Do you have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian? Or, do you have to abandon faith altogether if you want to seem intelligent?
Most of us have asked such questions at some point in our lives, and we’ve wrestled with lingering questions about the intersection of faith and intellect. We find a fascinating answer to these kinds of questions in, of all places, the Easter story.
Come and see
You know the story well. In Matthew’s account, Mary Magdalene and another Mary (Matthew doesn’t tell us which one) go to the tomb early on Sunday morning. They expect to find a quiet tomb flanked with Roman guards. Instead, they discover a scene of complete chaos — earthquakes, frightened centurions and a grave stone rolled away with an angel sitting on top. The angel then declares some of history’s most important words: “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6a).
Yet the angel doesn’t stop there. Immediately after declaring Jesus’ resurrection, the angel offers this invitation: “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:6b, emphasis added).
Did you catch that? The angel doesn’t expect these women to take his word for it. He invites them inside the tomb so they can look around for themselves. He wants them to verify his claim, to see the concrete evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
We often overlook this invitation in our telling of the Easter story, but the angel invited them to use their minds and observatory skills to investigate the claims. The angel wanted them to use their brains.
You don’t have to reject faith to be intelligent, nor must you reject your intellect to be faithful.
No blind hope
The angel’s invitation is a small example of a much larger truth. In Christianity, faith is not faith for faith’s sake. In other words, we don’t simply place our faith in ethereal, baseless promises. Christianity is built upon historical realities. Our faith is not based on blind hope but on the concrete reality that Jesus rose from the grave.
The Apostle Paul advocated this notion of faith. When he writes about Jesus’ resurrection, he emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 5:16 that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive.” In other words, he all but invites the Corinthian church to verify his claims by talking to those witnesses of the resurrection. He doesn’t want them to place their faith in a piece of carefully crafted fiction but in a true, historical event with eyewitnesses.
Luke, too, believed in the historicity of faith. In the introduction to his Gospel, he references the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” who delivered these accounts to him. In other words, he doesn’t write hearsay or opinions in his Gospel; he compiles eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
These examples — from the empty tomb to the early church — illustrate that Christianity does not divorce faith from reason, and neither should we. In Christianity, you don’t check your brain at the door. You bring your brain with you.
Friends not enemies
Sadly, we too often divorce faith from reason, and voices on either side urge us to do so.
On the one hand, some secular voices claim intelligence requires you to reject faith. “How can you be a thinking, rational person and believe these things?” someone might ask you. They assume reason and faith oppose each other.
On the other hand, some Christian voices believe much the same thing. They assume your faith requires you to reject your brain. Few believers would be so brash, but this notion is implicit in many of the ways we talk about topics such as education. For example, a preacher once asserted (from the pulpit, no less) that a colleague of his was “a good preacher until he went off to seminary, where they messed him all up.” This preacher assumed learning was a detriment to faith — that faith and reason oppose each other.
But neither of these extremes are true. You don’t have to reject faith to be intelligent, nor must you reject your intellect to be faithful. The secular sphere is filled with intelligent, hard-working people of faith, such as Michael Strauss, a physics professor at the University of Oklahoma, or Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University. At the same time, Christian spheres are filled with intelligent people of faith, such as the many professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS).
In other words, faith and intellect are not enemies, but friends. This Easter, reject the calls to divorce your brain from your faith. The angel’s invitation for the women to see the empty tomb is a small but significant reminder that Christianity does not divorce faith from reason. No, with Christianity, we bring our brains with us.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Nathaniel Williams is the editor of the Intersect Project at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church in Castalia, N.C. This article originally appeared on the Intersect Project blog and is posted with permission.