Emergent Intellectuals and Their News From Nowhere

Intellectualism has long said, to coin a phrase, "Everything must change." Will emergent intellectuals be any different from the utopians of the past? Not so far. Their knowledge seems enslaved to ideology: Evil is built into our social structures. Racism is systemic. Economic inequality is institutional. War is the result of the military industrial complex. Poverty in the developing world is the legacy of imperialism, imposed first by Western colonial powers and then by cold war superpowers. So, if we're serious about addressing all these problems, the world has to be reorganized.

Fortunately, this is now possible.

A new generation has outgrown the confines of the Enlightenment and is emerging into postmodernity. We no longer think in outmoded ways. We're no longer shackled by the prejudices of ye olde puritanism, or the bigotry of Western thought, or the obsession with proving others wrong. We know that we can change everything because we have what previous generations lacked: dialogue about theoretical models.

And all God's people said, "Yes we can!"

Utopianism of this kind has a pretty well-documented history. Michael Burleigh's recent book about the decline of Christendom, Earthly Powers (HarperCollins, 2005), narrates how political schemes for restructuring society gained religious authority. Among the vast collection of intellectuals Burleigh sketches is Auguste Comte (pp 229-230):

One of the fathers of modern social "science", who in 1839 coined the term "sociology", Comte sought to establish the philosophical basis for the sciences and for the scientific ordering and reform of society, a formula calculated to appeal to the right as well as the left. . . . [Comte's] Positivism was supposed to be a third way between the outmoded theologically grounded world of the ancien regime and an abstract, critical rationalism that had become anarchic and incapable of creating anything.

Burleigh continues:

The essence of his Religion of Humanity was to redirect mankind's spiritual energies away from the transcendental and towards the creation of a happier and more moral life here on earth through the worship of the best in man himself.

The idea that science must direct cultural change led to an array of horrors.

Burleigh narrates the course from Saint-Simon and Comte, among others, to the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century. Turning to older scholars, Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, showed the many responses of Anglo-American thinkers to the destruction of culture by utilitarian reformers. In The Road To Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued that centrally planned economies lead to tyranny. Jane Jacobs documented the dehumanizing impact of urban renewal dogma in The Death and Life of Great of American Cities. Paul Johnson scandalized the chattering classes with his book Intellectuals, which did the extreme disfavor of comparing the ideals of famous thinkers with their actual behavior.

And the emergents?

Infatuation with causes on the left is deepening, especially among younger evangelicals. It is now God's work to protest the war in Iraq, to bring about world peace, to end poverty all over the world, and to advocate environmental regulations. A renewed identification of the gospel with social justice can be heard in many churches, as well as impatience with the idea that salvation is for heaven and not for this world.

I am not saying that emergents are simply latter-day versions of Comte. But I will say that many of them are intellectuals in the old style. Their obsessive theorizing about the course of history and their absorption with grand political change are characteristic of alienated model-mongers. I see two problems with their leftward tilt, just as I see other problems with populist conservatism among evangelicals.

1. The evils of this world are not systemic, but spiritual. Reorganize, restructure, reform all you want, but the power of wickedness will merely shift. A culture is only transformed as the individuals who live in it are reborn in Christ. The reason evangelicals are failing spiritually in America is not that they have ignored progressive political causes, but that they have ignored the Holy Spirit's call to their own souls.

2. Evangelical pastors should not surrender their authority to intellectuals. Every generation since the French Revolution has seen vicars of "progress" emerge. These parsons, whom Malcolm Muggeridge used to call "tame clergymen," bow from their pulpits to the greater authority of Comte's social sciences, giving their benediction to whatever totalist model has favor this year, whether it's emissions caps or a UN war crimes tribunal. A pastor's authority is in his fidelity to the Bible, not to the consensus at Davos.

The linkage between the Kingdom of Christ and earthly power is an old, old folly. If emergents are unable to shake the euphoria of knowing how to change everything, they will end in the enclaves of bitterness, and nothing will have changed.