The Four Marks of the Protestant Church

In the previous essay I said I would say more about the relationship between political and theological philosophy. In that essay I briefly reviewed the history of classical liberalism which began with Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory. His theory of the free individual led to a sort of liberty from all things that ultimately became the solvent that has continually dissolved our connections to institutions including the nation, the Church, the community, and the family.

That radical sense of individuality which is prior to our relationships to institutions can be easily recognized in classically Protestant sensibilities.

  • Salvation is detached from the community and is understood as a personal relationship between Jesus and me. (The Church has no significant role in the Protestant doctrine of justification; it is only between God and the individual.)
  • The Bible is detached from the community and its authority is viewed as something intrinsic to itself rather than extrinsic to the Body of Christ. This intrinsic authority is defined in terms of scriptures’ relation to God alone, detached from the human community. This is the essence of the doctrine of inerrancy.
  • Jesus Christ himself is detached from the community. He is attached, instead, to the individual, and these individuals-in-Christ come together to form voluntary organizations called churches rather than a community to which we are necessarily bound by the bonds of divine love. For Protestants it is okay to be without a church or to start your own church, or gather together as an informal house church because church is a secondary human relationship that can only be formed after the primary relationship between Jesus Christ and the individual is forged in the Holy Spirit.
  • The result of this detachment of Christ from the community is that the very idea of sacrament as God’s real presence is undermined and the two classic mysteries (the Font and the Table) are reduced to “ordinances” – something the church does because we are ordered to, in memory of past events, and not because of any intrinsic power or change that occurs because of the sacramental act itself. (Lutherans and Episcopalians are exceptions to this in their theology, but in my experience, not so much in their attitudes.)

Although these four detachments may not all be inherent to Protestant theology, they are historically bound to Protestantism more tightly than a Confession of Faith is bound to its Protestant Denomination. It would be extremely difficult to argue that the Protestant doctrines of salvation and scriptural authority could be viewed from a truly conservative (ie, non-individualist) perspective, so claiming that these are not inherent to Protestant theology ignores a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

What is the connection between classically liberal political theory and Protestantism? I have uncovered very few direct links. Rather I suspect it was the spirit of the age, which celebrated the individual and denounced the institution and which imbued both the political philosophers and theologians. Hobbes’ seminal work, Leviathan (1651), was published only five years after the initial publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Westminster was a direct result of the English Civil War (1642-1648) which was part of the larger European social unrest known as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The same events to which Hobbes (and later, Locke) were responding in their philosophy are the events which the Westminster Divines were responding as they tried to distance British Protestantism from Continental (as well as British) Roman Catholic influences. In interpreting the Bible, Westminster did it from this relatively new anti-monarchial, anti-institutional, pro-individual framework growing out of the Renaissance and leading to the Enlightenment.

The result is that as Protestantism came to North America it embodied this same liberalism that the Founding Fathers embodied. (We might say that Jeffersonian Liberalism is a secular manifestation of American Presbyterianism.) Emphasizing the individual at the expense of religious institutions, Christianity became a highly individualistic religion in which churches were voluntary organizations where individuals were free to come and go, to switch congregations according to their perceived rights of freedom and liberty as well as their perceived spiritual needs, and to stand in judgment over the beliefs of the group rather than stand under the authority of the group.

These sensibilities that grew directly out of Hobbesian political liberalism have dogged the Protestants ever since. Protestant Churches (as well as the Roman Catholic Church in the West, which fell under the spell of these same powerful ideas) have been slowly drifting leftward since religious denominations were created in the New World. Even as individuals have remained deeply religious, their connections to other believers have become more tenuous, resulting in an ever more privatized religious scene and fragmented denominational environment.

