Alan Jacobs In America
Sorry for the light posting today. I’m having all kinds of health issues this week, not just the neck pain thing. God is repaying my snottiness for rolling my eyes at middle-aged and old people who griped about their aches and pains within my youthful hearing. I seem to be going through another periodic bout of mononucleosis-like symptoms, requiring me to crash hard every afternoon, and sleep. This stuff also makes my mind foggy. There, now I’ve absolved myself of having to make sense this week.
In his Harper’s essay, Jacobs notes the importance of place for thinking: “The question…for many Christian intellectuals today, is one of social and institutional location. From what place is one best suited to bear witness to what one believes to be core Christian truths, in a manner that is both free and audible?” Wheaton, which requires its faculty members to sign a statement of faith, has lately made national headlines for theological rigidity in dealing with faculty, but Jacobs credits the school with giving him intellectual freedom, and he turned down higher-paying job offers, staying at Wheaton for 29 years.
Couple things here. First, the author of the profile, David J. Michael, is right that Wheaton has been hammered lately by outsiders for its theological conservatism. What is hard for critics outside of certain institutions or traditions to grasp that there is real freedom within what appears to them as “rigidity.” Does a kayaker afloat on a river with strong currents have more freedom with a paddle, or without one? The tradition is like a paddle; without it, one is totally at the mercy of the culture’s currents.
Second, Jacobs’s point about “social and institutional location” for Christian intellectuals is an important one — and not just for intellectuals. I think from time to time about how different the world looked to me from Washington and New York, two places I lived earlier in my life, and loved, as opposed to Dallas and Baton Rouge. I’m grateful for the lessons every place has taught me, truly. I inhabit the DC/NY headspace quite a bit these days, insofar as I spend my workday on the Internet. Still, most of us who spend a lot of time in the virtual world also live in the real world. I notice every time I got to NYC and DC how different I feel around those folks. It’s not a bad thing, but even Christian friends who live in those cities, as I once did, somehow move differently than my Christian friends in the heartland do. I’m trying to put my finger on the ways they do, and why they do. (Naturally, I invite your input, readers.) Don’t be defensive — I’m not putting anybody down here. It makes sense that Christians living in coastal urban areas will face different pressures that will form them in different ways.
It seems to me that a number of Christians I know in NYC and DC who are more or less in the conservative orbit have gone over to the progressives on LGBT matters. It’s not just a generational thing. I think it’s more of a social class thing. A non-Christian friend who is immersed in the DC intellectual world told me recently that he doesn’t know anyone there who doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage. If, in fact, he does, it’s telling that those trads are keeping that to themselves. They know that trads have lost this fight, and that opposing SSM is a mark of social unacceptability in those places.
There is no way to think about anything in an intellectual vacuum. We will inevitably be formed by the places we live, and the institutions within which we find ourselves lodged. The way an individual Christian thinks about sex and sexuality, and the teaching of both the Bible and the Christian tradition, will be affected by where he does that thinking, and where he does his living. I bring up sex and sexuality because Eros is a strong god of this age. What was once more or less settled truth within Christianity has been wildly disrupted. Christians in other times and in other places faced other challenges; this is the main one we face here and now. Though I certainly locate myself on the opposite side of the Evangelical theologian David Gushee, I totally agree with him here:
It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions. Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.
Now, let me ask you: from what places is it easier to bear witness to, and to think about, Christian truth on sex and sexuality? Washington and New York, or Dallas and Baton Rouge? That is, in which place can one think more clearly about what it means to be faithful to Christian thought and teaching on this topic? In which places can one speak more freely about one’s beliefs?
I bring up sex and sexuality because it has become so central to our debates in this country. You could — and probably should — ask this about any number of topics. Where is it easier to think and to bear witness and to speak freely about Christianity and racial conflict? Christianity and poverty? Christianity and technology? And so forth.
Some Christians will be called to dwell in the difficult places. But no Christian should allow himself to be indifferent to how the places in which he lives, and the institutions (church, school, etc) in which he abides, will inevitably form his thinking as a Christian. There is no way out of this. One major reason my family moved from our house in rural West Feliciana Parish, which we loved, into Baton Rouge is because Julie and I knew that we could not have the kind of relationship to the church that we needed to have if we lived 45 minutes away from the nearest Orthodox parish. I intend never to move again (please God!), but if Baton Rouge lost its Orthodox parish, there’s no question that we would have to move. A good, faithful church is non-negotiable.
I have a friend, a reader of this blog, who is from Louisiana, and who is raising his young Christian family in a very secular part of the US. It’s very beautiful there, and he loves his work, but the place is a spiritual desert. He thinks about how hard it will be to raise faithful Christian children there. He well knows all the flaws of living in Louisiana, but one thing he can count on here is that the local culture is far more supportive of Christian living than the culture in which he now lives. The challenges to Christian living in a place like south Louisiana are different from the ones he faces where he now lives, but here in the swamp, Christians are living on terra firma that they no longer have in his part of the world.
I believe that in the next decade or two, small-o orthodox Christians will sort themselves geographically, as certain parts of the country become ever more hostile to traditional Christianity. As a father in the middle of his life, whose kids range from 18 to 11, I strongly urge orthodox Christian readers who are young marrieds, or who are just starting their families, to think hard about where you live, and the kind of environment you want to raise your family in. It matters. But it doesn’t just matter for your kids: it matters for you too. There are no utopias, but some places really are better than others re: living faithfully. And this is true for Orthodox Jews and Muslims too, of course.
More from the Alan Jacobs profile:
A few years ago he noticed that Auden, Lewis and Jacques Maritain had given lectures on education within a few days of each other in 1941. It struck him as odd that in the midst of World War II, they were writing about education, and he decided to investigate. The result is The Year of Our Lord, 1943, which will be published this August. He expanded the story to include the poet T. S. Eliot and the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. They all harbored suspicion toward the liberal instrumentalism that had crept into education. They were worried that once the war was over, the resulting society would not be morally equipped to withstand future wars.
The book, whose form Jacobs modeled on Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, tells a fascinating if sobering story. Despite the brilliance of the aforementioned authors’ writings and arguments, none of their prescriptions were implemented. They were a century too late, and “the reign of technocracy had become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Jacobs’s afterword is devoted to a sixth character, Jacques Ellul, who recognized the triumph of technocracy and hoped merely for a miracle to counteract it.
Jacobs wrote the book for more than one audience, though he told me that for those merely interested in the intellectual history of the 20th century, it might be a “fly caught in amber sort of story.” For Christians, it might serve as a cautionary tale. As Jacobs writes on the book’s final page:
If ever again there arises a body of thinkers eager to renew Christian humanism, they should take great pains to learn from those we have studied here: both what they agreed upon and what divided them. But may those future thinkers also be quickly alert to the signs of the times.
This book is going to be great, I just know it! I read this passage from the America piece to my wife, who teaches in a Christian school, and she can’t wait to read Alan’s book now. We small-o orthodox Christians and our fellow travelers are left to shore up fragments against our ruin.
The Year Of Our Lord 1943 is available for pre-order now. You know what to do.
Here is a link to the entire America piece, if you want to read the whole thing. If you don’t know anything about Alan’s background, you’ll be startled, and maybe even delighted. I was. I am.