The Rough Guide to Christian Intellectuals

At one time, the Christian intellectual was thought to be a dying breed. Sure, there was a spike of interest in the 1960’s and 70’s when J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S.Lewis were popular for more than just imaginative fantasy. But after that, most people thought they went into decline. Most churches probably had their token older gentleman intellectual, but that was about it. Some probably assumed that the majority of the Christian intellectuals either finally stopped worshiping their minds and got “on fire for God” (or “filled with the Holy Spirit” for charismatic types) or that they gave into the wickedness in the scholarly world and left the faith altogether.

Truth be told, they were always there, mainly just hiding in plain sight and keeping their mouths shut for fear of being banned from social gatherings as annoying “know-it-alls.” With the recent explosion of social media and for reasons we will look at later, Christian intellectuals have been forced out of the closet and are now facing considerable difficulties integrating with a Church system they don’t fully understand, or that really fully understands them. So I offer to you the following list of tips for understanding the confusing world of Christian intellectuals – my own Rough Guide to Christian Intellectuals

Who do think you are? First of all, a quick definition. Intellectuals are people that enjoy learning and research. Some people have to do both because of a school or job situation – but an intellectual is someone that enjoys the pursuit of knowledge. They may not even ever set foot on a college campus. But you have to understand that this overwhelming love for knowledge and study that drives an intellectual – much in the same way that an overwhelming desire to help people might lead someone to become a doctor.

As I say the word “intellectual”, chances are that most people get a very negative, condescending picture in their head. I get that. I count myself as an intellectual and I tend to get the same picture of people like that in my own head. Hopefully as I go through the post, I can clear up some misunderstandings and misconceptions along the way.

Intellectuals are not your enemy. I know that to many, the intellectual is the enemy of the faith. You only interact with them to prove them wrong. Because if Hollywood has taught us anything, it is that a plucky group of scrappy kids can defeat the evil intellectual genius every time. Many other books and blogs have been written to deal with how the intellectual is not the Church’s enemy. But just do some research and you will find that there are many intellectuals that actually love the Church and count themselves as followers of Christ.

And to the intellectuals out there that feel like all your friends keep acting like they are in a bad Spy Kids sequel when they are around you, cut them some slack. You know there are some pretty stuck-up smart people out there, so instead of setting them straight and living up to the stereo type, turn the other cheek. Besides – trust me – it is fun watching them stammer as their paradigm shifts under their feet. “What – an intellectual that won’t argue with me?”

You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free. To an intellectual, Truth is one of the greatest gifts God has bestowed on mankind. Not the greatest, but pretty far up there. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of our soul, and all of your mind” just reinforces that. Truth is greater than intellect, but the intellectual finds their brain to be one of the most enjoyable ways to seek Truth. They find joy in it because it is probably the way their brains are wired. Yes, Love is greater than all – but Truth is Love to an intellectual. Love covers many things that aren’t intellectual, but all intellectual pursuits are truth and therefore are Love.

But not knowing the Truth is bondage. Most people, when hearing a friend talking about something they know isn’t true, will just agree and let it go, because they think the best way to show love is to keep the peace and just listen. To an intellectual, you would never keep the Truth from anyone. That is the worst way to be a friend. If you know the truth on something and you don’t share it, as an intellectual you will feel like the worst person in the world for as long as you remember the incident. And joy of all joys, being an intellectual means your memory probably also sticks around a lot longer than you would like. So you are left with the choice of being a bad person (in your mind) and not saying anything, or showing love to the person and helping them to see truth. Because – ultimately – to an intellectual, sharing knowledge is the greatest way you know to show love in every day average situations.

And yes, intellectuals get it wrong all the time. They use the wrong words, the wrong tone, or the wrong emotion to convey that truth. It may not sound like love to you. But have you ever tried to show someone that you love them, but choose the wrong words/tone to do it? It is easy to see that when you are expressing love through encouragement but accidentally chose to encourage someone in a way that hurts their feelings. They will probably still see that. But when a person shows their love by sharing knowledge, it is much harder to see. And I don’t think intellectuals get that – we think that it is so obvious that our short correction of your Wikipedia quote is just us showing you love. But it isn’t as obvious as we think it is. So, maybe keep that in mind next time: is that person being a jerk to you, or maybe trying to actually help you out? Most intellectuals wouldn’t waste time correcting you if they didn’t care about you.

