The Christian intellectual tradition is alive and well

"The Watchmen" article by Alan Jacobs, published in Harper’s Magazine. Illustration by John Ritter. Image courtesy of Harper’s Magazine
"The Watchmen" article by Alan Jacobs published in the September edition of Harper’s Magazine. Images courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

“The Watchmen” article by Alan Jacobs published in the September edition of Harper’s Magazine. Images courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

(RNS) In 1947 and 1948, respectively, Christian scholars C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Since then, commentators have bemoaned the disappearance of the Christian intellectual.

Powerful social changes are behind the apparent decline: increasing pluralism, secularization, the decline of Protestant hegemony and the supposed triumph of science over faith as the best way to understand the modern world.

In the September issue of Harper’s, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs dispenses with the standard explanations for why Christian thinkers are not considered authoritative voices in public debates.

Conservative evangelicals blame a hostile elite for forcibly excluding them from positions of cultural influence. Mainline Protestants posit a decades-long transition from being the public face of American religion to just another face in the crowd.

Jacobs’ very fine essay argues that the disappearance of the Christian intellectuals “isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”

But here’s the truth: The Christian intellectual tradition is alive and well.

For those who want to engage age-old questions of meaning and values through the lenses of faith and reason, opportunities are practically endless. In every stream of American Christianity, believers are thoughtfully invigorating their faith through reading, writing, devotion and service.

Harvard theologian Ronald Thiemann, who died in 2012, challenged Christians not to long for “our Reinhold Niebuhr,” but rather to think more broadly about religion and the public intellectual. Modern men and women continue to perceive sacred value, even if outside the bounds of historic Christian institutions.

Whether inside or outside of church communities, the continued strength of religious publishing and the internet’s radical democratization of information offer broad access to a range of Christian thinkers who are intellectuals, if not scholars.

It’s true that the most famous Christians — megachurch pastors, evangelists and best-selling authors such as Rick Warren, Billy Graham and Max Lucado — do not write high-minded academic tomes. But believers of all stripes can find exemplary Christian intellectuals in their own traditions.

It’s said that American religion is 3,000 miles wide but only an inch deep. There is a strong anti-intellectual thread running through Christianity in this country, and the notion that a large audience clamored for the pronouncements of intellectuals like Lewis and Niebuhr is certainly a historical exception, if it is even true.

American Christians, especially in the most popular traditions, have looked with suspicion on highly educated co-religionists with ties to elite institutions. From pushback against 19th-century Unitarians and liberals who reconciled Christianity and science to today’s embrace of anti-intellectual political and religious figures, Christians might benefit from a more rigorous intellectual engagement with faith, even if they resist it.

Sure, Christians may revere intellectuals such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. But remember that Jesus, through whom God reconciled the world unto himself, was basically a layman. The central figure in human history held no advanced degrees.

Christianity, then, offers a corrective against the misplaced faith in science, expertise and technical progress that made the 20th century so dehumanizing and deadly — and may have created the expectation that Christians should be prominent public intellectuals in the first place.

Instead, conservatives congregated in institutions where they would not have to compete with secular ideas, while liberals tried too hard to blend in with fashionable academic and cultural elites.

We may not have Christian public intellectuals today, but we may not need them. With religion’s authority eroded and increased pluralism inevitable, neither presidents nor publics will seek the counsel of theologians any time soon.

This may be a blessing in disguise. The loudest Christian voices today are almost always among the least reflective. And popular success depends more on self-promotion, image and entrepreneurship than meeting widely agreed-upon standards of excellence.

It may be comforting to recall an era when middlebrow publications like Time and Reader’s Digest could assume a certain level of religious interest and literacy. But a movement that measures time in millennia should not be troubled that its leading thinkers have not been on magazine covers the last few decades.

Christians with intellectual gifts will be helping their brothers and sisters think through the great questions and challenges of their lives long past the end of Time. And maybe until the end of time.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.


Click here to post a comment

  • Christian intellectual – an oxymoron. At best, by removing the supernatural and superstition, it can be debated and argued as a philosophy. It cannot explain how the world works.

