World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world, including liberals, Theos, and canine sacraments.
March 1 st 2014
Appears in Spring 2014

A TALE OF TWO LIBERALS | Juxtapositions can be both jarring and illuminating. This was my experience when I recently read, back-to-back, two books about leaders of the Liberal Party of Canada, separated by a century in time and a gulf in sensibilities. The first was Michael Ignatieff's new memoir, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. Alas, Ignatieff has more to say about the latter than the former; this is a memoir mostly about failure in politics after success in the academy. That's partly why Ignatieff has long intrigued me: he's like a contemporary embodiment of the philosopher-king, and this memoir is a cautionary tale about such Platonic dreams.

Ignatieff has a way of being confessional about his failure while deflecting responsibility onto those he failed to convince. He seems to have been bowled over by the gritty messiness of on-the-ground politics. Like most philosopher-kings, he discovered the republic is not cut to the measure of the harmonic heavenly Forms.

Don't get me wrong: Fire and Ashes is a compelling read and has moments of revealing self-knowledge from which others could surely learn (though Ignatieff lobbies just a little too hard to situate his book in the league of Cicero and Machiavelli). But it's the moments of continuing insulation that are intriguing. His failures are chalked up to the inability of Canadians to grasp "facts" ("It's not what you mean. It's what they hear," he patronizingly comments); or the pernicious strategies of his opponents; or because of his unwavering commitment to the "transcendent" ideal of "Canada" as a project.

Most telling, I thought, was his spin on how compromise happens. Ignatieff eloquently paints a picture of how "a common life is stitched together": "We persuade each other to compromise and abide by the compromises we make." But achieving such compromises is precisely what eluded him. And without realizing it, we can see why: the deadly combination of a "romantic" vision of democracy and a demonizing approach to his opponents. "Compromise is impossible," he says, "unless adversaries are open to persuasion. A person like me wouldn't have left a good life in the academy to enter the House of Commons unless the romance of democracy had exerted a powerful hold on my imagination." Thus Professor Ignatieff shelters himself from blame for his failure: if he failed to persuade, it's because his opponents weren't "open." But perhaps, just perhaps, could the failure be of the persuader?

Immediately after reading Ignatieff's tale, I read André Pratt's concise biography of Wilfrid Laurier, in John Ralston Saul's "Extraordinary Canadians" series. Laurier succeeded almost everywhere that Ignatieff failed, and it's hard not to conclude that this is precisely because Laurier understood the virtue of compromise. Indeed, the biography might have been subtitled, "A Career in Compromise"—showing us, Pratt comments, "that compromise is not surrender or cowardice, but rather daring and courage." In pulling together that remarkable modern achievement that is "Canada," Laurier exhibited a facility for compromise without capitulation. A French Canadian solidly committed to federalism, Laurier was a sympathetic figure who could empathize with all parties, including the First Nations.

At the end of his life, he continued to emphasize the practical import of compromise: "There were among us narrow-minded people who shouted, 'No compromise; all or nothing.' How absurd! When a minority declares that it will concede nothing, that it will demand everything and will accept nothing less, there is none so blind as he who does not see that the inevitable result will be: nothing. How can one not see that the majority itself will accept that doctrine [all or nothing], and will apply it without remorse to those who proclaim it!"

Granted, seeking compromise comes at a cost: the perception that one is capitulating, giving in, selling out. As Henri Bourassa, one of Laurier's opponents once quipped, "When he comes to the gates of paradise, the first thing Mr. Laurier will do will be to suggest an honourable compromise between God and Satan." So be it. Perhaps that is the risk we run, an odd sort of cross to bear: that we relinquish control of how others perceive us, and risk misunderstanding, and even castigation, because we are willing to pursue prudent compromises for the sake of the common good. We could do a lot worse. And in our age of sabrerattling stands and lines drawn in the sand, perhaps we do well to remember the virtues of a Laurier.

ROOTS, DEBTS, AND GIFTS | The indie-pop band The Head and the Heart sings a curious but provocative line in "Cats and Dogs": "My roots have grown but I don't know where they are." I wonder if this isn't a bit of a parable for where we find ourselves in the twenty-first century. In this sense, some of the most important work in "public theology" will be work that helps us know where are roots are.

Theos, a think tank based in London, England, is an organization you should know about. One might encapsulate their work on religion and society by saying that they are trying to change the story that is told about religion in an increasingly secularized Britain. Defusing the new atheists' harangue that religion "poisons everything," Theos patiently and winsomely points out the many gifts that Christians bring to British culture—in the arts, in politics, in contributions to the common good.

