Public Intellectuals and the Common Good: Christian Thinking for Human Flourishing.
“America needs more private intellectuals.”1 So tweeted Baylor University philosopher and occasional public intellectual Francis Beckwith. Perhaps Beckwith had in mind a particular public intellectual’s unfortunate essay or social media misadventure. There is little doubt public intellectuals draw fire from all sides. Scholars wholly dedicated to their guild and the “pure” pursuit of knowledge can look down on their fellow academics who cater to the hoi polloi or the national conversation. “Regular folks” do not always take kindly to the credentialed pretensions of supposed experts sharing their answers after coming down from their ivory towers. It can be a tough gig, and now that the best and worst of intellectual public opinion can be broadcast in digitized eternity for all to read, it is not terribly surprising that our increasingly uncivil, fractured, and polarized society makes that calling particularly challenging and perhaps even endangered.
That the calling remains important, indeed crucial, is a preeminent theme of this volume edited by three scholars affiliated with the Lumen Research Institute and drawn from a 2019 symposium featuring keynote speakers whose remarks became the chapters herein. It is an impressive lineup of contributors, and this edited volume is an act of generosity in providing the next best thing to being there in person. The contributors come from different walks of life and approach the common subject through their respective disciplinary and vocational lenses. As such, reading the book is less like an intellectual meal with a linear progression of appetizers, main courses, and dessert and coffee and more like a selection of substantive hors d’oeuvres. The offering is bookended by a foreword from the honorary dean of American Evangelical scholarship, George Marsden, and a concluding interview with another accomplished figure in civil rights, leader and minister John Perkins. In between, readers will encounter a table-setting introduction from the editors, theological reflections from Yale’s Miroslav Volf and Fuller Seminary’s Amos Yong, meditations on public intellectuals from Baylor University president Linda Livingstone, philanthropist and Templeton Foundation president Heather Templeton Dill, and journalist and editor Katelyn Beaty, and a personal reflection and analysis from African Catholic priest and Notre Dame professor Emmanuel Katongole.
Each contribution is worth considering in its own right, even as this review can only briefly mention the highlights. Marsden opens the conversation by considering our current moment and the “where is Reinhold Niebuhr?” question. He calls on Christians to renew their commitment to contribute to the common good, not as domineering masters of society but by drawing from our own remarkable diversity to act as salt and light. The editors set up the rest of the book by surveying the current landscape, drawing on some of the previous literature, and offering Michael Desch’s definition of public intellectuals as those who “exert a large influence in the contemporary society … through their thought, writing, or speaking” (xxxii). Yet this is a rather pedestrian description, and the editors set a much loftier bar, arguably too lofty, in describing the Christian public intellectual as called to articulate and promote the common good given “their ability to mediate between God and humanity, the eternal and the temporal, the just and the unjust, through their thought, writing, or speaking” (xxxii).2
Miroslav Volf provides a sort of generally applicable blueprint for the Christian public intellectual and describes various postures and virtues required for the task. Given the permanence of change, public intellectuals must first understand the world as it is and as it is changing, then understand the common good (ends), and finally find ways to achieve that common good (means). If Volf’s approach is general, Amos Yong’s is very particular as he writes specifically as a Pentecostal and evangelical theologian. Yong exegetes the Gospel of Luke and Acts so as to apply the question “What would the apostles do?” to the theologians today who would be public intellectuals. Yong’s counsel is both public and particular, upending one modernist narrative that claims religion is inherently private, as he unapologetically offers wisdom from within the Christian faith to go out, like the message of Pentecost, to all the world.
Linda Livingstone offers a very helpful history of how the role of college and university presidents has changed from the beginning of the United States when presidents effectively taught the capstone for seniors, to today’s reality in which they must act as fundraiser, ambassador, CEO, and administrator. Given that shift, academic leaders can now best assist Christian public intellectuals by 1) encouraging research that addresses common good topics, 2) showcasing the accomplishments of public intellectuals both individually and by raising the profile of the institution, and 3) championing character-building initiatives that encourage students to engage the intersection of the life of the mind and the good of the public square.
Heather Templeton Dill asks us to consider Francis Schaeffer’s question of “How then shall we live?” in the apparently new pluralistic world that confronts evangelicals and other people of faith. She highlights the work of three Templeton Prize winners: one Muslim, one Jewish, and one Christian. What can King Abdullah II of Jordan, the late Rabbi Lord Sacks, and Notre Dame and Calvin University philosopher Alvin Plantinga teach us about how to live with pluralism? Dill suggests that each thinker stands within his religious framework but works outward to humanity at large. People of faith, particularly evangelicals who “cling to certain truths as a mark of being evangelical,” should consider how to faithfully reinterpret the sticky points of their own traditions so as to better harmonize with other religions (72).3 Dill’s description of the king, the rabbi, and the professor as exemplars is certainly salutary. Some of her claims about pluralism both descriptively (is it indeed new?) and normatively (is it definitive of the common good?) are more contestable.
Katelyn Beaty tackles the intersection of the journalist and the public intellectual. If public opinion about intellectuals is low, the attitude toward journalists can be downright hostile. In a book full of strong offerings, Beaty has written a gem of a chapter making a strong case—political and religious—for journalism as a practice of truth-telling and accountability. While acknowledging that journalism too has its weaknesses, she calls on Christians to believe their own doctrines about sin, grace, and truth with regard to our expectations and accountability for ourselves and our institutions.
Finally, Emmanuel Katongole and John Perkins close out the volume with Katongole’s moving account of his intellectual and spiritual journey and Indiana Wesleyan president David Wright’s interview of Perkins. Katongole crafts a remarkable chapter chronicling not only his shift from purely academic writing to more accessible work for lay people and the public, but also how he came to understand himself as priest, professor, and pilgrim. Katongole provides an in-depth treatment of the Christian scholar as public intellectual, describing five gifts God blesses us with, three tasks to pursue, and three temptations to avoid. Wright’s interview of Perkins is the perfect conclusion to the book as readers look back with Perkins over his life and achievements and listen in to his sharing how his personal faith continues to inspire his work. As with other moments in the book, here the personal complements the theoretical and the practical such that we encounter a whole and holistic person engaged in the life of the mind for the good of the community.
If these all-too-brief descriptions have not made it clear, this is an engaging, thoughtful, challenging, and nuanced book. It seems to this reviewer that the editors succeeded in transferring the lively and collegial spirit of the symposium to its pages. The Christian faith has always been a publicly proclaimed faith, with public implications for how we live with our believing and unbelieving neighbors. We are not to hide our light under a bushel even as we are also called to give reasons for our hope with gentleness and respect. Our faith also commands us to love the Lord our God with our minds, and it is no accident that the most prolific author of the New Testament was something of a public intellectual. So long as the Christian faith is a public faith, and so long as we are called to think well about how to live well, we will need Christian intellectuals to help us to do so. This volume succeeds in making that case and invites us to continue the conversation conducted so well in its pages.