Historian Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals defines an intellectual as someone who cares more about ideas than about people. True that was for Rousseau and Sartre, but the category is wider than smart selfishness. I take intellectual to be a morally neutral noun, which refers to one well-versed in critical thinking and knowledgeable about one or more heady subjects. An intellectual might write about baseball, as did George Will, but I doubt we would call anyone who had a deep knowledge of baseball and nothing else, an intellectual. Intellectuals may be either sequestered in their academic discipline or public intellectuals who interact with the broader culture. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was a world-class philosopher and wrote some technically challenging books. But he was also a (rather poor) social commentator of some note, especially in his later years. But being a public intellectual does not necessarily mean that one is prudent or worthy of emulation. Publicity does not guarantee profundity.
Publicity does not guarantee profundity.
A public intellectual writes and speaks for a broader audience while retaining the high ground of knowledge. He or she may not hold an academic position, but who is a regular social commentator. George Will and Charles Krauthammer are examples. However, most social commentators are not intellectuals, however much publicity they generate. Some, such as Ann Coulter, trade more on looks and barbs than on intellect (although she is no dummy). Some, while knowledgeable and quick-witted, like Mark Levine, are too caustic to reach a larger audience. I agree with the man’s positions most of the time, but I cannot take him as a model of winsomeness.
Some academics address the wider public. Princeton law professor and overt Roman Catholic, Robert George comes to mind. Given his academic prestige, he bears a gravitas lacking by commentators in the public realm.
Os Guinness, to my mind, is Evangelicalism’s greatest living social critic and public intellectual. While holding a doctorate in sociology from Oxford, he was not called to the college, university, or seminary full time. While a superb preacher and a man of orthodox conviction, he was not called to the pastorate. Rather, he refers to himself as a speaker and writer, who “interprets the world for the church and the church for the world.” To that noble end, he has worked for both secular and Christian institutions, and started The Trinity Forum, a discussion-based ministry that reaches into non-Church settings, including business, education, and politics.
In light of these reflections, what might a public intellectual for Christ look like? Consider three qualities.
First, you must be a genuine intellectual in some subject, who is up for the task, and have no illusions about your strengths and weaknesses. Higher degrees usually help but do not insure competence. Along the way, you need to build some measure of recognition as a thinker. That is, you need to be legitimized in the sight of the public. Higher academic degrees from secular universities serve this end well.
Second, you must have strong, solid, and settled Christian convictions and be able to articulate them to the non-Christian world. You may have a theology degree but unable to bring a Christian worldview into public places. Or, like Os Guinness, you may have no theological degrees and excel at this.
Third, you need to find public venues without being a shameless self-promoter. In the secular world, the Czech philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a wide following outside the academy. But has won it, partially at least, by being a media-hungry, bloviating buffoon.
Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips (Proverbs 17:2).
Finding “a public” is an art and should not be pursued without prayer (Ephesians 6:19).