by Guy Brandon
Following our Forming a Christian Mind Conference last weekend, here is a transcript of the introductory talk by Guy Brandon.
The beginning of Wisdom
Good afternoon, my name is Guy Brandon and I've worked as a researcher and writer for the Jubilee Centre for around 7 years now. As a little bit of background, I studied theology at Cambridge, specialising in biblical studies and in particular the Old Testament, and wrote my PhD on the narratives about King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-39. I've been asked to speak briefly on the subject of forming a Christian mind as an introduction to this conference. I'd like to do that with reference to two things. The first is the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is about acquiring Wisdom; not in a solely intellectual capacity as we often understand the word, but as a practical discipline that directs our paths. Of all the books in the Bible I think Proverbs is the most actively interested in developing that applied, day-to-day faith: an Old Testament parallel to forming a Christian mind. The second, though - with respect to the writing group - less authoritative element, is the Cambridge Papers which form the basis of this conference. The Cambridge Papers constitute a major strand of the Jubilee Centre's output. Not just in themselves (not least because they are strictly speaking independent) but in that their material and ideas form the backbone of many of our projects. The Jubilee Centre approach and many of its distinctive ideas have been thrashed out over a period of months and sometimes years by the Cambridge Papers group and are then used as source material for our books and reports. So along with Proverbs, I've kept that writing process in the back of my mind in the hope that there might be aspects of it that can be applied more generally. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.' Here are just a few thoughts on the next steps.
1) It's collaborative
For all kinds of reasons, developing a Christian mind is not a solitary endeavour. Prov. 27:17 - 'As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.' Just one of the reasons that collaboration is vital is that having an open mind can be very difficult. Humans are innately biased to find conclusions that match what they already believe. Confirmation bias, as it's known, is particularly strong for deeply-held beliefs and emotive subjects, which almost by definition will apply here. It helps - it's essential - to have other people to bounce ideas off and to correct you, and to offer new perspectives. Proverbs 18:17 - 'The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.' Of course, this applies to our Christian faith as a whole; there's a separate question there about the ideas that you engage with and how they might challenge your faith. But I'm talking here about specific topics you might seek to develop a Christian mindset towards. Taking a group approach to that is hugely valuable because it helps give objectivity and a breadth of perspectives that is otherwise almost impossible. The Cambridge Papers writing group reviews the draft of each paper two or three times together with the writer, which greatly enriches the content and effectiveness of communication.
2) Double listening
'Double listening' was John Stott's phrase for the discipline of listening both to God's Word and to the modern world, in order to be able to relate one to the other. He had a unique talent for understanding the needs of the world and applying his faith to them. It's easy to reduce Bible study to the realm of the intellectual - perhaps not intentionally, but that can often be the result. But the opening verses of Proverbs read, 'The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding and insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair.' There should be a practical outworking of what we do. There's always the 'And so what?' test. How is this actually going to change things? This can't be a solely academic exercise we undertake from an ivory tower. This is for living and doing. It has to have a tangible impact. God's world - understanding culture. Taking the world first, that process of double listening won't necessarily be comfortable because the Word and the world are fundamentally in tension. Both claim authority over the other and the world's way can be very convincing. Proverbs 14:12 - 'There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.' Listening to culture will be challenging, since we inevitably absorb culture's values and some of them are very attractive. To cross to the New Testament, we have to be 'in the world but not of the world' (John 17). 1 Peter says that we are 'aliens and strangers in the world'. There's both engagement with the world and a degree of separation from it. But an equal challenge is that it's not just about how we maintain our faith in a hostile environment, but how we communicate it. It's not just what we say, but how we say it. Proverbs 8 - 'Does not Wisdom call out? ... My fruit is better than fine gold.' Our culture can be attractive; we need to be attractive to culture and present a positive vision. Not something Christians are always good at doing. God's Word. Hopefully having a thorough, well thought-through knowledge of the Bible will go without saying. Proverbs 19:2 - 'It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.' Here it's worth flying the flag for the Old Testament, for several reasons. One is that it's often overlooked by Christians. Obviously the New Covenant has superseded the Old but Jesus was very clear that this did not mean abolishing the Law or the Prophets but fulfilling them. So whilst we view the Old Covenant through the lens of the New, an implication is that we can't understand the New Testament without the Old. Another reason is that the Old Testament is by far the larger Testament. On a rough count 77 percent of the Bible is Old Testament. We typically give it far less weight than that. But maybe the most important reason is because its concerns tend to be different to the New Testament. The New Testament is largely interested with the existence and conduct of the Church in its secular environment of the Roman Empire. There are clear parallels for our own situation in a culture that's hostile to our faith. But large parts of the Old Testament are far more concerned with how God wanted his people to organise their national life. So when we want to explore and understand God's will for how our economy should be run; questions of land ownership, debt and interest; employment, and labour mobility; welfare; criminal justice; family structure; international relations; the role of government - this is where we should look first. The Old Testament contains those organised principles for wider society (See the Jubilee Roadmap).
