… for two important reflections on the possibilities and perils of the black Christian intellectual: here and here. What both of these pieces suggest is that the Mannheim definition of the intellectual that I used in my essay for Harper’s has difficulty capturing the particular social situation of the black thinker. This makes me wonder whether the best way to address this problem is by expanding the definition of the intellectual in some way, or by thinking of the black intellectual as a unique case requiring its own distinctive definitional boundaries. In any case I’m grateful for the generous interlocution; Lloyd has given me a lot of important stuff to think about.
This long and characteristically thoughtful post by Alastair Roberts — you should read it all, it covers so many important issues, some of which I hope to return to later — says of my Harper’s essay on Christian intellectuals, “Reading Jacobs’s … essay, I was struck by a curious absence at the heart of his analysis: the barely explored role of mainline churches in the developments he discusses.”
That “absence” was intentional — perhaps unwise, but intentional. Early in the essay I write,
If we wish to know why this species became extinct, the short answer is that the Christian intellectual was the product of World War II, and when that war was over, the epiphenomena it had generated simply faded away. But there is also a longer and more complex answer.
This answer will necessarily connect itself to the broader issue of the declining place of Christianity in American life — a subject of evergreen interest, it would seem, especially among Christians. In recent years we have seen Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, and George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.
All of those books consider in great detail the question Roberts raises. And it is because they deal with the question so thoroughly that I felt feee to explore the narrower matter of the American Christian intellectual, who may have been associated with several different traditions but did not feel obliged to speak specifically for any of them. As I’ve said several times before, Harper’s gave me 6000 words. I had to exclude many, many issues that were relevant to my topic.
I am especially grateful to hear this from Marilynne Robinson: “The essay on fear that [Jacobs] imagines I wrote for The New York Review of Books and its secular readership was actually a speech written for and read to a conservative church in Michigan.” That’s very encouraging and tempts me to withdraw or at least significantly modify my criticisms of her approach. It would be fascinating to know whether her arguments were understood differently by those two rather different audiences.
I am not sure why Robinson writes “I think the word ‘secularist’ itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul” — I don’t use the word “secularist” in the essay, though I quote Robinson herself saying “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.” Why “secularism” is something she can be loyal to while “secularist” is crude and disrespectful I cannot guess, but in any case it’s not relevant to anything I wrote.
Lindsey Kerr’s point that “If the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we who seek to emulate Jesus Christ should aspire to a place in the street rather than a seat at the table” is one that I think about all the time. I wish I did a better job of living up to it. I think Cornel West, for all his showmanship, does that pretty well, which is why I think his career is so interesting and his lack of current influence (in comparison to his stature) so sad.
Pace Jack Jenkins, my decision not to name Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of my signal figures isn’t inexplicable: I explained it to him on Twitter and I developed the argument further here. I suspect that Jenkins is one of those people — I have heard from many of them — who can’t escape the thought that “intellectual” is always and necessarily a term of praise, Karl Mannheim be damned. Whaddyagonnado.
P.S. I’ve tagged all my posts about that essay “christianintellectuals.”
One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard in response to my essay in Harper’s is that it’s self-refuting: If a Christian intellectual is writing for such a prominent magazine then the problem Jacobs seeks to identify is either non-existent or minor. To that I have two answers, one short and one longish:
Short: A handful of swallows do not a summer make.
Longish: What was Jacobs allowed to write, as a Christian, about in Harper’s? Answer: Christians. I could have written about other things for the magazine — and indeed I have, at least for the website. (That was originally going to be a piece for the magazine, but it got bumped.) But I was not writing there in Christian terms. And in general I think that’s how it goes: consider, for instance, my friend Ross Douthat, who is welcome to write (even in the New York Times!) as a Christian, as long as he is writing about the Pope or the church more generally. When he writes about politics he’s expected to write as a conservative. I don’t say that he keeps always to his pigeonholes; but usually he does, and I suspect that that’s an unspoken condition of his employment. The notion that the intellectual resources of Christianity might be useful in reflecting on politics — or technology, or the arts, or engineering, or war, or climate change — and useful not only to Christians but to everyone — that’s a long-lost notion indeed. We generally assume that on any given issue of social import there might be a socialist take, or a feminist take, or a take rooted in the experience of a particular ethnic identity, that we’d benefit from hearing; but a Christian take? Not typically one of the options. There are no prominent Christian intellectuals addressing whatever happens to concern the body politic in a distinctively Christian way and for a general audience.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Stanley Fish commented (a passage I cite in my article): “If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers.” A good warning, and the history of Christianity is littered with examples of Christians editing out the prophetic elements of their faith in order to meet the etiquette of various tables of power. But it’s also true that only those who have a seat at the table can hope to shape, gently and patiently, its etiquette.
