Free thinking, fearlessly open dialogue, a willingness to voice unpopular ideas: these are increasingly endangered species in a society ever more surveilled by Orwellian thought police. A new, fundamentalistic secular religion has emerged, with tenets that demand total adherence. To question the logic of any aspect of this secular creed—for example, a statement like “transgender women are women”—is to be branded a hateful heretic. Books that logically challenge prevailing orthodoxies are being banned by Amazon. There are countless more examples.
You know it’s bad when atheist hero Richard Dawkins is disowned by an atheist organization (which explicitly defines its purpose as including advocacy for “freethinkers”) over a tweet where he (very cogently) questioned the new orthodoxy on transgenderism. Rather than engaging Dawkins’s entirely reasonable tweet on its own terms, the American Humanist Association saw it as grounds for retroactive cancellation. Nothing says “advocacy for freethinkers” like canceling someone for a thought that goes against the grain.
Nothing says ‘advocacy for freethinkers’ like canceling someone for a thought that goes against the grain.
In a strange twist, Christianity—long accused of being narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, and afraid of difficult questions—has the potential to fill a growing void in Western culture. In a world where we increasingly walk on eggshells—unsure when, if, and how we’re allowed to speak publicly on contested issues—Christianity can become a grace-filled haven for curious questioners, doubting dissidents, and anyone seeking truth in a world where partisan narratives take precedence.
In short, Christianity has an opportunity to again become the most fertile intellectual ground—as it was for most of the last 2,000 years (until fairly recently). Why? Because a truly fruitful intellectual culture must be built on unshakeable, transcendent foundations—which Christianity has As C. S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”in God’s Word. Without this, all discourse about “truth” is arbitrary and devolves into power struggles. All claims become mere ammo for inflicting injury on one identity or another, rather than bricks for building in a shared intellectual project.
Scriptural Foundation Should Inspire Intellectual Curiosity
The secular approach to discourse results only in deconstruction—as we’re seeing. With no ability to gain consensus on truth, secularism can only cancel, condemn, ban, silence. It’s fundamentally destructive. But the Christian approach can be constructive because there’s a solid foundation on which to build. This is why, in my “Wisdom Pyramid” rubric, Scripture is the foundation. God’s infallible Word functions both as a horizontal, “solid ground” foundation and as vertical scaffolding, keeping the structures above it rightly ordered. We can build knowledge using all sorts of materials—books, the arts, nature/science, reason, community, lived experience—but none of it will be structurally sound, in the end, unless it is built on an unshakable foundation.
God’s objective, transcendent, true-for-everyone Truth is not a constricting, check-your-brain-at-the-door truth. It’s a liberating, world-expanding, galvanizing, purposeful truth that gives a common vocabulary and telos for intellectual pursuits. As Jesus says, it’s the truth that “will set you free” (John 8:32). This liberating truth is what inspired the founding and flourishing of Oxford, Harvard, and most of the great universities. It’s the truth that undergirded the world-changing discoveries and revolutionary ideas of Johannes Kepler, Nicholas Copernicus, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and many others. It’s the truth that, for countless artists, writers, and philosophers, provided life-giving illumination and impetus to explore.
As C. S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”
God’s objective, transcendent, true-for-everyone Truth is not a constricting, check-your-brain-at-the-door truth. It’s a liberating, world-expanding, galvanizing, purposeful truth that gives a common vocabulary and telos for intellectual pursuits.
God’s Word is the settled truth that unsettles our intellectual complacency and compels us to plumb the world’s mysterious depths. It’s a framework through which we can read and study widely and know how to evaluate the relative merits of an idea. It gives us bearings to navigate a fallen world glutted with ideas—some true, some false—in a way that doesn’t turn into a nomadic, frustrating wander.
Challenges for the Church
In recent history, though, many Christians have failed to see Scripture as the catalyst it should be for profound intellectual energy and curiosity—and that’s a scandal.
Christians should remember, as R. C. Sproul pointed out, sola scriptura does not mean the Bible is the only authority for the Christian, but that it’s the only infallible authority. In our intellectual wrestling we should certainly start with Scripture, but we need not stop there. The Bible’s infallibility frees us to learn from, and critically evaluate, mankind’s fallible creations. For this reason, biblically literate Christian communities should be the most intellectually fertile communities on earth. That this thought sounds audacious demonstrates how far we’ve strayed from the intellectual richness of Christian history.
Biblically literate Christian communities should be the most intellectually fertile communities on earth.
Still, our cultural moment presents the church with an opportunity. Most university campuses are now homogenous monoliths of speech codes and groupthink. Far from fruitful spaces of idea exchange, our social-media “commons” have become frightful fields of landmines where one contrarian step—as Richard Dawkins found out—can trigger a reputational bomb. What if churches and Christian institutions became the most exciting, grace-filled spaces of intellectual vibrancy?
