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.



Thursday said...

I'm kind of wondering if the part about the poor being better than the rich applied more when there were, well, more intelligent people among the poor. Before the great sorting documented in the Bell Curve. My current work involves lots of interactions with people on the lower end of the economic spectrum and conventional religion is rare (though vague supernaturalism, like an interest in astrology, is not) and religion that actually affects someone's conduct is even rarer. In my experience, life among the poor is basically a wasteland of drugs and fornication. The stats too document a huge drop in both religiosity and moral behaviour among the lower classes. So much so, that there's now a decent correlation between education and churchgoing:

Thursday said...

Though the record of Tolstoy's fervent attempt, and failure, to find holiness among the peasants may indicate that the phenomenon may go back further.

Thursday said...

I also wonder about the fact that historians have been showing that the peasants in Northern Europe were never particularly well Christianized. Large numbers of them remained essentially pagan. Things were mostly different in the south, although there is a semi-famous book and film called Christ Stopped at Eboli about the same phenomenon in Italy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - that is a good question! (as the politicians say) and one which demonstrates the fundamental difference between secular and Christian views of Good.

For the secular: fundamentally to be Good is to do Good/ not do Bad - which in modern terms means being unselfish, making other happy and reducing their suffering.

For the Christian, fundamentally to be Good is an orientation: towards Heaven, not This World.

At its most basic, it is to repent and believe that Christ is Lord. Beyond that, it is to move closer to God (theosis).

I think the word to describe these concepts is orthogonal.

For me, the most moving exemplification of the Christian concept is the story of The Good Thief at the crucifiction Luke 23:

35 And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.

36 And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar,

37 And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself.

38 And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

dearieme said...

When I was a boy my parents encouraged me to make friends among children of all conditions - we're a' Jock Tamson's bairns. Evidence of the spiritual superiority of the poorer sorts eluded me. Evidence of many of them being thoroughly nice people was easily seen; and evidence of some of them being feckless, reckless, gormless dole-bludgers too. The latter sort could make life unpleasant for the former sort, but (I assume) on a smaller scale than happens today. Sentimentalising about The Poor just doesn't work for me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday and dearieme - an important fact to take into account is who are the modern analogues to Langland's Poor - ie. subsistence-level peasants.

The modern poor are certainly NOT defined merely by having less wealth than the Rich.

Indeed, there are approximately zero materially Poor people in modern societies - everyone is Rich by medieval standards: the modern 'poor' have more than enough to eat, by historial standards luxurious warmth shelter and clothing, they don't need to work all the time (indeed, most of the poor do not work at all) - and (more importantly) access to innumerable distractions.

'Relative poverty' is merely an invention of the Left in order to justify their continued existence, increased power and to provide a rationale for wholesale intervention in everything.

Thursday said...


I would say you are overemphasizing certain aspects of the Christian faith over others. We live in an age that has some grotesque overemphases of its own, so I'm not coming down too hard on you, but it is important to maintain perspective. There are other passages in the Bible with different perspectives that need to be considered too. Like "by their fruits you will know them" or St. Paul saying love is greater than faith. Utilitarianism is not the be all and end all of ethics, but it is still an important _part_ of any good ethical system.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - I am drawing a contrast about fundamentals in the context of a brief blog comment.

But IF you judge Christian ethics according to utilitarian criteria THEN you will of course find them wanting; or else will simply put Christian words to an ethical system drawn from PC, or libertarianism, or some other secular system - as happens in liberal Christianity.

The point is that if you judge Christianity to be true, then it is up to you to *discover* what it means and implies.

BTW Christianity cannot be constructed from someone reading the Bible and trying to work out what it means.

The understanding of Christianity comes from the tradition of people of advanced holiness (Apostles, Saints and so on) communicating it to people (such as ourselves) of very limited holiness. We have to try and tap into that tradition as best we can, and having located it defer to the superior wisdom of those more experienced and advanced than ourselves - just as I did (mostly) when I was a medical student.

You can't learn medicine from a book, even less can you learn Christianity from a book - even when that book is the Bible.

The Crow said...

Pride, humility: this is really all about ego. Suborn the ego and the path is made clear.
The problem lies in being able to identify what ego is, and that so many people, rich, or poor, have become nothing but ego.
Ego - as I see it - is who you think you are.
Its displacement depends upon accepting that you are what you are, not who you (think) you are.
There is demonstrably just as much ego in the vacuous, drug-addled loser, as there is in the royal aristocrat and millionaire entrepreneur.
And ego is the most difficult thing to isolate and identify, let alone remove from prominence.
It certainly can be done, but it lies in the hands of the individual to do so, and so it is exceedingly rare.

Thursday said...

1. Well, I was responding to your quoting from the Bible to show that it wasn't that simple.

2. A direct statement from someone like St. Paul would seem to have at least some authority.

3. I don't think that any Christian thinker would deny that happiness and suffering were important considerations in any good ethical system. Unlike in modern ethical systesm, they are not the _only_ considerations, but they are still important. After all the concept of joy is an extremely important part of Christian theology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - If you are going to pull-out the 'it's more complicated than that' argument every time I make a clear statement - then I won't talk to you any more...;=)

Jaz said...

Pride?? Why, my humility is exceeded only by my super-high intelligence.

The Crow said...

I hope this conversation continues.
Lots of good ponder-stuff here...

Gyan said...

The modern thought produces isolation and suicide among the rich and envy and murder in the poor.
Karamazov Brothers.

The rich are merely exposed to a different set of temptations than poor. It is no virtue to be poor.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - my main point is not that it is virtuous to be poor and ignorant, but that it is NO virtue to be rich and intelligent.

dearieme said...

