“Intellectual” is not a term of praise

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.