So it seems to me that Christians can either look for ways to get back to that table or accept their exile from it and make the best of the possibilities that exile affords. (Learning to be dissidents rather than intellectuals.) But the claim that Christians really are comfortably seated at liberalism’s table seems to be an unsustainable one.
These and other trends have made me sensible of how different our circumstances are from those in which Neuhaus learned to speak as both a Christian and an intellectual, circumstances that were still to some degree in force when First Things was founded in 1990. As Christians, we have a place to stand—in the Church. But in this cultural moment our churches are anxious, ambivalent, and unsure (unlike mainline Protestantism in its heyday). Which means that as intellectuals, we have no solid ground.
Neuhaus always thought of himself as speaking from the center of what he liked to call the “American experiment.” I’m certainly patriotic, but I see myself speaking from the periphery. We are dissidents, not “intellectuals.”
— Speaking from the Peripheries | R. R. Reno | First Things. The distinction between intellectual and dissident strikes me as a very important one. So maybe the key question is not “How might Christian intellectuals become truly ‘public’ once again?” but rather “How might intelligent Christians faithfully and effectively play their role as dissidents — as something like the not-wholly-loyal opposition to the current power-knowledge regime?”
With the caveat that this a rather different topic than the one I wrote my essay on, my response is that I want to agree with this but am not sure I altogether can. Reasons for doubt:
- Lupfer speaks of “the Christian intellectual tradition,” but there are several such traditions and not all of them are equally robust. Some distinctions here would help.
- There may be no strong correlation between the ones that are more robust and the ones that are more influential, inside and Church and outside.
- I’d feel better about Lupfer’s claims if I could point to scholarly fields where Christians are doing work that is clearly superior to what their secular colleagues are doing, or at least where Christians are blazing distinctive new ground.
- Lupfer commends “Christians with intellectual gifts [who are] helping their brothers and sisters think through the great questions and challenges of their lives,” and amen to that, but if we’re not also helping people who are not yet our brothers and sisters, then I fear we’re not doing the whole of our job.
What Jacobs doesn’t happen to mention, however, is the attitude of most Baby Boomers toward Christianity as One of the Things We Definitely Aren’t. That whole generation has defined themselves against their parents, and most of their parents were at least nominally Christian. So who wants to hear more from that quarter? Everybody knows what Christianity is, and says, and does. It’s boring and outmoded at best; oppressive and retrograde at worst. Buddhism or Hinduism? Exotically interesting. Judaism? Well, if it’s Kabbalah, at least, it’s cool. Islam? Dangerous, and so it leads the evening news. Christianity, though? Yesterday’s news and good riddance.
— Waiting Our Turn To Speak Again. Thanks to my friend John Stackhouse for this response to my essay — please read it all. John is explicitly writing out of the Canadian context, and I’m inclined to think that Canada is a generation ahead of the U.S. in this respect. If in Canada the Boomers are firmly against the Christianity of their parents, in the U.S. the Boomers tend to be identified with that Christianity, and it’s their children who rebel in the way noted above. A rough generalization, to be sure, but I think a sound one.
Jacobs’s effort is thoughtful and well worth engaging. But I am not sure we have a shortage of Christian intellectuals (although I may be biased because some of my best friends might be counted as part of this group). Rather, we live in a world where (1) religion has been subsumed by politics; (2) many liberals have accepted the view that religion now lives almost entirely on the right end of politics; (3) the popular media tend to focus on the most extreme and outlandish examples of religion rather than the more thoughtful kind; which means that (4) the quieter forms of religious expression — left, right and center — rarely win notice on the covers of magazines or anywhere else. Put another way: Even Reinhold Niebuhr could not be Reinhold Niebuhr in 2016.
