Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Went to an interesting panel discussion this evening. Put on by the new journal n+1 (based at our college) it explored the possibility that evangelical Christian backgrounds might be shaping a distinctive group of intellectuals the way Jewish backgrounds did the generation of the New York intellectuals half a century ago. The speakers were Malcolm Gladwell, Christine Smallwood and James Wood.

Their backgrounds are too diverse to allow of any conclusions - British Mennonites, conservative nondenominational New Jersey evangelicals, progressive evangelical Church of England - but close enough in their way to define an interesting area for reflection. After all, the majority of American intellectuals are some variant of Christian or post-Christian. We know all about the Catholic and ex-Catholic; why shouldn't there be a set of characteristic preoccupations of Evangelical and ex-Evangelical? Some candidates for these preoccupations suggested by the panel: an appetite for momentous metaphysical questions; a desire to reconcile faith and culture perhaps by mystifying apparently secular things like reason; an appreciation for the power of narrative, and the possibility that important truths of human experience might need to understood in narrative, in literary rather than literalist ways.

The variety of backgrounds, and the fact that two of the three traditions were not politically reactionary, was probably informative and valuable for the audience to learn about. (Yes: evangelicals are politically progressive in many places besides the US.) To me what was most interesting was hearing the different ways in which the panelists had distanced themselves from their parents' faith (while they can no longer share their parents' beliefs, all the panelists had great moral admiration for their parents), whether by slow or even regretful erosion or acts of rebellion.

As interesting in its way was the way they distanced themselves from the "new atheists," specially Richard Dawkins, who was brought out as whipping-boy many times. At one point Gladwell, with characteristic giddy hyperbole, opined that for every 15 year old boy who discovered in The God Delusion that he was not alone, a thousand others would find their faith strengthened by the thrill of persecution. How ironic that The God Delusion should be building the community of the faithful, he said, sounding rather more theist than he claimed to be! I'm not sure Gladwell's quite right here. There are surely some whose religious fanaticism is fanned by the flames of what they take to be persecution (which is why right wing nuts agree to apper on late night talk shows). But there is another group of people - like our panelists - who react against Dawkins not from the perspective of affronted faith but from that of an affronted humanism which thinks religion (although it's untrue) deserves better. (I've seen something similar in my course on the cultures of the religious right among students who have left behind conservative religious backgrounds but also feel their families are done an injustice by liberal anti-religious prejudices.) Distancing themselves from Dawkins' dismissive views of religious believers, these speakers are able to avoid a categorical distinction between intellectuals and faith, and recognize the humanity of religious believers and the human significance of their experiences, communities, questions and proffered asnwers.

What opened up was a kind of spectrum whose extremes of literalist belief and literalist unbelief are equally condemned. In the middle, a common ground of people who take religion seriously in various at least partly humanistic ways, some believers, some not. The space, I'd like to think, not of faux neutrality of "The Question of God" or the Foundation for a Better Life, but the robust democratic hope of Dewey's A Common Faith...

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