Online Conversation | Crisis & Christian Humanism
with Alan Jacobs
On Friday, July 10th The Trinity Forum welcomed distinguished professor, author, and scholar Alan Jacobs to discuss his ever-timely book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. In his book, Jacobs describes how after the second World War, five Christian intellectuals presented strikingly similar visions for the moral and spiritual renewal of their countries.
Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil all believed the renewal of their respective societies in the aftermath of World War II would come through education that was grounded in a Christian understanding of the power and limitations of human beings. Alan helped us consider the ways our world is changing due to our current crisis, and look back to these Christian intellectuals and their vision for cultivating a flourishing society and rebuilding a shared sense of the common good after world-wide disruption.
The painting is A Pastoral Scene by Asher Brown Durand, 1858.
The song is Clair de Lune by Debussy, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Joe and Kelly Armes
Transcript of “Crisis & Christian Humanism” with Alan Jacobs
Cherie Harder: Today we’re going to hear from our guest about a truly fascinating story: the story of a handful of Christian scholars and poets who began thinking around the same time and in their individual spheres about the ways in which the failures and distortions of public education and public thought had contributed to the chaos and the violence of World War II, and together to sketch out the necessary elements of what a full education of mind, heart, and soul might be, in hopes of contributing to the spiritual, moral, and intellectual regeneration of the new post-war world. These five thinkers and artists—C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil—didn’t collaborate extensively. In some cases, they were only barely aware, if at all, of each other or their work. But they came to the same broadly shared conclusions about the importance of the Christian humanities, the need for a moral education, and the threat that they saw of the technocratism that distorted students and corrupted citizens. The immediate success of their vision was at the time limited, to be sure. But as our guest Alan Jacobs will argue, they were on to something, and their insights hold illumination for our own chaotic time of crisis. Our guest today, Alan Jacobs, is a scholar of English literature, a writer, and a literary critic. He’s a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors College at Baylor University and previously taught for nearly thirty years at Wheaton College in Illinois. A prolific author and a wide-ranging thinker, he’s written for such publications as The Atlantic, Harper’s, Comment Magazine, The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, and The Hedgehog Review, and has published more than fifteen different books on a wide range of topics from literature, technology, theology, and cognitive psychology, including “How to Think”; “The Book of Common Prayer”; the book we’re discussing today, “The Year of Our Lord 1943,” which was named by The Wall Street Journal as one of their best books on politics for the year of 2018; and many more, including the forthcoming book “Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind,” which will be available this fall. Alan, welcome.
Alan Jacobs: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you. I’d love for you to set the stage for the cast of characters in your book. Most of our viewers will be familiar with some but not all of these names. Your work is fairly unusual in tying together the disparate strings of thoughts of poets, scholars, and philosophers as well. In fact, I saw that one reviewer actually compared your book to an Orson Welles style of directing in pulling together all [this] disparate thought. So who are these thinkers? Why did you pick these five? And given how little familiarity they had with each other, what connection did you see between them?
Alan Jacobs: So, one day I was in my office and I picked a book off the shelf. It was a book by Jacques Maritain called “Education at the Crossroads.” I had bought it years before at a used bookstore, but I had never read it. I opened it up and started looking through it and saw that these were lectures that Maritain had given at Yale University in early 1943. I had just been teaching in one of my classes Lewis’s book “The Abolition of Man.” And I thought, Well, now that’s very strange, because “The Abolition of Man” was also a series of lectures given in early 1943. And then I happened to remember that W.H. Auden, the poet whom I’ve done a lot of my work on in my career, was teaching at Swarthmore College during the war, and he gave a lecture at exactly the same time—the end of January and the beginning of February, 1943—called “Vocation and Society,” which was addressed to undergraduates at Swarthmore, trying to help them think about, What does it mean to have a vocation? What does it mean to have a calling? And how might their education at Swarthmore, a liberal arts education, prepare them for that? It struck me then that it was very, very strange that right in the middle of the war, these three figures were not writing about the war. They were writing about education. Then I started reading more, and I realized that this was also true of T.S. Eliot—that he was thinking about education. He was working on his “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture” and his ideas about the relationship between Christianity and culture. And [this] was also true of Simone Weil. They were all writing on these themes at the same time. I thought that was a very strange thing until I had one more realization: that this was also exactly the moment of the Casablanca Conference. That was when the leaders of the Allied nations got together in Casablanca to start planning for the end of the war and what the post-war world would look like, because it was really clear at this point who was going to win. The chances of both German and Japanese victory had declined to almost nothing at this point. So it was really just a question of how long it was going to be. That, then, all of a sudden made sense of it: that’s why they’re all thinking about education. They’re thinking about rebuilding the society after the war. They’re asking themselves, What could we do to educate the next generation so that they are not vulnerable to the pathological ideologies that landed us in this horrific world war? When you look at it that way, then the fact that they were so concerned with education makes perfect sense. But it was very surprising to me when I first came across it.
Cherie Harder: You refer to all of these thinkers as humanists—as Christian humanists. Indeed, the subtitle of your book is “Christian Humanism in a Time of Crisis.” So we should probably just get definitions straight. What is Christian humanism?
Alan Jacobs: Right. I should say that I wrestled a bit with that subtitle, because not all of them would have used that term. Lewis in particular didn’t like it. That was because for him, the humanists were primarily a group of scholars in the sixteenth century whose effect on English culture and English learning Lewis did not admire. So he wasn’t crazy about that term. But I finally decided that it was the best general term to describe them all. I think maybe the best way to approach it is to use a term that Jacques Maritain used in a book that he wrote just before the war. He called this book “Integral Humanism.” His argument is this: that usually, when people talk about humanism, they’re talking about it horizontally. They’re talking about the ways in which we interact with one another—all human beings kind of on the same horizontal plane. But, Maritain says, that’s a truncated humanism. A genuine humanism, which he calls an ‘integral humanism,’ means that we’re not only related to one another horizontally, but we are also rightly related to God and rightly related to the rest of creation. We come into our full inheritance as human beings, we achieve full humanity, only when we are integrally related to one another, to God, and to the creation over which we have been given the role of stewards. That integral humanism, I think, is intrinsic to a genuinely Christian humanism. We cannot understand ourselves fully unless we understand both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our being.
Cherie Harder: One of the unifying themes in your book is the extent to which all of these thinkers believed that the miseducation of Western societies had been one of the contributors, or at least an enabler, of the chaos and violence of World War II. You open your book with some really arresting quotations from both T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden on one of the distortions that they see in modern education. I wanted to ask you about them, just because they really do grab the reader’s attention. You noted Eliot’s frustration with what he saw as our eagerness to “provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life,” and you quoted Auden, who compared the Western world in the twentieth century to the Roman Empire, which, in his words, “managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.” I wanted to ask: Why did you begin this way? Most people would think, if anything, we are more of a technology and engineering society now than we were in the 40s. Are you concerned that we, like the Roman Empire, are kind of just pressing on with an absence of creativity, warmth, and hope?
Alan Jacobs: The short answer is yes, but I hope that’s not a complete answer. I think we can bring in other factors. Those two quotations represent—so the book is called “The Year of Our Lord 1943.” I see 1943 as this pivotal year. I think that what we see then is the culmination of a movement that has been going on for some time. And then we see that pivoting towards a new way of ordering society. Auden’s quote is one that refers to a society that is immensely powerful politically and economically, but is spiritually and morally empty and has lost its impetus. As Ross Douthat would say, it’s a decadent society. When a society has lost its moral and spiritual impetus, it doesn’t have any internal energies to draw on. It becomes vulnerable to external forces. That, I think, is why so many people in the West were so powerfully drawn to both fascism and communism. Fascism and communism believed in themselves. They believed that they were the wave of the future. For all of the enormous evil that they perpetrated, they were energetic and confident. And people who were living in a Western liberal society that really no longer believed in itself in any clear way were really vulnerable to—they were attracted to this, because it gave their lives a sense of order and meaning and purpose. But then those became the enemies that we had to fight. And when we had to fight, that, for a time, gave to the Western democracies a kind of energy, because we knew what we were against. We were against fascism. We were against communism. But that really isn’t enough. Just to say that we want to destroy fascism or we want to put an end to Hitler’s domination of Europe—that’s not enough to sustain you over the long term, and certainly not after Hitler is defeated. And so once the war was over, many people who were extremely active in resistance movements in World War II—Hannah Arendt has a book about this called “Between Past and Future” where she talks about members of the French Resistance who, when the war was over, were glad that France was an independent nation again. They were glad that the Nazis had been defeated. But they thought, What do I have to live for now? I have no meaning or purpose in my life anymore. It’s all emptiness. When that happens, then there’s a vacuum. It’s not even so much a power vacuum as a meaning vacuum. And in the West, what happened is that the technocrats rushed in. They said, Well, you know, we’re the ones who won this war. With our superior technology, we won the war. So you can trust us to win the peace as well. We will define ourselves as a society by being technologically superior to all other societies. And that was exactly what the writers that I talk about in this book wanted to avoid, but in fact were not able to avoid, because the prestige of technocracy was so high. And it was high for a good reason—because it was technocracy that had helped us to defeat fascism.
