Christian Intellectuals Are Overrated

Christian Intellectuals Are Overrated August 22, 2016

Alan Jacob’s Harper’s piece on the evaporation of Christian intellectuals and his subsequent exchange with Owen Strachan has appeal on several levels though I am not sure the world beyond evangelical (current or former) Protestants is watching (Harper’s has no comments, only Strachan’s piece at Patheos has some). For those who haven’t read the original piece or the back and forth afterward, Jacob’s piece asks why no Reinhold Niebuhr’s or John Courtney Murray’s anymore, and answers with a lament about Christian intellectuals during the 1960s losing the ability to speak as Christians to matters of public moment. Strachan recommends the evangelical intellectuals who populated Fuller Seminary in the 1950s as Christians worthy of the title, intellectual, and defends their withdrawal from public intellectual life to cultivate thought faithful to Christian orthodoxy that might one day produce intellectuals to speak to public life.

An difference between Jacobs and Strachan is the degree to which evangelicals themselves are to blame for being intellectual marginal. Are born-again Protestants too narrow in their intellectual outlook to be able to speak meaningfully to a wider public? Jacobs says (partly) yes. Strachan says (mainly) no and blames the lack of access that evangelicals have to mainstream intellectual life on secularization.

Three points to keep in mind. First, this discussion is one that Roman Catholics had (and are still having) after John Tracy Ellis’ provocative 1955 essay, American Catholics and Intellectual Life. Ellis himself lamented the sorry state of Roman Catholic intellectual life and tried to account for it. Philip Gleason, a Roman Catholic historian, traced the fallout of Ellis’ essay and suggested that Roman Catholics had in subsequent decades proven Ellis wrong. Gleason also wondered though whether intellectual success came with a failure as well. That failure involved a new definition of Roman Catholicism, one based more on cultural outlook than on doctrinal and liturgical rigor:

this complex [doctrine, discipline, ritual practice] was severely shaken by the spiritual earthquake of the 1960s. To put it baldly, McAvoy’s “theological unity” could no longer serve as an unambiguous litmus test of Catholicity because Catholics disagreed too much among themselves on matters of faith, morals, and practice. This resulted in uncertainty as to what it really means to be a Catholic. And in that uncertainty other factors could, as it were, lay a claim to the definitional role left ambiguous by the partial disintegration of the strictly religious criteria of Catholic identity.

In other words, with a looser understanding of Roman Catholic, it was possible for more Roman Catholics to enter the intellectual mainstream.

This leads to a second point, which has to do with what constitutes Christian identity in the Christian intellectual equation. Jacobs is not overwhelmed by evangelical theologians — too insulated — but neither is he enamored with Marilyn Robinson whom for many is a living, breathing Christian intellectual (and friend of President Obama to boot). Jacobs writes:

For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them.

Does Jacobs really think that the evangelicals who supported Fuller Seminary or went there to study with Carl Henry regarded Reinhold Niebuhr as one of their own? More likely is the case that Carl Henry read Niebuhr the way Jacobs reads Robinson — namely, as a liberal Protestant. Jacobs is not wrong to so dismiss someone who may minimize certain Christian truths to gain a following with a secular audience (any atheists for Robinson?). But he does factor in his account of 1950s Christian intellectuals the large disparity between liberal Protestant and evangelical audiences. In other words, when you throw around the word “Christian,” you throw in all sorts of expectations — normative ones — about what qualifies as Christian. And when that happens, you have private institutions or interpretations — what is Christian? — providing norms for public conversations. That never works out real well. See what happened to the Moral Majority.

What happened to Falwell and company was that they spoke too Christianly to public life. And what public life needs is Christianity lite. You could argue that goes all the way back to Eusebius and Constantine. If you emulate Jesus or Paul now you don’t die. You only get ostracized. Liberalism has a few things going for it.

The last point concerns the nostalgia implicit in Jacobs’ piece. He recognizes a time when Christians could speak meaningfully to public issues and he seems to long for that time. (Why Christians should speak to public issues as Christians rather than as Americans he never answers.) But that was also a time of an American civil religion in which the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance meant that American was in some sense a “Christian” nation. Such a connection between Christian and national expectations allowed figures like Niebuhr to gain a following. In fact, at a time when shop owners regularly closed for three hours on Good Friday without protests, a public that heard Christian voices speaking in generic terms of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption was not so much a stretch.

But those Christian voices also became associated with the downside of the 1950s and 1960s — the nuclear arms race, Jim Crow laws, the exclusion of women from public life, middle-class decadence, American exceptionalism, and a flawed U.S. foreign policy. If the American Way of Life was also the Christian way, then a rejection of American norms would also mean letting go of the Christian part of the equation.

I do not mean to presume that Jacobs looks back nostalgically at those inequities and problems in American. But I do mean to point out that he overlooks the cultural assumptions that allowed Christian intellectuals to be part of the mainstream. Having access to a seat at the table meant being silent or reserved about the table’s conditions. Jacobs notes that Richard John Neuhaus was aware of the conundrum and opted for a “subaltern counterpublic” in order to retain his Christian convictions rather than softening them for public consumption. Jacobs thinks that going private the way Neuhaus did is what’s wrong with Christian intellectuals — they have given up trying to gain a seat at the table.

But is that path so bad? Garry Wills, a guy who might actually qualify as a Christian intellectual (if Roman Catholics would admit him as a Christian), thought the separation of church and state in the U.S. was a good deal for Christianity:

Our American churches have escaped the worst element of that partnership (religious establishment) — the effort to maintain theological consistency through changes of political regimes; the cleansing of mud from ecclesiastical skirts after official scandal; the labor to maintain spiritual strength in captivity, like Samson stirring in his changes, the spectacle of disappointed clerics who dwindle into bitter courtiers. (Under God: Religion and Politics, 384)

Being a Christian intellectual almost always comes with a high price. Christians can console themselves that they retain their integrity without even looking at the sticker. That is simply cheap. But sometimes they have the means and still refuse to pay the price. It costs too much.

So far I don’t see either Jacobs or Strachan providing a spread sheet to make that calculation.

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