Archive for April, 2009

Resolved:  The Emperor Constantine was a blessing for God’s people and an instrument for good in God’s plan for the nations to serve His Son, Jesus Christ as prophesied in Psalm 2.


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[Hillsdale College, Convocation Address, April 16, 2009]
Bradley Birzer

President Arnn, colleagues, students, and guests, I thank you profoundly for asking me to speak.

Today is Easter Thursday, 2009, and we have passed beyond, at least in this Christian liturgical season, the time of great darkness, the time known as Tenebrae, the hours after 3pm on Good Friday, the moment when the world shook with the absence of grace.  The extinguishing of light, candle by candle; the stripping of the altar; the beating of the books; the departure from the chapel in a deafening silence.

Still, if we look at the state of the world, the state of our republic, the state of western and American culture, we still seem to be lingering in Tenebrae, the darkness absent of grace.  Hovering, circling, peering into the abyss, too timid to jump in, not strong enough to walk away.  Easter Day has come and gone, and western culture seems to have missed it—its reality, its symbolism, its joy, its glimpse of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful.

This is to state the obvious: we live in a time of great troubles.  When our present time of troubles began . . . well, it is difficult to say, definitively.  But, troubled it is.

Maybe it began eight years ago when Radical Islam once more asserted itself in a very bloody and tangible way; maybe it began when the United States deserted an ally in the spring of 1975; or when the Bolsheviks claimed victory in the autumn of 1917; or when an obscure Serbian terrorist killed an Austrian Archduke in 1914; or when a Russian dissident published “What is to be Done” in 1902; or when a terrorist struck Tzar Alexander II in 1881.

“The first bomb wounded several Cossacks of the Imperial Guard.  Tsar Alexander II got out of his carriage to see in person to the care of the wounded men,” Whittaker Chambers described in Cold Friday.  The Tzar “even spoke, ‘not urgently’ we are told, to the terrorist who had thrown the bomb, and thanked God that the damage was no greater.  ‘It is too early to thank God yet,’ said Grinevitsky, and tossed a second bomb between the Tsar’s feet.  The explosion tore him apart, and killed Grinevistky.  ‘Home to the Palace, to die there,’ muttered the dying Tsar.” [Chambers, COLD FRIDAY, 147]

This earliest incident reveals much about the divide between the old, Christian world, and the new, sterile world of terrorism and ideology.

Most likely, our time of troubles began long before any of these events.  But, without question, the time of troubles has increased in violence and intensity.  We continue to wallow in darkness, in Tenebrae, as citizens of western civilization.  We’ve flirted with the abyss for well over a century.  And, while as a whole, we’ve not stepped in—again, too entranced to walk away, too uncertain to walk in—we’ve watched many thrown in against their will, and we’ve stood by, all too often, in complete silence.

From any perspective, a look back over the recent past is messy, as the field of history and our vision of it, is obscured: littered with the victims, the Jewish and Christian martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It’s difficult to see through the limbs, the parts, the pieces, the charred flesh, the coagulated blood that once made up individual human persons, in origin, unique in dignity, time, and place.

And, through all this, one must ask: Why is God silent?

A Republic of Letters
But, I do not want to spend a convocation address talking about death.  Instead, I would like to talk about a Republic of Letters and the current state of the academy.

By a Republic of Letters, I mean a group of scholars that understands the continuity of generations; a little platoon that bears the glorious burden in pursing what is eternal through time; and a community of women and men of letters that willingly defends and explores the infinite mystery, uniqueness, and dignity of the human person.

Such a republic of letters might just lead us from this present darkness, this tenebrae.

As we enter into the heritage room we walk under the engraved Weaverian motto, “Ideas have Consequences.”  This, of course, is absolutely true.  But, it is equally true that the form—the very presentation—of the ideas has consequences as well.

In the western academy, many brilliant and well-meaning scholars drown in their own subjective realities.

