Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Mark Lilla, "up from Pentecostalism"

Over at Get Religion, Douglas LeBlanc calls our attention to this interesting confessional piece by Mark Lilla, one of our leading public intellectuals.

LeBlanc and his commenters nail one of the points that I would have made against Lilla: when he complains about the intellectual shallowness or anti-intellectualism of contemporary evangelicals, he compares their current literary, theological, and philosophical output to the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray in the 1950s. But, rather unfairly, he looks only at relatively shallow contemporary popular writers, rather than the serious academics to whom LeBlanc and his commenters point. I’d add some more names to the list, but will rest content with their suggestions.

Lilla’s complaints about popular evangelicalism center on what to him seems to be its shallow dogmatism (which seem to me equally characteristic of contemporary popular secularism). In many cases, he may be close to the mark, but he clearly isn’t familiar with the best that has been thought and written. His own preference seems to be for the world of skepticism, but his conclusion offers an interesting opening back into the world of thoughtful (and self-critical) faith:

It took years to acquire the education I missed as a young man, an education not only in books but in a certain comportment toward myself and the world around me. Doubt, like faith, has to be learned. It is a skill. But the curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I’ve often wanted to ask, "Why do you care?" Their skepticism offers no good answer to that question. And I don’t have one for myself. When my daughter and I discuss her budding thoughts about the cosmos and morality, or when my students come to my office inspired or baffled by a book, something quickens within me. The Greeks spoke of eros, the Christians of agape and caritas. I don’t know what to call it, I just know it is there. It is a kind of care. It is directed toward others, but also, perhaps, toward that young man lying on his bed, opening the Bible for the very first time [a reference to his own first religious experience].

Here is an issue or question on which he and his religious contemporaries could seriously engage, a "datum" about human nature that deserves further consideration, and about which generalized skepticism often has little or nothing penetrating to say.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Dear Joe, thanks for bringing this to NLT’s audience. Lilla’s a player in the culture wars; he’s what passes for liberal openness these days. On one hand he’s infinitely better than Frank Rich and Tony Lewis, on the other he just doesn’t get "it" ("it" being genuine faith, a more genuine view of reason, a plausible view of the true condition of America,and the real stakes of the culture wars).
But you’re right to propose a thoughtful consideration of the "datum" he’s experienced, one conducted with the assistance of the various great alternatives of Western civ and their current adherents/proponents. I’m in.

While I disagree with Mr. Lilla on many things, I am familiar with his critique of evangelical intellectualism. The main reason I left the evangelical Protestant faith I was raised in was that I longed for a faith that could engage my mind as well as my heart. In college, I stumbled onto Augustine and Aquinas -- and ended up a Catholic.

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