I am hardly qualified to write a eulogy, having never met the man. No doubt others, including one or two Acton colleagues who knew him better, will perform this service admirably. But I feel compelled to offer a few words, as I have long admired Fr. Neuhaus and his vital work, in particular the journal he edited for many years, First Things (FT).
In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by smart people who, with some exceptions, disagreed profoundly with most of my own views on religion, culture, and public life (to use FT’s trinitarian formula). I am grateful for that interaction and for the intellectual stimulus that Penn provided, but I was also lonely and desperate for some intellectual sustenance from a perspective both more conservative politically and more orthodox theologically. Browsing through the library one day, I came across FT. (How it had taken me so long to discover it, I don’t know.) Under the circumstances, it seemed to be literally a godsend. Social policy, science, academia–it tackled all the contentious issues at the front of my consciousness as an inexperienced but aspiring scholar who needed allies and guides as I sought to make sense of the relationship between faith and reason. It did so at a level of intelligence, clarity, and civility consistently higher than any other publication I’ve ever encountered.
From that day–when I could afford a subscription to only one periodical–to the present, I have been a devoted FT reader. And to no part of the journal have I been more devoted than Fr. Neuhaus’s monthly roundup of religion, culture, and public life, The Public Square. For more than ten years it has provoked me to thought, laughter, and (not very often) disagreement. For Fr. Neuhaus and for the journal he inspired, I am sincerely grateful. I never met him, but I feel that I’ve lost a longtime companion.
I’m ambivalent about the value of term limits, but one thing that can certainly be counted in their favor is that they (at some point at least), force lawmakers to go out and try to make a living in the economic environment which they helped to shape. In Michigan, nearly half of the 110-member House of Representatives will consist of new members. Of the 46 new members, 44 are coming from seats that were open because of term limits.
And now we have reports that ex-legislators are having a tough time finding private sector jobs in the state. As the AP reports, “The task of finding new gigs will be tougher than usual for this year’s crop of term-limited lawmakers because of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, which in November reached 9.6 percent — the highest monthly rate since March 1992.”
It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. But sometimes those who can’t do, legislate. That’s in part an argument in favor term-limits, part-time legislatures, and something other than a system that encourages the formation of career politicians.
I recognize that serving in government is an important and even a divine calling. Still, I have a hard time finding a great deal of sympathy for those who after a break from the private sector have to face up to the real-world employment situation. You reap what you sow.
Health care reform is likely to move back into the public eye as a new Congress and a new Obama administration prepare to start work this month. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Dr. Don Condit argues for a move away from employer funded health care benefits to a portable system. “Corporate human resources departments should not be viewed as the main source of support for Americans’ health care,” he writes. “The iniquitous government subsidy for employer-based health care could be redirected to help those without access to affordable health care, by virtue of poverty or chronic disease.”
Perhaps the most striking theme of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography My Grandfather’s Son is just how many obstacles Thomas had to overcome to reach the high judicial position he currently holds. Thomas was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, and was raised in the segregated South all before achieving the American Dream. At the same time, it was Thomas’s poverty-stricken circumstances that would help propel him to a world of greater opportunity. Because of his mother’s poverty, when Thomas was seven, he and his brother were sent to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson, a no nonsense and self-disciplined man who announced upon their arrival, “The damn vacation is over.”
While I have never been a big fan of autobiographies, Thomas’s story is one that absolutely needs to be told, if for no other reason than to fully respond to the damaging allegations made by his former colleague Anita Hill. But there is so much here to think about, especially for somebody like myself who attended school at Ole Miss, an institution wrapped in the consciousness of race. In a Southern Studies class in college while discussing the history of lynchings, the professor asked if we could cite examples of any modern day lynchings. I immediately remembered Thomas’s quote about his confirmation hearings being a “high tech lynching” and offered Thomas’s name. Of course I knew this was perhaps the last name the professor wanted to hear, which is why I offered it, thereby getting out in front of and spoiling her liberal moralism of the day. She casually made a snide comment about Thomas and said “that doesn’t count.” I only smiled as I knew I had successfully pointed out that Thomas was in fact one of the few black men allowed to be aggressively attacked by white liberals in academia.
