Lincoln’s Humility

LincolnUnlike so many history buffs, I’ve always found the Civil War one of the more uninteresting periods of American history. After finishing Thomas Keneally’s Abraham Lincoln (Penguin, 2008), this was no longer the case. I’ve enjoyed this short introduction to our 16th and greatest president both for its insights into the extraordinary character of Lincoln and for its treatment of other topics – such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the feats and failures of Civil War generals, and the colorful members of Lincoln’s cabinet – that I’m less familiar with and want to learn more of. As an example of the former – insights into Lincoln’s character – is the below excerpt, which reminds me of the biblical truth that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.

____________________________________________

Years before he became president, while Lincoln was working on a patent case,

“…a new lawyer, the stocky, pugnacious Edwin M. Stanton, joined the team. Stanton was already such a legal star that he wondered why they had bothered to bring in a ‘long-armed Ape’ from Illinois. (He had, of course, no idea that he would one day serve very happily in the supposed simian’s cabinet.) Lincoln had the gift of humility – it was one of the reasons he was beloved – and as best he could he sat and learned from Stanton, but was hurt by his daily contempt and hubris” (59).

What Does it Mean to be an American? (Jean Bethke Elshtain)

ElshtainIn her terrific Democracy on Trial (1995), the late political theorist and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain (whom I had the privilege of having as a professor as an undergraduate – she was one of Georgetown’s best-kept secrets!) reflects on the ills afflicting American democracy, among them the obliteration by both Left and Right of the private-public distinction (e.g. feminists’ 1970s slogan “the personal is political,” or conservatives’ attempts to involve the government in private sexual lives) and what identity politics, where groups such as women and ethnic minorities militantly pursue a politics revolving around a perceived victimization demonize the “oppressor” to the point that any meaningful dialogue, one of the currencies of democracy, is ruled out or made impossible. More importantly, in this book Elshtain reminds us that true democracy is not just a system of government but also a set of “democratic dispositions” among citizens that enables them to debate, compromise, and respect their fellows as they seek, not utopia, but a “more perfect Union,” as Lincoln so aptly put it.

One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Elshtain recounts her response to a radio broadcaster’s question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” She “stammered and mumbled for a moment before I got my bearings and responded”:

_______________________________________________

It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious – as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are – and yet united in a spirit that’s a spirit more of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means that one can expect some basic sense of fair play…I think Americans are committed to a rough-and-ready sense of fair play, and a kind of social egalitarianism, if you will, an egalitarianism of manners. I think that’s the best I can do. (35-36)

Development of the Doctrine of Purgatory

StoryOfChristianityIn The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (Harper One, 2010), Justo González explains how Pope Gregory “the Great” (r. 590-604 CE), as a devoted student of Augustine and an influential church leader, played an important role in the development of the doctrine of purgatory, which, as González writes, was based more on speculation than doctrinal certainty. Catholics deny this, of course, pointing to the the book of II Maccabees (in the Apocrypha, which Protestants don’t recognize as inerrant Scripture), and arguing that some New Testament texts support the existence of such a place. Such arguments are worth examining more closely, and I hope to eventually do so myself, but for now, I leave you with González, a knowledgeable church historian to whom the labels “anti-Catholic” and “Fundamentalist” hardly apply.

____________________________________________________

“Gregory lived in a time of obscurantism, superstition, and credulity, and to a degree he reflected his age. By making Augustine an infallible teacher, he contradicted the spirit of that teacher, whose genius was, at least in part, in his inquiring spirit and venturesome mind. What for Augustine was conjecture, in Gregory became certainty. Thus, for instance, the theologian of Hippo had suggested the possibility that there was a place of purification for those who died in sin, where they would spend some time before going to heaven. On the basis of these speculations of Augustine, Gregory affirmed the existence of such a place, and thus gave impetus to the development of the doctrine of purgatory” (288).

Career Advice: Just Get Started, and Work Hard

RiskyIn Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013), Owen Strachan urges Christians to live a life of bold and joyful risk secure in the knowledge that no matter how tough things get or how much suffering there is, those who are in Christ are already “more than conquerors” and have gained everything one could ever need or want. In his chapter on building “risky vocation,” he discusses how we ought to approach our work and calls us to “work hard wherever you are.” I thought his words below were excellent advice, especially for younger people – whether Christian or not – trying to launch their careers in a culture that too often stresses finding fulfillment in “dream” jobs at the cost of the kind of commitment and stability that can really pay off.

