Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good.
Public intellectuals? We don’t have any of them around here. That seems the verdict of many who struggle to name a good example of a Christian public intellectual since the time of Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr. George M. Marsden discusses this sense in the foreword to this volume and contends that the size of the audience isn’t the only criterion for a being a public intellectual. What is critical for Christians is that they do this, reflecting not only excellence of thought but also the sacrificial work of Christ in love for those who may differ for this.
In their introduction the editors identify the challenges for evangelicals in considering public intellectual work. Do we see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers? We are both politically divided and as an evangelical movement, fragmented and amorphous. We’ve been distracted from the hard work of excellent scholarship and so our engagement is often mediocre, with some exceptions. We’ve not created the mechanisms of rigorous critique to develop better ideas common in the public environment. And they introduce us to a Catholic scholar of the last century who exemplified loving excellence for the common good, Jacques Maritain.
The contributors of this volume (originally conference presentations) lay the groundwork for a vision of public intellectual work for the common good. The first two essays are theological reflections. Miroslav Volf articulates the need for and character of the public intellectual, pointing us back to Sarah and Abraham through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Of any essayist he articulates most clearly the challenge of public intellectual work in the time of disorienting change:
“To negotiate all these changes, we need at least three things: (1) to understand the seemingly chaotic world around us; (2) to discern, articulate, and commend visions of the good, flourishing life in diverse and largely pluralistic settings, and (3) to find navigable paths to reach together the goals aligned with those visions.
Amo Yong turns us to the apostles and emphasizes both the discursive and performative acts of their ministry and the essential element of the work of the Spirit. He contends that theologians as public intellectuals should not jettison their theological insights but be resolutely theological in their speech and activities, even as they recognize their pluralistic setting.
The second part includes messages from those in the marketplace. Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, insists on the importance of presidents of Christian institutions leading in public intellectual work within their institutions as well as facilitating that work among faculty. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, considers three of their Templeton Prize winners as exemplars of public intellectuals working for the common good, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and Professor Alvin Plantinga. All three are unapologetic adherents of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity respectively. Yet all three are characterized by humility that builds bridges to other faith leaders and scholars who differ with them, exemplifying what John Inazu calls “confident pluralism.” Katelyn Beaty, a former editor at Christianity Today, closes out this section describing the role of journalists in a post-truth era, offering her own example in covering the fall of Bill Hybels, and how Willow Creek addressed allegations against him.
The last section consists of two reflections. One, by Emmanual Katangole, describes his personal transformation when he worked with Chris Rice at the Center for Reconciliation, moving from theoretical work to public engagement around racial reconciliation. Then the concluding presentation is an interview with John Perkins and the centrality of his relationship with Christ to all his reconciliation and community development work.
I traced several themes running through these essays. One is that public intellectual work by Christians must always be grounded in Christian piety and conviction that refuses to mute this in public engagement. Second is the vital character of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in Christian humility. Third is that public intellectuals offer and embody sense and clarity in our divided and fragmented world rather than perpetuating the confusion. Finally, their work is moved neither by animus nor fear but by love that seeks the flourishing of all human beings, and not just the ones in agreement with you.
I appreciated the mix of presenters from academia and the public realm–emphasizing the work of philanthropy, journalism, and community development in particular. This is not a “how to” book but in it we encounter both theory and exemplars. Perhaps the most helpful word is from George Marsden at the beginning: this is not work for a select few, but one for all Christians who recognize the vital role of the life of the mind to bring greater clarity to our disorienting times, to the end of the good of our neighbors–all of them. In this collection, the editors combine vision, urgency, and hope for this noble and much needed work.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.