What I Loved about Leo Ribuffo

Bruce Kuklick captures it superbly:

As I grew close to Leo over the years, I saw more and more how much of him was shaped by hostility to social and economic status. He saidabout his own essays: Never underestimate spite as an engine of intellectual achievement. He was infuriated by “the cronyism” of leading figures in the history profession, their self-aggrandizement and careerism dressed up in the fake language of meritocracy. One of Leo’s mantras went: “My Uncle Tony” had a more “nuanced” view of race relations in the United States than all the liberal historians writing on the topic.He wrote a scathing attack on me at one point, claiming that my views about the profession reflected “an educational background and academic career spent entirely at elite universities.” In his last days he talked about organizing a session at the 2019 USIH conference that would get old-fart intellectual historians to talk about the field in the 1970s. He absolutely refused to consider several prominent historians whom he judged as well-to-do and orthodox net-workers. About Washington, D.C., he said many times words to this effect: “I associate with lawyers, assistant secretaries of some agency or other, national security talking-heads, Clinton partisans waiting for work. Many are my friends. But I don’t like the class.” While his kindness and self-knowledge allowed him to value the individual, he forever felt alien from an upper crust.

No nudity or foul words, but being with Leo was as invigorating as watching The Wire.

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America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

Was Francis Schaeffer an Intellectual?

The latest comment in the very Protestant discussion of why we don’t have Christian intellectuals anymore like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray comes from Jake Meador on the merits of Francis Schaeffer who even attracted a story from Time magazine (though he did not make it on to the cover).

Time‘s description of Schaeffer, however, tells us something about how things had changed during the 12 years between Niebuhr’s cover and Schaeffer’s. In 1960, Time presents Schaeffer as a missionary to the intellectuals, which he no doubt was. But this assumes that Christianity needs missionaries to the intellectuals because the intellectuals are no longer Christian. What had been conflict within the intellectual community 13 years before when they reported on CS Lewis has become an attempt to witness to the intellectual community by 1960. This suggests, in one sense, that Jacobs is right—the Christian public intellectual is dead by 1960, which is why Schaeffer was needed.

I wasn’t reading Time in 1960 but fifteen years later I was reading Schaeffer and the better description of the apologist is not as missionary to intellectuals but missionary to would-be intellectuals. That is, Schaeffer was great for kids who had lost their faith and wanted to talk about the films of Bergman or the novels of Camus. Schaeffer was even more effective for young believers like me for taking the lid off subjects not so much forbidden as ignored. All of a sudden, Schaeffer seemed to make it possible for evangelicals who were so culturally marginal never to have heard of C.S. Lewis to entertain ideas about the arts and sciences, movies and trees, and even politics (DOH! That’s where it all breaks down). In other words, Schaeffer inspired as neo-Calvinists so often do. But when it came to the contents of his arguments, chances are that intellectuals weren’t impressed because Christian professors (who might qualify as intellectuals), the ones who grew up inspired by Schaeffer (like mmmeeeEEEE) weren’t so impressed with the scholarship that underwrote Schaeffer’s arguments.

I myself am not so troubled by the loss of Christian intellectuals because having read Niebuhr and Murray (for a current project) I can’t say that their arguments stand up so well. Whose do? Not many. But what Niebuhr and Murray may have gained in public recognition, they may have lost in faithfulness to their traditions. Niebuhr was by many confessional Protestants’ lights a liberal Protestant. And Roman Catholics today still wonder if Murray sold out Roman Catholic teaching to American political norms. And for what it’s worth, a 2k Protestant is happy to take guidance from non-Christian intellectuals on public life. To insist that public life needs Christian input is a soft, even fluffy, version of a theonomic desire for Christians running things, or at least a Eusebian desire to be part of the establishment.

Meador ends by likening Schaeffer to Tim Keller:

Of course, it’s not all so bleak as that. If we wish to go in the direction Jacobs is outlining and try to identify publicly recognized Christians translating the faith into terms the public square can understand while remaining orthodox, there are some examples.

You could easily argue that both Tim Keller and Russell Moore are doing that well in their own ways. Keller’s Reason for God was a best-seller and he lives in and pastors a church in Manhattan. Moore, meanwhile, has been in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post and is deeply engaged in many of the pressing social questions of the day, particularly on issues of racism and sexuality. . . .

