As we continue our look at the five capitals we have to invest in the work of God’s kingdom and the oikos or family of God, let’s again review what we’ve talked about so far. We have said that spiritual capital is the most important of the five—that the ultimate way to live the good life is to hear and do the Word of God. Closely related to that is relational capital, our capacity to love others as we have been loved by God. Those first two capitals reflect the greatest commandment that Jesus calls us to obey—to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Last week we looked at physical capital, how we care for our bodies as an investment in building spiritual and relational capital. We talked about establishing a rhythm of abiding and fruitfulness so that we can give our best time and energy to the work of God’s kingdom and the building up of the oikos.
But closely related to our physical capital is the next one—intellectual capital. This capital refers to our capacity to think, to reason, and to use our minds as something to invest as part of God’s family on mission. The currency of intellectual capital is concepts and ideas—the ability to use our minds to learn God’s best for us and for his world. It is intellectual capital that enables us to bring ideas and creative solutions to the table that help us invest the other capitals wisely.
As we’ve been looking at each of these capitals, we have been using Jesus as an example of how they are best used, and intellectual capital is no exception. When we read the gospels, we see that Jesus was rich in intellectual capital, which he used to great effect in his mission. It’s interesting that when people addressed Jesus they often did it as “rabbi” which means “teacher” or “master.” It wasn’t as if Jesus had gone to seminary in order to get that title, he earned it organically because the people around him sensed that he really knew what he was talking about. He knew the Scriptures, and he knew human nature.
Now, we could argue that he had an advantage because he was the Son of God, but we also know that Jesus whole life was spent immersed in learning. It’s no coincidence that the only scene the gospels give us from Jesus’ childhood is him learning and responding to the teachers in the temple. Luke tells us that they were “amazed at his understanding and his answers.” They were impressed with his intellectual capital, even at a young age.
Throughout the rest of the gospel story we see Jesus using his intellectual capital to build up the oikos of his disciples by teaching them and confounding his opponents by challenging their logic. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is a powerful example of his understanding of the Scriptures and their application—so much so that Matthew says that at the end of the sermon, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority, not as their teachers of the law” (7:28-29). His authority didn’t come from a title, but from a deep reservoir of spiritual, relational, physical and intellectual capital. And you have to love the stories in which Jesus nails his opponents with a confounding answer. “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” they ask him, trying to trap him. “Give me a coin,” he says. A Pharisee whips out a coin with Caesar’s image on it, which busts him already because it’s a graven image! “Whose image is that? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” In other words, get your investments straight! It’s a brilliant answer and one that confounds them.
Jesus was rich in intellectual capital, and he calls us to invest in it as well. When our minds are right, focused on the right things, and when we use them well, it can really drive how we build up the other capitals.
That’s Paul’s point in the passage we read from Romans 12. Paul, like Jesus, was rich in intellectual capital and his letters demonstrate a sharp mind as well as a passionate investment in spiritual and relational capital. Romans is his magnum opus, a brilliant expression of Christian faith using argument, logic, biblical study, and intellectual rigor. In this particular section, Paul describes what believers must do in response to the gospel, and here we see him laying out a case for the investment of intellectual capital for God’s purposes. Let’s break this down and see how his logic flows:
He begins with “Therefore”—which indicates that he is connecting what he’s about to say with what comes before. In the previous eleven chapters, Paul has laid out a case for the gospel that unites a community of Jews and Gentiles into one oikos, one church. Now he will tell them how to begin living and investing their capital for the sake of Christ and that church. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it, any time you see Paul use “therefore” you need to ask what it’s “there for.” In this case, Paul is about to get down to brass tacks on applying the truth of the gospel—the “mercies of God” revealed in Jesus Christ.
Notice that Paul begins by calling for an investment of physical capital. “I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (v. 1). Paul understands the “body” to mean the whole person, and he calls for an investment of our whole selves as a “living sacrifice.” Both the Jews and Gentiles in his audience would have understood “sacrifice” as something one does in a temple, but in this case, rather than the sacrifice being killed, the self-offering of a disciple of Jesus is to actually come alive with a new and transformed life. We give our whole selves to the God who has given his whole self to us in Jesus Christ. We put everything under his lordship, investing all of our capital in response to the gospel.
Paul goes on to say that this is “your appropriate priestly service.” Some translations have this as “your spiritual act of worship,” but instead of the normal word for “spiritual” (pneumatikon), Paul uses the word “logikos” (“logic”). This sacrifice is not merely a spiritual concept, but a way of thinking and being. He couples that with the word for “service,” which implies the kind of service priests perform in the temple. To put it another way, Paul is saying that we should always think of ourselves as offering our whole selves to God as a priestly, sacrificial act of service and worship—a full investment of spiritual capital
. Paul is thus challenging his readers to begin to think differently about themselves and their relationship to God in response to what God has done for them.
