The Loneliness of the Christian Thinker

By Tom Gilson Published on January 13, 2018

It shouldn’t be this way. But the fact is, it’s a lonely world for the Christian thinker, the one who cares to think deeply and well about the faith.

I’ve just returned from a terrific week of fellowship at the annual Defend conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s an apologetics conference, which means its purpose was to share and to study the many reasons for confidence in the Christian faith.

Speakers’ topics ranged from the resurrection to the problem of evil. But even though I was one of those speakers, the talks weren’t the real highlight of the week. It was the conversations instead.

Three nights in a row, my friend and team-teaching partner, Dr. Timothy McGrew, and I invited conferees for coffee and conversation. It was about 9 pm when we gathered each evening, but dozens came anyway — so many that we had to move over to a nearby dorm lounge. We stayed as long as the dorm rules allowed.

And one of the main topics of discussion was how refreshing it was to be able to have the kinds of conversations we were having there.

The speakers’ talks weren’t the real highlight of the week. It was the conversations instead.

The Loneliness of the Christian Thinker

During a couple of breakout sessions I asked a question I’ve asked many times before at other conferences. “Obviously you’re interested in the thinking aspect of Christianity, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” my question begins. “So, how many of you find yourself feeling very alone in that interest, back at home in your church and community?”

Every time I ask that question, every hand goes up. Just about the only exceptions are students and faculty members at colleges and seminaries.

Thinking Christians feel lonely. There’s a sense that it’s weird for believers to care about matters of the mind.

It’s Not for Everyone, But It’s Also Not for No One

It’s not that God expects every Christian to be intellectual. We all have different gifts, as we’re taught in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere, and with differing gifts come differing motivations. The Church would be quite a strange place if everyone in it were expected to have the same interests — and chances are, a church filled with thinkers would be sadly short on doers. 

On the other hand, a church that doesn’t give real value to deep thinking — for those who do have that interest — is cutting off one of God’s intended gifts for His body. Of course it isn’t for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. But it’s also not for no one. Yet my informal surveys show that for many thinking Christians, it feels that way. In some churches it’s even regarded as wrong: “We don’t ask questions like that around here!” “The Bible says it, so believe it!”

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This Loneliness Comes at a Cost

But as Professor J.P. Moreland explains in his book Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul , this comes at a real cost. For centuries the Christian faith was viewed as a source of real knowledge. Christians founded all the first universities, both in Europe and in America. Christians founded all the natural sciences, and continued to lead in science long after it was underway. Similar stories could be told in music, literature and other arts.

But sometime around the middle of the 19th century, we began an intellectual retreat. It only took a few decades before we’d lost so much ground, Christianity was (falsely) thought to be opposed to reason and science.

Retorts like that are no help when people aren’t sure they believe the Bible in the first place.

And within a few more decades, the intellectual ground we’d lost began to be matched with lost moral ground. The two losses were connected, because we found ourselves unequipped to explain why marriage and sexual morality (for example) really matter. “We don’t ask questions like that around here!” “The Bible says it, so believe it!”

Retorts like that are no help when people aren’t sure they believe the Bible in the first place.

The Loneliness Is Unnecessary

That’s the tragic outcome of the loneliness of the thinking Christian. The other sad part of it is how needless it is. Christians make it through college, after all. Not everyone, of course — but enough that it shouldn’t be hard to find many of them displaying some intellectual vigor in local churches.

Christianity still has plenty to be vigorous about.

And Christianity still has plenty to be vigorous about. Rumors of its being “anti-science” are simply false. Real historians of science all know that; it’s only dabblers who think there was ever any real conflict there.

And there’s a bounty of scholarship these days in favor of Christian belief. As Dr. Gary Habermas told us at last week’s conference, there once was a time when almost no scholar believed the New Testament accounts contained actual history. Historians today, however, are almost unanimous in agreeing on some of the most crucial parts of the message. And that’s just a sampling of Christianity’s growing intellectual strength.

It was a rare privilege to be involved in conversations like I had last week. It’s not for everyone, I know. But I pray the day will soon come when it’s no longer hard to find.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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