Christian Scholars, Public Intellectuals, and the Challenges of Finitude

I’ve found myself bumping up against my finitude quite a lot in the past month, which has got me to thinking some about the unique challenges for Christian scholars who want to also try to play the role of public intellectuals. (Gideon Strauss’s recent Comment article on the New York intellectuals furthered my thinking on this score.)

Perhaps some prefatory words about “public intellectuals” are in order. By a “public intellectual,” I mean someone who brings critical, analytic, and synthetic theoretical skills to bear on issues of public concern—and then is able to articulate and express both a critique and vision in ways that are provocative, winsome, insightful, and—one hopes—persuasive. Many public intellectuals are credentialed scholars who feel impelled—as a matter of public trust—to take their skills and expertise outside the narrow (but legitimate) discussions of the academy. (A host of examples here, but a few that come to mind: Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins—not to mention a whole host of French thinkers from Sartre to Derrida to Luc Ferry.) But two provisos are in order here: First, not all scholars are, or are called to be, public intellectuals. And I don’t mean to suggest that scholars who stay within the confines of academic discourse are somehow failing in their vocation. The world of scholarly investigation and conversation is a legitimate end in itself and need not be justified only by “application” to public issues. That would be to fall into the worst sort of pragmatism. Second, not all public intellectuals are (or need be) credentialed scholars. Someone like Christopher Hitchens immediately comes to mind. A brilliant, critical mind emerging from Oxford, Hitchens does not have a PhD. But that hardly undercuts his ability to fulfill the role I’ve sketched above.

Now, with that in mind, I think there is a unique set of challenges for the Christian scholar who would seek to be a public intellectual. Let me enumerate just three as a start:

1. The Christian scholar who senses a vocation as a public intellectual immediately runs up against a challenge that I would think does not confront a “secular” public intellectual: guilt. Perhaps this is the result of my Calvinism working overtime, but I think it is a phenomenon that was glimpsed powerfully by Augustine in Book X of the Confessions. I need to ask myself just why I want to be a public intellectual. Is it just for the (relative) “fame?” Augustine’s reflection on this challenge is, for me, one of the most haunting passages of the Confessions. Extending his reflection on the temptations outlined in 1 John 2:16 (the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and worldly ambition), Augustine lands on the third as the one that continues to plague him most: “Surely the third kind of temptation has not ceased to trouble me, nor during the whole of this life can it cease. The temptation is to wish to be feared or loved by people for no reason other than the joy derived from such power.” (Conf. 10.36.59). In fact, upon becoming a bishop, the temptation only increased such that Augustine the bishop could confess: “This is [not “was”] the main cause why I fail to love you.” And I have to confess the same.

And so, unlike other public intellectuals who aren’t beset by this Augustinian self-suspicion, the Christian who would become a public intellectual and who is really honest with himself or herself must run up against this kind of lust for fame operative in one’s soul. That first whiff of public acclaim is an intoxicating drug. But Augustine also recognizes the complexity and messiness of all this, for he clearly counsels that the solution is not a withdrawal from acting for the public good. For indeed, even the one acting as a public intellectual (and surely a bishop was a public intellectual) with the purest of motives will nevertheless find himself the subject of praise and acclamation. Should Augustine abandon doing his public labors well just so that he’s not tempted by fame and the praise of men? By no means, he concludes. This would be akin to think the way to avoid gluttony is to avoid eating. Rather, the good work of a public intellectual should be accompanied by a rigorous self-examination—and real honesty about how easy it is to get hooked on the drug of “public interest.”

2. There is a second unique challenge for Christian public intellectuals, I think: a matter of time, and particularly finitude. Being a public intellectual requires an almost tiring attentiveness to “the signs of the times” and to what’s happening. A public intellectual is almost by nature a reactive beast, responding to the contingencies of always unfolding cultures. And to put the point bluntly: this just requires a lot of time. The day begins by scouring the dailies (The New York Times, and maybe the LA Times and Washington Post; perhaps The Guardian, The Globe & Mail, Le Monde and the BBC for international perspectives). On top of this is the responsibility of keeping up with the monthlies (The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, etc.) and quarterlies (Wilson Quarterly, New Left Review, New Criterion, etc.). Add to this the responsibility of actually reading books, both new non-fiction and fiction (and, in my case, trying to make up for the lack of a liberal arts education by working one’s way through the “classics”—I’m currently in a Proust phase).

And then there’s the challenge—in the midst of all this reading—of finding time to actually write. If one retains an academic post which requires straight-up “scholarly” publication, then writing in the mode of a public intellectual happens in the margins and off the side of one’s desk. And such writing, because of its occasional nature, must often be done quickly.

Now, that in itself is quite a full-plate for anyone (particularly since I haven’t even mentioned the other realities and obligations that are “givens”—especially family). But this is also where the unique challenge for a Christian public intellectual sets in, in at least a couple of ways.

First, when it comes to keeping abreast of what’s happening, the Christian public intellectual has another entire world to monitor and understand, which translates into another complete set of alternative readings responsibilities. So beyond keeping up with the readings noted above, the Christian public intellectual is also reading the Christian Century, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Commonweal, etc. There is another world to keep up on—a sort of parallel universe about which someone like Christopher Hitchens doesn’t have to bother. (Though, one could admit that we live in strange times, when the worlds of Vanity Fair and Jerry Falwell have come to overlap!) All of this reading takes time, which is dispensed in only finite allotments.

Second, the Christian public intellectual has another set of commitments that fills up the slate of time. In particular, I’m thinking of the very banal reality that, for the Christian public intellectual, Sunday mornings are pretty much shot (not, of course, on an eternal register, but you get the idea). I confess to having a certain envy for my secular friends who enjoy leisurely Sunday mornings on the upper westside, slowly ambling through the Sunday Times, maybe catching up on a Harper’s article, or curling up with a Wilde play or Rushdie’s latest novel. Sunday mornings, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg, since many of those who sense a burden and vocation as Christian public intellectuals also have a sense of service to the church, and thus are often involved in time intensive labors related to the ministry of the church. (Granted, this isn’t true for all; in fact some “Christian” intellectuals solve this problem by abandoning the church!)

3. Finally, I think the Christian public intellectual is burdened by a multiplication of publics. The “public” for the ‘secular’ public intellectual is relatively defined, though there might be varying levels (from smaller ‘highbrow’ publics to broader ‘middle-brow’ publics). The “public” here just represents those readers of the canonical periodicals and monthlies. But here again, the work of the Christian public intellectual is doubled, since the church represents its own public, with its own institutions (e.g., its own canonical periodicals and monthlies, etc). And this public is much more variegated and diverse, particularly with respect to education levels, political orientations, and general configuration of “what matters.” So the Christian public intellectual needs to have the flexibility of a gymnast and the agility of an acrobat—as well as the stamina of Hidalgo just to keep up the work!

I don’t mean this piece to sound like whining (no doubt it does). Rather, I mean only to say that I have the utmost respect for the labors of our public intellectuals, and that respect is doubled for Christian public intellectuals (Cornel West, George Weigel, etc.) who are able to manage all of these challenges without sacrificing what really matters.