Black and white in a gray world. Of course, so far I have been just dealing with situations where there are small factoids or general ideas. The more you learn about anything, the more you realize that you hardly know anything. There is just so much to know. Google only indexes 1% of the Internet – 99% of the Webs are locked away behind pay walls and in databases. Intellectuals hate this – they think knowledge should be free for everyone. That is why they keep talking about what they know – they want to share this awesome gift with everyone.

But so many things in this world are not so black and white. The more you learn about different topics, the more you find out that there are many different ways to look at things. Empirical, behaviorist, constructivist, relativist, sub-categories of these, pragmatic views that combine some or all, etc, etc. Most people pick their preferred paradigm and try to make everything fit into their view point. The intellectual sees validity in all views – even if they pick one themselves and stick with it. The more you learn about all sides, the more you come to respect those sides (even if you fundamentally disagree). Oh, and then there are cases in which no one way works for everyone, but different methods work differently for different people. For example, you can’t say that one way of counseling works for all people (even though I know some do say just that). Each person has to find a way that works for them and go with it. Quite often (especially on Facebook), you will see people that exalt their way as the best (or only) way that works. Intellectuals see that and have a genuine concern for these people because they may not see the value in other points of view (or that they are making others feel judged or belittled by their black and white stance). So they often make comments or ask questions that are not meant to correct, but to get people to think about how there might be other ways or viewpoints. They usually make these statements kind of vague because they respect people’s intelligence and want them to think, not just spoon feed it to them.

So to the intellectuals out there, we have to stop being so vague at times like this. Just come out and say that there are other sides to things. Stop making it sound like we are correcting everybody on everything (which I know we aren’t – but I will hit on that later).

To others out there, before you slam someone for being arrogant, maybe think about what they are really saying. Are they disagreeing with you, or just bringing up a different perspective?  Are they trying to harass you, or show you love by opening up another layer of truth for you? Remember, without the words “I think” or “My view is” or something like that, you really shouldn’t assume that they are sharing personal beliefs. My inbox is scattered with emails accusing me of thinking all kinds of things that I have never believed, some that are just outright outrageous.

You have no respect for the scripture. Speaking of outrageous claims on beliefs, the “no respect for scripture” claim stands out as the most oxymoronic. We all know that our English translations of the Bible have problems. These problems mainly arise not only from just not knowing what the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words meant, but also from the original words having multiple meanings and layers that don’t translate well into English. When someone comes along and tells us a new way of looking at Scripture that still fits into our regular belief and paradigm, we think it is the best thing we have heard all week. But when they come along and teach us something contradictory to what we think is truth – the common reaction is “you have no respect for scripture!” It is really an odd reaction when you think of it – how many hours of study did they have to go through to come up with this stance? If they really want to know what the scriptures really say – isn’t that the utmost form of respect? I think what most people mean when they say “you have no respect for scripture” is “why can’t you leave well enough alone? I had no desire today to change paradigms!”

Who do you think you are? If a gifted chef cooks you a meal – how do you respond to that? “You just think you are such a better eater than everyone else – showing off how well you eat every day!” No – you usually say “Yum!” Knowledge and information are the results of the life-passion of an intellectual just like food and desserts are of cooks, flowers are of gardeners, and well-running cars are of mechanics. But intellectuals most often face extreme resistance when sharing their gifts with the rest of the world. We see our intellect as a passion that we love to explore just like any other job or hobby. But thanks to our public school system, we all have been sold the lie that “smarter is better.” “You don’t want to end up like those ignorant burger flippers down at Burger-esque Box?” In no way, shape, or form does intellect make you a better person. You read an article or book – one of a billion trillion out there – and that is how you get that knowledge in your head. There is nothing special about that – most people in the world are born with the ability to do that.

