I heard it again today:  The Church of the Brethren is more anti-intellectual today.  I have to admit, I don’t buy it.

From the beginning, Pietism contained a reaction to overly intellectualized belief.  The egalitarianism of the Spirit countered the elitism of scholastic thought.  Yet, this was hardly a rejection of rigorous critical thought.  Even the quickest read through the Pietist writers of the 17th and 18th centuries reveals a tradition in the hands of an intellectual class.  To have read scripture and written with such attentiveness required a standard of education above the social norm of the day.  Even if there was sentiment against learning, clearly today’s level of education would be far beyond that of the early Pietists.  Just because the typical pew sitter cannot define hermeneutics, identify the latest theological terms, or even know the ideas Derrida or Hauerwas does not mean they are anti-intellectual.

Such a historical review is a task for another time.  Rather, I would like to explore the impact of perceived anti-intellectual on the tradition of the Brethren.  What if this anti-intellectual turn, if there is such a thing, is really a failure of leadership?  I am not suggesting that each pastor or DE should be publishing in the latest peer reviewed journal, but simply that there are fewer and fewer forums for clear intellectual and creative expressions of the Brethren tradition.  Here are some questions about this “Anti-Intellectual” effect:

  • As we in leadership set the bar below our congregants, what will they learn?  How will they grow intellectually and spiritually?
  • If we in leadership are not presenting a model of faithful thinking, who are the models for their spiritual and intellectual formation?
  • Is the “anti-intellectual” card a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which ends up reifying a divide between the laity and the elite?

As an alternative, I want to present a new theory of counter-intellectualism.  There is clearly a wider phenomenon of “simple folk” in American culture.  I do not think this is a rejection of critical thought but rather a push-back against elitism, against a way of being critical which imposes on the other.  In this interpretation the “lay” response is a means of protection against a learned class which “knows what is best” for the populace, and imposes that vision on it.  In the Church this is like a cancer.  It freezes the laity into a stagnancy and locks the intellectuals in their heads.  A fissure becomes a chasm, and the unity of the Church prayed for by Christ disappears into the resulting darkness.

A similar phenomenon was recored in the early desert literature.  As the second generation of desert ascetics was maturing, a question arose about the nature of God.  Basically, two camps emerged.  The first, following the Genesis narrative, believed God to have a human form.  The second, and more philosophical, rejected that idea.  Instead, God for them was best thought of as beyond human form.  After a pronouncement by the local bishop condemning the first group’s theology, a monk emerged from his cell in tears.  His reply was simple.  “They have taken my God away from me.”

In our present dilemma, that is the result to be avoided.  Our choices are not between thoughtfulness or simplicity, but rather between spiritual transformation and bifurcated isolation.