The Way the World Thinks: Meeting the Natural Mind in the Mirror and in the Marketplace

Desiring God 2010 National Conference

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, British historian David Bebbington provided a definition of evangelicalism that has become the standard boilerplate understanding for academics and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic (David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s [Routledge, 1989], 2–3).

He described evangelicalism in terms of four distinctives: biblicism (a confidence that the Bible is the Word of God), conversionism (a belief that persons must come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ), crucicentrism (a belief that the cross and the resurrection are the central acts whereby God saves sinners), and activism (evangelicals are people who hold crusades, build colleges and seminaries, go on mission trips, organize conferences, and create periodicals and publishing houses).

Noticeably absent from Bebbington’s list, however, is the idea that evangelicals are defined by their thinking. This is to our shame. Christ’s people are to be active in the “renewing of [the] mind,” for “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Romans 12:1–2 KJV; Proverbs 23:7 KJV; Matthew 15:10–20). There is a necessary distinction between thinking and action, but if activism happens without an adequate foundation of thinking, then our activism will be separated from the gospel and from the demands of Christ on our lives. Therefore, without apology, Christians must think about thinking.

Children do not often think about thinking. Within the developmental stage of early adolescence, there comes a sudden acknowledgment that there are other minds. “People think differently than I, or even my parents, think,” a young teen will exclaim. By adolescence, we perceive ourselves thinking and begin to think about that process. Most human beings, however, never attempt to think deeply about thinking.

By contrast, a Christian understands that he or she was made to bring God glory, to point persons to Christ, to exalt in the things of Christ, and to meditate upon God’s Word. Because of the biblical imperative to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, Christians must perpetually think about thinking. Philosophers call this a “second-order discipline.” Thinking is a first-order discipline, but thinking about thinking is a second-order discipline. This complex thinking is required if we are to measure and contrast faithful thinking over against unfaithful thinking.

The Regenerate Mind and the Unregenerate Mind

One of the first steps in thinking about thinking is the realization that we could think in ways different than we do. This is the recognition that there are other peoples, worldviews, philosophies of life, and belief systems at work in the world. An essential part of our Christian faithfulness is the recognition of difference.

Christians must also recognize the crucial distinction between the regenerate mind and the unregenerate mind. Those who have come to know salvation through Jesus Christ, who by God’s grace have been united with Christ and seek to be faithful to the gospel, understand the difference between the before and after. Part of one’s maturing in Christ is an intellectual growth away from former ways and patterns of thinking. There are beliefs, principles of thought, and axioms that must be left behind in order to be faithful to Christ.

Our faithfulness, however, is only part of the equation. We also seek to understand the mind of the age and the way that persons around us in the world are thinking, because we desperately want to communicate the gospel to them. Much like entering into a foreign culture, entering into our own culture requires us to step back and think carefully about how people think, discerning the operational rules, principles, and worldviews of the prevailing thought systems around us.

Christians are commanded to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Therefore, we must think about our thinking.

We face an intellectual crisis in the Western world. Given the pace of change in our age, anyone with the slightest intellectual perception can detect significant shifts in the worldview around us. An important conversation is being had about pre-modern, modern, and postmodern ways of thinking. We are facing a knowledge emergency, as people all around us are uncertain that it is possible to know anything.

Many people hear the claim to knowledge as a political statement, while others seem unable to make any kind of differentiation between fact (knowledge) and value (preference). This knowledge emergency can be traced all the way back to the Enlightenment, when there was a giant shift in the way human beings thought. Although the shift did not immediately affect the cobblers of the time as much as it did the clergy and the academics, before too long the cobbler and the cobbler’s children were also affected by forms of thought passed down from the educated elites of society.

We have now been in a postmodern crisis for a generation. Though the word is overused, postmodernism is itself rather inescapable. Just as there was a shift from pre-modern ways of thinking into modernity and the autonomous reign of reason, aspects of modernity have now shifted into something else. Therefore, above all, Christians need biblical grounding.

