Saturday, October 16, 2010

Political Ressourcement: Anabaptist Inaccuracies, Radical Orthodoxy, Red Toryism, and George Grant by Ron Dart

"George Grant was Canada’s most significant public philosopher."

Graeme Nicholson, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics (p. 323)


The Constantinian Fall Myth

There is a rather inaccurate and shallow read of Christian history that unfolds in this manner. Once upon a time there was the pure New Testament church that was faithful and true to the radical commitment to Jesus Christ. This period of time was short, and the fire did not burn bright and with much light for long. The 1st century soon gave way to the post-apostolic era, and in the 2nd-3rd centuries, the intensity and spirit of the martyrs gave way to assimilation, many compromises and a thinning out of the faith journey.

The most serious distortion and compromise of the church took place when Constantine came to power in the early decades of the 4th century, and Eusebius’ oration and adoring speech to Constantine made it clear that the church had now become a lapdog and dancing bear of imperial politics. The age of true prophets and genuine martyrs was over. It was just a matter of time before Theodosius and Charlemagne took control of the church and reduced it to a vassal of political power.

This tale, of course, continues to follow the same theme but with an interesting twist and bend in the path. The church had grown weary of being a servant of the state, so by the Middle Ages she asserted herself, and insisted that the church dominate the state rather than the state the church. I remember, with much fondness, doing my BA in my 20s in the 1970s. I had planned in specializing in Medieval thought and politics, and I took a course on church-state relations from 1050-1300. The text we used was Brian Tierney’s The Crises of Church and State: 1050-1300. The crises that Tierney so aptly described was divided into four phases: 1. The First Thousand Years, 2. The Investiture Contest, 3. The Age of the Lawyers, and 4. Aristotle and the National State. The clash can be succinctly summarized, without going into details, in this way. The church, following the lead of the Pope, insisted that the state had no room in church decisions, and the church had a legitimate right to question the state. This intense clash between church and state lasted throughout various phases into the late Middle Ages. But, the battle over who has power and in which sphere created a backlash. Many 16th century reformers were convinced that both church and state had compromised the pure truth of the gospel, and reformation was an imperative.

The Constantinian Fall thesis is the ‘once upon a time’ argument that is part of the myth and lore of Anabaptist history. The fact that the Magisterial Reformation of Luther and Calvin continued to be public and political in a way that used violence to repress dissent meant that the magisterial reformers were all part of the same sordid story. The Anabaptists argued that the mainstream protestant reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and tribe), like the Roman Catholics, compromised the gospel. Anabaptists argued that it was they and they alone that understood and lived the nonviolent life of Jesus and the apostles. But, let us halt at this point and ponder three points. First, did all the Christians from the 3rd-6th centuries (Patristic era) uncritically accept the Eusebian-Constantinian compromise? Did all Christians genuflect to Theodosius in the latter half of the 4th century? Did Ambrose and Augustine, Jerome and Benedict ask no critical questions about Eusebius and Constantine? Was Basil and Chrysostom, Theodore and Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus or Hilary of Poitier silent about the Constantinian-Theodosius compromise? Of course not! Most of the Fathers of the Church were at the forefront of challenging such an unhealthy compromise and weakening of the faith. Only those that have little or no understanding of the Patristic Era in church history would naively accept such a false and shallow reading of Christian history. Many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Patristic Era were prophets and prophetesses of the most mature order, and when we take the time to immerse ourselves in their mystical insights and high view of the church, we cannot but be held by their prophetic candor and subtle insights when it comes to Biblical exegesis, theology, sacraments and church-state relations.


Erasmus, Ressourcement and the Origins the 16th Century Peace Tradition

There is, therefore, a serious Anabaptist inaccuracy in interpreting the Patristic Era. The Constantinian Fall thesis is a thesis that can be easily refuted by a minimal understanding of church history from the 3rd-6th centuries. There is, though, a second point that must be noted. Ideological Anabaptists tend to pride themselves on being the real bearers of the Christian peace tradition as embodied in the Sermon on the Mount. It is significant to note that the Oxford Reformers (Colet, More, Erasmus,Vives) were doing peace theology before the Anabaptists in the 16th century, and many Anabaptists sat at the feet of Erasmus. In fact, Erasmus was much more critical of Luther and Calvin than most Anabaptists, and he consciously drew his peace theology from the Bible and the Fathers of the West and East. Erasmus was turning to the ancient sources in a way many are today, but Erasmus was also keenly aware and alert to the political and peace theology of the Fathers. So, it was not the Anabaptists that initiated the turn to the Bible and its application in the area of peacemaking.—it was the Oxford Reformers and Erasmus. And, I think it can be argued that the Anabaptists seriously lacked the exegetical, theological and ecclesial depth of Erasmus.

