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Can We Think Our Way to God?

DSC01589Could one of our problems be that we are trying to think our way to God?

That thought comes, surprisingly, from a Calvin College professor of philosophy. In a Christianity Today Online interview of James Smith, a professional thinker observes,

Human beings are at their core defined by what they worship rather than primarily by what they think, know, or believe. That is bound up with the central Augustinian claim that we are what we love. Taking Augustine’s teaching that what you love is what you worship and what you worship is what you love, I tried to come up with a model of the human person that appreciates the centrality of love. That propelled me to see that we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in.

Much of interview is heavy content, and over my head. But what I came away with is something that sounds (in part) so similar to what I’ve been reading in other places lately, and most importantly, in the Bible.

Such thoughts remind me not only how important our hearts are, but how desperately we need to be immersed in all that Jesus (Christ) is, and does– in… for… and through fallen, broken, amazingly designed people like us… and our messed up part in allowing him to do what he does…

From what we know of ourselves, life, and the Scriptures, it might be interesting to reflect, together, on the professor’s take on thoughts, worship, love, and what we are immersed in…

PS I , for one, come away calling for “mercy”…  (Job 42:5-6)




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38 Responses to “Can We Think Our Way to God?”

  1. SFDBWV says:

    I too get Christianity Today and have (attempted) to read the interview by David Neff with James K.A. Smith. The article is titled “You Can’t Think Your Way To God.”

    As often is the case with CT these books and discussions are deeply intellectual in intent and soon after I attempt to read them I am soon lost in the use of unfamiliar terms or heady words that I just delete and move on.

    The professor leans heavily on *liturgy*; for any who might not be associated with the word the dictionary gives this explanation; “Public service to the gods. Prescribed forms or ritual for public worship in any of various religions or churches.”

    I found myself at odds off and on as I read through this interview. For many of us tossing around the word *love* is separate from the word *worship*.

    I can say I love my family, and I can also say I love Jesus, but this love doesn’t have to be in competition with each other for my affection.

    I can love my family or a particular person, but that doesn’t mean I *worship* them in the concept that I worship God.

    How I worship is the subject of discussion. Going to church, reciting text or ritualistic behavior is in my understanding a physical practice related to behavioral worship, but not necessarily in my understanding the worship that God and especially Jesus wants.

    Jesus ask us to remember Him in a ritualistic event most know as *communion*.

    This is a form of worship.
    However Jesus urges us to serve others in every capacity and show love toward all, this too in practice is a form of worship to God by way of Jesus.

    God established very complicated worship in the OT, but then criticized His people for not worshiping in the *spirit* of what all of His rituals represented as shown in part in Isaiah 58 “The acceptable fast”.

    The professor believes that what we *think* and what we do are too often different and so believes we can’t *think* our way to God, rather our behavior and actions especially in our worship practices are our attempt to come to God.

    Maybe the professor needs to revisit the concept of meditation.

    This is getting long and I am only scratching the surface of the interview, so I will sign off for now and see how this moves along.


  2. SFDBWV says:

    As I await my next chore this quote from Rene’ Descartes came to mind.

    “Cogito ergo sum”, I think therefore I am.


  3. fadingman says:

    Perhaps the answer is apparent with this question: Can I think my way to anyone?

    With my intellect, I can come to know some things about God, such as His power and glory. But I cannot think my way to God any more than I can think my way to the president of the United States. God has to reveal Himself to me for me to come to Him. He has to take the initiative. (Matthew 11:27, John 6:44)

  4. tracey5tgbtg says:

    I agree we can’t think our way to God although I sure make myself crazy by trying to sometimes.

    Liturgery seems to me to be a way to hold God at a distance, although I know it is so important to keep aware of how infinitely above us God is. Still, I think we are to love God, the same we love our family except even more, with everything we think, say and do.

    Amen to Job 42:5-6

    Steve – thinking of you as we are in West Virginia right now. We are staying in Clarksburg, but our business here is in Salem. My husband’s parents grew up in Salem. Two months ago my in-laws were in a car accident. My mother-in-law was killed and my father-in-law is just now well enough to travel (they live in FL). But today is the burial of my mother-in-law’s body in the cemetery in Salem where all their family is buried.