_________________________________________

“In different ways, we’ve been trained to think that our work isn’t important if it’s not the song of our hearts, the soundtrack to our souls. It’s great to connect your work to your passions…but let’s be honest: this is not always possible. Furthermore, it can be pretty tricky to pull this off while young. If you’re trying to get a career started, your best bet is to get started and work hard.

“It’s that simple.

“This may mean that you’re in a field you do not enjoy, frankly. But just working – especially a full-time salaried position if you can get it – will bring tremendous stability to your life. Find work where you can, and do it to the best of your ability. Don’t be like some today who set themselves up for disappointment by not really seeking anything definite, or by only lunging at their dream job” (127-128).

Marx Meets Freud: The Changing Face of Oppression

republocratIn his politically challenging yet refreshing Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R, 2010), church history professor Carl Trueman recounts how he – a classically liberal Brit who supports universal health care and gun control – found himself “politically homeless” when the Left discarded its traditional concerns for material issues dealing with oppression for “identity politics,” where the notion of oppression was “broadened to include the psychological realm”:

_____________________________________________

“This psychologizing of oppression, combined with postcolonial thinking and postmodernism, has led the organized Left to adopt some strange positions that once would have been antithetical to its philosophy. For example, it has often been the case that the most intolerant groups with regard to homosexuality are working-class; the issue of gay rights is, by and large, the preoccupation of the middle class. So in advocating gay rights, the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help.

“Further, while the Left in origin was supposed to provide a voice to the voiceless, the link that has been forged between abortion and women’s rights has meant that the most voiceless of all – the unborn – are those most vigorously silenced by those who should be speaking for them… The anomaly is most embarrassingly obvious at international congresses on women’s rights, where women from poorer countries who struggle daily with issues such as clean water, food, female circumcision, etc., often seem bemused by the obsession of the materially well-off women of the West with the matter of abortion. This hijacking of the Left by identity politics means that the current struggles in which the Left are engaged are not of a kind my grandfather would have recognized, and represent rather a betrayal of the Old Left.

Trueman concludes by noting that “once the concerns of the Left shifted from material, empirical issues – hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease – to psychological categories, the door was opened for everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big One for this generation.” (12-13, 17)

Theology – The Noblest Science? (Thomas Aquinas)

summa

Thomas Aquinas was a remarkably lucid and logical thinker, one of the best minds to have graced this earth who set his mind to work on the most important of topics: God and the things of God.

Boston College philosophy professor has done us a huge service in compiling an anthology, with his own footnotes, of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, one of the most important texts in the history of Western thought, let alone theology and philosophy. In this book, titled Summa of the Summa, we find the explanation to why our medieval ancestors considered theology the “queen of the sciences”:

__________________________________________________

“Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint it is nobler than other sciences” (42).

Kreeft then writes in the footnote: “The medieval formula ‘philosophy the handmaid of theology’ and the associated idea of theology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ are seldom taken seriously today…Yet neither philosophy nor science have ever refuted the claim during the past seven hundred years. It has been dismissed by fashion, not by reason. If God is, and is our ultimate end, then the science of God must indeed be the queen of the sciences” (43).

What’s Wrong with Compassionate Conservatism?

GNPIn 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned on a domestic agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” which he said would not “balance the budge on the backs of the poor.” This sounds good, doesn’t it? It softens the stereotype of mean and rich Republicans out to cut back on government spending left and right and establish fiscal order at the expense of the neediest Americans. Yet, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate‘s Reihan Salam argue in their thought-provoking and important book, Grand New Party (Anchor, 2009), this language in fact perpetrates the notion of a class dependent on the hand of government to survive that is so antithetical to what is at the essence of the American story. This philosophical stance that resists big government largesse and encourages self-reliance and -drive to achieve upward mobility is actually one of the key principles that, in my view, defines what it means to be a conservative.

________________________________________

“While his [Bush’s] instincts were sound, the language of compassion strikes the wrong note. It speaks to upper-middle-class empathy, not to the aspirations of poor Americans with the drive to succeed. For a generation, anti-poverty campaigns have fallen into this trap too often, emphasizing pity over self-help, framing government interventions in terms of charitable outreach, and poor-mouthing the prospects of the very people they set out to help. In the process, they have created an assumption that the poorest Americans simply aren’t capable of the kind of drive, ambition, and zeal for self-improvement that defines the American character.” (194)