Yes, highly gifted people exist, and they can even have a relationship with God.
But didn’t the Bible say this about them?
Where are the wise men, the scribes, the brilliant orators? God has made fools of them and exposed their wisdom as useless nonsense. (1 Corinthians 1:20)
Where are the sophos, graphos, and suzetetes? The ones who call themselves wise, the scribes and debaters?
Paul’s letter is to the Corinthians. They were Greeks. Paul always used images that his readers could understand. So, this is not about Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis, as so often suggested.
Instead, it is about the philosophers, the scholars, and the sophists of the Greeks.
It is definitively not about the people in the church. Although, we could say this about some theologians, writers, and apologists:
Although the world is imbued with the wisdom of God, they could not find him through their wisdom. (1 Corinthians 1:21a)
I have frequently seen these verses used as a weapon against intelligent people in the church.
In Ancient Greece, people would have counted me among the suzetetes, one who persists in asking questions. I am questioning many things. I also don’t avoid a good debate.
The answer I usually got was one of two:
“God didn’t ask us to understand; he commanded us to believe.”
“It is written.”
People follow up on this statement with a few verses from the bible, using the interpretation agreed upon in their church. This, in their eyes, is enough to prove the questioner wrong. Alternative interpretations do not exist to prevent confusion.
The verses above do not speak about intelligence or its use. Intelligence does not occur in the Bible, at least not in its pure form. We cannot equate intelligence and wisdom.
So let’s assume for the moment that there can be intelligent people in the church.
But what is giftedness?
In recent decades, science extended the concept of intelligence to various areas. It no longer applies only in the intellectual realm. There is emotional, creative, sensory, physical, and existential intelligence.
I prefer to call those competencies because intelligence is very much tied to intellect.
Some people go through life rather clumsily in these areas: I am spindly and sports-averse. My physical competence is significantly below average. That is not true for a high-performance athlete!
Intellectual intelligence has been thoroughly studied. Science developed a scheme of categories. These range from rather untalented to average, mild, moderate, high, exceptional, and profound.
Those categories have IQ ranges assigned. I have discussed those in other posts and will not repeat them here. Other competencies do not feature precise metrics of a similar kind.
Here is the important stuff: most people think linearly, that is, step by step. Mildly and moderately gifted people group several steps and skip some of them. We call this “skip thinking.” From highly gifted onwards, thinking is not only faster but differs in quality.
We call it “meta-thinking.” Here’s a definition from Jennifer Harvey Sallin of InterGifted:
finding simple patterns in complex information, perceiving relationships among various seemingly unrelated aspects, and detecting and creatively resolving logical discrepancies and practical problems in non-linear ways. In meta-thinking, one can think about one’s own thinking, one’s ways of learning, knowing, remembering and understanding, and can apply one’s thoughts to “big picture” or “non-linear” vision and insight.
About one-thousandth of the population are intellectual meta-thinkers.
Similar categories exist for all competencies, although they have not been explored precisely by science.
You might be most interested in existential competence. It includes the areas of meaning, values, ethics, morality, ecological contexts, and the nature of reality.
Let’s leave out ecological contexts for the moment. The remaining topics are at the core of religion and thus Christianity. So, are all Christians existentially gifted? Take a pastor who discovers certain connections and patterns in the Bible. The Bible is a complex book. Is this pastor at least an existential meta-thinker?
Unfortunately, that is not how our churches function today.
Let me make this clear using my experience. Our pastor had learned his convictions from his pastors. The denomination, or in our case, the apostolic network, knew how to understand the Bible. Deviation was rare and even more rarely welcomed.
A meta-thinker challenges preconceived notions, even doctrines. He knows that the Bible alone is not the big picture. And that is true for any interpretation.
It is not the Bible that is the Word of God. The Bible itself tells us that Christ is the Word of God.
What about theologians? Are they existential meta-thinkers? You already guessed it: in the least cases. Today’s theological methods and the corsets of generally accepted doctrine allow very few to think outside the box.