  • If what you say is true, which I will not admit intellectually or otherwise, the same can be said for Atheism. Atheism is an assertion without structure.

  • Atheism exists because religions, such as Christianity, are assertions without legitimate corroborating evidence. Otherwise, atheism would have no more credibility than flat-earthism.

  • Athiests/agnostics generally have reached a conclusion that there is no definitive evidence to support the existence of the supernatural. These are not beliefs or a religion, but conclusions reached after examining the evidence.

  • There is no “faith” in science. There is a recognition that science is the best approach to understanding the natural world and to determine the best way to adapt to it.
    Science and knowledge do not “dehumanize” the world, people do through prejudice, greed, selfishness, the desire for power, etc. Science does not conflict with the Golden Rule but provides evidence to support it. We know though examples from other developed countries (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Canada, UK, France, Germany) that universal health care provides better results (avoiding unnecessary deaths and suffering) for lower costs (two thirds to a half lower) than the mishmash of the US health care approach. We know that widespread vaccination prevents unnecessary suffering and death. We know that acid rain is detrimental to the environment and the public. We know that lead in gasoline and mercury from power plants pose great threats to public health.
    How science and knowledge are used by people is something that is solely under control of people. Whether nuclear technology is used to build bombs or to provide energy or to cure cancer is a choice that people make.

  • In the 4th century BC a philosopher first noticed the ‘seen’ (natural) world was different and separate from the ‘unseen’ (supernatural) world. He noticed that there were natural laws that were consistent and discoverable and had nothing to do with religion. This was the beginning of the science v spirit debate. Were they separate or one? Just like now religionists fought to keep science in the shadows and even invented miracle stories to say nature could be manipulated with spirit and the mind, proving they were one. When we hear or read the water to wine story or pillar of salt story that’s why they were written and very close to the same time.

    I bring this up because nothing much has changed has it.

  • “Jesus, through whom God reconciled the world unto himself, was basically a layman. The central figure in human history held no advanced degrees.”

    Um, Jesus was the son of god. How much more advanced can a degree be?

    While I disagree with aspects of this article, I think the premise is important. Christian intellectuals have not disappeared at all, but the press and must-be-entertained public ignore them because their writings are not controversial and exciting enough.

    Look to the mainline churches and their institutions for them – ELCA, Unitarians, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Presbyterian Church in America, Disciples of Christ and others. In short, look to the churches that encourage and even embrace disagreement and vigorous debate. Individuals with active and inquiring minds gravitate toward such places, as they always have.

  • Anti-intellectualism is strong and thriving in America. As one example, just look at the change of title of the first Harry Potter book. In England, it was published as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, with reference to the medieval alchemical idea of a substance that could change other substances into gold. The publishers apparently felt that this was too sophisticated for America, where the book came out as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. Indeed, most people I spoke to here had never heard of the philosopher’s stone. And that is sad. (Myself, I first came across the term while reading Eric Kelly’s historical novel “The Trumpeter of Krakow” at about age 11 or 12.)

    We are now at a time in American history where Pew Research shows that 23% of Americans did not read a book in 2014, up from 8% according to Gallup in 1978. Nor do Americans read as much as others do. A study called the NOP World Culture Score Index shows that people in India read the most, over 10 hours per week, followed closely by China, Thailand and the Philippines. Americans are in the bottom half of the chart, at 5.48 hours per week, immediately below Canada.

    Nor is intellectualism respected culturally or in politics. Former Senator Scott Brown, campaigning against now Senator Elizabeth Warren, would insult her by calling her “the professor”. Spiro Agnew would try to gain political traction by damning the “nattering nabobs of negativism”, and declaring an intellectual is someone who “does not know how to park a bike.” Donald Trump declares openly that he does not need very much knowledge to make decisions. Comments in the news blogs repeat the idea that intellectuals have no worldly knowledge. “Common sense” is respected above “good sense”. Science is attacked by those who cannot comprehend it. False reports that vaccines cause autism are readily believed. Evidence based on the known speed of light that the universe is 13.5 billion years old is challenged by literal readings of Genesis, readings which require a very small universe. Likewise, for the same reason, multi-millions of consistent pieces of evidence of evolution are rejected by millions of Americans who insist on a deity that produced a human being one morning fully formed, with language, speech, etc. Periodically, in Pennsylvania, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, state or county boards of education try to enact these superstitions as fact to be taught.

