Can we love God with our mind?

Is Christian faith about an affective encounter with God, or about becoming convinced about the case for Christianity? You will immediately be crying ‘False dichotomy!’—but it is worth reflecting on the balance between these two ideas in contemporary expressions of faith. There was a time when the tradition of rational enquiry was most influential, but the impact of the Charismatic Movement has decisively shifted the balance. You might think that on the Alpha Course from HTB in London it would be the explanation of Why Jesus Died that would lead to personal commitment—but since the influence of the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s, it has been the ‘Holy Spirit’ day that has been seen as the turning point.

And yet there are people who have either come to faith or come to appreciate faith on the basis of thinking and analysis. Tom Holland is a historian, largely of the ancient world, and he explains in an article in the New Statesman how he came to realise through his studies that everything he really valued originated with Christian faith and not with the values of the classical period:

Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. Most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. [Christianity] is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value..In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.

(You can see him in discussion with Tom Wright on this subject as part of the Unbelievable project.)

Rodney Stark is an American social scientist and author of The Rise of Christianity where he applied social scientific analysis to explore the factors that explain the phenomenal growth of the Christian movement in the first four centuries. He came to committed faith as a result of these studies:

I have always been a “cultural” Christian in that I have always been strongly committed to Western Civilization. Through most of my career, however, including when I wrote The Rise of Christianity, I was an admirer, but not a believer. I was never an atheist, but I probably could have been best described as an agnostic. As I continued to write about religion and continued to devote more attention Christian history, I found one day several years ago that I was a Christian. Consequently, I was willing to accept an appointment at Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist university. They do not require faculty member to be Baptists (many are Catholic) and I am not one. I suppose “independent Christian” is the best description of my current position.

Stark has continued to argue that it is the rational element of Christianity’s belief in a transcendent, creator God which has had a major impact on the development of civilisation:

The appeal to reason also dominated Christian learning. Science, Stark points out, did not emerge in opposition to Christianity but within it: the first universities were established by the church, and early science was conducted almost exclusively by people in holy orders. Stark’s roster of the most eminent 16th- and 17th-century scientists reveals that a majority were personally devout and many were themselves church officials. What is significant for Stark is that the first scientists were not only religiously affiliated but religiously inspired. Science was a calling to discover God’s plan in the arrangement of nature, or, as Stark puts it, to “know God’s handiwork.”…

Even today, Stark says, the alleged incompatibility of science and faith is not supported by the facts. Recent surveys show that more than half of “hard” scientists such as physicists and chemists report a belief in God. A similar profile emerges in the life sciences. And if hard science is not antagonistic to religion, neither is strong religion inimical to science, insists Stark. “The most ardent evangelical Christians assume that the truth exists. And they don’t just mean that God is there but that the world is there.”

But it is not just sceptics outside the church who think Christianity is irrational—there is often a strong voice within the church that claims faith is about trusting God in spite of the evidence. Many of our songs talk about loving God—but they rarely mention the mind. Last week we sang that God was ‘Worthy of every song I sing’, but there was no line ‘Worthy of every thought I think.’ But in reality, faith and thinking belong together. David Wolfe writes (in his book Epistemology: the justification of belief):

The believer is a critical adventurer, taking rationally responsible risks. If he or she takes a leap of faith, it should be a leap conditioned by criticism in its choice of alternatives and responsible for continued criticism after the leap. (p 71)

Faith is not a leap in the dark, but a leap into the light of understanding and truth.

When we look at Jesus’ summary of the law, there is something interesting to notice:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength’ (Deut 6.5)

‘…with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Mark 12.30)

‘…with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matt 22.35)

‘…with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ (Luke 10.27)

In each of the three versions in the Synoptic gospels, the term ‘mind’ has been added, in the case of Mark and Luke as a fourth term in addition to the other three that were present in the original in Deuteronomy, and in the case of Matthew in place of the term ‘strength’. What is going on here? It seems to me that there is an assumption in Jewish thought that the ‘heart and soul’ as metaphors for different aspects of the human life are assumed to include the life of the mind, but by the time of the New Testament period these metaphors had changed their meaning. Aristotle believed that the ‘mind’ was in the heart (‘cardiocentrism’), but a new school of thought was arising (‘encephalocentrism’) which believed that the ‘mind’ was in the brain, a view which we generally hold to now. So in order to communicate the meaning of the first commandment in Deut 6.5, either Jesus or the gospel writers (or both) needed to adapt their metaphors to this new cultural moment. Given the passionate and irrational nature of much contemporary debate, I wonder whether we need to make a similar shift, and once more emphasise the importance of thought in faith.

