The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective

Clifford Williams

Baker Academic, 2002
95 pages

"Clifford Williams offers just the sort of calm, insightful discussion of ‘thought’ that all students need as they

begin their college careers. But because The Life of the Mind so effectively tackles truly big questions such as

meaning, popular culture, death, and personal coherence, the book will be useful far beyond the classroom.

For thoughtful Christian readers, this volume is a pause with true intellectual refreshment." – Mark Noll, author of

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

"Williams captures the allure of learning in fresh and revealing ways. From decades of teaching experience, he

reflects on the importance of an inquiring mind and how it can contribute to the development of faith and

character in our anti-intellectual culture." – Arthur Holmes, author of The Idea of a Christian College

"While affirming the usefulness of thinking and learning for Christians, Williams dares to propose that thinking

and learning also have intrinsic value, that delighting in knowing the way things are is a way of loving God with

our minds, analogous to delighting in the beauty of a landscape. Such a message needs to be heard in our highly

pragmatic and utilitarian American culture, including our Christian subculture." – Harold Heie, director, Gordon

College Center for Christian Studies


Chapter 1 Why Do We Like to Think?

Chapter 2 Is Thinking Good for Its Own Sake?

Chapter 3 The Effects of Thinking

Chapter 4 Tensions between the Life of the Mind and Christian Faith

Chapter 5 Is the Life of the Mind at Odds with Culture?

Chapter 6 The Crowd and the Community

Chapter 7 The Hermit and the Explorer


"To engage in the life of the mind, for Williams, is to become an intellectual explorer who feels, acts, and thinks; who ‘maximizes goodness’ (34) and demonstrates love for God. Williams is passionate about his subject, and he makes a persuasive case." – Debra Mubashshir Majeed, Teaching Theology and Religion

"In less than 90 pages, professor Williams manages to take us on a tour through the excellencies of the mind, the joys of thinking and learning, what exercising of the mind does to us and how to engage in such an exhilarating life—the life of the mind. The overall purpose of the book is: ‘to explain the value that thinking and learning have for Christians. The answer: Possessing intrinsically valuable knowledge is a way of loving God’ (36-7)." – Ylli Doci, Denver Journal

"The opening quote from Nathan Hatch summarizes the book by saying, ‘Our danger has not been too much thinking, but not enough.’" – Charles Dunahoo, Equip for Ministry

"Williams argues against a spirituality that is mindless and for one that engages the mind as part of a balanced life." – Terry L. Cross, Religious Studies Review

Quotes from the book

"When we live more largely, we actively look for fresh ways to experience goodness. We seek out new situations and activities. We are eager to embrace a wide array of good, as if we are holding our hands in front of us, palms up and open, saying, 'Come to me.' Our basic orientation is different—we value the good we encounter and passionately want to increase it" (40).

"Are there ways of encountering grace in the life of the mind? Yes, opportunities for such encounters occur constantly while thinking and learning, just as they do in everyday life. As poet Maura Eichner put it, 'Everywhere grace awaits'" (59).

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Recent books on the life of the mind

Richard T. Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2001)

George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford University Press, 1997)

J. P. Moreland, Love God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Navpress, 1997)

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994)

James Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as Christian Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2000)

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Life (Baker Academic, 2002)

Older books

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Servant Books, 1978)

Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, Revised Edition (Eerdmans, 1987)

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)

A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (The Mercier Press, 1948)

Excerpt from Chapter 7 The Hermit and the Explorer

Picture two people, one a hermit and the other an explorer. The hermit shuts herself off from contacts with other people and also, let us suppose, from feeling and thinking. She displays few signs of vigor. When she ventures out for supplies, those who encounter her notice her reticence and indifference. She responds to queries with an ambiguous head movement, makes no eye contact, and initiates no conversations. In the privacy of her self-constructed cage, she sits and stares. Hardly anything interests her, and nothing moves her to action except necessities. When she does move, it is with sluggishness. She is a perfect specimen of the living dead.

The explorer, however, is open to what the hermit has closed off. She has an animated interest in the people she encounters and asks about their hopes and dreams. When she listens, her face lights up. She displays spontaneous delight when making new discoveries. She does not wait for adventure to happen to her; she seeks it out, sometimes with a bit of fear but always with anticipation. No cage can hold her. Perhaps she travels, but she does not need to go far, for she finds treasures everywhere. Her inner life is also rich; she has an extensive array of thoughts and feelings. If Socrates or Kierkegaard had encountered such a person in one of their daily excursions, they would have exclaimed, "Aha! Here is one who is fully alive!"

Real hermits, we should note, are often more like the explorer than the above depiction suggests. They may cut themselves off from others in order to probe their inner selves. Or they may do so to pray or pursue wisdom. This is especially true of the early desert Christians. After a dozen years alone, they returned to civilization transformed. That could not have happened if they had simply stared dully at the sand on which they sat.

Real explorers, too, often have some hermit in them. Though they are open and active in some respects, they may be minimally open in other respects. They may, for example, energetically explore the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming but be somewhat reclusive, or they may be exceptionally approachable but unresponsive to art and poetry.

The truth is that we are all partly explorer and partly hermit. We go after new experiences, but only in certain ways. City life may strike us as attractive, but love may seem fearful. Or we may like to dip into classic fiction but avoid sorting out our emotions.

One way to think of the larger life God desires for us is to see it as a way of minimizing the hermit and maximizing the explorer in us. God invites us to feel, love, act, and think. To do so, we cannot sit and stare. We must get up and look around. I do not mean that we must go places and take in new sights, for we can be explorers wherever we are. Those with whom we live and work possess depths that can be endlessly plumbed. Our backyards are unexplored wildernesses. Books contain inexhaustible riches, and so do our own inner selves. Explorers track down fresh life, love, and thought wherever they are.

From The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective (Baker Academic, 2002), pp. 86-87. Copyright 2002 by Clifford Williams.
Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
© 2012 Clifford Williams

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