Only 150 years ago in these islands there were two bunches of "subsistence-level peasants".
The Highlanders were looked upon as a reactionary but a good, intelligent and hospitable race. The bog-Irish were looked upon as as violent, drunken, dishonest, priest-ridden and stupid. There's not much evidence in either lot of superior spirituality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - the current British context is one of near-zero 'spirituality' (approx. concern for salvation of the soul) and nearly-100 percent worldly orientation.

The old-time Highland peasants would not need to be very saint-like totally to out-perform modern Scotland in the spiritual stakes.

dearieme said...

"The old-time Highland peasants would not need to be very saint-like totally to out-perform modern Scotland in the spiritual stakes": a fair point. Perhaps their proness to pagan superstitions would qualify them?

Brett Stevens said...

It seems to me that this is about a means/ends confusion.

Highly spiritual people tend to live toward a singular goal, which is harmony and enhancement of the order of the universe as seen through the divine presence (or perhaps I have that last phrase reversed).

To love money for money's sake, or to be an "intellectual" for intellectualism's sake, is to mistake the tool for the goal. We make money or pursue knowledge so that we can apply it to the enhancement of that divine order.

The poor are at least inert; the intellectual is the cart before the horse, the tail wagging the dog, the tool defining the man.

a Finn said...

I would remove St Paul from Bible, not necessarily because he was a bad man or because he didn't mean well, but because he came after Jesus and everyone is downhill after Jesus. St Paul was the first corrupter of Christianity, and he sets a bad example for Christians. We should notice that Christianity is from human viewpoint contradictory, because it's essence is ethnic community and small congregation, but it also demands universal missionary work. These are in many ways diametrically opposed. The latter will in the hands of men inevitably lead to all the compromises, corruptions and degenerations of cosmopolitanism and power grabbing, and St Paul was the first to start this process. To counter this we need the perfect example of Jesus not sullied by anyone. We will always remain imperfect, but at least we have a good way before us to thread.

Jesus was clear on the separation in e.g. Matthew 15:21-28. Superficially this seems to be opposed to Matthew 28:16-20, but Jesus had to live the full Jewish life to set the example, which God later ordered Jesus to announce to be spread to all the nations. This separation is, as we can see in the present world, essential to the survival of Christianity, salvation and Christians.

Bruce Charlton said...

a Finn - "I would remove St Paul from Bible" I disagree specifically and in general - the gospels do not tell you how to be a Christian, nor were they intended to. People had already been Christians for some decades before the Gospels were collected.

It is vital that the wisdom of the Saints and Fathers of the early church be included in what it is to be Christian - this is the Eastern Orthodox view, to which I hold.

@dearieme - I agree with CS Lewis that paganism is a partial truth, rather than complete rubbish. Indeed, there is a bleak nobility about some kinds of paganism (eg Norse) - of courage in the face of inevitable defeat - which is hard to match. So, paganism is much better than nothing (I mean real paganism, with gods).

As our friend Deogolwulf has as his motto: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlaþ - in Tolkien's translation: "Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens."

a Finn said...


Matthew 28:20 seems to contradict that view.

Bruce Charlton said...

Matthew 28:20 (King James Version)

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.


That is a good example of what I mean. Someone picks up a Bible and reads this. What does it mean? Who should he ask? Who is likely to know? How can this statement be reconciled with others that apparently seem to conflict with it? What more is needed - anything? How many things?

There must be an interpretative tradition, and this must be based on appropriate ability to interpret which (I would say) is holiness (more than learning or intelligence).

I am not interested in hearing what 99.9 percent of people have to say about the Bible - I want to hear what somebody says about it that I judge to be in a position to know.

Gyan said...

"that it is NO virtue to be rich and intelligent."

I will not put it in this way. Rather, intelligence and riches are God's gifts to us and how we use them is the point.The Parable of the Talents in relevant here.

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

Again, I would say that the worldly status is irrelevant to the Heavenly hierarchy, whatever that is. Christians are supposed to be indifferent to the status-game s altogether.

Wm Jas said...

You say you can't learn Christianity from a book, but only from Apostles and Saints. Well, assuming you don't know any Apostles or Saints personally, how do you learn from them if not through books?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - you can't learn Christianity from a book *only* - the Gideon Bible approach strikes me as mostly mistaken.

In particular, The Gospels seem to me a bad place to start.

Indeed, the evangelical idea of focusing on reading the Bible for new converts seems an excessive emphasis.

Seraphim Rose always suggests reading the lives of Saints, and for most people that would be a better way-in.

Similarly, The Book of Mormon seems to me a bad place to start - I found the Doctrines and Covenants much clearer and more comprehensible.

But, according to Rodney Stark, most Mormon converts are persuaded by admiration of Mormon families of the acquaintance - which is, I guess, more of a lived tradition than anything else.

Perhaps the same applies to evangelical Christians, who are often very decent people.

Nonetheless, without a pure river of tradition from the most advanced religious, a religion can go horribly astray - as mainstream Christianity has.

And the lack of modern living Saints (or Apostles - the Byzantine Emperor was considered an Apostle) is a very serious problem for Christianity in my opinion - indeed, it may prove to be terminal.

A single Saint can diffuse influence very widely, and via intermediaries (Starets, Holy Fools, advanced ascetic monks and nuns and the like) - but when there are no Saints...

The Crow said...

The Bible is not meant to be interpreted at all. It is what it is: a guide to what's what. The words, seen as words, are nothing but words.
The reader can do what 99.9% of people do: get hung up on words, meanings, interpretations, or let those words be what they are, use them to fill in the blanks, and allow oneself to add to them.

It's not about words.
It's about what inspired those words.

Prophecy said...

A fantastic post indeed! Thank you very much!

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