Both the church and society need Christian intellectuals. To make this claim, the words “Christian” and “intellectual” require comment. Let me go backwards.
An intellectual, as I am using the word, is not only a smart person but a person of learning, a person who has mastered a discipline and who, in addition, possesses both wider knowledge and wisdom. There may be intellectuals who function in more narrow confines and those who enter into more capacious discourse. But they are all intellectuals insofar as they richly and extensively cultivate the life of the mind.
At the same time, a true intellectual is not a discarnate mind, a thinker who works only within narrow rational dimensions. Rather, the intellectual I want to commend is a person who, while thoroughly rational, has integrated reason with feeling, will with work, understanding of the world with changing the world. A perfect balance of these dimensions is never achieved, but a reasonable balance is necessary for intellectual leadership.
The love of truth is more significant than the possession of truth; a true intellectual is simply a lover of truth and one whose love is enhanced by sharing the search. Socrates’s comment to Callicles in the Gorgias is pertinent: “If at any point you think I am wrong, correct me, and you shall be one of the greatest of my benefactors.” So there is a communal, a public dimension to intellectual life.
A part of my plea for intellectuals is a dissatisfaction with narrow, insulated scholarship, with routinized research, with footnote specialists, with cultured mechanics, and with mimicry—all of which I find too prevalent within universities, among professors, and often in such meetings as the American Academy of Religion.
To seek truth presumes that there is such a thing as truth, and today this assumption has to be strenuously defended—and may be one of the most important arguments we can engage.
In a relativistic age, in a time enamored with the role of the interpreter, in a culture where Cartesianism continues to reign, there is need to engage the regnant and comfortable assumptions of dualism and solipsism. We should be challengers of this contemporary ethos. The polarization of objective and subjective is too simple. Truth neither simply stands outside of us nor resides only with us, there is always interaction, always a giving and receiving, always a mutual correction and enrichment. To sort out this mixture and to attend sensitively to nuances is a formidable but necessary task for current discussion. This is one of the most important intellectual challenges of our time.
Now to take another step.
What can it mean to be a “Christian” intellectual. Is there value in this qualification? The Christian intellectual, as I use the term, is a person who brings resources of Christian faith to bear upon contemporary issues and brings these issues to bear upon Christian faith.
The search for truth cannot be transmuted simply into the search as truth without remainder. The distinction of search and goal must be maintained. While the integrity of the search is essential and merits our utmost respect, we must affirm the primacy of the truth to which the search is directed.
Truth-seeking and truth-telling are central values in Christian faith. These values we happily share with any who also make these their goals. We, as Christians, operate with the conviction that truth has been incarnated, but this is a claim that requires explanation and must be related to other competing convictions. Christians are defined not as possessors of truth but as lovers of truth, and we engage in common search and strenuous argument with all lovers of truth. Truthfulness demands that we expose our basic understandings, convictions, and assumptions for exploration and assessment—even as we insist others’ assumptions should be made overt.
A Christian intellectual is neither timid about the conviction she or he holds or embarrassed to present his or her point of view. There is a three-fold ethical responsibility of every dialogical participant: to state other positions fairly, to state clearly one’s own position, and to listen seriously to counter arguments.
People do not have to agree about assumptions to enter into meaningful dialogue. Comparison of assumptions places a heavy burden upon dialogue, for it means that we function at the same time with both conviction and openness, with assurance of positions taken even as we expose these positions to critical review. This is the heart of the Socratic elenchos, or refutation. Similarly, Christians do not engage the world simply to convey the truth in final form. Rather, it is a Christian responsibility to attempt to live the truth, and to point to the truth, and thereby engage in the discovery of new truth with others.
So much for abstract description.
There is, of course, a grand history of Christian intellectuals—an impressive line from Paul to Origen and Clement, from Augustine to Pseudo-Dionysius, of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, of Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Wesley.
The tradition of conveying Christian vision initiated the flowering of the English language, and we shall consider the English language tradition. In an appreciation of Geoffrey Chaucer by an immediate successor, Thomas Hoccleve (1368/69?-1450?), Chaucer is acclaimed as “The firste Founder of our faire language.” The source of Chaucer’s inspiration Hoccleve indicates:
As thou knowest,
O Blessed Virgyne,
With lovying hert and hye devocion
In thyne honour he wroot ful many a lyne.
