Confessions of a So-Called Intellectual

I don’t consider myself an intellectual because by now I’ve known too many genuine intellectuals and I know that they are in a different class. They are almost always people I admire, not just because they are well read, erudite and full of interesting ideas, but because of the way they lead their lives. In Russian the phrase used to describe this is “lives intelligently,”an idea that has captured my imagination for nearly a decade. To live intelligently is something that I aspire to, but from which I am very far from achieving.

I honestly cannot ever recall having ever referred to myself as an intellectual. That said, I have to admit that I have been called intellectual by acquaintances (not recently–but five or six years ago) and am certain that someone, somewhere took the liberty to call me an intellectual. So here I am–a self-confessed so-called intellectual.

Being a so-called intellectual isn’t bad–you still get to eat the crumbs that have fallen from the intellectual feast going on just out of reach. You waste endless hours reading the Wall Street Journal, the Times (as we like to call it), The Economist and, most deliciously, The New Yorker. Best of all, you don’t actually have to write anything–leave that to the real intellectuals. Instead of writing, it has been my experience that so-called intellectuals gain an expertise in something useful and make a good living (as opposed to our true intellectual cousins).

Along with the good, however, comes the bad. So-called intellectuals are sometimes singled out in church talks and are often viewed as a subversive element. I agree that I and my fellow so-called intellectuals are, as a group, not subversive. Unfortunately being thought of as such for so long has led some to fancy themselves as fringe church members who don’t really fit in. And I believe that for people of my generation, this causal link is a fact that has resulted in apostasy as some so-called intellectuals have taken the bait that was placed in front of them and left the church in righteous indignation over the three Ps: polygamy, patriarchy and pop synth. But most of us are happy to be in the center of the church–our spiritual home, testimonies intact, where we continue to wonder about interesting bits of church history and gay marriage.

Our intellectual dilettantism bothers some people who use self-serving rhetorical devices in an attempt to rein us in and otherwise make Sunday School the boring slog it “ought” to be. This usually takes the form of name-calling–often with a hyphen stuck somewhere in the mix: so-called intellectuals, pseudo-intellectual trappings, self-important etc-etc-etc.

We probably deserve at least some of this. Unfortunately the net is often cast too wide and true intellectuals are caught in it. Perhaps it is not the villain-rhetor’s intent. Perhaps the speaker-monster added an obligatory reference to 2 Nephi 9:29–but many of our brothers and sisters, unused to nuance that so-called intellectuals value so highly, indiscriminately apply it to anyone saying unfamiliar things or otherwise using the English language for effectively communicating. This is where I have to object, for there is such a thing as a true intellectual. There is even such a thing as a faithful intellectual who earnestly seeks to learn and share gospel knowledge–and such people deserve better.

Comments

  1. Our intellectual dilettantism bothers some people who use self-serving rhetorical devices in an attempt to rein us in and otherwise make Sunday School the boring slog it “ought” to be. This usually takes the form of name-calling—often with a hyphen stuck somewhere in the mix: so-called intellectuals, pseudo-intellectual trappings, self-important etc-etc-etc.

    Yesterday, my oldest daughter (who is no longer living at home and who is also no longer active in the Church) decided to attend church with us yesterday because a boy she knew from her younger days of activity in the Church was home from his mission and she wanted to say hi if the opportunity presented itself. She remains a close friend to the many members of the Church she grew up with, but she doesn’t claim to have any testimony of the Church.

    Well, she was subjected to a Sunday School lesson (by my Home Teaching companion, no less) in which the question was raised regarding people who don’t have a testimony of the truthfulness of the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and specifically, why they don’t have a testimony of it (in light of Alma 32-35, which talks about comparing “the word” to a seed).

    The smug consensus seemed to be (and this is just the impression I had of how the discussion went since I can’t recall any specific comments that were made) that “those people” are somehow ignorant or deficient in some way, that it is their own fault for not immediately seeing the wisdom of the LDS Plan of Salvation.

    I remember feeling mildly irritated as the lesson proceeded that my daughter might have seen herself as having been lumped in by her fellow class members with “those people”. My daughter would not disagree that she has no particular testimony of the truthfulness of the Church, but the overall feeling that came from the rest of the class was not too far afield from the gratitude expressed by the Zoramites in their Rameumptom prayers as to how thankful they are that God “hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee”.

    I called my daughter just now to see how she felt about the whole experience yesterday, and in her charity, she pretty much chalks it up to Mormons just being Mormons. At least, I think she’s being charitable.

  2. Err. Sorry. My comment above belongs in the “Are Mormon men repressed?” thread.

  3. I would rather not make any sort of extensive list, but two names from different fields that jump to my mind are Eugene England and Paul Allen.

  4. John,

    Your phrase did inspire my post because I read it to be the usual criticism of the excellent discourse that takes place in many threads at different sites, i.e. that the discussion is phony. I believe that there is a lot of anti-intellectualism of this variety in the church, but probably not more than is found in the general population (look at election politics if you don’t think this is the case). As I suggested in my post–I tend to view these sorts of criticisms as a rhetorical device used to trivialize or otherwise lessen the value of the discussion. No doubt there are phony intellectuals–the literary journals of the nineties are littered with garble that sounds impressive but is incomprehensible even to the intended audience–but I have found most of the discussion in the bloggernacle to be sincere, in good faith and worth reading.

