This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. He serves as a contributing editor of The New Atlantis and is the author of several books including The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and The Narnia: The Imagination of C.S. Lewis. His most recent essay appeared in Harper’s Magazine and is titled, “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” Professor Alan Jacobs, welcome to Thinking in Public.
MOHLER: Writing recently at Harper’s Magazine, Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor wrote, “Half a century ago, such figures existed in America—serious, Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time now to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and—whether such a thing were thought desirable—if they’d return.” Professor Jacobs, behind an article like that filled with a great deal of reflection, but also a great deal of passion, there is something that explains how that article came to be. Can you tell us that story?
JACOBS: Sure, interestingly enough, it was a request from an editor at Harper’s Magazine, which is very surprising to me. Christopher Beha, who is a wonderful editor, a very fine writer as well, and someone who I think has felt for some time that Harper’s as a general interest monthly magazine covering a wide range of cultural, social, and political issues wasn’t doing a very good job of covering religion in America, and its audience needed to hear a little bit more about religion in America. So Chris and I sat down and went back and forth about what possible topics might be, and I threw out a few topics. This was the one that caught his attention. Then, that was when my problems began because trying to condense a story that complex into six thousand words was one of the more challenging things that I’ve done as a writer.
MOHLER: Well, I can understand that, and I appreciate the fact that your essay appeared in Harper’s. I’ve been reading Harper’s and The Atlantic kind of as a duo since I was in high school, and both of them caught my attention. It seems after reading those magazines for about forty years that every decade or so, they wake up and realize that they’ve missed the religion story. So, they come back to it again and again as if all of the sudden they realize there are actually people out there who operate on very different intellectual terms.
JACOBS: Millions and millions of them. So, perhaps there is this spasm of guilt of something neglected. And then, I suppose, I was just blessed to be—or cursed to be, but I think blessed to be—the person that Christopher called on at that particular moment.
MOHLER: Well, I think I can understand why. Your essay is extremely thoughtful, and I responded to it with my own essay, and I know others have as well. But I began with a real appreciation with what you had to say. I hope that the conversation thus far has been fruitful from your side.
JACOBS: It has been fruitful, though it has been interesting to me to see how difficult it has been for some people to understand what I was trying to do. The primary issue has been that it’s very difficult to get people to understand that when you refer to someone as an intellectual, you are not paying them a compliment, and when you don’t put them into that particular box that you are insulting them in some way. I was using a specific definition of the intellectual that was given by the sociologist Karl Mannheim, and for Mannheim, an intellectual was a social role. It’s something that people could do badly. It’s something that people who aren’t very smart might try to do, and indeed, might succeed in doing for a relatively limited audience. But it’s the role of interpreter, the person who is going to explain to you how all of this works. And in that sense, an intellectual is a little bit different than an activist. Or, someone who is in charge of or responsible to a particular institution. The Pope, for instance, might be incredibly intelligent, incredibly learned, as Pope Benedict was, and is, but not necessarily an intellectual in Mannheim’s sense, because he’s in charge of the church, and he has things he has to do. He’s not standing apart; he’s not commenting and interpreting; he’s an advocate. I think that was true of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an advocate; he was an activist. And so if you say those people don’t fit the Mannheim definition of intellectual, people hear that as an insult to often figures that they love and revere. So, that’s been the most difficult part of it, to try to get people to accept that definition and work within it.
MOHLER: You know, my response was based upon a different concern—I can see that concern—I think part of the problem with an article like this is that people aren’t going to operate on Mannheim’s definition of an intellectual, they’re going to operate out of a more popular understanding. I think that’s true, not only of Christians who have responded, but honestly, the readers of Harper’s who may have read it. But I think it also goes back to the fact that this is not only the type of angst that shows up in Harper’s every decade or so, but it tends to show up amongst intellectuals pretty regularly. For instance, on my bookshelves I’ve got a host of books and titles from the left such as Frank Furedi’s Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, or the kind of approach taken by some on the left that there has been a complete displacement of the elites and they don’t have their rightful place.
I grew up in a time in which you had people my age who, when we got to college, we were made familiar with the arguments made by people like John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Bell: intellectuals were going to rule the world. Of course, both of them had proposals as to how exactly that would happen. Galbraith’s proposal, which you could basically call, I guess, the Kennedy Administration, the best and the brightest, as Halverson said. Is this something that is unique to asking about the Christian intellectuals, or is this a larger question about intellectuals in public life in Western nations right now?