The solution is not to retreat into the Westminster Standards because they embody precisely the liberal (ie, individualistic) tendencies that got us into this mess in the first place. Authentic religious conservatism would reject the notion of the individual seeking freedom in God and instead return to the classic Christian understanding of the group and the institutions that embody the group as the source of salvation, revelation, and sustenance. (Take, for instance, that one un-Protestant, maybe even anti-Protestant phrase from the Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Protestants confess it, and then carefully explain it away by defining it in terms of individual salvation in their sermons: “What they meant to say was …”)

I must confess that I find this solution of returning to an authentic conservatism to be quite distasteful because I am an Enlightenment Liberal. I find much of Orthodoxy to be quite distasteful for precisely these reasons. I rebel at the lack of individual autonomy; I dislike the authoritarian manner in which the hierarchy leads the church. In fact, given the well documented and publicized crisis of leadership in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, it would be accurate to say I despise the authoritarian leadership that currently lords over the faithful.

I am a Jeffersonian liberal (a Libertarian) at heart, but I recognize that even though I prefer liberal autonomy (both in church and state), it’s a modern innovation (only a few hundred years old) which is quite anti-Christian, and I need to simply swallow my disgust and the sour taste that true community leaves in my mouth. As pleasant and fulfilling as self-directed and individuated Christianity is, I must give it up for authentic personal Christianity in which personhood is realized because it is rooted in submission to others and sacramental connectedness to people that God has called into his Body, rather than just with people I like to be with.

But Protestantism makes that move into true community very difficult (almost impossible!) because of that radical sense of individuality that has individuated and isolated the foundation stones of Christianity, such as faith in Christ, the authority of scripture, the nature of the community, and the sacramental character of God’s entrance into this world.


Conservatism and Liberalism (of the Conservative and Progressive Sorts)

What is conservatism? Etymologically it refers to an attitude of conserving (and thus valuing) the past. But what if one has a thoroughly liberal past? Is valuing and conserving the liberal beliefs and attitudes from the past a species of conservatism or liberalism?

This knot of questions has been foremost in my mind the last several months for three reasons. First, I continue to read The Front Porch Republic, and its communitarian vision has continued to increasingly influence my thinking. Second, I taught U.S. History from the European invasion of the Americas to the Civil War last semester. I realized, particularly as we considered the founding documents and the philosophy that legitimized the Revolutionary War, how radically liberal the American experiment was. Third, for four months I was immersed in an evangelical Presbyterian environment. What deeply impressed me during those four months is just how liberal (in terms of conserving old but radical religious ideas) Protestantism (even evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism) is.

It has been one of my mantras over the last decade or more that the evangelical Presbyterians and the Eastern Orthodox have a great deal in common. After immersing myself in an evangelical Presbyterian environment, I will once again reiterate my belief that there is a remarkable continuity between the Presbyterians and the Orthodox. But, that being said, it slapped me in the face that there is very little authentically conservative that exists within Protestantism. Republicans and evangelical Presbyterians are both conservative liberals (in contrast to the political progressive liberalism of the Democrats and the theological progressive liberalism of the mainline Presbyterians). As an Orthodox Christian, it was this fundamental and pervasive liberalism of the PCA and REC (the fundamentalist wings of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches) that made me squirm for the last four months.

And this brings me back to the original question. What is conservatism?

It’s actually easier to answer that question by first explaining what classical liberalism is and from whence it came. Political historian and philosopher Patrick Deneen says (I know, I quote this article a lot), “We have come to accept that Conservatism in America means fidelity to the founding principles of America, particularly those embodied in our basic documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” (I will say more about the relationship between political and theological philosophy in a later essay. For now, let’s follow Deneen’s argument about political conservatism.)

The Declaration is our nation’s work of high philosophy, a distillation of Lockean principles deriving from his Second Treatise on Government. Yet, thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have shown the deeply anti-conservative bases of the social contract theory of Lockean (and Hobbesian) origin, one that is premised upon a conception of human beings as naturally “free and independent,” as autonomous individuals who are thought to exist by nature detached from a web of relationships that include family, community, Church, region, and so on. The Lockean logic subjects all human relationships to radical scrutiny, valorizing choice and voluntarism as the sole basis of legitimacy in any human bond. This logic radically destabilizes all existing ties, making individual calculation the primary basis on which to assess the legitimacy and claims of any association.

