Commonplacing: New Books

As promised, here are the other two books I mentioned on Friday. The first is The Other Calling: Theology, Intellectual Vocation and Truth (Malden, MA / Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) by Andrew Shanks, the Canon Theologian for Manchester Cathedral. Shanks identifies the true calling of an intellectual as a form of priesthood — Melchizedek priesthood, to be exact — in what I deem a misguided venture to unite “intellectuals” as a religiously multicultural ‘priesthood of all thinkers’ in which the “priests” come from “every different sort of given religious background,” (p. 1). Though his theology of contemporary priesthood is overly open-minded, his discussions of the moral responsibility of intellectualism are really quite though provoking. He writes in Chapter 11, pp. 199-200:

What is an intellectual: how exactly are we to define the moral vocation inherent in the privileges that derive from a good education and a receptive mind?

It seems to me that there are three basic options: the choice is between (a) various forms of militant intellectual elitism, (b) a perhaps justifiable ‘sophistry’, or (c) priestliness. So, to recapitulate:

  • The first option, for militant elitism, involves intellectuals organizing with a view to themselves, as an elite group… Platonist philosophic politics in the Straussian sense is one model of this; the Enlightenment secularism of groups like the Parisian philosophes is another…
  • The second option, for sophistry, involves intellectuals who are altogether less clubbable in their specific capacity as intellectuals… Rather, it is simply a principle of inner self-distancing… And most ‘postmodernist’ thinking may also be said to belong to the same category.
  • The third option, however, for priestliness, involves intellectuals, so far as possible, completely immersing themselves in the life of a catholic community. When it comes to criticizing the prevailing mindlessness of the ‘world’, in other words, such thinkers do not just inwardly to withdraw from the world… On the contrary, their thinking is none other than an intimate, loyalist critical engagement with the life of a particular moral group, which, in the fullest possible, non-sectarian sense, itself belongs to the world.

He then reveals his empty hermeneutic by assigning this third option to the biblical priesthood of Melchizadek. Odd, I know. If you can get past this entirely misplaced theology of priesthood, Shanks actually has some helpful things to say about the responsibilities of intellectuals in thoughtfully engaging the mindlessness of the world.

I don’t watch the television show Survivor because it seems to me merely to be a revisiting of junior high. I do know, however, that they filmed a season in the incredibly beautiful Vanuatu. I doubt they ever made reference to John G. Paton, missionary whose autobiography is now on my reading list (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), originally printed in 1886. The publisher’s blurb:

[Paton] was ordained as a missionary to the New Hebrides in 1858. This group of thirty mountainous islands, so named by Captain Cook, with its unhealthy climate, was then inhabited by savages and cannibals. The first attempt attempt to introduce Christianity to them resulted in John Williams and James Harris being clubbed to death within a few minutes of arriving in 1839. The difficulties that confronted Paton were accentuated by the sudden death of his wife and child within months of their arrival. Against the savagery and the superstition, despite the trials and tragedies, Paton persevered and witnessed the triumph of the gospel in two of these South Sea islands.

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