In the middle of the night, I often find myself coming out of a dream from which not even a fleeting image remains, still not entirely awake, with an uneasy sense that something’s amiss. Images flicker in my mind, voices too, sometimes. “Intellectuals,” a nasty, insinuating sort of voice said in my head last night—for some reason this made me think of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories—and then this: “PUBLIC intellectuals.” And at that I laughed, or rather snorted (quietly, so as not to wake Wendy).
I knew the source of the voice, at least. A week ago, Wendy and I were at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis for a small gathering on the theme of “Public Intellectuals and the Common Good: Opportunities for Evangelical Scholars,” convened by the Lumen Research Institute (jointly sponsored by Indiana Wesleyan University and Excelsia College in Australia). This was the second in a series of three such meetings; the first, held two years ago in the same place, considered “The State of the Evangelical Mind” and resulted in a book with the same title, edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers and published in 2018 by Intervarsity Press (and—full disclosure—dedicated to Wendy and me). This year’s symposium will also yield a book published by IVP.
Something about the word “intellectual” (used as a noun) seems to unhinge the minds of many people. I noticed this when I was still a boy—not least, alas, in church-connected settings, where anti-intellectualism flourished. It took me a good deal longer to grasp the phenomenon of intellectual anti-intellectualism, evident (for example) in recent years in much sputtering and scorn directed at the coinage “public intellectual.” Of course such a label can be used pretentiously, but it need not carry any such baggage.
This week I’ve received new issues of Plough Quarterly, The New Criterion, Commonweal, and the Englewood Review of Books (the October issue of First Things arrived not long ago). Each of these magazines is produced “in public” by intellectuals; each embodies a distinctive (though not monolithic) vision of “the common good,” sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. The gathering Wendy and I attended last week in Indianapolis prompted me to read them in that light. The symposium’s organizers cast a wide net. We heard from a university president (Linda Livingstone of Baylor), a foundation president (Heather Templeton Dill), and a (former) journalist (Katelyn Beaty, now an editor at Brazos Press), as well as from scholars such as Miroslav Volf, Emmanuel Katongele, and Amos Yong. The highlight of the event was the closing session, a conversation between the president of IWU, David Wright, and the preacher, community developer, and activist John Perkins, still fiery in his late eighties.
We left Indianapolis last Saturday morning very thankful for our time there—not only for the formal presentations but also for many conversations between sessions. But I did feel that something was missing. There was almost no explicit reckoning with the widespread perception of evangelicals in the United States in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. With the exception of the talk by Miroslav Volf—and one of the summaries of full-length papers, by Mark Stephens of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney—there was little reflection on sharply conflicting conceptions of the common good evident, for example, in the Ahmari-French exchange and the ever-ramifying conversations it set in motion.
Don’t misunderstand me. I loved the spirit of last week’s gathering. It was refreshing and even inspiring at times. But I wonder if the editors of the forthcoming volume might consider commissioning an additional essay. It was encouraging to hear about the Baylor scholar whose research may lead to an improvement in water quality (with all the benefits that will entail) in many parts of the world. That is a superb example of scholarship for the common good. And yet we must acknowledge that in many domains, with all the goodwill in the world, consensus about the “common good” is unattainable. That’s the context in which we live and work. How then should we proceed?
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.