Thinking About Thinking (Romans 1:18–32)

Although there are many excellent and fitting texts of Scripture to guide us at this point, an examination of Romans 1:18–32 will serve us in our thinking about the epistemological crisis — the crisis of thinking and knowing. The apostle Paul writes:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

In the context of this opening chapter of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul informs not only a first-century Roman congregation of Christians, but he also, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, teaches Christians throughout all the ages. Paul’s story of universal human sinfulness and depravity is our story. In these words, we discover the explanation of how it is that we find ourselves in this condition of sinfulness. Furthermore, Paul explains that the great epistemological crisis is not as new and recent as we might think in our modern conceit; the knowledge crisis is ancient.

Paul speaks of the crisis as emerging and residing in the mind, but he also speaks as one armed with a confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (verse 18). This is information we desperately need to know. Paul tells us that sinful humanity is involved in a conspiracy, not of the few but of the many. Every single human being is part of the intellectual activity described here. All descendants of Adam are involved in the suppression of “truth in unrighteousness.”

We do not like to think of ourselves as suppressors of truth, however. This is conveyed by the very name we have given ourselves: Homo sapiens, meaning “the wise thinking creature.” Humans rightly view ourselves as set apart from the rest of creation because of intellectual capacity, but we also see ourselves as fair-minded people who think rightly. We tend to associate with people who think as we do because nothing reinforces the way we think as being with people who think like us.

The knowledge crisis is that people don’t know if they can know anything.

The apostle Paul argues that the intellectual bent and ambition of human beings operate as mechanisms to suppress the truth. Granted, some people believe their great ambition is to find the truth. The Latin word for truth, veritas, is even placed on the seal of our great universities.

Yet, despite our living in an age in which massive universities, educational upward mobility, post-Enlightenment science, and modern approaches to liberal arts masquerade as parts of a great quest for truth, Paul claims that humans do not merely suppress the truth; mankind suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. We do not suppress the truth simply because we do not want to deal with it. Instead, we work out the truth suppression conspiracy in a great cloud of unrighteousness.

Despite all of the rationalization, theorizing, and self-justification that derive from truth suppression, human beings remain accountable. Paul states, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (verse 19). The real knowledge crisis is not merely what people do not know; it is also what they will not know. It is a disposition of the will.

Some modern schools of philosophy are even now catching onto this truth that the Bible had already made clear — the will is the great engine of the intellect. The conceit of the modern age was the belief that the intellect is neutral because human beings were viewed as basically good or morally neutral. That worldview saw ignorance as the great enemy and enlightenment as the answer. Enlightenment cannot be the answer, however, because the will drives the intellect.

Paul unfolds what theologians call natural, or general, revelation. He points to the fact that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (verse 19). How is this so? “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (verse 20). The knowledge of God is embedded in creation. Even his invisible attributes are made visible in creation. No one will be able to say, “I did not know.” No one will have an excuse.

It is not just in the outer world of nature that the knowledge of God is apprehended, however. It is also in the inner world of the conscience. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul will deal with the reality of the conscience. The problem with our consciences is not that they are there; we should be thankful for that. Instead, the problem is that our will does not allow the conscience to operate as it was intended. We can make our conscience do what we want our conscience to do.

Undergirding all of this is an understanding of the imago Dei, knowing what it means to be made in the image of God. Our ability to know of God through general revelation is reflective of the imago Dei. The fact that we have a conscience is also reflective of the fact that we are made in the image of God. Indeed, we are set apart from creation and distinct from the other creatures.

As a boy, I loved to watch the television program Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which would show the most bizarre and wonderful animals in their native habitat. As young boys are prone to do, the animals I loved to see were the lions and tigers. After a few shots of the predator, an unsuspecting flock of antelope would be shown. The lion, hidden in the grass, would then leap out with unbelievable energy upon one of the antelope, overtake it, and kill it.

But in thinking back over the many depictions of carnivore meals I saw, I do not recall ever seeing one of those lions step back from the carcass and say, “Wow, I do not know what is in me sometimes. That was so violent. There has to be some way of meeting my needs other than this. I need therapy.” No, he just eats. There is no conscience whatsoever.

