Exile and Influence image

Exile and Influence

In exploring intellectual history the means by which new ideas gain credibility and influence is fascinating. Why do some philosophies find fertile soil and become culturally dominant, while others do not? To what degree does an epoch shaping idea generate from within the current cultural climate or cut directly across it? Is history driven by ‘great men’ or a much less tangible and far more tangled mass of cultural trends?

These are the kind of questions I’ve been asking while reading Frank Turner’s lectures on European intellectual history. In his lecture on Philosophic Radicalism, Turner describes the means by which John Stuart Mill and friends achieved such influence in the nineteenth century. These included,

    Being directly involved in the political process, both as parliamentarians and civil servants.
    Creating academic institutions, notably University College London. (Which I visited with my university-applying daughter last week and was suitably impressed by – even though as a graduate of King’s College London I am not supposed to admit any admiration for the godless Benthamites of Russell Square.)
    Writing and publishing widely.
    Forming networks and alliances with those who would not normally have been considered in their fold.
    Adopting causes beyond their immediate aims.

For anyone who has kept up with those Evangelicals who have been debating in recent years how the church influences society (and vice versa) this list looks familiar. They represent the kind of strategy explored by the likes of Andy Crouch, James Davison Hunter, and so on. Perhaps, though, the Philosophic Radicals are not an especially good model for those Christians seeking to gain more cultural credibility. In the nineteenth century the ideas of J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, T.R. Malthus and so on succeeded in finding ready soil. This was the springtime of their ideas, which blossomed into the summer of UCL’s magnificent Bloomsbury campus. In the twenty-first century West, Christianity seems to be in autumn, not spring, and might encounter more hostility than find willing alliances.

A different kind of strategy for influence was pursued by the nationalists. As Turner describes the case, “Nationalists tended to be intellectuals and quite often intellectuals who lived in exile. Through their writings, which they succeeded in circulating widely among social and political elites, they created the sense of nationhood.” While from our vantage point in history, nationalism now looks ugly and destructive, the means by which the idea gained ground is fascinating. That it was an idea that grew out of exile perhaps offers us a better model for how Christianity could enter into spring again.

Key to this was the recognition by nationalist leaders that they were in exile, with all the hardships accompanying that. Rather than cozying up to the system and taking it over from within, the nationalists shouted a rallying cry from without. This looks a more dangerous strategy than that adopted by the Philosophic Rationalists, and also more prone to becoming nasty; but it is arguably closer to much of the prophetic story of scripture: the people of God, living in exile, witnessing to and against the dominant culture, proclaiming a different kingdom.

There might be something in that.



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