    Very beautiful country here.

  5. remarutho says:

    Good Morning Mart—

    My first question this morning is, “Wow, is that really you, Mart?” Professor Smith clearly asserts that we humans cannot think our way to God. Research has shown that the consciousness of the human body – especially the gut – constitutes more of our day-to-day self than the brain. Our desires, our drives, our needs, even our immunity to infection is centered in our gut. Was particularly interested in Smith’s notion:

    “I am trying to wake folks up to realize that if these cultural institutions and practices are formative, then the spaces that we inhabit do something to us. The stadium and the mall are examples of that.” (Prof. Smith in christianitytoday.com)

    As I see it, Smith points out the shopping mall and the sport stadium to be spaces that shape our deeper selves – places of “worshiping what we love and loving what we worship.” Christians seem to move out into these spaces more frequently than the hour spent in the church worship space. My next question is, “Does where we spend so much time change, or even overwhelm our stated worship of the Lord – our love of the Lord?”

    You wrote:
    “…how desperately we need to be immersed all that Jesus (Christ) is, and does– in… for… and through fallen, broken, amazingly designed people like us… and our messed up part in allowing him to do what he does…”

    Are you saying that what Jesus does – giving himself as a ransom for the world – is allowed by believers? In what way is our part in allowing Jesus Christ to work in us messed up? I am honestly asking.


  6. poohpity says:

    Wow, great topic! Brings to mind, which is where I think, Romans 12:2 which to me says that we are changed in the way we think which effects what we do. I believe we are a whole person our thinking effects our behaviors which effects our emotions also works in the reverse. One alone can not function without the others. Faith however is not a thinking matter it comes first as a gift from God which then effects how we think, behave and feel. It is the hub of our wheel.

    In this months ODB in the back is a quote from a theologian, J.I. Packet, who wrote, “What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we have in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? To know God. What is the best thing in life? To know God. What in man gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of Himself.” Knowing is a thinking matter but does that make our way to God I have a hunch that it is still faith that leads us to God initially then we put our brain to work thinking so we can know God.

  7. poohpity says:

    One of Mr Smith observations was so important to what is happening in our culture today in regards to our faith walk and just made me chuckle we have talked about here many times. “Whereas if you recover the sense that God’s initiative is at work, then the rituals and the disciplines are invitations to live into God’s power, not ways for us to spiritually show off.” When we realize that everything we have that shows up in our lives about God, is from Him, due to Him then some boast which goes against everything they say they believe. Very good article.

  8. bubbles says:


    I am very sorry for your tragic loss. My grandmother was killed in a car accident, and I know how difficult the sudden and unexpected loss can be. I will pray that the Lord will comfort all of you today, especially your father in law.

    I am sure you know two of West Virginia’s slogans are “Almost Heaven” and “Wild,Wonderful West Virginia.” It is God’s country for sure.

  9. SFDBWV says:

    Tracey, I am very sorry for your reason for being there in Salem. I am certainly familiar with the area and have a brother in Fairmont and nieces in Clarksburg. I am only a little less than 2 hours away dead east and straight uphill. Not far from Blackwater State Park and Canaan Valley in West Virginia and Deepcreek Lake Maryland.

    We had 32 degrees this morning and they are calling for high 20’s tonight.

    I again am sorry for the reason of your visit, but hope you can enjoy at least the beautiful scenery our state has to offer.


  10. dodi says:

    I don’t beleive we can think our way to God, nor can we by freewill find God, freewill can never change a man’s nature.
    (John 1:12) reminds us it is not by those which are born by blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.

    There are many Eccleasticial ladders today of man’s own inventions in attempts to reach God, unless his Holy Spirit draws us unto salvation, we will never find God. Nickodemis thought himself to be righteous, but in realilty knew nothing. His thinking was distorted.

    The way to God is through Christ and he alone, I’m scared to trust in my own thoughts, efforts and human reasoning, Felix reasoned with righteousness and was left destitute.

    my bestfriend-soulmate
    husband (Tom) went
    home to be with the Lord, Nov.2011
    I’m so learning that
    life, circumstances, trials and sorrows
    challenges our thinking.

