Episode 77: The Art of Living

How shall we live? Where do we find the resources for living well? In this episode, historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn examines the reappearance of ancient philosophical thought in contemporary American culture. She argues that we need to take back philosophy as part of our everyday lives as a means for piecing together a coherent moral framework for democratic life. Her recent book is Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living.

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We have some big changes in the works for 2021. I can’t say anything yet, but it’s going to be huuuuge!  Stay tuned.

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Small Business Saturday at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

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The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not really a small business, but we do offer services to the general public that we believe are essential for our life as citizens in a democracy.

As more and more of you are checking-in during this critical election year, I want to remind everyone that if you like what we do here–both in terms of the daily blogging and the podcast–please consider supporting our work.

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We have some big changes in the works for 2021. I can’t say anything yet, but it’s going to be huuuuge! 🙂 Stay tuned.

We are also recording new podcast episodes. In this season we have heard from Lorri Glover on Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Peter Manseau on the Jefferson Bible, Paul Harvey on Howard Thurman, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on the “art of living.” And we are only beginning!

And yes, mugs and signed books are still available for patrons!

Did I mention you can click here to become a patron? You can be a patron for as low as $1 a month!

And for our loyal patrons: THANK YOU for your ongoing support!

Critiquing Liberalism

BerryMap

A map of Wendell Berry’s Port William

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Jeff Bilbro has a fascinating and brilliant review of a conference at Calvin College titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.”

Here is a taste:

In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

Deneen’s book is a tour-de-force.  Berry, of course, is a prophet. 🙂  Both offer powerful critiques of liberalism.  It seems like their arguments and the implications of their arguments need to be engaged with something more than just an appeal to liberalism’s defense of oppressed groups.  I think we need less, not more, of this kind of identity politics, especially when it comes to any discussion about the future of democracy and the common good.  (And I include white identity politics in all of this, which is one of the reasons I  am such a critic of Trump).  Bilbro, Deneen, and Berry are drawing us to things that affect all of us as human beings–environmental degradation (and its impact on the poor), the destruction of places and local economies, the decline in vibrant communities defined by loving one’s neighbor over self-interest, and the “sorting of society between winners and losers,” to name a few. (Of course such universal human appeals like the ones I mentioned above are also part of the Enlightenment liberal project.  This is complicated).

Once could look at this another way.  Bilbro names conference speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, and Kristin Du Mez who “defended liberalism’s promises of equality of freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism increasingly failed to deliver on these promises.”  I was not at the conference, but I have read Du Mez’s paper (which is linked in Bilbro’s essay).  If liberalism has been so successful, then why is it necessary for Du Mez to ask “where are the women?”  I am sure Du Mez would respond to this question by saying that the work of liberalism is not yet done.  Or perhaps she would point to some of the limits of liberalism.  But it does sound like she believes that the liberal democratic order is still the best hope of progress for women and other oppressed groups.  And there’s the rub.  Bilbro, Deneen, Berry (and I would add others like Geneva College’s Eric Miller, Syracuse’s Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, or Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams to this list) do not think liberalism is, ironically, our best path forward.

Read Bilbro’s piece here.

Reflections on the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

The 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is over.  As program chair, I spent most of the weekend pinch-hitting for folks who were unable to come and making sure our plenary speakers were comfortable.  This is what program chairs do.  If I passed you in the hallway at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College and did not stop to chat please forgive me.  I hope we can catch-up soon.

I wanted to blog a lot more than I did this weekend.  I got off to a good start on Thursday night, but then fell silent.  If you want to learn all the cool things that happened this weekend check out the conference Twitter feed: #cfh2018.  I am sure Chris Gehrz will eventually have a wrap-up post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Here are some of my highlights:

On Friday morning I chaired Session 12: “Christian Historiography: Kuyper, Ellul and O’Donovan.”  As I listened to Richard Riss’s excellent paper on Jacques Ellul, I realized that I should have read more of this French philosopher as I prepared to write Believe Me.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University.  Elisabeth’s plenary address, “The Art of Living, Ancient and Modern,” challenged us to consider the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus as a way of countering the therapeutic culture of modern life.  Lasch-Quinn pushed us to move beyond the pursuit of the “good life” and consider what it might mean to live a “beautiful life.”

Lasch Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn delivers here Friday afternoon keynote address

Following Lasch -Quinn’s lecture and before the evening banquet, I got to spend time with my favorite Calvin College history major

Ally at CFH

Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University is the new president of the Conference on Faith and History and the organization’s second female president.   Her presidential plenary drew heavily on medieval sermons on the roles of women in the Church as a way of thinking about the place of women in the today’s church and the Conference on Faith and History.  She encouraged the conference to respect the past and move toward the future by listening to the voices of the record number of women in attendance.

