Spirituality for Broken Public Discourse

Basil

In the spirit of my recent post “Rules of Engagement,” I want to call your attention to Nicholas Denysenko‘s piece on spirituality and public discourse in the recent issue of The Cresset.  I read it last night and found it useful and inspiring.  Here is a taste of “Engaging My Opponent“:

Throughout history, Christians have attempted to apply Jesus’s teachings as rules for communal living and engagement with the other. These examples occur in a variety of contexts, from Cappadocian monks in late antiquity to twentieth-century laity responding to dangerous ideologies.

One early example is the philosopher, bishop, and ascetic known as Basil the Great (330-379). In the Christian world, Basil is beloved because of the prayers attributed to him, his theological family ties (having an equally gifted brother and a saintly sister), his theological treatises that became the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and his ascetical writings. Instructive for our purposes is Basil’s homily on humility. The context of this homily suggests that Basil was addressing people who lived in the late-antique city. Basil critiques those who indulge in the glory and honor that comes with political success:

But also because of political honors do men exalt themselves beyond what is due their nature. If the populace confer upon them a distinction, if it honor them with some office of authority, if an exceptional mark of dignity be voted in their favor by the people, thereupon, as though they had risen above human nature, they look upon themselves as well nigh seated on the very clouds and regard the men beneath them as their footstool. They lord it over those who raised them to such honor and exalt themselves over the very ones at whose hands they received their sham distinctions. 
(Basil, trans. Wagner, 476)

Basil seems to be warning those in the public sphere against the kind of elitism that comes with rank or stature in the political hierarchy, and the temptation to view others as simply “their footstool.” Basil describes the steps needed for the exalted to rightfully see themselves and others:

If you appear to have something in your favor, do not, counting this to your credit and readily forgetting your mistakes, boast of your good deeds of today and grant yourself pardon for what you have done badly yesterday and in the past. Whenever the present arouses pride in you, recall the past to mind and you will check the foolish swelling of conceit. If you see your neighbor committing sin, take care not to dwell exclusively on his sin, but think of the many things he has done and continues to do rightly. Many times, by examining the whole and not taking the part into account, you will find that he is better than you. Such reminders as these regarding self-exaltation we should keep reciting constantly to ourselves, demeaning ourselves that we may be exalted, in imitation of the Lord who descended from heaven to utter lowliness and who was, in turn, raised to the height which befitted him. (Basil, trans. Wagner, 483)

Basil proposes an ascetical practice that speaks directly to the kind of exaltation to which one enjoying a high rank might be prone. Recalling one’s past errors can help one avoid the temptation to exalt one’s self and treat others like a footstool. Basil employs hyperbole when he suggests that we are to demean ourselves, but the point of adopting this habit is twofold: to learn how to see good in one’s interlocutor, and to adopt the pattern of Christ himself. Our descent into utter lowliness is not for self-torture. Rather, it is to follow the pattern of Christ, whose lowliness was in service to others. The two practices work together: we find fault in ourselves first to confront our own ugliness; only then is one able to see that the person one engages is, in fact, naturally good.

Cultivating the habit of humility is designed to be relational and dialogical. In a longer passage, Basil advises hearers to be modest in all ways of life, to avoid embellishment of speech, and to be “free from pomposity” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). Adopting a habit of modesty in the way that we talk and think of ourselves leads to new ways of dialoguing with others. Basil offers simple instructions: “Be obliging to your friends, gentle toward your slaves, forbearing with the forward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). He goes on to instruct his hearers to avoid even listening into a conversation involving gossip; adopting the habit of attending to one’s own sin sharpens the senses of seeing others and dialoguing with them. One learns how to act with radical charity toward the other through practice, but the root of this action is pursuing humility and refusing to exalt one’s self, reserving that praise and glorification for God alone.

Read the entire piece here.

Lasch-Quinn on Cultivating an “Inner Life”

discipline

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).

Solitude and the Christian Historian

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Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz riffs on my piece on intellectual loneliness by suggesting that loneliness, and even solitude, may be a good thing for Christians.

Here are a few snippets from his post “The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian“:

To varying degrees, I’ve felt several of these lonelinesses myself at various points. And this might not be unique to historians, academics, or evangelical Christians. I wonder if fear of loneliness isn’t helping to produce polarization in American society, as people seem so desperate to belong to ever-smaller groups that they’d rather conform to ever-longer lists of intersecting membership criteria than risk one of John’s lonelinesses….

What if disciplined study of the past enabled us to do like Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and many contemplatives since and, in Dallas Willard’s terms, “[choose] to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.” In the process, he argues, we interrupt “patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God” and start to develop a “freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 160)…. (Here Chris copies an extended quote from Foster on the difference between “loneliness” and “solitude.”)

I need to think more on this notion, but it seems possible that the discipline of history can foster a spiritually healthy isolation. By temporarily stranding ourselves outside of our own time and entering what A. G. Sertillanges (another recent topic of John’s) called a “laboratory of the spirit,” Foster thinks that we not only cultivate a “deeper, fuller exposure to [God’s] Presence” but gain “increased sensitivity and compassion for others… a new freedom to be with people… new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (pp. 108-109).

Read the entire post here.

History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

College-classroom

My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.