Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Minor Musing About An Atheist And Christian Intellectuals

Ross Douthat's New York Times tribute to Christopher Hitchens, the greatest essayist of the past 25 years, contains the following paragraphs:
Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) This is not a sentiment that was often expressed about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other member of the New Atheist tribe. But where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost-filial connection that many Christians felt for him.
Some of this reflected his immense personal charm, his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously. But there was something deeper at work as well. American Christian intellectual life is sustained today, to a large extent, by the work of writers very much like Hitchens — by essayists and journalists and novelists and poets, from G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis to W. H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, who shared his English roots, his gift for argument and his abiding humanism.
These paragraphs prompt a couple of observations.  First, living a life that allows for debating Baptists, drinking with Catholics, and being "comradely to anyone to [takes] ideas seriously" should allow for a good deal of fulfillment, whether it be social, intellectual or spiritual

More importantly, Douthat correctly points out that British intellectuals nurture American Christianity's intellectual life.  That fact prompts a two simple questions:  Why do American Christians have to turn to the British for intellectual nourishment?  Why are there no new thinkers to replace Chesterton who died in 1936, Lewis who died in 1963, Auden who died in 1966, and Waugh who died in 1973?

I accept that Christian truths are eternal and unchanging, but its intellectual challenges are not.  It stretches credulity that no American Christian intellectual with the grace, wit, and intellect of Chesterton or Lewis has come forward to engage deconstruction or any other recent intellectual trend.  Unfortunately, no such Christian has emerged.

That sad fact is probably the best illustration of the sorry state of both America's intellectual life and American Christianity.

2 comments:

David Newquist said...

Some incisive observations. However, I think that the apparent absence of Christian intellectuals is more evidence of the virulent anti-intellectualism that possesses American culture. It has to do with the intellectual pogrom against liberalism, the basic tenets of which happen to be expressed in Christ's recorded sermons. Christianity has been distorted into a facet of the hateful bigotries to which every one of the current Republican candidates for president, with the possible exception of Huntsman, gives strident voice. It is a requirement of courting the conservative voting base, which is actually a social and intellectual regression of those who cannot rise above ignorance and intellectual insufficiency. You also suggest another area of intellectual failure, the fact that the American intellectual community has been so feeble in addressing the deconstruction, which almost every young professor of English had to profess as a rite to tenure and promotion, and ignored some very inconvenient facts of semiotics in so doing.

Hitchens' appeal is that he addressed those very failures of mind and moral that have brought Christianity to such a debased state. There are lamps glowing in the night in the studies of thoughtful thinkers, readers, and writers, but no one in America seems interested in hearing or reading what they think. There is some undercurrent in the Occupy movement that is suspicious of and resistant to the mindset that issues from Wall Street and echoes in the churches and lecture halls.

LK said...

Dr. Newquist,

Thanks for the compliment and the adding to the commentary.

I will leave the semiotics to others. It has always struck me, however, that deconstructionists want to rewrite the history of philosophy and cast the sophists as the heroes and Plato and Aristotle as the villains.