Public Square

The Calling of the Christian Intellectual

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Photo courtesy of Mer Chau

If you’re someone who reads, writes, and thinks for a living, it’s easy to forget that your work is or should be a real vocation rather than merely an indulgence. And now that Christianity is increasingly marginalized in high culture and the academy, it’s tempting for Christian intellectuals to hunker down in a defensive posture.

So what does the intellectual vocation look like? Rusty Reno offers some pointed and poignant “imperatives” for the Christian intellectual over at First Things. His first hits close to home:

The first imperative – the other two are love and freedom – is to avoid overreacting to academic secularism (or for that matter secularism in general). This overreaction often takes two forms.

  • The first tends toward heated displays of piety that want to turn the intellectual life into grand gestures of Christian witness against the age. That’s often been my error, one stimulated by reading Karl Barth when an undergraduate.
  • The other tends toward cowering defensiveness and keeps faith at a distance from intellectual work, fearful of the friction it inevitably causes.

Both diminish our intellectual vocations.

It’s not that being a Christian intellectual is different in every way from the secular intellectual.

Reno writes,

An intellectual isn’t an intellectual because he is secular or religious, but instead because he has something intelligent to say that makes a difference in how we think and act…There’s nothing uniquely Christian about these qualities in an intellectual. Socrates had both. But grace perfects nature and helps us overcome our weaknesses. The Christian intellectual may not be welcome today as a Christian, but it’s as a Christian that he can be salt and light.

With regard to Reno’s first imperative, I’m still not sure if I fully agree with his assessment of the Christian intellectual’s vocation. At the very least, the Christian intellectual should be able to recognize a life of the intellect as a calling. It’s hard to understand the notion of a calling without considering the reality of One who calls.

Still, Reno’s essay is thought-provoking. Read the whole thing here.

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