Did Christian intellectuals withdraw or were they forced out?

Did Christian intellectuals withdraw or were they forced out? August 24, 2016

[Note: My blog is mostly about the role of religion in the 2016 election. But I’m starting to think about how I’ll use this site after November. Some of my hobbyhorses include theology and religious freedom. So I will probably write about those topics.]

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By now most of the people who have noticed a sharp uptick in commentary about the disappearance of Christian public intellectuals know the precipitating event was Alan Jacobs’ essay in the September issue of Harper’s. Last week, perhaps arrogantly but I trust in good faith, I took the liberty to share some of my own reflections on the possibility of Christian intellectuals before I even finished reading Professor Jacobs’s very fine piece.

Having now read the essay a few times, I offer a few more thoughts.

So far, I have mostly noticed conservative Protestants’ responses to Jacobs. I might have more to say later about how the discussion about Christian intellectuals is playing out in Catholic, mainline Protestant, or other communities.

Prof. Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Public Theology appreciated Jacobs’s thoughts on today’s lack of Christian intellectuals. But Strachan took issue with what Jacobs contends is the key causal mechanism. Jacobs emphasizes throughout his piece that Christians have largely chosen to withdraw from the secular academy and mainstream cultural institutions. And while Jacobs is open to considering how conservative or traditional religious believers have been forcibly removed by secularists, Strachan wants to emphasize Christians’ marginalization much more than their self-selection out of elite culture and into more doctrinally pure and ideologically friendly institutions.

The marginalization argument fits well with evangelicals’ persistent complaints about their diminishing influence in American culture and the hostility that they believe rages against them. Strachan even talks about Christians as a minority.

Elsewhere Jacobs speaks of the need of minority groups (including Christians) to create “subaltern counterpublics” due to their forced exclusion from the mainstream.

And while it may be true that churchgoing evangelicals are declining and their intellectuals are decidedly a minority in mainstream culture, it is worth remembering that evangelical Protestants remain a (if not the) dominant religious group in this country. But if you don’t think many professed Christians are, in fact, Christians, then you might more naturally think of Christians as a minority group that has been forcibly excluded not only by elite factions, but by the culture at large.

It is also important to note that Strachan and Jacobs use the word “Christian” differently. Jacobs, an ecumenically-minded Anglican mere-Christian in the mold of C.S. Lewis, takes it for granted that Reinhold Niebuhr was a Christian, and does not seem opposed to counting Marilynne Robinson and Cornel West among the faithful. Strachan points out at the beginning of his reply that it may be a stretch to regard Niebuhr as a Christian. Such differing definitions are seldom noted, but their implications are huge. Jacobs supposes Niebuhr to be a co-religionist, while Strachan would, I suspect, not rule out that Reinhold Niebuhr is enduring torment in Hell for his faithlessness.

One troubling trend among a subset of conservative evangelicals is to use the words “Christian” and “conservative evangelical” interchangeably. They instinctively trust conservative evangelicals’ faith claims while approaching other Christians’ faith claims with moderate-to-severe suspicion.

If, for Strachan, the universe of people from whom Christian intellectuals might be drawn is dramatically smaller than Jacobs’ pool of potential Christian intellectuals, that distinction is consequential. This is not to say that Jacobs would not withhold the Christian label from nominal mainline Protestants or liberals of various stripes. But bear in mind that, in addition to disagreeing about the degree to which Christians have chosen (vs. been forced to) disappear, Jacobs and Strachan might be talking about different groups of people altogether.

Strachan leans too hard on the marginalization explanation. In considering the career trajectories of some leading twentieth century evangelicals, he notes quite correctly that they were brilliant men whose minds were capable of the kinds of thinking and writing that earned people prestigious chairs at Ivy League universities. But Strachan goes even further, saying, “Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1-1 load at Princeton. ” In his telling, the primary reason Henry and Carnell did not occupy those positions is that “their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that. So it is today.”

