Christianity and Intellectual Freedoms: Part I, Prolegomena

For a few years now, I have had this vague argument in the back of my mind regarding the relationship between Christianity and intellectual freedoms, like the freedoms of thought, belief, press, and information. This argument started to take hold in my mind before I formally studied apologetics and it has only been strengthened by that study, even if I have never taken the time to really work it out or write it down. As it currently exists in my mind, it boils down to two main theses: (1) Christianity provides the only rational basis for supporting these freedoms and (2) Christians ought to be radical supporters of these freedoms. The purpose of this post is to inaugurate a series that digs a little deeper into the relationships that exist between Christianity and this collection of intellectual freedoms. 

Before getting into the thickets, it’s necessary to provide a baseline idea about what exactly I am talking about. In my last post, I mentioned how an ideological use of language can mislead those who read or hear it without some sort of understanding or indoctrination into a particular paradigm. I try to avoid this in my own writing and thinking. I want someone who reads my writing to understand what I am trying to communicate. I do not want to talk circles of nonsense around the reader in some misguided attempt to sound smarter or better-informed than I really am. If I cite a work or a writer who uses a word or concept differently from my own usage or from the commonsense usage, I will say so. Having to make that clarification brings up an important issue regarding the clarity of communication. 

I have been writing for most of my life. I have notebooks full of writing that will never be read by anyone else. In many instances, I write in order to communicate with myself. This post is a partial example of this–I have had these ideas and notions in my head for some time, but I have not taken the time to write them down, to think about them. That is, I have not taken the time to communicate with myself what it is I really think or believe about these issues and ideas. Just as much as what I am typing right now is intended to communicate something to you, the reader, it is also an attempt to communicate with myself, to clarify my thoughts, to work out what I really think and believe. Like a hands-on learner who cannot grasp how a machine works until they take it apart and put it back together, I often need to take my thoughts apart on the page and put them back together in a way that makes sense. 

Making sense lies at the foundation of the freedoms of thought, belief, press, and information. We think about the world in order to make sense of the world. This making sense of things takes form in the beliefs we hold about how the world works. It is by our beliefs that we navigate our everyday reality. My behavior–any behavior–is often predicated on what I believe about the situation before me. I press down on the brake pedal of my car at certain times because I believe that if I do not, I will crash into the back of the car in front of me. I believe that crashing into the car in front of me will bring about a series of effects that I will find bad, inconvenient, or harmful. And like pressing the brake pedal on my car, I am not always consciously aware of what I am doing or the beliefs upon which what I’m doing is based. I do not calculate all of the consequences of a fender-bender before deciding to slow down or stop in traffic. I also do not need to explain to myself or anyone else my process of reasoning behind depressing the brake pedal. But this does not hold in other situations. 

Anyone who is married or has children has both heard and said the phrase, “Why did you do that?” Our behaviors, and the beliefs on which they’re based, can be unknown or incomprehensible to others. Nobody is a mind-reader. This creates situations that necessitate the desire and ability to communicate our thoughts and our beliefs. These situations are diverse, but some examples might include the need to defend one’s actions: “Sorry officer, I had to swerve outside the normal lanes of traffic because I believed that if I did not, I would have hit that other car.” They may be simply explanatory to someone who doesn’t understand, “I put the milk in before adding the pasta because I believe it makes the final mac-and-cheese creamier.” Or they may be directed at persuasion, “I am not voting for candidate X because I believe he poses a clear and present danger to American democratic values.” In all three cases (not an exhaustive list) the person on the receiving end of the communication might disagree, but the point is that communication happened. The police might still give me a ticket for violating traffic laws, you might think my mac-and-cheese recipe is disgusting, and well, who agrees on politics these days anyway? 

The point I’m driving at is that communication is possible, despite what some ideologically motivated philosophers might have said or written over the last century. It is possible for me to understand my own thoughts, to form beliefs based in part on those thoughts, and to communicate those thoughts and beliefs in a way that is understandable to others. The mere fact that this paragraph exists is testament to this–I thought it, typed it, and used a common system of language in such a way that you grasp and understand my thoughts. 

That was not a digression but a fundamental premise to the argument I hope to make, or think I’m making, in this series of posts. If communication doesn’t happen, if it is impossible, or if it is always irretrievably skewed by subjective perceptions or interpretations, then not only is there no basis for intellectual freedoms but there are no intellectual freedoms. To return to my point about using writing in order to communicate with myself, if I cannot order my thoughts and beliefs in such a way as to communicate them to someone else, then it bears asking the question whether I have or understand those thoughts and beliefs at all. Which raises another point that needs to be identified: communication–and therefore thought, belief, the press, and information–play a significant role in the way human beings relate to one another.

This begins with the fact that knowing my own thoughts or beliefs, so to speak, allows me to interact with the world around me which, of course, includes other people. Knowing how my thoughts and beliefs relate to the thoughts and beliefs of others makes up a large part of my cognitive map of the world. A simple example might be something like a four-way-stop intersection. I know or believe that other drivers are aware of the same rules as me. That is, I am fairly confident that they have received and understood the communication of a particular set of information related to operating a motor vehicle. Therefore, when I approach a four-way intersection, I am confident in my interpretation of others’ behavior and confident that others will correctly interpret my behavior. This mutual sense of understanding relies on the ability to communicate and to refer back to certain communications. When another driver does something I think is inappropriate at a four-way stop, I can refer back to that common communication in order to either affirm or correct my beliefs about four-way stops. 

