Head Verses Heart
Anti-Intellectualism of Christianity
A Critique of Nancy Pearcey’s Critique
I’ve enjoyed reading Total Truth; Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey as I am very concerned that the church, with a proper, powerful representation of truth, in word and deed, should have a positive, moral influence on the culture in contrast to the culture leading the church into a moral wilderness or worse, a disastrous moral tsunami. However, with all the positive insight this student of Francis Schaeffer has to offer, her synopsis of the anti-intellectual development of evangelicalism (which is, overall, valuable and surely worth considering) has a questionable representation of one important issue. The error I see is, in fact, an offshoot of the anti-intellectualism of which she speaks. Specifically, it relates to her representation of “the heart,” and more broadly to the topic of moral agency. Understanding and helpful discussion of moral agency is sorely lacking in our age. To capture the Biblical use of the term “heart,” one must avoid reducing it to a mere emotive concept.
In a section entitled “FRONTIER FALLOUT,” she states, “What happened along the way to the evangelical mind? Why did the evangelical movement become largely anti-intellectual, with little sense of how to relate to the mainstream culture? Ironically, the answer lies in some of the same factors that made it so successful. Let’s outline some of the major factors, and then watch them unfold more dramatically in a series of short narratives through the rest of this chapter and into the next. First, the focus on an intense conversion experience was highly effective in bringing people to faith. But it also tended to redefine religion in terms of emotion (italics mine), while contributing to a neglect of theology and doctrine and the whole cognitive element of belief. This tendency did enormous damage by reinforcing a conception of Christianity as a non-cognitive upper-story experience.”
There has been a development that has cultivated a strong emphasis and reliance on emotional experience – this I do not deny. I also agree that there has been an anti-intellectual character in the Christian community that has prevailed. There are two problems that surface in the following presentation. First, it is not proper to reduce the concept of the “heart” to emotional experience. This will be explained more fully later. Second, It is unnecessary to create a dichotomy between the role of the emotions and the intellect. We should not see the mind and the emotions as opposing forces, if we understand them properly. Though it is possible to pervert anything, it is best to understand and govern oneself according to the proper operation of each function of moral agency.
In a section entitled Heart Versus Head, she states, “Contemporary Christians tend to have such a positive picture of the great Awakenings that it is difficult to grasp why they provoked such bitter contention at the time. In the First Great Awakening, some churches, like the Presbyterians, actually split between revivalist and confessional groups, while other groups broke away entirely to become independent (often Baptist). What drove the two sides was a disagreement over the role of emotion or experience in conversion (italics mine).”
Explaining that it had been common to see “the Christian life as a gradual growth in faith and holiness by what they called ‘Christian nurture,’ through participation in the rituals and teaching of the church,” she states that along with this view, “the ‘passions’ were distrusted as forces that interfere with reason.” She goes on to write that “critics often charged that the revivalists were subverting the social order by rousing the passions of the ignorant rabble.”
In stating the contrast she writes, “…supporters of the Awakening insisted that a merely intellectual assent to theological propositions was not enough. What was needed was ‘a Change of Heart’ or a ‘New Birth.’ This theme came from European pietism, which had rejected the Enlightenment focus on reason to embrace the emerging Romantic focus on feelings. ‘Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched,’ wrote Jonathan Edwards, the preeminent theorist of the First Great Awakening, in 1743. One of his protégés described the best preacher as one ‘whose heart is ravished with the glory of divine things.’ The emphasis on emotion was perhaps inevitable, given that most people in the colonial era were at least nominally Christian, which meant that the primary goal of the Awakenings was to counter spiritual coldness and indifference. With few outright atheists to address, the revivalists did not seek to convert people to Christianity so much as to what they called ‘experimental religion’ — the idea that religious truth should not merely be believed but also experienced.”
“What was emerging was a new theology of conversion: The older view that believers are nurtured within the corporate church as whole persons, including the mind (through study and catechesis), was giving way to a new view that individuals undergo a one-time emotional decision (italics mine) that takes place outside the church. The focus on individual choice and experience would eventually contribute to the idea that Christian belief is a non-cognitive, upper-story phenomenon.”
“In many ways, the second Awakening carried forward the themes of the first Awakening, so as we tell some of its stories, bear in mind the major characteristics listed in the previous chapter: the focus on an intense emotional conversion experience…”
With this sampling of statements, I have attempted to help the reader see that Pearcey expresses proper concern that replacing a purely intellectual concept of Christianity with a purely emotional concept has led to certain unhealthy imbalances. With this I agree. What she seems to wrongly represent is the idea that the revivalist reference to the heart always relates to an emotional reaction. Such an assumption actually furthers a misconception widely embraced in the minds of most. The heart, when understood properly, refers to one’s ultimate commitment, not one’s feelings. The extreme view that becoming a Christian was based upon accepting a certain batch of information is to be rejected. The extreme view that one can validate Christian conversion based upon a specific, heightened emotional experience is, as well, to be rejected. However, when presented with the claims of God’s supremacy, the Lordship of Christ, with the truth of His atoning provision, of the nature of sin (objectively and subjectively) and the need to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus, turning to God from idols, one must make an intelligent decision to forsake sin and purpose to please, love, serve, honor and worship God supremely, as the ultimate goal and end of life. This is a change of “heart.” This might or might not be accompanied by outpourings of emotion. It’s fine if there are emotional expressions, however, the emotional dimension of such an experience is not to be confused with one’s heart. Neither emotions nor acknowledgement of intellectual data is the measure of virtue. Neither are they the measure of one’s relational status with God. A resolve to stop living for supreme self-interest and begin living to honor the Supreme Being supremely (repentance toward God), trusting that the atoning work of Christ (faith in Christ) provides a way by which God can wisely and righteously pardon the guilty sinner upon repentance (a change of heart) is one’s first step back into the kingdom.
One final note as we approach the end of this article. Pearcey also incorrectly states, “The conversion experience alone was expected to take years of struggle before a person sensed the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, giving assurance of being forgiven and counted among the elect.” There is a process that leads to conversion and a process that leads from conversion. The length of time it took from the initial awakening through conviction to the point of conversion was never an issue. It could happen quickly, though most sinners put up a struggle, or it could be a long, drawn-out affair. Sadly, for some (many) they never arrive at genuine repentance and conversion.
 Pearcey, Nancy; Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity; Good News Publishers/Crossway Books (all quotes are from this book).