The Formation of Public Intellectuals


Jacques Barzun — A Public Intellectual (Painting by E.R. Morse, Public Domain)

I wrote yesterday about the question of how we get the “public” into “public intellectuals” and particularly the role such persons might have in the Christian faith community. But this begs the question of how does one become a “public intellectual”?

My short answer to this is that rather than one seeking such a role, I suspect many who begin to exercise this kind of influence would say the role has sought them as they have sought to exercise their gifts and sense of calling with diligence. That said, my own sense is that Christians who exercise this particular influence have life experiences that have formed and cultivated certain inherent qualities and gifts.

Formation of character: The danger of a role with the term “intellectual” in it is that it is possible to be smart and yet not wise. Intellectual gifts may be used in divisive or hurtful ways or in ways that foster insight, spiritual growth and human flourishing. Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” A healthy sense that one’s words and actions are carried out before One with whom we will reckon seems a vital requisite for the Christian public intellectual. Likewise, I would hope for someone who values all persons as made in the image of God, leading to the respect of anyone engaged, even the intellectual opponent. And lastly, though this is not sought, people who have experienced pain and failure, and have been formed redemptively through these experiences may be safeguarded from intellectual hubris and arrogance. Abraham Lincoln stands out to me as an example of such a person.

Formation of the intellect: Sheer intellectual gifts are not enough without intellectual discipline. C.S. Lewis writes about “the Great Knock”, his tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick, who forced him to reason rigorously and clearly. Public intellectuals are not dilettantes but careful thinkers as well as reflective cultural observers who appeal to us, not by sentiment or emotional appeal but through disciplined thought clearly expressed. Training in logic, the history of ideas, as well as one’s disciplinary focus are all important. Hand in hand with this goes intellectual curiosity. Jacques Barzun, pictured above, found baseball and classical music, as well as cultural history and educational philosophy of great interest. I think this curiosity extends to people as well, understanding what they think and the sources of their passion for life. And it probably goes without saying, but most of these people are insatiable readers!

Theological formation: Hand in hand with character and intellectual formation is the cultivation by the Christian intellectual of a profound, deeply embedded, and personally embraced understanding of the Christian faith. The idea is a faith that has become a way of seeing the world that brings unique perspectives and unique questions to any topic of conversation. The Christian public intellectual does not apply their understanding of the faith as a veneer over the general knowledge of a topic, trying to “Christianize” it, but rather understands any question within the framework of God’s purposes and ways in the world–whether we are talking about music, or educational philosophy, or community development, or emerging technologies.

Communication skills: Any public intellectual not only thinks about matters of public concern. They also express themselves publicly–through writing, through teaching, through public addresses and public conversations. They know not only how to make an argument but how to communicate in terms their particular audience will grasp. They can adapt communication to the occasion, from the rigor of an academic journal, to an informal pub conversation, to an op-ed, to a public dialogue. In this age, this probably includes the media savvy to communicate in various online fora.

In some sense, one never stops developing these requisite qualities and skills. Most will never become “Christian public intellectuals” on a national or international scale. It may be, as I discussed yesterday, that the local pastor who exercises this ministry within his or her parish, both within the church and in the broader community, may be doing the most important work. Likewise this applies to the local academic, the local journalist, the local business leader, doctor, or lawyer. Public intellectuals arise from all these professions–consider for example the role a person like Bill Gates exercises in global conversations, and the influence he and Mark Zuckerberg and even Oprah have when they share book recommendations.

How do people rise to prominence? There seems to be a philosophy today of “building one’s platform” on social media. I wonder if, while this may be a part of the equation, whether a more important piece is simply devoting oneself to the excellent exercise of one’s gifts in producing good work. With that comes the crucial requisite of engaging others in various public fora around that work, from town councils to academic symposia to publications in newspapers, magazines and journals. There is something of mystery why some gain increasingly large audiences who recognize the worth of their work. Sometimes, it seems simply a fortuitous convergence of opportunities. Sometimes, it is clearly the result of long and excellent hard work. What one hopes is that this never goes to one’s head, that one simply pursues this calling with a sense of amazement wondering, “why would anyone listen to what I say?” and even more amazement when that proves helpful to another human being or constructive in advancing the public good.

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