JACOBS: Yeah, you’re absolutely right that it’s part of the larger question. You mentioned that you have several books of that sort on your bookshelf. Russell Jacobe’s book, The Last Intellectual, is one that I would mention because of that title, in the sense that they are gone. I mention in my article only briefly Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, which I think marked, right there in the early sixties, the decline was evident of the role of the intellectual in American life in general. I think more than anything else—and, again, this is something that I tried to gesture at more than write about it in detail—but I think that had to do with the rise of scientific authority, the sense that these were the people that we turn to to get the answers to our most fundamental questions. So, I mention briefly the eulogies which were given to the Hungarian physicist John von Neumann when he died in 1957, I think it was, and he got the kind of attention that someone who was setting the course for America that perhaps someone like Reinhold Niebuhr might have aspired to but never quite got to. So, I think of course you would cite, “Well isn’t a scientist an intellectual?” Well, not really. In one sense, yes. But, in another sense, the scientist has his or her distinctive kind of claim: “You know, we’re not sitting back and reflecting and reading. We’re studying; we’re doing experiments; we’re finding out what’s true. And so, therefore, you can rely on us.” And that authority of the scientist was something that had become somewhat dramatic in American life by the time that Hofstadter wrote. So, that’s something that affects Christians, but it’s something that affects a whole world of people as well.
MOHLER: You know, you mention Hofstadter, I simply must inject here, we could go on in a thousand different directions, but I do want to point out that by the time you read his book on anti-intellectualism in American life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, it’s clear that he doesn’t believe that there is the possibility of an intellectual who’s not clearly on the left. And, I don’t mean in kind of the center left, I mean the far-left.
JACOBS: The same thing with Russell Jacobe two decades later, writing The Last Intellectual. What he’s talking about is the end of a movement which was largely centered on Partisan Review and other kinds of organs of the, again, the far left—liberal, or Trotskyite left—that’s where intellectuals are. What’s interesting about that is that I think, precisely because they had no hope of any immediate social power, there was more of a genuinely intellectual culture happening on the right in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, largely around the crowd surrounding William F. Buckley’s National Review, which was a much more high-brow kind of venue then than it is now. There was a sense of trying to think through first-order political principles, not necessarily in ways that I would always agree with, though often agreed with, but it was a place of intellectual energy. I think that kind of right intellectual culture was something that happened in part because those were people who didn’t think that they had a chance of entering into the conversations that the left was having.
MOHLER: You know, one of the really interesting things about that is that Buckley secured Russell Kirk as an ongoing columnist. Without it, we’d probably not be having the same conversation about either Buckley or the National Review. At that time Kirk, who’s work The Conservative Mind had been reviewed in virtually every intellectual journal and all the major newspapers as all of the sudden the emergence of something that hadn’t been seen, as The New York Times said, in generations—that was the conservative mind, the conservative evangelical—and there it was. You mentioned Partisan Review, and for that reason, I’ve got to jump into—and I’m holding in my hands right now Partisan Review 3: Religion and the Intellectuals (1950)—and it’s an incredible shot of history here. It’s a snapshot. In it are John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Allen Tate—Allen Tate was the outlier here—Sidney Hook, also W. H. Auden. You’ve got them in here, and here you have Partisan Review, which probably was the equivalent of the New Criterion in Great Britain, kind of the thing that every intellectual wanted to have it on his desk when someone walked into his office. All of the sudden they are awakening to the fact that American intellectuals in the 1950s just might—by the time you get to the end of these essays the “might” has been replaced with “probably not”—take religion seriously. The reason I bring that up is that’s sixty-six years ago.
JACOBS: Yeah, it really is, and I would say—and by the way I think Auden was as much an outlier as Allen Tate, though in a slightly different way, because he was still very much in what he called his “neo-Calvinist mode” at that time and he could bring some of that heavy lumber against the easy conscious of the American left, and I think that he and Allen Tate do that there. Maybe that is an early example of what you were talking about a little earlier on, the once-a-decade moment when general interest magazines like Harper’s or The Atlantic say, “Oh! We’ve been neglecting religion. We need to start thinking about that.” I think that was the Partisans Review’s version of that same moment, “Oh, well let’s gather together some people and let’s hear that they have to say.” And then you publish it, and they’re done. “There, we’ve thought about religion.” People think that that’s done and dusted, we’ve done our due diligence, but then what they find out several years later is that there are still millions and millions of deeply religious people around, and it turns out that the secular left doesn’t know how to think about them and how to deal with them now more than they did ten years ago or fifteen years before that.
