Criticism — From the September 2016 issue

The Watchmen

What became of the Christian intellectuals?

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In the last years of the Weimar Republic, Karl Mannheim, an influential sociologist, argued that a new type of person had recently arisen in the Western world: the intellectual. These were people “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.” Just a few years after writing these words, Mannheim — a Hungarian Jew — was forced out of his university position by the Nazi regime.

Not long after he fled to England, Mannheim began sitting in on a small gathering of highly educated Christians. The group was convened by J. H. Oldham, a missionary and advocate for Christian unity. Oldham’s Moot met several times a year starting in 1938, and was chiefly attended by Christian intellectuals. (T. S. Eliot was among the most active members.) Mannheim was drawn to the Moot because in their discussions he found intellectuals playing their proper role as interpreters and watchmen. As total war drew closer, and then as it unfolded in all its horror, the members of the Moot met to reflect not so much on the defensibility of warfare or its conduct but on the effect that the war was having on British, and to some extent American, society. It was in this sense that the Moot’s participants were watchmen: not Juvenal’s guardians (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), or for that matter Alan Moore’s comic-book version, but interested observers whose first job was not to act but to interpret.

HA057__03HF0-1Across the Atlantic a similar, though more public and ecumenical, group formed in 1939 through the work of Louis Finkelstein, a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. This endeavor bore the unwieldy title of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life. It was a more contentious affair than the Moot, largely because of Finkelstein’s determination to gather in a single group scientists and humanists, Christians, Jews, and unbelievers. Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher then living in exile in New York, warned against such inclusiveness; he believed that only religious thought could adequately counter the moral crisis that was afflicting the democratic West. Though Finkelstein was inclined to agree with his point, he wanted a broader conversation. However, when Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago made Maritain’s argument openly — adding that the Western world had more to fear from its irreligious professors than from Hitler, which aroused the wrath of Sidney Hook and the other nonbelievers present — the idea of bringing such a diverse group together came to seem unworkable.

Oldham’s Moot and Finkelstein’s Conference shared a pair of beliefs: that the West was suffering a kind of moral crisis, and that a religious interpretation of that crisis was required. The nature of the problem, the believing intellectuals agreed, was a kind of waffling uncertainty about core principles and foundational belief. Faced with ideological challenges from the totalitarian Axis powers and from the communist Soviet Union, democracy did not seem to know why it should be preferred to alternatives whose advocates celebrated them so passionately and reverently. What democracy needed was a metaphysical justification — or, at least, a set of metaphysically grounded reasons for preferring democracy to those great and terrifying rivals.

In was in this context — a democratic West seeking to understand why it was fighting and what it was fighting for — that the Christian intellectual arose. Before World War II there had been Christians who were also intellectuals, but not a whole class of people who understood themselves, and were often understood by others, to be watchmen observing the democratic social order and offering a distinctive interpretation of it. Mannheim, who was born Jewish but professed no religious belief, joined with these people because he saw them pursuing the genuine calling of the intellectual. Perhaps Mortimer Adler felt the same way: it would otherwise be difficult to explain why he, also a Jew by birth and also (at that time) without any explicit religious commitments, would think that the West could be saved only through careful attention to the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Though the key Christian intellectuals of the day and their fellow travelers — Mannheim and Adler, Eliot and Oldham, W. H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, and many others — did not oppose their social order, they were far more critical than their predecessors had been during World War I. The Christian intellectuals of World War II found their society shaking at its foundations. They were deeply concerned that even if the Allies won, it would be because of technological and economic, not moral and spiritual, superiority; and if technocrats were deemed responsible for winning the war, then those technocrats would control the postwar world. (It is hard to deny that those Christian intellectuals were, on this point at least, truly prophetic.)

But their voices were heard, throughout the war and for a few years after its conclusion. On both sides of the Atlantic, they published articles in leading newspapers and magazines, and books with major presses; they gave lectures at the major universities; they spoke on the radio. C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr (to take just two examples) were famous men — appearing on the cover of Time in 1947 and 1948, respectively.

Though there remain today Christians who are also public intellectuals, their place in society and the Christian faith’s place in their thinking mark them as very different from the figures with whom Karl Mannheim came to associate. If we wish to know why this species became extinct, the short answer is that the Christian intellectual was the product of World War II, and when that war was over, the epiphenomena it had generated simply faded away. But there is also a longer and more complex answer.

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