    I would like to share one of many
    of his beautiful poems he wrote before attending Seminary and Mortuary college.
    Tom wrote this poem while working on a river
    bargeline in 1982.

    One day as I was resting
    These thoughts came to me
    How could I love the world so much
    And not remember Calvary
    As I lay and wondered
    Another thought crossed my mind
    That my life could end at once,
    And all my worldly treasures, would
    be left behind
    Then I cried Dear Lord, you gave
    this life to me –
    But my mind was on worldly things,
    Not on eternity
    Then a voice from heaven,
    Seem to speak to me,
    I loaned them to you for a while,
    Now do you remember Calvary,
    Then I remembered once again,
    that all I had forever more
    was the thought that Jesus died
    and all my sins he bore
    Yes on that cross, my
    Savior went
    And there forgave my sins.
    He died for me, if not alone,
    Then for all the sins of men

    I still sometimes think about
    All the things I thought I owned,
    But my mind soon thinks on Jesus,
    and I remember it was just a loan.

    I only wish to convey this thought,
    that God has given to me
    The thoughts of All the LOVE he showed,
    when he went to Calvary.

    ~ L/dodi

  11. oneg2dblu says:

    My only advantage when I run into a the big thinkers
    thoughts which seem to be beyond my limited comprehension is this one thing … to know that i know that i know my thoughts of God bring me immediately into His Presence through His Holy Spirit which is the very God of all life revealed in my life. Always the equalizer to all others when I am in Him.
    We are what we think, because thinking we are victorious or victimized, can make us either.
    We are what we do, whether doing right or doing wrong, no matter what we may allow ourselves to think, right is always right and wrong is always wrong.
    But, we certainly are being the very Fruit of the Spirit within us, when we are in His Presence acting rightly as He directs. Gary

  12. Mart De Haan says:

    Maru, in suggesting that “our part in allowing Jesus to work in us is messed up” I was just trying to acknowledge that our understanding is so limited; our love is so flawed; and our worship is so mixed with idols coming and going– that it is no wonder that Paul says that God alone knows what is really going on in us (1Cor 4:5-6).

  13. remarutho says:

    Thanks Mart!

    I acknowledge also that we swim in waters containing things that are dark and light — hidden and seen. Paul says he does not even judge himself, even though the ransom has been paid (1 Corinthians 4:3, 4) by Christ.

    We are “messed up” in the sense of being born fallen in a fallen world. We do not so much rise above our fallen state as we rather work with the Lord as he invades our lives (Philippians 2:12, 13) The time to judge one another is never.

    Thanks for taking time to answer back. Perhaps the Lord magnifies our poor attempts to work with his Presence in and among us…


  14. Mart De Haan says:

    And when we read what the Scriptures say about the role of God’s Spirit in bringing us to himself, and i.e. what Paul writes about the need for God to give false teachers “repentance” (2Tim 2:24-26); and followers of Christ the ability to begin to understand how much he loves us (Eph 3:14-21), it’s apparent that there is more to our relationship with God than thinking our way to him.

    Having said that, I understand Steve’s mixed feelings about the Professor’s comments about the liturgical dimension. My sense is that he is using the term in a metaphorical sense to describe our need for being in “a place/space” where God’s Spirit interacts with our spirit in a way that uses the mind while also going beyond it to open up a far deeper dimension of our “heart”.

    That’s part of what I meant when I said, it all causes me to call out for mercy (and grace)…

  15. Mart De Haan says:

    Maru, in your response to my comment you capture better than I could express what I was reaching for.

  16. BruceC says:

    I am so very far from being an intellectual; and I am actually happy that I am, as I see many of them as chasing their own tails so-to-speak. The Gospel was given as an eye opener to all of humanity. The Truth of God. And yet look at who “saw” its truth? The simple, not the wise(wise in their own eyes). I am sure that Mr Smith is very well educated and very intelligent and that in its own right does have merit and use in some areas. But try to convey that thought to a Spirit filled believer in a third world country who is on fire for the Lord and full of His love and joy and likely he will say “What?” Same goes for a born again man redeemed from drug addiction on the streets of a large city. Maybe caution is needed when we get “deep” in some thoughts so as not to go over our heads.
    If we remember not to love the world and not to allow things in life to cloud out God we do well.
    I remember one pastor whose favorite little motto was “Keep it simple, keep the faith”.