“On Chaucer” from “De Regimine Principium”
From Chaucer to Milton, to Donne, to Gerard Manley Hopkins, to W. H. Auden (to name some poets) the tradition has continued.
But to make this discussion more concrete, I want to mention several recent Christian intellectuals. This impressionistic recall, I hope, will give a sense of range, diversity, distinctiveness, authenticity, and, perhaps, suggestions for contemporary efforts.
Let me say as an introductory caveat that, theologically, we do not look to past figures to ask, was he or she correct? Did these people finally capture the truth? Rather, we attempt to ask reverently: “What, through these faithful people, was God doing?” And: “What can we learn from what they did in their situation about what we should attempt to do in our time and place?”
There has been a tradition of Christian intellectuals in twentieth-century Britain: G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, William Temple, Edwin Muir, Frederick Copleston, and Herbert Butterfield. I choose to mention a particular group of literary figures, namely Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. I mention these people because of the interesting context in which they arose.
In 1936 A. J. Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic. The 26-year-old author brashly and sharply confirmed a basic assumption of the age: the only truth to be respected is either established by empirical observation, or is tautological, that is, definitional (such as mathematics). Everything else—metaphysics, theology, ethics, aesthetics—is literally non-sense. The claim brought technical theologians to heel. They had to return to fresh exploration of the epistemological grounding of theology. Through the Forties and Fifties and Sixties this obsession dominated British theology; and the claim was so severe that academic theology was largely muted for several decades. (There are always exceptions, of course, such as Austin Farrer and Ian Ramsey).
The Laity Speeks Out
In this setting a group whom I call “lay theologians” appeared. These were literary figures who moved around the technical philosophical impasse and utilized imaginative literature to convey Christian understanding. In addition to exploring directly—and they all wrote some explicit theological essays—they utilized other genera as a means of intellectual conveyance. Sayers, Lewis, and Williams wrote novels, and Sayers wrote radio plays. Although they differed theologically, they based their work on received Christian themes, and they freshly discussed human nature, grace, and the nature of God.
Their voices reached beyond ecclesiastical and disciplinary confines and became a part of the cultural conversation. They were consciously aware of what they were doing and, as Christian intellectuals, participated in the cultural struggle of their time.
On the North American scene, the same general period brought forth a diverse group of Christian intellectuals. Again, one can recall a number of names: Kenneth Boulding, Norman Thomas, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Walker Percy. Particularly, I want to remind you of Paul Tillich and Flannery O’Connor; I choose these two because of their diversity.
Paul Tillich attempted a philosophical apologetic. He once told me that he thought his best audiences on campuses were theoretical physicists. Through popular articles, such as his famous article on “Depth” in Look magazine, through sermons and lectures as well as through his formal theological work, Tillich spoke to a wide public. Time magazine invited him to speak to a dinner held for people who had appeared on its cover. After Tillich spoke, according to a report, at one table Casey Stengel was explaining what Tillich had said to his fellow diners (this was truly public theology).
Flannery O’Connor, of course, wrote short stories and novels. She was fully aware of what she was doing as her autobiographical statements make clear, so she explored dimensions of grace in human existence, and this from a clear Roman Catholic perspective. She intruded Christian conceptualization through grotesque, deep, hilarious, reverent, hidden, and revealed probings of human relationships. And she created serious conversation with contemporaries.
Again, there was no close theological consensus among all of these people, and we might find ourselves disagreeing with all of them. But we need to remind ourselves that what often seems like diverseness to insiders seems more alike to outsiders, In spite of theological distinctions, there was a general awareness that these people spoke from Christian convictions. If we ask: What was God doing through their efforts? We find that they were engaging their era in serious dialogue and helped Christian perspectives to be taken into account.
With these quick brush strokes I have only wanted to remind you of some recent predecessors who have practiced public theology.
