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ChristianOver the last decade and a half, as many readers of TIC have probably noted, I’ve had the blessed opportunity of researching and writing about Russell Kirk (1918-1994), generally agreed upon as the founder of post-war American conservatism.

At first, I did this mostly as a hobby, having become intensely interested in Christian Humanism through discussions with Winston Elliott, Donald Nesti, and Gleaves Whitney. Through a series of conferences over seven or eight years in and around Houston, Winston sponsored a number of speakers (but, especially important to me were Gleaves and Ben Lockerd) who spoke on the significance of Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, Etienne Gilson, Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Roepke, Eric Voegelin, C.S. Lewis, E.F. Schumacher, and J.R.R. Tolkien. 

Other speakers at these events, including John Willson and Bruce Frohnen, shaped me profoundly as well.

I had already been enamored (or, perhaps, obsessed) with Tolkien since 1977. Seeing him in the context of a number of critical intellectuals in the twentieth century opened my own mind and soul to an entirely new world, one of great depths and heights rather than rather flattened history I’d been taught in much of my graduate school experience.

In the arguments, speeches, and ideas of Winston, Gleaves, Ben, and others, the Christian Humanists truly became incarnate for me, sacramental realities, each a timeless being sojourning through time itself.

It struck me at the time (the mid to late 1990s) that the best way to approach Christian Humanism, then, would be through the medium of biography. I actually desired to get into the mind and, if possible, the very soul of the person. Pretentious? Maybe. But, it definitely (and still does) seemed like the most effective way to understand the movement and the ideas. After teaching history professionally for almost two decades, I’m increasingly convinced that all real history comes down to biography.

Certainly, no one influenced my love of biography more than did Catholic convert Joseph Pearce. I have argued before and continue to argue that Pearce is our foremost biographer and one of the greatest minds and writers in all of what’s left of Christendom. Not only do I admire Pearce for the life he’s embraced and the chances he’s taken with his literary output, but I especially appreciate his ability to get into the life of his subject, and to do so in a way that overflows with depth and meaning.

After completing my dissertation (often with the encouragement of Winston, especially), I decided to write on what I really loved. First, came Tolkien. While working on that biography, I started reading Christopher Dawson, one of Tolkien’s fellow parishioners and an authority the Oxford fabulist cited frequently in his own scholarly work. I had encountered Dawson’s name and ideas a number of times while an undergraduate at Notre Dame, but I did not get to know the man until I heard a lecture about him by Gleaves.

That lecture led to my renewed interest in Dawson, and I happened to come across a first edition of what I now regard his best book, The Judgment of the Nations, while perusing my favorite used bookstore, Hyde Brothers in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In fact, I read that book exactly 10 years and 51 weeks ago. Starting it on Thanksgiving, 2001, I devoured every word. By the time I’d finished, I knew with certainty that a biography of Dawson would be my next project. Never had I encountered a mind as subtle as Dawson’s. He’d seemingly read everything, digested everything, and understood everything. Only later did I not only find this to be true from his private writings, but I also came to realize how critical the role Frank Sheed played in Dawson’s own intellectual life. Without Sheed, Dawson would have probably remained a relatively obscure man of letters, content with writing for a small audience.

Here’s an example of the power of Dawson’s thought, prose, verve, and purpose:

And today we face Antichrist in a new form—the totalitarian Antichrist, or the total organization of human society on anti-Christian principles. This the enemy which it should be the common cause of all who confess the name of Christ to combat. Here, without any compromise or principles or any narrow exclusiveness, there is a clear case for co-operation on the deepest and most spiritual grounds. However this appeal is not confined to the christians to whom it is primarily address. For the new Antichrist is also the enemy of God and man, and every man who is in any degree conscious of a higher law than that of force and national or individual interest, has the right and duty to join in this crusade.

As Dawson saw it—rather beautifully—a firm reliance on the Natural Law could unify all persons of good will: Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Catholics, and virtuous pagans. Such an alliance, he feared, would prove essential to a world sinking into the ideological abyss of various forms of socialism (fascism, national socialism, and communism).

Even in 1941, when he wrote the book, he did not fear Britain would lose. He feared, instead, that the ideas of the ideologies would become soft and subtle, working their way into the culture and the politics of the western world.

As Dawson perceptively noted, a hard tyranny would be much easier to reject than a soft tyranny that sold itself with free milk and free birth control.

After completing the Dawson project, I accepted an invitation from General Bunting to write on the one identifiable Christian Humanist of the American War for Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, finding him to be an American version of the Roman republican, Marcus T. Cicero. The headline that went out across America at the time of his death in November 1832 reveals the essence of Carroll: “A great prophet in Israel hath fallen; the Last of the Romans has passed.”

I’d been interested in writing about Kirk for quite a while, but Mrs. Kirk wasn’t ready to open the extensive (indeed, somewhat beyond comprehension) private correspondence and papers. Additionally, the editor at ISI Books (then Jeremy Beer) had declined my requests to write on Kirk numerous times.

None of this lessened my interest, however. Every time I drove to Notre Dame for research (once a month for several years), I photocopied Kirk’s articles from relatively obscure or difficult to find journals and periodicals, even if for only an hour or two.

I also started digging into Kirk’s letters which had found their way into the depositories of other institutions, such as those at the Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa.

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve gathered quite a collection of personal and public writings of Kirk and other Christian humanist. Indeed, the hard drive on my Mac might actually be something special.