So, classic liberalism (which comes from the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) begins with the premise that individuals are naturally free and independent. (These are the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence.) This “natural freedom and independence” results in the detachment of the individual from the institutions that Conservatives (prior to 1651 – the publication of Hobbes’ Leviathan) have traditionally claimed persons are attached. First and foremost is the detachment of the individual from the monarch and the nation. In the Liberal tradition, if the nation no longer serves the “self-evident” needs of the individual, then the nation can be assumed to be illegitimate and revolution becomes not only the legitimate but necessary step. (This is the logic of the Declaration as well as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.)

But these same “self-evident” needs of the individual which detach him from the nation also detach him from other institutions that include “family, community, Church, region, and so on.” Thomas Hobbes, in his highly influential social contract theory, argued that it is not accurate to say we have been “detached” from these institutions because the only thing that attaches us to them in the first place is the institution’s ability to serve the individual’s self-interest. This is the essence of volunteerism: The individual voluntarily attaches himself to an institution because it fulfills a need. When the institution stops fulfilling the need the nature of the social contract demands that the individual detach himself and seek out another institution that fulfills his self-interest or need.

Great Britain no longer served the colonist’s self-interest. It was therefore incumbent upon them to break that social contract and create a new one (the American Constitution). But Deneen goes on to point out the obvious.

This logic not only places the polity under its legitimizing logic, but all traditional relations, even finally the family itself. The logic used to justify America’s break with England worked like a steady solvent throughout its history, first detaching people’s allegiances from communities, from Churches, then from the individual States …

Of course institutions – even those founded upon these liberal philosophies, such as the Federal Government – recognize the deleterious effects of such ideas even if the individuals the institutions serve don’t. The Civil War was truly a “Second American Revolution” (as Stonewall Jackson said) which simply followed the logic of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, trying to uphold the institution of the American Government from the twin solvents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, said the South had gone too far and Lincoln undermined nearly every Constitutional limit imaginable in order to deny the South the very thing the American colonists had claimed for themselves a century earlier.

Conservatism (in this classical sense prior to Hobbes, Locke, and the Founding Fathers), then is the belief that it is “self-evident” that persons are not autonomous. Institutions, including the state, the Church, the family, and the region, have a legitimate claim upon the person. In turn, personhood in its fullness, cannot be understood without the context of these same institutions. A person needs a state, a Church, a family, and a region in order to be fully human. To view the person as autonomous from these institutions (as in the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Paine) leads to that person becoming something less than human – a mere individual.

But it is this very individuality that American conservatism (including Protestantism) celebrates. Is this true conservatism? I will argue that it is not, that it is better identified as conservative liberalism (as distinguished from progressive liberalism). The classically liberal view of the individual in relation to the world (or, not in relation to the world, as the case may be), is the cornerstone of why we must maintain that this four hundred year old philosophy will always be fundamentally liberal in its perspective. I will say more about this in a theological context in the next essay.

John Calvin, Student Radical and Humanist

Although they are not terms often associated with Calvin (much less Calvinism!) in this day and age, John Calvin was a liberal humanist and college radical before he became known as a Protestant Reformer. His critiques of Roman Catholic theology began with (and to a large extent, are a result of) his study of the works of Jacob Faber and Desiderius Erasmus.

Jacob Faber Sepaluensis (or Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples in French) was from the port city of Étaples, a French city very near the Dutch border. (He is identified as being from Étaples in order to distinguish him from Jacques Lefèvre Deventer, another humanist of the period from Deventer, Netherlands.) Desiderius Erasmus was from the port city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, just a few miles from Étaples.