MOHLER: Now, when I read your essay and it came to my attention very early before the print edition was out, I read it immediately. First of all, I’ll read anything you write. I’ve appreciated your work over the years. I remember reading you when you were working for First Things and then all of your books—all stacked here in a row and well-marked. So, I wasn’t surprised, I’m not surprised now, to know that Harper’s asked you to write the essay, and I’m not at all surprised that you wrote it as you did. Just in response, I wanted to point out that the big fear I have is that—and this is not personal at all, it’s just about how this conversation tends to go—it is that the Christian intellectuals end up not being very Christian by the time that society is ready to acknowledge that they just might be an intellectual.
JACOBS: Yeah, I quote in there Jean Elshtain, “The problem with becoming a public intellectual is that over time you grow more and more public but less and less intellectual.” I think that almost every day the Christian intellectual is faced with a pressure to compromise one side or the other of his or her identity. And this is something that I think about a lot because I know that—here’s a personal turn—as soon as I started working on this essay, I knew what I needed to be prayerful about, which was overcoming the temptation to say what a Harper’s audience will want to hear, and to try to stick to my guns the best I can while at the same time being aware that I’m not talking to my fellow Christians there. By and large, most of the readers of Harper’s are not religious believers, or not strong religious believers. Few of them, even the ones who are religious believers, are not people who have a strong Christian vocabulary. So, I’m writing as a Christian there for a secular audience, which means there are things that I would love to say about this whole phenomenon that I cannot say for that audience. I just wanted to make sure that what I do say, I believe to be true. That is, I cannot say everything that I believe to be true, but Lord help me that I don’t say anything that I don’t believe to be true.
MOHLER: Well, I’m certain of that, and I have to admit to you, there was a certain time bomb, or perhaps a better metaphor is land mine, that I couldn’t help but run over because of my own personal experience and intellectual pilgrimage. And that is Reinhold Niebuhr, because that gets to be very personal because Reinhold Niebuhr personally taught a number of the professors that I had, who held him up as the great example. In the course of my doctoral study, and other things, I read Reinhold Niebuhr, all of him, and some of him a great deal more than once, and not without profit. I learned a great deal about how to read history in a different way than had I not and rich with Christian tradition. I could draw a direct line from Augustine I think to Niebuhr in terms of reading human history, but I realized there is very little theology here, that it’s the importing of an Augustinian, I’ll even say a biblical understanding of sin, and a social dimension, but the more I read Niebuhr the more I recognized this is really not a Christian theologian at work. Maybe a public intellectual, but there’s certainly not much distinctively Christian here.
JACOBS: I think I have a slightly different view. I think for instance, well first of all I think we want to distinguish between Niebuhr as public figure and whatever Niebuhr, privately, may have believed, which I think is highly questionable. And then I think we also have to distinguish between Niebuhr at his best and Niebuhr at his worst. And those things can come fairly closely together with one another. So, for instance, I think that Augustinian account of human sinfulness—when he does the nature and destiny of man—I think he’s really good on the nature of man, because it is, I think, a clearly, strongly Augustinian and Pauline—and therefore biblical—picture of fallen, unredeemed humanity. But when he gets to the destiny of man, I think he starts getting hesitant because he wants to have a publicly acceptable message. This is being published by a big New York publishing house, Charles Scribner’s, and he does not want to be too particularistically Christian at that point. And yet isn’t the whole Christian message that there is one means of deliverance? “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul says, and he has a very clear and straightforward answer to that and there is one person who can do that.
So I think that’s where Niebuhr is great—the way I think of it is he’s a great diagnostician. He’s really good at diagnosing what’s wrong. But then when it comes time to make a prescription for curing, for fixing it, that’s when he starts to get hesitant. And there’s a really interesting moment when Auden, who is again the figure I’ve studied the most, when Auden was a new Christian, though someone who had studied Christianity for a long time, in 1941 when Niebuhr’s book Christianity and Power Politics came out, Auden said something very similar to that. And he was a friend of the Niebuhrs, Niebuhr and his wife Ursula, who was English. But he was quite strict with him there. He says, “I see that Dr. Niebuhr was very good at exposing the bogus, but sometimes you can be so good at exposing the bogus that you lose sight of what is authentic, what is genuine, and what is real.” And he says, “I wonder if Dr. Niebuhr saw a saint that he would recognize that saint for what he is. And that is a very good point, I think, and a good critique.”
