty much the same as those that are necessary to sustain the spiritual-contemplative life. Thinking carefully, then, can itself be an important exercise of the imitation of Christ. Not a bad reason for at least some of us to take on the task of “fool-osophy.”


  1. Dr. Mouw,

    Is there any chance that you could bring some of these ideas to our community here at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary?

    – Jerry DePoy Jr.

    Comment by Jerry DePoy Jr. — March 28, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  2. Dear Mr. Mouw,

    I read your book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I agree with much of what you wrote in it. We do need to use civility when interacting with those of different faiths and different views, but on the other hand we need shouldn’t compromise our values, use straw man arguments, or speak as if something isn’t important to us when it really is.

    However, there was one particular part of the book that I strongly disagree with. So strong is my disagreement, that I must say that it ruined the whole book for me. In chapter 4 under the Crusades section, you wrote about abortion. You said that not all abortions are murders. Now, before the killing of innocent human beings became legal, the word abortion just meant what we now call “miscarriages”. But I don’t think that is what you meant. The intentional killing of an innocent human being IS always murder. That is not an exaggeration and it has nothing to do with difference between murder and manslaughter. God requires the life of all those who commit such acts (Genesis 9:6, etc.). The ectopic pregnancy case is beyond the scope of what I want to say here, but don’t think that this is what you are talking about. But if you’re interested here is an article which correctly addresses that issue:

    Just because the government doesn’t call something murder, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. There was a time when our government didn’t consider the killing of a black person to be murder. We didn’t allow blacks to marry, but some did it anyway and they were just as much married as anyone in God’s eyes because they did what God requires for marriage. The courts considered them to property and not persons under the law, but they were real human beings with rights just like anyone else even if the government didn’t recognize it. What would you say to someone who believes that blacks or Jews are not human beings, shouldn’t be allowed marry, and could be killed without reprisal? (I guess you already answered that question in chapter 10.)

    Whether a baby boy or girl was conceived by rape or incest has nothing to do with the value of his/her life. It is folly to suggest that some intentional killings of innocent human beings should be allowed because those human beings would better off dead (or because that’s what those who committed the horrendous act think). You seem to be trying to use this modern argument that someone can commit this “regrettable” act with good intentions, and therefore, they shouldn’t be punished for it. The Bible does not teach this. Hitler thought that world be better off if he killed off all the Jews. Did he have good intentions? He did not, those who kill the unborn do not, you do not, and I do not (Psalm 14:3, Matthew 19:17, Romans 13:12).

    There is no “on the other hand” on the issue of the intentional taking of innocent human life. To say otherwise undercuts any argument that we should do anything but say, “you have your way of thinking and I have mine—all opinions are equal”.


    Matthew Miller

    Comment by Matthew Miller — March 28, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  3. Vintage Mouw. I’m just finishing up John Stackhouse’s book, “Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil” and I’m reminded in there as well that some of the slogans of popular Christianity reflect the “deeper impulses” of the faithful and do have relevance to the practice of our faith.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — April 1, 2009 @ 8:36 am

  4. Very much appreciate this piece, Dr. Mouw!
    Thanks so much!!

    Comment by Paul — April 30, 2009 @ 2:14 pm