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Posted August 21, 2016:
Where Are the Christian Intellectuals?
Someone asked me this question, in the
usual voice of bewildered lamentation, the other day. Translation
(or paraphrase): "Where are the Paul Tillichs and Reinhold Niebuhrs
of our time?" Or "Why do the right-wing, nutso, 'Christians' seem to
be the only ones we hear from or hear about?" Or, "Why don't the
churches do something?"
The answers, dear friends, are several and
One answer is that a lot of the people who
claim to want such high-minded Christian intellectuals long ago
bailed on the churches and related institutions which sponsored and
made them possible. I remember a particular liberal and enlightened
fellow in Seattle, old money and a person of considerable influence.
He said to me, "If I were ever to go to church, I would go to your
church; stands for all the right things." I was supposed to feel
flattered by this. But church was clearly something he was "beyond,"
or in the words of Bill Gates (who was raised in a UCC church), "I
have better things to do with my time."
Well, you can't withdraw your support/
participation (multiple that times a million) and still expect that
church to be there and going strong when you need/ wish it would be
a force in society.
Another answer is that too man of the
mainline Christian denominations that once stewarded a serious and
deep intellectual/ theological tradition, have opted for one of two
At the national and denomination level
(this is true in the UCC) it's as if denominational staff are the
minor leagues (single or double A) for the most radical university
faculties that are all about hegemony, patriarchy, privilege,
colonialism etc., so on and so forth. It's not that this is wrong
exactly, it's that it is pretty rarified air, and by and large, not
what people come to church for.
The other course, for which many mainline
churches have opted, is the somewhat opposite extreme — extreme
pablum. Everything has become sentimental, pastel and
inconsequential. Going to worship feels like an hour of parish
announcements with "God hear our prayer" punctuating the parade.
So the fault, in Shakespeare's words, lies
partly in the stars, i.e. historical forces beyond our control, and
partly in our own failures and folly.
The result, as the wonderful writer and
student of the theologian John Calvin, Marilynne Robinson, observes
is that the churches that once stewarded a significant and
nourishing intellectual and theological tradition no longer do so —
and the public (and private) life of America is, as a result,