Nobody ever walks into his house only to be met by the family dog vehemently apologizing. A parent, however, knows that when the two-year-old cannot be found and is hiding behind the recliner, he is not playing hide-and-seek. The child, though young, knows that he has done something wrong. Humans make the conscience do what they want it to do. Unlike the animals, we are able to rationalize.

“The will is the great engine of the intellect.”

Continuing on, Paul states, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (verses 21–22). The effects of sin result in futility in thinking. Sinners who suppress the truth and ignore the revelation of God are characterized in their thinking by emptiness, vacuity, self-delusion, and rationalization — intellectual emptiness.

Monuments to human wisdom surround us. In the bookstore, one will find monuments to human wisdom. In the university, one will see the triumphs of human wisdom as a prominent theme. All this, of course, leads to idolatry — we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (verse 23).

The sinful decline does not end there, however. Three times in verses 24–32, Paul uses the formula “God gave them up.” He writes, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (verse 24). Then, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (verse 26) and then again “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (verse 28).

We often hear this passage taught as a warning to Rome, and other empires, that God is giving them over to their own sinfulness. Then, the application is brought to bear on the United States of America, that if we follow in the pattern of Rome’s sinful descent, God will likewise give us over in the same manner. This passage, however, is not about empires — Roman or American. This text is about humanity. The verb tense in the phrase “God gave” is past tense — this has already happened. God has given humanity over. The apostle Paul includes everyone in the indictment as he describes the giving over of all of humanity to sinfulness.

The Noetic Effects of the Fall

In the third chapter of Genesis, we read of the fall — the universal story that explains the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves. In Adam’s fall, we all fell. Adam and Eve demanded to know what they were not to know, and once they knew it, they knew themselves as rebels. They became the enemies of God. We do not rightly know who we are without the biblical revelation of the fall.

The consequences of the fall were enormous and immediate. First, the consequence of death created separation and alienation from God, and it resulted in eternal punishment. These cosmic consequences are made clear in the totality of Scripture. Then, there is the story of humanity’s decline into total sinfulness and depravity, made clear even in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. The story moves quickly from the fall in Genesis 3 to the stories of Cain murdering Abel, the flood, the Tower of Babel, and others.

The great epistemological crisis goes back to the fall. The consequences of the fall on our thinking have been nothing less than devastating. Unfortunately, this is not readily apparent to us. We are now so distanced from accurate knowledge of ourselves that we do not even know how warped our thinking is.

Theologically, this is referred to as the noetic consequences of the fall. The phrase “noetic effects” refers to the intellectual consequences of sin. John Calvin said there were three great causes of this noetic disaster (Stephen Moroney, The Noetic Effects of Sin: A Historical and Contemporary Exploration of How Sin Affects Our Thinking [Lexington, 1999]).

The first was the fall itself and its direct results. Adam and Eve had an intellectual crisis the very moment they sinned. The book of Genesis is very clear and candid in pointing us to their shame and to their knowledge — fig leaves and all. Second, Calvin pointed out that the church must always be aware that Satan wishes to confuse our thinking. We have an intellectual enemy whom we ignore at our peril. Third, we must recognize that God, for the protection of his own character, judges our minds in such a way that he gives us over to ignorance and falsehood. This is seen most crucially and centrally in idolatry.

What are the effects of sin and the fall upon our intellect? First, our reason is now opposed to God. This is one of many points of contrast between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, which believes in original sin and in multiple effects of the fall but does not believe that our reason was in any way fatally impaired by the fall. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the main effect of the fall was upon our senses.

Therefore, for Roman Catholics, sensuality is the characteristic in which most persons see themselves as sinners. The Reformers believed, in contrast, that the Bible speaks clearly to the fact that there is an intellectual fall. The will now warps the intellect. The will is fallen and, therefore, produces a fallen reason.

The Reformers did not say that the reason was completely obliterated, any more than they said that the image of God was completely obliterated. If it were completely obliterated, we would not be able to have any kind of life. We would not have any kind of ordered civilization. Calvin went so far as to say that the heathens give us most of the sciences. We should not believe that our unregenerate neighbors know nothing. We all have been taught by unregenerate people. Reason is neither completely obliterated nor destroyed. Humanity is not irrational, but we are rationally given over to sin.

