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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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A Manual Transmission: A look at practices

In a recent discussion over at Carl Bowman’s blog, Brethren Cultural Landscape, I constructed a dissertation on practices and theology in just a meager few sentences.  It was a glorious effort at name dropping the greats in Practices thought; MacIntyre, Bourdieu, deCerteau, and even Hegel and Marx.  Unfortunately, it was just a comment on another blog and there were no means to creating the thousand footnotes such a thesis required.

After clicking post I explored metaphors which could capture the distinction I was making about the centrality of practices for Christian theology.  Fortunately, I was driving my truck, a 5 speed manual transmission.

Learning to drive is a process in and of itself.  Each driver must learn the mechanics of steering, acceleration, and breaking, not to mention the coordination required to manage all three at the same time.  So its no wonder that the automatic transmission was the innovation to bring automobiles to their ubiquitous presence today.  Once a driver is required to think about things like engine and road speed or even the balancing act of a clutch, the whole practice of driving changes.  No longer is the driver managing the car, in a way she is part of the machine, involved mentally and physically in the movements of the vehicle.

I can remember the first time I was encouraged to drive a manual car.  My mentor asked if I had been practicing for my driver’s examination.  Soon the conversation expanded to include the practices of a stick shift.  I declined the opportunity to try it out, but was granted the mechanical explanation of how such a transmission worked.  As he explained the process of acceleration, the movement of the gears, and the role of the clutch in keeping the engine connected to the wheels, my mentor used every hand gesture he could imagine.  It made perfect sense.  In my mind I could see the gears connecting and separating, the stick selecting the appropriate gear, and the seamless movement of the car.

The next time I had the occasion to drive such a machine came a few years later in the church parking lot.  I sat down in the driver’s seat recalling the clear mental image from my earlier conversation.  Unfortunately, the experience was not the smooth ride I had imagined.  In fact, there were several moments of restarting the car and equally as many spins of the tires before I was ready for the road. In the end, it was not the conceptual understanding which made me into the gear shifting man I am today, it was the experiences of feeling the clutch engage and listening to the sounds of the engine.

Somehow, theologians through the centuries have relegated their work to the conceptual mode.  Like explaining the gears and clutch with hand motions, our predecessors have used every school of thought and every diagram to explain the workings of God, salvation, the Church, and person of Christ.  A good theologian, then, is one who can further describe or conceptually navigate the required elements of Christian thought.

Instead, the nature of Christianity is not completely ideological.  In more philosophical terms the Christian faith is not so Hegelian in that it does not privilege the mental over the material.  It also is not the reciprocal, that is Marxist.  The Way, while emphasizing discipleship in the material world, also asks the follower to confess.  Simply stated, the Christian way of life expects the synthesis of the mental and the material, a joining of belief and practice.

So like learning to drive a manual transmission, the Christian disciple knows and believes the ideological frame yet also must intuit how such a frame works in the real world.  Our Christian life is not an either/or game, nor does it privilege one over the other.  Rather, through the practices of our faith (reading of scripture, breaking of bread, washing of feet) we learn to feel the balance of ideology and life, between the mental and the material.

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