MOHLER: Professor Alan Jacob’s essay in Harper’s Magazine is an example of the fact that a written essay can still, almost immediately, become a catalyst for conversation. It’s interesting to note, at least at this point, that most of that conversation seems to be among the Christians in terms of the question, “Where are now the Christian intellectuals?” It’s going to be interesting to see if the non-Christian world, that is the larger secular world, enters into this conversation at all. They’ve got no choice knowing this essay appears in Harper’s Magazine. It will be very interesting to see what others have to say about it.
MOHLER: I ended up giving a public lecture at the Clemons Center, the Johnston School of Public Policy, University of Texas, on American mainline Protestant thought and foreign policy. And I really enjoyed doing that. And in so doing, it took me back to reading Niebuhr all over again. And I was reminded of the fact—and this was important to my response to your article—just how important Reinhold Niebuhr was in the Cold War, and the fact that his realism, in terms of prescriptions for American foreign policy, became very much appreciated by the Truman administration, also by the Eisenhower administration, and by Henry Luce who was the founder of TIME, who put Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover. But at the same time I was reminded again of how routinely Niebuhr was dismissed by the academy. I was reminded of James Conan, the President of Harvard, trying to bring him to Harvard and to no avail. This is such a mixed picture.
JACOBS: Yeah, it really is a mixed picture. In the article, there’s a point where I’m putting what I think to be the key issue, the key issue is this: for the Christian public intellectual, if there is to be such a thing, that person has got to be both audible and free. That is, if you’re going to be genuinely public, then you’ve got to be audible, you’ve got to be somewhere where people can hear you, people across the range of the culture can hear you. But you’ve also got to be free. You’ve got to be free to be able to speak out of genuine Christian conviction or else what’s the point of you? Why would you even be there if you don’t have that to say? And finding that audibility, along with the freedom, has been really problematic for a long time. And you can lose freedom, not because people are constraining you, but because you’re constraining yourself. And I think that is—you mentioned this in your response—the downfall of liberal Protestant establishment in America. And I think that that downfall happened. Now what a lot of people will say in the liberal Protestant world is that well, we lost our—people stopped listening to us, and so we became marginal. And my argument is that they stopped listening to you because you ceased to have anything distinctive to say; when you didn’t want to say anything that was distinctly or particularly Christian; when all you could really do was to say “Me too” to what the rest of the world was saying. Then why should they listen to you anymore? You became inaudible because you chose to speak in ways that were no longer particularistically, distinctively, recognizably Christian. So everybody else was already saying that stuff, who needs you? So I think they marginalized themselves in that regard. There was a certain self-marginalizing by evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics also, but for almost opposite reasons.
MOHLER: Yeah, I want to follow that now a bit. And I want to try to do it on your terms, or at least, say, the terms you set with Mannheim’s definition of the intellectual. So let’s go back to Mannheim’s definition of cultural production. So I want to ask you—because this is also something that engendered controversy in your essay—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you basically say, or imply, that evangelicals, or Christian intellectuals, a better way to put it, willingly withdrew and that it’s largely our fault that there are no Christian intellectuals in the larger public square. And let’s go back to Mannheim for a minute with the cultural production. What didn’t happen that should have? Even trying to take it on those terms, I’m up against a hard place trying to answer the question, What didn’t happen that should have?
JACOBS: Well, Dr. Mohler, I’m not sure that there was anything that should have. Here’s what I mean by that: Christians—orthodox, biblical, Nicene Christians, evangelicals, yes, but also traditionalist Catholics—found themselves in a situation where the intelligentsia and educated classes were to some degree drifting away from them. It was becoming more difficult for them to get a hearing. They became concerned, I think, to make sure that their positions didn’t get lost, that their positions were passed down to the next generation of believers. They chose to do that primarily—not exclusively by any means—but primarily by building up Christian institutions, which in the post-war years with the economic boom there was some money to do. This is an analogy, rather than example. But, Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame was able to transform Notre Dame into a research university because those poor immigrant Catholics in the pre-WWII era, who didn’t have much money to support Notre Dame, had a lot more money after the war and were able to support it. And I think you see the creation of institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals, the founding of Fuller Seminary, and then, existing institutions like Wheaton College, where I taught for 29 years, were able to develop their resources to have, for instance, smaller class sizes, more individual attention to students. They were able to hire people who were more academically ambitious. They were able to build themselves up, and strengthen themselves in such a way that they were able to pass down core Christian convictions to the next generation. But the more energy you spend doing that, the less energy is left over to be a player in the larger, broader, especially secular, culture. And, I’m not sure, I don’t think any of those people were wrong to make the choice that they made.