    America is in the deep grips of anti-intellectual beliefs and behaviour. Yes, there are great thinkers here, in all fields, including Christianity, though I doubt very much that the average Christian would like what Tim Callahan has to say in his book “The Secret Origins of the Bible” or what Karen Armstrong has to say in “A History of God”. But then again, that average Christian would not read those books.

  • Just for fun, I occasionally read the FB page of noted intellectual Franklin Graham. If he isn’t screaming about the LGBT community, he’s screaming about the Muslims (he also constantly dissembles about the facts). His lovely disciples constantly rant about this being the “last days” (you’d think those idiots would be careful throwing that nonsense around, given that Christians have been burned on the “last days” issue for, oh, 2,000 years), issuing death threats – seriously – to the President, and referring to “Killary,” and how Trump has been called by God, just like Cyrus.

    Then, for funsies, I read the “Charisma” website to see what sorts of exciting prophecies Christian intellectuals have come up with recently. And then it’s off to see what Michelle Bachman, another noted Christian intellectual has been saying.

    What an appalling bunch.

  • “Um, Jesus was the son of god. How much more advanced can a degree be?”

    And yet, Jesus never conveyed one shred of knowledge to anyone that went beyond the level of ignorance that was prevalent during the period he lived. While Jesus was shooting the breeze with his disciples around the campfire, at the very least I would have expected him to say, “I’ll tell you guys a secret ~ the earth is a sphere that rotates on it’s axis, and revolves around the sun.” Shouldn’t the son of God have know that, plus much more?

  • “But remember that Jesus, through whom God reconciled the world unto himself, was basically a layman.”
    Yes, but a layman who was a member of the Godhead.

  • Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings are available at https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%28reinhold+niebuhr%29+AND+mediatype%3A%28texts%29&sort=-date
    I am now reading “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.” It seems to be a journal he kept as a pastor from 1915 into 1928. He was 23 when he began keeping his notes. Most of his comments are made about topics still current today: War, police, race, stock manipulation, churches using entertainment to attract crowds, and on and on….

  • Conclusions certainly fall into the category of belief. Where the religious and the non-religious find their divergence is in their assessments of the evidence, and what they define as evidence. When the two philosophical subsets cannot even agree on what constitutes evidence, then they will never find a nexus of agreement. Name calling and disdain which at bottom is often the visceral response of intemperate people towards those with whom they disagree is often the result. A circumstance I try not to contribute to, not always with success.

  • As a Christian who agrees with you, you’d be surprised how important spelling, grammar, and punctuation are in communicating arguments. Opponents will seize on anything to denigrate your position, even your spelling.

  • It is not just a matter of spelling. “Compliment” and “complement” mean two very different things. Compliment means to praise something about another, as in “That is a very nice hat.” Complement means to address things or issues that another does not, as in yin and yang. An example would be, “Religion depends on revelation, while intellect depends on reason.”

  • That’s ridiculous. Jesus and his disciples were not concerned with scientific truth. They were concerned with morals, purpose, law, and God. If Jesus said such things (perhaps he did, and they weren’t written down), his disciples probably and rightly would have viewed them as inconsequential to their lives and the society which surrounded them.

  • To me, it’s amazing that so many anti-religionists read and comment on articles like this, or on this website at all.

  • Conclusions based on evidence and logic are not beliefs. A conclusion might be incorrect in that the evidence might be faulty or the logic flawed. However, belief (confidence in something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof) is a different beast. Science (the non-religious) requires measurable facts and rational logic to reach a conclusion. I know of no religious evidence meeting the requirement of being a measurable fact. I know of no repeatable science experiments that have shown the existence or the non-existence of the supernatural. The choice is to believe in the supernatural absent of facts, to admit we do not know if it exists, or to conclude that it does not exist with the caveat that some evidence may be found in the future that would alter the conclusion.