Like the Reformers, when we look at Scripture, we are drawn to make a distinction in our minds between natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge. Of course, an unregenerate person can know that two plus two equals four, find a cure to a disease, design a magnificent structure, or devise a technology that literally changes the world.

However, when it comes to the most important issues of life, meaning, and questions about God and our soul — that is the point at which our reason is most corrupted. Leaning on Romans 1, the Reformers remind us that the unregenerate mind can never reason its way to salvation. The unregenerate mind will never reason its way to the cross. The cross is foolishness to Greeks. There is no way that we can find salvation in our intellect, because it is devastatingly fallen.

“We should not believe that our unregenerate neighbors know nothing.”

In 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The unregenerate mind cannot understand regenerate things. It is not an educational problem; no amount of education can solve this problem.

No manner of communication, illumination, seminars, classes, studies, or degrees will lead one to salvation, because the unregenerate reason is opposed to God. The unregenerate mind sees the gospel as foolishness and folly. For this reason, the apostle Paul himself was dismissed as an idle babbler. We see, again, the link between willing and knowing.

Fourteen Noetic Effects of the Fall

There are many facets of the daily intellectual life of human beings that are directly linked to the fall. While the noetic effects of the fall are inexhaustible, it is helpful to sketch out some of the ways in which they are noticeable.

1) Ignorance: had there been no fall, there would have been no ignorance. The things of God, even his invisible attributes, are clearly seen in creation, but the fall has clouded our ability to see these things. Ignorance would have been impossible until the fall, whereas it is now axiomatic.

2) Distractedness: every single human being has theological “attention deficit disorder.” We are easily distracted.

3) Forgetfulness: everyone has committed to memory things that he has now forgotten. Forgetfulness would be impossible had we not sinned.

4) Prejudice: intellectual prejudice is one of our besetting problems. The problem is that we do not know ourselves well enough to know our intellectual prejudices, because we are prejudiced even in our thinking about our prejudices. One of the great achievements of the postmodern mind-set has been the forcing of an honest discussion of intellectual prejudices.

5) Faulty perspective: because of our finitude, we all have a finite perspective on reality. Had we not sinned, we would all share a right and accurate perspective. As it is, we are shaped by cultural, linguistic, tribal, ethnic, historical, individual, familial, and other blinders. We do not see things as others see them, but we assume that others who are right-minded must see things as we see them. The famous “parable of the fish,” often attributed to Aristotle, asks the question, “Does a fish know that it is wet?” The idea conveyed in the parable is that if you want to know what being wet is like, then do not ask a fish, for he does not know he is wet.

6) Intellectual fatigue: with the fast pace of modern life and the multitude of matters pressing for our attention, we can begin to feel depleted in our intellectual capacities and mental reserves.

7) Inconsistencies: it would be bad enough if we were merely plagued with inconsistencies. The bigger problem, however, is that we do not even see them in ourselves — though they are more readily detected by others.

8) Failure to draw the right conclusion: this is a besetting intellectual sin. Most people do not even recognize that they are drawing the wrong conclusions. There is the willful denial of and blindness toward data.

9) Intellectual apathy: if we did not bear the noetic effects of the fall, we would be infinitely passionate about the things that should be of our infinite concern. Our intellectual apathy, which works its way out in every dimension of our lives, is one of the most devastating effects of the fall.

10) Dogmatism and closed-mindedness: we hold to things with tenacity that we should not hold onto at all, because the intellect seizes upon certain ideas and thoughts like comfort food. They are only taken away from us with great force, even if reason and data directly contradict them.

11) Intellectual pride: the Scripture states that “‘knowledge’ puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). One danger of higher education is the besetting sin of human pride that comes alongside human achievement, for intellectual achievements are some of the most highly prized trophies.

12) Vain imagination: Romans 1 indicts vain imagination, exposing the fact that we make images of God out of created things — even “birds and animals and creeping things” (verse 23). As the psalmist writes, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1).

13) Miscommunication: translation is difficult, and miscommunication is one of the great limitations upon intellectual advance. We live on the other side of both Genesis 3 (the fall) and Genesis 11 (confusion of language at Babel). From the story of the Tower of Babel, we understand that this issue of miscommunication is not an accident. Some of these noetic effects are because God has limited our knowledge.