Law in general provides what is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of how the communication of beliefs helps to relate people to one another. The law is communicated publicly and openly, and it expresses beliefs about certain behaviors or relationships that should be encouraged, prohibited, or punished. It is predicated on the fact that it can be accessed and understood by everyone under its jurisdiction. When we say, for example, that the United States is a nation of laws, one of the things that we’re saying is that thoughts and beliefs can be shared and mutually understood. We are also implying that these thoughts and beliefs are affirmed through a deliberative, mutual process that renders them, in some sense, objective rather than arbitrary. One of those objective laws–or perhaps more accurately, constitutional principles–is that individuals are free to think and believe whatever they wish, to gather together with other people who think and believe the same things, to publish or produce materials intended to communicate those thoughts and beliefs, and to employ those thoughts and beliefs within the public square. 

Thus, in a general way, when I write here about intellectual freedom or the freedoms of thought, belief, press, and information, that is what I am writing about. But before closing, I want to unpack these a little bit more for the sake of clarity.

When I say freedom of thought, what I have in mind is the ability of any individual or group of individuals to explore the world of ideas. This means an ability to seek out ideas or information that is considered taboo, dangerous, seditious, false, or whatever else. In the context of the church, for example, this means not preventing people from exploring ideas outside the realm of orthodoxy or even Christianity. In politics, this means essentially the same thing, just whatever one would consider “orthodox” politics for a given society or nation. 

When I say freedom of belief, I primarily mean the ability of any individual or group of individuals to use ideas or information in order to construct either a theoretical or practical map of reality and to act on that map by whatever means within the limits of general principles that prohibit initiating unnecessary violence or force against another human being. In other words, we should be free to act on our beliefs as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. I’ll have more to say about the non-aggression principle as I go on, but this will suffice for now. 

The freedom of the press is in some ways included within the freedom of belief insofar as publishing, producing, and distributing media or material that advocates one’s beliefs is a form of acting on those beliefs. In another sense, the freedom of the press is much more. For one, it implies not only acting on beliefs but advocating for those beliefs in an active and public way. In the context of Christianity, it means not only the production of Bibles, sermons, and evangelistic material but also, for example, journalism, analysis, and public advocacy from a distinctly Christian perspective. I’d like to think, with utmost humility, that what I am trying to accomplish on this blog is a form of exercising a free Christian press by approaching topics of public interest from a theologically-informed point of view. In sum, it means being free to publicly present one’s ideas or beliefs in a way that is accessible to anyone who is interested to hear. 

The freedom of information is a bit trickier because it has a range of meanings, depending on the context one is using it. In the realm of politics and public policy, it has the specific meaning of citizens being able to access information held by and about governments. In another sense, derivative of the hacker ethic of the 1980s and 1990s, the freedom of information is expressed by the phrase “information wants to be free.” That is that commercial interests should not prevent people from having access to information that affects their lives or prevents them from building upon existing knowledge to make themselves or the world better. When I talk about the freedom of information, I mean it in both senses. 

I’ll close out this post with a bit of digression, but an important digression. My first ideas about Christianity and intellectual freedom first came about after reading the book Hackers by Steven Levy. This was sometime around 2013-ish. What struck me in that book was the early hacking culture’s dedication to the idea that ideas and information do not really belong to anyone in the sense of ownership. You may have come up with the idea and you may even deserve some kind of compensation for the idea, but once an idea has been released into the world, it no longer belongs to you like your car or your cat belong to you. You no longer have any kind of ownership rights over the idea or the information in terms of determining how that idea or information gets used. This struck me as fundamentally an almost religious proposition. 

For many of the world’s major religions, their beginning came from someone claiming to have a unique idea about the nature of ultimate reality. Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad all claimed to have some unique insight about God or metaphysics. But of those four, only Jesus’ movement included a foundational commitment to non-exclusivity. Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7 to declare that God’s house is a “house of prayer for all nations” (Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). In the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome, Paul hinted at a natural law perspective–that everyone everywhere has access to knowledge of God (Rom 1:20) that can come about regardless of whether one was a Jew, who benefited from a direct revelation of God’s Law, or a Gentile, who intuitively discovered God’s law without a specific revelation (Rom 2:12-16). Tying the two ideas together, one might say that God’s temple is a house of prayer for all people because all people, in one way or another, have access to information that points to God’s existence and identity. Furthermore, in Psalm 139, David links God’s omnipresence to his omniscience (verses 1-7). This sets up a rhetorical question: Does God know everything because he is everywhere, or is God everywhere because he knows everything? That’s not intended to be some sort of riddle but to highlight the fact that God is known and knowable throughout creation and human life. Traditionally, I would say that he is knowable through three primary mechanisms: (1) the general revelation that is discernible through human reason and intuition (the natural law); (2) the explicit revelation of the law and prophets via the Old Testament; and (3) in the life and character of Jesus. In either of these, God is openly “putting himself out there.” He does not hide information from anyone. 

Christianity specifically is, or at least it should be, intellectually open. From the perspective of apologetics, Christianity has nothing to fear from attacks or alternative points of view. It should be ready and willing to accept any intellectual challenge because, when all the information is stacked up, no other worldview can account for it all. This is, in a very brief and undeveloped nutshell, how I see the relationship between intellectual freedom and Christianity. And this is the nutshell that I want to try to crack in the upcoming posts. 

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