Valuable as their work is (and I have enormous respect and gratitude for both men!), the best either can hope to achieve on a cultural level is helping to move us away from apocalypse and toward cultural dhimmitude. That isn’t meant as a criticism of either man, to be clear, nor is it to underscore the work they are doing. There are many people who have met Jesus thanks to the ministry of Keller and we should never forget how significant that is.

Bringing people to Christ is not the same as being a missionary to intellectuals. For that reason it may be useful to remember the review that Bruce Kuklick, an accomplished intellectual historian of Protestant background but agnostic outlook, wrote on Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in the Fall 2008 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal:

The editors of the NTJ asked me to review this book. Readers have heralded it, he said, as a sophisticated body blow to secularism, but maybe the author is only talking to the already converted. What did I think?

Keller serves as the astoundingly successful pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. Presbyterian readers of NTJ will forgive me if I say he reminds me of a latter-day Henry Ward Beecher, an effective exponent of Christian ideas to a prosperous northeastern urban audience looking for guidance in the modern world. The book exemplifies the more or less systematic exposition of Reformed Protestantism that Keller’s sermons present, and that he promotes in his ministry.

But no matter what the blurbs from Publishers Weekly and New York magazine tell us, Keller writes not as a thinker but as a clergyman. The book is not designed for careful, logical scrutiny, and going to church differs from sitting in a philosophy seminar. As Keller describes his parishioners, they are good people, sometimes in some mild distress, most often decayed Protestants looking for counsel. But they are not interested in honing their cognitive skills by taking a course in The Critique of Pure Reason or reading David Hume on religion, or even emotionally mastering Kierkegaard on faith or Karl Barth on Pauline Christianity. Their frequent social locus in the American Christian tradition means that Keller does not have to start from scratch with them. The book supposes a basic familiarity with Protestant ideas and the notion that western Christianity has something exceptional going for it. Keller is not exactly preaching to the choir, but he is not lecturing in an international classroom to people with serious intellectual doubts, nor is he straining for truth. Keep Beecher front and center.

Let me give one extended example, which is to me is decisive, and decisive about a fundamental issue. Toward the end of the volume Keller takes up the question of miracles, and in particular the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Keller, and I think for any good Christian, Jesus had really to have been dead and to have come back to life. What is it to believe such a thing? Keller, it seems to me, simply does not deliberate perceptively here. He begins by telling us what he thinks stands in the way of such belief: the presumption that miracles never happen, an outlook that “short circuits” our investigation. But, he argues next, we can’t elucidate everything else that took place later after the resurrection unless we acknowledge the miracle of the resurrection itself. How do we account for all the witnesses? How do we explain the entirely unexpected series of events? How do we come to grips with a brand new set of commitments and a hitherto unthinkable point of view – not foretold or expected by any ancient culture – except on the hypothesis that the resurrection is true? Perhaps more important, how are we to understand the explosive expansion of this new Christian world view? It only could have triumphed if people were transformed by their engagement with some extraordinary truths. Big things, Keller concludes, can only be caused by big things.

Can we accept this approach? In considering whether we are to believe in a miraculous event, we need to recall two factors. First we look at the evidence in favor of an event’s occurring, usually the credibility of testimony. Second we consider the unusualness of the event that the evidence requires us to accept as occurring. The stranger the event, the stronger must be the evidence that it has occurred. A miracle overthrows what I call “laws of nature.” They are propositions about our universal experience, the regularity of our sense perception, that enable us to predict with confidence the occurrence of one event after the occurrence of another. People don’t walk on water, change water to wine, or rise from the dead. If you jump off a bridge, you fall into water; if you have club soda in a can, the twelve ounces of it will come out into a cup; if someone dies, the body decays. We must weigh what is more likely to be false when it is said that a miracle has occurred. Is the testimony mistaken or has a law of nature been abrogated?