We might trace this back to the most important trends and thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.    A look at three of the most significant men of that time period reveals much about the modern world and the ultimate denigration of the human person.  Though I could list more, I’ll list the three most obvious: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud.  Their ideas have had consequences.  Each, in his own right, offered some serious insights on the nature of man and of the world, whether we agree with the ideas or not.

But, the form of the ideas, as presented by each of these figures, is extremely important as well.  Each of these men, by focusing on a particular aspect of the human person, ignored the whole of the human person.  Or worse, each exaggerated the particular aspect claiming it to define the whole person.  For Marx, man is economic.  For Darwin, biological.  For Freud, psychological.  Each of these things is true.  But, man—a complexity and mystery even unto himself—is all of these things and so much more.

As scholars such as historian Christopher Dawson and theologian Romano Guardini, have penetratingly noted, modernity compartmentalizes all things—breaking things into units, and then breaking down such units even further.  In an attempt to dissect the thing, not only is the thing lost, but all connection to a universal truth and reality is lost.

So, three questions must be asked,
•    How do we move back toward true unity and wholeness without imposing a stifling conformity?
•    How can we place the human person back in the order of things—fallen, but bearing the image of God?
•    How can we bring the highest out of the person, elevating the best qualities while attenuating the worst without remaking that person in OUR own image?

One thing must be noted and noted repeatedly, for, I think, modernity and post-modernity has led all of us to believe, for a variety of reasons, that changes can happen quickly, that solutions come almost as quickly, and that all things are solvable.

Not all things are solvable and change that happens quickly usually only adds new problems and thus demands new changes and new solutions.  Because of the complexity of each individual person and the unfathomable complexity of existence itself, real change requires time, laborious effort, fortitude, and patience.  The world cannot be fixed over night.  If we want to reform the world, we must put the effort necessary into it and not look for the quick and easy fix.

As our colleague Mark Kalthoff has argued in his own scholarship, we must ask the right questions if we seek the right answers.  This is easier said than done, for ideologies, no matter how limiting or dangerous, continue to attract the attention of scholars “because there remains a culturally systemic misconception of four subjects: human nature, virtue, education, and tradition.” [Kalthoff, “Contra Ideology,” 222]

As another one of our colleagues, Richard Gamble, has recently claimed, we, as professors at a college dedicated to teaching the liberal arts, are part of a Great Tradition.   Not only do we join into the Great Conversation which began when God spoke the universe into existence, but we also remind ourselves and our students that the conversation has yet to end, and will not end until all things have been redeemed through the One.

As professors at Hillsdale College, we strive “to best develop the minds and improve the hearts of [our] pupils.”  We do so by inviting students to partake of the conversation, to speak with Plato, St. John, and Dante.  We must invite our students to become citizens not only of our little but mighty res publica, but of a larger one that transcends time and may, if so graced, enter into eternity—sojourners pursuing all that is True, and recognizing the humbling limitations of what can be known.

“What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine than reason?”, the great Roman Republican Cicero asked.  “When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom. . . reason forms the first bond between human and god” [Cicero, On the Laws, Book 1]

A man deeply rooted in the Great Tradition of the West and a follower of Cicero, Harvard’s Christopher Dawson, argued for a Republic of Letters, one that recognizes the continuity of thought and dialogue and sacrifice, generation to generation.

As proof of the power of the Republic of Letters, Dawson offered us this example: Without a Republic of Letters, “there would have been two completely separate cultures in the Protestant North and the Catholic South, divided by an iron curtain of persecution and repression which would have made the two parts of Europe as alien and incomprehensible from one another as Christendom was from Islam.  It was the influence of the humanist education that saved Europe from this fate. . . . [Melanchthon] establish[ed] a sound tradition of Protestant education . . . . Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study.  Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” [Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 36-37]

If we are to challenge—within any degree of success—the ideological hostility toward the liberal and whole understanding of man, we—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and women and men of good will—must fight as a band of brothers, a republic of letters, and avoid a “civil war of rival propaganda.” [Dawson, CRISIS OF WESTERN EDUCATION, 124]

“Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Dawson wrote in 1956.  “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”

So, as citizens of our little republic, we, as members of the Hillsdale College community, belong to a larger republic of higher education, to the American republic, to the, broadly speaking, Christiana Res Publica, and, ultimately, to change Augustine slightly, to the Republic of God.  Our citizenship belongs to republics within republics, in expanding, upward concentric circles.