Barr

Beth Allison Barr delivering her 2018 presidential address

On Friday evening, I got together with some old friends at a Grand Rapids funeral home that has been converted into a bar and grill.  As you see from the photo below, much of the stained glass from the funeral home chapel was preserved.

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With Eric Miller (Geneva College), Jay Green (Covenant College), and Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)

Saturday began with a panel on Messiah College’s Civil Rights bus tour.  It was a great session and it made me proud to be part of Messiah’s work in the area of racial reconciliation.  It was also a privilege to chair a session with three of my Messiah colleagues.  Next time I won’t put them at 8:00am. (Sorry guys!)

After the Civil Rights session I had coffee with our latest sponsor of The Way of Improvement Leads Home PodcastBob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group.  If you are a community leader, a historical site administrator, or a museum professional, the Lyndhurst Group can help you with your public history outreach.  Bob is a great guy with lot’s of energy, enthusiasm, expertise, and experience. We are so happy that he is sponsoring the podcast.

After the CFH board meeting, I dropped in on Robert Orsi‘s plenary address, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.”  Orsi argued that scholars of religion must learn to pay attention to the relationship between religion and “horrors” such as pogroms, crusades, slavery, racism, misogny, and other “brutalities of everyday life.”  He suggested that “there may come a time when the human being who is also a scholar of religion reaches a limit of disgust.”  Beyond this limit, Orsi argued, “distinctions, qualifications, countervailing evidence, parsings, and other theoretical or hermeneutical subtleties fail.”  Orsi spent most of his time reflecting on “disgust” as a category of analysis in the context of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.  It was a tough session to sit through, but many felt it was necessary.

Orsi at Calvin

Late Saturday afternoon I chaired a session that may have been one of the best CFH panels I have ever attended.  Session 53, titled “Theology and Spirituality in the Doing of History,” included three magnificent papers on the place of love and Christian spirituality in the doing of history.  Wendy Wong Schirmer, a newcomer to the CFH, argued that Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love can help us think Christianly about the historian’s craft.  Brad Pardue of College of the Ozarks talked about how he integrates Christian practices into his history courses.  Mark Sandle of The King’s University (Alberta) delivered a powerful paper on loving the dead in the context of the archives. I hope all three of these papers will be published in Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.

It is not easy putting a 56-session conference together, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Joel Carpenter, Ellen Hekman, Jay Green, Eric Miller, Devon Hearn, and Robin Schwarzmann.  Thank you.  I am now going to take a nap.

Lasch-Quinn on Cultivating an “Inner Life”

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Over Syracuse.com, Syracuse University history professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn calls for a “new inwardness.”  Here is a taste:

We live in an era in which “self-reigns” is supreme. In the era of the selfie, isn’t the problem that too many have been looking within, at the expense of looking outward at the needs of others?

Many do think plenty about themselves–what they want, what they need. But everything from a sustained community life, to enduring personal bonds of love requires caring for others in a way only accessible and renewable by means of an inner life. The: I, Me, Mine mentality derives not from an excess of inwardness, but the exact opposite, the world of externals. The question, “Who Am I?” is answered through image and appearance, as though the question were really, “How Do I Appear to Others?”

In place of self-obsessiveness producing only unhappiness and anxiety and a self-concept dependent on others’ reactions and impressions of us, self-cultivation through spiritual discipline can provide a genuine way forward.

Read the entire piece here.

I am very excited that we have secured Lasch-Quinn as a keynote speaker at the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  (BTW, a call for papers will be out very soon).

The Conference on Faith and History Comes to Grand Rapids in October 2018

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The Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) will be meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from October 4-6, 2018.  This year’s conference theme is “History and the Search for Meaning: The CFH at 50.  Mark your calendars!

I am happy to report that we have secured the following keynote speakers:

Thursday Night Plenary: Peggy Bendroth, Congregational Library—“The Spiritual Practice of Remembering”

Friday Afternoon Plenary: Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Syracuse University—Title TBD

Friday Banquet Speaker: Beth Barr, CFH President

Saturday Morning Plenary: Robert Orsi, Northwestern University, “History and Presence”

I hope to see you all there.  Let’s have a record turnout for our 50th anniversary conference.  Stay tuned.  The Call for Papers will be released in a few months.