Cherie Harder: You seem to suggest, and certainly it seems like some of the thinkers you profiled suggested, that there was something about the technological pragmatism embedded in education that made students or citizens somehow particularly susceptible both to propaganda and to nationalism. I wanted to ask you about that. Do you see a link between the worship of technology and gullibility when it comes to propaganda or the allure of nationalistic strongman figures?
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, this can really cut in two different ways. Sometimes the nationalistic figures can be kind of prophets of technology. And in fact, that was something that both Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union did. The problem was that technological society doesn’t mould itself very well to nationalist or communist impulses. So what you got in Germany was this kind of ideological hatred of what they called ‘Jewish science,’ which led to all of the Jewish scientists being forced to leave Germany. They all came to the West and were essential in the technological developments in the West. And then similarly, in the Soviet Union, you had what was sometimes called “Lysenkoism,” [which is] especially associated with biology—these kind of biological theories that were anti-Darwinian because Darwin’s thought didn’t seem to be consistent with communism. So in both nations, science had to be subservient to the ideological impulses. And that doesn’t work. The way that we avoided that in the Western democracies was to move increasingly towards what we usually call ‘scientism’—this idea that science has the power to establish and enforce and help us realize all of our values. So everything can then just be derived straight from the science, and then we don’t need a moral philosophy. We don’t need an ideology. We will just, as people like to say today, ‘trust the science.’
Cherie Harder: In addition to scientism, what are the other markers—just getting down to brass tacks—in terms of what technological pragmatism in education actually looks like? We are so surrounded by technology, you know, the fish doesn’t know it’s wet. How do we know that education is being distorted by this? What are the markers?
Alan Jacobs: Right. There’s so many different things that we could pick out here, but I want to just talk about one major theme. I can do this by picking up on some element of that quotation from Eliot that I have as one of my epigraphs, where Eliot talks about seeing all of the difficulties of life as problems of engineering. Another way that you could put this is the way that the philosopher Michael Oakeshott puts it in a great essay that he wrote in 1947—so it was right after the war. I actually wanted to put this into my book, but I couldn’t get it in. It’s called “Rationalism in Politics.” In “Rationalism in Politics,” he says that our political leaders now are essentially political rationalists, which is to say [that] they’re kind of engineers of politics—that if we have social problems and then if we implement rational policies, that those policies will provide solutions to our problems. Oakeshott says that the whole model of rationalism in politics is built on the idea that there are no intrinsic limits to human life. There is nothing intrinsically tragic about human life. There is nothing that’s broken about us that we can’t fix. All of our suffering, all of our pain, is then perceived as a problem, and it’s the job of politics—and, increasingly, technocratic politics—to provide the solutions. That’s one of the reasons why so many people think that Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is more prophetic in certain ways than Orwell’s “1984” (though that may actually be changing right about now). Huxley’s vision is of a political order that has developed biotechnological tools—pills, medications—that will solve our problems and make us content and make us happy. The genius of Huxley is to show that when we have the pills that solve our problems and make us happy, that’s actually not a utopia. That’s a dystopia. We have been profoundly dehumanized in the process. And so to me—Maritain was great on this. In “Education at the Crossroads,” he asked the question, How can we educate people for responsible freedom? To educate for responsible freedom is kind of like the opposite of a bio-engineered or a techno-engineered future. It’s the idea of educating people so that they have the character formation and the moral maturity to know the difference between a problem that needs a solution and, on the other hand, what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” There are certain kinds of suffering, certain kinds of pain, certain kinds of frustration, nostalgia, lamentation, that are intrinsic to the human life. We don’t want to eliminate those. If we eliminate those altogether, we are eliminating much of our humanity.