Our citizenship belongs not to one republic, then, but to many.  Some are connected within time, others to eternity.

Perhaps, this is what Cicero hinted at, when he argued that all men who recognize their connection to the divine through Reason are citizens of the Cosmopolis.  Or, maybe this is what Addison’s Cato meant when he told the African prince Juba that one does not have to be Roman to have a Roman soul. [Addison, Cato: A Tragedy, 82]

What happens, then, when a small republic asks the world to remember what is good and true and beautiful?  How can one serve as a leaven to the rest, persuading the others to do what is right?

The American republic at its founding, it must be remembered, was a rather smallish place with a Protestant Anglo-Saxon Celtic population hugging the north Atlantic coastline.  Even its closest allies doubted the efficacy of republic government and virtue.
Critically, as historian Forrest McDonald reminds us, the founders were first and foremost liberally-educated men. When a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek.  He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 1-2]
Such an education was a norm of the American Founders.  Should it surprise us that they gave us the Constitutional Republic that they did?  That they understood the universal quality of natural right in men?  Here, the liberal arts leavened these patriots; these patriots leavened this republic; this republic leavened the world.

So, here we stand (or sit) in this place, as members of our wonderfully eccentric Hillsdale College, dedicated to preserving what has been given to us by thousands of years of thought and of sacrifice by men and women: from the Greek agora; to the Jewish Temple; to the Roman Senate; to that Cold Friday at the Place of Skulls; to a seat on the shores of North Africa, watching the Vandals descend, recording what we can over 14 years in the City of God; to a beheading under a Friesian sky as St. Boniface challenged one too many Norse gods; to an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise; to a stage where we are “merely players”; to the commons of Lexington; to the Hornet’s Nest of Shiloh; to a flight over September 2001 Pennsylvania skies, 8 years ago, knowing that no more innocents need die that day for a heresy.

The Light
This is Easter Thursday, 2009, and we have passed beyond, at least in this Christian liturgical season, the time of great darkness, the time of Tenebrae, the hours after 3pm on Good Friday, the moment when the world shook with the absence of grace—offering us a vision of hell itself.   The candles are void of flame, the altar has been stripped, the books have been beaten, and we depart the chapel.

What to do?  We peer into the abyss, into the heart of Tenebrae, do we jump in, do we walk away?  And, if we walk away (as we should), with what strength and what conviction?  With what purpose, with what will?

We stand here, in this place and in this time.  Our little republic should remind each one of us in this church, as well as those in academia and those in the republic at large that there are those who refuse to succumb to all the glittering trinkets of modernity, those who refuse to succumb to the easy solution of ideology, those who refuse to take that which has not been earned, and those who will defend the dignity of the human person to the last breath.

As we look back over the past century, we see much death and destruction.  As men and woman made in the Image of God were thrown into the fires of the Holocaust camps, the Gulags, and the killing fields, we might ask: where was God?  Why was He silent as such atrocities were committed?

But, novelist Michael O’Brien reminds us, God has never been silent.  As He watched the Fall, the depravity, and the destruction of his creatures by his creatures, He did not remain silent.  A Word formed within Him.  And, in the fullness of time, God spoke the Word, and the Word became Flesh.

Each one of us is a little word—carrying within us an icon, a perfect image of what God created us to be.

We cannot change the world overnight, no matter what we try, or how well we succeed in any one of our endeavors.  Remembering what is good, true, and beautiful; seeking reformation of what has gone wrong; calling forth that which is best within us and our neighbors and attenuating that which is corrupt and fallen requires difficult and consuming labor.  It demands patience, it demands fortitude.

As professors, we profess.

As liberally-educated women and men, our conversation “is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” [TSE, “Little Gidding”]

When Plato wrote, classical Athens was crumbling around him.  His preservation of the best of his time and his mind has repeatedly re-awoken the world to an extent he could never have anticipated.  The same can be said of Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, Thomas More, and the American Founders.