To allow for the possibility of miracles, we need only be open to experience. A law of nature cannot proscribe miracles; all it need do is to warn us of their rarity and of what is involved in asserting that they have come about. That is, sufficient testimony might overthrow a prima facie overriding adherence to a law of nature, and the regularity of experience. We can imagine scenarios where we would be obliged to believe that laws of nature have been violated, that something inexplicable in ordinary natural terms has occurred.

But reports of religious miracles have a notorious unreliability – even the Roman Catholic Church tells us that. In all times and places, we have had interested and credulous observers eager to persuade others of the veracity of their peculiar convictions. Provincial self-serving witnesses have repeatedly tried to impose ridiculous stories on our stock of ideas. Over and over religious miracles have come to be rejected. Again and again we find the quality of testimony suspect and never near to meeting the standards of credibility needed to overthrow a natural law. In fact, uniformity exists in the failings themselves: when someone proclaims a religious miracle, we regularly find biased testifiers, a lack of subsidiary evidence, suspicious circumstances. We have available far simpler explanations, and so on.

Put it another way: if we accept the miracles of Jesus, we have good reason to accept others that have more or less indistinguishable support. For example, Keller needs to think about how his privileged supernatural events compare with those promoted by the Mormons. If you already believe Jesus is a special guy, the resurrection is easy to swallow. But if you don’t have that belief in the first place, I don’t see how you make Jesus’ supernatural doings unique. I have two choices: between rejecting religious miracles and accepting the legitimacy of laws of nature; or accepting a lot of the miracles and rejecting laws of nature. We have Jesus arising from the dead, Muhammad touring heaven and hell with Gabriel, and Moroni delivering the golden tablets.

You pay a high price by believing in the Christian miraculous, and are on a slippery slope. You can’t rule out the miracles of any of the “major” religions. You also give license to the existence of zombies and vampires, who are after all, let us remember, first cousins to the resurrection. You are on your way to an environment populated by demons, ghosts, and weird apparitions; bleeding statues, the blind seeing, pictures flying from walls, and devils being exorcised; oracles, dreams with the force of predictions, the dead walking, or talking to us; dolls with pins stuck in them. And god knows what else. You give credence to a world where any sort of unnaturally caused events might occur. Our experience then does not much guide us. We can’t reason much about matters of fact, since we would have a universe in which at any moment we could not rely on the evidence of our senses and not have much of an inkling of how events hooked up.

I don’t expect Keller to deal with this sort of complicated chain of reasoning in his sermons, or even in The Reason for God. Nor do I expect him to be convinced by this group of arguments, however telling they are once one has discarded the veil of conventional respect for our regional Protestant traditions. But in writing his book, he is trying to do more than offer comfort — he is supposed to be sketching a rational account of matters, and his chapter on miracles should not convince anyone who is perplexed by fundamentals. He never takes a hard look at this issue, or others like it.

Undoubtedly I am making too heavy a demand on this volume. But Presbyterians who want to go after skeptics need to keep in mind the different social roles of the Beechers and Kellers of this world and a Machen.

That doesn’t undermine the value of Keller’s work. But intellectual life is a whole lot more demanding than getting noticed by Time magazine or the New York Times.

The Less Worthy Bits of Puritanism

Maybe I am not philosophically inclined. Maybe I am too American and hence of a pragmatic frame of mind. Maybe I like cats too much. But if I owned a gun I would reach for it whenever theologians and pastors enter into realms speculative.

One of the areas of study I teach most prone to speculation is the way that theologians and philosophers relied on faculty psychology as if the will, motivation, choice, and affections are as easy to spot as the genitalia of an unborn child through a sonogram, or as if Sigmund Freud’s popularity owed to the ease of curing psychological woes.

Here’s an example of the murky realm surrounding faculty psychology upon which Puritans spilled so much ink:

Edwards’s psychology assimilated affections and will, motive and choice. The will (choice) was as the greatest apparent good (motive). Motive was choice or volition. Action followed choice, in appropriate circumstances, because God as the efficient cause, although human motive or volition might occasion action. (Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers, 100)

But get this. Not everyone agreed with Edwards, like Nathaniel Taylor:

Taylor’s psychology differed. For him, motives were distinct from choice or volition, and volition caused action. Taylor’s psychology was tripartite, consisting of the affections, will, and understanding; Edwards’s was dual, consisting of the affections (emotions/will) and understanding. (Kuklick, 100)

Is anyone willing to stake salvation on any of these — wait for it — speculations? Or is this plain as day?

