Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Evolution of the Christian Mind - Le Donne

Today I am showing this TED Talk from moral philosopher James Flynn to the students in my ethics class.  It is an illuminating 18 minutes if you have the time (let's face it, if you're reading this ridiculous blog, you have the time).

Flynn surveys the cognitive history of the 20th century and explains why our IQ tests score so much higher than our immediate forebears. He begins with a couple questions:

We’ve gone from people [in 1900] who confronted a concrete world and analyzed that world primarily in terms of how much it would benefit them, to people who confront a very complex world. And it’s a world where we’ve had to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind.  And these include clothing that concrete world with classification and introducing abstractions that we try to make logically consistent, and also taking the hypothetical seriously.  That is, wondering about what might have been rather than what is.  Now this dramatic change was brought to my attention through massive IQ gains over time—and these have been truly massive.  That is, we don’t just get a few more questions right on IQ tests; we get far more questions right on IQ tests than each succeeding generation dating back to the time that they were invented.  Indeed, if you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average IQ of 70.  If you score us against their norms, we would have an average IQ of 130.  Now this has raised all sorts of questions: were our immediate ancestors on the verge of mental retardation? Because 70 is normally the score for mental retardation. Or are we on the verge of all being gifted? Because 130 is the cutting line for giftedness...
Flynn suggests that 21st century people are beset with a world of abstraction and thus our abilities to classify, infer by analogy, and problem solve are beefier than our grandparents. His thesis is generalized. He is appealing to studies of averages and average folks.  Of course, we can all come up with exceptions to this rule.  But Flynn's point about the average person's moral imagination is hard to deny: we emerged from cultures that had very limited intellectual and ethical horizons.  Moreover, we were suspicious of fancy new ways of rationalizing.  If it wasn't "common sense", it was suspect.

Flynn's thesis can tell us a great deal about the intellectual ghettos of Christendom.

It used to be that Christians got a short lecture on Bible/theology on Sunday mornings (we called these things "sermons").  These were the only exposure to such education that we were likely to get.  A few of us keeners would seek out other avenues for the study of Bible/theology.  Even fewer of us had the mental capacity to pick up a Word Biblical Commentary and comprehend it.  For most, that Sunday sermon was boiled down to absolute basics.  Most of our preachers were taught in seminary how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.  At the end of the day, a good sermon had a bottom line; there was some sort of moral message of application.  We were told how to live better together, focus better on our identity in Christ, become better stewards, etc.  Even then, most of us complained that the preacher's sermons were too abstract.  We wanted concrete, real-world stuff in our sermons.  This, of course, illustrates how the Christians of previous generations were common people of the 20th century as James Flynn describes:  we valued concrete usefulness above all else.  Sadly, many Christians still expect neatly packaged sermons that appeal to the lowest common denominator on Sunday mornings and most preachers comply.

So what happens when an entire generation of Christians are given better mental floss, more avenues for exegesis, and unprecedented access to a Yale-quality education?  It should come as no surprise that the result is cognitive dissonance.  It used to be that one needed to attend a seminary to outgrow the theological "common sense" of the 1900s.  Now you just need to be Facebook friends with Brian LePort.

The real danger here is that we with higher theological IQs are tempted to hold our forebears with contempt. One wonders if C.S. Lewis' phrase "chronological snobbery" might be relevant here.  Conversely, there is a danger for those who guard our grandparents' thought patterns to accuse us of knowledge without wisdom. Please listen to Flynn's talk carefully:  Billy Graham does not border "mental retardation"; Rob Bell is not a genius.

I  would suggest that the "preservation" of Christian ideals must be measured by our ability to make peace with one another.  This includes making peace with our past and those who remain suspicious of the ongoing evolution of the Christian mind.

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