    Soli Deo Gloria!

  17. Mart De Haan says:

    dodi, thank you for sharing words from Tom’s heart. They reflect so well an awareness of our need for God to open our minds and hearts to himself.

  18. Mart De Haan says:

    BruceC, yes, I agree. We need a simplicity that can be grasped without intellectual and academic training. But I also recall what I’ve heard Haddon Robinson say over the years– that there is a simplicity beyond complexity… that also has its place in reflecting our reality– and stretching us beyond our present inclinations. There too we need God’s help to bring us to a place/space where we can rest…

  19. SFDBWV says:

    All conscious awareness is *thinking*, all of our actions come from two points, voluntary and involuntary.

    Try to pray without thinking.

    Paul urges us to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

    Prayer connects us to God.

    Prayer is a voluntary action.

    If we know not what to pray God who is connected to us by way of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His omnipresence in all creation will intercede for us even in prayer. (Romans 8:26)

    This is involuntary prayer and a connection to God.

    Try to worship in any of the areas of liturgy, without *thinking* first.

    Prayer and meditation is a combination of thinking and worship, yet one still can not meditate without the process of thinking in place.


  20. Mart De Haan says:

    Steve, you make good points. My guess is that the prof would quickly agree and suggest that he was not rejecting thought– but rather acknowledging that beginning to know and grow in God is not simply a matter of logic.

  21. SFDBWV says:

    That is funny Mart, if the professor is trying to simply say that God can’t be found through philosophic logic then he wasted a great deal of his and our time with too many words, with his *thinking* lost in the process.


  22. remarutho says:

    Dear BTA Friends —

    It seems to me the young mother, standing in the rubble of Moore OK, sharing her spiritual conviction that there is no God is still in the mix here. Not knowing what education she is working with, I would venture to suppose that she has thought her way to the conclusion that God does not exist — prayer is futile — and community is formed by human agency alone. (That is a lot to presume. :o)

    Prayer, added to the interviewer’s gentle remark, is in some way — not understood by the faculty of intellect — now in the capable hands of the Lord. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…we all pray for this in the lives of those in the “family” known as humanity.

    We could try to discuss how we “know” these things — atheism being a sad thing, prayer being real, the Scripture containing truth — but the only answer that covers the field is faith.


  23. remarutho says:

    Mart & Friends — re: your 4:51 a.m. post —

    The 2 Timothy passage is particularly poignant as I think about it — since Paul is conveying (late in his journey) his best wisdom to his spiritual son.

    Taking up those heart-felt words Paul writes to the young pastor from verse 22, he urges him to leave youthful passion behind and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace — in the community of the faithful (those who call upon the Lord with a pure heart). The church happens when Christians think, pray and worship together?

    It seems to me the centerpiece of what Paul urgently teaches Timothy is: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Tim 2:23) Paul has lived out the call to “not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil.” (2 Tim 2:24) Think back to the numerous times his colleagues from the temple in Jerusalem tried to convict him of crime, beat him up and pledged to murder him!

    As Tavis Smiley says, “Keep the faith.”

  24. SFDBWV says:

    Actually Maru that is a very good point. The young lady of subject may have *logically* come to her conclusions that there is no God, by the process of examining all she knows and understands coldly and without emotion.

    Whereas many others look at disasters such as the tornado or any evil that we have to endure and wonder why would a loving God allow for His children to suffer, questioning in their hearts the very question whether there is a God and if there is doesn’t He care.

    Oddly in either case God is the subject and the thinking still places them at God’s door.

    Personally I don’t *think* any one of us can escape the presence of God.


  25. remarutho says:

    Yes, Steve!

