Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review of Ron Dart's "The North American High Tory Tradition" - by Barry K. Morris

A Review of Ron Dart’s The North American High Tory Tradition, N.Y.: American Anglican Press, 2016, 337 pages.

By Barry K. Morris, minister with the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry, Vancouver, BC (and author of Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry, 2016)

Ron Dart’s new book is mammoth in scope and, for one relatively unfamiliar with his governoring “high-ness” theme, daunting to read.  Thankfully, his writing is clear, comprehensive, cogent, at points compassionate, cleverly polemical, and for I, (almost) consistently convincing.

One looks for some hints of familiarity, something and someone gratefully to attach to like a George Grant or a Charles Taylor. On the latter, there is a sensible and rather daring critique of an otherwise hard to dispute political philosopher; few seemed to have challenged Taylor and Dart’s constructive remarks deem Taylor to be unduly wedded to the modernity of the reigning status quo. Doubtlessly, some would quarrel with this. On Grant, there is a whole section III, dedicated to sound explications of what is Dart’s favourite Canadian political and, spiritual thinker. There are another six chapters where Grant is specifically associated and analyzed with others (Stephen Leacock being a favourite, as in 3 chapters and reminiscent of other Dart books like The Eagle and the Ox, 2006). Grant has got to be Dart’s number one nominee for the Canadian if not North American “public intellectual.” No surprise thus that the book’s last sentence ends with “… George Grant has pointed the way to … an ennobling place to live, move, and have our being” (277, cf. 160 “We are in desperate need of more George Grant in Canada at this time of distorted  understanding…May the hard work of Grant bear much counter-culture fruit in the future….”). Mind you, there is in Grant’s spirituality potentially poignant reflections on that sense of the Whole that are omitted in Dart’s book; this still yearns to be explicated [Grant hinted in English-Speaking Justice (1974) and interviews with David Cayley’s George Grant in Conversation (1995)].

One also thanks Dart’s willingness – albeit, sparsely – to write personally (the introduction and closing chapter are nuggets). One further looks for quotable quotes and here, there are plenty. There is a helpfully opening perspective in the book’s introduction: “…. to introduce the reader to the deeper philosophical prejudices and principles of Toryism (liberalism has its own principles and prejudices) and the consequences of banishing such a way of thinking and being from the public square” (xxiii). “Commonweal” and “commonwealth” come into timely play (and remind me of the best of the old CCF and even aspects of the NDP and the Greens). This goes on to include a bold, compact summation of the “Tory Manifesto”. Along with a later, critical summation of liberal principles (Chapter 16’s “The Matrix of Liberalism” and its six conflicting caveats), Dart helpfully provides a well written chapter called (and worth the price of the book) “The Tory Anglican Way and The Anglican Church of Canada” (Ch. 24). Along with its virtual twin chapter 19 of “The Anglican Tradition and the Red Tory Way”, Dart conveys a whole lot of history, political philosophy, Church politics, and inter alia, contemplative spirituality (being a virtual Merton-ian, how could he resist, but again, he discerns Canadian parallels in Grant and the Anglican tradition). There is this choice summation of a lot of political history expressed (a bit too) compactly, as “…. just as the spirit of  historic religion needs the ship of institution to carry it through time, so the (red or classical) Tory vision of politics needs the ship of political party to bring the political vision into being” (xxviii). And, in the concluding section of the book (I advise reading it earlier than later), Dart waxes eloquent tying the personal with the political, the spiritual with the societal, and the critical with the constructive.

Perhaps the heart of the book is Dart’s enduring and thus familiar engagement of what “red” means, which is exposited in taking seriously the popular adage that the Anglican church is the conservative party at prayer [cf. ambiguously, the “United Church of Canada is (or was) the NDP at prayer”]. “Red” or “high” or even “classical”– “deep” is also a candidate -- is deftly propounded as the radical heart beat of the conservative heritage and creatively twinned with the roots of the Anglican heritage. Put otherwise and commending chapter 19, above, in Dart’s words: it is nuanced and complex, in need of clarity, and in earnest conversation with the best of socialism assuming a critique of liberalism. Here Dart succinctly summons Gad Horowitz as a conversation partner. I was impressed with this skillful inter-weaving of red, radical, or classical toryism with deep aspects of the leftist traditions and again, a link to what follows in the book, namely: more feasting on George Grant. This is not surprising, given Dart’s almost magnificent obsession with the promising contributions of Grant. I am not aware of a Dart-authored volume without Grant being provocatively evoked and heartily commended (in balance with the head and soul). Dart’s specific writings on Merton and the Beatitudes seem mild exceptions.

There was a time when I felt convinced that it was roughly sufficient that there be the chief regulative principles of liberty and equality for thinking of and acting for the sake of social justice, and herein I followed my favourite theologian/social ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr. But then I read that Niebuhr and his successors also espouse order along with liberty and equality – and we could add forbearance or with Hannah Arendt and biblical faith, forgiveness. All of this, but especially the emphasis on “order” (in creative balance with freedom and equality), Dart assures us we find in Grant and in turn, his rich associations with the best of red or classical toryism and, in the end, the Anglican traditions (especially, again, the Dart aspired “high” Anglo-Catholic tradition). Thankfully, I was prepared for this, due to the late Kenneth Leech’s writings and Vancouver downtown eastside’s St. James Anglican Church’s early contributions and enduring participation in the broad-based community organizing of the Metro Vancouver Alliance -- with apparently few “low Anglican” parishes involved which supports Dart’s working thesis.

Are there any flaws or shortcomings in the book? I barely think of three mild ones and look for other forthcoming reviews’ critiques. One is that the cogent preface to the volume remains un-authored. A second minor modification would be Dart’s lament that in a previously Athens and Jerusalem edited volume, George Gant and Charles Taylor were not engaged together in an essay, when he himself had given these two a nodding treatment (p. 21). The third is the occasional repetitious nature of NAHTT inasmuch as Dart’s mentorship from and virtual evangelizing of Grant means that it is irresistible to work in aspects and layers of Grant’s thinking and, for many of us, neglected spirituality. In many ways, the book is a commendable example of what the late Baptist theologian/social ethicist, James McClendon, Jr., calls “biography as theology”. I would have also appreciated more references to Merton (there are six) due to the above involvement of Dart in this monastic’s rich legacy and ongoing Merton Societies. I have been assisted by Dart’s “practical theology” clarifications on Merton when the latter prophetically critiqued societal and global situations (via the reductionisms of militarism, racism, classism, sexism, ethnocentrism, ecocide, et al.). But Dart aptly notes that between the general and the specific there is an animating need for mediating structures and institutions, such as actual political parties – and I would add, meaningful, membership-rooted community organizations. In our era of desperate fragmentation and dislocation, these loyalties are challenging to make and difficult to stay with! This is where Dart’s interdisciplinary studies, writing and teaching – commingled with avocations such as mountain climbing, corporate worship, and music appreciation, with the creative inspiration no doubt of his musician and composer wife, Karen -- all come into creative play. There is much to glean in this book and I have barely scratched the surface. If this is not Dart’s magnum opus, then I have to wonder what possibly next? I dare that he presses to engage the pragmatic nature of how the above can indeed be constructively organized, critically sustained, and Grant-rooted, spiritually grounded.

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