Where Are the Brave Christian Thinkers?

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where Are the Brave Christian Thinkers?

December 2, 2009

Staring intently from the cover of the November Atlantic magazine is John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Fetterman is one of The Atlantic's "27 Brave Thinkers Who are Shaping the Future."

"Why 27?" the introduction to the article asks, "Because after months of research, tabulation, and debate about hundreds of candidates, that's how many we could agree on."

Fair enough. This is an idiosyncratic list put together by the editors of one particular magazine—people whose ways of thinking probably have a great deal in common with one another. But that doesn't make the list any less noteworthy or any less revealing.

Some of the individuals named really are doing amazing things. Fetterman is a prime example.

Braddock, an old steel town, has lost 90% of its population and, according to The Atlantic, is "riddled with crime and violence."

Fetterman, a young and heavily tattooed giant with a public-policy degree from Harvard and a mountain of ambition, wants to save the city by luring artists and small businesses with loft apartments, cheap rent, and other inducements. He imagines Braddock—only a few miles from Pittsburgh—as a community for creative types and eco-friendly businesses, filled with public gardens and culture centers. 

We should pray that he succeeds and that Braddock serves as a model for other depressed cities. Fetterman's ideas can, in fact, have a great impact on the future for the good.

Other choices are more dubious. Jeff Zucker, President and CEO of NBC Universal is cited for moving Jay Leno from late night (11PM Eastern) to prime time (10PM Eastern).  "[I]f cheap and easily produced fare like Leno's works in prime time, it could completely change the dynamics of network television." That's nice I suppose, but is something a good deal less than meaningful future-shaping.

President Barack Obama is cited as changing the future in "Business and Economics" for nationalizing our auto industry. There is something a bit frightening about someone with no business or corporate experience changing the future of business and economics in America by nationalizing industry.

It brings to mind former liberal senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Upon retiring from politics, McGovern opened a bed and breakfast that subsequently went bankrupt. Afterwards he reflected:

I wish that during the years I was in public office I had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better Senator and a more understanding presidential contender... To create job opportunities, we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.

The far-Left senator started talking the language of the free-market. Now that's thinking that could change the future of business and economics for the good.

The Atlantic list also includes perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook founder Mark Zucherberg, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.

While the individual "brave new thinkers" are a fascinating study, what struck me as far more important were the categories the Atlantic editors used to classify the thinkers. The twenty-seven were divided into seven buckets: Business and Economics (6), International Relations (4), Health and Medicine (2), Science and Technology (4), Media (7), Society (2), and Politics (2).

While the article does not say that this is an exhaustive list, the lack of any comment on the categories implies that these are the areas of human endeavor that really count in shaping the future. The trouble is, although each of the seven categories has a significant impact, there is much more to the future of humanity than can be accounted for by these seven fields.

What happened to education? Why are there seven individuals in "Media," but no mention of the arts? Craig Watkins, Dallas's district attorney, is listed under "Society," but really he's changing the face of law and justice, a category that is also missing.

Above all, religion is not one of the Atlantic's categories of "brave new thinkers" and no one listed could be construed as a religious thinker in the wrong category. Why is that?

There are three possible reasons.

First, the selection committee may agree with new atheist Christopher Hitchens that "religion poisons everything." Wanting to build rather than poison the future, they left religious thinkers out. This is possible, but somehow I doubt it. A second and related possibility is much more likely.

The group may believe that religion is an unimportant field that does little or nothing to drive the future. As sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame told a recent Heritage Foundation conference, religion for young adults is, for the most part, a matter of indifference. Beliefs are cognitive assents, not life drivers. That is, religious ideas are happy thoughts, not the material for building a comprehensive worldview complete with aesthetics, life purpose, and morality.

Much of today's thinking about religion was summed up by singer/songwriter James Taylor in "Sweet Baby James":

There's a song that they sing when they take to the highway 
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
But singing works just fine for me.

Religion is a nice thing, if it happens to be your thing, but it certainly is not a driving force in shaping the future.

This may also be related to a third possible reason religion was excluded from The Atlantic list: perhaps there are no religious thinkers (and here my concern is orthodox Christian thinkers) who deserve to be on such a list.

On the one hand, I can't believe that is true. On the other hand, no one immediately jumps to mind. I can think of Christians who are known for their work in other fields who should have been and maybe were considered. What I can't think of are brave new thinkers about religion on the level of Augustine, Francis, Aquinas, John Calvin, John Wesley, Reinhold Niebuhr, or John Paul II. These were religious thinkers who shaped the future in profound ways. Who fills their shoes today?

If the answer is, no one, then it is safe to say that while religion may be more than a personal security blanket, it's not generating the ideas that are generating the energy to shape the future. And if that is true, it is small wonder we are living in the midst of a cultural crisis in the West.

As Catholic theologian George Rutler wrote in A Crisis of Saints: The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World, "It cannot be said enough: any crisis in culture is a crisis of saints, and no reform is radical enough unless it is a redemption from sin."

I am fifty-five years old. I have another fifteen to twenty good years—maybe more—to serve the cause of the Kingdom of God in this world, to shape the future in some way for the good. Whether or not the editors at The Atlantic notice my contribution is of no real consequence, but making a contribution is of enormous consequence (See Matthew 25:24-30).

As Hugh Welchel of Reformed Theological Seminary never tires of saying, "Salvation is not a bus ticket to heaven and our job is not to hang out at the bus stop."

The list of "27 brave new thinkers who are shaping the future" sans religious thinkers comes as a challenge. John Fetterman seems to stare from The Atlantic cover asking, "What about you?"

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