True intellectuals know this. Some don’t, but a lot do. So when they are trying to show you love and share their passion with you, and you turn around and tell them “you just think you are better than everyone. Everyone is going to end up hating you and you will die without friends.” How do think that makes them feel? Oh, and they will probably never get to forget that statement no matter how much they try. You think it is all fun and games being an intellectual? Every mean comment you get plays over and over and over again in your head for the rest of your life. Many people do something to cheer themselves up. That “cheering up” is a process of replacing negative feelings with better ones, and the hurt goes away. The intellectual bases their feelings on intellect as much as hurt, so while they can get past it at times, that pesky intellect keeps bringing it back up. And being a fair researcher, they have to ask themselves again if maybe those cruel words were true. Every time. For the rest of their lives.

Ever wonder why intellectuals end up so socially awkward, even though they possess the intellect to figure out how to get past it?

So back to the question – how do you think it makes the intellectual feel to get their attempt at helping you thrown back at them with a condemning insult? You know those television shows where the meek step-child tries to serve dinner to their evil Step-Mom, but the Step-Mom slaps the tray to the ground and hurls insults at the child? After all, being that it was a child who cooked the meal, I am sure there actually was a lot wrong with the food on the dish. That has happened to us all – we tried to do good, but because we used the wrong words, the wrong tone, etc – we got a finger back in our face with a mean rant on what we did wrong. That happens to us all. But as an intellectual, how do you respond to “you think you are so much smarter than everyone else” in any way that doesn’t make you sound like a know-it-all? There just isn’t. It is the Kobayashi Maru reaction of the discussion world. You just can’t win.

Intellectuals know they aren’t better than you. We are all really sorry that we come across that way at times. We often look at people that are such good hosts or singers or whatever and wish we could be as good as them. We often look at ourselves as less than most other people. Half the time when we read a book or article, we get new evidence of just how insignificant we are. Our “condescending tone” is more often us trying to raise our own adequacy levels in our own eyes up to the levels of everyone around us. That doesn’t make it right, but hopefully just explains what is happening on one side. Most people spend most of their time thinking about themselves and how wrong they are – not how wrong everyone else is. Intellectuals are no different.

Why do you have to correct everything everyone says? This is a common accusation leveled at every intellectual – which often makes no sense when it is asked. Here is why: I was asked this once on Facebook, and being an intellectual I had to see what the numbers said. Was it true that I corrected everything? According to my count, I averaged reading about 500 thoughts, posts, facts, etc. per week. About 200 of those were ones that I disagreed with in some way (usually a minor non-issue). Of the total average of 500, I commented on an average of 40 or so, and liked another 20. All of those comments except two were on the posts/comments I agreed with. Only two interactions that week where ones where I disagreed. So I also decided to look only at the interactions with the person that accused me of correcting everything. The numbers were smaller, but I still only disagreed with them 1% of the time that I interacted with them over a 6 month period. So it was hardly true that I corrected everything that everyone said. Because, for the record, my accuser did in 2% of the interactions that I had access to 🙂

The problem was not me correcting this person, or them not being open to correction, or them really doing it more than me. Well, there is probably some of all three in there, but what I see is the real problem is our society. To be wrong is BAD. You get punished, failed, scolded or mocked for being wrong. So most people learn to take being corrected in the worst possible way.

But to an intellectual, being wrong is often a good thing. We actually like being wrong – because it gives us a chance to learn something new. It gives us a chance to learn and grow and research.

So maybe that intensity you felt when we were showing you what was right was not us condemning you…. but possibly us getting excited that we had a chance to bring more Truth and Freedom into your life? Or maybe it was fear that you would just react the same way everyone does when we bring up our intellect?

Yes, we do it wrong sometimes. To other intellectuals out there – we have to learn to do this better. We can’t force everyone to see our side. We can just attempt to improve how we come across.

