Category: Notable Individuals

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”:

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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)

Confounded and Comforted by God’s Riddles

Sanity

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Dress for action like a man;

I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38:1-7)

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We read Job for comfort.

I believe there is no more satisfying answer (or rather, non-answer) to the problems of suffering and evil than the one we find in Job. Here is a righteous man who suffers misery upon misery without knowing why this is happening, who wishes he’d never been born and shakes his fist at the heavens and questions God’s ways, only to be humbled by a God who comes not to tell him why he is suffering, but rather to throw his own questions at Job and silence him with the precious knowledge that God is God and he is more powerful, wise, and good than any of us can imagine. This is why we read Job for comfort – because in it we come upon the wall that faces us the end of all our agonizing questions in the face of suffering, and we find not a neat answer but a person: God himself. And this is more than enough.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the British journalist, poet, novelist, and all-around man of letters, wrote about this comfort, as well as the way God’s questions confounds the most stubborn of skeptics, in a 1929 essay titled, “The Book of Job.” (From In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius, 2011)):

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“When, at the end of the poem, God enters (somewhat abruptly), is struck the sudden and splendid note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the story, and Job especially, have been asking questions of God. A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number more questions on His own account. In this drama of skepticism God Himself takes up the role of the skeptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some questions which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners…

“… In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.

“… Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” (97-99).

Monica: Model Wife and Daughter-in-Law

Augustine and Monica, Ary Scheffer, 1846.

Augustine and Monica, Ary Scheffer, 1846.

Monica, the pious, long-suffering mother of Augustine, for whose soul she shed many tears because her greatest desire was to see him leave behind the Manichean heresy and become a baptized Christian, was not only a terrific mother but, as Augustine tells in his Confessions, she was also an infinitely patient and loving wife to a difficult husband (the unbelieving Patricius, for whom Augustine seemed to have little affection), and a wise and devoted daughter-in-law to a woman who otherwise might have made life even more difficult for her and her husband. To our modern sensibilities Monica probably put up with more than she deserved from Patricius, but then again, this was a pious woman who put her faith and the covenant of marriage above her own temporal comfort and happiness. Whether male or female, we can all learn from her example.

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“She never ceased to try to gain him [Patricius] for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you [God]. He was unfaithful to her, but her patience was so great that his infidelity never became a cause of quarreling between them. For she looked to you to show him mercy, hoping that chastity would come with faith. Though he was remarkably kind, he had a hot temper, but my mother knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry. If his anger was unreasonable, she used to wait until he was calm and composed and then took the opportunity of explaining what she had done… Many women…used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men-folk. My mother would meet this complain with another – about the women’s tongues.

“…Her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the talebearing of malicious servants, but she won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness. In the end her mother-in-law complained of her own accord to her son and asked him to punish the servants for their meddlesome talk, which was spoiling the peaceful domestic relations between herself and her daughter-in-law. Patricius, who was anxious to satisfy his mother as well as to preserve the good order of his home and the peace of his family, took the names of the offenders from his mother and had them whipped as she desired. She then warned them that anyone who told tales about her daughter-in-law, in the hope of pleasing her, could expect to receive the same reward. After this none of them dared to tell tales and the two women lived together in wonderful harmony and mutual goodwill.” (194-195).

The Conversion of St. Augustine

confessionThe hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man  would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.

(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)

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“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?

“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.

“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)

A Gift to Surpass All Gifts: The Incarnation

AthanasiusAthanasius (296-373) was an early Church Father known for his effective defense of orthodox doctrine against Arianism, a heresy that claimed Jesus was literally created by God the Father and therefore not divine. On this day before Christmas Eve, I thought it appropriate to share two brief excerpts from Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation, a brilliant (and at only 60 pages, short!) treatise of the greatest miracle of all: The Almighty God’s taking on a human body, even a helpless infant, to obtain salvation for those who put their trust in him. On Christmas Day many of us will get gifts that, enjoyable and even useful as they may be, are nonetheless perishable and of little value to our souls. Before this time comes, let’s reflect on and give thanks to God for the one gift that surpasses them all: That of his Son, in whom there is not just life, but life everlasting and abundant.

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“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (4).

“The Word perceived that corruption [resulting from our transgression of God’s law] could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…for naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required…for the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (12-13).

Hitchens: If You Can Talk, You Can Write

Hitchens

 

 

 

 

 

The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”

I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:

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“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).

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So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?

Want to Live with Purpose? Think About Heaven and Hell

JEdwardsWhich do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.

Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):

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“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.

“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).