Friday, April 29, 2011

Defining Intellectual

Some of Conversations On Truth is stupidly intelligent, some of it is intelligently stupid, and some of it is good. Very good.

The authors talk to Noam Chomsky, and ask him the following question:

Do you think that subordination to power in America or Britain is something that, generally speaking, people are happy to go along with? Are people happy being lied to?

Chomsky's answer is as theological as they come:

They may not be happy, but it's easier. It is certainly easier to conform to authority and to standard doctrine than to stand up against it. And this goes back right through the earliest recorded history. Look at classical Greece. Who was it that drank the hemlock? Was it somebody who was praising official doctrine or was it someone who was corrupting the youth of Athens by his questions and criticisms? Or take, say, the Bible at roughly the same time. In the Old Testament there was a group of people whom we might call intellectuals, people who gave geopolitical analysis, criticized the crimes of the state and called for mercy for widows and orphans. They were the people whom we call prophets -- basically dissident intellectuals by our standards. Were they treated nicely? No. They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, and so on. Centuries later they were honoured, of course, but not at the time. At the time the people who were honoured were the flatterers at the court. They were the ones who, in the gospels, are called false prophets. And that is a pattern that runs through history.

Chomsky's words challenge my definition of "intellectual", transporting the term from the realm of academia and scholarship to the realm of politics and church. I often associate an "intellectual" with wealth, prestige and power, but as Chomsky highlights, there is another side to intellectuality. It is the side that speaks uncomfortable truths to wealth, prestige, and power. The early disciples of Jesus were marked by their relentless proclamation of such truths. They subverted the empire at every turn. They were intellectual, but not as we know it.

Which side do disciples of Jesus fall on today, by and large? Empire-exposers or empire-producers/consumers? And what does it mean to be an intellectual Christian in the 21st century? Judging by the prophets' standards it has become too tame a pursuit. For many, to be an intellectual Christian means to take science seriously. There's nothing wrong with this, but there's more - it means to take the kingdom of god seriously. It means understanding that all of life -- politics, economics, education, the arts, religion, science -- is called into question by the stunning vision of the kingdom of god as revealed and enacted by Jesus of Nazareth.

The next time someone asks me if what I'm doing in Belfast Bible College is purely intellectual, instead of insisting that it's not I might just say, "Yes it is, but that's okay."

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