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Jesus vs. The Philosophers: A Review of Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals”

I just finished a book this past week for one of my seminars entitled “Intellectuals” by Paul Johnson, the noted author and historian.  In it he examines the more personal elements of the lives of intellectuals from the past 300 years or so.  Johnson includes figures such as Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, etc…, among others. What Johnson finds and brings to light is not altogether shocking (at least to me), but intriguing for how such towering intellectual figures are to be seen and appreciated (or not appreciated).

The lives of those Johnson examines are simply ravaged by dysfunctionality, immorality, and egocentrism.  Addictive lifestyles, sexual promiscuity that would make most sailors blush, greed, conflict with family, friends, and peers, anger, wastefulness of money leading to massive debt, and a general disinterest in the lives of anyone but themselves, were characteristic of each and every individual.  People proposing to know what was best for humanity, for the common man, knew nothing of the common man’s life and showed almost no real concern for actual people.

The classification of intellectuals as a category of people really didn’t come about until the expansion of enlightenment thought.  Since the Enlightenment exalted reason as the path to truth and ultimately to a better world, those who displayed the ability to reason on a superior level became the natural guides, the priests if you will, for mankind on the journey toward that future.  Reason was to serve the betterment and the benefit of humanity.  Johnson assumes that if one is to believe it be so, it would also seem consistent for the lives of those endowed with great rational intellect to reflect a life of superior quality and benefit.  Simply put, if reason is the answer to a better life for mankind, it should also be the answer for a better life for the intellectuals who, at least supposedly, are already enlightened by such reason.

And yet, as Johnson displays, this certainly doesn’t appear to be the case.  If everyone lived the lives that they did the world would be a greater disaster than it may already appear to be.  What is even more unfortunate is that their moral and political philosophies (primarily shaped by their own shortcomings and personal issues and concerns), were in large part, devastating for the rest of humanity as reflected in the 20th century.

Johnson concludes that he would rather trust twelve average people off the street on moral and political philosophy than twelve intellectuals.  What they would propose would probably be better for mankind than the narrow-minded absurdities propounded by leading intellectuals.  Whether one agrees with his conclusion or not, he makes what I believe to be a valid and important observation about the usefulness of that which has been taught by the intellegentsia, the high priests of reason, over the last two to three hundred years.  If their own lives cannot reflect the benefit of their philosophies, why should they carry weight with the rest of us?

I found myself greatly refreshed and energized by the powerful nature of the Christian gospel after reading Johnson’s book.  It reminded me that reason can’t make anyone more moral.  And it can’t because it can’t change the human heart.  Jesus continues to prove Himself a better judge of the human condition and predicament than any intellectual figure of the past three hundred years, or all of human history for that matter.  His call for rebirth and a transformed inner man continues to prove itself to be the necessary solution to this predicament.  The power and truthfulness of the gospel pierces through the darkness of worldly philosophies.

Finally, I am reminded of the importance of the transformed life for those of us that are followers of Jesus.  If the world cannot see the benefit of Jesus’ teaching in my own life then why should they embrace it either?  If Jesus is the source of abundant life, as He claimed, let us display to a searching world the pleasure and benefit of a Christ-enthralled, Christ exalting life.

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