Called to the Life of the Mind, Richard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014.
Summary: A collection of reflective essays by one of the deans of evangelical scholarship on the calling and importance of the Christian scholarly task.
This is an absolute gem of a book!
Rarely am I so effusive about a title but this short collection of pithy essays that I devoured in an afternoon is a quite wonderful gift to anyone who loves Christ and loves scholarly work and wonders what a life pursuing these loves might look like.
Mouw begins by admitting his own surprise in discovering his vocation as a scholar, having grown up in a conservative evangelicalism in which, “you don’t need exegesis, you just need Jesus.” He discusses the “accusing voices” that considered the intellectual life dangerous to the soul, concluding that while there is something to those warnings, it is possible to be both a rigorous scholar and a devout lover of God. He affirms the value of scholarship against the larger value of God’s kingdom, the importance of the tedious intellectual “calisthenics” necessary for the fruit of rigorous scholarship, and the value of not needing to make hasty applications of what we discover.
He goes on to explore how evangelical scholars engage the wider scholarly world, eschewing either withdrawal or “takeover.” He pleads for a scholarship that is both humble and hopeful, that recognizes that all the Kuyperian “square inches” over which Jesus is Lord belong to him but will only be perfectly known by us in eternity. He speaks of the communal character of Christian scholarly work, that scholars may help one another in a “shared commitment to creative teaching and scholarship.”
I found this last proposal particularly intriguing, as Mouw framed this in terms of an academic “religious order” in which Christian scholars working at Christian institutions might also encourage the “dispersed believers” working at more secular institutions. Engaging the conversation about a “Benedict option“, he calls rather for a more truly Benedictine-type engagement that both strengthens the church and has a renewing influence in the world.
The concluding essays discuss the unique opportunity of the academy as a safe place for intellectual exploration, the various roles played in academia from serious scholarship to “populizers”, the hopes and fears of academic pilgrimage with its unknowns, the dangers of critique becoming a way of life, rather than a moment during our work, and the unique perspective we have because we believe in creation–that truth is a discovery of creation and not a creation in and of itself.
In his last essays, he returns to the theme of humility and hope, concluding with these words:
“If we effectively appropriate these attitudes — humility and hope — we can display the kind of patience that is capable of tolerating complexities and living with seemingly unconnected particularities without giving in to despair or cynicism. To show forth this kind of approach to intellectual complexities is to perform an important ministry — a Christ-like ministry — in the present day academy.”
This collection of essays is one that I would suggest every Christian scholar keep handy for those moments when one may be tempted to cynicism or despair about the future of the academy or is in need of a refreshed vision for one’s calling. Joining Mouw in his reflections on the humble and hopeful task of scholarly work under Christ may be just the encouraging word needed to enable one to press on in the academic journey.