Growing up, his grandfather made sacrifices so Thomas and his brother could attend Catholic schools, this allowed him opportunities he might never have had coming out of the public school system. Thomas later turned his attention to studying for the priesthood. As a seminarian Thomas declared:
It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.
After leaving seminary, Thomas transferred to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and experimented in left wing politics. Also Thomas found New England to be far less honest about race than in the American South, declaring, “I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems.” He also pointed out that it was in Boston, not Georgia, that he was first called a deeply offensive racial slur. Thomas left Yale Law School with a negative view of his alma mater. His intention at the time was to return to South Georgia to practice law.
Thomas however ended up on the staff of Missouri Attorney General and former U.S. Senator John Danforth in Jefferson City in 1974. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal Priest, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, would become a life-long mentor and a valuable ally during Thomas’s Supreme Court hearings. The stories Thomas tells of his own drinking problem and financial indebtedness are all fascinating. His first marriage turns out to not be successful, but he goes into little detail, which may be commendable just in keeping a private matter, just that.
Thomas also delves into the Anita Hill fiasco, describing her by his own account as a less than average employee, and somebody who virtually nobody liked. The chaotic nature of the hearings pushed Thomas back even closer to his faith and he noted:
The more hopeless things appeared and the more vulnerable I felt, the more I turned to God’s comforting embrace, and over time my focus became primarily God centered. The words of the Apostle Paul were not far from my mind: ‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’
He decides to end his autobiographical account during the day he is sworn at the U.S. Supreme Court, which might be disappointing to some of the more policy wonkish readers. After reading his unique account I was left with a couple profound thoughts. I had another professor in college who said to the class while we were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy, that the stories were not really believable, but rather bad capitalist propaganda. The novel immediately came back to me after reading Thomas’s account, here is a man who overcame even so much more to rise to the very top of his field. Few stories can better personify the American dream, and very few stories provide better imagery of defying the odds.
Thomas’s book is at times inspiring, sad, yet ultimately triumphant. He had a very fractured relationship with the grandfather who raised him. Not until his grandfather’s death, did he ultimately appreciate the lessons, love, and discipline Myers Anderson taught him. It’s by only reading this book will you understand how somebody with a third grade education taught a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice so much about life, and yes even conservatism.
It is the new year and the time of reflection is upon us. In 2008, we witnessed a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.
Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.
I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence. Just consider it a series of number ones.
1. Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life. He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going. But then, something strange happens. He discovers there is such a thing as evil. Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.
2. Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right. Possibly, the greatest memoir ever. I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time. For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side. He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God. In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent. Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.
3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement. As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power. Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off. On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats. I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!
4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered. Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work. So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls. George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.
5. Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple. Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen. You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading. Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.
6. Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood. Careful, wise, insightful. You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.
7. Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself. However, I am comforted by reading his best works. This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries. You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing? Then, read this Buckley spy novel.
8. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives? It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson. It was Francis Schaeffer. The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe. Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values. (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures. So, I said it. Still, this book is great stuff.)
9. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me. Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia). The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it. Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.
I like Robert Samuelson’s recent column about the difficulty (impossibility?) of accurately analyzing economic reality, let alone predicting its future. Over the past several months a few people, mistaking me for someone who knows a great deal about economics, have asked what I think about the financial crisis, the stock market, the recession, etc. My response is usually something along the lines of the following: Anyone who pretends to know and understand completely the causes of the economic meltdown and/or how to “fix” it, is either not very smart or is selling something (e.g., political schemes or financial advice).
It is a bitter pill for modern man–maybe contemporary Americans, especially–to swallow, but the fact is we can’t control the economy, even if we have “learned the lessons” of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the tech bubble of the 1990s. And often enough our efforts to manage and control it aggravate whatever problem we’re trying to address.
Recognizing this truth can be depressing, or it can be freeing.
It’s a reminder to all who are even occasionally viewed, described, or invoked as “experts” always to wield our opinions with humility. It won’t stop us from pontificating, but it should prevent anyone from taking us too seriously.
The year is 1943 and Valkyrie, the second release under the revamped United Artists brand, opens with German officer Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) on assignment in Africa. He had been sent there because his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had become dangerously explicit and bellicose. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel of the general staff and transfer from the European lines to Africa is intended to give him some protection from pro-Nazi officers who might make trouble for him.