The tale of the peace theology of the Oxford Reformers is ably recounted in Robert Adam’s well written tome The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, and the broader Roman Catholic peace tradition is succinctly summarized in Ronald Musto’s The Catholic Peace Tradition. Needless to say, most of the finest Roman Catholic reformers of the 16th century that consciously turned to the ancient sources in the Bible and the Fathers of the Patristic Era (West and East) did so in a way that was highly integrative: mystical theology was linked to a high view of the church and a form of public and prophetic politics. This means, therefore, that those in our time that are turning to the older and deeper wells for fresher and purer water need to receive the full counsel and vision of the Fathers rather than picking and choosing, in a reductionistic manner, what suits and serves a more limited notion of the past. If some Anabaptists tend to have inaccurate understanding of the Patristic Era and the 16th century, there are those within the Ressourcement movement that commit the same error but from a different perspective—the Fathers, within this perspective, are reduced to mystical and ecclesial theologians---their prophetic theology tends to be ignored. Both the Fathers of the church and the 16th century Roman Catholic reformers (who turned to the Bible-Fathers as sources of insight and inspiration) had a unified view of contemplative theology, a sacramental and unified view of the church as the divine body of Christ and a Kingdom vision of faith that was decidedly prophetic.


The Myth of the Schleitheim Confession

Third, did all Anabaptists of the 16th century agree on how theology should be interpreted and applied? Were all Anabaptists absolute pacifists? Were all Anabaptists fully committed to the details of Michael Sattler’s The Schleitheim Confession (1527)? There has been a great deal of work done in the last few decades on the complex nature of Anabaptist origins. The publication of Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (1995) has made it abundantly clear that there is no such thing as a single origin to the Anabaptist tale: it is much more about polygenesis than monogenesis. This obvious fact comes as a disturbing contradiction to those Anabaptists that are still frozen in history with a monogenesis model.

I was recently reading Clarence Bauman’s pamphlet ‘Christian Discipleship’ (which is included in his larger tome, On The Meaning of Life: An Anthology of Theological Reflection: 1993) and John Redekop’s Politics Under God (2007). Both authors falsely assume and wrongly hold together a certain notion of Anabaptist history: the Constantinian Fall Thesis which seriously distorts the Patristic Era and early 16th century Anabaptism=Schleitheim Confession and a sort of monogenesis.

There is, obviously, a rather dated and shallow read of Anabaptist origins that still lingers in some quarters within the tribe. Those like Bauman-Redekop and Weaver-Yoder tend to fall within such a tradition and limited read of the origins of Anabaptism. Needless to say, such thinkers have their uncritical devotees. But, there is also a more sophisticated and subtle read of Anabaptist origins from within the clan. I mentioned Arnold Snyder, and equally important is A. James Reimer’s Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (2001). Kenneth Davis’ Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins (1974) has an excellent chapter (5) on the role Erasmus played in the peace theology of 1st generation Anabaptists. Needless to say, such pointers and hints need fuller and deeper probes, but the indicators are there for those wishing to follow the cairns.

It should be noted that many naïve postmodern Christians uncritically accept both the Constantinian Fall thesis and the rather reactionary notion of the church and church-state relations as embodied in Anabaptist ecclesiology. Gratefully so, the church in her 2000 year plus wisdom has pondered church-state relations from a variety of perspectives, and those who live, move and have their being from such a classical heritage need not accept, as many Anabaptists have done and do, a narrow view of the church or a simplistic notion of church-state relations. Those who are willing to let down their buckets into deeper faith-politics well should turn to From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought as a primer on the historic topic. The reason we turn to the wisdom of ‘The Great Tradition’ is to hear and heed what the communion of the saints can still tell us about the imperfect Body of Christ, and the relationship between the church in her organic historic life and her public and prophetic responsibility and ministry.


Radical Orthodoxy, Philip Blond and Red Toryism

There has been some fine and subtle discussion between Anabaptists and the Radical Orthodox in The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation (2010). John Milbank wrote the ‘Foreward’ to the slim book, and, for the most part, the articles are written by members of the ‘radical reformation’ as they have pondered the insights of Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy. The Gift of Difference is a judiciously informed book on how radical reform types might learn from the radical orthodox and what the radical orthodox can learn from the radical reformers. There is, though, serious and substantive differences between these two traditions that, when day is done, cannot be bridged. The radical orthodox are much more grounded in an intellectual, ecclesial and political historic way than the radical reformation types even though both clans can learn from one another at a certain yet limited level.