Faber and Erasmus (and later, Calvin, while a student at the Sorbonne in Paris) were part of a radical liberal student movement in northern Europe that grew out of the Renaissance. The intent of the movement was to reform society and the Roman Catholic Church but it was perceived as dangerous and anti-Catholic by the Church. By 1533 the movement was forced underground and largely quashed in France. Although some of Faber’s and Erasmus’s books were later banned, they both remained Roman Catholic. In God’s providence, when the movement was forcibly stopped in France, rather than escaping to the Netherlands (where Faber and Erasmus were), Calvin ended up going south to Switzerland, where his philosophical and theological endeavors took a rather different turn.

In two words, the reason the “humanist” moniker fits Calvin is 1) that he took the human side of the text seriously and 2) he applied the scientific method to his study. The facet of Renaissance humanism that all three philosopher-theologians adopted was this philological method of studying written texts, including scripture. It was believed, based on a particular interpretation of Greek philosophy, that texts could be read scientifically and that authentic meaning was inherent to the texts themselves rather than to the combination of text and interpretive tradition that had grown up around the text. This new science was applied with a vengeance to scripture by John Calvin, and by the end of his life, he had written verse-by-verse commentaries on the text of scripture of all the books of the Bible except for the Apocalypse (if my memory serves me right).

It had never been a predominant Christian idea that naked texts could be accurately understood. Rather than the naked text, interpreters sought to be faithful to the normal and accepted interpretation of the text. Naked texts without contexts were too easily misconstrued because the way that humans use words is not precise. The same phrase used by the same person in different contexts could imply two very different things. Correct meaning had to be drawn from something larger than just the text.

This radically liberalizing idea that texts could be disconnected from their contexts is why the Roman Catholic Church reacted so vehemently to the student movement. Meaning became arbitrary and changeable in the Church’s view, and God’s unchangeable truth ought not to be divined from a changeable source.

What Calvin thought and wrote while a student at the Sorbonne is mostly lost, so we have to jump ahead several years to get Calvin’s response. Needless to say, the Reformers’ views of the matter were quite different. They viewed the Tradition (what the Church considered the proper context for texts to keep them from being naked) as the changeable thing, mostly human opinion. Calvin read the fathers and in his view he was reading scripture in the proper context, both by comparing scripture with scripture and comparing scripture with its social context through his reading of the Greeks and the fathers. Rather than stripping the text naked, in his view he was merely removing extraneous layers that obscured the meaning.

We have the advantage of well over 500 years of hindsight, so it is far easier for us to recognize that both sides had a point. From an Orthodox perspective (that is from a perspective that considers authentic Tradition a critical piece of understanding), medieval Roman Catholic Tradition had run off the rails by the middle ages. It had become changeable and had therefore ceased to be an authentic tool of understanding; furthermore, it had become a coercive tool of manipulation by the Church. The student radicals had good reason to be cynical about its efficacy.

But by the same token, this new scientific approach that the Dutch radicals and what would eventually become the Protestant Reformers espoused was arbitrary in its manner of how it chose to dress up the naked text. Like a teenage American girl, the Protestant sense of clothing style appropriate for the text of scripture seemed to change with the season, or at least the latest philosophical trend. Among the Continental Lutherans Romanticism was the philosophy du jour while the British Calvinists leaned toward what would become Enlightenment Rationalism. Protestant theology has always tended to be shaped the regnant philosophy of the age.

Calvin was no exception. We know that as a student he was quite fond of Seneca. It is therefore no great surprise that Calvin often read the ancient Greek texts of scripture within the broader context of Stoicism. Calvin was deeply suspicious of Seneca and it would be just as incorrect to read Stoic philosophy directly into Calvin’s theology as it would be to read Platonism directly into Orthodox theology or Aristotelianism directly into Thomistic theology. But that being said, it remains true that Calvin chose a different cultural/philosophical context for the New Testament than did the early church, and as a result his theology took a rather different trajectory than classic Christian theology.

Is Calvin’s emphasis on predestination, lack of free will, and human bondage to sin a necessary conclusion from scripture or a particular reading of a naked text subtly shaped by Stoic fatalism? The Calvinists would say it’s directly from scripture. The Roman Catholics can’t find that “radical liberal” emphasis (to continue with our theme from the Dutch Renaissance) in scripture and therefore contend that Calvin was reading Greek philosophy into scripture as a result of his new scientific emphasis at the expense of the proper cultural setting of the Bible.