E. J. Dionne. Which was one of the chief points of my essay: “At some point in the past sixty years or so a perverse and destructive feedback loop engaged, and I cannot see how to disengage it.” Also, I never say in the essay that there is “a shortage of Christian intellectuals”: I say that we don’t currently have “serious Christian intellectuals who [occupy] a prominent place on the national stage.”
I don’t know how to account for it, but in all my years of writing I have never published anything that has received as many misunderstandings as this essay. Every day I hear from people complaining “Your essay would have been better if you had said X” when I did in fact say X, or “I think you’re wrong about Z” when Z is something I neither said nor think.
About Berry, first of all, I don’t think he has ever had an especially broad audience — his message is too discomfiting for that. And while I approve and even celebrate the message, I don’t think there’s anything specially Christian about it. Berry, it seems to me, is a reincarnation of an early Roman: he worships his household gods, and if the Bible happens to say anything that supports the worship of those gods, he quotes it, and insofar as it does not, he ignores it. Like Rachel, he would have smuggled the teraphim in the baggage rather than trust wholly in the God of Israel. St. Paul’s talk of the cosmopolitanism of one whose politeuma is in heaven — I don’t think we’ll hear from Wendell about that, though I am immensely grateful for what we do hear from him.
Thanks for this response. One of the things I have inadvertently done with that essay is to make people think of Christian Public Intellectual as a kind of pigeonhole, and then they want to argue about who fits in the pigeonhole. That was not my intention at all, though I don’t know how I could have written the essay in a way that didn’t create that kind of debate. To me, the point of the essay was to describe a divergence in cultures, and therefore in languages, in such a way that we no longer have people who are clearly recognized, by the church and by the larger culture alike, as authoritative mediators between those cultures. So I don’t think it’s possible for anyone today to play the kind of role that Lewis and Niebuhr and Murray, in their various ways, played. (For good or ill.) To propose someone today as a plausible candidate for that role is to deny the historical thesis of the essay tout court. Which of course can be done! — but I don’t think it can be done by whaddaboutism, by “What about X?”
I am truly grateful for all the responses my essay in Harper’s is receiving, and I’ve been doing my best to give a fuller account of my thinking when asked to do so … but it’s getting harder! For me, this is an avalanche of inquiry.
First of all, let me encourage you to read this post by my friend Bryan McGraw, which raises some vital issues about our current technological regime and its dramatic alteration of the conditions of being “public.” For one thing, there’s the temptation to think of the public world as something to be manipulated by technique; for another, everything is accessible to everybody else. You may be a Christian tweeting to other Christians, but if a hostile person wants to listen in and then denounce you to the world, that’s always possible.
This gets back to the question I explore in my essay about the rise, starting in the 1940s — maybe the creation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 could be a convenient starting date, though the story belongs to Catholics and mainline Protestants too —, of Christian “subaltern counterpublics.” Such counterpubliics create a double bind for their participants. On the one hand, a certain independence from the strongest currents of public opinion is necessary for Christians to undergo a seriously Christian formation; on the other hand, the longer you stay within that formative counterpublic the more unfamiliar and uncomfortable you become with the language of the larger public world. It appears that when Jesus commanded us to be “in the world but not of it” he was making a demand no less challenging than “Go and sin no more.”
One way I describe this difficulty in my essay is to say that the Christian intellectual wants to be both audible and free. But often we have to choose one or the other. I have retained much of my freedom as a Christian intellectual by working for Christian institutions, and have tried to become more audible by writing for mainstream magazines and book publishers. But it involves constantly sacrificing some good thing in order to get another good thing. I don’t say anything in that Harper’s essay that I don’t believe, but many things I do believe and are immensely relevant to the questions I raise didn’t make their way into the essay, and couldn’t have.
