Thinking About the Christian Intellectual

I’ve been thinking a bit about Alan Jacobs’ piece over at Harper’s on the absence of the Christian intellectual as part of our society’s public discourse. (I haven’t, I should say, followed all too closely the various responses already up, except to see the all-but-inevitable “hey, what about me?” sorts of posts. For those of you in the academy, you knew that was coming, right?) What I liked especially about Alan’s essay was its refusal to assign any kind of easy “blame” for the fact–and I think it is indeed a fact–that Christian thinkers working from explicitly theological frames don’t get much of a hearing in public these days. Too many of our secular friends just don’t have an ear for theological language (or are ideologically committed to not having an ear) and too many Christians don’t know how to tune their voices (and, frankly, too many of them aren’t willing to do the hard, slogging work to actually be able to do serious intellectual work). But two things struck me in reading that I think are worth bringing out.

First, I think there’s a piece of the essay that hasn’t gotten enough notice and that’s the question of what it actually means to *be* an intellectual today as opposed to, say, the 1940s and 1950s. Jacobs suggests that each of the intellectuals he’s interested in had a posture of interpretation that grounded their most important works–they were public intellectuals in that they were bringing their  scholarly, philosophical, theological, and moral sensibilities to bear on understanding and interpreting the world around them so as to illuminate that world for their reading publics. Niebuhr, whatever else he was doing, wanted people to understand that the happy-clappy utopianism of the early 20th century was a mirage and that you had to be tough-minded if you wanted to do good in your politics. I’m not so sure that’s how *our* public intellectuals see themselves or the world. They seem (to me, at least) to think of themselves much more in line with the 19th/20th century Russian intelligentsia who had bought into Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy (and, presumably, any kind of intellectual work) was to “change” the world, not just understand it. Jacobs gestures at this with his discussions of “technique.” To be an intellectual in our day means mastering some set of rhetorical or disciplinary “techniques” that can then be applied more widely in the service of “social change” or “justice” or whatever the term is these days.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this and our sense of the intellectual hasn’t changed, but it does strike me that we are in the midst of a revival of the idea that we can indeed grasp the levers of history and achieve, in a way that our early 20th century forbears failed to do, fully just, fully prosperous social order. If only the peasants would get with the program. So when Alan asks why aren’t there any Christian intellectuals anymore, I think part of the answer has to be that we lack his sense of intellectuals altogether–or, at least, that’s true as a *public* matter.

The second thing that struck me was more a question of institutions. He notes that many of these public intellectuals had communities within which they developed, tested, and refined their public ideas–and then places within which they could communicate them to a wide audience. Both seem more difficult today. On the latter side, our public discourse is much more obviously differentiated in any number of ways and it’s impossible to imagine what would stand in for a Time Magazine cover these days. But on the former, it’s also more difficult and it’s especially more difficult to have differentiated sorts of conversations.

Here’s what I mean. I host a Christian political thought workshop every summer here at Wheaton–anyone who is a Christian who is doing “political thought” (which I define rather capaciously) is welcome to come and have their working papers gone over by other Christians. The idea was to create a space within which we could have the sorts of philosophical and theological discussions that are hard to do together in the modern academy. We can talk in ways that just don’t fit in an R-1 research university seminar. But I wonder how available those spaces are to many people, and especially spaces where others, who don’t share some basic presuppositions, aren’t listening in? If Christians (or anyone else) is always looking over their shoulders, wondering how *everyone* might react to their half-baked ideas, it’s hard to see how they’ll develop well as intellectuals (Christian or otherwise). The digital world is remarkable, among other things, for its ability to connect us quickly across vast distances, but it also makes it possible for our ideas (half-baked and otherwise) to travel just as quickly, sometimes when they’re not exactly ready. Perhaps this is what Alan was pointing to in his references to “subaltern counterpublics” and I wonder if those are becoming less and less available?


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