Intellectualism, Arrogance, and Peaceful Theology

Or, “Why arrogance has no place in a peaceful theology

Getting a Handle on Intellectualism

One of the early issues I began wrestling with during my education was the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical traditions I was familiar with.  Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and offerings from Robert Weber helped me articulate the irony of the banality of contemporary worship songs, shallow preaching and religious practices, and a people more informed by Fox News than by solid biblical and theological training, but who still acted and spoke with a supreme sense of certainty about their rightness about social issues and religion.  I felt that the Church I was seeing reveled in self-certain ignorance.  And I wanted to change it.

Anti-intellectualism (being a symptom of right-leaning politics as well) is a worldview that reacts to new learning or new information which challenges the status quo by assuming that the new information is suspect, biased, a corruption of “traditional values,” or (in religious circles) a lie of the devil. 

Of course, it’s always selectively so.  Science is a liberal, socialist plot foisted by the “elite” when it presents evidence for its theories on origins or warns about the dangers of climate change.  But we’re generally all grateful for science when Aunt Mildred needs a heart transplant.  Similarly, all university professors are atheist, liberal, socialists trying to brainwash our youth when our youth outgrow their parents’ worldviews, but we don’t question whether our kids need to go to college if they’re going to be successful capitalists. 

Such were the ironies of anti-intellectualism.  But I actually am not writing about that today.   My intent, instead, is to introduce anti-intellectualism as a springboard to criticize an equally problematic -ism, intellectualism.[1]  But first, another analogy:

In the same way that anti-intellectualism holds hands with anti-science, I want to suggest that  scientism (which my good friend Paul wrote about some years ago) is akin to intellectualism.[2]  Whereas, science is a precise system for studying phenomena (i.e., physical reality), scientism is an extreme view pervasive in some segments that elevates science to something solipsistic, either answering questions (noumena, metaphysical) that it cannot and should not be expected to answer, or dismissing those questions as irrelevant outright. In that way, scientism perverts the scientific discipline into something other than it is.[3]

Similarly, while I like to think that most intellectuals may not be the demons that anti-intellectualism has made them out to be, intellectualism happens when intellectuals elevate reason and learning to something unhealthy, or even obscene.   The danger (as with scientism) is that, in becoming an intellectualist, the intellectual forgets that there is more than one kind of intelligence, and the intellectual collapses into a type of epistemological solipsism, where all the relevant questions and solutions are asked and resolved through a specific process of inquiry available only to the intellectual.  Another name for this is “the Ivory Tower.”

Like all things, science and intellect are good, even marvelous things, in the context of the whole of human endeavors.  But they are perverted into something cold, cruel, and evil in isolation.

The damage and resentment that this kind of solipsistic intellectualism causes is illustrated brilliantly in Wendell Berry’s Remembering.  In it, Andy Catlett, a late-mid-20th century Kentucky farmer, laments the industrialization of farming that happens when the academy and the corporation are applied to agriculture.  In this brief quote, Andy, who has had enough intellectualist pontification, speaks out at a farming convention:

I don’t believe it is well understood how influence flows from enclosures like this to the fields and farms and farmers themselves.  We’ve been…hearing about the American food system and the American food producer, the free market, quantimetric models, pre-inputs, inputs, and outputs, about the matrix of coefficients of endogenous variables, about epistemology and parameters—while actual fields and farms and actual human lives have been damaged.  The damage has been going on a long time.  The fifteen million people who have left the farms since 1950 left because of damage.  There was pain in that departure….

I think that bill came out of a room like this, where a family’s life and work can be converted to numbers and to somebody else’s profit, but the family cannot be seen and its suffering cannot be felt.[4]

Andy Catlett

For Andy, the issue is that there are other types of intelligence, other interests besides profit, which in this case the intellectuals and the profiteers seem to have forgotten.  Their own assumptions are too solipsistic.  They’ve collapsed into themselves; and harmed the people around them.

What does that have to do with Forging Ploughshares?

Peace Theology Against Intellectualism

I’d propose that if, when asked the question, “What do you think has happened in American culture and politics to bring us to the Trump/post-Trump era?” your first response is to quote some obscure piece of text from Bernard Lonergan instead of asking questions about the reality of people’s access to health care, clean water, or food, then…it may be time for some reflection.  If people’s satisfaction with their work or their lives, or how and why they feel left out of cultural conversations, or their debt and financial woes, or the opioid crisis, or how they have been exploited and tossed aside doesn’t seem as relevant as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on theological aesthetics, you may be approaching the line separating being an intellectual from being an intellectualist.  In other words, it’s possible that some of us, even some of us who are contributing to Forging Ploughshares, aren’t operating with the rest of us here in the real world.  And sometimes I get the feeling that we like to hear ourselves talk.