Some day, if we are blessed, the same may be said of us.

“In a time of troubles, they weathered the storm, they preserved the best of what had come before them,” a future historian might just write.  “They carried the one light, away from the abyss, and through the darkness.”

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O Happy Fault!  

I have been thinking about the fall.  What tragedy.  Adam had it all.  A pretty wife (who was naked all the time), an productive farm, and a good job (farmer, priest, king).  Adam never got sick, had no fear of death, and walked with God in familial communion.  He was the son of God, and the servant of God.  What a deal!


And then the rebellion.  It began with the serpent rising up against his God ordained place in the creation to seduce the woman, who, rising up against her God ordained place in the creation to seduce Adam, who, having neglected the command to exercises godly dominion over the creation, rose up against his God ordained place in the creation.  Amidst the order of God’s well balanced creation, Adam and Eve sought to be as gods, knowing (defining?) good from evil.  Boy did they get their wish.

Genesis tells us that their eyes were immediately opened… an interesting detail.  Their eyes were opened but their vision did not improve.  Rather, their eyes were opened and the darkness flooded their souls.   Death had entered the picture from the inside out.  Sin had destroyed everything.  

Sin destroyed Adam’s relationship to Eve.  Their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked.  No longer at peace with God, they could no longer be at peace with each other.  They had something to hide.  Thus began man’s constant effort to find a way to cover their sin.  Fig leaves would have to do. (Gen. 2:7).  Adam and the women were the first pelagians. 

Sin destroyed Adam’s relationship to God.  Our first parents heard the sound of God coming in the garden and they hid themselves amidst the trees.  Adam knew that God was coming in the judgment of the Day.  Fear consumed them.  No longer could they stand naked before their God with shame.  Responding to God’s call, Adam responded- “because I was naked I hid myself.” (Gen. 2:10). 

Finally, sin destroyed Adam’s hope of eternal life.  This was it.  This was judgment day.  I do not know what the threat of God’s primeval covenant, “the day you eat of it you shall surely die” meant to a folks who had never seen death or known its consequences.  Adam will know the full impact of good and evil.  The hour of judgment is at hand.  Death is the fruit of their rebellion.  The story of man is over.

Well, almost.  First comes the judgment of the serpent.  The head of the dragon will be crushed under the foot of the woman’s son.  God would destroy the rebellious union between the woman and the serpent.  He would create enmity between the woman and the serpent, between her seed and his seed.  Amidst judgment– promise.  Amidst curse– blessing.  The counsel of death has been transformed into a covenant of grace.   

This is the moment that Eucatastrophe entered the world.  Euatastrophe, that wonderful phrase coined by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe:

“the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, # 89 (7-8 November 1944).


The Church fathers put it this way- Felix Culpa (or O Happy Fault)!  What a blessing was found in the darkness of sin!  Grace has transcended our fall and made known the glory of God’s plan of redemption.  God has come in judgment and has given promises.  He has promised to restore peace between Himself and the seed of the woman by creating enmity between the woman and the dragon.  A Savior would come.  Sin would not be the last word.  Sin could destroy everything… everything but God’s plan for His people.

And so Adam responded to grace in faith, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”  This is no mere human-interest narrative about how Eve got her name.  Rather, it is an act of saving faith.  It is reliance upon the promises of God.  It is a living faith that restores Adam’s kingly vocation of naming, and in doing so, thinking God’s thoughts after Him.  

And what was God’s response to Adam’s confession of faith? “Then the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” Genesis 3:21.    By the grace of God a covering worthy of hiding their shame.  Far from a Mosaic fashion commentary, the word of God points us to the greatest Eucatastrophe.  