It seems to me that the Ressourcement movement must, if it is to be true to ‘The Great Tradition’, enter more deeply and fully into the prophetic commitment of those that made the Patristic Era the golden age of the church. I mentioned above From Irenaeus to Grotius as a fine overview of the topic. Amnesia is the besetting sin of the 20th-21st centuries, and memory is a form of intellectual self defense against much that distorts and demeans the past.

It is significant to note that the ‘Radical Orthodox’ movement in England very much sees itself as in the process of reclaiming and recovering the ancient sources as a means of renewing the church and society. Radical Orthodoxy has walked the extra mile in the last 20 years to target the origins of modernity (and the implications of heeding the liberal way), and offered an alternate path for the church to reconsider in her journey. The turn to the Classical tradition that is so central to the Radical Orthodox way holds together a deep mystical spirituality, a high view of the church and a substantive commitment to public and political life. There is little doubt that the Radical Orthodox tradition can come as a sophisticated and generous critique of those that turn to the Ressourcement way but ignore the public and prophetic dimensions of the church. The thinker who has been most alert and active within Radical Orthodoxy in a political way has been and is Phillip Blond.

Blond has moved the ‘Radical Orthodox’ clan from a group that was primarily preoccupied with the relation of theology to philosophy to the relationship between theology-philosophy and politics. Blond edited an earlier book, Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (1998), that reflected a more inward approach to theology and philosophy, but, in his most recent book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It (2010), we can see Blond doing political theology in a way most within the Radical Orthodox tradition have not.

It can be argued that Blond is attempting, in Red Tory, to thread together, within an English context, an integrated vision of faith, rooted in history and applied to the political issues of our time. There is something to be said about the ressourcement approach of Blond that is much closer to the Fathers of the Church and the 16th century Roman Catholic reformers. Blond, unlike some Anabaptists, has a more sure footed and consistent read of the tradition, and he is much more political than many who claim to be committed to the ressourcement approach to the sources.

Red Tory is neatly and crisply divided into two parts: 1) The Mess We’re in and How We Got There and 2) Alternatives. The ‘Conclusion’, ‘Why Red Tory?’, is a must read to get a feel for Blond’s use and justification of the term. There is no doubt that Blond has aptly and ably put his finger on the raw nerve of the problems of much contemporary intellectual and public discourse and action. There is an ample thinness and many worrisome and not to be missed inconsistencies that are back of the different crises that Blond describes. I do, though, have my questions about the ability of ‘the civil state’ to adequately deliver the goods. I have no problem in holding high Burke’s ‘small platoon’, but the communitarian left and civil society does need the essential role of the state to deliver social and economic goods when society falters and fails in their role. It is in the lived tension of state-society that the deeper Red Tory tradition finds its raison d’etre.

Blond, to the amusement of most Canadians, has used the term ‘Red Tory’ in his application of Radical Orthodoxy to political life. Red Tory was a term applied to the well known Canadian George Grant by Gad Horowitz in the 1960s. Blond’s book on Red Toryism has some affinities with Grant, but there are distinctive differences. I published a book more than a decade ago on the indigenous Canadian Red Tory way: The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (1999). I mentioned, in the missive, the line and lineage of Red Toryism in Canada, how such a tradition has substantive theological and political roots, and how the fruit of such a heritage is public and political. I touched on the marks of the Canadian Red Tory way and how it was under siege from Blue Tories. The fact that Blond has used a distinctly Canadian term that was applied to George Grant raises some interesting points. Blond and the Radical Orthodox movement see themselves as tapping into the ancient way—so does Grant. Blond uses the term, Red Tory, that was applied to Grant, and Grant is never mentioned in Blond’s writings or the Radical Orthodox clan—why is this the case? Grant was as radical and orthodox as was Radical Orthodoxy yet he finds no home in their inn.

Is Blond’s use of the term ‘Red Tory’ true to the Canadian origin of the term, and, if not, how is Blond misusing the term? Did Grant see himself as a ‘Red Tory’ in Horowitz’s use of the term? I co-edited a book a few years ago on George Grant, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics (2006). There are two articles in the tome that are pertinent to this article. ‘Was George Grant a Red Tory?’ by William Christian deftly dissects the Grant-Red Tory discussion, and Christian knows of what he writes--he is one of the leading Grant scholars in Canada. My article in the book, ‘Stephen Leacock and George Grant: Tory Affinities’ touches on the same issues. I had another book published in 2006, Stephen Leacock: Canada’s Red Tory Prophet. I mention these points for the simple reason that I’m not quite sure how thoroughly Blond has understood Canadian Red Toryism, Horowitz, Grant, Leacock and the older Canadian Red Tory way. My recent book on Grant, George Grant: Spiders and Bees (2008), continues to probe these issues yet further.