So, when G.K. Chesterton claims that Calvinism took away the freedom from man, and subsequently scientific materialism bound the Creator Himself, this connection between scientific Christianity and scientific materialism is self-evident (to Chesterton). Calvinism, and especially traditional Calvinism, would argue that the Reformation didn’t take anything away from man because scripture teaches that man didn’t have any freedom in the first place, it was all an illusion. On that point, I’ll let the Catholics and the Calvinists sort it out.

What is visible in the Chesterton quote is this great divide. Chesterton, the conservative Roman Catholic, sees Protestantism as a radical liberalizing force. The Calvinists, on the other hand, tend to view Chesterton as a reactionary conservative. It’s an illustration of (to use an old canard) two ships passing in the night.

Liberalism: That (Somewhat) Old Time Religion

My recent post quoting Chesterton raised some eyebrows at CHA. Chesterton, being Roman Catholic, viewed human freedom rather differently than Protestants. To me that goes without saying, so I didn’t say it. Some readers thought that maybe I should have. As I tried to say something about Protestants and Chesterton, I realized that my perspective on Protestantism is almost certainly far different than most of my Protestant readers. This has led to a series of essays. The first is about John Calvin and the Renaissance, and the conservative tradition which Calvin critiqued, argued with, and finally rejected. It is in that broad context that I will “say something” about Chesterton, Calvin, and human freedom.

But this essay raises the question of what the words “conservative” and “liberal” mean in the post-Enlightenment world. I have come to realize that both American politics and Protestantism are foundationally and inherently liberal endeavors. So in the second essay I ask the question, “Is conserving the liberal beliefs and attitudes from the past a species of conservatism or liberalism?” I believe those who seek to conserve a fundamentally liberal endeavor remain liberals. This means that so-called conservative or evangelical denominations (such as the Presbyterian Church in America or the Bible Church) are not classically conservative at all; they just want to remain classically liberal rather than become progressively liberal.

Accusing the Bible Church of liberalism … well, those are fighting words. So in the third essay I outline four marks of the Protestant Church that identify it as part of the Classical Liberal tradition. Classical Liberalism is usually associated with the intellectual children of Thomas Hobbes and his social contract theory. The conservative reactions within Protestantism (and American politics for that matter) don’t seek to overthrow this Classical Liberal tradition; rather they seek to return to a more primitive form of that Liberalism. These conservative Protestants, therefore, remain liberal. They’re just not progressively liberal.

And somewhere along the line in these essays I a make a confession that I’ll reiterate here: I probably ought to be a conservative, but in my heart of hearts I am a Liberal individualist (probably even a Hobbesian Liberal Individualist). I don’t believe that squares very well with my Christian faith, but it makes me a good American, by golly! Someday maybe I’ll grow out of it. But for now, I find these essays to be rather disconcerting.

Happy Bach Sing Day (Dec 26)

Today’s high was only 11°, which is a record. But nobody’s going to notice our record cold weather because they’re having a blizzard out where they make up the news — New York City and Washington, where the news headquarters are.

I have an industrial strength parka that I bought in Alaska, but it’s a bit too warm to wear if the temp is above 0°, so I just layered up with my ordinary clothing when I went out and was quite comfortable.

Mostly I spent the day indoors. I puttered around the house singing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, since today is “Bach Sing Day” (something we don’t bother with here in the U.S., but it’s a rather big deal in Great Britain and the Commonwealth — having now taught  high school World Cultural Geography, I know these things). Bach gets tedious after awhile, so I’ll probably switch to Lennon and McCartney tomorrow.

Twas the Day before Christmas in the Holy Land

I’m sure you remember the old story about a contest to draw a picture about peace. Entries included a pastoral scene of cows in a meadow with puffy clouds in a blue sky and a baby sleeping in a mother’s arms, but the winner was a bird sitting on her nest singing, except the nest was built in the gap behind a raging water fall.