Christopher Lasch and Localism

l to r: Fox, Miller, Westbrook, and Lasch-Quinn

Over at his blog In Media Res, Friends University political scientist Russell Arben Fox offers a summary post of a session on Christopher Lasch and localism at a recent Front Porch Republic gathering at SUNY-Geneseo.  The speakers were Eric Miller of Geneva College, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University (and Lasch’s daughter).  According to Fox, the session was tied together by the theme of localism.

Here is a taste of Fox’s post:

In the presentation given by Eric Miller–whose recent biography and exploration of the writings of Lasch is must-reading–the unstated binary in question, it seemed to me, was Lasch’s revolt against the overly confident, secular and liberal progressivism of the mid-20th-century America’s “new class” of professionals, writers, and intellectuals…alongside the fact that, well, that was the class which Lasch was a part of, the class which enabled him (a kid from Omaha) to have access to the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” and the life of the mind. In other words, Lasch’s criticism of the flattening corporate, governmental, and therapeutic gigantism America’s postwar liberal institutions–their lack of democracy, their condescending compassion, their absence of respect for working class and religious ways of life–constituted a populist defense of the local, and yet that very revolt was, for Lasch, justified in light of a more transcendent tribunal: the judgment of civilization, the good life, and (though Lasch himself fought against admitting this) a kind of Christian decency. Lasch knew that the best case for higher things had to made through an embrace of the particular–though the particular, in itself, could only provide the tiniest evidence of the larger and better sensibilities which give it credence. This is the intellectual localist dilemma in a nutshell: the best understanding of why one’s own place and practices ought to be loved and defended involves arguments which partake of something which transcends the local entirely.

Robert Westbrook, a colleague of Lasch’s, reflected on a much more stark binary: how the localist, in bringing into her affections for a place and its practices a sense of ends, makes the quotidian everyday-ness of our lives that much more valuable…and yet there could be no greater expression of narcissism than to fail to accept that our own daily-ness will be superseded by that of others, soon enough. The occasion for this was Lasch’s own early death from cancer, and how he furiously railed (though he later apologized) against those doctors that attempted to turn him, in his words, into a “professional patient.” Westbrook made reference to Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whom Lasch very likely never read, and his understanding that it is the ultimate limit upon our sense of being–that is, our deaths–which makes possible an authentic sense of care. Lasch’s writings and example point localists towards that which has inspired so many poets: the brute fact that our ability to most fully be rooted in and contribute to a community is inextricably tied up with the fact that, it too, is a passing thing.

Finally Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch’s daughter and one of his most skilled literary executors, brought the matter of binaries forward explicitly, choosing to focus on her father’s distinction between “nostalgia” and “memory,” and making a moderate defense of the former, which Lasch had criticized. Her argument that the former can trigger and contribute to the latter found a real-world example in the discussion period afterward, when one student shared the story of a tragic death in his hometown, a death which had led to acts of memorialization which, as time went by, had come to be experienced by the deceased’s family members as a painful act of “mere” nostalgia. The discussion, then, turned to matters of risk. Since nostalgia is a feeling we have for something we’ve loved and lost, any recovery of such things is bound to involve regret and pain, something that will be, inevitably, unevenly experienced across a community. Yet is the alternative to privatize pain entirely? That robs us of one of the primary reasons why localism presents itself as an answer to individualism in the first place. Localism, by making possible the sort of practices which enable real and meaningful connections to emerge between people, also makes possible a critical engagement with memory, thus hopefully preventing it from either turning into a mostly meaningless mass and routine genuflection, or being forgotten entirely.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

Lasch-Quinn

Lasch-Quinn describe her latest visit to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University Of Virginia, an institute run by James Davison Hunter.

But what makes IASC stand out so much for me, what makes it so distinctive, is its conscious guarding against much of what have been the dominant trends of modern academe as well as the larger intellectual climate of our times. To allude to just a few, these trends have included a kind of cv-oriented careerism, an unquestioned assumption that what academic life is about at its root is individual advancement and success conceived of in the narrowest possible terms of the present age, a partitioning of the pursuit of learning into separate fiefdoms with their own small-minded gatekeepers, an emphasis on quantity over quality, the abandonment of the humanistic and democratic aims of education for upscale vocational training for the privileged classes, stultifying bureaucratization and overweening administration, carelessness about style and form, forgetfulness about the public trust, the replacement of the contemplative and the search for meaning and excellence with the functional imperative and profit-seeking, posturing and back-biting in pursuit of personal status rather than collective engagement toward shared purposes, the bracketing of ethical or so-called “normative” concerns–once considered at the very heart of scholarship, teaching, and learning. 

Read the entire piece at U.S. Intellectual History blog.