The editors discuss Mark Tooley’s article about how C.S. Lewis and Herbert Butterfield interpreted history, Mark Melton’s five impressions on Christian realism from the early Cold War years, and an event promoting Eric Patterson and Robert Joustra’s new book, Power Politics and Moral Order.

Rough Transcript

Mark Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley editor of Providence journal of Christianity and American foreign policy with another episode of Markism with fellow Marks and fellow editors Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton reviewing several pieces from Providence this week. I will address my own article contrasting C.S. Lewis and Herbert Butterfield on how Christians should view history, Marc LiVecche is going to take some shots at it, Mark Melton will share his latest synthesis of Reinhold Niebuhr seem to neighbors Journal in the years after World War II and Marc LiVecche among other topics will discuss the new book on Christian realism edited by our friends Eric Patterson and Robert Joustra. We hosted an event in our office this week unveiling this new book to which Marc LiVecche contributing his own chapter.

But first briefly, let me touch on my critique of the sacrosanct C.S. Lewis–long overdue for a critique–in that he wrote an essay in the 1950s in which he warned against what he calls historicism, those who try to interpret into historical events some larger meaning or purpose. Obviously in a secular classical sense that would be Karl Marx or Hegel, but somewhat surprisingly, he also takes on those who tried to interpret history in a Christian way as so we can discern God’s judgments through unfolding events. And C.S. Lewis says, as we should not, that we simply don’t have enough information about the events of the past to make those conclusions and we do not know where we ourselves stand within that narrative. Whether, towards the beginning, towards the end or somewhere in the middle. So C.S. Lewis councils that we should instead see God in our own personal day to day events–that is more than enough to base our lives upon and that we should by application trust the rest to Providence. With a very different perspective is C.S. Lewis’s contemporary the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield who wrote a lot about Christianity and history and is fairly enthusiastic about discerning God’s will through history although not dogmatically (I think he would agree with C.S. Lewis on that point), but he sees in the scriptures the basis for understanding that God is very much revealing himself through the course of human events and he says that firmly that to deny God’s presence in these events is to make him distant default back on the deist, clockmaker approach to God and or even not that he mentioned C.S. Lewis, but even to abstain from any attempt at interpretation is to make God more distant. So I think, in this case, Herbert Butterfield is correct and C.S. Lewis is wrong, that why we cannot be dogmatic, certainly, we should strive to try to understand God’s purposes in history, in the past, and in unfolding events up into our present time, so Marc LiVecche you disagree, at least in part, so your thoughts.

Marc LiVecche: Yeah I’m going defend the fourth person of the Trinity a little bit here being the good almost evangelical that I am. I think the disagreement is only a part, I think there’s real disagreement between Lewis and Butterfield, I don’t think the disagreement is that Lewis sees God is absent in history. I think some of the critique came close to suggesting that Butterfield offers this seemingly binary option in how we view history: either history is entirely chance or as he puts it, one can trace everything back to God. I think Lewis would clearly (I think you acknowledge this) reject the history is simply chance option, but I think he would be bewildered by what we mean by we can trace everything back to God. At one point in his article on historicism he does acknowledge if God would take history and lay it all out before us, and if we could somehow not only see history laid out before us but be able to keep within our minds all of history (so this is perfect access to all the information), and then God decided to comment on it–well then we would see God in history. So we’d agree with that. I think your emphasis on Lewis thinking we don’t have enough information to interpret history is the right point of focus. But I wouldn’t want to over emphasize that by suggesting Lewis doesn’t see God’s hand, as you as you quote yourself he sees God’s finger writing on history, just not sure we can read it, he is certainly scared of us making too much out of little things. I think some examples would be, I slipped on a banana peel and therefore missed my train. Is that chance? Is that God’s hand? Well if we if we suggest it’s God’s hand great, but what is being taught there, like what do I take away from that? Was I not supposed to go where I was trying to go? Am I supposed to rouse myself and really try harder to get there? Am I being punished? Is somebody else being punished because my not going there disadvantages them? We have information, we have instincts but we don’t know how to interpret that you know if Joe’s still well wasn’t in China when he was in China and somebody more open and empathetic and maybe wise is was, maybe China would have gone Communist. Well Joe was there, so does that mean God wanted China to go communist? Those would be the kinds of things that Lewis would say all we can do is what we know is right moment by moment and see God’s will in that. Even there, like you said, there is overlap.

Butterfield acknowledges there’s compromised freewill where history has some sort of weird interpenetration with human will and we’re not as free as we think we are so circumstances dictate what we do or there’s something like divine intervention. But I think even with those caveats, Herbert Butterfield would acknowledge, and this is putting it somewhat artlessly, that within history God doesn’t always get exactly what he wants. I don’t mean that in any fixed sense, but we have it on good authority that God desires that everyone would be saved, we have it on equally good authority that not everyone will. So in some sense God doesn’t get everything he wants so there is this weird interplay of human will and divine determinism and what that looks like I think Lewis would be certainly more hesitant than Butterfield to expound on. But I think it’s great bringing those essays together and I love the essay because I think it’s important. A practical question I have as an emphasis is what difference does that make? I would like to see both of them comment on that. Jonathan Sacks I think was wonderful on this, the late rabbi, when he said he’s often asked standing at the crematorium of Auschwitz, “Where was God at Auschwitz?” And Sacks says, “Where was God? God was here. He was here in the commandment thou shalt not murder, he was here in the commandment ‘love your neighbor.’” In one sense, however history is playing out I know what I ought to do and so I ought to do it. But great article I mean, I think I hope it generates lots of comment because I think that was a brilliant bringing together of two similar but also very different perspective.

