Franz Rosenzweig still challenges the West eighty-plus years after his death. But as a teen-aged student, his often pithy diary comments suggested the later direction of his thinking and word-speaking. Consider for example November 17, 1906:
Words are tombstones.
Words are bridges over chasms. One usually walks across without looking down. If one looks down he is liable to feel giddy.
Words are also boards laid over a shaft, concealing it.
To be a philosopher is to open tombs, look into abysses, climb down shafts.
Word-speaking, word-pictures — such as we find in his Star of Redemption later.
[from Nahum N. Glatzer (presenter), Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998]
“Of hasty marriage, wasted time, false hopes, and misjudged powers the race of men must ever exclaim, ‘If only I had known!’ But we do not know. If you doubt this dark ignorance, listen to the average man discussing politics. You will be appalled that each vote counts one; and you will recall that men choose demagogues, not merely through wickedness, though that ingredient is always present, but through ignorance.” — George Arthur Buttrick, Christ & Man’s Dilemma, Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1946.
Astonishing cynicism, or a way to insight? Bear in mind Buttrick wrote right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a world war had darkened things already for many years (consider the Asian and African experiences, not just the period between 7DEC41 and VJ Day). And he focused his discussion on the dilemma of our ignorance, our inability to generate Light for life.
Of the demagoguery he mentions there are examples held fast in memory, the “Kingfish” Huey Long of Louisiana who was murdered at the capitol in Baton Rouge in 1935. Without forgetting his populist devotion to Louisianans, I associate Long’s remarkable saga with Sinclair Lewis’ fascistic Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here (1935). “Berzilius” rings as “Beelzebub” in my ears; but, well, it was a satire, though with plenty of American referents. Others have suggested other loose parallels — among the worst Hitler comes to mind.
It is not that people are “bad” or that they choose demagogues – and what American politicians can rise to the top unless they can “draw the people together” unto themselves to some degree? No, “bad” doesn’t get it. Says Buttrick, our known burden of ignorance pales before the “worse burden and deeper need” – that we are wicked. We know that, too, and mostly deny it. Though in admitting it we cannot help ourselves, we need a deliverer. A demagogue? No, but someone who can also take our mortality to task and assure us of Life. So, Buttrick ended his chapter on these themes this way:
- Man is constitutionally ignorant, endemically wicked, irrevocably mortal; but he knows it, and is therefore above his ignorance, sin, and mortality; yet he is not delivered from his lower life by his own power, but remains helpless without the Great Companion.
- There is no book logic to uphold, or refute, these contentions. There is only the logic of life: the reader must ask himself if this description of the paradox of human nature is true or untrue of his human nature.
- If he finds any truth in the description, he may be willing to ask further if the new-old words of the creed have an answering truth: “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, . . . and was made man.” (from the Nicene Creed)
Klassen and Zimmermann have given me much to think about in their book The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education. One chapter subheading alone rings the bell of reflection during my day: “Thinking is not optional: It is part of your Christian identity.” It is not just that our university is starting a Quality Enhancement project related to our accreditation, and that project focuses on identity as a key component of Christian servant-leadership development. It has everything to do with the deeper purposes of my teaching, so it is indeed a passionate proposition. I hope my students come to share in it.
In his discussion of those philosophers (in the lineage of Descartes) whom he referred to as instead ideosophers, Jacques Maritain wrote,
. . . a number of them would prefer, it seems, merely to be a channel for the stream of research, a vanishing instant in its ever changing self-awareness. Their misfortune is not to have seen that thought is not the harlot of time . . .
(The Peasant of the Garonne, 1968, page 102)
From “Goodbye to All That,” by Steve Wasserman www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php
— on troubling changes in the culture of literacy:
The “most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.” Continue reading “On Books — Their Importance . . . Or Not.”
Dorcas Rose McBride, in The Convention, by Will D. Campbell:
“This is politics, much as I hate that word. We had an old governor in Mississippi who always said, ‘people don’t come to political rallies to think. They come to holler.’ And he kept getting elected.”