Can’t you just try not to be an intellectual? You hear this a lot, along with “can’t you just try to keep your mouth shut?” As if we have never tried? There is just something in us that makes us want to learn and share. People that just like to learn about a few things and keep it to themselves are usually labeled as a nerd (and I say that with all respect as a complete nerd and geek on many topics). Go ahead and tell a preacher they shouldn’t preach, or an artist that they shouldn’t paint, or a NASCAR racer that they shouldn’t race. With so many other people, it is socially acceptable for them to share their gift with the world. But there is this stigma in our culture with the intellectual sharing knowledge. “They are so stuck up” you say. So, you have never seen a stuck up NASCAR racer on TV? “They think they are better than all of us” you say. You have never met a weight lifter that thinks they are better than everyone else out there? “Well, there are always good people and bad people out there, so you shouldn’t lump the good in with the bad.” Agreed – and the same goes for intellectuals. There are nice ones and stuck up ones. But don’t lump us all in the same category. And yes, that does happen a lot. Intellectuals are typically pre-judged sooner, dismissed quicker, shut out more often, and forgiven less often than most other groups in the Church, with the obvious exception of gays.. I know someone that is still holding a grudge against an intellectual friend of mine 10 years after they had a falling out (all the while posting updates all over their wall on Facebook about how awesome it was to reconcile with a different friend so quickly). Our imperfections seem to be less forgiven than others.

We do have emotions. I know that might be hard to tell, but it is often true. We may rely on intellect more often, and try to let intellect rule the day, but there is only so far we can go with that. If we are getting pushed or insulted enough or hurt enough, we will let those emotions loose. And since we don’t spend near as much time thinking through that response, it will probably come out as a jumble of ideas, hurts, accusations, and justifications that don’t always make sense. Hey – we are used to thinking through things without emotion in the way. Once that gets in the way and things heat up, we are out of our comfort zone.

If you see that happening with an intellectual friend, please just stop. Yes, they should be the better person and stop first, but in this instance you need to trust me and be the one to step up and stop. You did something to hurt their feelings. Stop trying to prove yourself right or win the argument and stop. Find out what you did and just go from there. Once those emotions get going in an intellectual, it is like a dam has broken loose. A dam that was keeping back a lake full of broken branches and other dangerous objects. Trust me – you do not want to be standing in front of this tidal wave of potential hurtful objects, backed-up with a mind that probably knows and remembers more about you than you would like to admit.

To the intellectuals out there, try to learn to recognize the signs that this dam is about to burst. If you see it coming, get out at all costs. Stop the burst before you say or do something that you will regret for the rest of your life (literally). Yes, I do realize that it is hard to do that, but at least try. So many people out there care more about being right than being in a right relationship and they will push you over the edge. I know it seems like it can’t happen, but trust me, you can learn. Just this last month I had an acquaintance trying to push my buttons in the worst way (and boy do I have a dozy of an email to prove it). I didn’t react perfectly, but I did stop my personal emotional dam from breaking open and ended up being the only one that apologized or responded correctly. Which is quite an achievement if you know me 🙂

Why are you always defending yourself? I wish I had a good reason why here, but for some reason we just do that a lot. We don’t really see it as “defending” as much as explaining our credentials. In scholarly situations, it is pretty common for someone to challenge why they should listen to you. You respond with your publications or experience or whatever, and they just go “right – I see.” No one feels like they are demeaned or spoken down to. For some reason, this has transferred over to every day interactions with people that don’t get why you are telling them how awesome you are. It isn’t that – like I have shown, intellectuals often don’t think they are awesome – they just want to prove to you that you can trust them.

Intellectuals, sorry – we just have to stop that one. I need to stop that one. I don’t think anyone is ever going to get where we are coming from on this one.

metamodern-faith-avatarSo I already have a book and I have barely scratched the surface. None of this is meant to justify how intellectuals act. None of this is meant to say that intellectuals never do anything wrong, are never guilty of arrogance, are never the one to blame. My hope is that you will see a bit more into the minds and actions of very misunderstood portion of the Christian Church, and also maybe learn to understand where they are coming from. Where I have unnecessarily romanticized the intellectual side or glossed over problems we cause, I apologize. I am an intellectual myself and my view is biased. And we are all different – so everything here might not apply to every intellectual out there. Or there might be more. We are a rather complex bunch after all 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s