Checking Our Heads

Yesterday, I enthused about the PC(USA) website’s makeover, and one of my Facebook friends went to see it. He’s a Southern Baptist, and he wasn’t impressed with this quote on the home page:

Check Our Heads!

The pull quote you see here isn’t quite a quote; if you watch the video you’ll see they “punched it up” a bit. What he actually said was,

“It’s a reasoned faith. I don’t believe we should check our heads at the door when we go to church. That’s one of the reasons I’m a Presbyterian, I guess.”

I sighed when I read that, but the way the page looks, you can hope it’s dynamic content and different visitors will see different quotes. But so far, it appears to be stuck on this one. That’s regrettable.

Back when I was in college, I used to hang out with the chess club. I never was any good at chess, but some of my friends were. One day, as I was watching some people play, M.S. suddenly stood up and shouted, “Why must I lose to this idiot!”

Now, M.S. is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. He went on to do postgraduate work at M.I.T. He certainly didn’t check his head at the door. But that day, he was losing at chess, and handling it badly.

That’s what this quote on the PC(USA) web page reminds me of.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a reasoned faith, and I hope people don’t check their heads at our church door.

After all, Jesus added “minds” to his restatement of the great commandment to love God and neighbor. (Compare Mark 12:30 with Deuteronomy 6:4.) In the Sermon on the Mount he radicalizes the Law to teach us that it applies to our psyches as well as our actions. “You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you that if you are angry….” etc. (Matthew 5:21-22 and what follows.) I don’t believe Jesus wants anybody checking their heads at the door. “Wisdom cries out in the street,” etc. (Proverbs 1:20)

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:4-6)

One problem with the quote on the PC(USA) website is that it’s divisive. But it doesn’t have the nerve to say who those less-intellectual Christians might be. (My guess? The big church across town that all your members left to join.)

If our website had the nerve to name names, people could respond and make their case. They could argue in favor of an anti-intellectual position. Or they could argue that they are just as intellectual as Presbyterians. Instead, we just tar everyone who’s not a Presbyterian as a know-nothing, while maintaining plausible deniability should someone (very reasonably) take offense. “Oh, we didn’t mean you.” Faugh!

It’s also a strawman. I don’t know of any church that makes a point of their anti-intellectualism. (Although no less an intellectual than Tertullian asked what Athens had to do with Jerusalem.)

After 2000 years of division, you would hope that the church has gotten to the point where we don’t mischaracterize each other’s theology. You would hope that, even where we disagree, we don’t bear false witness against each other. (For one thing, it’s simply too easy these days for people to refute you, as C. Michael Patton argues over at Parchment and Pen.)

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

But this is the real problem with what our website says. It’s judgmental. First, it suggests (although it doesn’t quite say) that God loves us best because we’re so smart. Even if that were true, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled.” (Luke 18:9-14)

But Jesus made it pretty clear that brains alone aren’t what he’s looking for. He concludes the Sermon on the Mount saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) What’s in your head isn’t enough. His brother James points out the folly of a theology that is correct but doesn’t lead to discipleship. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.” (James 2:19)

The other way it’s judgmental is that it looks down on people who do check their heads at the door. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters:

When [the Christian] gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool.

(This from chapter 2.) Or consider the discussion of different gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. (Or the whole letter, not neglecting chapter 13.)

In short, this is an appalling thing to put on your denomination’s website. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re losing a game of chess to someone you think is an idiot.

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