Theology is inherently interdisciplinary, anyway. There are any number of fields it draws in. History, philosophy, psychology, languages, politics, literary criticism... Looking at his CV in 1 Kings 4, Solomon was clearly a polymath. 'He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.' That makes perfect sense; in order to apply the Bible to a particular area of life - or to understand how another discipline interfaces with our faith - we have to know that area well. How can you expect to understand a biblical approach to, say, the economy, without a certain level of economic literacy? Theology isn't just for theologians. I'd go so far as to say that it's not even primarily for theologians.
4) Christ's Lordship over all
Related to that, no subject should be off-limits. For example, just because a subject is unique to the 21st century we shouldn't assume that the Bible doesn't apply to it. If the Bible isn't relevant to the whole of life then our faith is seriously lacking. As the saying goes, 'Jesus Christ is Lord of all, or not at all'. Another polymath of more recent times, the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, declared: 'There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!"' Proverbs is about developing wisdom, building character, sound judgment - underlying principles for approaching life. To take a brief foray forward a few pages into Ecclesiastes, 'there is nothing new under the sun'. Our circumstances may have changed but human nature and our deepest needs haven't. The technological changes that enable high-frequency trading, genetic engineering, quantitative easing, social networking might be new, but our personalities, attitudes and responses to them are not. It's a question of reading 'from right to left', like the Hebrew the Old Testament is written in: understanding what the Bible says in its original context to be able to understand what principles we can apply to our own. Neither is that Lordship just about breadth of knowledge and application; it's about depth. These principles go to the heart of our thinking and presuppositions about the world: it's the paradigm shift of Romans 12, the renewing of the mind.
5) A lifelong habit
Lastly, developing a Christian mind has got to be a hands-on habit that we continue all our lives. I've mentioned that it's not just a theoretical exercise, and that one way we know we're doing something right is if there's a clear practical application. In fact Wisdom is inherently practical; it's not just concerned with what we think in the privacy of our own minds, or even our personal faith. It's about how we engage with the world. But how we actually engage is a part of that development. It's a two-way process; your mind develops from what you do as well as your behaviour being informed by what you think. So forming a Christian mind is also about putting what we learn into action in the knowledge that this will feed back into that development. Action goes hand-in-hand with, and reinforces, or sometimes even precedes, belief and understanding - not the most intuitive idea, perhaps, but one that will be well-known to anyone who has encountered cognitive behavioural therapy. Wisdom is a kind of common sense (based on observation and inductive reasoning), but it doesn't come naturally. Like a book that falls open at the same place because we've gone back to the same page over and over, the mind-set becomes more and more habitual and normal. Proverbs 8:34, 'Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my doors.'
So to summarise: forming a Christian mind is a collaborative undertaking in which we take a thorough knowledge of God's word, in the context of a strong understanding of a given field, and demonstrated in personal and practical ways in our own lives, to present an attractive vision to the world in any and every area of need and relevance.