Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 October 2012

In appreciation: Edward Goerner

Some of Edward Goerner's students, including yours truly, have signed onto an expression of appreciation published in Notre Dame Magazine: In Appreciation: Edward Goerner (1929-2012). This brings back many wonderful memories of my time at Notre Dame in the 1980s. Only now do I see how much my own paedagogical manner and even sense of style were influenced by his.

Goerner’s undergraduate political theory course made him something of a legend on campus. It is perhaps impossible to know when he established the contours of his remarkable class, but it soon became finely tuned. Students read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic in that order. On Fridays, teaching assistants would lead students in conversations about case studies that Goerner had devised and refined over the years. These required students and teaching assistants alike to apply what they had learned.

Goerner’s introductory course may have been conducted for undergraduates, but graduate students were perhaps even more its beneficiaries. Comprehensive examinations seemed somehow possible after listening to Goerner dissect three of the greatest texts in the history of political thought. As he awoke in undergraduates the excitement of political theory, he allowed graduate students to glimpse what it meant to master a text — to understand the author’s goals, the era in which it had been written, and to shed accumulated interpretations to confront the text and its philosophical import directly.

If serving as a teaching assistant for Goerner’s introductory class was integral to the preparations and training of so many political theory graduate students, it was also so much more. Mostly, it was an opportunity to see a master at his craft. In appearance and demeanor, Goerner was always orderly, gracious and eloquent with more than a hint of the aristocrat. He dressed impeccably in tweed suits, usually with an ascot. His voice retained the Brooklyn accent of his youth. His manner was all Notre Dame but also part Oxford. Those who judged from his appearance that he was aloof were sorely mistaken. He laughed easily and robustly, had a streak of rascality in him and was open to any idea from any quarter that merited consideration. . . .

A storyteller with a keen sense of history, a vast knowledge of comparative systems and cultures, and a deep, resonant voice, Goerner developed lectures that tugged at the minds and souls of his students. In them, historical detail danced in service of theoretical insight, fact informed value, theater conspired with philosophy. He embodied the intellectual and ethical virtues that he taught, a Christian who lived a life in service of others.

|

26 October 2012

The dabblers' intolerance

A fairly predictable Huffington Post publishes an equally predictable opinion piece by Marilyn Sewell, titled Saying Goodbye to Tolerance. It seems Sewell has had a change of heart, as she recounts below:
I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as "broadminded," and so tend to say things like, "There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs." In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant -- specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.

Mind you, Sewell has not come to a particularly startling conclusion. It's all been said before — many times, in fact. Yet it does underscore, once again, the inevitable divide between a religion that recognizes an authority outside of our own individual wills and one that affirms a vague spirituality eclectically embracing, well, whatever happens to appeal to us at the moment. As it turns out, an eclectic spirituality, indiscriminately drawing on a diversity of incompatible traditions, cannot tolerate a genuine religion claiming that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific communities. The central issue is precisely one of authority. Do we accept an authority transcending our contemporary ethos and cultural prejudices, or are we in effect the authors of our own spirituality, borrowing what we approve and rejecting what we do not approve within these competing authorities?

It is fashionable these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. And why not? The dictionary tells us that the word religion stems from two Latin roots re + ligare, the latter of which means to bind, to tie up. To be religious means to bind oneself to a particular body of beliefs of which one is not the author. It means to accept that one is personally bound to a way of life and faith to which one submits or, more scandalously, to which one has been committed by others, most notably by one's parents or sponsors at baptism.

This binding character of religion is difficult for our contemporaries to make sense of, given the modern predilection for attaching personal obligations to the voluntary principle and the concomitant suspicion of all duties we have not freely assumed. We would prefer to go up to the spiritual smorgasbord, sampling a little of "the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk" without actually becoming a committed Muslim, Native Spiritist, Taoist or earth goddess worshipper. Many of us like to dabble in exotic spiritualities without having to identify with any one of them.

Sewell in no way breaks new ground with her newly discovered penchant for intolerance. Dabblers are compelled by their very dabbling to disdain those who will not dabble and who persist in believing the truth claims of one particular religion. Believing Christians, for example, read the Bible, not as one source of wisdom amongst many others, but as a single story of creation, fall, redemption and ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Taken on its own terms, this biblical story makes a claim on our lives that we dare not relativize for the sake of conforming to the contemporary canons of tolerance. Such purveyors of "tolerance" as Sewell are actually in the grip of an alternate redemptive narrative whose claims are just as exclusive as those of biblical Christianity and whose tiny communities are even more parochial.

Nevertheless, eclectic spirituality ultimately fails to satisfy, precisely because we are not autonomous. We inevitably submit ourselves to some authority because this is what we are created to do. If it is not to the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ, it will be to some other god of our own devising. Yet because this god is as fickle as our own protean personal preferences, it will not ultimately bring the rest that our restless hearts crave.

|

12 October 2012

Pro-life = misogyny?