14) Partial knowledge: we know only in part, and sometimes we do not even know how partial our knowledge is.

All of these noetic effects of the fall are tied to the will. These effects influence not only our intellectual activities but also the way our intellectual activities work their way out in other aspects of our lives — our emotions and intuitions. Human knowledge works in what might be called “intellectual auto-pilot.” We operate the only way a sane person can operate. Our emotions and intuitions are shaped by our intellect, which is shaped by our will. As such, we find ourselves not always thinking in an openly rational, self-conscious way. Nonetheless, we remain driven by thinking that is working its way out in intuitions and emotions.

Thinking, Worldview, and Evangelism

Because of the intellectual devastation brought about by the fall, we are under obligation to think about thinking. That is why Christian discipleship is also an intellectual activity. We must come to terms with the fact that the noetic effects of the fall operate on multiple levels. The concern is that we rightly understand ourselves, and for that to happen, we must be told who we are and what our problem is. We are in desperate need of this knowledge.

We must also be concerned about understanding the natural mind. We must understand the unregenerate mind because of concern for reaching persons with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Missions and evangelism — indeed, the love we are to have for God and neighbor — compel us to seek to understand the unregenerate mind.

Over the last thirty or forty years, evangelicals have begun using a word that is borrowed from the Germans — worldview. This concept recognizes that the only way cognizant, aware human beings can operate is in a complex of thought that does not require us to rethink everything all at once, all the time. We operate out of a set of beliefs, principles, and axioms of thought that make sense of the world and allow us to make our way sensibly within it.

There is no educating the mind of the unregenerate unto salvation.

Sociologist Peter Berger refers to such things as “plausibility structures” (Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion [Doubleday, 1967]). We inhabit a certain world that makes sense to us because we have certain habits of the mind that make the world plausible. Plausibility structures are quite important and absolutely basic. There have been some tremendous changes in plausibility structures over the course of Western civilization. The transitions from pre-modern to modern to postmodern reflect significant shifts that have taken place.

The odds are that you did not ask yourself before you got out of bed this morning whether or not you still believed in gravity. Believing in gravity is simply a part of your world picture. You did not worry about gravity — whether you were going to fall up out of bed. Neither did you wake up this morning in a deep existential crisis about whether you do or do not exist. Most human beings will experience such a crisis at some point in their life, but not every day. That is not the way we operate. If you had to think about things like gravity and your own existence every day, you would be immobilized.

We operate on the basic assumption that we exist. Likewise, we operate in a basic set of moral assumptions about what the good life is, what we are called to do, and what is right and wrong. We operate out of a certain sense of rationality, and we operate as economic people and political citizens. We function as neighbors, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives based on facts that we take for granted. The problem is that worldviews show all the marks of human sinfulness just as every human culture, civilization, and soul does.

The Secular Mind

The natural mind that we are most likely to meet in this culture is a secular mind. Secular is a word that must be used carefully, because a secular mind is not necessarily a fully secularized mind. The prophets of the modern age believed that as human beings gained control over the great forces of nature, such as damming up rivers to create hydroelectricity or splitting the atom, and as the great mysteries gave way to knowledge given by scientific discovery, we would have less of a need for God. The great prophecy of secularization in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that Western civilization was going to become fully secularized. This has not happened, at least not in North America.

In Western Europe, however, total secularization is almost complete. Current estimates are that only between three and four percent of most persons in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and many other countries actually attend church on a regular basis. Despite the presence of the great cathedrals, the European mind has been almost fully secularized. This is a geographical distinction, however, because 80 to 90 percent of North Americans say they believe in God, and at least 70 percent of Americans darken the door of some church each year. In addition, 55 percent of Americans say they go to church at least three out of four weeks.

Sociologists show that secularization is not only geographically distinct, but that class also is a distinguishing factor. It turns out that in American higher education, the secularization thesis has worked its way out in similar fashion to Europe. That is to say, the most secularized cohort of the American population primarily contains those who have tenure in American universities. The cultural creatives, especially those involved in the arts and the media, tend to be far more secular than even the others are.

