Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Intellectuals and Christianity


It is a big step for many people to recognize and understand that - from a Christian perspective - intellectuals and the rich really are (as a class, and on average) worse than simple people and the poor.

Worse in the sense of further from God; further from salvation, further from heaven.

Those passages in the Bible about the difficulties of a rich man attaining salvation (camels and a needle's eye) or 'The Beatitudes' (those phrases commencing 'Blessed are...) about the poor, meek, humble and rejected are meant seriously, and are not merely a rhetorical device.


It is hard for intellectuals and the rich to become Christians, and even harder for them to become advanced in holiness.

The problems include Pride (especially of intellectuals), and the availability of distractions (especially of the Rich); so it is no accident that a synonym for the poor and meek is 'humble', and that Humility is one of the greatest Christian virtues.


But these facts are disguised by historical accident: that the holy, simple poor leave no written records.

And because some of the very greatest of Saints were intellectuals who overcame their innate disadvantage to achieve great holiness, and were able to use their intellectual gifts in service of their faith.

This began with such supreme intellectuals as St John the Evangelist and continued with Saint Paul then many of the greatest Fathers of the Church.


I am currently engaged with reading Piers Plowman by William Langland (c. 1332 – 1386) - which is probably the greatest religious poem in English (albeit Middle English).

Langland was an intellectual - probably in Holy Orders but not a priest - who was also poor; and his poem strikes me as engaged in demonstrating to other intellectuals - especially those in higher Holy Orders and who were wealthy - that as a class they are inferior Christians to the common peasants (to whom they feel so superior).

The poem seems to me to regard the spiritual superiority of the ignorant peasant as a given, and to be trying-out various explanations of why this is so: why the virtuous peasant has (in effect) a 'pardon' from God - a symbolic guarantee of salvation.

(Some of Langland's 'experimental' suggestions of and for this 'pardon' are more convincing than others to the modern reader, but I see them less as proofs that this is so, and more as explanations of why this is so.


Christian intellectuals therefore have potentially a very high calling - but Pride stands blocking the path.

Since humility is absolutely essential to the Christian, this means that it is very difficult for intellectuals to take even the first step, and even more unusual for an intellectual to be advanced in holiness.

Of course, being an intellectual does not prevent someone becoming a Christian. But it does means that most intellectuals will be mediocre Christians: last in line in the procession to Heaven; and lowest in the hierarchy of Heaven.


The hierarchy of Heaven is for Men - roughly speaking - an inversion of worldly status.

The first necessary act of humility is to understand and accept this.