And there is a deeply theological reason why we should be doing this. The Fourth Gospel begins with an extraordinary mediation on the ‘Word, that was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.1, 14). Within the canon of Scripture we would naturally think of this Word as the expression of God’s intention which created the world, the ‘word of Yahweh’ which came to the prophets, or perhaps the word of God’s wisdom which functioned as the creative crafter at God’s side in Proverbs 8. But in Greek Stoic thinking, this Word, the logos, was the generative rational principle that shaped the whole world. The gospel is making the extraordinary claim that, in Jesus, both God and the world that he has created have been made comprehensible—an idea which (as Rodney Stark rightly notes) has underpinned Christian thinking about science and the way the world works.

This idea of comprehensibility is clearly emphasised in the teaching of both Jesus and Paul—but is something that we often pass over. A quick search for the terms for ‘mind’, nousdianoia, and ‘understand’, including suniemi, noeo and epiginosko, shows how common these terms are in Jesus’ ministry. In the ‘last supper discourse’ in the Fourth Gospel, a repeated emphasis is on the understanding of the disciples.

I no longer call you slaves but friends—for slaves do not understand what the master is doing (John 15.15)

Earlier in his ministry, when Jesus saw the crowds, he ‘had compassion on them—so he taught them’ (Mark 6.34). Jesus did, of course, respond to the crowds in compassion by healing them and feeding them—but his compassion stirred by their lostness also meant that he healed and fed their understanding by teaching them about the kingdom of God.

This emphasis on understanding is also found all through Paul’s writings. Although he begins his first letter to the Corinthians by rejecting certain Greek idea of clever rhetoric and philosophy, he in fact deploys some sophisticated arguments on a range of issues, and wants the Corinthians to fully understand:

Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your understanding be perfect (1 Cor 14.20)

Paul is here using the language of perfection, teleios, that we find in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect’. In the opening of his letter to the Philippians, Paul has a similar emphasis on understanding:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,  so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1.9–11)

Notice once again the interplay between love and understanding for maturity in the Christian life. And for the Romans, Paul’s goal is that their minds would be renewed as they grow in faith:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12.1–2)

John Stott commented many years ago in his little book Your Mind Matters:

It is not enough to know what we should be, however. We must go further and set our mind upon it. The battle is nearly always won in the mind. It is by the renewal of our mind that our character and behaviour become transformed. So Scripture calls us again and again to mental discipline in this respect. “Whatever is true,” it says, “whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this; the life of the mind is essential for any love relationship. If we love someone, then we will both think about them, and seek to understand them. Relationships in which this does not happen are relationships which never reach maturity.

When asked which is the greatest commandment, Jesus then puts the second alongside it: ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’. If loving God includes the use of our minds, it appears from the New Testament that loving our neighbour also involves the life of the mind. When Philip is directed by an angel into the wilderness and meets the Ethiopian court official in Acts 8, the question he asks is ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8.30). Philip then leads him to faith by means of an expository Bible study—not a method of evangelism we often hear commended except in certain circles!

In Acts 17, when Paul is given a hearing at the Areopagus in Athens, we see him make three moves. The first is to have a firm grasp on the essence of the gospel, ‘Jesus and Anastasis’ (Acts 17.18), which we understand as ‘Jesus and the resurrection’ but which they mistook for a male and a female god (since anastasis is feminine). The second is to understand the culture that he is in—probably helped by his own upbringing as a Roman citizen in Cilicia, since one of the thinkers he quotes, Aratus, was a Stoic philosopher from that region. The third is then to bridge the gap between the two, explaining how the answer of the gospel connects with the questions raised by their intellectual culture.

If we are to love our neighbour, then we need to do something similar. In his first letter, Peter urges his readers to do the same:

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…(1 Peter 3.15)

The word he uses for ‘a reason’ is apologia from which we get the term ‘apologetics’. If someone asked you today, ‘Why should I become a Christian? Can you give me any good reasons?’, could you give them an answer? If not, then (according to Peter) our love for neighbour lacks something. Loving with our mind is something for neighbour as well as for God.

(These thoughts are based on my preparation and preaching in a series on ‘The Greatest Commandment’ in which I explored ‘Loving God…with all your mind’. There sermon can be listened to on the St Nic’s website here.)

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20 thoughts on “Can we love God with our mind?”

  1. Thank you for this, Ian. Do you have any responses or comebacks – soundbites, even – to views suggesting a sharp(ish) distinction between ‘head’ and ‘heart’?

  2. Thank you for this. I remember many years ago in my late teens singing the line from “take my life & let it be” ..” “Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose.”As a charismatic there is a real danger we ignore the above.

    Particularly on the right there seems to be a move towards faith of some kind (Jordan Peterson type effect.) as a recognition of some of the social and psychological benefits of Christian faith. Which is very ‘thinky’

    Personally I’m currently a big fan of the likes of Jon Tyson and John Mark Comer who are deeply prayerful, charismatic, into social transformation, discipleship and as part of this really seek to engage people’s minds and connect with the culture.

