Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The dea(r)th of Christian intellectuals

Now that I think of it, we were--or at least I was--very definitely "movement-oriented" in the late 60s. I can't say I was ever a real card-carrying Kingdom seeker, a Dooyeweerdian, as we used to say; but I hung around with them, listened to them, was fascinated by them, even, at times, wished I was more steeped in their language and thought than I was, more significantly part of the movement.

And a movement it was, a particular intellectual movement. Once, a thousand years ago (it seems) I rode along with a van full of them to a philosophy conference at Wheaton College, where one of them from some other institution delivered a Jeremiad of a presentation our van full of adherents considered clearly epoch-making. When we drove back to Iowa, we felt--honestly, I did too!--as if I had witnessed something that would shape the world.

It didn't. In fact, one of its signature ideas--the idea of worldview--did find a place at the heart of American evangelical intellectualism, where it became its own kind of shibboleth. Today, that word is employed most openly by Christians who find their champions in the James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and the religious right. 

That wasn't what we were thinking on the way to--and certainly on the way back--from Wheaton. Not at all. It was 1969, the Woodstock Era, and the worldview we had in mind included, even featured, a biblically-based critique for U. S. involvement in Vietnam. Our worldview led us far closer to Eugene McCarthy than Barry Goldwater.

No matter. My point is that the movement with which I most identified was an intellectual movement, and that world-and-life view not only gave me a place to stand but also the basis for hope in the future. Even though our triumphalism now seems remarkably penny-ante stuff, it supplied ready quantities of inspiration. I was a Christian and I had a worldview that offered a real negotiable vision. 

In a thoughtful article in the September Harpers, Alan Jacobs, who teaches at Baylor after many years at Wheaton, discusses in thoughtful detail the demise of what he and others call "the Christian intellectual." The names frequently associated with the now almost-forgotten phenomenon include Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dorothy Sayers, thoughtful believers of various fellowships, intellectuals capable of defining contemporary life in ways that unequivocally included reference and adherence to a Christian view of this world, Christians who created an audience in America's most thoughtful quarters.

Alan Jacobs says such men and women are largely gone--or are simply unable to fill those shoes. If a Christian makes the cover of Time (which surely isn't the ordeal it once was), it's likely a comic figure. Jacobs says Marilynne Robinson may well be the person closest to the tradition of national Christian intellectual, but she neither works at nor wishes for an audience among those folks who sit, week after week, in the pew. (Wasn't it Nieburh who famously maintained that all he ever knew about Christianity was in the chorus of "Jesus Loves Me"?)

Father John Neuhaus, Jacobs said, worked hard at trying to be the descendent of the tradition during his lifetime, created his own magazine, First Things, as an attempt to reinvigorate the Christian intellectualism. But Jacobs suggests that Neuhaus's attempt at an alternative network is itself proof of the fact there is no place anymore for what once was a truly national and intellectually robust Christianity. 

How did that happen? That's the question that haunts Alan Jacobs in the essay, a question that, he admits, has no obvious answer. The closest he comes, or so it seems to me, is the changes in culture created by the late Sixties, especially legalized abortion.
It was the Sixties that changed everything, and not primarily because of the Vietnam War or the cause of civil rights. There were many Christians on both sides of those divides. The primary conflict was over the sexual revolution and the changes in the American legal system that accompanied it: changes in divorce law, for instance, but especially in abortion law.
Opposition to abortion, Prof. Jacobs says, simply took Christians out of the orbit of American intellectual life. The American public, he says, stopped hearing the music older Christian intellectuals were capable of providing within the national culture, and, he says in the last line of the piece, Christian intellectuals stopped playing it.

It's a sad story finally, at least I think so. 

I think it would be interesting to know if, fifty years later, Christian college and university students leave philosophy conferences as headstrong as we did, whether they even conceive of themselves as prophets, priests, and kings. 

I hope so. 


Anonymous said...

Hey Jimmy:

I too grew up with the 1960's influences to include the writings of Francis Schaefer [What Ever Happened to the Human Race?, Escape from Reason and How Shall We then Live? to name a few.] Evert Koop and Francis had a prophetic view of life which has played-out into what they predicted, infanticide and has permanently influenced my thinking about life.

BUT, I also grew up with the influence of the US Army. I got drafted during Vietnam... I learned how it really felt to put one's life on the line for someone else...I thanked the Lord many many times over that I did not have to fight in Vietnam... but did have to deal with the stresses of facing my own mortality ... I ended up a Viet Nam Era Veteran doing research for the Army at Fort Rucker, Alabama... and forged-out a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It's interesting how a fox hole changes one's perspective... even if it was just training state-side...

Together, the Schaefer writings, military experiences and the spiritual anguish of being drafted during a war stirred-in with Biblical truth were the ingredients baked into my world view cake. The movements I identified with were an intellectual movement [mind], spiritual movement [heart] and a war movement [body]. I learned from all three movements and developed my world view influenced by each. It is interesting how the 60's influences could provide such varied experiences.


Jerry27 said...

Opposition to abortion, Prof. Jacobs says, simply took Christians out of the orbit of American intellectual life

The question I have about the Iowa robo calls is --Is it suicide or murder? Some Iowa farmer spent $.0025 per call to ask thousands of Iowaians what they thought about the decline of the & of white people on the planet from 35% 100 years ago to 9% today.

I look to the thinking of Lord Acton and his idea that hyper-egalitarianism is due to Rousseau and not Jesus. Probably, the man most responsible for the spread of the idea that men are born free and equal was Rousseau. Lord Acton went so far as to declare that Rousseau produced more effect with his pen than Aristotle, or Cicero, or St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any other man who ever lived. This may be overstatement, but I am inclined to think that the swollen idea of the worth and importance of the ordinary man, which is fast reducing our whole modern world to chaos, is not due so much to Jesus, as is commonly thought, but rather to Rousseau.

I also look to Nesta Webster and her ideas on occult and revolution. her sober appraisal of the forces that have been working in and under our society for its destruction, even before the French Revolution, and at an ever-accelerating pace and fury ever since, into our own time.

I could give you a personal, horrific experience from VietNam, but I am not that sure anyone will read this far.


Doug said...

I wonder if "Christian intellectualism" isn't really all that rare. Perhaps it has deserted the halls of Christendom because it has been appropriated by the halls of money and power. I would like to think that the "Christian intellectual tradition" has morphed (is metastasized too ignorant a word to use?) beyond the regularly-cited places into others. It may still be on life support in some of the hold-out churches and schools, but, I bet, with the proliferation of information and knowledge that is offered via the electronic age, the roots of a resurgence are there. Those who wish to cultivate it have to move with that, offering the disciplines of reason and faith in unfamiliar places. Regular attendance in modern worship (the golden calf?) or coughing up thousands for the rigor of classroom learning won't cut it.

Doug said...

Just stumbled on this: How's this for an allegory?

Anonymous said...

Ran across this while rereading Molly worthen' apostles of reason- very interesting.