This task of "changing the story" also came to mind as I read a recent Christianity Today article that summarized the research of sociologist Robert Woodberry on the effects of global missions. While many like to trot out a familiar script in which foreign missionaries were the pernicious instruments of colonialism and oppression, Woodberry's careful, data-driven research has unveiled a very different picture: "Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations." In other words, contrary to the caricatures of postcolonial theory, Christian missionaries contributed to healthy social architecture in these regions.

There are other versions of a similar project. For example, John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, has undertaken a multi-volume history that traces the many celebrated virtues of liberal democracy to Christian sources—and to the insight and impetus of the Protestant Reformation in particular. In a similar way, Oliver O'Donovan's magisterial work, Desire of the Nations, traces the heritage of Western liberalism to the gifts—yes, gifts—of Christendom. While secularists claim to have liberated us from Christianity, O'Donovan shows that much of what progressives hold dear was unthinkable before the impact of the Gospel on the West. As he describes it in an arresting metaphor, "Like the surface of a planet pocked with craters by the bombardment it receives from space, the governments of the passing age show the impact of Christ's dawning glory."

Such an account was not always counterintuitive. Indeed, when I recently revisited the National Portrait Gallery in London, I was captivated by a Victorian painting that I hadn't noticed on earlier visits. It is an image ripe for postcolonial deconstructive analysis: a resplendent—and very white— Queen Victoria is regal and upright, receiving an ambassador from East Africa who is bowed, subservient, demur. Our discomfort with such a scene is an important reminder of the many failures of colonial efforts and the enduring racism that continues to plague us. But it would be simplistic and reactionary to thereby dismiss the story the scene evokes. We would miss a key feature of the image.

At the centre of the painting is a gift: a gilded Bible that the Queen is giving to her African guest. The artist, Thomas Jones Barker, is building on an anecdote circulating in the 1850s. When she was asked by a visiting delegation how Britain had become so powerful in the world, "our beloved Queen sent him, not the number of her fleet, nor the number of her armies, not the account of her boundless merchandise, nor the details of her inexhaustible wealth . . . but handing him a beautifully bound copy of the Bible, she said, 'Tell the Prince that this is the Secret of England's Greatness'"—the phrase Barker chose as the title of his painting.

It is not a vague belief in God or a generic appeal to "natural law" that has fostered, built, and sustained good social architecture in the West (and as Woodberry's research attests, around the globe). It is the distinctives of the Gospel and specifics of a biblical worldview that have made a dent on our societies. It is the very particular story and ministry of Jesus Christ, attested in the Gospels, that has left impact craters on the landscape of even twenty-first century life. That is where our roots have grown, and one of the tasks of public theology is to bear witness to these enduring gifts.

CANINE SACRAMENTS | We, the chattering class of Christian professionals, spend countless words talking about every nook and cranny of culture: education and family, art and commerce, church and work. And yet I can't help feel that there is a common cultural experience we almost never talk about, one that is almost ubiquitous, and is a source of untold joy and significance: the mundane yet fantastic experience of having a dog. (I'll assume that, somehow, in ways that elude my comprehension, it's possible for someone to have similar appreciation for cats. Anything is possible, I suppose.)

If you can, try to zoom out from our familiarity with this phenomenon and realize how remarkable it is: we let these descendants of wolves into our homes, we let them curl up on our laps, we leave them alone with our children. Not only that: we crave their attention, we soak up their affection, we miss them when we're away. I aborted plans for a sabbatical out of town in no small part because I couldn't bear being away from Daisy for five months—and couldn't bear the thought of her missing our daughter for that long.

I would trade a hundred "theologies of culture" for one good appreciation of the cultural significance of having a dog. Adam Gopnik's 2011 New Yorker essay, "Dog Story," is close to what I'm talking about. And one of the reasons I enjoy following Alan Jacobs and Jonah Goldberg on Twitter is because they are two brilliant intellectuals who unashamedly share pictures of their dogs.

If it's not (too) blasphemous, I would even suggest that there is something sacramental about having a dog—that they are gifts of God that embody something about the Father who embraces us in and through the cosmos. Not surprisingly, the poets are ahead of us here. John Updike's heartbreaking poem, "Dog's Death," bears witness to how a dog is woven into the ethos of a family. More recently, Mary Oliver's collection of poems, Dog Songs, is the testament of someone who gets this. "Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night" is a wonderful evocation of what I celebrate as a canine sacrament:

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I'm awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

Tell me you love me, he says.

Tell me again.

Could there be a sweeter arrangement?
Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.
James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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