Monday, May 05, 2008

"Top 100 Public Intellectuals" according to FP

Foreign Policy is a magazine founded by Samuel Huntington (well known for his Clash of Civilizations treatise) and Warren Demian Manshel. The magazine is part of their efforts to "draw on the world’s leading journalists, thinkers, and professionals to analyze the most significant international trends and events of our times, without regard to ideology or political bias." In the latest publication, they list the Top 100 public intellectuals of our time. Interestingly, I do not find a known evangelical in the list. The only significant religious leader I find is the Pope Benedict. Instead, we see people like the atheist, Richard Dawkins, on the list. That makes me wonder what is their criteria in forming their list. Looking at the listing, it seems that only 4% are religious leaders, while a whopping 44% are political scientists and economists. The regions where these people were drawn from is largely skewed toward North America and Europe. If you want to know a little more about these 100 persons, click here. Interestingly, one of the four persons from Asia in the list is Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore.

In some sense, it is sad that not many evangelicals (if any) make the list. Could it be due to the 'separatist' behaviour that evangelicals practice, in order to avoid becoming contaminated by the world and worldly values? Or is it due to their overly committed involvement in their religious endeavors that they do not have time to engage the world? I suspect there are elements of truth in each of them, regarding evangelicalism's struggle between becoming light on the one hand, and yet to remain pure and committed to the Lord on the other hand by being separated from the world. That struggle is sometimes practiced dualistically, which pits one against the other. A dualistic mind separates the secular from the sacred, and make a clear distinction between godly and ungodly stuff. Extreme dualists will render all things material as evil and all things spiritual as good. This is biblically wrong. As early as Genesis 1, when God created heaven and earth, he called his creation 'good.' How can we, in the 21st century, turn around and dualistically call created things 'bad?'

What is Truth?
Even sadder is the observation that the world has dominated the church, more than the church has influenced the world. We may dispute the criteria used in the FP report, but first impressions often leave lasting memories. 'Apparent' observations become equated with practical reality and soon get replaced as a synonym for 'truth.' Jacques Ellul in "The Humiliation of the Word" makes a distinction between reality and truth. Reality is in many ways interpreted visually, but truth contains both visible and invisible. One of Ellul's underlying philosophy is that truth spread through propaganda becomes a lie. Propaganda hides a selfish motive. Reviewing David Lovekin's work on Jacques Ellul, Erik Nordenhaug of Emory University summarises: "Truth printed on a Hallmark card is no longer the truth, but an empty cliche designed to relieve the consumer of the burden of working out the truth. But this insight, too, is on the verge of becoming a cliche in the sound-bite culture." This is so insightful. Anything that is called 'truth' when placed in the hands of people lesser than the truth can easily turn truth in to a lie.

In contrast, when we read the gospels, we notice so frequently that the message Christ preached is always referred back to God the Father. Even when he declares himself to be the way, the truth and the life, his ultimate goal is to be with the Father. When Pilate asks the famous question "What is Truth?", he was looking at all the wrong places about what truth means. He was looking at philosophies and methods, ideas and visual signs and all this while, he fails to appreciate or have the slightest inkling that truth is incarnated in the PERSON OF CHRIST. Simon Peter, for all his clumsiness, got at least one thing right when he was asked to declare who Jesus is. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is a statement of faith that Jesus is firstly and lastly a person. Look at how the world have distilled and reduced every 100 names into labels like 'economists,' 'philosophers,' 'scientists,' and even 'religious leaders.' You mean to say that a person can be neatly straitjacketed into their lines of fame? It does not give us any deeper insight into the 100 persons. It treats as if these people are mere instruments of their famed works or thoughts. I believe that as long as we do not take seriously the person of Christ, to recognize Christ first and foremost as the way, the truth and the life, we risk seeing fellow human people as things rather than humans; means to an end rather than above means-ends; and in the process add fuel to one another in our never ending spiral of impersonal relationships.