This story has been picked up by pro-life and Roman Catholic publications but has been largely ignored by the mainstream media here in Ontario: Ontario Official: Catholic Schools Can’t Teach “Misogynistic” Pro-life.
The Education Minister of Ontario, Canada — a professing Catholic who sends her children to Catholic schools — declared October 10 that the province’s publicly funded Catholic schools may not teach students that abortion is wrong because such teaching amounts to “misogyny,” which is prohibited in schools under a controversial anti-bullying law. “Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” Laurel Broten said during a press conference. “Bill 13,” she asserted, “is about tackling misogyny.”

Three comments are in order. First, a provincial education minister lacks the authority to dictate to a church organization what its teachings should be. That authority belongs to the ecclesiastical office-holders themselves. Given that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly claims to guarantee "freedom of conscience and religion," a government official is duty bound to refrain from interfering in such matters.

Second, if one has to resort to name-calling in setting forth one's position, it amounts to a tacit admission that one's arguments in its favour are weak and not easily defended in open debate. Broten again: "That debate [over a woman's right to choose] is over, it has ended and it should stay that way." That may indeed be her view of the matter, but simply pronouncing a subject closed does not necessarily make it so. Campaign Life Coalition and ProWomanProLife among many others would definitely disagree with her assessment.

Third, and perhaps most basically, Broten seems to be defining a woman's identity as a mere assertion of autonomy, that is, the right to choose apart from any "thick" conception of the human person obviously dependent on norms not of our own making. If a woman wishes to harm her own body or the foetal life growing within her, it is her decision to make, whatever its impact on herself, her loved ones and the larger social fabric. Broten is, of course, entitled to her viewpoint, but why she feels entitled to impose it as unquestioned dogma on everyone else is far from clear.

|

05 October 2012

Edward A. Goerner (1929-2012)


Edward Alfred Goerner was longtime professor of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and I was privileged to have him as my PhD supervisor more than 25 years ago.

The first thing one noticed about Goerner was his flair for the dramatic in both mannerism and dress. He was born in Brooklyn, but his speech was closer to the now fading Mid-Atlantic English once associated with Hollywood and the New York stage. Many Domers will recall seeing him regularly walking from his home just south of campus to his office or to Sacred Heart Church, wearing a cape rather than the usual overcoat. When he read the scripture lesson in the liturgy with his distinctive resonating voice, he brought something of the Shakespearean theatre to the task at hand.

Goerner was the consummate undergraduate teacher, whose dynamic paedagogy had an inevitable impact on my own. He began each class session with the same prayer: "Send us, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, among whose gifts are wisdom and understanding." He would then proceed to lecture on the finer points of mediaeval political theory or on the three books he would assign to his introductory undergraduate students: Hobbes' Leviathan, Rousseau's Social Contract and Plato's Republic. I owe my own respect for these classic texts to his teaching, and I have tried in some fashion to pass this respect along to my own students.

Goerner did not publish as prolifically as some of his colleagues. His written works included Peter and Caesar and two edited volumes. There was also his two-part essay in Political Theory weighing whether Thomas Aquinas' was a natural virtue or natural law thinker. (My own sense is that he was both, but that's something for another post.) Yet he had a considerable influence on the people he taught, myself included. I have my own students reading primary sources in political theory, as did Goerner, reflecting his obvious debt to the late Leo Strauss, under whom he had studied at the University of Chicago.

Although I cannot say that I was personally close to him, I found him most encouraging of my academic interests, especially the comparison of Roman Catholic social and political teachings with their Kuyperian Calvinist counterparts, a subject that found its way into the final chapters of my own Political Visions and Illusions. I had not seen him in over two decades, but I would occasionally hear from him in the intervening years. A few years ago he wrote to recommend Rémi Brague's The Law of God, which I promptly purchased and read, agreeing with his assessment of its significance. Most recently he had written me after seeing my name on this document, which had been spearheaded by one of my former Redeemer students.

I was further privileged to pass along to him another of my former students, whose dissertation on John Rawls he would supervise. We thus managed to share in the education of a future Christian scholar in political science.

May Edward Alfred Goerner rest in peace until the resurrection.

|

French-style Polarization in the U.S.?

Is America becoming the next France? Is our political system becoming as polarized as that of the French Third and Fourth Republics?

According to the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, politics is the art of conciliating diversity peacefully in a given unit of rule. Some political systems have done this better than others. The U.S. is among the more successful in enabling people of varying interests and viewpoints to get along within a common constitutional framework commanding near universal loyalty.

Until recently the political parties themselves played a role similar to that of the system as a whole. Yes, Democrats and Republicans were opponents, but each party was a broad-based coalition of citizens with a variety of commonalities—some economic, and some ideological, regional and religious in character. Progressives and conservatives found a place in both parties, coexisting willingly, if not always enthusiastically. Southerners tended to vote Democratic, while northerners voted Republican. Different Christian denominations were at home in each party as well: Catholics and Southern Baptists supported the Democrats, and northern mainline and evangelical Protestants the Republicans.

Read more here.

|