The next verse reinforces that idea. “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world,” says Paul, ‘but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good, and pleasing, and mature” (v. 2). If you go back to chapter one of Romans, Paul begins his argument by saying that human idolatry and sin was the result of a lot of wrong thinking—“Although they knew God, they didn’t honor God as God or thank him. Instead their reasoning became pointless, and their foolish hearts were darkened. While they were claiming to be wise, they made fools of themselves…they traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (1:21-25). In other words, humans have used their intellectual capital to rebel against God rather than worship him.
Paul thus urges his readers to have a change of mind—a fresh infusion of intellectual capital. Don’t be conformed to the way this world normally thinks, he says. That’s a key realization, but it requires us to use our intellectual capital to discern the thought patterns of this world and how they run counter to the ways of God. To be a Christian means that you need to have the capacity to be discriminating, to evaluate ideas and concepts in comparison to the truth of the gospel. To be a Christian, you’ve got to be able to think!
Problem is that we live in a world bombarded with information and, as a result, we do a lot less thinking and a lot more reacting. We don’t take the time to evaluate where ideas come from, what their agenda might be. We accept certain things as truths only because everyone else seems to—from politics, to sex, to wealth, to standards of behavior. Paul wants us to be discerning, thoughtful, to use our brains to sort out what is actually being said and determine whether it is worthy of our sacrificial worship. We need to constantly evaluate and challenge ideas and concepts and refuse to exchange the truth of God for the lies we are bombarded with every day.
How do we do that? Paul says it begins with the “renewing of our minds.” We’ve got to invest intellectual capital in learning the ways of God—what is good, and pleasing and mature. As Paul says to the Philippians, “If anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise” (4:8).
Focusing our thoughts on these things requires an investment of intellectual capital in study and learning from the Scriptures and from wise teachers. Jesus invested in both and we should do no less. Consider: how much time do you spend in the Bible each day compared to how much you read on Facebook or Twitter or your news feed? It’s little wonder that our minds are so conformed to this world when we give less time to the Word of God than we do to the culture’s thought police on our screens. We have to invest our intellectual capital better, to see it is part of our total investment in God’s kingdom.
Investment in intellectual capital is part of our Methodist heritage. John Wesley was a voracious learner and encouraged the early Methodists to spend a good deal of their time focusing on growing their capital through reading and study. Methodist preachers were expected to spend five hours a day reading (often while riding a horse). Said Wesley, “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” At the same time, however, he also realized that the purpose of reading, of building intellectual capital, was to use the knowledge for building God’s kingdom. “Beware you not be swallowed up in books,” he always wrote. “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”
But even if you’re not a reader, building intellectual capital is an important discipline. Technology now enables us to engage in learning through audio, through podcasts, and documentaries. We can learn while we’re driving or running or doing things around the house. I’m amazed at my wife, for example, because she is always watching or listening to an educational program while I’m poring through a book.
The point is that we build intellectual capital so that we can invest that knowledge for God’s kingdom and to build up the oikos. When we live a life transformed by the renewing of our minds, we begin to see the world differently and we are able to help others do the same.
I think this investment of intellectual capital is especially important in a world where ideas are in such conflict. It’s world where people tend more to react than to engage in serious thought and conversation. Christians get caught up in this, whether they are liberal or conservative. I have been caught up in it myself. But the way forward isn’t through reaction and “winning” an argument. That approach tends to shut down intellectual capital and relational capital. We need instead a fresh approach to Christian thinking that allows for engagement with the ideas of this world in a way that gleans truth rather than the pyrrhic victory of a Facebook rant.
I was reading a book this week (surprise, surprise) titled How to Think by Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs. He says that the reason that most people don’t spend much time thinking is that it’s trouble—it will force us out of familiar habits and complicate our relationships with the world. We would much rather “consume” ideas than really think about them. In his book, however, he offers some helpful ways in which we can learn to be better thinkers, particularly in this polarized world. Jacobs lists 12 ideas for better thinking, but I’m taking reviewer Samuel James’ suggestion and boiling them down to three:
1. Be slow. Good thinking doesn’t usually begin with immediately responding to an idea or provocation. Give it five minutes. Allow some time to let your brain engage before responding to that email or a Facebook post. Renew your mind to think along the lines of what kind of thoughtful response will reveal what is good and pleasing and mature. Then again, you don’t always have to respond and you don’t always have to have an opinion. Good thinkers focus on thinking about the right things, not about everything.
2. Be teachable. We can all learn from others, even from those with whom we disagree. Choose good conversation partners and have a good exchange of ideas. Avoid those who fire off ideas like missiles and, instead, seek out the best and fairest-minded of people with whom you disagree. Assume the best of people. You may believe that they are wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you get to categorize them as evil. You are often wrong, too. Building caricatures of others and their ideas is a poor use of intellectual capital. Listen and learn in order to understand.
3. Be honest. State what you think and do so with conviction, but always remember Pau’s admonition to “speak the truth in love.” Be non-anxious in your approach to engaging others and their ideas.
That’s helpful advice for thinking in an age when good thinking is in short supply.
Intellectual capital is something that we need to cultivate and share with others as a way of building up the oikos. We need to steward it wisely and use it in ways that are constructive.