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A Note on Christianity and the Intellectual Life

Over the past few days I’ve been mulling over the thoughts from Frederica Mathewes-Green that Rod shared over at his joint. This is not easy because I don’t think Frederica — everyone else seems to call her Frederica, so I guess I will too, even though I don’t know her; I hope that’s not disrespectful — has been very clear in formulating her objections.

Her follow-up comment doesn’t help much either. She tells the story of people at an academic conference behaving very rudely towards her, especially one elderly priest who (incoherently) denounced her writing, and concludes that the experience “confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for pure-theory theology.” But as I read the story, I can’t see that it has anything at all to do with “pure-theory theology,” but rather with a malformed community that delights in conflict and treats its guests inhospitably. That’s not a theoretical or theological failure, that’s a collective failure of Christian charity.

In that same comment of clarification, Frederica writes, “I see that my objection is to the custom of purely intellectual theologizing, separated from communion with God.” But anything human beings do, including inviting speakers to conferences, can go badly awry when “separated from communion with God.” Why single out intellectual activity? Frederica prefers to celebrate, in order, “the experience of God’s presence,” “community,” and “the teaching of the Church.” Yet those are vulnerable goods as well, when isolated from one another. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

So I’m still not sure that I know what Frederica means by “pure-theory theology,” but I am certain that it is no more likely to lose its way than anything else we broken and miserable humans do. We are never unable to make a mess of something.

And one more point. Frederica writes,

Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 yrs ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.

And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.

To which I have to reply, Nice ecstasy if you can get it, but some of us can’t get it even if we try. I have been following Jesus for thirty-five years or so now, and I have never once had the kind of experience that Frederica speaks of as normal and foundational for her. I have often asked for some “showing,” as Julian of Norwich called her own visions of the divine, but have never received anything. Perhaps if I had experienced the blessing of God’s immediacy that Frederica regularly receives, I would be as skeptical of the intellectual life as she is. So far, no dice.

But the intellectual exploration of the Christian faith, the pursuit of understanding Scripture and the great traditions of Christian thought, has been immensely nourishing to my soul over the years. It is through study and reflection, as well as through certain modes of worship that have come to saturate my being, that I am able to draw nearer to God, or rather, to allow Him to draw nearer to me. (I am, after all, asked to love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as my heart and soul.)

Is it possible that these intellectual pursuits could lead me astray, could be divorced from “communion with God”? Indeed it is. But the desire for spiritual experience or for community can also be so divorced. We’re really all in the same boat: We have received gifts of which we are the stewards. We must neither cast those gifts aside nor make idols of them. This is hard, and none of us has an easy road. So let us be kind and forbearing towards one another.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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