On the contrary, the church today seems to appeal to step-thinkers. People like to hear from someone else how things work. And that includes teachers as well as listeners. Even startling results show that the average IQ in churches is lower than in the general population.
How can such a community be the home for intellectual and existential meta-thinkers? In short, it cannot, or only to the detriment of the meta-thinker.
We know this from introverts. They get sick if they adapt to the mostly extraverted community for too long. Consequences range from burn-out to depression to physical illness. At times, the body makes itself known and no longer cooperates.
The signs in meta-thinkers are similar. It is bore-out, depression, loneliness, rebellion, and physical illness here.
I am intellectually and existentially high gifted (high means in the range of high, exceptional, or profound).
I tried to compensate for the lack of challenge for a long time. I did so at work as a programmer and software architect for a while. I also studied computer science and mathematics.
But two things happened: first, computer science became “mature.” That is, it became boring—standards, best practices, all that spoiled the joy for us meta-thinkers.
Then, the church made me feel guilty. They saw everything that fascinated me about computer science as “old nature,” “relying on your own understanding,” and as worldly temptation. My specialty, artificial intelligence, for them, was a technology from the devil.
Introverts are often denied a good Christian life because they have difficulty living up to expectations of church life, evangelism, and expression of emotion as evidence of devotion.
Meta-thinkers are frequently denied faith.
As long as we in the church consider doubt to be the opposite of faith, this will continue.
But the opposite of faith is to be certain. Faith means holding on to something despite doubt, uncertainty, and improvability.
To be certain excludes questions, prevents further search, and thus growth.
To be sure means to rely on external sources. Since every sane person has doubts and is aware of their lack of competence to understand faith, most rely on the people God has anointed to do so.
This leaves them with a much simpler choice. They now need to find the anointed people. Again, we rely on an external source: God’s leading.
The same people tend to question God’s lead the moment they do not agree with the anointed person or the church’s doctrine anymore. That might indicate that they instead chose a church for other reasons.
But back to doubt. Doubt as a growth hormone? Throughout church history, we have seen rethinking time and time again. Verses have been reinterpreted, and new streams of faith have emerged. Without doubting tradition, this is not possible, as Luther’s life impressively shows us.
I am convinced that the church should accommodate introverted members by changing programs and their expectations about the expected Christian lifestyle. This should also happen for meta-thinkers.
Streaming offerings allow introverts to participate in the sermon from home when energy levels are low.
Highly sensitive people would profit from permission to come to worship only after the often noisy, overwhelming worship time without being shunned.
Not having to attend worship at all and follow the sermon crafted for step-thinkers without being able to go deeper in dialogue with others in the fellowship time that follows is a relief for meta-thinkers.
Introverts will love mentoring individuals or interesting new possibilities like scheduled prayer times home alone in synchronicity with others.
Meta-thinkers love to pursue new thoughts in dialogue with others. They exchange them verbally or in writing and can look at the ideas of others as well as their own aperspectively, from different sides and without judgment.
I think of micro-groups, free to speak well beyond the bounds of accepted doctrine and non-taboo topics. Pastors and leadership might participate without exercising control. Such groups typically reach beyond denomination boundaries.
The traditional church has not yet learned to integrate diverse personalities. In the past, when the concept of personality was not yet common knowledge outside university and monastery walls, it did not need to do so.
But starting with the Reformation, God showed us that we are individuals. In the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it became evident that we have different personalities.
God Himself has drawn attention to this area. He is convinced that the church, that man is mature enough to go deeper.
It is no longer enough to belong to a church to grow spiritually, as before the Reformation. We have an individual relationship with God. In the same way, today, we are free to serve with our personality, our diversity, and our gifts. Or, at least, we should be.
The church may and should be able to respond to the different needs. It has the people gifted to do so in its ranks.
We could say similar things about creative competence. There are meta-thinkers there, too. It is time to include these intellectual, creative, and existential meta-thinkers in shaping church and doctrine.