The ruling elites, to use a sociological category, tend to be pervasively secularized. Peter Berger discussed a longitudinal study that sought to determine which cultures were the most religious and the least religious. The study revealed that the least religious people in the world are Swedes, whereas the most religious people in the world are in India.

Peter Berger then described the United States as a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes (Peter Berger, Grace Davie, Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations [Ashgate, 2008], 12). The thing that must be understood, however, is that the secular mind is not necessarily an unreligious mind. It may be irreligious, but it is not unreligious. The secular mind ordinarily has some object of ultimate fidelity and concern.

Five Precepts of the Modern Mind

In order to understand better the modern mind, consider these five precepts. First, the modern mind is characterized by postmodern anti-realism. There are people in American society who are not sure that what we are talking about is even real. They argue that the terms of morality — statements about what is right and wrong — are merely a language game.

The second precept is moral relativism. Although most of the people we know do not actually hold to anti-realism, it has filtered down into the culture as moral relativism. Most unregenerate Americans today are selective moral relativists. A recent study suggested that the moral issue on which there has been the greatest change in America over the last forty years is premarital sex (When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America, The State of Our Unions 2010, The National Marriage Project, University of Virginia [December 2010]. The full report is available here).

In 1970, 80 percent of Americans believed that premarital sex was wrong. In 2010, however, only 20 percent believe it is wrong. What accounts for this radical shift in moral belief? One reason for the shift is the abandonment of a worldview that believes in the existence of right and wrong.

Third, there is therapeutic universalism. In our day, the natural mind has adopted a worldview that espouses the motto, “You are either in therapy, or you are in denial.” The idea is that our basic problems will be solved by therapy.

The fourth precept is radical pluralism. In one sense, pluralism is just a fact — there are people with a plurality of worldviews around us. Pluralism is also an ideology, however, suggesting that there is no one worldview that can be correct.

The fifth precept is managerial pragmatism. We live in the midst of people who genuinely believe that most problems can be managed. The goal here is not to solve problems so much as to manage them through procedural democracy.

Three Operating Conditions of Belief

The unregenerate mind is the unregenerate mind. The natural mind is the natural mind. Although it does not change from Genesis 3 until Jesus comes, it does put on different clothing. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor provides us with something very helpful in his massive book A Secular Age, as he argues that there have been three operating conditions of belief in Western civilization (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age [Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007]).

Explaining the first condition, Taylor writes about an age when disbelief in God was impossible. The word atheist did not exist in the English language until the time of Queen Elizabeth. There was not even a word for it, because atheism was not an available category. The only way you could explain how the world worked was in reference to God. One might have argued about which god was God or whose God was right, but one did not argue about whether there was a God or not.

Then, he discusses the modern era, the Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, and all that these movements entailed. Taylor argues that there arose a second condition of belief, involving the possibility of disbelief. It is a significant shift to move from an impossibility of disbelief to a possibility of disbelief.

Finally, although there is no precise dividing line, many persons in the present day have moved into the third condition — the impossibility of belief. As we go about our everyday tasks as Christians, engaging in the world in which the Lord has put us, we will run up against many people for whom belief in God seems to be impossible. That is one mark of the current dress of the natural mind. Most people, however, especially those who are not primarily involved in higher education, remain in the former two categories.

Twelve Features of the Natural Mind

Consider these twelve precepts as a way of understanding the current clothing of the natural mind. They are encapsulated as spoken words or mottos, a shorthand manner of describing each of them.

The first feature is, “I am who I think I am.” The natural mind declares, “I define who I am, I know who I am, and I have the power to look in the mirror and within myself in order to discover who I am. If I change my thinking about who I am, I will change who I am.”

Second, “I may do some bad things, but I am not a bad person.” The contemporary dress of the natural mind is not undiluted moral relativism, but the kind that maintains that the individual is relatively more moral than the people around him are. For example, an article by a business professor who caught students cheating relayed that every single one of the students maintained that they knew it was a bad thing, but each one said, “This is not me.” He responded aptly, “Yes, it is, evidently; you are the one who did it.”