This photo is from the BBC “Day in Pictures” of a West Bank protest against Israeli abuses was taken yesterday (Christmas Eve) in the Holy Land and in a similar way gets to the very heart of the Christmas message, “peace on earth to men of good will.”

I didn’t post it yesterday because I thought it would be viewed as a cynical commentary on the season. But it’s not cynical at all when Nativity is understood for what it is and what it is not.

Christmas has been reduced to a holiday of family, friends, and good cheer. At the same time it has been inflated into the most public of public holidays proclaiming quixotic hopes in things that we ought not place our hope. “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace; when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it” (Ezek. 13:10).

It is whitewash to reduce it to such trivial sensibilities nor inflate it to such grandiose proportions.

We humans, because of our sin, are at war with ourselves, and therefore at war with God and at war with each other. Christmas didn’t remove that reality, only offer an unexpected solution. What ought we to expect with such a state of affairs? That God would hold us and our puny smoke bombs in derision and ultimately lower the boom. Isn’t this what the Psalmist (Psalm 2) says?

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

But here we are on Christmas Day, and there’s no “sore displeasure,” no “wrath” at least not in the manner we might expect.

Christmas, however, reminds us that God looked kindly upon us,  first when He created us, second when He blessed and harbored us, and third when He came and dwelt among us us. (Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, from his Christmas letter)

Neither was this remarkable turn of events, this overturning of expectations, public; it occurred in the secrecy of a cave among the beasts rather than in front of the media lights. “Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away…” (Sticheron at the Royal Hours of the Nativity Feast).

Our “redemption draweth nigh,” but the world doesn’t stop with bated breath to find out what will happen. The nations rage, the people imagine a vain thing (Literally, an “empty thing,” like being home for Christmas, silver bells, merry gentlemen, and sugar plums dancing around one’s dreams … all vanity, or emptiness, compared to the immeasurable fullness of the incarnation), the sin-sick world continues to muck about in its self-centered angst.

Christmas, the celebration of the Word made flesh to dwell among us, is amazing because it occurs in the midst of protests, and smoke bombs, and IEDs, and FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), in the midst of sorrow and sickness, death of loved ones and depression because the world is not perfect.

Christmas is the “joyeux noel” precisely because God did not come in his wrath to vex us at his displeasure for all that the above photo represents. Instead, he came to participate in this brokenness so that it might be truly and finally healed from the inside out. No garland-ladened trees, nor spontaneous Hallelujah Choruses at the mall … rather, God became man so that we might become the children of the Father participating in His Son in the same fullness that His Son participated in us and our raging predicament.

Don’t fool yourself: The cattle may be lowing, but all is not calm; all is not bright. Rather everything has changed so that our rage, our vanity, our seasonal blues, and our frenetic emptiness, can all be cast off and we can be swaddled in the light and life of the universe … if we but do as Mary did, and allow God to work his quiet miracle: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Only such surrender will ever make Christmas merry.

Back Home

I got back to Sioux City from Mississippi last night. The trip was uneventful. I ran into on-and-off snow starting at the rest area between Kansas City and St Joseph all the way to Omaha. It was just a skiff so it didn’t cause any problems.

It did bring back bad memories. That stretch of road right around St. Joseph seems to attract wet snow and ice. There were a few times that I had close calls along that stretch of I-29 when I was trucking. The only spot that was consistently worse (that I drove regularly) was U.S. 75 in Minnesota.

Speaking of trucking, I didn’t see one Keim truck this whole trip. (I drove for Keim TS when I was trucking.) Since their headquarters are just west of St. Joe, I always see a few of them in the area between St. Joe and Harrisonville, MO. Their website is still up so I assume they’re still in business.

