Christians who explore scholarship or otherwise demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to question tradition are often met with disapproval and suspicion by other Christians. I’ve experienced this myself since attending seminary and even more since blogging about issues of Bible interpretation. I see it happening to others all the time, especially online. One particular phrase that comes up again and again and encapsulates the pushback experienced by curious Christians is “smarter than God.” As in, “you think you’re smarter than God?” It’s a religious variation on “too smart for your own good.”
Publicly question the traditional reading of a Bible passage, dissect the logic of a Christian aphorism, or voice an unpopular political opinion and you’re likely to run up against this warning. But is it actually possible to understand too much about your religion, or about anything? Is it really dangerous to seek deeper understanding or to change your mind about important issues? Is there a threshold of knowledge or intellect beyond which God can no longer guarantee your safety and well being? Of course not. What a dumb idea.
There are erroneous assumptions and coded messages buried in warnings like this. The bald presupposition on the surface of the “smarter than God” comment is that all the traditions, doctrines, and social or political views held by the incurious Christian are universal, unquestionable, and underwritten by God Himself. To suggest even the possibility of critique or a spectrum of viable alternatives is not only insulting to them as a devout believer, it’s considered an affront to God. But this betrays a lack of self-awareness, ignorance of the historical diversity of Christian belief, a small and tribal view of God, and a deep-rooted anti-intellectualism.
Anti-Intellectualism: A Ten Dollar Word
Anti-intellectualism is fundamentally about power and the effort to obtain or retain it. No one actually thinks it’s good to be unintelligent. But influential, entrenched, and insecure members of an insular community will police the borders of their group and shame those who ask “dangerous” questions. In truth, the only thing in danger is the authority of the tribal watchdogs. Of course, most religious gatekeepers are not aware that they are doing anything nefarious. In their mind they are being responsible and even helpful. But shaming the curious and promoting ignorance can only cause harm to individuals and the group as a whole. The status quo is always worth questioning, and your ignorance might be feeding someone else’s insecurity and self-interest.
Here’s my good news for you today: you cannot and will never become smarter than God, so relax! You are free to question and study and learn and think and rethink for the rest of your life. Learning is never dangerous, and God doesn’t like you better stupid, even if some of your neighbors would prefer you that way. If anyone accuses you of being “too smart,” take it as a compliment and thank them humbly. For Christians who have been intimidated into swallowing their curiosity, I offer four reasons to never stop learning and asking questions:
1. Christianity is ancient, foreign, and complex
Incurious believers bristle at the suggestion that Christianity is complicated, but for those who claim to be serious about belief, tradition, Bible, and Jesus, there is no escaping the historical complexities of the faith we’ve inherited. The scriptures were written over many centuries in multiple languages by ancient Jews and then by ancient Jewish Christians who reinterpreted the old writings for a new audience. Then some pagan converts (we call them “church fathers”) reinterpreted the scriptures once again under the heavy influence of Greek philosophy. And then Rome, and then medieval Europe, and then the New World, and then Reformation, and on and on to this day. Some may find this rich history to be uninteresting, distracting, or intimidating, but for those who wish to learn there are endless layers to peel back. I’ve come to believe personally that God, grace, and salvation are not nearly as complicated as our traditions have made them out to be, but the history of human culture and religion is long and messy.
2. If something is good and true it will withstand any amount of study or scrutiny
Anti-intellectual Christianity is terrified that its adherents (especially the children) will ask too many questions, turn too many corners, or pull on too many threads and bring the whole infrastructure crumbling down. But a faith that is so easily unmade by honest inquiry probably deserves to fall apart. The funny thing about powerful, timeless truth is that it is powerful and stands the test of time. For too long popular Christian apologists have forged convoluted and half-hearted answers to every conceivable question the faith might encounter from its perceived detractors and enemies. By attempting to head these critiques off at the pass, they hope to shield their kids from doubt and erect a wall of enforced certainty around them. In doing this, however, they rob their children of the chance to grow and think and learn and doubt, and to discover for themselves what the goodness and truth of God might actually look like.
3. The smarter you are, the more helpful you can be to others
I went to seminary to collect all of “the answers” I could grab, so I could come back to the church and be the helpful Bible guy. I would be able to answer any concern and belay any doubt my brothers and sisters brought before me. Instead, my professors did their jobs and I found myself questioning everything I thought I knew about my faith. They taught me by example that real learning is not about collecting facts, it’s about learning how to think. It’s about models and methods for the intelligent exploration of the world of thought and possibility. The more you learn, in this deeper sense, the less intimidated you are by contrary points of view and the more open you are to your own need for perpetual education. The best way to be helpful to people struggling and questioning is not to give them a package of answers, but to model positive critical thinking and let them know it is OK to think and doubt.
4. It will be harder for others to take advantage of your ignorance
Given the unfortunate but undeniable predilection of American Christian culture for incuriosity and anti-intellectualism, even a self-styled education will give you an advantage. You will learn to recognize the motivations behind the attacks and warnings of other Christians, and you will be less intimidated and more willing to offer a positive and constructive response. Don’t just think of your incurious Christian friends and family as the cranky gatekeepers of your tribe, think of them as future fellows in the classroom of faith. By modeling healthy curiosity and faithful questioning, you might inspire someone else to finally face their fears and doubts and to start asking questions of their own. Until then, don’t let anyone tell you that your intelligence is an affront to the God who made your mind and gifted you with the ability to reason and wonder.