The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective by Clifford Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Our danger has not been too much thinking, but not enough.”
The epigraph to Williams book gives us the purpose of this book in a sentence: to make the argument for the importance of thinking and the life of the mind. Williams originally did this in pamphlet form, which has now been expanded into this still concise little book that gives us the contours of an argument for thinking.
He begins by describing why those who like to think do so: to understand the way things are, to bring coherence to one’s beliefs, to grow in self-understanding, to apply serious thought to public issues, and to make sense and meaning of one’s life. He then proceeds to argue that thinking well is intrinsically important including this syllogism:
1. What God made is good.
2. It is intrinsically good to know about what is good.
3. Consequently, it is intrinsically good to know what God has made.
He then goes on to delineate positive effects of thinking in terms of enhancing human flourishing, supporting our faith and training in goodness.
His next chapter was perhaps both the most interesting and also the place where I felt the most additional work needed to be done. In it he explores the tensions between the life of the mind and Christian faith under the categories of inquisitiveness, imagination, arrogance, and the neglect of evangelism, compassion, justice, and devotion. While acknowledging the realities of these pitfalls, I felt he did not go far enough in identifying their roots in both hubris and neglect of our hearts. Equally, I would have valued more exploration, beyond the acknowledgement of these tensions and the possibility of living within them, of how one does so. This seems to be critical to the flourishing of thinking Christians in contexts that often challenge faith.
Subsequent chapters explore the tensions between the life of the (Christian) mind and the culture we find ourselves in, the value of thinking in community, and a concluding chapter that describes the life of the mind in terms of living in the tension between hermit and explorer (fascinating images!).
While couched in Christian terms, many of the arguments Williams make for the life of the mind make sense for anyone who considers ideas and careful thinking important. At the same time the book is directed to a Christian college audience (under the imprint RenewedMinds, an imprint of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities). It seems that one of the things that might be helpful if this work is revised and expanded would be to address more explicitly what the life of the Christian mind has in common with the life of the mind more generally, and what distinguishes this mind. Mark Noll has done the latter quite helpfully in his Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.
In its present form, Williams has given us a helpful articulation of the intrinsic value of developing the life of the mind and some preliminary considerations of how one goes about this process. I could see this being very helpful to an undergraduate student considering a life of scholarship and equally to someone at mid-life asking questions about how one might move from simply an activist life of doing to going deeper in thinking about faith and the context of one’s life.
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