MOHLER: I wonder if it was really a choice. I want to try a counter-narrative here, which has to do with the embarrassment of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and the collapse of, the disengagement of the conservative protestants. The rise of neo-evangelicals—Ockenga, Henry, and so many others —they articulated almost exactly what you’re talking about as an ambition in the larger culture. And in order to get their union cards, every single one of them went to a major northeastern university to do a Ph.D. to be able to gain entry. They made some interesting connections—I mean clearly someone like J. Howard Pew, an analogue to Henry Luce at TIME, was very engaged in this. But, I’ve gone back and read so many of their letters and so many of the documents—and I’ll admit Carl Henry was a mentor to me—and I look at it and I recognize that their experiment, in terms of that larger cultural influence, really got snuffed out at the start because it didn’t matter if they had a Ph.D. from Boston University or Harvard or Yale. They still weren’t part of the class that was going to be welcome into the conversation, even in TIME magazine, even in the 1950’s.
JACOBS: Yeah, I’m still wondering though, that’s a very plausible alternative narrative to mine. And it’s not fully alternative, because I absolutely recognize all those forces. That’s one of the reasons I say in the article that to some extent these Christian intellectuals were self-exiled, but not wholly. And frankly, I decided in writing that article that for the sake—this was the part of the article that I wrote most explicitly for my fellow Christians, that I most wanted fellow Christians to hear—was that I think we do not focus often enough on our own responsibility for our marginalization. Which doesn’t mean that there were not huge forces pressing to marginalize us. But I think that there has been a tendency among many Christians to say, “Well, they’re marginalizing me no matter what, so why should I even try?” And then also, there’s a tendency—I’ve seen this a lot with the younger scholars—“I sent off my book but it was rejected.” Or, “I sent off my article and it was rejected. That’s a clear sign of anti-Christian prejudice.” And I think, well, maybe your work wasn’t all it could be. Maybe you could do better. And so that has been something I wanted to emphasize especially to younger scholars and would-be scholars like my students at Wheaton and now at Baylor. Let’s make sure that we’re good enough, if we’re good enough and we still get rejected, well then this is a kind of very, very tiny martyrdom, and we should accept it with grace and gratitude. But let’s make sure that we’re doing our part. And I do think that, for Henry for instance, Carl Henry, as much as he wanted to be able to speak for that larger society, I think his more pressing concern was a loss of theological integrity within the evangelical camp. And I think that’s where most of his energies went. Not all, but most.
MOHLER: I think it did later. I think that the Carl Henry who was the founding, general editor of Christianity Today, in its founding era, left Fuller precisely to have that kind of impact. He hired designers to have Christianity Today look like the kind of magazine that would fit. He studiously built a board of educators that went beyond what I could do, as a matter of fact, in terms of theological breadth. And [he] put all that together, and he had the funding to make sure it was paid for for a few years, and then sent to virtually everyone without cost in Washington, New York, and Boston, and to no effect. So I think we could talk about this, but I want to make the point that I think your narrative is not wrong, I just think there are two narratives that are both right here, and I worry about one without the other.
JACOBS: I agree with that wholly. I made a deliberate choice to emphasize certain parts of the story which meant necessarily having to minimize others parts of it, and so what you’re saying is a very welcome correction. And of course if they had given me fifty thousand words, rather than six thousand words, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell the whole story. Because, I think our conversation has shown, it is immensely rich and complex subject and worthy of much more investigation than it’s gotten.
MOHLER: I don’t know that any one of us can know the whole story because there’s a human dynamic at work here as well. You know just in terms of the kind of intellectual contexts that we face today, one response to your article–I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, it appeared in the Christian Century–which then and now is the mouthpiece of mainline Protestantism, in so far as it still has a mouth or a mouthpiece–writing in that, in response to you, Carol Howard Merritt wrote that what was now the great moral fact is the LGBT revolution and then she wrote, “And if that means Christian intellectuals lost their seat at the table, then so be it.” And I think that makes the issue, the reality, the challenge far more difficult than it was in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. And I think whether it’s your institution or mine, not to mention every aspect of American culture, we’re going to feel that pinch.