Francis Schaeffer — whom Jake Meador invokes in his response to my essay — chose freedom above audibility. As Jake points out, for a brief time he was also somewhat audible in the culture at large, but that didn’t last. The same forces (primarily the sexual revolution) that changed the direction of Richard John Neuhaus’s career also deprived Schaeffer of his larger audience. But Schaeffer was almost the opposite of the Christian public intellectual I describe: he was more of a Christian private intellectual. He always insisted on occupying his own turf, quite literally: if you wanted to interact with him, generally speaking, you had to come to L’Abri, or hear him lecture. Interacting directly with his peers, or with actual scholars, was not his thing. He wrote books, of course, but always for Christian presses, and most of the people who were most deeply influenced by him met him in person or saw him on video. His appeal to the Sixties counterculture was that of the guru — he was a readily recognizable example of that type — but his influence, like that of most gurus, was dependent on his personal charisma. Billy Zeoli shrewdly saw this and so turned How We Should Then Live? into a film series.
If all this sounds like I don’t have a lot of respect for Schaeffer, that’s because I don’t. His one merit — and it’s a significant merit — lay in convincing conservative Christians to be less afraid of art and ideas. But his actual readings of art and ideas were extremely simplistic and uninformed, and early in my career at Wheaton College I found it difficult to talk with students who had taken up Schaeffer’s line and were reluctant to think thoughts he had not thought before them. But that was long ago, and as far as I can tell Schaeffer’s influence has dwindled to almost nothing.
One more (possibly nitpicky?) thing: Jake speaks of Christian “intellectualism,” and several other people who have responded to me have used the same word, but I don’t use that term and I honestly don’t even know what people mean by it. My essay was about the intellectual, a type of person, a social type (as defined by Karl Mannheim) “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”
Beyond that, Jake gets into questions of the general cultural place of Christianity in America today, all of which are great questions, but far beyond the scope of my essay.
I will try to respond to others who are responding to me — well, except for the people writing to tell me that I’m not a Christian, and that sort of thing — as best I can, but as I have said, it’s getting rather overwhelming. (And I’m staying away from Twitter for now.)
So, let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
I have to say, I liked Strachan’s first effort better than his second, because in the second he attributes to me thoughts I do not think and statements I did not make. To wit:
It is [Jacobs’s] contention that evangelicals do not do good enough work to merit inclusion in the big bad secular academy, and that the neo-evangelicals whom I referenced were not themselves trying after all to enter the secular citadel, but sought to build staging grounds by which future generations would do so. To complete the narrative, in Jacobs’s view we have by and large failed to make good on these hopes. We are isolated, without much cultural influence, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.
Mostly wrong (right about the “staging grounds,” though). In my original essay I said that the disappearance of the generally audible Christian intellectual was “not wholly elective,” and I spent some time describing the forces that pushed us further into “subaltern counterpublics.” In my post I said often the work of my fellow Christian scholars who complain about exclusion isn’t good enough. I then said “Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place.”
So no, I never said that “we have no one but ourselves to blame.” I said that (a) some of the blame belongs to us, and (b) I think it’s spiritually and intellectually healthier to focus on our own shortcomings, “even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.”
I would also say that there are some important distinctions to be made between the place of the Christian public intellectual (which was the subject of my essay) and the place of the Christian scholar (which is what we’re discussing now).
One more thing: Strachan writes, “Perhaps he and I are both working from biography,” and I think that’s true, though in a slightly different way than his account of his time at Bowdoin indicates. I think — and here let me call attention to the “UPDATE” of my earlier response — the larger and more important difference between my experience and his is that I’m a literature guy and he’s a theologian. So I can work on W. H. Auden, who was a great poet and a tremendously theologically literate thinker, and say, “Hey, it doesn’t really matter what I think, I’m just telling you what Auden thought.” I have some cover, in other words.
Now, that’s not the whole explanation. You can be a serious Christian theologian and teach in the secular academy: Kevin Hector is the first example who comes to mind, and yes, I’m going to say that the University of Chicago Divinity School is “the secular academy,” because mostly it is. But it depends on what you work on, and it’s never going to be easy. I’ve had the luxury of deciding just how theological I want to be, or don’t want to be, which is a luxury no reputable theologian has.
Now, that said: I have chosen to be pretty theological, and as I’ve written before, I believe I’ve paid a price for that. I am simply unemployable outside the small world of religious colleges and universities. But the academic publishing world, in my experience, offers more possibilities.