How the Universalism fad has made it worse

Years ago, the pop-theologian Rob Bell wrote his own little treatise on universalism: Love Wins.[5] In it, Bell argued for the position that all people will, after dying, be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief in Christ so that, eventually, all people will “go to heaven.”  Bell certainly wasn’t the first to argue such and wasn’t the last.  Yet, at most the effect of the book was a momentary blip on the theological radar.  Here and gone.   Why did Bell not unleash the floodgates of the current universalism obsession with Love Wins?  Why no movement?  We’ll get there.

For my own part, I remember thinking Love Wins was a little flaky, but still thoughtful.  But, because my foray into William Hasker’s emergent dualism had led me to annhiliationism (please read the footnote),[6] I remember also feeling a sense of kinship with Bell and I kind of rooted for him a little.  I get it.  He was offering up an alternative.  I could appreciate it because he seemed honest, sincere, and I found dialogue was still possible with the people who read it. 

It feels important for me to restate that before the David Bentley Hart thing, I didn’t really have a problem with universalists.  I have had many conversations with people who wear that label and maintained friendship!

The latest form of universalism, though, established by Hart’s That All Shall be Saved, has a far different mood.  In terms of academic seriousness, Hart is, far and away, light years beyond Bell’s argument.  But, substantially, I take that to be the extent of the difference.  The eschatology is the same as Bell’s: all people, after dying, will be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief.  Hence, all will “be saved.” 

So, why the movement after Hart?  The difference, dear friends, is intellectualism.  What do I mean?

Hart’s Universalism is an Intellectualist Universalism

The problem that Hart presents is essentially that human will is incapacitated by the failure to understand the Kingdom of God.  Being lost is being intellectually challenged (a restatement of Calvinistic original sin) from seeing God’s right way.  There is no evil, just foolishness and misunderstanding.

The solution?  As I was told while recording a podcast recently, “once people understand the Gospel, they WILL accept it.”  Once their intellect is corrected or restored (whether here or after death), they will choose it (merely reworded irresistible grace). 

This, of course, precludes the possibility that someone might actually understand salvation and still reject it.  It also would seem to rule out the notion that someone might not fully understand it and still choose it, if the issue is simply an intellectual one.[7]  I’ll get to what I take to be a problem with that momentarily.

And that is the point I am attempting to make without belaboring: this view of universalism is predicated on an intellectualist understanding of what sin and salvation are.  The whole thing is merely a problem of the intellect which is solved by a correction of the intellect.  Is it any wonder it’s found such popular acceptance among intellectual progressives who want to reject their evangelical roots and feel intellectually superior?  I attest that what has risen in the current universalist mood is an intellectualist arrogance that is nearly unbearable for those of us who think differently.  Why?

Hart’s Intellectualist Universalism is arrogant and his followers are, too

An honest conversation with anyone who has read even a section of Hart’s book elicits a response that Hart is, at least harshly critical of people who disagree with universalism.  Others have described it as being downright cutting and hostile to those who disagree.  And it’s not hard to see why.

To begin, might I, for a moment, comment on the ableism of Hartian universalism?  Might I point out that the arrogant assumption of sin as merely a failure of the intellect to properly understand the gospel implies that those who do not accept it are mentally impaired?  Does this not also imply that those with mental or intellectual disabilities are more sinful by virtue of the fact that sin is no more than the fallen inability to understand truth?  Is this not the height of power and arrogance that Jesus meant to undo in the Gospels? 

And furthermore, does this not imply a hierarchy of intellect in which the universalist is at the peak?  I think, ultimately, this is the arrogant, undeniable conclusion of this recent form of universalism. 

In fact, Hart’s universalism is expressed best (as it is expressed by Hart) with a generous helping of condescension and disdain, a general sense of certitude that “this position is the ‘informed’ one and that all others are simply backward, ignorant, small-minded: or foolish.  If all sin is, simply, foolish misunderstanding, it follows that people who don’t understand it that way are simply not as intellectual as the universalist.  And that assumption tends to emerge anytime I end up in dialogue with someone who follows Hart, as these recent interchanges went:

  1. “Universalism is undeniable, once you understand it.”
  2. In response to a previous article of mine, “His Christology is good, but I don’t think he understands universalism.” 
  3. “I think your understanding that God can only work with someone on this side of death is crude and small-minded.”

