In a world filled with problems and difficult situations that demand our attention, I have found one situation that dominates my thinking. The problem is the dilemma which faces the Black Christian intellectual in America. Intellectuals, those strange creatures who choose to live a life of the mind, are an unappreciated group throughout the world. In a world that has come to think of education solely in terms of its utilitarian function of producing useful employees for the marketplace rather than exposing people to the market place of ideas, the stubborn intellectual is a stranger and alienated.

Of course, some societies value their intellectuals more than others. In this regard, Western Europe comes to mind. The United States of America has long been criticized for its anti-intellectual atmosphere and I am convinced that this critique rings true. For all of our advancements in the economic arena and technology, American society has a profound distrust of intellectuals and intellectualism. As a result of this distrust, Americans are reluctant to create environments in which intellectuals can flourish. This includes our colleges and universities which have long surrendered themselves to the pressure of producing viable employees for capital markets. This reality has had a devastating effect on all intellectually inclined persons but has even more negatively impacted the Black American intellectuals who have few infrastructures outside of academic ones to hone their craft.

According to both John Hope Franklin and Cornel West, Black intellectuals are alienated both from the mainstream Black American communities which produced them and from the mainstream white intellectual communities which continue to reject them or at least refuse to wholeheartedly embrace them. For Black communities, the lack of economic resources and general lack of equal access to education has made devaluing the intellectual rather easy. It is simply hard for the average Black person to understand why a bright Black person would want to become a professor or writer when our communities needs more school teachers and medical doctors. The helping professions are still valued in our community but a pure pursuit of the life of the mind is not.

Mainstream white intellectual communities have not historically been a place of refuge for Black intellectuals and this remains true today. One of the main problems which prevent this from happening is the assumption of Black native inferiority that still pervades mainstream intellectual climates. This may come as a surprise to some and maybe a shock to others that intellectuals are not necessarily less racist than other members of American society. True, it is no longer acceptable for a mainstream intellectual to harbor personal prejudice against Black people on the basis of race but this not stop the same intellectuals from assuming the Blacks are intellectually deficient for one reason or another. It is not my intention to unpack these reasons; my objective here is to focus on this reality’s impact on the plight of Black intellectuals.

Because of the lack of value that Black Americans place on intellectual development and the common perception among mainstream white intellectuals that Blacks are not capable of full intellectual engagement, the Black intellectual finds himself or herself in a very strange place. Without institutions supportive of Black intellectualism either within the Black community or within mainstream intellectual communities, Black intellectuals face a double alienation that mirrors the double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke so poignantly about in the 19th century.

Perhaps the only group of intellectuals in America who knows what it feels like to be a Black intellectual is the white Protestant Evangelical intellectual. While this assertion may seem laughable on the surface, it is not. White Christian intellectuals face the same sort of double alienation that Black intellectuals face. Like Black ones, their alienation is both historical and sociological in nature. Christian intellectuals face opposition from both the Christian communities which produced them and from mainstream intellectual society.

Mark Noll wrote a book detailing how the Christian intellectual got to be so maligned by both fellow American Christians and by American intellectuals. One of the problems, in his estimation, is the impact of American revivalism on setting the intellectual caste for American Protestant Christianity. With its emphasis on personal piety over against doctrinal precision, American Christianity has always contained within itself an anti-intellectual bias. Of course, the intellectual history of America has followed the Western European narrative of progression from profoundly religious in origin to profoundly secular today. This means that is not intellectually respectable to either be religious or to admit that one’s religious beliefs impact one’s intellectual vocation.

There is one group more maligned and alienated that either Black intellectuals or Christian intellectuals: Black Christian ones. Considering that Black Americans consistently rank highest in the polls as religious and as specifically Christian this may come as a surprise. It is true that most Blacks in America identify themselves as Christian; it is not true that most Black intellectuals do. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons it is extremely rare to find Black intellectuals who see themselves primarily as Christian or as Christian at all.
One of these reasons is that nearly all if not all of the historically Black colleges and universities that were Christian in origin have followed the same pattern from religious to secular that mainstream private institutions have. Furthermore, these institutions were founded later than the Ivy League institutions and the like which were profoundly Christian in their origins and were founded as Christian institutions that were already affected by the growing secularization in American society contemporary with their founding. As a result, though they were at one time controlled by Christian denominations, Black as well as white, none of these institutions was ever Christian in the sense that Harvard, Princeton or Yale was.

Moreover, those Black intellectuals of preceding generations who were fortunate to receive graduate education left already secular leaning Black Christian ones, primarily in the South and matriculated to completely secular Northern predominately white research institutions which successfully made religious belief, especially Christianity, unthinkable for status seeking Black intellectuals. These same Black intellectuals either returned to teach at HBCUs or remained at PWIs, neither of which was hospitable to Black Christian intellectual development.

As a result, the only place left for the Black Christian intellectual was and still is the Black pulpit. In the pulpit oratory of Black Christian preachers one finds a kind of genius that is unmatched by other forms of intellectualism according to Cornel West. This is one space that innovation and artistic flair are accepted by the Black community and left unaltered by mainstream white interference. This is one of the beauties of the Black Church. It is no wonder that the Black Church and specifically the Black pulpit have produced so many of the stars of Black history.

Unfortunately, for those Black Christian intellectuals who do not feel a call to pastoral ministry or who cannot or will not preach in a way acceptable to the Black masses there are no institutions within our community or another that can match the vitality of Sunday morning. As Harold Dean Trulear puts it well there is no institution for the Black American evangelical. There is no place for Black Christian intellectual such as Calvin College or Wheaton College that is definitively Christian, intellectually rigorous and culturally compatible for a Black Christian intellectual to flourish.

That is why we need to build such an institution. Unless such an institution is brought into existence the Black Christian intellectual imagination will be forever stifled. Imagine a place where a person could study the likes of Jonathan Edwards in depth and still pour himself or herself into the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois all under the umbrella of a particular Christian vision. This place should be a place that emphasizes true liberal arts education in which all students are expected to challenge themselves rigorously to think critically about the arts, humanities, physical sciences and social sciences within the context of a comprehensively Black Christian theological environment.

Some would pose opposition to the idea of a Christian institution that focuses on the needs of a specific ethnic or racial group. They would say that such an institution would become anti-Christian simply because of its intentionality. The rebuttal to this is that other Christian institutions do in fact serve specific ethnic and racial groups and serve them well. They are not necessarily racist for doing so because they are not created divisions within the human race or Christian community but serve communities as they really exist rather than as some insist they should be. We need this same sort of theological realism within the Black American Christian community so that the needs of our community can be served. Only with the creation of such an institution will there be a healthy space for Black Christian intellectual development. Black Christian intellectuals need this, Black America needs this, Christian intellectuals need this, mainstream American intellectuals need this and mainstream America does to.

Kenneth Harrell