JACOBS: I think that’s exactly right. And I think this is interesting because the argument there—I did see that, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to it because the article said, “Well, you know, Jacobs, you may say this and you may say that, but what I hear is white, male privilege.” And I thought, well, I just don’t have a way to respond to that. I can be responsible for what I say; I can even be responsible for what I fail to say; but I cannot be responsible for what you hear. And so I gave up on finding a way to respond to that. But I think that’s an interesting move because if the sexual revolution is where it’s happening and that the extension of that, the liberating effect of that sexual revolution to gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders and queer people and so forth, if that’s where it’s all happening then what does Christianity have to say to that? I mean, what do you add? It seems to me that if that is the revolution then it’s a revolution that’s happened without—and if it’s a glorious revolution and it’s to be celebrated—it was something that happened without any help from Christians, so I don’t see what Christians have to say about it. It seems to me you are identifying the Christian century, you’re identifying yourself as a Christian with a movement, which isn’t benefiting you and doesn’t need you. So, why?
MOHLER: That’s exactly right, and that raises another issue which would be another fascinating conversation and that’s this: if you are disqualified because you hold the wrong position, according to the current intellectual elite on questions of gender, sexuality, and personal identity, then they get no heroes working backwards, or heroines for that matter.
MOHLER: So, quite honestly, a Reinhold Niebuhr or even, well, it is hard to come up with anyone that we can list, you know—a Daniel Bell, or a John Kenneth Galbraith—none of them will survive this scrutiny that is demanded here if that is going to be the required entry card.
JACOBS: I think, that’s right. I think, you see this, you can see how this has happened. This is, as you know, one of my arguments is that while Christians were working hard to strengthen their own institutions, the sexual revolution was happening right under their noses. And so, you have somebody like Richard John Neuhaus, who is perfectly welcomed to the table, as long as he is an anti-war activist.
JACOBS: As long as he is saying that the Vietnamese government is God’s instrument to bring America to its knees; for humbling the arrogant American project — when he says that, and when he uses Biblical and prophetic language to say it, he is welcomed at the table. But then when he said, “Oh, wait a minute, if as Christians we are supposed to care about those who are most helpless, about the least of these, then who is more helpless, who is less than an unborn child?” And as soon as he said that, as soon as he said that social justice in a christian point of view has to be social justice for the unborn as wells as for those who are living in poverty, whom he ministered for years and years, then he was done. Then it was over. And so, it is not something that it is—what we are being told in many number of ways is that Christians cannot bear prophetic witness to sexuality. Then you can be on board of the train, you are not bearing prophetic witness, you are just agreeing with what everybody else has already come to believe before you did, you know.
MOHLER: Absolutely, and with Neuhaus.
JACOBS: Yes, or you are out. Those are the only options.
MOHLER: Oh, yes. You know, that’s one of the points I wanted to make in response to you is also about Neuhaus, because following him and knowing him through that period—by the way, I did not know him when he was most famous as a war activist, because I was probably in middle school—but nonetheless, you know, he was in many ways a man of the left and admired as a man of the left. He had a good education, but he did not hold a Ph.D., certainly not from an Ivy League institution, but he was a man, to use Mannheim’s definition, he was a man of massive culture production. The man wrote and he contributed, and he wrote well and timely. And I would say the second phase in Neuhausen intellectual pilgrimage was where he, with someone like Peter Berger, came to an understanding, started talking about mediating structures, and taking a deeper view on the other side of war and poverty, and the great society, and all the rest have recognized it didn’t turn out the way they thought it would at the time. And asking the basic questions that led him, in many ways, to the very thing you’re talking about. But, then, at the end of his life, he was just completely dismissed by the very people who celebrated him. And all he did was say the other half of what he had always believed.
