Foreword to Anastaplo’s “The Christian Heritage”

by Martin E. Marty

Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service

Professor Emeritus, The University of Chicago

 Foreword to  The Christian Heritage:  Problems and Prospects(Lanham, Maryland:  Lexington Books, 2010), pp. xi-xiii

            This book is mistitled, but it is creatively mistitled.

            Hand me a book called The Christian Heritage and I will expect either a thematic approach, an A-B-C listing as if it aspired to be a dictionary or encyclopedia, or a more or less linear accounting, in the style of  “and then . . . and then . . .” that historians favor. True, the sequence of chapter subjects here is chronological, and those who are partly informed can find the pegs on which to hang them. George Anastaplo himself has a keen sense of chronology and does allude to some high spots along the way. One does learn that there was a Constantinian era “going in” and a Jeffersonian or Franklinian moment “going out,” as Christianity first seized and then abandoned its integral ties to the current civil orders. But teaching the A-B-C’s or the “and thens” is not Anastaplo’s purpose. In effect, he is saying or implying, “You can get that kind of thing in thousands of reference books; you don’t need one more.” And he is showing explicitly that what he has to offer will cast a different kind of light on that heritage.

            Even his cast of characters will surprise and perhaps frustrate those who look for a standard-brand reference work. Yes, he has a few ecclesiastical and theological titans on hand, without whom it would be hard to talk about the Christian heritage. We readers make chapter-length stops along the way with Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, but he is more interested in those who cast oblique angles of vision on the heritage. Pascal will do and, even more, the literary elaborators—Dante, Chaucer, and lesser figures. His zest is even more apparent when he deals with those who give legitimacy to the choice of terms in the subtitle: Problems and Prospects. It is hard to think of more profound creators of problems for custodians of the heritage than Schopenhauer, Paine, Darwin, and Nietzsche, or who brought more eccentric light than the author of Beowulf (perhaps a Christian), Maimonides the Jew, raunchy Boccaccio, and skeptical Montaigne.

            Anastaplo, as he organizes the book, having dealt with these major figures turns to themes and arguments. Some of these—for example, those that discuss Supreme Court decisions and tendencies—are not on points at issue now, and have mainly antique historical interest. But who am I as a historian to complain about antiques and dated stories? He found fresh things to say when the cases were live and can illumine our thought on replacement issues of today.

            Foreword writers are not called simply to run a finger down a table of contents and note what or who is there and who isn’t—such as, where are popes and kings? We are to try to characterize the author and her or his approach and achievement. Let me try to do this by picturing some of the aspects in Anastaplo’s approach to teaching and learning, so evident here, especially when he leaves undeleted some touches of the classroom experience.

            I like to quote Northrop Frye’s understanding of teaching, which works on assumptions like those I’ve heard about or seen or read about concerning Anastaplo’s style, often described as Socratic. Let’s say he begins by assuming much. This is not a beginner’s book, and few of his books are, even when they are envisioned or advertised as such. Woe to the unprepared sophomores at Dominican or Loyola or Dallas or Chicago or anywhere else that Anastaplo has sat among students at a large table with a skinny book on it. They have a problem.  The students know in minutes that he knows so much about the text and the context and the many things in the penumbra of both that they do not want to make fools of themselves. So they are quiet. Here is Frye:

[The teacher] is someone who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and  his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows. That is why it is the teacher, rather than the  student, who asks most of the questions. [Northrop Frye, The Great Code (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982, p. x)]

             Such an approach means that Anastaplo has to find things in the text that they may not have discovered in Cliff Notes-cramming or have lost with the midnight oil and the draining of the coffee cup. Many times as I read the chapters it occurred to me that “I’ve read Montaigne [or Pascal or Franklin] but I did not notice this or that before.” I hope the author doesn’t think it is belittling if I pay him the compliment of saying that he strikes me as a serious but ornery reader, teacher, and writer. Another word that came to mind is that he is an unearther of meanings. We’ve all been doing our figurative archeology with a literary site; we know it well–I can at least make some claims about knowing Martin Luther– which means we’ve dug up shards and little oil lamps and bone jewelry–and then he says, “But didn’t you notice this?” And in the text he shows what we had not seen before.

            One might call him a hermeneut not of suspicion, which is the voguish thing to be, but a hermeneut of complexity. He interprets with a willingness to see many angles and facets of a text and then he renders it simple, sometimes luminescent. I’ll never be at ease with Pascal’s “Wager” again after reading Anastaplo on the subject. Wagers demand willingness to risk. Anastaplo raises the stakes. I wish the people who want the government to provide legally sanctioned prayers because Franklin put in a bid for prayers at the Constitutional Convention would read Anastaplo’s accounting of the event and its meanings.

            I can’t say that readers will come away assured that they know what the Christian heritage is, what is in it, but I am confident that she will come away from this reading more interested in finding out, before arguments get staged. We live in a society which regularly asks for political candidates to defend values, but are hard-pressed to say what those values are. Majorities want the Ten Commandments posted on school and courtroom walls–but then cannot name what is in more than one or two of them. (We bat 1,000 on knowing the one against adultery!) A story that D. W. Brogan, a British visitor, told about this trait in American character and pattern in American practice (paraphrased):

Visitors come upon a woebegone, suffering, running victim who has been tarred and feathered after dissension in a town. Why had he suffered this ignominious torture? What had he done? What was the argument about? “The Monroe Doctrine!” How did it come to this end? “When challenged, I told them that I believed in the Monroe Doctrine, I live by the Monroe Doctrine, I love the Monroe Doctrine, I would die for the Monroe Doctrine–I just told them that I had no idea what was in it.”

 No doubt the tar-and-featherers had no idea either, but they had the power to enforce uniformity of values. George Anastaplo clearly knows what is “in” these parts of the Christian heritage, and he wants to teach others. But he knows he cannot succeed, even among intellectually high-powered college and post-graduate and “Great Books” readers who enliven his natural habitats, unless he gets their curiosity roused. Instead of using Power Point or a megaphone–do those readers who know him ever notice how softly he speaks?–he insinuates his way into the consciousness and consciences, yes, consciences, of those who claim the Christian Heritage and would push what they think are its values on others.

            I may not have the patience to reread Beowulf soon again to find those para-Christian values he hypothesizes are there, though I used the same delightful Seamus Heaney rendering he used, but when his name and the poem and the plot come up, I’ll be more ready than before to think of Beowulf and Jesus in the same sentence, as he did. I do read Montaigne regularly, and found my appetite whetted for rereading, as soon as I can set a few hours aside. Reading Anastaplo on my own will not be as informative or inspiring as learning with him at the head of a table or the end of a log, but he can’t go and be everywhere (though his vita suggests he has been everywhere). So having his book is one way of being able to create in the mind the experience of being in a seminar in which we are being challenged and because,  á là Frye’s teacher, Anastaplo is asking the questions being informed and inspired.

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George Anastaplo’s Christian Heritage Book is prefaced by this dedication (p. v): 

To the memory of the youngsters in the Sunday School class of the First Baptist Church in Carterville, Illinois, whom I was permitted to accompany, seven decades ago, as a respectful fellow-traveler

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