catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 3 :: 2005.02.11 — 2005.02.24


The scandal of the evangelical coffeehouse

?The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.?

Thus spake Mark Noll in 1994 in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

?a book that ?has arguably shaped the evangelical world (or at least its institutions) more than any other book published in the last decade,? according to Ted Olson, writing in Christianity Today in October 2004. Mr. Noll argued that the fundamentalist movement out of which 20th century evangelicalism emerged, and especially the dispensationalist theology popular among fundamentalists and evangelicals, was intellectually sterile. As a result evangelicalism has given birth to very few insights into how the natural world or the human person or societies work, and has provided little insight into the riches and dangers of culture.

In October 2004, looking back over the ten years since he had written Scandal in a First Things article, Mr. Noll admitted to a slightly more optimistic view, even though his overall assessment of the quality of evangelical thought remains much the same, and even though he extended his critique to American culture as a whole:

Some readers have rightly pointed out that what I described as a singularly evangelical problem is certainly related to the general intellectual difficulties of an advertisement-driven, image-preoccupied, television-saturated, frenetically hustling consumer society, and that the reason evangelicals suffer from intellectual weakness is that American culture as a whole suffers from intellectual weakness.

I want to extend Mr. Noll’s critique by claiming that at least in part the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there are not many?if any?evangelical coffeehouses.

I mean this critique in both a metaphorical sense, and in the common sense.

The idea of the coffeehouse has gained metaphorical heft because of its use by J?rgen Habermas. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas argued for the emergence of a new public in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who through pamphleteering and other print media as well as through dialogue in coffee-houses and similar ?third places? (places that are neither home nor work) brought into being a newly powerful ?public opinion.?

The image of the coffee-house in the work of Habermas and subsequent thinkers has been that of a place where ?the monological chant of the mob is replaced by the dialogical hum of citizens talking to one another in an edifying manner? (Eric Laurier and Chris Philo, ?Crowds and Cafes?), where a mediating civil space is opened up between the state and the home, where ideas can be generated and exchanged, plans can be hatched, social and economic enterprises can be conceived, and a general public conviviality?a kind of civic friendship?can be nourished.

The coffeehouse metaphor is attractive because it evokes a sense of convivial conversation with the purpose of influencing public opinion. So, for example, in the Summer 2002 issue of Comment magazine (a journal of public opinion that I edit) I published a handful of little articles in which it was argued that the emerging blogosphere?the interconnected networks of dialogues taking place in web logs?might best be understood as a kind of virtual coffeehouse. Recently a group of younger neocalvinists set up a group blog that plays with this idea: The Dialogical Coffee House.

The coffeehouse as an institution in which intellectuals cultivate long-term conversations by means of which public life is shaped and nourished points to the importance of all kinds of intellectual groups or circles whose conversations transcend their own immediate interests and whose influence can be traced in the thinking of an entire culture.

Randall Collins argues in The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (1998)?and in this I think he is correct?that

The emotional energy of creativity is concentrated at the center of networks, in circles of persons encountering one another face to face. The hot periods of intellectual life, those tumultuous golden ages of simultaneous innovations, occur when several rival circles intersect at a few metropoles of intellectual attention and debate.

In Mr. Collins? view

The history of philosophy [for example] is to a considerable extent the history of groups. Nothing abstract is meant here?nothing but groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that often have the characteristics of social movements.

Mr. Collins argues further from the example of philosophy that

In the 11 generations from 1600 to 1965, European thought has been organized by some 15 circles: half a dozen circles in the mid-1600s (two of them predominantly scientific); the Whig and Tory literary circles of the early 1700s; then the three great intergenerational successions: the Encyclopedists-Auteuil-Id?ologues in France; in Germany the overlapping circles of Berlin-K?nigsberg from the 1750s to the 1780s and Weimar-Jena-Romanticists in the 1780s to 1810, revolving back to Berlion at the end of the period with the Young Hegelians in the 1830s as the last of this chain. There were a few anti-modernist religious circles in the anglophone world: the Oxford tractarians of the 1830s, the New England Transcendentalists in the 1830s and 1840s, the Green-Jowett circle of Idealists at Balliol College, Oxford, the St. Louis Hegelians in the 1860s and 1870s, and the Society for Physical Research in the 1880s. On the scientific side during the 1800s were the Philosophical Radicals and Evolutionists in London, and an offshoot, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Metaphysical Society, in the 1870s. Finally there were the three great centres of the early 1900s: the Cambridge Apostles, the Vienna Circle, and the Paris existentialists.