It’ll take some work. But here are three practical suggestions toward this end.
1. Welcome Hard Questions
Many raised-in-the-church young people embark on deconstruction journeys outside of the church, because they assume church is not a safe place to doubt. “Can I ask this question in my church?” is a common, sadly often justified fear. Too many churches and Christian communities have stigmatized doubt, discouraged questions, or shied away from difficult doctrines. This is not good! If the church is to recover a vibrant intellectual culture, the recovery must include a willingness to be a safe place for hard questions. As Karen Swallow Prior rightly points out in TGC’s new book, Before You Lose Your Faith, “The right questions asked in the right way can only lead to truth—and the Truth. Before you deconstruct your faith, know that there is no question too hard for Christianity.”
If the church is to recover a vibrant intellectual culture, the recovery must include a willingness to be a safe place for hard questions.
Remember, we have the tools for intellectual construction whereas the world is only equipped for deconstruction. We should foster environments where the smart kids, the curious artists, the scientists, and the “freethinkers” feel welcome and—perhaps more than anywhere else in the world—inspired. Let the world be in the business of de-platforming, disinviting, and shutting down debate. Christianity should invite it. What are we afraid of? God’s truth is infinitely solid and can stand up to all the scrutiny we measly humans can muster. The more good faith, God-fearing questions (Prov. 9:10), the more opportunity we all have to excavate more layers—and unearth more treasures—of God’s truth.
2. Model Charitable Disagreement on “Second Things”
I’m not suggesting Christians become so intellectually tolerant and “open minded” that we never “close our minds” on settled truths clear in God’s Word. The intellectual vibrancy of the faith depends on clearheaded consensus on indisputable “first things,” which orthodox Christians have believed for thousands of years. Intellectual health in the church does not require fetishizing “conversation” as an end to itself, or giving platform to heresy and clearly unorthodox ideas.
Intellectual health in the church does not require fetishizing ‘conversation’ as an end to itself, or giving platform to heresy and clearly unorthodox ideas.
But healthier debates and open explorations of “second things” are where we can do better. Gen Z is looking at the discourse happening among their Christian elders, and what they see is no different than anything else on Twitter: petty name-calling, logical fallacies, and tribalistic jingoism (Woke! CRT! Patriarchy! White supremacy!) that forestalls fruitful conversation. We must model better how to have real, substantive, charitable debate where the ideas can be sharp but the tone soft, where fears of reprisal are removed because it’s clear we’re all just trying to find the truth together, in community, for the glory of God.
Of course, even determining “first” from “second” level issues is a matter of heated debate right now. Theological triage is a crucial and challenging pastoral task. But that just means it’s another conversation we should have, together, without fear. Let’s have it.
3. Cultivate Curiosity and Critical Thinking
“Free thinking” is not synonymous with boundary-less, anything-goes, right-in-my-own-eyes thinking. Truly free thinking is liberated by a foundation of transcendent truth that empowers exploration and what my colleague Chris Colquitt calls sanctified individualism: “grounded in the external Word of God and connected to Christian community, but always ready to stand alone.”
Christians are well positioned to be the freest thinkers in the world. Free from the shackles of partisan agendas that relativize truth. Free from the aimlessness of total subjectivity. Free to go against the spirit of the age where it conflicts with the Word of the Lord. Free to affirm aspects of the zeitgeist where we can, and oppose it where we must. Free to encounter any given thing (a book, a film, a lecture, an argument) with eyes to see both what is true and false, learning from the former while discarding or challenging the latter.
Truly free thinking is liberated by a foundation of transcendent truth that empowers exploration.
But this is a very rare thing in today’s world (and not just in the church): the ability to appreciate and grapple with a work that contains both helpful and harmful ideas—and yet find it still worthwhile. Too often we thoughtlessly buy into everything in a book, for example, or we thoughtlessly dismiss everything (or just refuse to read it). But most books—authored as they are by fallible humans—are a mixed bag of right and wrong. Thoughtful people are equipped to sift through these mixed bags and gather the pearls.
Christians, can we be these thoughtful people?
Haven for Thoughtful People
There are few safe havens for thoughtful people in today’s world; few forums where curious folks and creative thinkers feel comfortable enough voicing certain questions or contrarian thoughts. Church, let’s seize this opportunity, inviting our secular neighbors into what once was, and can be again, the world’s most electrifying intellectual community.
Have a question that can’t be uttered on Twitter? You can utter it here. Care more about discovering truth than pleasing a tribe? So do we. Richard Dawkins? Come, have a conversation with us. We might agree at times and disagree at others, but—out of love for you and love for the truth—we aren’t afraid of what you have to say.