This week in my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course we are discussing the theory of multiple intelligences. The idea that there are, as one book claims, Seven Kinds of Smart makes good sense to me as I look out at the world. People simply process things differently, with some naturally favoring certain ways of learning and thinking over others.
As laid out, the seven basic intelligences are: verbal, visual, musical, logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. To this list two or three others are sometimes added. But even by looking at just these seven, one can see the rather wide diversity that can exist. (If you’re interested, take a little online test here or here.)
Educationally, of course, the existence of multiple intelligences is both a great reminder and a definite reminder. It helps guide us to be more understanding of those we teach and their particular thought patterns. Yet it also means that much of the structure of traditional education is so heavily focused on a few of these intelligences that it can leave others by the wayside. By favoring the logical and verbal over the others, we imply that those intelligences are best and subsequently ignore the profound ways that people think and learn in other areas.
At some level my thoughts about the intelligences and the process of discipleship follow a similar pattern. Like most educational models, we in the Church can too often favor certain means or methods of conveying the content of the gospel, the teachings of the Scripture, and the basic tenets of the faith. As I first considered the problem, I reflected on the fact that churches–like schools–can often be very “word-heavy.” After all, just look at how long we spend on things like the sermon in our corporate time together. For those whose intelligences are different, this is an issue and a clarion call to change our ways.
In thinking more about the intelligences, however, I’m beginning to come to a second conclusion. For while it is true that church life can favor one intelligence or the other, I don’t believe I can claim that “all churches” do this in the same way. As a matter of fact, I’m sure they do not. Some denominations, for instance, may be very big on the sermon. They spend an hour or more each Sunday expounding the Scripture through oral presentation. This is a verbal approach if ever there was one.
But what about congregations in the charismatic tradition? There the sermon has its place, no doubt, but so too does the kinesthetic, musical, and intrapersonal by means of participatory and emotive forms of worship. And if you’re Presbyterian or Reformed, it may be that theological reflection favor logical intelligence. A Catholic or Orthodox church with its stained glass, icons, liturgy. and genuflexing may very well favor the kinesthetic and/or visual approach, while the laid-back fellowship and mutuality of a non-denominational hipster/emergent church would very much fit the mold of the interpersonal approach.
As I think about the intelligences and modern church life, I am fascinated by the ways in which they come together in the various ways that we live our religious lives. While above I have clearly painted with a broad and somewhat stereotypical brush, it is still the case that different congregations and denominations can and do favor certain ways of thinking over others. While on the one hand this can be a reminder that each of these churches needs to be aware of the other kinds of “thinkers” in their midst, it also says something else.
People sometimes ask why the Church is so divided into so many different groups. Indeed, why Christianity is denominational rather than organizationally united is a real stumbling block for some. It simply doesn’t seem right. And insofar as such division can lead to recriminations, bickering, and malice, it is most definitely not. While I believe legitimate theological differences do exist, this is no excuse for all those who adhere to orthodox Christianity not to exist in cooperation with one another even while maintaining their own denominational distinctives.
All this to say that while theology matters, I think that a major and often obscured reason that so many different churches and denominations exist is that people live and express their faith in ways quite similar to the multiple intelligences. If one is emotive-intrapersonal, a certain kind of church life makes sense. A logical or verbal person may choose another group altogether. For the visually intelligent among us, another religious experience is preferable.
Christianity, therefore, while united in Christ, might be expressed and lived out in subgroups of believers not simply or perhaps even primarily because of theological disagreement, but because our spiritual intelligences are simply different. Denominations could simply be a sign of our unique ways of processing the truth of God rather than–as often perceived–a sad sign of Christian division.
It’s an optimistic vision, surely. But it does point to some interesting truths.