    The prophet Jeremiah’s observations of the potter at work comes to mind immediately. (Jer 18) How can we breathe the air the Creator brought into being — and not acknowledge Him? How can we stand upon the soil he conceived and not humbly bow before Him?

    I agree, the answer is in the question.


  26. oneg2dblu says:

    Steve… you are right we can not pray without thinking, but rote prayers do become as lukewarm and do not necessarilly need our heart connected to our well learned words.
    You know what I mean like saying three Hail Mary’s thinking we can get ourselves right in the eyes of the God by using man’s well crafted words instead of God’s if we are blindly following a religion instead of our God-given Spiritfilled Heart.

    Maru… Paul shared many things with his young protege. We all get the beneifit of Paul’s thinking because he uses the knowledge of God’s words through urging Timothy to continue to use scripture as God’s words knowing they will always bring His truth, 2 Timothy 4: 2,3,4.
    In these times we all know truth, 2 Timothy 3: 1,2,3,4,5.

    In short keep the faith given by God through enduring in hard times and do not be tempted to follow another man’s thinking.
    To All Vets out there, God Bless You and Thanks for your service! Gary

  27. BruceC says:

    I have met people that have thought their way away from God. By justifying their position through a mental process that is void of gratitude and ignores what God has done for them. And in doing so has formed their opinions out of a form of selfishness. Others have done it to take God off the pedestal and replace Him with themselves.

    Soli Deo Gloria!

  28. poohpity says:

    Can we think our way to God? If that means learning to know Him better and better as time goes on then maybe but not initially. To think about worship and whether what I am doing is actually worshiping and loving God then I would assert that more people need to really think about that.

    Reading Smith’s article I can see the heart and Spirit of God in his reasoning. Is it by traditions, rituals and fads that shows an outward appearance of a heart that truly does not know God? Yes in most cases that seems to be true. Is it anything we can do that changes us and grows us spiritually? Yes, it is seeking God, desiring God, wanting more knowledge of God then we realize that it is in fact God who does the work within us which He never seems to give up and is faithful until it’s completion.

    However when we think just for a moment it has anything to do with keeping laws, rituals and traditions then we have fallen away from grace, it then is about us and not God.

    To see the beauty in God’s creation yet find in our current circumstances reason for self-pity, anger, resentment and question God’s love and care of us then again we really need to think are we really worshiping and loving God. To immerse ones self in God, to me, means worshiping. What and where are my thoughts each day? Is God first on the list or exactly what are the other things that are before him? Just as Bruce said we can think our way away from God.

  29. foreverblessed says:

    Thinking our way to God, that is indeed impossible, I agree with Dodi, that it is through the Spirit who draws us to God,
    (thank you Dodi for the beautiful poem from your late husband, how young he died! God bless you)
    Two things come to my mind:
    1-John 4:23
    worship in spirit, isn’t that more than the mind? God’s Spirit reveals to our spirit and the mind comes in somewhere, I am not that good in this, the mind always wants to understand, but many things about God are not grasped by the mind, faith has to come in there too. But a deep knowing, not knowing of the mind, but something deeper.
    2- the verse in John 7:38
    He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (KJV)
    The inner man, the greek word koilia means “belly, abdomen, heart, a general term covering any organ in the abdomen, e.g. stomach, womb; met: the inner man.”

    The inner man, that is not our mind, or at least it is much more then our mind.
    Doesn’t God wants us to to love Him with our heart?
    Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. Matt 22:37
    What is that, the heart? It is more than our thinking, neither do we love each other by thinking. And so it must be with God.
    But also with the mind, the commandment says. So yes, not without the mind.
    Beyond the mind- our heart, is it full of love for God?

    When wanting to post this what I wrote, I saw yours, Pooh, thanks very well worded, better than what I was trying to say, it is such a big topic. We can be religious, traditions, but where is our heart?

  30. saled says:

    This thought rings true to me, that we are primarily defined by what we worship rather than by what we think, know, or believe. Also what we love is what we worship. This is a new thought to me, that our loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in. I wish someone would paraphrase the professor’s writing that Mart quoted. I know there is a lot there, but I am having trouble understanding it.

