Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?

GEORGE-WI

Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.

Robert George: The Princeton Professor and Intellectual Advising the GOP Presidential Candidates

Melinda Henneberger has written an excellent feature for Bloomberg Politics on Robert George, one of the great Christian and conservative intellectuals in the United States today.  What I especially appreciate about this article is its fairness. 


George has provided advice on moral issues to Ted Cruz (his former student), Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and others.  Unfortunately, apart from abortion and gay marriage, I don’t hear much of George’s nuanced views when I listen to these candidates.  George is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and one of our foremost advocates for the application of natural law to moral and political issues.  He also hangs out with Cornell West, sees no difference between his views and the views of Pope Francis, thinks poverty is one of the most pressing moral issues of our day, and wishes he could go back to voting as a Democrat.

(He also went to Swarthmore with Way of Improvement Leads Home reader and friend Fred Jordan.  I think they may have even been roommates).

Intrigued?  Then check out Henneberger’s piece.  Here is a small taste:
Among the candidates, his closest relationship may be with Cruz, who was one of his students at Princeton. But starting early next month, George is planning to do a series of hour-long interviews with presidential candidates on moral and constitutional questions on the Catholic cable channel EWTN, which is one reason why he won’t be endorsing any candidate. “My object is to drill down, and find out how their minds work,” even when he’s helped some of those minds think through various issues.
Planned Parenthood, at the center of America’s politics since the release of videos purporting to show employees negotiating over fetal organs, is one matter candidates call him about. “I’ve argued that you cannot try to fund good and honorable activities or services for Planned Parenthood while blocking the bad stuff it does, like abortions, because of the fungibility of money, and that what we need is a complete de-funding of Planned Parenthood, together with mechanisms for providing desirable services to women. So that might be the kind of issue I’d talk to Rick Santorum or anyone else about.”
He doesn’t supply them with rhetorical ammunition, he says, or the exact answer. “What I try to help these guys think through is: What’s the truth of the matter? What should our response be?”
And on Planned Parenthood or any other issue, George doesn’t always say what conservatives want to hear. For example, he feels the makers of the Planned Parenthood sting videos were wrong in one respect: “I defend the videos, and I think the videos tell us the truth about Planned Parenthood, but it’s wrong to lie about who you are to gain access to get to people.”

On Liberty University, Bernie Sanders, and "Coddled" Undergraduates


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This tweet comes from Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.  His tweet raises an interesting question.  Would a conservative speaking at a public university or secular private college receive the same kind of welcome that Bernie Sanders received at Liberty University?

Over at New York Magazine, Jesse Singal notes how Liberty University students “survived the unsafe space created by Bernie Sanders and his pro-choice views.”  She writes:

No one should mistake this for a group of conservative students eagerly flocking to hear a dissenting voice — attendance was mandatory  for everyone who lives on campus, and this is not a school where protesting is welcome.

But it’s still interesting to put this event in context, given what some other university students have done when faced with controversial speakers or events. For example, Emily Yoffe, who has written about the connection between alcohol and sexual assaulthad a speaking offer at a West Coast college rescinded after a student organization told her that her presence would make victims of assault “feel unsafe.” At my alma mater of the University of Michigan, for example, a showing of American Sniper was canceled (though later un-canceled) after students complained that the movie’s depiction of Iraqi Muslims would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” Unsuccessful attempts to get Bill Maher and George Will canceled as speakers at the University of California – Berkeley and Michigan State, respectively, involved similar arguments about creating dangerous-feeling environments. Sometimes the tactic works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s definitely a trend of students arguing that allowing certain speakers to speak poses an emotional risk to some members of the student body.


Without jumping into the broader debate about political correctness, it’s worth pointing out that, if we’re going to buy the theory that the mere presence of a certain type of speaker on campus creates an unsafe space that expands across that campus, bringing the risk of psychological harm to students, Liberty must have been an incredibly unsafe place today. Many, if not most, of its students, after all, deeply and viscerally believe that abortion is murder. And here was a speaker who didn’t agree with them on that — he was, from their point of view, in favor of mass murder. And yet they let him talk respectfully, they asked him questions, and it seemed like everyone was able to have a civil conversation (albeit a mandatory civil conversation).
As of yet, there are no reports of widespread psychological trauma out of Lynchburg.

And I also think it is appropriate to put all of this in the context of Barack Obama’s recent response to the “coddled” college and university students discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic.  Here is the president: