Re-Thinking Anti-Intellectualism

Some time ago, I commented on the Anti-Intellectual descriptor often attached to the Brethren.  Reading back through that post, I would not change its tenor nor its thesis.  Yet, several events of the past week have brought the topic back to the surface.  As with many of my recent posts regarding Brethren Identity and Culture, the sum of these two events brings together the role of narrative and practices, the frame of our speech and how we talk with one another.

In his recent book, Empire of Illusion, author Christopher Hedges addresses what he sees as the cultural illusions of literacy, love, wisdom, happiness and America.  In the chapter on the “Illusion of Wisdom” Hedges has in his sights the practices of education in the US, a kind of academic/industrial complex.  The elite institutions, he says, “organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers” (89).  In order to maintain such a specialized system intellectuals develop a jargon for each field of study.  Not one to mix words, Hedges rightly notes that such a vocabulary “thwarts universal understanding” (90).

In the realm of faith and belief this specialization and accompanying obtuse language is a dangerous development.  Though it is important to learn the language of the Church and its traditions, such speech is not the sole property of the cleric.  Rather, its very purpose and meaning are for the formation of all God’s people.  When this specialization is highlighted in elitist ways it naturally separates the shepherd from the sheep, the guide from the seekers.  The trained, specialized leader then must be able to speak across this divide.  In essence, she must be bi-lingual.

This was made clear in a recent conversation with my father-in-law.  As we were discussing everything from politics to money to church, it was soon evident that we did not need to share my academic vocabulary.  In fact, as we began to talk about the Church we easily shared both our experiences and scriptures with ease.  In the eyes of my academic peers, my father-in-law is somehow below a neophyte.  He could not speak about hermeneutics of the self, the tension between the holy man and the bishop of the 5th century, nor should he care.  Yet, his life of prayer, worship, and study of scripture give him the ability to name his experiences.  What is more, he can intone these names with theological accuracy.  Suffice it to say that the time passed with ease and the conversation was cut short by the need for sleep.  I did not need to sit in a doctoral seminar to find my mind stretched.  I simply needed to speak in everyday terms, thus not letting the jargon of my specialization divide us.

This of course means that often three words are used when one would suffice, but that is not the point.  My intellectual training can either help the conversation or end it without prejudice.  For the pastor or scholar of the Church, this is a crucial lesson and a delicate balancing act.  The anti-intellectual mantra within the Church is a smoke screen that keeps lay and cleric in tension.  It tries to describe the impasse of language with a reification of a hierarchy, an unnecessary us-versus-them tension.  As people speak about their faith and everyday experiences of God a jargon spewing academic appears to diminish a real belief or worse to take it away in a cloud of unknown words.  It sounds like English, but they can’t understand a thing you say.

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One response to “Re-Thinking Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Chris Jones

    Yes! The test of true learning is whether or not one can translate such ideas of apocalyptic genre, objective/subjective genitives, epistemology, the new perspective on Paul, etc. into language that as you say “furthers the conversation.”

    I recently had the same experience with my mother-in-law during her recent visit. She, being a devoted follower of Jesus who practices her faith within the Southern Baptist movement, can carry on a strong conversation about her faith by drawing from her 55+ years of practicing the faith.

    However, the years of learning and reading greek, studying philosophy and engaging in exegetical reflection and interaction with others HAS shaped me in such a way that can add and challenge her thinking in areas. In other words, yes, I can be blessed by her faith journey BUT she too can be blessed by my faith journey that has included years of academic training.

    The Church on the local area cannot forget that teachers are a gift to the church (Eph. 4) and the Church should encourage study. We need it!

    I think in my context the church is not really anti-intellectual but pro-individualistic when it comes to understanding scripture and the faith. A “I can figure it out on my known” philosophy dominates.

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