    Two thoughts: when my children were young, I heard a speaker say that what you love, you really know. And I realized that I knew my garden better than my children. Even a garden can be an idol.

    Something about this topic makes me think of the book of James and its discussion of faith and works. Is faith more than thought? How is thought different from belief? Are works the material expression of thought?

    Big, big topic. Really has me thinking.

  31. bubbles says:

    Sometimes I must say what is in my mind to make it get into my heart. Because head knowledge and heart knowledge are sometimes different things.

  32. kingdomkid7 says:

    I could also use a translation of the Professor’s ideas. Funny thing is that I had earlier read it on the CT website. I struggled with its meaning then. Glad to hear that it’s not just me! On the substance of Mart’s topic question, “Can we Think Our Way to God?”, I would say no, but a slightly qualified no — because I see “chicken and egg” issues. I believe we are integrated beings. Do we believe from the heart without involving the mind at all? I would give the edge to the heart, based on much of what everyone has already said and quoted from the Bible. But the mind is not idle in the process.

  33. remarutho says:

    Dear BTA Friends —

    When he talks about “secular liturgies,” it seems to me that Professor Smith is trying to get us to see something about the promises of pleasures beyond ordinary life. If you consider our national preoccupations, we do have rituals and established responses to sports games and other forms of public entertainment. We love our cultural heroes — actors, athletes and quirky public personalities with religious fervor. Liturgy is simply the response of the congregation (the group) in acts of worship: singing, speaking, partaking of the sacraments. Large amounts of time spent pursuing these gods and their kingdoms is a form of worship

    Prof. Smith told the interviewer:

    “The core of the person is what he or she loves, and that is bound up with what they worship—that insight recalibrates the radar for cultural analysis. The rituals and practices that form our loves spill out well beyond the sanctuary. Many secular liturgies are trying to get us to love some other kingdom and some other gods.”

    When it comes to casino gambling, ocean cruises or luxury shopping and consumption, whole “kingdoms” are being offered. Worshiping these gods calls for bodily, intellectual and spiritual responses such as financial giving, time thinking and dreaming of these “kingdoms” and going to the temples (building, cruise ship or outlet/mall). The promise is that the participant will experience something new, thrilling and satisfying in this worship.

    How many in today’s culture of pleasure or the culture of sports or the culture of entertainment bring body, mind and spirit to temples dedicated to those kingdoms in place of devotion to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Dr. Smith makes a good case for analyzing current culture with eyes open to its loss of devotion to God. Rituals of pleasure have overtaken rituals of worshiping the Creator God. It seems to me true faith is destroyed in this secular displacement.


  34. remarutho says:

    Agree, Mart, that the whole saga of Israel’s love of Ba’al and Asherah sounds much like contemporary devotion to the pantheon of pleasure gods. We all need God’s grace and mercy in the midst of this culture.

  35. poohpity says:

    Maru, that is what I took away as well. I also noted that when he compared the church to AA found that the steps they work are more in tune with how we are to live more than most traditions and rituals in the church. Those steps say there is God, I can’t, God Can, let Him, if you have harmed someone go and make amends and sweep off your own door step before you even look at your neighbors, etc.. Less religiosity and more love. Wouldn’t it be nice?

  36. oneg2dblu says:

    I remember hearing a sermon on how to find out what you really worship compared to what you think you may worship.
    In short…
    Show me your checkbook and I’ll tell you which is which!
    Because how we spend ourselves is a very real indicator on where our priorities actually lie.
    Follow that path and then you will find where your thinking actually takes you.
    If you were to put your money where your mouth is, then you will know that most utterance is only lip service, and what is left over, then becomes God’s.
    So, goes all our wishful thinking.

    That is why we can not “think our way” to where our heart and mind goes, because our body does not.

    Love the Lord with all your strength, means something other than just your heart and mind, (thinking).

    There is a trinity of bodily elements that must follow Christ if we are to be also following in His Will.

    Ask your church what percentage of its followers they think actually tithe?

    There is where you will find that there are your thinkers and then there are your doers.

    Many times our money talks of one path and our works speak of another.
    I’m going out to sweep… those are not just words.

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