The Island of Misfit Joys: Church Culture and Christian Intellectualism

2015 has been a year of paradox for me. It has been a season of personal growth that has brought unprecedented intimacy with God, yet the result of that intellectual and spiritual development has deepened an ever-present sense of aching isolation that I experience within local church community. As a student immersed in the world of Christian academia, I hear similar confessions from my peers, who are scattered around the country. When we gather in video hangouts, online discussion forums, or annual meetings, the conversation and fellowship is so very rich, and we openly express our gratitude for the level of community modern technology has made possible. But at the end of the day, it isn’t quite the same as being able to gather with kindred spirits, in person, on a regular basis, and we talk about that fact with sad resignation.

At the conclusion of the last live class session of my fall semester (a course on Christianity and philosophy of fine art), my professor remarked how much he hated that we couldn’t all get together for coffee and discussion; it simply isn’t possible when individual members are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. I got a bit of a lump in my throat when he said this, as it hit a sensitive spot. I long for a local community of like-minded Christians, people who appreciate the enormous spiritual value of loving God with the intellect and thus prioritize the cultivation of the mind. I imagine long, philosophical and theological discussions in artsy coffee houses, group outings to hear scholarly lectures, and book studies on everything from the early Church Fathers to current theological debate and matters of ecclesiology.

The picture in my mind is a romantic ideal, no doubt; but it seems to me that something closely akin to it should be present in Evangelical church culture. Unfortunately, many (if not most) of us who are shaped this way struggle with feelings of isolation and lack a genuine sense of personal belonging within our own church community. We live with the unrequited desire for the reciprocal sharing and celebration of the joys we find in honoring God our Creator through the intellectual pursuit of truth about Him, the world, mankind, and the journey towards the New Jerusalem. All too often, we are (inadvertently) made to feel as if these are misfit joys unique to more bookish believers. “How do you have time to read so much?” “That kind of stuff goes right over my head.” These are the kinds of statements I hear often. Finding just a few people interested in the work of committed, ongoing study and dialogue is incredibly difficult; responses to invitations tend towards “I just don’t have time for that in this season of life. My family is so busy!” (Which reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which the master demon emphasizes that busy-ness is the best soul poison. The fact is, we make time for what we value.) 

This situation has led me to wonder how church culture might differ in this particular regard among the various branches of Christendom. I’ve never questioned whether or not my life-long church tradition is the one in which I, a person with these kinds of tendencies, can best flourish as a Christ follower. However, several events over the course of this year have raised nagging questions in my mind: Are there church traditions that place more of an emphasis upon intellectual development in Christian living and as a form of worship? Is the unrelenting feeling of unsettled-ness/odd-duckie-ness something that some Christians should simply endure as a personal burden and do their best to influence the community they’re in, or is it an indicator of truly being misplaced? I don’t have answers to these questions right now, but I do strongly sense that the Holy Spirit is leading me into deeper theological and ecclesiological investigation on these matters. To what end, I cannot yet say. 2015 has been a year of emerging questions, so 2016 will likely be a year of exploration and hopefully, one of revelation.

In the near future, I will begin a blog series based upon the reading I’m doing along this journey. My hope and prayer is that it will be a help to other believers dealing with similar uncertainties about being in community, about spiritual formation, and about church tradition. 

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.” –Proverbs 16:9