Over at U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Tim Lacy reflects on recently deceased Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame. Lacy considers Hesburgh to be an example of a Roman Catholic intellectual, and here’s why:
I define a religious intellectual as a self-identified religious person who displays the ability and willingness to bracket ideas, topics, theories, etc. It is a character trait that arises and is triangulated, or is confirmed historically, over time. To call it a character trait means that it repeats consistently such that it can be identified with one’s personality. Its habitual. The accent is on one’s identity as an intellectual.
But what does it mean to ‘bracket things’? I take this to be one’s ability to hold up a problem or issue and examine it from many different sides—including, especially, from sides that seem outside of one’s identity. The intellectual ability to bracket should display, I think, an element of surprise. There is something slightly Dionysian about that person’s thinking. That trait underscores the danger of the intellectual as a type. They might say, and then even do, something you hadn’t predicted. They can be enigmatic.
Even so, the religious intellectual will always, in the end, bring religion back into the conversation. She or he will judge and evaluate the results of their thinking against religious creeds, theologies, and tenets. At this point the religious intellectual may then close out a theory or conclusion if it strays into heresy or sin. But closure occurs after the consideration. The hallmark of the beginning of her or his inquiry is openness.
An ‘intellectually religious’ person—an intellectual Muslim, Protestant, or Catholic, for instance—is a self-identified religious person who starts with religious tenets, issues, or problems and then builds a thought structure, or structures, from that point. These structures can become quite elaborate and intricate. They might display a person’s intellectual prowess and the complexity of a religious issue. Those structures may even occasionally surprise people both inside and outside the thinker’s faith. But the person of faith who explores who reads the thinker’s writings and analyzes her or his actions know that they are on safe ground. Why? Because that intellectual actor starts with the cult’s premises and assumptions.
All about me, but I like this way of explaining the work of a Christian intellectual because it resonates with the idea of the Christian believer as hyphenated, that is, a self tossed to and fro by any number of responsibilities and claims on his loyalty and affection. When I work as elder I bracket certain convictions that I take into the classroom as history professor or — ahem — into the bedroom as husband. Such bracketing is obviously important to 2k since a 2ker looks at political life as having a different set of standards than those that apply to the church. But the Christian life is driven by hyphenation.
What is also important to see is that according to Lacy’s distinction, neo-Calvinism is good at producing intellectually religious people — thinkers who construct systems of thought, often times quite rigorous, but in pursuit of advancing the claims of faith. 2k in contrast produces religious intellectuals who differentiate areas of study without letting faith determine everything. 2k Protestants do this if only because they believe the Bible doesn’t speak fully or adequately to all areas of study — like English literature, microbiology, political theory — in ways that intellectuals demand.
So once again, in a mild March Madness upset, 2k beats neo-Calvinism.