The major and secondary philosophers did not all belong to one or another of these circles, but a large proportion did; if not members, virtually all of the important philosophers were at least connected to one or more circles. The circles energized the creativity; like Hobbes and Rousseau, most successful individuals made contact with the group first, then were sparked into the intellectual action for which they became famous. This is not to say that the most famous philosophers were typically the organizers of these groups. Studies of similar intellectual groups in recent fields show that there is usually a division between an organizational leader who builds the material underpinnings and an intellectual leader who makes the doctrine famous […]. This is a division of labor which describes the relation between Mersenne and Decartes, or between Bauer and Marx. Some of the greatest philosophers are connected to multiple circles, members of none; especially in the late 1600s, we see in such network positions Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Bayle, along with the great freelancing scientists Newton and Huygens. The greatest creativity consists in making new conceptual combinations, playing off the oppositions of existing groups, and laying down the alliances that become institutionalized in the groups of the immediate future. Circles are the accumulators of attention and the resonators of emotional energy; the sparks which fly between them are the thoughts of persons situated at the nodes where the networks intersect.

If there is ever to be a flourishing evangelical mind in North America we shall have to take seriously the importance of circles of face-to-face intellectual interaction of the kind identified by Mr. Collins?and for that we need evangelical coffeehouses.

The scandal of the evangelical coffeehouse, metaphorically speaking, is that there are no evangelical intellectual circles in North America with the kind of traction on public opinion that is needed for the evangelical mind to significantly influence the culture in which we live.

It could be argued that such evangelical intellectual circles have existed in other places and at other times?perhaps the Clapham sect counts as such a circle?but they do not exist here and now.

North American evangelical intellectuals tend to exist in relative isolation, and to make idiosyncratic contributions to the evangelical sub-culture or to global Anglophone culture. The closest thing there has been in recent times to a North American evangelical intellectual circle with significant public influence is the circle of former Calvin College professors including people like Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Marsden, and Alvin Plantinga. The considerable influence of these and like-minded scholars?despite the tenuous existence of their ?circle??in spreading a kind of neocalvinism lite among evangelicals who bother with scholarship or think about cultural engagement is an indication of the potential culture-shaping power of the kind of circle identified by Randall Collins.

Without the cultivation of intellectual circles that have a self-conscious existence and multi-generational persistence, evangelical Christianity will not significantly contribute to public opinion in North America beyond that sediment of popular sentiment that continues to provide the cultural capital for movements in support of the family and against the culture of death. (Not to scoff at that sediment?I think my Burkean friends have persuaded me that such healthy cultural inertia is at least as historically significant as a brilliant public intellectual life.)

The scandal of the evangelical coffeehouse, common-sensically, is that there are no significant local evangelical intellectual circles in North America. The kind of intellectual circles described by Randall Collins?the kind of intellectual circles we need?do not exist in the ether of the internet. However much I love the world of blogs and magazines, I do not believe that it is possible to foster a truly rich intellectual life other than face-to-face. It is important for small groups of people who think hard about the big questions of life to talk with one another all the time, over food and drinks, playing around with ideas in an atmosphere that allows for the serendipitous interaction of imagination and reason, current information and ancient wisdom, literature and politics. Only in such an atmosphere do ideas become adequately emotionally charged for them to be propelled into the public square with the necessary vigor. And that atmosphere demands coffeehouses in a very-much-not-metaphorical sense.

I dream of the possibility of living within a streetcar?s reach of a coffeehouse where I can sit down with a good magazine, and within an hour or two be embroiled in a loud argument with four or five friends about the content of an essay. But finding a neighborhood with such a coffeehouse, and with such friends, will probably take more than dreaming. It may even take sacrifice.

Perhaps, for those of us with the vocation of public intellectual, picking up a coffee cup in the right place and at the right time may be a way of picking up our cross?

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