The Limitations of Self: Getting Past Intellectual Isolation
Put differently, man bears the spark of the divine in his own being. All attributes which exist fully in God are but a shadow in man—a hazy and deficient reflection of God’s perfection. Even so, these traits, these vestiges of the presence of God, are nevertheless apparent in the human condition: man possesses a degree of God’s wisdom, a fragment of God’s compassion, a sense of God’s justice, a yearning for God’s mercy, and so much more—everything that is good in man being made possible by the God who created him.
God created man in his own image. This truth is multifaceted in its implications: first, it governs man’s interactions with God, tailoring his idea of who God is and what God has called him to do; second, it sculpts man’s relationships with other men, compelling him to act with a degree of moral guidance; lastly, it shapes man’s perceptions of himself. Essentially, then, as believers in Christ, this reality of divine authorship should inform all levels of our life.
Too often, though, we as Christians settle into the first and third categories, the vertical man-to-God categories. We limit our appreciation of God to our relationship with him and our own internal lives. We read our Bibles, we meditate, and we pray—all of which are good pursuits—but we neglect to pursue an external sounding board. We live in philosophical isolation within ourselves, seeking answers from our own store of knowledge and from our own understanding of God’s word. We operate under the notion of intellectual autonomy. Basically, we neglect or de-emphasize the lateral dimension of the men around us, men who God has created to speak into our lives. But let us not forget that just as God created the vertical relationship between man and God, so did he also create the horizontal man-to-man relationship. Admittedly, this facet is less important in the life of an individual; but it is there, nonetheless, and is worth consideration as a viable influence in the development of our intellects.
Now I should note that when I say lateral man-to-man relationships, I am not talking about traditional Christian fellowship. Indeed, it is easy to observe a multitude of vibrant church communities that exist across the nation, God’s people gathering together to appreciate the blessings of companionship. Rather, I am referring to something deeper and more academic in nature: man’s inclination to seek formal external counsel or influence in shaping his beliefs and ideology. All men have the need for external influences upon our inner selves. We need to emerge from within ourselves and explore other thoughts and ideas. We need to formally test our beliefs in a lateral context. We need to engage intellectually with the world around us.
This can be done in two ways: either through open communal dialogue and debate, a sort of joining of the minds, if you will; or through applied study of extra-Biblical works. That’s not to say that the Bible is not the authoritative inerrant word of God—certainly it is. Even so, there is much to learn from frank study of such philosophical and theological texts as Augustine, Aquinas, Lewis, Tozer, Nouwen, and countless others—brilliant men and women who have sought God and learned deep truth, who in turn have attempted to share these truths with others.
Christians today would do well to invest time and energy in honing their beliefs, in formalizing their theology, in testing their Biblical interpretations against those of other Christians. To do so would cultivate an attitude of intellectual humility, allowing us to more easily learn from fellow Christians and interact with the Christian community at large. Moreover, such an attitude of intellectual engagement would doubtless entail a better-educated, more-founded approach to matters of the State. For this reason, it is worthwhile to encourage our Christian brothers and sisters to immerse themselves in earnest debate with other believers and to delve into the world of philosophy and theology, never forgetting that God has created man in his own image. With that comes the responsibility to grow, to learn, to encounter God, to change ourselves, and to change the world.
*It should be acknowledged that I have used the word “man” here and throughout the article as a convenient means to refer to all of mankind without respect to gender.