I did see loads of lumber coming out of Harrisonville, two Maverick trucks hauling sheet rock through K.C. (that almost certainly came from Blue Rapids, KS), and a load of steel getting onto the interstate at St. Joe, and those items are the heart and soul of Keim’s business. (Oh yeah, another bad memory — hours of waiting for my load at the steel mill in St. Joseph. Those loads always messed up the weekly paycheck!)

Anyway, it’s good to be home … and it’s good not to be tarping a load of sheet rock in a sleet storm in Blue Rapids.

Spiritual Freedom

Note: tedium alert!

I am reading Chesterton and have diligently avoided quoting him because I generally find those moments when people are quoting Chesterton to be tedious. So, today I break my rule. (This is from Orthodoxy, ch. 8, “The Romance of Orthodoxy,” by the way, #1855 or so in the Mobi format edition).

The Catholic Church believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the “liberal theologians.”

School’s Out (almost)

Quarter finals – marking the end of my semester at CHA – begin today. I will be heading back to Nebraska at the end of the week. Brenda and I will be returning to Port Gibson in January for some family business, so my time here isn’t quite finished, but my stint as a school teacher is, for now.

So, what did I think? First, I suspect one can’t get a good education at the high school level in a class larger than twenty. My largest class was fourteen and that was too large to provide any real personalized help; more than a dozen, and teaching is reduced to classroom management unless all the students are very similar in academic ability. Second, I suspect my fundamental weakness as a teacher is that I loved school. The cadet’s blasé attitude is so foreign to me I have no real sense of how to overcome it.

Third, our educational system sets up an unfortunate dichotomy between classwork, sports, social activities, etc. I had students who missed class once a week or more for nearly a whole quarter, which drove me nuts as a teacher. But I would be the last to say that sports or social activities should be secondary to education. Contemporary education (which mirrors contemporary society) so bifurcates our lives that well-rounded wholeness is nearly impossible. This is probably an argument for some sort of home schooling or education that uses a tutor system rather than a class room system. But I have no idea what that might look like. (I think the current home schooling options are not particularly good, based on my limited experience.)

Will I pursue full accreditation as a teacher? I doubt it, although the jury is still out on that one. I would enjoy teaching in the right setting, but I suspect I would truly hate it in the real life settings that would be available to me. It seems foolish to spend the time and money necessary to become accredited at something I would hate.

Satisfyingly Ordinary

[After quoting the book (in the previous post), it seemed a proper book review was in order:]

I just finished reading Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams that was reprinted by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 2006. It has been getting excellent reviews by people who matter to me, so I too read it. The prose is beautiful – quite frankly, remarkable. Many authors have the ability to weave a good story. Very few are true wordsmiths. Very few take the time to craft every sentence of every paragraph so that each is a thing of chiseled beauty. Williams is such a craftsman.

The book is about … Well, I will allow William Stoner (the main character) describe it:

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought.

What else? “What did you expect?” he asked himself.

His life wasn’t a failure; rather it was human. But we all imagine our lives to be exceptional, and from that point of view the quotidian life seems a failure. Williams has the knack for telling us of the foibles, failings, half-sacrifices, and whole-hearted sins of ordinary people and making it interesting. Most novels are about people who are somehow extraordinary and are thus, somehow, less than human, because we humans are, after all, rather ordinary. Maybe these characters are beautiful, or an outstanding spy, or a genius, or brilliantly evil, or by accident of fate live in extraordinary times … But whatever their characteristic, it is nearly always remarkable. And it is the remarkable that the novel remarks on; it is the remarkable that makes the novel interesting. Stoner is remarkable precisely because there is nothing remarkable about him. He is an ordinary, if somewhat above average college professor. His great moral victory (for which he pays dearly) is really a rather ordinary and stubborn stand on academic principal. His great moral failure (for which he pays dearly) is an unremarkable affair with a co-ed. And the affair, if not forgivable, is certainly understandable because he had already squandered the potential of his marriage and family life, although that was only partially his fault.

In short, there is little to say about such an ordinary life with such ordinary failures and even more ordinary victories. And John Williams says it with clarity, precision, and such beauty that I didn’t want to set the book down.