So much for illustrations. Now for the challenge. We, as Dempster Scholars, were chosen after our seminary careers to represent the intellectual life of the church. We were thought to be people who could serve the church in intellectual ways. We were good students, promising scholars, prospective contributors to the intellectual presentation of Christian faith.
We stood on a borderline between the academy and the church; we, in different ways, participated in dual but intertwined traditions. We were, hopefully, maturing scholars and Christians; persons who could share resources from each side with the other. We possessed promise, we represented possibility. We are now making our contributions. I challenge all of us to assess seriously the nature and scope of our efforts, to seek a richly cultivated intellectual life, to become more learned, and to enter with humility the maelstrom of contemporary culture.
I began by saying that both the church and society need Christian intellectuals. I deeply believe this. Many churches, especially those that have come from revivalistic traditions (and this is true of United Methodism), possess a deep anti-intellectual bias. Lip service is paid to critical thought, but interest is vested in other places.
The church greatly needs intellectual leadership, that is, the leadership of persons who help Christian faith to understand both itself and the world in which it lives. Such leadership will not always be welcome—or given prominence. But the best service some can offer is to insist on critical astuteness in investigating the faith by which we live.
James T. Burtchaell, the former provost of Notre Dame, has recently published a massive, caustic, and pessimistic study of the relation of Christian churches to their institutions of higher education in North America (The Dying of the Light, Eerdmans, 1998). He argues that Protestant pietism—which emphasized individual conversion, the primacy of heartfelt religion, and the down-playing of the intellectual life in religious commitment—led to the separation of learning from the longer and larger theological tradition, from recognition of an ongoing theological intellectual community, and from developing academic life. Learning and religion, he claims, became unrelated, if not mutually exclusive.
He concluded: “For want of a vital theological stimulus over the years, Christian colleges have had little access to an energized and critical faith. What has resulted has been inquiry without any common perspective.”
Burtchaell’s criticism is sharp. He is less appreciative of the values of liberal society than I would be, and his equation of faith with intellectual devotion to truth and learning is more exclusively restrictive than I would make. Nevertheless, his criticism sets a strong challenge for Christian institutions and for Christian intellectuals.
We live at a time when the battle over assumptions—both those of foundations and those of teloi, that is, ends—must be engaged, when distinctive Christian understandings and values must be affirmed, and when clear voices must once more be heard.
Both church and culture need such Christian intellectuals. I assume that this was why Dempster scholarships were established; and I covet for Dempster Scholars that some of us may meet this challenge.
Thomas Langford, An Intellectual Christian
by R. Kevin LaGree
In 1998, in the midst of the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, a group of United Methodist educators, clergy, and laity gathered to celebrate the Dempster Graduate Fellowship program.
The Dempster program, inaugurated in 1954, has strengthened biblical and theological scholarship within the United Methodist Church by providing scholarship support to United Methodist students in Ph.D. programs. This year six United Methodist students received fellowships of $11,000 each, marking the forty- sixth consecutive year that Dempster Fellowships have been awarded.
Dr. Thomas A. Langford, former dean of the Duke University Divinity School and provost of the university—himself a Dempster Fellow—addressed those gathered in Orlando. Tom Langford’s remarks reaffirmed the purpose of the Dempster Fellowships to provide intellectuals for the church. He also reaffirmed the critical need for Christian intellectuals in the public conversations of our time.
As I listened to Tom that night, I was struck by the confluence between his remarks and his life. As I have re-read them today knowing the sad reality of his death, that confluence seems more obvious still. Tom lived the life of the Christian intellectual that he sketched for us that night. With humility and a passion for truth, he “richly and extensively cultivated” the life of the mind and he willingly waded into the rough-and-tumble life of his denomination. He declined to collapse his efforts and focus exclusively on the academy or on the church. Rather, he lived in the tension between church and academy and found in that tension a discipline and creativity that brought light and good sense to both the academy and the church.
Theological schools live on that “borderline between the academy and the church” that Tom charted for us that night. I think those of us who care for theological education in Canada and the United States will benefit from his reflections and from his example.
R. Kevin LaGree, former dean of Chandler Divinity School at Emory University, is president of Simpson College and a member of In Trust's board of directors.