So the story for almost all of us is a mixed one, with doors closing here, opening there. I just want to give as complete a picture as I can — but err on the side of emphasizing what we Christian scholars need to do to live up to our calling as fully as we possibly can.
In my recent essay on Christian intellectuals, I say that one way to measure the influence of such figures is by noting their presense on Time magazine covers, and I briefly mention the shift of cultural authority that happened in the Fifties that led to scientists like John von Neumann having the kind of sage-like status than Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis had had somewhat earlier. Maybe this celebration of Vannevar Bush is an early example of that transition. This brilliant essay by Daniel Sarewitz tells the story of how Bush created a scientific culture that has been enormously productive and yet also has become deeply dysfunctional. I can’t recommend the essay too strongly.
I’m very grateful to Owen Strachan for his thoughtful response to my recent essay on Christian intellectuals. Let me go straight to what I believe to be the heart of the matter: Strachan writes, “I do wonder if [Jacobs] overplays the self-deselecting element of his public influence argument, and underplays the marginalization element.” Wonder no more, Professor Strachan! Not only did I overplay the self deselecting element, that was precisely what I meant to do.
Here’s why: for about thirty years now I have listened to my fellow Christian scholars lament their marginalization in the academy. I have heard them complain that the leading journals of their fields and leading scholarly presses routinely reject their work, and I have heard them attribute such rejection to anti-Christian prejudice. But often when they have shown me that work, I have read it and thought: This isn’t very good. You’re not making a strong argument. You seem only to have read what your fellow Christians have to say on the subject, and are unaware of the larger scholarly conversation. Had I been the editor of that journal, I would have rejected this too.
After several experiences of this kind, I came to the conclusion that one of the best services I could provide to my fellow Christian scholars was to get them to repeat to themselves as a kind of mantra: When my work is rejected, that’s because it’s not good enough. Now, to be sure, this isn’t always true. Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place. But it is never good for you as a scholar, or as a follower of Jesus, to jump immediately to blaming others for your disappointments. It is much healthier to go back to the drawing board and redouble your efforts, reading scholars you don’t like and don’t approve of and trying to articulate thoughtful responses to them. That kind of discipline can only make your work better, and harder to reject. You won’t thereby escape the consequences of anti-Christian bias, but you’ll have a better chance of limiting its force, and in the meantime you will become a better thinker and better scholarly craftsman.
That attitude has been my watchword for decades now, and I think it has served me well, and I hope it has been helpful to others also. Insofar as my essay was written for non-Christians, I wanted them to hear a Christian voice that doesn’t just complain about marginalization, and insofar as I meant to be heard by my fellow Christians, I wanted to reinforce this message of blaming yourself first.
All that said, even if I stressed the self-deselecting element more then I believe is objectively warranted, I do believe that that self-deselection has played a major role in getting us to where we are now. But the problem is more subtle than is usually recognized — considerably more subtle than I was able to indicate in the limited space available to me in Harper’s.
Let me explain what I mean by turning to another passage from Strachan’s response:
Look, Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1–1 load at Princeton. George Eldon Ladd should have been famous the world over for his studies of the kingdom of God. Ockenga should have had a weekly broadcast on NBC. On and on it could go. These were fantastically gifted individuals, but their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that.
I agree with Strachan that these were all first-rate intellects whose abilities deserved the kind of stature that he imagines for them in an alternate and better universe. But I also think that they had intellectual priorities that made them poor candidates for playing the role of the broadly public Christian intellectual, or for holding the top-tier university post. My thinking about this is shaped primarily by George Marsden’s great book Reforming Fundamentalism, and I think Marsden’s title gets at what these men were up to. They looked around at their fellow evangelicals and they saw people who were simply not prepared to engage with the larger world of ideas, and so they took it upon themselves to educate their fellow evangelicals in these matters. A book like Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism — and this is true of most of Henry’s work — is not meant for a general audience, it is meant for an audience of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And I think all of the figures Strachan cites were basically pastoral and pedagogical in their vocational orientation. They were less concerned to engage directly with the culture at large than to provide the intellectual foundations that would allow later generations of evangelical Christians so to engage.