Cherie Harder: I’d love to hear from you what that looks like. Because as you pointed out, all five of your thinkers essentially shared a conviction—I think you put it this way—that the renewal of Western civilization will be achieved largely through the practices of philosophy, literature, and the arts. And I am betting it’s not a coincidence that you included at least two poets (I guess Lewis was also a poet) among your thinkers. What does this look like in the real world? How would this education unfold?
Alan Jacobs: Well, you know, this would be a great opportunity for me to give a pitch for the Great Texts program at Baylor University here in the Honors College where I teach. But seriously, it’s something that we are trying to do, and it’s something that we tried to do at Wheaton College when I taught there. There is this sense that you want to have students who are scientifically literate, who are numerate as opposed to being innumerate. We want people who understand science, who value science and are grateful for all the things that it has done. But we also want those to be people who have a rich and complex sense of how extraordinarily diverse and complex human life is—how complex we are internally and how complex we are in relation to one another. And I think a lot of that understanding of the complexity that we have within us and that we have in our relations to one another—that’s really what the arts dramatize for us. You can study psychology and sociology, and you can learn about that. But in the arts, you see it dramatized in a way that brings it home to you in an incredibly vivid way. This is why when Robert Coles, a psychiatrist who taught for decades at Harvard University, started teaching classes in Harvard Medical School, his classes used only literature as their texts. He wanted doctors not to be technicians, but to be physicians—to be healers. And this meant that they needed to understand the complexity of human life and also of human suffering. So he wanted all of his med students to read Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilych.” And then when he started teaching a similar class at Harvard Law School, he would teach Dickens’ “Bleak House” so that people could understand how the law can hurt rather than liberate people. And everywhere he did this—he did a class at Harvard Business School, he went all around—these classes were full to overflowing with students. He had hundreds of students in these classes, because they were craving some understanding of what they felt they had been called to do that was not merely technical and mechanical.
Cherie Harder: I took one of those classes and it was exactly as you say—full to overflowing.
Alan Jacobs: Awesome. That’s great.
Cherie Harder: So in the last few minutes before we turn to audience questions, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the fact that one of the chief concerns that your five subjects really dealt with—thinking and education—seems to mirror one of your own personal and professional concerns, which is thinking and thinking well. Most of us who are watching this program are out of school and yet have a responsibility for our own continuing education. You wrote a book entitled “How to Think” which gives a few guidelines to people essentially struggling with it, whether they know it or not, in a fairly chaotic and confusing time. One of the points that you make is that we don’t actually think for ourselves. You said, “Whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, ‘for ourselves,’ is not an option.” So how does one learn to think well in a community—particularly if you find yourself in a community of fairly lackluster thinkers?