      • It has always amused me that in the edition of Ancient & Modern that we use the verse about intellect and silver and gold is marked as optional.

  3. The more I look at the universe with its beauty, unpredictability and complexity – black holes, dark matter, quantum mechanics etc – the more I come to appreciate the Creator behind it. Our sun is a huge nuclear reaction, yet it produces a beautiful sunset. It provides just a taste of the power and beauty of our God.

      • Yes indeed. We are all different and some dont even think about such things. And others change their mind about the existence of a creator God after looking at the universe, eg Antony Flew.

  4. The article on cardiocentrism vs. encephalocentrism is very interesting. However, it has this:
    Unfortunately, most of what the Greeks knew about the brain was forgotten for millennia. The burning of the Library of Alexandria by a Christian mob erased almost all records of ancient Greek thought and ushered in over 1,000 years of scientific ignorance and illiteracy.
    Anti-intellectualism among (some) Christians is not new.

    However, one should note how it was a Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo, with an understanding of the freedom of God in creation, which led to the emergence of modern natural science. Greek science had a strong element of necessity. For instance, the Greeks thought that the ‘spheres’ were a realm of perfection, and so all motion should be perfect, and thus in circles. So, the theory of epicycles was used to explain the motion of the moon and planets. Unfortunately, more accurate observations led to the compounding of epicycles upon epicycles. Copernicus simplified it with his heliocentric idea. However, it was Kepler who cut the Gordian knot and showed that the motion was in ellipses, which enabled Newton to formulate the inverse square law of gravity.

    • ‘…and ushered in over 1,000 years of scientific ignorance and illiteracy.’ Actually that is not true, as Rodney Stark points out in his later book ‘Bearing False Witness’. There were many technological and scientific developments in this period which easily surpassed Greek and Roman understandings; Galen remained influential in medicine (which actually held progress back); and loss of technology wasn’t simply the fault of Christians but of conflict generally—witness the death of Archimedes and the loss of the Antikythera mechanism.

  5. Another small comment on Science and Christianity. In Cambridge, there is a 19th century gatehouse in Free School Lane, which is the entrance to the New Museums site. Behind that was the first location of the Cavendish Laboratory, the Physics department of the University, where many ground-breaking experiments were made. The wooden gates carry a Latin inscription in gothic script. It is Psalm 111.2. In the late 1960’s/early 1970’s the laboratory moved out to a new site in West Cambridge. A friend found some money which enabled an updated inscription to be shown in the new entrance, using Coverdale’s version of the verse:

    The works of the Lord are great : sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.

  6. Dear Ian,
    It may have been awhile, but a grammatical category that is found in all languages is the “verbal noun.” In Greek it is in the Genitive Case and is a noun with verbal qualities, i.e. love, faith, hope, revelation, etc. It is usually translated as a Subjective or Objective Genitive. For example: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” could be both Subjective and Objective due it being from Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ. So also a noun like “love.” It is found in the phrase, “love of God,” meaning “love about God,” or “love from God.” Thus, the context will usually give a clue as to whether it is Subjective or Objective Genitive. Sometimes, the context is ambiguous as in “faithfulness of Christ.” This phrase could very well be both Subjective and Objective Genitive since it is speaking of the “faithfulness of Christ” as well as “faithfulness by Christ.”

  7. Thanks, Ian, very welcome. At a practical level, I find more and more Christians who are relcutant to share their faith. There are a number of complex reasons for this, but one which I hear voiced frequently is the fear of being confronted by questions they cannot answer or objections they cannot counter. While not all can be highly skilled apologists, surely we have a responsibility to help one another think clearly if we want the mission of the church is to be effective. Testimony to personal experience has a significant place in sharing good news but is limited if we are unable to articulate clearly the content of the good news.

    • John, maybe the reluctance goes deeper than that. We don’t live in a culture where people try to persuade each other of the truth of anything, so if person X tries to share his/her faith with person Y they are ipso facto doing something distinctly odd.

      Think about it the other way around. When was the last time an unbeliever tried to persuade one of us that anything – anything at all – is “true”?

  8. Understanding, explaining, loving, “knowing” the Trinity and the “history” thereof, anybody. even if Trinity Sunday may not be the day to do it, to bring it all into one.

  9. Agreed, Jamie, which is why in my original post I said that there are a number of complex reasons. But I still find many who give this as a reason even in a world where relativism rules and faith has been privatised. I also find many Christians, even some of long standing, who don’t really have much understanding of what they believe. I suspect that this is partly a matter of teaching (I have some sympathy for the question Ian raises) and partly an emphasis on the primacy of experience as per Ian’s original post.

  10. Thanks for the background on Rodney Stark’s conversion – I seem to remember asking about this on another thread – it’s a further and really helpful lens to see his work through.


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