It is of course perfectly possible, indeed likely, that the orthodoxy of their theological views would have made them unwelcome at the nation’s elite institutions. But I don’t think they ever tested that hypothesis, because they had other concerns that seemed to them more important to attend to. They wanted to build up their own Christian community, largely through the development of that community’s institutions, and that just didn’t leave them time for publishing articles in Harper’s.
I honor those men greatly, and I think much of my own intellectual journey has been made possible by the foundations they laid. But now it’s time to see whether my generation, and the generations following mine, are prepared to live up to the hopes that Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga and others of their kind had for us. And that’s definitely not going to happen as long as we are blaming a mean old secular world for our marginalization: even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.
UPDATE: I should also add that it’s hard to say anything very specific about these matters that applies across the disciplines: The challenges for me as a literature professor are different than those of theologians, which are in turn very different than those of scientists. Even within the humanities there are major differences: for instance, Christian scholars play a much larger role in history and philosophy than they do in literary study, for complicated reasons.
If I could edit my essay on Christian intellectuals as I saw fit, I’d make it a lot longer, of course. But in light of the responses I’ve been getting for the past few days, I’d be especially eager to add something to this early section:
In the last years of the Weimar Republic, Karl Mannheim, an influential sociologist, argued that a new type of person had recently arisen in the Western world: the intellectual. These were people “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.” … [watchmen] not [in the sense of] Juvenal’s guardians (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), or for that matter Alan Moore’s comic-book version, but interested observers whose first job was not to act but to interpret.
Here’s what I would now add:
Though Mannheim refers to this social type as the “intellectual,” making it quite clear that he is using this term in a technical sense rather than in its everyday meaning, I will not follow his example. The everyday sense of the word “intellectual” — basically, “really smart person” — is so deeply ingrained in the minds of readers that it would be impossible to convince them that by declining to identify certain figures as intellectuals you are not in any way demeaning those figures’ intelligence. You could point readers to Mannheim’s definition, explain it, put it in different words, provide context … nothing would work. Trust me on this one, it would be backing a sure loser. So instead of “intellectuals” I will henceforth refer to “interpreters.”
… I would say that openly Christian writers are often welcome at the WSJ, as long as they don’t say anything that contradicts the foundational beliefs of the WSJ (primarily free marketism). But then the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the NYRB, at least for Marilynne Robinson: she can speak as a Christian because she pronounces her devotion to secularism. And my treatment of these issues in Harper’s is historical and social: if I tried to make a theologically grounded case for the political value of Christian intellectuals, Harper’s wouldn’t even look at it. I don’t in any way blame them for that; but it’s a factor that creates certain strategic challenges for me.
The problem for Christians, as I see it, is being “audible and free” as Christians without having to swear fealty to, or at least refrain from all criticism of, political and social positions that ground their legitimacy altogether elsewhere than in the Christian understanding of the world. Christians are welcome in many choirs as long as they agree to sing the songs written by non-Christians. If they want to sing their own songs, then they’ll probably have to do that in their own venues.
Again, that’s no tragedy, and I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault, and I’m not even sure that it deserves my lamentation.* But I would love to have more opportunities to speak in distinctively Christian ways to people who don’t know much about Christianity, or who know all that they think they want to know.
*As my friend and colleague Scott Moore said to me the other day, in the time of Christian intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray and the like American society had an unspoken agreement to pretend to listen to what Christians have to say, and now they don’t pretend any more. Maybe that’s an advance.
On Twitter, Joseph L. Boston is arguing that I’ve written Martin Luther King, Jr. (among others) out of my history of post-World-War-II Christian intellectuals. Now, I have an easy answer to that: King was a great man, and a brilliant man, but not a “Christian intellectual” in the way I define the term. Such an intellectual, again, is first and primarily a figure somewhat detached from the flow of current events, whose detachment allows him or her to interpret the world. But Dr. King was never so detached, and his primary task was not to interpret the world but to change it. He was above all an activist.
I struggled with these matters when I was writing the essay, because sometimes it’s hard to say whether a given figure is primarily an intellectual or primarily an activist. Cornel West is a tough call in this regard. I think late in his career activism has displaced interpretation, but that hasn’t always been the case, so I put him in my essay as a Christian intellectual.
