strategy and vocation

It’s rare for me to disagree with Ross Douthat as thoroughly as I disagree with this reflection on Christian intellectuals. I disagree not because I doubt his particular judgments, but because I think he has misconceived the entire subject. He has done so, I believe, by approaching the role of Christian intellectual as a matter of strategy, when it is more properly a matter of vocation. As the bearer of a vocation — a particular calling within the general calling of the Christian life — the Christian intellectual engages in a practice — and (following MacIntyre here and therefore following both Aristotle and Aquinas) to be a practitioner in this sense means that your calling is circumscribed by the requirement to exhibit certain virtues, virtues the possession of which enable you to follow your calling faithfully — and, therefore, virtues the absence of which will compromise or vitiate your ability to fulfill your calling. And for the Christian those must be, to start with, the core Christian virtues. (To which are added certain specifically intellectual virtues.)

To me, then, it’s noteworthy that some of the people he singles out as exemplary Christian intellectuals are people notorious for their belittlement of, their mockery of, their contempt for pretty much anyone, Christian or not, who disagrees with them. Douthat’s exemplary Christian intellectuals seem often to think that, because (in their view) they hold the right positions, and have the right strategy, they are therefore exempt from any of the Biblical commandments about how to deal with our Christian siblings and our enemies alike.

That habitual sneering at dissenters is not especially relevant if you think of the Christian intellectual life simply as a mater of strategy; but it matters very much if you think of that life as a vocation which has certain standards intrinsic to it, standards that emerge from the Christian account of the virtuous (the Christlike) person. Considering Christian intellectual life as a matter of vocation might lead to a different list of exemplary figures than the one Ross employs — and would demand a different conceptual framing too.