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.