So I don’t think I was wrong to leave Dr. King out of the particular story I was telling. But Boston’s critique causes me to reflect more on a point that probably should have made its way into the essay: Not everyone has the luxury of being an intellectual as I define it. “Detachment” is a kind of privilege. Perhaps in a different and less grossly unjust world Dr. King — and for that matter Dorothy Day, who is a similar figure in these respects — could have devoted a whole career to the “special task” of providing “an interpretation of the world.” But that wasn’t an option for him. Being a Christian intellectual, then, is a pretty cushy job, and I needed to be reminded of that.
P.S. Actually, come to think of it, the activist/intellectual distinction is more complicated than that. Figures like Antonio Gramsci, Vaclav Havel, and Wole Soyinka were intellectuals by temperament who were drawn by necessity into activism. They gave up their natural inclinations in service to a political cause. But then they were imprisoned, and prison became in a strange way an opportunity to follow once more their intellectual inclinations. Unable to take direct action, they fell back on the work of interpretation. I wouldn’t say that Dr. King fits this model, for though his most famous piece of writing is the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he wasn’t in jail long enough for the experience to alter him in serious ways. But I think Gramsci, Havel, and Soyinka were all seriously altered by their time in prison: they resumed there the task of the intellectual, but reconceived it in the light of experienced political action. And in the specifically Christian realm, the same can be said, I think, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I’m getting lots of feedback on my essay on Christian intellectuals, and because there’s a great deal to say about the subject — far more than I could have said in the 6,000 words I had available — I’ll probably be commenting here from time to time on some of the issues that need more reflection.
Here I just want to address one misconception that a number of people seem to have, which is that if I call someone an intellectual I’m paying them a compliment, and if I don’t I’m implicitly criticizing their intelligence.
As I say in the essay, “intellectual” is not a term of praise but a description of a particular social role:
In the last years of the Weimar Republic, Karl Mannheim, an influential sociologist, argued that a new type of person had recently arisen in the Western world: the intellectual. These were people “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”
In Mannheim’s sense of the word, intellectuals are, as I put it, “interested observers whose first job [is] not to act but to interpret.” Their independence from major social institutions is essential to their role. Thus, in a passage that got cut from the final version of the essay, I mention Rowan Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief Rabbi of Britain, and comment,
Williams and Sacks alike can better fulfill the role of interpreter and mediator now that they are relieved of formal obligations to lead religious institutions. The analytical freedom of the true intellectual, in Mannheim’s useful definition, is really not compatible with the task of upholding particular institutions; so, for instance no Pope, even the most brilliant, could be a Christian intellectual in the sense I am employing the term here.
In the same way, even the most intellectually gifted and theologically serious POTUS couldn’t be a Christian intellectual in Mannheim’s sense — until he or she is out of office.
As I hope this makes clear, what I’m especially interested in is the Christian whose loyalties to the political order are secondary — who, as one whose citizenship is elsewhere (Phil. 3:20), can be both involved and detached in social commentary. I’m reminded here of what Chinua Achebe once wrote about being raised a Christian in his Nigerian village, and discouraged by his parents from being too absorbed in the traditional village life: that experience was “not a separation but a bringing together, like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer might take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.” That neatly describes the situation of the Christian intellectual I, borrowing from Mannheim, describe in my essay.
It’s a valuable social role, I think, but not the only valuable social role, and to say that someone doesn’t fit it is not to insult them in any way.
[in response to an email from a reader of this essay]
But in answer to your question — “isn’t this a better state of affairs?” — I’d like split the question into two vectors.
Is it better for us, for American Christians? In many ways, yes. Being severed from the arrogance and complacency that afflicted us in the Constantinian era is usefully humbling. (By the way, I too like Lewis much better than Niebuhr, and I think a main reason for that is that Lewis knew he was living in a post-Constantinian world and Niebuhr didn’t.)
But is it better for the world, for the saeculum? I tend to think not. What the Athenians said to Paul on the Areopagus (“We will hear more from you about all this”) is a heck of a lot better than what we hear from Rorty (“The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen”). Sometimes, at least, people who pretend to listen can end up actually listening; but if they refuse to listen at all I don’t know how they can be reached.
So we need to be always striving to find ways to be heard without thinking that we’re owed a hearing.
Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.