Through the good graces of my excellent friend and department chair, Mark Kalthoff, I also started to teach a course on the Christian Humanist vision of history. This course really began with Dawson, spent almost the entire middle period on T.S. Eliot (especially the Four Quartets, ending with roughly a third of the semester on Russell Kirk. I also throw in some Berdyaev, Guardini, Maritain, Gilson, Barfield, Voegelin, Kolnai, and Strauss. I’ve taught this class over the years, and I’ve never once not enjoyed it. It’s a joy every time. I will be teaching it again a year from now (Fall 2013).

About two and 1/2 years ago, I received a beautiful call from Annette. “Brad, I am opening the archives to you, if you’re still interested.’

Am I interested? I dropped everything else in my academic life, and I’ve been immersed in the world of Kirk ever since.

Kirk, I see now, really connects all other figures that I’ve found exciting and enlivening. And, he always does it with style, integrity, and wit. He really was the transmitter of Christian humanism for all of his adult life, bringing into focus not only what needed to be conserved, and what needed to be reformed, but, perhaps, with more difficulty, what could never be baptized.

The events of recent months have been quite depressing. The re-election of the most abusive and arrogant man in the White House since FDR, the prolonged murder of U.S. citizens on foreign soil, and, as of today, the onslaught of missiles in Gaza. What a world.

Yet, it has always been so.

The times of peace, prosperity, and liberty have been the exceptions, never the norm.

The Christian humanism of Tolkien, Dawson, and Kirk allows us to transcend that which is and always will be ephemeral. Each of these men called us to reach for whatever is always just barely beyond our grasp, the eternal truths of goodness and beauty.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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8 replies to this post
  1. I find it interesting that anglo-saxon Christian humanism reacted to the crisis of modern faith by essentialy reasserting Thomism and Aristotelianism, while Continental Christian thought developed a phenomenological approach.

    These two schools of thought have remained in tension if not conflict, with the former seeing no essential difference between phenomenology and nihilism, and the latter convinced that Thomism irrevocably leads to nihilism.

    The effect is that Phenomenologists sometimes display a condescending posture of superiority towards ressurgent Thomists, holding them to be at best blissful in their ignorance (and therefore destined to lead Christianity towards marginalization), while Thomists suspect phenomenology to be incapable of sustaining a true faith.

    Phenomenological Christian humanists thus tend to regard Thomism as a historical phenomenon on the path away from 'the things themselves', instead of engaging them philosophically. Thomists, on the other hand often suspect phenomenology of sophism or nihilism, instead of engaging it philosophically. The two factions tend to talk past one another and pretend the other does not exist.

  2. Brad, What year did you grasp your Ph.D (and promptly forget about it)? I ask, because it took me almost ten years after mine, almost ten years after liberation from mere archival research, and almost fifteen years after I started teaching, to realize that most history–that is, if one wishes people to read it and the subset of people known as student to listen to it–must not only be narrative but biographical. John Lukacs and Gerhart Niemeyer taught me that a man who has a sound understanding of human nature (i.e. Christian) does not need a philosophy of history, Forrest McDonald taught me the mysteries and varieties of research and narrative, and Russell Kirk was the final influence I needed to know that most history is biography (humanism, rightly understood). A footnote here: When I ventured off to Hillsdale College in 1975, giving up a tenured position to do so, many of my friends thought that I was, as Russell would say, daft, but others were concerned that a small college known to be "conservative" would not sufficiently challenge me or my students. Well, had I not taken the chance, I would probably not have had the opportunity to make friends with the four giants named above, and certainly would not have spent the hundreds of hours with each of them (well, less with the great Lukacs) that helped shape my soul as well as my mind.

  3. Peter Strzelecki Rieth, Did I miss something? I ask this in all innocence and good will, but what does the Thomistic/Phenomenological non-debate have to do with Brad's discussion of Christian Humanism?

  4. Mr. Wilson,
    I think Peter saw the words Christian Humanism, which were listed several times in the posting, and understanably followed a train of thought concerning philosophy. Look at the names Brad mentions and one can readily process their contribution to ideas and experience. I don’t know. Just a thought.

  5. Dr. Wilson, MaterMax's link 'Was John Paul II a Thomist or Phenomenologist' and subsequent explanation of my post is indeed accurate.

    Very broadly speaking, at the point of risking gross generalization, the Christian humanism described by Dr. Birzer is by and large the anglo-saxon variety, though obviously Roepke can hardly be described as anglo-saxon. It contests the emerging positivism of analytical philosophy, and rightly so.

    However, at about the same time that this type of Christian humanism was developing, Husserel was giving his speech on the Crisis of Science in Europe, and his student, Heiddegger, built upon this. Out of Heiddegger's work came the phenomenological theology of Levinas (eg Time, and the Other), later Ingarden (whom I have not read), and finally the fantastic work of Christian humanists like the Priest Joseph Tischner, who was Pope John Paul II's intellectual shadow or several jesuits like Varillion (Joy of faith, Joy of life), or De Chardin.

    I suppose that I indeed can't help seeing the words "Christian Humanism" and not wondering about the relation between both of these strands. All the more so since the phenomenologists seem to have captured the imagination of the Catholic Church to the extent that Bennedict VI himself said in 2009: "It's the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host" and "Let's pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense… to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves." (National Catholic Reporter as cited in wikipedia).

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