Monday 25 August 2008

On the limited importance of intellectuals

“Many elements conspire to render unlikely any serious possibility of a new communal religion borne by intellectuals…. Nor can a religious renascence be generated by the need of authors to compose books, or by the far more effective need of clever publishers to sell such books. No matter how much the appearance of a widespread religious interest may be simulated, no new religion has ever resulted from the needs of intellectuals or from their chatter. The whirligig of fashion will presently remove this subject of conversation and journalism, which fashion has made popular.”

—Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 136-37.


michael jensen said...

Now, if we can only get academic theologians to realise this...

Anonymous said...

It takes time for new ideas to percolate down from academia through to a few simple concepts that the man in the street can relate to.

The ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey have taken a while to bear their (questionable) fruit.

It is vital that Christian belief not only be some kind of cultural or subjective phenomenon but also to be grounded on historical facts and faithful, scriptural theology.

Probably preaching to the choir, but anyways, keep up the good work.

Ben Myers said...

I myself think Weber is basically right, and his words are a sobering reminder to those theologians who think of their task as reinventing (rather than serving) the church. But on the other hand, in exceptional cases it might be academic theology itself which provides a fragile, authentic instantiation of the true nature of the church.

Gerhard Sauter makes this observation -- in reference to the first volume of Barth's Church Dogmatics, Sauter remarks: "It is certain that dogmatics cannot exist without the church; yet sometimes the church can be wrong to such an extent that dogmatics itself becomes a sign of the church and the place at which the church can be found" (Protestant Theology at the Crossroads, p. 73, my emphasis). This is an extraordinary thought -- that, in rare cases, the church might actually subsist in (and be sustained by) a work of academic theology!

Evan said...

It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which Weber's point is lost on many theologians.

I think an interesting example of the balance you present, Ben, might be the Protestant reformation. Very much a renewal of the schoolmen and the printed book, but also one that must be recognized as arising from the (academic and ecclesiastical) laity.

Weber speaks much more to the modern intellectual, though, and I don't know how much it helps to tear his point out and apply it to another era.

Unknown said...

Not exactly on point, but here goes:

"Kill the Commentators!

Today’s mass of Bible interpreters have damaged, more than they have helped, our understanding of the Bible. In reading the scholars it has become necessary to do as one does at a play where a profusion of spectators and spotlights prevent, as it were, our enjoyment of the play itself and instead we are treated to little incidents. To see the play, one has to overlook them, if possible, or enter by a way that has not yet been blocked. The commentator has indeed become a most hazardous meddler" (Kierkegaard).

At those precise moments when our preachers have disdained scholarship and our scholars have not striven to be churchmen and women first, both Kierkegaard (or Weber) and Sauter speak directly to the problem.

Anonymous said...

Yes I think there is a lot of truth to this, and I am reminded of that definition of theology as 'faith seeking understanding'. It suggests theology presupposes faith, it does not conjure it from nothing.

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