Alan Jacobs: You know, I really do think the person that I know of who has thought most profoundly and usefully about these matters is C.S. Lewis. I know that’s a big surprise that I would say that—but he’s really great on this. His views on this subject are stated theoretically in three texts. One of them is “The Abolition of Man,” which is a book about moral formation as essential to intellectual formation. And then there are two lectures that he gave—one is called “The Inner Ring” and the other is called “Membership.” What he says in “The Abolition of Man,” in “The Inner Ring,” and in “Membership”—all of that is illustrated fictionally in his novel “That Hideous Strength.” All of those ideas are embodied there. And I think those two lectures that I mentioned have not often enough been understood in relation to one another. They are a pair. “The Inner Ring” is about how you lose your ability to think when you are connected to the wrong people. That is, when you are connected to people whose approval you desire, but who demand from you obedience and strict adherence to a narrow set of ideas, you will not learn to think well. In fact, you will stop thinking, because thinking might alienate you from that inner ring that you so desperately want to belong to. By contrast, when he talks about membership, he explores St. Paul’s notion of the many members of the body of Christ, the many organs of the body of Christ. What is essential to understanding those organs of the body is that each of them has a distinctive function. Therefore, there is an extraordinary diversity among them. But all of them are contributing to the health of the body. And when that’s the case, you don’t expect everyone to sound exactly like you who is a member of the same body. You expect there to be some degree of difference. You expect them to have some variety of possibilities that each of them is embodying—all of which are measured by the way that they contribute to the overall health of the body. And he dramatizes that in “That Hideous Strength” in the two characters of Mark Studdock and Jane Studdock. Mark gets drawn into an inner ring, and as a result of being in that inner ring, he becomes less and less capable of thinking—whereas Jane is drawn into a real community, and as a member of that community, her distinctive contributions are valued. She has to learn how to deal with people who think things that she doesn’t think and who have ideas that seem alien to her. But she develops a trust in the integrity of those people, and therefore, they help her to think and she helps them to think. For me, that is essential. I always tell students, when high school students come to Baylor and they are trying to decide whether to go to the Honors Program, I say, “Whether you come here or not, what you need to be asking yourself is this: Are these trustworthy people to think with?” That’s what you want in a community of thinking, whether it’s a formal community such as a school, or whether it’s your book club or your reading group or whatever. You ask yourself, Are these trustworthy people to think with? Because you’re not going to think by yourself. You just get to choose the kinds of people that you are going to think with. And that’s an important choice. So deciding who you’re going to think with is maybe the most important one of all. Another one that I would really emphasize as especially important right now is a rule that I learned from a software developer named Jason Fried. Jason Fried talks in a blog post about going to hear a talk at a tech conference. He wasn’t at all happy with this talk, and he couldn’t wait for it to be over so he could rush up and tell the guy how he got it wrong. And he did. He rushed up to the guy and he told him how he got it wrong. And the speaker just looked at him and said, “Why don’t you just give it five minutes? Just sit back and reflect for five minutes on what I said, and then maybe I can hear from you.” I thought that was really great, because our social media are set up to prevent us from giving it five minutes. People say something instantaneously, and then they either regret it later on or else they brazen it out and try to convince themselves that what they said was right. Giving anything five minutes—it would be great if somebody would implement a five-minute rule on Twitter or a five-minute rule on Facebook. You’re not able to reply to this until five minutes have passed. I think that would reduce the level of hostility by an extraordinary amount. And that leads towards the idea of tranquility: trying to get a more tranquil, peaceful, balanced kind of spirit, which I think we should all be praying for. That’s something that I’m writing about in this forthcoming book.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So with that, we’re going to turn to questions from the audience. If you joined us just in the last few minutes, you’ll see at the bottom of your page the Q&A button, and there you can ask a question or ‘like’ a question. I see we have lots of questions. We won’t be able to get through all of them, but we will do the best we can. The first question comes from Fritz Heinzen, who asked, “Professor Jacobs, if you were to write ‘The Year of our Lord 2020: Christian Humanism in an Age of Pandemic,’ what would you be writing about?”
Alan Jacobs: I honestly don’t have any idea. I think we’re going to have to wait some time before we know who the more important voices have been in this particular moment. It’s certainly not clear to me right now. I think it’s been very hard for Christians not to get caught up in the destructive dynamics of social media. And so my inclination is to think that the Christians whom we will eventually decide were the most important voices in helping us to understand the pandemic moment aren’t saying anything right now. That is, they’re thinking it over. I think we’ll know somewhere down the line. Immediate interventions are rarely constructive interventions. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to learn that lesson, but I think it’s true.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Michael Lundy asked, “Lewis thought a return to a pagan society was emerging and would be necessary for Christianity to regain its appeal. Where are we on that return, and when might we expect the revival?”