But for Puritans, such speculations were part and parcel of the self-reflection that secured assurance of salvation:

Religious experience — in particular, conversion — involved a process which engaged all the faculties of the soul, but which was most deeply rooted in the affections. And the experience, whether in conversion or in the worship that followed, was one in which the believer acted, and was not just acted upon, in virtually every phase. . . . In the early stages of the process of conversion the Holy Spirit drew the chose to Christ, given that the man affected had been elected to receive what [Richard] Mather called the grace of faith (a phrase with Thomistic implications). Mather agreed with most Puritan divines that a man who had been consigned to Hell might experience the same feelings that gripped a saint in the first steps of conversion. . . . At this point the sinner becomes aware of his helplessness; and emptied of his pride he is ready for the knowledge of Christ, a knowledge that the law cannot convey. Comprehending this knowledge is the responsibility of reason, or understanding, but not exclusively so if the whole soul is to be renewed. . . . The knowledge must “affect” them in such a way that they approve and love it. At this point with all the faculties deeply informed, and moved, the grace of faith is infused by the Lord into the soul. (Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers, 64-65)

And your scriptural text is?

I understand the great debt that modern day psychology owes to Puritan speculations about the inner gears of the soul. But is that where Reformed Protestants with the Puritan fetish really want the legacy of Puritanism to go? Can John Piper generate enough earnestness to make any of this comprehensible?

Revivalist or Metaphysician?

Marilyn Robinson (thanks to our virtuous commonwealth correspondent) joins the New Calvinists in claiming Jonathan Edwards as her homeboy. Along the way she makes one significant concession:

The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.

It does make you wonder if the New Calvinists get their Calvinism from Edwards whether they have found the genuine article.

But Robinson is not really concerned with John Piper or Tim Keller — can you believe it? She writes to explain how Edwards’ philosophical theology informed her w-w as it were:

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

This kind of insight leads Robinson to discount Edwards’ revivalism as mainly a circumstance of his time but not something that should make him known primarily as a preacher of hell-fire. I concede that Edwards was the rare revivalist, by twentieth-century standards. Who could imagine Billy Graham or Billy Sunday engaging Foucault and trying to come up with a justification for original sin? At the same time, revivalist achievements may have been higher in the age before mass communication. Think Charles Grandison Finney as a professor of moral philosophy and president of Oberlin College. Revivalism was not necessarily opposed to intellectual pursuits.

At the same time, Bruce Kuklick’s encounter with the apocalyptic Edwards should perhaps have guarded Robinson from an overly intellectual reading of Edwards — an interpretation that is, by the way, more congenial with her church, the United Church of Christ, yes the communion of Winthrop, Nevin, Niebuhr, Jeremiah Wright, and President Obama:

A scream of an owl at night represented to Edwards the misery of devils residing in eternal darkness. In 1745, the Catholic French defenders of Cape Breton, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrendered to their Protestant English attackers. Edwards wrote that the surrender was “a dispensation of providence, the most remarkable in its kind, that has been in many ages.” It was for him a portent of what was to come. The biblical book of Revelation taught Edwards that the Roman papacy was the anti-christian force of the Antichrist that would fall in 1866, presaging a glorious time for the true church that would begin about 2000. These examples are not random—they are bits of reasoning that I can at least grasp; they are the tip of a far more mysterious premodern iceberg.

Confronting this material is paradoxical and perplexing. One is able to appreciate the technical philosophy of a thinker as a manifestation of abstract intelligence. Simultaneously, one can see that the lived world of a thinker is as limited, peculiar, and foolish as one’s own. As a Calvinist colleague of mine has suggested, Edwards’s understanding of his connection to the immediate world around him is no more or less reasonable than that of Linda Tripp when she declared it to be her “patriotic duty” to expose the relation between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To put my concern another way, reading volume 15 and pondering its implications, I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought. (Bruce Kuklick, “Edwards for the Millennium,” Religion and American Culture, 2001)

I have no dog in this fight. Edwards is so yesterday.