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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Faith, Doubt, and Intellectuals

University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla has written a poignant reflection in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine on his loss of faith and recent interactions with evangelicals . Using a trip to the Billy Graham crusade in New York as his centerpiece, Lilla explores his own teenage conversion and subsequent, overriding doubts. His essay seeks to illumine the appeal and motivations of American evangelical Protestants. While sympathizing with some of his frustrations about the banality and anti-intellectualism present in the subculture, I believe Lilla steers too far down the road of condescension at several points. I started to write a long critique of Lilla's piece before deciding instead to send you to a better one. Please take the time to read Ross Douthat's exceptional response at The American Scene blog. (How did I just find this blog, btw? It's fantastic.) As a teaser, here's a quote from both Lilla's piece and Douthat's rejoinder: First, Lilla:
"A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers - ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated."
And in this corner, Douthat:
"I'm not sure there was ever a moment when the average American Christian was reading Maritain or Niebuhr for spiritual guidance - but that aside, why did these religious intellectuals disappear from the scene? Well, for one thing, elite culture, especially the elite intellectual culture of the kind that Lilla now inhabits, stopped paying attention to religious intellectual life: John Courtney Murray and C.S. Lewis made the cover of Time, but if they were writing today, I doubt they could even find a mainstream publisher. Some of this is the fault of Christian churches, of course, for emphasizing self-help and the gospel of wealth over real theology - but some of it is the fault of thinkers like Lilla, who in setting aside their own religious belief in favor of that certain comportment have also closed off the space where people like Murray and Niebuhr and Merton used to operate, the ground where secular intellectuals took religious intellectuals seriously, even when they disagreed with them."
Please check out Douthat's full response, which in my view displays a respectful tone and yet asks the right questions regarding some of Lilla's fundamental assumptions.

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