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, Lewis sometimes said that people said that England was becoming pagan once again, and Lewis said, I wish! I wish that we were becoming pagan again, because we would be a people worshipping gods if we were pagan. It is that world where people are worshipping strange and harsh and inexplicable gods that Christianity has an obvious and powerful response to. I think it’s much harder for us to respond to people (and I think this is the majority of Americans today, and many people in the West) who have a religion but don’t know it—that is, people whose core convictions are religious in character or mythological in character. I wrote an essay about this based on the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who talked about the technological core of society in which you try to manipulate and control things, and the mythological core in which you acknowledge things that are more powerful than your ability to manipulate them. I think that there are a lot of people today whose commitments—they’re typically associated with the political realm, that is, they manifest themselves in political statements and in adherence to political candidates or political movements, but their character is fundamentally mythological and religious. And I think that one of the great challenges for Christian thinkers now is, first of all, to just accept that and understand that that’s the way that people are responding. You can’t interact with them as though they are holding positions that they have reasoned their way to. But then figuring out how to respond to that is a huge challenge. I probably spend more time now thinking about that than anything else. And I’m not really sure where I’m going to come out on this. I wish I knew something that I could share right now, but it’s really tough.
Cherie Harder: Dan Barnett asked, “Does any poet today have comparable influence on culture as did Eliot and Auden?”
Alan Jacobs: No. Not even close. That is to some extent the result of a kind of professionalization of poetry. Most poets in the Western world now are teaching in MFA programs, in creative writing programs, which means that they have to write things that their peers will agree are of value, or else they won’t get tenure and they won’t keep those jobs. I think that produces an enormous pressure to conformity in poetry. Also in fiction. And I think that’s a really, really unfortunate thing. I do think, however, there have been poets recently who don’t have the kind of influence that Eliot and Auden had, but are voices that we should listen to. I would put at the very, very top of that list the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz, who died just a few years ago. Miłosz was born in what is now Lithuania, grew up in Poland, [and] eventually taught for many years at UC Berkeley. He was certainly the greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and I think [he] speaks with enormous power to our world. I wish more people knew his work. Also, in a much less expansive and dramatic way, the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who died about twenty years ago, was a truly, truly great poet. The poetry is deceptively simple, and the poems tend to be short, but they’re incredibly powerful. He was a priest in the Church of Wales, and he has a poem that begins, “I was vicar of large things in a small parish.” He had just a little country village, you know, just a handful of people. But I love that. To be the vicar of large things in a small parish is a really good thing for all of us to aspire to. The vicar is where we get the word ‘vicarious.’ You’re standing in for somebody. That’s why Catholics say that the pope is ‘the vicar of Christ’—he’s the one who is standing in for. And that’s what Thomas tried to be and to do: to be the one who stood in for Jesus Christ in a small parish. The vicar of large things in a small parish—that’s what I’m hoping that we’ll have more people aspiring to [be].
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Nathan George asked, “What essential content and practices can a school implement to foster Christian humanism?”
Alan Jacobs: I think the practices are more important than the content. I say this as someone who teaches in a Great Texts program, and I’m enormously grateful to be able to teach the things that I teach. I’m actually looking right now at the stack of books that I’m gonna be teaching. I’ve got George Eliot and Kierkegaard and Jane Austen and John Locke and Mary Shelley and P.D. James. I’m teaching “The Children of Men” this fall, Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” “Paradise Lost”—I love, love teaching these things. But I think too often there is an assumption that reading great works is intrinsically ennobling, and it isn’t. Whenever you’re inclined to think that exposure to great art is morally improving, you just need to take about five minutes and remember the concentration camp orchestras where starving Jews were made to play Bach and Beethoven for the Nazi commandants. They loved their Bach and their Beethoven, and they spent their leisure hours reading Goethe. They were incredibly cultured people and horrifically, horrifically wicked. So I think that what we read matters, but how we read is more important. I think that something that teachers should really, really focus on is trying to get students to be—one of the ways that I put it is to be ‘critically generous.’ That is, be critical of what you read. Evaluate it. Something’s not right just because Plato said it. Something’s not right just because Aristotle said it. Plato and Aristotle disagreed about 90 percent of everything, so they can’t both be right. When one of them is right, the other one is wrong. But be generous. Be open to truly believe that all truth is God’s truth—which doesn’t mean that everyone’s truth is God’s truth, but it means if it really is true, it is something that comes from the Lord. And that means that you can be generous towards people maybe outside our own Christian tradition who nevertheless might have things to teach us. But also [have] a kind of warmly critical spirit—not an attempt to take something down or break it apart, but an attempt to really sift it in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. I think cultivating that kind of readerly spirit is the single most important thing we can do if we are teachers. And cultivating it for ourselves is the most important thing that all of us can do as readers.