An attack on a transport column in Africa leaves Stauffenberg badly wounded. He loses his left eye, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand, and his right hand above the wrist. Given director Bryan Singer’s resume (which includes X-Men) and the opening sequence, initial concerns that the film might be turned into an action movie are quickly dispelled. Given that the end of the movie is never in doubt, the movie never quite becomes a suspense thriller either. Yet Valkyrie still manages to deliver a thought-provoking and moving story of loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and doubt. (more…)
Nicholas Kristof’s Dec. 21 New York Times column was, he says, “a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.” He quotes Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” book which shows that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.
The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.
“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”
Kristof echoes Rev. Robert Sirico’s Dec. 17 Acton commentary “Why We Give” (published on Dec. 23 in the Detroit News) which also looks at Brooks’ work on giving and the deeper theological dimensions of charity.
… the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in his Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate his Advent.
There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.
The first item, “Santa and the ultimate Fairy Tale,” quotes Tony Woodlief to the effect that “fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale.” Schansberg’s (and Woodlief’s) take on this question is pretty compelling and worth considering, even though I’m not quite convinced of the value of the Santa Claus fable.
I’m still a relatively new parent (I have a three and a half year-old) and so I’m still in the midst of sorting out with my wife the best way to handle questions of the reality of Santa Claus. Until very recently, I had always been of the opinion that honesty is the best policy.
I’ve never liked the idea of putting God and Jesus on the same epistemic level (even if only for the first decade or so of a person’s life) as say, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. Rather than “preparing” the child for “embrace of the ultimate Fairy Tale,” it seems to me that such practice can foster a hermeneutic of suspicion, such that when the child finds out Santa Claus isn’t “real” in any empirical sense, he or she will, at least initially, be inclined to lump God in with other “fairy tales.” That kind of approach seems to lead as much to Freud as it does to Lewis.
I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I’m a lover of literature. I am interested (along with Tolkien) in the question of whether the proper pluralization of dwarf is dwarfs or dwarves (I too prefer the latter). I was an English major in college, and I admit to getting a bit teary-eyed when Zooey Deschanel leads a group of hard-bitten New Yorkers in a rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” at the climax of Elf.
And I agree that we need to cultivate the sense that the realm of empirical science isn’t the only or even the best way of talking about ultimate reality. But again, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that for our children we need to prepare the way for the Gospel with fiction, even well-meant fiction. If my child can’t rely on me to tell the truth about Santa, why should he believe what I have to say about God?
Rather than pointing to how such fairy tales pave the way for belief in the “ultimate Fairy Tale,” I’ve always thought that the youthful belief in Santa underscores the fundamentally fiduciary nature of human beings. We are believing creatures. We basically trust, at least at first, what other people and especially our parents tell us. We aren’t born cynical or un-trusting, but rather dependent and credulous.
This is an important thing to know about humans from a theological and anthropological point of view, but equally important is the recognition of how wrong that credulity can go. We are basically believing creatures, but without the Gospel that belief is corrupted and we create idols for ourselves. Would you say believing in Mardukh, Mammon, and Ba’al “prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale”?
All of which leads me to the item I thought of when reading that first post: the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial from 1897. As you might guess from my comments above, I have mixed feelings about the editorial, but I thought I’d recommend it since it seems so relevant to Schansberg’s point.
The other post of Schansberg’s that caught my attention was his other Christmas Day offering, in which he contrasts the Lord of the cradle, the cross, and the throne, calling for a comprehensive apprehension of Jesus Christ.
That made me think of this quote from Ed Dobson about Jesus, contained in a story from the Christmas Day Grand Rapids Press (I was out of town so I only got to it over the weekend):
“Everybody loves a baby,” mused Dobson, 58. “But when you start reading the teachings of this baby, and about the sufferings of this baby, you begin to understand better who he is.”
The story goes on in a lot more detail about Dobson’s recent history since retiring from his pastorate at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. There’s a lot more of interest in that piece.
But his quote speaks quite pointedly to Schansberg’s emphasis on the comprehensive Christ. We need to know of his birth, death, and resurrection.
One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.
Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:
“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.
“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)
Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”
“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”
For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.