Anti-intellectualism is also a matter of authority, of whose authority is acceptable. It will not do to romanticise the attitudes towards specialists of previous generations or the past more generally; but once upon a time, the expert—the one who has sacrificed his* life (and perhaps the lives of others, too) in the attempt to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding—and his learning together were considered valuable, his advice and wisdom worth heeding. Now, that very same expert is vilified because his education is regarded as suspect in a world where not everybody is considered necessarily equal but is nonetheless equally considered. The current wave of anti-intellectualism is a refusal to accept that my own knowledge and understanding are in any way limited. Such a refusal takes flesh by demanding a podium in the marketplace of ideas alongside those whose knowledge and understanding are not quite as limited. The content of the speech is nothing, but the act of speaking, the voice, is everything. Once, the expert had authority because his voice proclaimed meaning and wisdom sourced from learning; but now people are able to cast themselves as enlightened authorities due to the wealth of information at their fingertips (though often with an inability to process that information wisely) and a newly discovered confidence in the related powers of gainsaying and self-assertion.
This is why anti-intellectualism is especially egregious in the Church. The Church is the body of Christ and the new humanity living the life of the age to come in the here and now. While many people in the world welcome the death of some experts and witch-hunt others, the Church is called to champion the life of the mind renewed in Christ. When the Church is committed to ignoring the specialist in favour of an ill-defined egalitarianism; when Christians dismiss the relevance of theological thought or its need; when the body of Christ ignores the advice of those inside and outside the Church who have gained knowledge and understanding through a lifetime of dedicated study; when these things happen, the Church has betrayed its Christological foundation by accepting a disenchanted materialism impervious to the transformation of the Holy Spirit. An anti-intellectualist Church ignores the fact that it is comprised of human beings and denies what human beings in Christ already are and are becoming.
Perhaps the Church’s anti-intellectualism arises from a perceived lack of equality among equals in the body of Christ. But the way to address this is not to reduce theological learning to the lowest common denominator but to raise the lowliest members of our churches to the unimagined heights of an expanded, Spirit-enlivened theological imagination. The way to address this is not to ignore ‘expertise’ (the quotation marks are deliberate) or to presume that the specialist desires the splendid isolation of her ivory tower but to challenge everyone to aspire to become experts themselves. And so the way to address this is not to deny Christians the oxygen of theological thought but to inhale the breath of God so necessary for good theology so that, in the name of Jesus, prayers may be exhaled for the world.
* In ages past, the expert was invariably male. Oh, and the title of this blog post is from a quotation by Isaac Asimov.