Cherie Harder: We have a fairly lengthy question from Michael Pepper, who asks, “Reading your remarkable book evoked this: In the midst of our present disequilibrium, many thoughtful ‘options’ have been proposed—e.g., the Benedict Option, the Erasmus Option, the Walker Percy Option, and so on. By definition, all our approximates [are] seen through dark glass, but live forward we must, even as we note our missteps retrospectively.” His question is, “What option might you propose that would best tend and mend our collective brokenness towards integration, unity, and shalom?”
Alan Jacobs: I’m going to go with the Gandalf Option.
Cherie Harder: And what is the Gandalf Option?
Alan Jacobs: Well, yeah, I’m just inventing it right now. I hadn’t thought to call it this before, but it’s something I think about a lot. There is a point late in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is confronting Denethor, the steward of Gondor. And Denethor thinks that Gandalf wants to be the one to rule Gondor. Gandalf tries very hard to be patient with Denethor, and he says, “Denethor, my lord steward, you need to understand something. The rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor anywhere else. It’s not what I do. I’m not here to rule. I am here to try to nourish and to care for all the good things that I find in this world.” He says, “When I come across something that is alive and is capable of bearing beauty, then I want to nurture that, and that is my call.” And if through this whole mess and misery that they were going through at the time, he says, “If anything survives that can flower and bear fruit in the days after, then my work will not have been in vain.” And then he says to Denethor, “For I also am a steward.” I love that line. Honestly, if I were going to define my calling in just a few sentences, it would be those sentences. And I think that’s what we should be doing. We get so caught up in fighting against all the things that we believe to be wicked and destructive that we fail to nourish and care for and strengthen, to feed and water the gardens that we hope will produce fruit for our children and our grandchildren. I think that is the great failing of the church in the West—that we go out charging into battle, but we forget to care for our own gardens. So that’s my option. My option is the Gandalf Option. I’ve never said those words exactly that way, but I probably will use them from now on.
Cherie Harder: You heard it first here. So our next question comes from Michelle Crouch, who asked, “When it comes to thinking rigorously about education from the youngest to the highest levels, its failures and the ways in which we might strengthen and reform it, do you have any advice for how to go about forming alliances with the key stakeholders in education and working together on that project? Or is it even possible?”
Alan Jacobs: I think those questions don’t have a general answer; they only have local answers, and sometimes familial answers. My wife and I ended up homeschooling our son for several years. We didn’t do it as a matter of principle. We were both graduates of public schools, and he was at public school. But there were certain personal issues of his that made it better and safer and healthier for him to be at home. And I think that you can have your principles and you can have your ideals, but ultimately what you’re going to have to do is negotiate with whatever your reality is. In some cases, you will be in environments where the local stakeholders are not interested in having any kind of conversation with you. In other places, you will find a kind of warmth and a welcome, or at least a willingness to converse. I just think that everyone, in answering those questions, really needs to pray for discernment. And I think the particular kind of discernment that they should pray for is to ask that they will be, as Jesus commanded us to be, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. My old friend and longtime colleague Mark Noll, one of the greatest historians alive today, used to say that the problem with his fellow evangelicals is that most of the time we’ve been as wise as doves and as innocent as serpents. So we want to flip that around and follow what Jesus says.
Cherie Harder: We have a slightly more personal question coming from an anonymous attendee who asked, “Professor Jacobs, how did being born and raised in Alabama impact your view of God, self, and theology? What worldview needed deconstructing and/or maintaining?”
