the easy road of the Christian intellectual

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.