That is why the world's definition of truth being reality is so different from the Christian's view of truth in Christ. the purposes of truth is not simply to conjure up ideas and techniques. It is also not to usher people into a reality-themed framework of life which allows people to simulate reality as if they are there. Such 'realities' are nowhere near truth. It is like riding a bicycle, where one cannot simply simulate oneself into riding the two-wheeler. It has to be done with our whole selves involved. Engaging the world and living life to the full is not only the calling of every evangelical, it is a calling for humankind. Didn't God on the sixth day, when he created humans, he called his creation: "Very good?" A being that can engage himself with all other preceding 'good' creation is indeed very good!

The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard claims that "truth is not a matter of knowing this or that but of being in the truth. (emphasis mine)" His work is worth quoting:
Christ compares truth to food and appropriating it to eating it (John 6:48-51). Just as food is appropriated (assimilated) and thereby becomes the sustenance of life, so also spiritually, truth is both the giver and the sustenance of life. It is life. Therefore one can see what a monstrous mistake it is to impart or represent Christianity by lecturing. The truth is lived before it is understood. It must be fought for, tested, and appropriated. Truth is the way. And when the truth is the way, then the way cannot be shortened or drop out unless the truth itself is distorted or drops out. Is this not too difficult to understand? Anyone will easily understand it if he just gives himself to it ["The Road is How" in Provocations, Farmington: Plough Publishing, 2002, 53-54]
So, what can we make of the list? I offer three observations. Firstly, it is a list that represents contributions and votes from various readers of Foreign Policy publications. Obviously, it does not include the ordinary farmers, or lay persons on the street, busy trying to make a living. Secondly, the list of names can easily be dislodged when a new name is inserted and garners more votes. Like American idol, good and reputed persons can easily be 'outvoted' regardless of his/her own merit. This makes the list a popularity instrument, and results will thus be untenable over the long run. Thirdly, while the serious lack of Christians in the list is of some concern, it could be a good thing, especially if the absence is an intentional part of the Christian community at large. It is never a good thing to put Christianity on the popularity stage. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, popularity disrupts the gospel focus and absolute popularity disrupts the gospel intention most completely.

My friends. Refrain from these three things. First, the unwitting acceptance of the world's criteria of life, of fame and any overarching championing of material achievements over human meaningfulness. Second, do not separated oneself totally until one does not possess any earthly good to care for creation at large. Third, run away from the temptation of popularity. Jesus did all three. He rejects the world in the three temptations of power and worldly glory. He engages the world with himself as the way, the truth and the life, and of course becoming the sacrificial lamb to bring all mankind to God. Third, he rejects popularity, choosing the cross out of love. Based on the reasons as given, I am not disturbed by who is on the Top 100 list. Turn it the other way, if we were to come up with the Bottom 100 list, how will it look like?



non-metaphysical stephen said...

Many good thoughts here -- thanks!

Kierkegaard claimed that Christianity died out pretty early and that the world has dominated the church for the past 1800 years or so. I wonder if he might be right. Ellul certainly believed it was likely true.

If the Kingdom of God is only a seed, we should not be surprised to find that church leadership does not receive much recognition for its achievements. Yet, we know that the unseen seed will give birth to the trees, will provide refuge and shade for the animals, and fruit for humanity.

The Church is the work of God, saving the world in every age and in every place. It is unseen to human eyes and despised by human minds. But it is constantly and steadily at work in the world. May God do with us all that God wishes, so that we may save the world from suicide.

YAPdates said...

Hi non-metaphysical stephen,

I appreciate your comment about the kingdom of God being a tiny seed, and the Church as the unseen body, in a world so infatuated with a "seeing is believing" paradigm.

To add to your wonderful stance of hope, I believe that one of the biggest roles the Church can do, is to bring the message of hope to the world. That is something you have highlighted and I pray that there will be more Christians like you in this endeavor.


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