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, I had a little bit of an unusual background in several ways. There’s a lot of things that I could mention here, but I’ll just mention one thing. My father was an alcoholic and a felon. Most of my childhood he was in prison, and when he came out, he was drunk most of the time and violent. I think [from] my particular growing up, the single most important thing that I learned was how important a father is and how desperately I wanted to be a good father to any children that I have. That was maybe the single most fundamental thing from my upbringing—which didn’t have anything to do with my being from Alabama, it just had to do with being from the kind of family that I was from. But the other thing about my father is that he was in the Navy in World War II and then spent several years in China afterwards. He was actually in China, he was in Shanghai in 1947, when Mao Tse Tung’s armies took over, and he saw the rise of communism in China. But he was very interested in Confucianism and Taoism and Buddhism—the three great ways of China. He was also interested in Shinto when he spent his time in Japan. And he came away from all that an absolute religious relativist. Who are we to think that our way is better than their way? All those millions and millions of Chinese—there are more of them than there are of us. Why do we think our religion is right and their religion is false? And so that’s how I grew up. Very, very occasionally, on my mother’s insistence, we went to church. But I did not have a Christian upbringing. I did not have a Christian formation. What I took in whenever my father was around was this corrosive skepticism and relativism. That’s not your typical Alabama upbringing, I don’t think. But that was really, really foundational for me. It gave me a kind of a critical spirit but also a profound awareness of the limitations of a critical spirit. It was a difficult path for me to get to the point of becoming a Christian, largely because of those habits of skepticism and relativism. My sort of background in Alabama—the main effect that has had on me is just a continued awareness of the tragedy of race relations in America. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I was five years old [and] less than a mile from the Birmingham Jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned. I grew up when the schools [were] being desegregated. And that has been really foundational. So when people say now that race is the issue that the church has not reckoned with in the way that it should, I 100 percent agree. I don’t think we’ve reckoned with it the way that we should. And to that extent, I welcome the recent attention to it. I don’t recommend it all, I don’t welcome it all; but I welcome a lot of it. That was really foundational for me. But I think in terms of how I ended up becoming a Christian and the kind of Christian I’ve become, that skepticism and relativism that I learned from my father and that I needed to overcome—that was really the most important influence in my young years.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one more question from our viewers. This comes from Allan Poole, who asked, “Where do you see hope for a rebirth of meaning in our own deeply divided ideological moment?”
Alan Jacobs: I wrote something the other day [about how] people say that these are terrible times for the humanities. You hear that said all the time. And when I hear that said, I often want to correct it and say, These are terrible times for the humanities in the university. But that’s not the only place where the humanities are. The humanities are happening right now, in this virtual meeting. That is, we have people who are getting together because they care about books and ideas and they want to grow in understanding and they want to grow in wisdom. And as long as that kind of thing is happening, then the humanities are in really good shape—even if the society as a whole, especially our educational institutions, are not in favor of it. I think similarly with the church, I’m one of these people who believes that—and this is something that I certainly saw growing up in Alabama—I saw lots and lots of people who were in church because it was socially unacceptable not to be in church. They didn’t care about God. They didn’t care about Jesus. But they knew that one of the necessary markers of being socially respectable is that you had a church that you went to. And if somebody asked you whether you were a Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian, you had an answer to that. All of that is disappearing, and it’s disappearing fast. And I think that’s great. I think that’s great, because what it does is to take away the situation that Kierkegaard was so upset about in his “Attack upon ‘Christendom'”: his sense that there were all of these people in his native Denmark who really, really believed that they were Christians because they were from a Christian country, they were from a Christian culture. And none of them had ever had a thought about the gospel of Jesus Christ. So to remove that illusion, that’s a good thing. This was, of course, Pope Benedict’s motto: “Pruned, it thrives.” That is, the church is going to have to go through a pruning. And when it does go through that pruning, then it will thrive in the future. I really believe that, and that’s where my hope comes from.
Alan Jacobs: I want to say two things about five protagonists of my story. The first thing is, they failed. They failed to achieve what they wanted to achieve. They wanted to transform education in the West, to take it away from rigid technocrats, and that didn’t work. And yet, here we are today, still learning from them, still drawing upon their wisdom, finding ourselves grateful for what they teach us. And I think that’s something for all of us to remember. We may have our goals and our sense of what counts as a success or a failure. But God may very well have good things in store for us if we remain faithful, and may use us in ways that we never imagined.
Cherie Harder: Alan, thank you. This has been a real pleasure. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.