Third, “Something is wrong, but it is not my fault.” It is almost universally known by individuals that there is something wrong with their life. There is awareness that they have a need, yet they think that it is not their fault. They are not liable for whatever it is that has gone wrong.

Fourth, “Something happened to me.” This is logically prior to the previous feature. The natural mind, in its modern dress, is looking for the new book or the new seminar to explain what happened. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual of diagnosis for the psychiatric and psychological professions that is even now being put together, is one of the most controversial things in the psychological world. What should, or should not, be considered a “mental disorder”? By the time it is finished, everyone is going to be in there.

Fifth, “Morality is a good idea, but it is relatively relative.” As the cultural conversation continues, one can see absolute certainty that some things are wrong yet has a hesitancy to declare that other things are wrong. The list changes frequently and swiftly. For instance, in almost any setting, prostitution has been considered wrong — at least until very recently. Now, the province of Ontario has legalized prostitution (Michael Foust, “Canadian Court OKs Legalized Prostitution,” Baptist Press, October 6, 2010). They claimed that they did so because they wanted to make it safer.

Sixth, “What goes around comes around.” This is American karma. It is not the hard-line Confucian kind of karma, but a vague notion that people get what they deserve.

Seventh, “There is not only one way of anything. Period.”

Eighth, “God is available as an explanation when needed.” When you do not have an answer, then perhaps God will suffice.

Ninth, “God is available as a helper in case of emergency.”

Tenth, “Science or technology will solve most big problems.” This is the genuine belief that modern medicine, psychiatry, and more will be able to solve most problems.

Eleventh, “I may need help, but I can negotiate the terms.”

Twelfth, “Most people are well intended, but some people are just mean.”

The Frontline Intellectual Crisis of Our Day

Sociologist Christian Smith and his associates did a massive survey in which they interviewed well over 3,000 people about their beliefs. The study revealed that the basic faith of Americans is what they call “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford University Press, 2005]; also, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults [Oxford University Press, 2009]). Most people believe that God wants them to have a loosely defined goodness, to feel good about themselves, and to be healthy and whole.

We seek to understand the unregenerate mind because we love the unregenerate.

This is, in effect, deism. They believe there is a god, but he is not a god who is intimately involved in their lives. Although he is not a god who rules over the universe, he nonetheless remains an important cultural referent. This study is the most accurate indictment of the unregenerate American mind’s cultural dress at the present. The people Smith was surveying, however, were not mass Americans and secular culture. They were adolescents and young adults in our churches. Therefore, this is the frontline of the intellectual crisis of our day.

We must think about thinking, because if we are not intellectual disciples of Jesus Christ, we will find the natural mind staring us in the face. Because of our own intuitions and reflexes, when those who believe the gospel are put under intellectual pressure, it is very easy to be inconsistent. Therefore, if as Christians we are going to think in a way that honors God, we must first avail ourselves constantly of the Word of God. Secondly, we must avail ourselves constantly of the life of the local church. Third, we must depend constantly upon the corrective presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to conform us to the image of Christ.

At the end of the day, we are not smarter than the rest. We are not morally superior to those who do not know Christ. We did not come to know salvation in Christ because we are wise. Salvation is all of grace. Our intellectual discipleship must be demonstrated in the renewing of our minds — by the word and through the Spirit and in the church.

Keep thinking — until Jesus comes.

Dear Heavenly Father,

We thank you for giving us the gift of minds. We know that you gave us this gift in order that we might know you and find our greatest joy in thinking about you. Forgive us our many intellectual sins. For allowing our minds to think thoughts unworthy of you, for thinking thoughts of rebellion rather than obedience, evil rather than good, doubt rather than faith. Forgive us our forgetfulness, our wandering minds, our short attention spans, and our wayward imaginations.

Thank you for redeeming our minds in Christ, and for imparting your Spirit within us for the renewal of our minds. Redeem our patterns of thinking that we will think rightly, obediently, and humbly. Give us imaginations guided by the Scriptures, awe as we worship you with our minds, and conviction in order to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others.

Create in us a pure mind, oh Lord, and train our intellects in the school of your Word.


serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.