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The Cognitive Captivity of the Church (and its Academics)

Dr. Lothar Schwabe

March, 2010


photo of Dr. SchwabeAs a Canadian Lutheran pastor of German origin I have been pondering the demise of my church in Germany, in Canada, and the USA . How could the clerical hierarchy of Lutheran Churches and its theologians helplessly preside over a process of disintegration that will see the Lutheran Church almost vanish when its grey-haired membership moves to cemeteries? In a time when Protestant churches in Germany fade and its leaders quietly ponder the days when the Muslim religion will dominate German culture, it is fair to ask how it came to this.

German culture, its music and literature, had for centuries been inspired by the faith of Christians. Western culture flourished when matters of the soul were respected and even encouraged. Whenever the church flourished, from the earliest days to the revival movements of the 19th century, it was not because of cognitive and logical consideration. It was a personal relationship with a living Saviour that transcended all understanding. It was a faithful standing under God that created a vibrant faith rather than a cognitive understanding.

Any culture that relegates matters of the heart to a lesser reality than matters of science and technology bankrupts a culture. Relating to God through faith does not automatically make a believer a member of the Flat Earth Society. To the contrary! As a believing Christian I cherish cognitive thinking. One simply has to know when it is appropriate to use cognitive thinking processes and when to employ faith and love.

One should think that empirical considerations should lead thinking people to conclude that an overreliance on rational thinking in every aspect of human relationships is destructive. By now we have ample experience that displacing faithful and loving relationships with rational arrangements contributes to the breakdown of the family. Idealistic humanism looses its humanity when God is relegated to fiction. Replacing Christian values with secular values has not improved our western culture. Rampant greed and individualism are not superior to compassion and helping others.

We have experienced that values that place individual needs above all others are not superior to the values of serving and forgiving. We have experienced that materialism cannot provide contentment and happiness. Yet, most protestant academics are not willing to take that life-changing leap of faith for fear that such might ruin their academic reputation.

We have developed an academic group-think consensus that the only approach to all matters of life that is worthy of academic respect is a rational cognitive approach.

Some academics secretly agree that there is more to life than our reason can access and that there are some higher powers at work in our lives. Yet they are captive to the assumption that what cannot be scientifically proven cannot be real.

A cognitively captive academic feels that to be professional one must be independent, not influenced by the opinions of others. One must be in control of oneself and of one's own thoughts. One must also be fair and not favour one religion over another which rules out any commitment to one particular faith.

I suspect that the academic psyche of many learned people prevents them from trying real Christianity. It is simply appalling to the psyche of such academics to let Jesus be in control and guide their lives. Even when they are not doing so well in their personal lives they are frightened at the thought of not being self-reliant individuals. Suspecting that a higher being would do better than they do does not seem to matter. The best they can do is to find Scriptures historically interesting and of some cultural value. But they could never allow the Spirit that speaks through the Scriptures to lead them to the real Jesus.

Bach’s music and Christmas carols may stir up in them some spiritual longing but they are frightened at the thought of taking God seriously. Simply, many modern Protestant academics are stuck in their cognitive captivity and their academic arrogance. If such academics teach theology they are hardly qualified to speak about the real Jesus. Their objectivity is phony because they do not make room for the Spirit of God.

Even liberal theologians must admit that when Jesus talked about faith and believing, such as in John 6:47, “he who believes in me has eternal life”, he referred to a mental process that is very different than rational cognition. Christians throughout the ages knew that to become a Christian one must let go and allow Jesus to be Lord. The very first creed was “Christ is Lord”. Believing is not just a way of understand Jesus, but it also includes accepting Jesus as Lord.

Liberal Protestant theology has wandered into a cognitive captivity. Cognitively driven liberal theology rules out a divine inspiration of Scriptures and a Bible through which God still speaks and still inspires. Liberal theology works with the assumption that anything in Scriptures that defies a cognitive analysis or that cannot not be historically substantiated must be wrong. The result is a theologically educated clergy and a church that "protects" its members from catching the simple faith that Jesus talked about. Many Lutheran Churches have become spiritually impoverished.

The Bible is of great historical significance. But it was not the historical significance of Scriptures that fanned the faith of Bach, rather it was a deep personal faith relationship with Jesus (Jesu Juva) and the deep desire to serve the living God (Soli Deo Gloria) that inspired his work.

The Bible has great cultural value that has inspired writers and painters. But it was not the cultural value of the Bible that inspired Christians, including Mother Theresa, to engage in helping the sick, poor, and needy. It was a personal faith relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ that inspired them to express their faith in action.

It is true that divine intervention defies a cognitive analysis, yet experiences tell of divine interventions and prayers that were answered. A cognitive analysis or a critical historical approach to my marriage will never capture the love my spouse and I have shared for over 55 years.

Love and faith share the same essence. Poor love! Love can never be proven to be more than a mere subjective experience that defies any objective cognitive analysis. Poor faith! Faith can never be proven to be more than subjective experience that defies any objective cognitive analysis. Does that mean that both faith and love have no essence?

Admittedly, radical fundamentalism and the abuse of trust by clergy have given the community of Christian believers a bad rap. Rather than viewing those cases as evil deviations from the norm they often are viewed as being systemically imbedded.

I still experienced German theologians who treated Scriptures as divinely inspired and who did not allow liberal thinking to ruin their simple faith. That generation of Lutheran theologians has mostly vanished from chairs of theology at German Universities.

When I reflect on my own life experience I notice that whenever it was a choice of doing it my way or God’s way, God’s way was always better. (Do I notice some condescending academic smile? Well, it worked for me!)

A church in cognitive captivity must accept responsibility for the fall of western civilization.

Will a new generation of academics, especially theologians and church leaders escape their cognitive captivity and risk to have a personal faith in Christ that, like the peace of God, is more than we can understand?

Epiphany