    I believe you when you write that it wasn’t your intent to denigrate our intellectual friends. As for your second question, whether one’s views alone, no matter how eloquently expressed or factually iron-clad, preclude one from being an intellectual–I would think that the answer is no. I sympathize with your concern, however, because there is a tendency–largely associated with the political left–to dismiss as uninformed or not serious people we don’t agree with. If they were informed, after all, they would arrive at the same conclusion we did. If I had to guess, I would venture to say that this is most often encountered in so-called intellectuals who have been steeped in a certain ideology at universities. Certainly even genuine intellectuals are prone to the same folly, but since serious people have presumably been engaging other serious people with opposing viewpoints long enough that they are less prone to be dismissive on the basis of the viewpoint alone.

    One other rhetorical device that I truly dislike–saying “whatever that means”. As in–”she says she is a Mormon feminist–whatever that means”. Almost every time I see this phrase used it is very, or at least fairly, clear what “that” means. The phrase is less concerned with getting a definition and more concerned with showing disdain.

  5. Mat says: “I sympathize with your [John's] concern, however, because there is a tendency–largely associated with the political left–to dismiss as uninformed or not serious people we don’t agree with. “

    I would quibble somewhat with whether this tendency is “largely associated with the political left.” Undoubtedly some claim as much. And undoubtedly some on the left suffer greatly from this affliction. In my experience, however, this “tendency” is every bit apparent on the left as it is on the right, as even a few minutes of listening to conservative talk radio will quickly confirm.

    I also don’t think this “tendency” is limited to the “political” left, but is very much an issue when it comes to matters of religion and faith. Call the so-called division anything you like (iron rod v. liahona; elite v. common, internet v. chapel mormons, Utah v. mission-field mormons, etc.), but you will find a tendency among some in both camps to discount the viewpoints on the other side as uninformed, not serious, or (worse yet) tantamount to apostacy. The justification for this may be a bit different (e.g., “follow the prophet” v. “we are entitled to personal revelation”), but the failure to fairly consider the opposing viewpoint is largely the same.

    In short, I suppose I too have some symphathy for John’s concern. I just happen to think that this concern has broader applicability.

  6. john fowles says:

    Mat wrote: for there is such a thing as a true intellectual. There is even such a thing as a faithful intellectual who earnestly seeks to learn and share gospel knowledge—and such people deserve better. I very much enjoyed your post and agree with your position. I also believe in the existence of true intellectuals and even feel privileged to know a few (both inside and outside of the Church).

    I also appreciated it when you said Our intellectual dilettantism bothers some people who use self-serving rhetorical devices in an attempt to rein us in and otherwise make Sunday School the boring slog it “ought” to be. This usually takes the form of name-calling—often with a hyphen stuck somewhere in the mix: so-called intellectuals, pseudo-intellectual trappings, self-important etc-etc-etc. I must admit, though, that your use of “pseudo-intellectual trappings” did not elude me, and I realized that I had placed myself in the category you identified as those bothered by intellectual dilettantism by using those exact words in the previous thread about mormon men being repressed (from which I assume you are adopting the phrase).

    It was a mistake on my part to use those words: for all of my irascible wranglings in my comments around the blogs, I truly do appreciate the intellectualism here and at other blogs that raises the level of discourse on these topics so much above superficial assertions or ipse dixit argumentation. I guess my use of “pseudo-intellectual trappings” on the previous thread was more a self-critique than a barb against any of the discussion that goes on around the blogs. That is, I know where I personally stand with regards to any intellectual acumen (my attempts at it come out as sentimentalism cloaked in pseudo-intellectual trappings).

    In addition to any personal lack of natural gifts, however, I also do sometimes wonder if my views themselves relegate me to being perceived as belonging to the category of being bothered by intellectual dilettantism because they aren’t exactly “progressive” according to the current trends of what constitutes progressive. Is there a prevailing attitude that anyone who could espouse these views can’t really be very analytical or thoughtful, much less an intellectual? That’s something I’ve been pondering lately.

  7. Mat, are we 2nd class intellectuals because we lack natural gifts, or is it because we’re lazy? I have trouble telling sometimes. I like to think it’s a mix of both.

  8. Mathew, you may not want to do this, but could you name two or three true intellectuals you see in the Church? Or are they all people who are out of the public eye?

  9. Steve,

    In my own case I lost serious interest in literature at a certain point and then made a pragmatic decision to attend law school. I’m not sure that being an intellectual is about wattage so much as about passion. Geek out on something sixteen hours a day and you become expert in a hurry. But to add the second element that I really admire–intellectual curiosity combined with the ability to maintain perspective and order your priorities accordingly is rarer.

  10. To answer the question at hand:

    Yes. But we’re remarkably dressed.

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