Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Intellectuals (page 1 of 1)

locating intellectuals

In his great book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes: 

In an age in which thinkers of all kinds, even poets, are creatures of the academy, it is well to remember that most of the writers considered in this book were bishops who presided regularly at the celebration of the Eucharist, the church’s communal offering to God, and at the annual reception of catechumens in the church through baptism at Easter. The bishop also preached several times a week and could be seen of a Wednesday or Friday or Saturday as well as on Sunday seated before the Christian community expounding the Sacred Scriptures. Some of the most precious sources for early Christian thought are sermons taken down in shorthand as they were being preached in the ancient basilicas. In them the bishop speaks as successor of the apostles to a community that looks to him as teacher and guide. For intellectuals of this sort, even when they were writing learned tomes in the solitude of their studies, there was always a living community before their eyes. Faithfulness, not originality, was the mark of a good teacher. 

This reminds me that his his biography of Lesslie Newbigin, Geoffrey Wainwright comments that the bishop-theologian was once a common type of Christian intellectual, indeed in some senses the characteristic type — but that is no longer the case: 

Christian theology is more immediately a practical than a speculative discipline, and such speculation as it harbors stands ultimately in the service of right worship, right confession of Christ, and right living. Right practice demands, of course, critical and constructive reflection, and the best Christian theology takes place in the interplay between reflection and practice. That is why honor is traditionally given to those practical thinkers and preachers who are designated “Fathers of the Church.” Most of them were bishops who, in the early centuries of Christianity, supervised the teaching of catechumens, delivered homilies in the liturgical assembly, oversaw the spiritual and moral life of their communities, gathered in council when needed to clarify and determine the faith, and took charge of the mission to the world as evangelistic opportunities arose. A figure of comparable stature and range in the ecumenical twentieth century was Lesslie Newbigin. 

I have often written about the ways in which the modern university is built on perverse incentives, and, putting that together with these comments on bishops, I am mulling over two questions: 

  1. Should Christians look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for theological leadership? 
  2. Should our society in general look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for intellectual leadership? 

Or, more concisely: Where are the thinkers who always have “a living community before their eyes”? 

being Russian

A. N. Wilson, from his biography of Tolstoy (1988): 

Being Russian, unless you are preternaturally stupid or wicked, produces violent inner tensions and conflicts, reflected in nearly all the great imaginative geniuses to emerge from Russia in the last two centuries. On the one hand, you know that you have been born into a “God-bearing” nation, whose destiny is to keep burning the flame of truth while the other nations languish in decadence. (The truth may be Orthodox Christianity or the creeds of Marxist-Leninism, but the feeling is the same.) You know that the Russians are best at everything from poetry to gymnastics, and that they invented everything: ballet, bicycles, the internal combustion engine. You know that Russia has more soul than any other country — that its birch avenues, its snows, its ice, its summers are all the more glorious than the manifestations of nature in more benighted countries. There is only one drawback, which is that it is completely horrible to live there.

How can it be that the country chosen by God, or by the destiny which moves nations, or by the unseen inevitability of dialectical materialism, should have produced, in each succeeding generation, a political system which made life hell for the majority of inhabitants and which, every so often, threw up tyrants of truly horrifying stature? These are questions which have haunted in particular those few Russians who have ever been in Tolstoy’s fortunate position of being able to choose whether to stay in Russia or to take the money and run. Today, we read precisely similar tensions in the utterances and writings of Soviet dissidents, and in particular Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose hatred of his country’s Government seems almost equally balanced by a fervent patriotism, a tragic knowledge that a Russian can only be himself when he is on his native soil.

Academics think a public intellectual is an academic who comments on current events. 

Journalists think a public intellectual is a journalist who quotes from books. 

Most influential public intellectuals?

A lot of talk about this among my online friends lately. As a semi-private pseudo-intellectual who writes about public intellectuals, here are my candidates for the most influential American public intellectuals of this millennium so far (in no particular order):

  • Richard John Neuhaus
  • Cass Sunstein
  • Samantha Power (got that one from Ross Douthat)
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Clayton Christensen