JACOBS: Right. And I think what had happened – and here’s sort of an interesting test case – as he saw that the doors that had previously been opened to him were now closed to him, that was when he began. It was only then that he began the kind of institution building that led to the creation of the Institute on Religion in Public Life and the creation of First Things. And so, it raises a certain kind of strategic question. Would I say, “No, Richard, that was wrong. You shouldn’t have started First Things. You should have kept pounding on the door of TIME, and Newsweek, and Harper’s, and The Atlantic until they let you in”? I can’t say that. I think that would have been fruitless, because I think at that time the rubicon had been crossed. And that’s what I say you now have such two radically different languages, moral and spiritual languages, that I don’t know how you can cross that. And I want to make sure I say one thing before I get away and that is this: The fact that I am writing about that in Harper’s, I don’t think is necessarily a positive sign because what I’m allowed to write about is Christianity. That is, I’m a Christian who is allowed to write about Christianity. But, what if I wanted to write, as a Christian, about foreign policy? Niebuhr was able to get away with that. That’s one thing that I think is still kind of fascinating. Niebuhr could say, “The Christian tradition, and especially the Reformed tradition, has really important things that everyone needs to hear about power politics, about international affairs, about foreign policy.” And that’s absolutely unimaginable to me now, that a Christian would be allowed to speak as a Christian about a topic that isn’t specifically religious.
MOHLER: So, let me go back in time and quote someone, you’ll know very well, who told a story about a graduate student at the University of Virginia teaching a class in basic composition. This was you writing, when you said that you remember walking to class everyday with two other instructors who had their own sections of basic composition at the same time you did. You said one of them was completely committed to feminism. The other was completely committed to Marxism. The both of them were able to get up and be themselves, and intellectually tie their worldview, their ideology, to what they were teaching. You said no one said “boo” about those instructors teaching that way, but as you say, if you had gotten up and said, “My passion in life is the gospel of Jesus Christ and we’re going to center our basic composition class around the teachings of Jesus,” you would have been out on your can in no time, you say. So this is something you knew even then, and, of course, that’s many years ago. Has the situation changed?
JACOBS: No, I don’t think so. At least, not very often. I’m thinking about University of Virginia. I know people who are strong and open Christians there, but they’re in the religion department, for the most part. Now, there are some who are very open about being Christians, but they’re in different departments. I’m thinking about economics, sociology, but their work, their formal academic work, tends not to be explicitly Christian in its content. But, in the religion department, they can do that. The only reason they can do it in the religion department is that, for some years, they had the chair of their department, Robert Wilkin, one of Richard John Newhouse’s oldest friends, was someone who said—he argued this when he was president of the American Academy of Religion—“If we don’t speak for the religious traditions, who will?” He wanted to embody that in his department, and say, “Even though we’re a public university, it’s okay for us to have people here who speak, from within, on behalf of religious tradition.” A bold move, but that’s not something that has been generally followed, it seems to me.
MOHLER: I know we’re about out of time, but I have to tell you – I wasn’t just giving you a compliment when I said I read all of your work eagerly. I appreciate the fact that, I think, you represent, in many ways, one who contributes to both worlds. I mean, your books are published by Eerdmans, Brazos, also Harper, on the one side, but then, Oxford University Press, Princeton University Press. I greatly appreciated your book on the pleasures of reading in an age of distraction, and, in a lot of ways, my favorite is your little biography on the book on common prayer by Princeton. So, that leads me to ask you, what are you working on now? What is your current intellectual writing project?
JACOBS: I have two projects right now. One is a shorter book that’s called, “How To Think: A Guide for the Perplexed.” I’ve been so distressed by the character of our public discourse over the last couple of years, and I feel so much of it happens because people just aren’t thinking. I wanted to say, “Well, here’s what I’ve learned over 30 years of teaching about thinking. And that’s a brief book, which I took some time out from my larger project to write. But the larger project is one that this Harper’s piece is something of an offshoot of. It’s going to be called, I believe, “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and World War II.” Because I think World War II was a time, as I suggest in my article, of great renewal for Christian thinking and the need to bring distinctively Christian thinking to bear on social and political issues. And Niebuhr is not a major figure in that because I’m of your view that Niebuhr didn’t do that as well as he should. So my figures are C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, Jacque Maritain, T. S. Eliot, and Simone Weil. And I’m trying to weave the five of them together into this story about the renewal of a certain kind of Christian intellectual life and what would seem an unpropitious time for it. And that book, if God spares me and allows me to finish it, is going to be published by Harvard University Press. So I’m looking forward to that.
MOHLER: Well I will, with many others, await that eagerly. Professor Alan Jacobs, thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
JACOBS: Thank you.
