Before I student taught, I was required to take a largely useless class called “Teaching Bible Principles.” (A Reformed friend quipped that classes with “Bible principles” in the name tended to be useless in general.) The class was taught by a good professor (poor man) who had been saddled with a textbook that nearly all the students hated. (Of the four history education majors in the class, three objected to the chapter on history.) The book also warned against the dangers of intellectualism. At the time I thought the warning ridiculous, since most of the people who would read the book were more in danger of ignorance. But it occurred to me that people concerned with the problem of intellectualism in the church could use some guidelines for combatting it. So here they are.
- Do not define the word “intellectual.” This one is perhaps the most important. Maybe you’re really upset about higher criticism of the Bible, but don’t simply say you have a problem with higher critics. “Intellectuals” is much broader and includes more. Never mind that some scholars don’t like to be identified as “intellectuals.” And never mind that most ethnomusicologists have no opinion on the date of the Exodus.
- Do not distinguish between a veneer of intellectualism and actual intellectualism. In some Christian circles, sounding “intellectual” is popular. This can be most easily accomplished by constantly quoting from C.S. Lewis’s simpler works. Never mind that being an actual scholar—as Lewis was—might involve some less-than-easy things, like reading through Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Make sure that people do not know the difference between the two.
- Avoid acknowledging that American culture is anti-intellectual already. The intellectuals that Americans are most likely to respect are scientists (especially those involved in medical research) and computer scientists (so teenage girls can listen to One Direction on ever-more-efficient devices). Intellectuals are partly to blame for the situation, since reaching out to the public is frowned on in some academic circles. But scholarship has never been America’s strongest point. It’s easy to criticize something that most people don’t like anyway.
- Warn against the dangers of intellectual pride. Although some intellectuals do get stuck up, pride doesn’t magically appear after you write that thesis on the Peloponnesian War. But don’t acknowledge this fact. Never mind that getting stuck up is a good way to ensure that all your future ideas are junk. Never mind that the more you know, the more you should realize you don’t know.
- Do not warn against the dangers of anti-intellectual pride. Yes, this exists. Some Christians are very cocky about the fact that they are not intellectuals. Being glad you’re not an intellectual when you never really liked school may seem pointless, but if you word things right, most people won’t notice.
- Do not acknowledge that the Bible includes many godly “intellectuals.” Their number includes Moses, Jesus, and Paul. They weren’t ivory tower intellectuals, so sometimes their scholarly knowledge gets overlooked. Make good use of this fact.
- Avoid understanding the intellectual ideas you dislike. You never know—understanding the ideas could be dangerous to your spiritual health. Misunderstanding things will keep you from becoming interested in them. It also will help you make fun of them.
- Make fun of intellectuals and their ideas. This works best if you don’t actually know any.
- Avoid meeting any orthodox Christian “intellectuals.” If you make fun of them enough, most will just avoid you. And if they are avoiding you, your assumptions about them will remain safe.
- Never, never let scholarly types warn against intellectualism. They actually know what they are talking about, which is obviously a weakness in opposing something so insidious.
Sarcasm aside? The Western academic world isn’t exactly healthy today, so it’s no wonder that many Christians have been turned off by it. But I’d like to offer two cautions: first, if you don’t enjoy academics, avoid intensively criticizing “intellectualism.” That’s like a miser trying to offer advice on overcoming greed. Instead of criticizing “intellectualism,” try reading a book and critiquing that instead. You might develop a little insight along the way.
Second, we live in a culture that values entertainment and instant gratification, not wisdom. Most Christians don’t struggle with being too academic. And the few who are of a more scholarly bent tend to suffer from “uprootedness,” to use Simone Weil’s terminology. Already feeling alienated from mainstream culture, these Christians desperately need the support that the church can provide. And learning to serve in community with other followers of Christ is one of the best correctives to intellectual pride available. But that won’t happen if you make “intellectual” Christians feel as though scholarship is somehow unholy.