Intellectual Is as Intellectual Does

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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We were sitting at a business lunch waiting for the lemon meringue pie to be served when I launched into one my declarative quasi-rants on the definition of an intellectual. I started slowly and built up steam with a captive audience ready for dessert.

“The concept of being an intellectual has always fascinated me” I began. “In college, I thought the goal was to become an intellectual.”

Then I immediately went into my own understanding of the word. Like most words, I derived a definition from how I heard the term being used.

“My working definition of an intellectual was someone who knew something about a wide array of topics,” I continued. “Also, they had to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation on almost any topic.”

Someone said, “Oh, you ought to go on Jeopardy.”

I was flattered that my friend thought of me as an intellectual, but Jeopardy is not exactly the kind of knowledge that I was talking about.

Knowledge in this context doesn’t mean merely fun facts for fast recall. What I’m talking about here comes from the great commandment, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” We use our minds to see a different way of living in the world, and this new insight transforms our lives to God’s purposes. Complete understanding changes who we are and what we do.

The quest for intellectual understanding becomes the quest for complete understanding. The Puritan founders of Harvard College saw their purpose to educate men who might then be suitable for the clergy. They didn’t just start a seminary; they were interested in knowledge acquisition. Pursuing a broad range of knowledge helps us better understand the world we live in so that we are able to communicate intelligently with a broad range of people in a meaningful way.

When we pursue knowledge across many disciplines, we open possibilities for conversation with more people. This is one of the things I admire most about Howard Butt. He has always been thirsty for knowledge and uses that knowledge to build bridges between people and diverse groups.

The older we get, the more knowledge we acquire, and we become keenly aware of how little we know. We certainly understand that complete knowledge is unattainable, but the pursuit of it is still worthy. Similarly, complete knowledge of God is unattainable, but we still try to know God better. The more we learn about the world and the more we learn about God, the larger God appears to be.

If being an intellectual means acquiring more knowledge, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. When I looked up the formal definition, I saw that I wasn’t far off during my lunch conversation. Definitions number seven and nine seem to fit best:

  • 7. a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, esp. on an abstract and general level.
  • 9. a person professionally engaged in mental labor, as a writer or teacher.

Journalists and cultural commentators currently use the word “intellectual” as a synonym for an expert, which always bothers me. Rather, an intellectual is a generalist who can put their broad understanding of many things into practice for the common good. I think sticking with the original definition serves a higher purpose.

Photograph "My Poems Keep My Mind Unempty,” used under a creative commons license.