Sin will be dealt with, but only through the shedding of blood.  These animals died the death deserved by sinners.  Their lives forfeited for our lives.  But the blood of bulls and goats could only go so far.  Only so far as they pointed beyond themselves to the worthy death of one whose blood did merit deliverance and salvation.  The blood of the Lamb of God without blemish, the Lord Jesus Christ whose perfect righteousness would cloth those who call upon His name and rely upon Him as the only means of salvation.  That is, the precious blood of the innocent Savior who suffered the full penalty of sin, and rose again in triumph even over death.  This is Eucatastrophe, the heart of the gospel.  And so we say again, “O happy fault!”  


Not, of course, that we should sin that grace may abound.  But rather, we rejoice in the grace of God, by which, even in spite of our sin, in fact, as a direct response to it, we, His church, has been exalted beyond Adam’s wildest dreams in the days of innocence.  Consider:

1.  Because of the fall, man’s dignity has been magnified and the race has been exalted by the incarnation of God as man in Jesus Christ.  God entered into His creation as one of us.  What if God was one of us?  He was… not a slob like one of us… but the perfect man who kept the whole of God’s righteous law and suffered the whole of the penalty for its transgression.  


2.  Because of the fall, man’s dignity has been transformed by the resurrection.  Jesus Christ is not dead.  He is alive at the right hand of the Father.  The tomb is empty.  This is demonstrably true.  But more, not only is Christ alive but He has bestowed the Spirit of that new life upon His church.  United to Christ through the Holy Spirit, we have passed from death to life.  We who have been baptized have been baptized into His death and raised with Him into life everlasting… into the very mystery of the Triune God-head (Romans 6:3,4).  As the blessed Black Dwarf said, “God became man that men might become God.”  


3.  Because of the fall, we now reign with Jesus Christ in the Heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).  Not someday.  Not, “when do I get my crown”.   Paul tells us that we have been raised with Jesus Christ and seated with Him in the Heavenly places.  We are united to the mystical body of Christ in which there is no death, only the treasures of Christ.

Sin has made a hash of this world, and it makes a hash of our lives.  But, to the praise of God, sin… Adam’s sin… your sin… my sin…. cannot destroy God’s glorious plan for his people.  We maybe sinners whose twisted hearts dwell on the fading glory of this age, but we are also pilgrim saints united to Christ and  being prepared for a heavenly homeland.  Sin has made a hash of things… but with the fathers we can say, “felix culpa” Oh happy fault!  (that has lead to such a great salvation).

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The world’s abuzz about the “New Calvinists” but are they really new? Are we not  talking about the same old “new light”, “new school”, Awakening, Revivalist, democratized, populist Calvinism that has been the dominated, (despite the efforts of Old Westminster, and really Old Princeton) the Reformed wing of evangelicalism for the last two and a half centuries?  By “new” does Time mean “the same old thing” sans neck ties and proper grooming habits?

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With Cardinal DiNardo’s denunciation of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama, Hillsdale College Associate Provost, David Whalen, had this solution to offer yesterday:

“Good for the Cardinal.

Call me a cynic, but all of this–and more–must have gone into the calculations at the University in considering whether to issue the invitation. None of this hurts them. In fact, the more ‘astute’ at the University will be quite glad of the negative publicity. Not only does it qualify as ‘good’ under the old rubric that ‘No publicity is bad publicity,’ but the controversy helps reinforce the academic, left-leaning ‘bona fides’ of the institution, bona fides that Catholic institutions generally are fairly anxious to establish and maintain. All of this helps Notre Dame be what it wants to be—-independent, Catholic when being so contributes to its membership in the academic elite, non-Catholic what that contributes to its membership among the academic elite.

What could actually make the University sit up and take notice would be a significant number of seniors boycotting the graduation and setting up a shadow commencement at the same time. To create a separate ceremony–especially if the Bishop and Cardinals and sympathetic academics from all over attend as well–would be to threaten the University. It would suggest a loss of administrative control, would attract significant media coverage, etc.  Aim high—get as commencement speaker Cardinal Arinze or some other highly-positioned Vatican official, and the effect would be tremendous. As it is, people objecting to Obama’s selection contributes to the University’s thunder. Set up an alternative commencement with important dignitaries in attendance, and you steal their thunder.”

Thanks, David, for the excellent solution and for letting us repost it here.

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