I don’t think it’s that simple. Neither does Jacobs. In a generous reply, Jacobs makes an important point that conservative evangelicals need very badly to hear. If Christians in the professions blame every setback on a hostile culture, they can eventually fall into a pattern of thinking their marginalization is the only reason they don’t fill more seats in the Harvard faculty lounge.

Please excuse me for quoting him at such length, but Jacobs distills decades of wisdom and experience very succinctly here:

For about thirty years now I have listened to my fellow Christian scholars lament their marginalization in the academy. I have heard them complain that the leading journals of their fields and leading scholarly presses routinely reject their work, and I have heard them attribute such rejection to anti-Christian prejudice. But often when they have shown me that work, I have read it and thought: This isn’t very good. You’re not making a strong argument. You seem only to have read what your fellow Christians have to say on the subject, and are unaware of the larger scholarly conversation. Had I been the editor of that journal, I would have rejected this too.

After several experiences of this kind, I came to the conclusion that one of the best services I could provide to my fellow Christian scholars was to get them to repeat to themselves as a kind of mantra: When my work is rejected, that’s because it’s not good enough. Now, to be sure, this isn’t always true. Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place. But it is never good for you as a scholar, or as a follower of Jesus, to jump immediately to blaming others for your disappointments. It is much healthier to go back to the drawing board and redouble your efforts, reading scholars you don’t like and don’t approve of and trying to articulate thoughtful responses to them. That kind of discipline can only make your work better, and harder to reject. You won’t thereby escape the consequences of anti-Christian bias, but you’ll have a better chance of limiting its force, and in the meantime you will become a better thinker and better scholarly craftsman.

“Scholar” and “intellectual” are not synonymous. Research universities, for the most part, reward scholarship. Most Christian colleges and even many seminaries emphasize scholarship much less. Christian institutions (and here I’m thinking mostly about evangelical colleges), at least in my judgment, do a fine job of employing and even producing intellectuals. Professors whose vocations are more about teaching than research model the Christian intellectual life for students who seek spiritual, not just technical, knowledge.

There are very few Christian colleges that emphasize or even value prolific scholarship. At the Christian college I attended, my professors were thoughtful, faithful teachers who cared deeply about their students, their disciplines, and the institution’s mission. They were almost all intellectuals, but few were serious or successful scholars. Most, I would argue, had the raw intellectual ability to do the kind of work that leads to tenure-line appointments at, say, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Haverford, etc. But they did not want to do that kind of work. They wanted to be intellectuals, not scholars. And, as evangelicals, they found their way into institutions that offered them fulfilling vocations.

I do not know Prof. Strachan, but it seems like he is fulfilling the vocation of a Christian intellectual much more effectively in his present position than if he had spent 6 years in an elite graduate school gunning for a prestigious placement and the next 5 years amassing a successful tenure file at Stanford or Hopkins or Penn. I don’t see how someone could become a prolific author and a respected denominational leader while also managing such a rigorous and ambitious research agenda. I’m not sure anyone would want to.

Even Robert George, the Catholic Princeton professor beloved by conservative evangelicals, urges young Christians who want to be scholars to not retreat from elite institutions. Be aware of structural biases against theists and moralists of a certain kind, he argues, but be true to yourself and work extremely hard. Exemplify excellence in your scholarly work. In a podcast with Bill Kristol, Prof. George made a strong case that Christians can succeed in the secular academy. But they have to do work the academy values.

If we want to lament the absence of Christian public intellectuals, we should think more about what happened to public intellectuals generally than about ideological marginalization and persecution.

I’ve been upfront with my criticisms of conservative Protestant culture and institutional life. But I have always thought they had their fair share of very fine intellectuals. These men have spheres of influence (or, if you will, “subaltern counterpublics”) in which they’re widely looked upon with awe, even if they’re not household names. The fact that they are not on the cover of TIME doesn’t trouble me. I wonder why it troubles them so much.

[Please read Strachan’s response to Jacobs at his Patheos blog. Here are my earlier thoughts on the possibility of Christian intellectuals.]

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