how to use the word ‘intentionality’ properly

In the last couple of years, in the Christian circles we move in there’s been an increasing use of the words ‘intentional’ and ‘intentionality’. You might have heard them used in sentences like this:

“We should encourage people to be intentional about building relationships”

Or, how’s this from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis:

“Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality”
Total Church (2007), Intervasity Press, Nottingham, p61, emphasis in original.

In context, I think what they mean is ‘deliberate’. Or ‘thoughtful’. Or, perhaps, it tries to capture the idea of ‘alertness’.

But the problem is, the idea of intentionality has a very long philosophical history and it has nothing to do with deliberate-ness. It has to do with consciousness. It is more closely aligned with theological anthropology – that is, it might help us understand what makes us human. Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it:

“Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.”
see Intentionality entry

“…’intentionality’ …  is that aspect of mental states or events that consists in their being of or about things (as pertains to the questions, ‘What are you thinking of?’ and ‘What are you thinking about?’). Intentionality is the aboutness or directedness of mind (or states of mind) to things, objects, states of affairs, events. So if you are thinking about San Francisco, or about the increased cost of living there, or about your meeting someone there at Union Square — your mind, your thinking, is directed toward San Francisco, or the increased cost of living, or the meeting in Union Square. To think at all is to think of or about something in this sense.”
see Consciousness and Intentionality entry

So, to be intentional is not about intending to do stuff; rather, it is to be oriented towards the world, the Other, outwardly focussed. I’m committed to this being a fundamentally good thing for Christians. We run the risk of losing the beauty of this nuance if we use the word ‘intentional’ when we could use the word ‘deliberate’.

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