No one who genuinely knows the history of the Middle Ages could suggest that the church put its head in the sand and ignored the life of the mind. But what about Jesus? It’s pretty clear from the Gospels that he didn’t have much time for the sophisticated legal and educational traditions of the Pharisees. His wisdom was of a very practical kind, the urgent kind. Was there then no real place in earliest Christianity for intellectual pursuits? Was it all just praxis, evangelism, staying alive?
In the episode last season, Jesus Philosopher, we explored why Jesus was viewed by people in the ancient world as a kind of philosopher, a teacher who touched on all the normal topics of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and so on. But perhaps just as significant as the general impression Jesus left that he was some kind of philosopher, is the way he put it the centre of the spiritual life, the love of God with our whole being, including the mind. Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus said that the greatest commandment of all was, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)
The love of God in other words is not only a thing of the heart, a thing of the soul, it’s not just about striving with our moral and practical strength, we are explicitly urged to love God with the whole of your mind.
What else could this mean then that loving God involves never bypassing the mind, not downplaying its significance in a kind of anti-intellectualism, but instead employing our minds to know God and his world. Someone who doesn’t think deeply about the world, about relationships, about the way to live, about fundamental reality, about the nature of God himself, isn’t loving God with their whole mind. The impact of this on the first Christian communities was instantaneous.
Our earliest writings after Jesus are the Letters of the Apostle Paul, some of which are dated to within just 20 years of Jesus. And years ago, the eminent Roman historian, Edwin Judge, wrote a couple of papers outlining why on the basis of the Letters of Paul, he thought people outside the church in those first few decades will have understood the church, not as a religious club or a ritual cult, but as a school with teachers and a set curriculum. It’s a point that’s been underlined in a really detailed way by a local Australian New Testament scholar named Claire Smith. Her published doctorate outlines the surprising prevalence of formal teaching and learning vocabulary across Paul’s early letters, like One Corinthians and his later ones like the pastoral epistles, One and Two Timothy, and so on.
In the next century, this intellectual tradition only grows. It’s a little-known fact that the church of the second and third centuries required converts to do over 100 hours of classes on the Christian faith over a three-year period. We also know of a shortcut. There was a 126-hour program in Jerusalem over seven weeks of intense teaching and learning. And we have some of the lectures from this program composed by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem. And honestly, the intellectual content is astonishing.
This loving God with all your mind, never stopped in the church of late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages. Contrary to popular perception, Christian clergy and monks studied and copied a vast array of both Christian theological texts and ancient Greek and Roman literary and philosophical texts. So, by the 700s, which are meant to be the dark ages, the great intellectual and church deacon named Alcuin of York designed a program of study that traversed grammar, rhetoric, astronomy, arithmetic, philosophy of music, and so on. And under his guidance, Europe experienced an explosion of schools that far eclipsed the educational programs of the Roman Empire. His schools were the ancestors of the European universities.
Anyone who takes the time to read Alcuin’s letters, and we have over a hundred of them, will discover that he did all of this in Christ’s name. He was convinced that the so-called liberal arts were tools by which we can comprehend God’s world. The more you discover about literature or astronomy, he said, the more you were participating in the wisdom of the Creator.
You were loving God with all your mind.
By John Dickson
Loving God with all your Mind