To be a universalist along Hart’s lines is to believe not just that sin is a failure of intellect and salvation is a restoration of intellect.  It is to believe that those who understand this are of the highest intellect, and that all objections are intellectually inferior to this position.  In other words, if people don’t choose the Gospel (which is understood to apply to everyone once they understand it), it’s because they don’t understand it—including those of us who reject their universalism (we just don’t understand it—if we understood it, we’d accept it). 

This form of solipsistic intellectualist universalism comes packaged with an obnoxious, self-sustaining pretense that has made reasonable dialogue impossible.  It mocks questions, rolls over objections, commandeers honest conversations, and shouts down dissent.  It is self-righteous, self-important, and it has hurt honest, seeking people who just don’t see it the same way. 

I argue that Milton, hardly the keeper of eschatological orthodoxy, was right when he said that there are will always be people who choose: “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”  And, if you want to know the truth, the desire to reign is what I feel has emerged when discussing “universalism” with Hartian universalists. 

Say what you will about Rob Bell’s book on universalism; at least he wasn’t a pretentious d*ck about it.  But the more I talk to Hartian universalists, the more convinced I am that the pretentiousness is the attraction for smug progressives[8] who are completely certain that they’re more intellectual than you are.  For them, the Good News is that, someday, God will make sure the rest of us lowly cretins agree with the universalists so that, in the end, the only people in heaven will be the universalists.  Then we’ll all know…they were right.

And the more I talk to Hart’s followers, the less I find their position comports as a peaceful theology.  It feels, instead, more like people trying to win arguments and prove their superiority.  It feels less like the cross and more like people struggling to overpower their enemies.


[1] Here, I want to be careful to note that I am using the standard suffix “-ism” to imply an extreme or dogmatic position. 

[2] What my friend Paul does not know but that I still talk about was how many of my science friends and my theological friends both took exception to that article—for the same reasons, but from different viewpoints.  It was fascinating.

[3] For my part, aside from the obvious advantages for the military in the Department of Education’s interest in STEM over and against the liberal arts in education, the best reason I can see for doing STEM and de-emphasizing literature, history, art, music, home economics, and shop class is that science and technology are achieving religious status.  The questions that other disciplines answer are superfluous at best.  Hence, scientism. 

[4] Wendell Berry, Remembering: a Novel. Counterpoint, Berkely, CA. Pgs. 19-20.

[5] Perhaps the benefit of this outing for universalism was that it acted as a “fuzz buster” (you’d have to be a child of the 90s to truly appreciate the reference), exposing objections from folks like John Piper, who, famously, said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” 

[6] If, unlike non-physical persons such as God or angels, what we call soul or spirit is a product of our physical being, then it makes no sense to say that there can be life for us apart from that physical being.  For this reason, I began to explore an earthier sense of what Jesus’ Kingdom was all about; and my view of resurrection became a restored physical life on a restored physical world.  For that reason, an eternal hell apart from a resurrected body ceased to make sense.  This means, though, that neither does the option of making the choice to follow Jesus “after we die” unless that person is also raised to physical life in the resurrection.  And how, in a resurrected world in which everyone is raised, regardless of whether they chose not to follow Jesus, would that resurrected world be any different from the world we live in now (except being more crowded and, thereby, more broken)?  And, if that resurrected world is no different than the one we live in now, why should we think that those who refuse to follow now would choose to in the next world?  Most “universalists” have blocked me, invited me to leave the conversation, or walked all over me before I could even set up my question.  Their intellectualist assumption won’t allow for alternative objections other than the ones they feel Hart has already debunked: and that is precisely because their certainty is established by the assumption of intellectual superiority.  The problem with we who disagree is that we just…don’t understand.  God will prove them right, someday.

[7] For my own part, I take the story of the rich young man in Mt 19, in which Jesus explains that he must relinquish his power and wealth to be a part of the Kingdom and he walks away disheartened to be a story not of someone who rejected because he did not understand.  He rejected because he did understand.

[8] As someone who has considered himself some type of “progressive” for a while now, I know we can be smug.  But we needn’t be.

Author: Jason Rodenbeck

Jason Rodenbeck has several years experience as an academic director, directing online, hybrid, and non-traditional higher education programs at the university level and teaching theology, biblical studies, critical thinking, and biblical interpretation in those programs. He currently works full time in instructional design and digital learning at a public university in Georgia. Jason has a passion for peace which is reflected in all that he does. He loves to repurpose antiques and has published two books of poetry available on his website. Jason directs the curriculum, design, and delivery of PBI courses.