The fact that Radical Orthodoxy has such a classical notion of the church means that there are more points of affinity with Orthodoxy than with the radical reformation. This obvious fact has born fruit in Encounter Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Radical Orthodoxy: Transfiguring the World Through the Word (2009). George Grant had many an affinity with Orthodoxy also, and I have highlighted how this was the case in my article, ‘George Grant and the Orthodox Tradition’ ( The turn, therefore, by the Radical Orthodox to the ancient and time tried trails means that Grant and the Radical Orthodox have much in common (although Grant was decades before the Radical Orthodox in his intellectual sleuth work into the roots of modernity and the classical alternate to liberalism). Grant’s thinking and ideas permeate much of the writings and insights of the Radical Orthodox, but there is no mention of Grant in their publications. Why this is the case?


George Grant, Ressourcement, Red Tory

There is no doubt that Grant was committed to the Ancients as a way to counter, question and interrogate the uncritical attitude of many towards liberal modernity. In fact, Grant compared the ancients to the bees in Swift’s Battle of the Books—the modern liberal tradition is like the spider that spins out reality from its womb. Grant used such terms as enucleate, enfold and unfold to clarify the inner core of modernity and the implications of such a worldview and principles for the soul and society. Grant turned to Plato as his philosophical north star and to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as his ethical lighthouse. Grant tracked and traced the origins of modernity to unresolved tensions within the Bible and the Greeks, Jerusalem and Athens. Unlike many who see the origins of liberalism in the secular enlightenment, protestant reformation, late medieval thought or the high middle ages, the genius of Grant was to locate the origin of modernity at the very source and headwaters of western civilization itself. The clash between power and goodness can be found in a view of God as found in the Hebrew canon. Plato grappled with this tension in the Republic and Gorgias. The tensions between a God who is pure will, and a God who is Just is at the core of the complex nature of the Hebrew canon. Grant saw this most clearly and its implications for the unfolding of western thought and civilization. This is what makes Grant such a fascinating thinker. Grant is, in many ways, a sophisticated and charter member of ressourcement, but he has never been given his due and credit for his pioneering work. He has dared to go to places that few go and often paid the intellectual price for doing so. Grant has been called ‘Canada’s greatest political philosopher’ of the latter half of the 20th century, and the University of Toronto Press has now published the Collected Works of George Grant in four large volumes. Even these published writings do not exhaust the fertile and creative interpretive mind and imagination of Grant. There is still more to publish of Grant’s writings.

Grant would have little interest or patience with the rather dated and questionable read of a form of Anabaptism that caricatures both the Patristic Era and 16th century Roman Catholic humanist reformers. Grant, like Stephen Leacock and the 16th century Anabaptists, turned to the Sermon on the Mount as his ethical polaris, but unlike some Anabaptists pondered the relationship of church-state in a much more sophisticated way and manner. It is important to note that Grant had an impact on the well known Mennonite theologian, A. James Reimer, and Reimer wrote a variety of articles on Grant. Grant was doing the work of ressourcement decades before the term became trendy and popular, and he did so in a way that was wise, informed, integrated and applied. It was Grant’s application of ancient and classical thought to the reality of liberal modernity that makes him such a challenging presence. Many of Grant’s readable and accessible missives such as Philosophy in the Mass Age, Lament for a Nation, English Speaking Justice, Time as History, Technology and Justice and Technology and Empire are classical tracts for the times. Grant was, of course, too incisive and brilliant a thinker to be taken captive by the ideology of the political right, sensible centre or left---such forms of intellectual tribalism were themselves the product of fragmented liberalism. Blond is right, therefore, to be searching for a vision that transcends the left, centre and right, but we need to ask, by way of conclusion, where do Blond and Grant walk side by side and where do they part paths? We might just get a hint of an answer by entering a clearing in which the language of ‘Red Toryism’ is discussed in its Canadian context, Grant’s interaction with the term and Blond’s appropriation of it. Such could be fertile ground to sow new seeds of a deeper conversation at a variety of instructive and illuminating levels.

Ron Dart

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