MOHLER: Professor Alan Jacobs’ essay in Harper’s magazine is an example of the fact that a written essay can still, almost immediately, become a catalyst for conversation. It’s interesting to note that, at least at this point, most of that conversation seems to be among the Christians in terms of the question, where are now the Christian intellectuals? It’s going to be interesting to see if the non-Christian world, that is the larger secular world, enters into this conversation at all. They’ve got no choice to know that this essay appeared in Harper’s magazine. It will be very interesting to see what others have to say about it.
I really enjoyed my conversation with Professor Jacobs. And, you know, one of the things I think it demonstrates is the fact that when you’re looking at a question of this importance, there probably is more than one narrative that needs to be brought in as a part of the explanation, not just the background but the foreground. And when you think about the two explanations we were talking about, one that is largely internal, you might say, and one that is external, both of them do play an important role. But the very idea of a Christian intellectual is also really important. A younger generation of Christians needs to understand that this is not a new urgency. It was very important going back to the earliest ages of the church. The church fathers themselves were very concerned about the Christian and the intellectual life and they of course contributed greatly to the development of the entire world of thought of their era.
An historian like Peter Brown at Princeton has very skillfully demonstrated to us that eventually the thinkers within the church became the thinkers of the larger culture. There were other thinkers as well of course but it is impossible to talk about the intellectual world of medieval Europe without understanding that the terms were largely set by those who were only described as Christian intellectuals. But in the modern age we understand that something has happened, and the intellectual history of that is not something that can be traced in just a short amount of time, but certainly we have to talk about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the great turns of the subject and how all of the sudden the human thinker was reconceptualized and the human thinker’s place in the larger cosmos and in the larger world of ideas was also similarly revised and transformed.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that the question of the Christian intellectual is still a pressing question. But for the Christian, even as we take very seriously both of those words, ”Christian” and “intellectual,” the word “Christian” has to be the most important issue. The most important issue for the Christian intellectual is making certain that even as we fulfill an intellectual responsibility, we are, beyond that more importantly and prior, we are faithful as Christians. That’s the biggest issue for Christians in thinking about this issue. There is the larger public responsibility, but one of the things I think we have to keep in mind is that to some extent that is outside our control. But at the very least we should be ready, as we read in the New Testament, to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us. At the very least we need to be ready for the opportunity.
And furthermore, when Alan Jacobs goes back to Mannheim’s definition of the intellectual and we look at the very issue of cultural production, Christians can hardly complain about not being heard if they are not contributing, if they are not involved in the cultural production, writing books, writing essays, making arguments, doing the kind of academic scholarship that is important, making a contribution to the larger intellectual context. If we aren’t doing that, then clearly we have missed the opportunity and we are in no position to complain that somehow we have been shut out. But, on the other hand, we are being shut out, and the people who are shutting the door aren’t telling us that they are shutting the door. But we’re going to be watching what takes place in coming years, understanding that, I love the way Alan Jacobs put it: “If indeed we are shut out of much of that elite intellectual conversation, individually in terms of the Christian intellectual and his or her responsibility, that is a minor martyrdom.” There will be Christians that will be shut out from professions; there will be Christians that will be shut out from academic posts and intellectual contribution in many different arenas, and that’s not really new. It is, indeed, a judgment upon a secular society, but it isn’t new.
I also want to say that when I look at the contribution made by Alan Jacobs in his books, in his writings, and in his public intellectual contribution, I think it’s clear he has been heard by many in the larger world outside of Christianity. But, I dare also to think that his most avid readers and his greatest influence is with his own students and in the Christian world where he has directed the majority of his academic and publishing contributions. I think Alan Jacobs is right when he points to the fact that the Evangelical world largely turned to institution-building as an alternative intellectual universe to the larger secular culture. As doors were shutting at institutions like the University of Chicago, Stanford, Northwestern, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, evangelicals began to build our own institutions. I also agree that there has been a renaissance in revitalization in the intellectual life of those institutions and for that we should be very thankful. We should be incredibly thankful that there is an entire army of young Christian intellectuals, young Christians who are learning how to think, learning how to do scholarship, and learning how to contribute. But as we come to a conclusion, I make the judgment that a Christian who operates as a Christian intellectual on behalf of the church, first and foremost, is making a greater contribution than we will ever be able to make in the larger culture. That cultural influence is not negligible and is not unimportant, but what’s first and foremost for the Christian intellectual is understanding that our most important faithfulness begins in the home, in the congregation, amongst Christians, and to Christians. No apology for that.
For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.