  • Your comment coincides with something I believe is obvious, which is that the primary purpose of Christianity (and probably most religions) is to be a system that facilitates the ability of people lusting for power to rigidly control other people’s experiences, thought processes, beliefs, and behaviors/actions . . . which in essence gives them complete power over their gullible subjects, including the ability to extract money from them.

    If it hadn’t been for the stranglehold of religion, I strongly suspect that the scientific/technological advancements of the Twentieth Century could have occurred several centuries earlier.

    If we look at today’s world, the least religious nations generally rank highest in every measure of human achievement, prosperity, and general well-being ~ while the most religious nations generally rank lowest in those measures. (Even within the United States a similar correlation can be seen, to some degree, among the states.)

  • It is not anti-religious to criticize a baseless statement such as “misplaced faith in science, expertise and technical progress that made the 20th century so dehumanizing and deadly”.

  • Besides saying multiple facets of why you hate religion, I don’t really see how that really relates to my comment.

  • It relates to your comment because you said: “Jesus and his disciples were not concerned with scientific truth. They were concerned with morals, purpose, law, and God.”

    Not being concerned with scientific truth is something which retarded the progress of humanity for many centuries.

    And being obsessed with [so-called] morals, purpose, law, and God is all geared toward rigidly controlling other people’s experiences, thought processes, beliefs, and behaviors/actions. Most of the so-called moral constraints in the Bible are not grounded in evidence of harm caused to other people. And if a behavior causes no verifiable tangible harm to other people, then it should not be considered immoral despite the claims of some ancient guys claiming that god said so . . . and homosexuality is a prime example of that.

  • Your definition of “Conclusions” is merely a matter of semantics. If one does not believe in one’s own conclusions, it is hardly a conclusion at all.

  • Homosexuality is not a prime teaching of Christianity so I would steer away from using that as a great example of laws that do not explicitly hurt other people. Most of the main moral teachings of the new testament do relate to the effect actions have on other people. In the new testament, for example, it says “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” To me, the first relates to motivation, and the second relates to ethics. None of the teachings are about scientific truth, not necessarily because it is useless for the purpose of helping people and advancing society, but because his contemporaries couldn’t do anything with it. They were concerned with how to live and use the gift of life properly in a trying period of time.

  • Interesting. Looking at Christianity, we can see the Catholic Church actively repressing science until at least the mid-1600s (e.g., the Galileo controversy). Protestant religions pounded Darwin (and still do) despite the multi-millions of pieces of evidence that have been found to support evolution. Science in Islam flourished until the religious leaders declared independent reasoning, ijtihad, to be closed at the end of the 10th century. Thereafter, science in Islam all but died.

  • “[Opposition to] homosexuality is not a prime teaching of Christianity so I would steer away from using that as a great example of laws that do not explicitly hurt other people.”

    That’s funny, because browsing the internet quickly gives the impression that homosexuality is, by far, the most abominable sin in all of Christianity. There seems to be no other topic which generates anywhere near the number of comments as homosexuality. And the vast majority of the anti-gay commenters are clearly not content to limit the applicability of their rules to voluntary members of their club, but feel entitled and driven to impose them on non-members of their club.

  • Very true. It is sad, but that is not representative of many Christians in the US. But if you are familiar with the Bible, and specifically the teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in it, he makes no comment on homosexuality. Paul does once or twice, and it is also mentioned in the Tanakh, but the rest of the hundreds of pages are related to how people should relate to each other and to those outside the community. The fact that Christians become so overwhelmingly obsessed with it in various countries is really a shame, but to me, it’s only a result of culture, not religious teaching. I think the intellectuals mentioned in this article would feel similarly about the issue.

  • christian think and say the same about atheism and agnostic. We are all left with a choice to belief or not, dedicating our life to those conviction and trying to solidify our position with evidence and reasoning, the difference being religious people take that necessity of faith positively. You should read Les pensées de Blaise Pascal and come to the conclusion that atheism and agnostic position are, at their best, purely illogical.