Mark Tooley: Thank you, Marc LiVecche, I don’t know how Reinhold Niebuhr would have come down between the two, I think more Butterfield-ian then C.S. Lewis, but Mark Melton tell us about your essay synthesizing post-World War II Reinhold Niebuhr.

Mark Melton: For the past two years I’ve been going through Christianity and Crisis articles and have been picking out ones from roughly 75 years from the date and publishing them with editorial notes. In those notes I do research to figure out what are they actually talking about, because sometimes issues they thought were very, very big deals to them that people would know, 75 years later we don’t know what they are. So, I go back and figure out what are they talking about but also kind of expounding upon are there lessons here. Out of all those I have synthesized by overarching impressions lessons. So these are not five points that this is what Niebuhr and his people believed, because they also disagreed with each other and I kind of disagree with them at times. It’s not an explanation of what they thought, because we have lots of people who have already done that. This is more of my impressions and kind of drawing out my own view of what Christian realism is. The first point is talking about depravity and grace and the necessity of grace in that they looked at original sin as being very important. I think their view might have been a little bit different from writer to writer of what we might say today because they’re part of a modernist theological movement, but original sin was very important. And as others have written in our pages, that is a major difference between Christian realism and a lot of the other realist and other political theories that dominate today. One of the implications I find there is that from my own tradition, original sin, depravity that humans are not capable of doing good they rely upon grace for anything good that happens in the world. And I have a little section in there about how to interpret history which I would say is much closer to what Lewis wrote then what Butterfield wrote (but I also wrote it not thinking about or even reading those pieces there). That’s the first point, and then from that point of depravity that view influences all the other ones going down. The second one, I read look at H. Richard Niebuhrs article which is Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, talking about how you can’t have a utilitarian Christianity, that’s not really Christianity. That idea is you use Christianity for some other purpose such as, at that time it was good mental health. If you want good mental health repent. Well that’s not how Christianity works, and so I look at that for a bit and I draw lessons upon because I think this applies to some of the discussions; I hear a couple different camps amongst Christians. One camp would say we need a religious revival to save the country, and I would say, no, that’s not how it works; we need grace to save the country. Then also the post liberal camp. I think both of those views would get critiqued by the Richard Niebuhr article.

The next part is accepting the world as it is and this is something that we’ve talked about a lot, as you know, Christian realist need to have a robust understanding of the world. I think because the writers of Christianity in Crisis spent a lot of time researching the issues–they went to the places, some of them went to China, some of them like Reinhold Niebuhr went to Germany and went to Western Europe–and so I think because of that, as events happen, they choose the wiser foreign policy than what they were going for initially. One pragmatic bit, I don’t know if y’all would disagree with this, but I would say, for Christian realist for every book of you know theology, political theology, or some type of philosophy book they should read at least two books on history or other global affairs. Because I think Christian realists really need to understand what’s going on, and on that I cite I believe Nigel Bigger wrote an article initially that said stop reading so much philosophy and read more history. I think that is something Christian realists need to do. It’s great to quote Saint Augustine, but you’re not going to convince a lot of people based on that. You’re going to convince them if you know the subject really well. I think Christian realists needs to really harp on that.

I also talk about a difference between a kind and a nice foreign policy. I don’t consider niceness a Christian trait, in fact I believe that being nice can be unkind at times. This is one point when I think that some of the writers of Christianity in Crisis got some of the issues wrong. They were trying to be nice to the Soviet Union, thinking that they would stop being fearful and they would behave better. That ended up being unkind in the long term. I think the kind position would have been much a firmer position and trying to force them to negotiate in good faith and letting them know if you cross a red line there will be consequences. I think that it’s a kinder foreign policy, it’s not nice, but frankly being nice isn’t biblical whereas being kind is part of the fruit of the spirit.

And the last point I make here is talking about the need for democratic stability. What I mean by that is the government can’t force policies that are egregiously against the self-interest of its citizens. And I think they would disagree with that. Self-interest was a dirty word for them, and so they promoted some policies that were not popular. They chided Americans for not supporting you, for instance, the generous terms to the United Kingdom in 1946 and we gave them a loan. Americans didn’t want to do it so Congress didn’t do it, they would gotten voted out if they had done that. I think the Christian realists should understand that there will be limits to what the public will support and they’re going to have to live with that fact. We need to take into consideration the self-interest of the citizens and voters. I believe this is a point that a lot of our Providence contributors agree on, and this is probably more of a right of center position too. For instance at our discussion a couple of days ago with Joustra and Patterson they affirmed it is okay to look after the self-interest of your citizens as a government official–but that’s not something that the Christianity and Crisis authors did. That’s a point that I would disagree with them on. Yhat’s kind of a quick summary of all five–you can read all of them. It ended up being a longer article than I anticipated.

Mark Tooley: And then, finally, the new book on Christian realism from Eric Patterson and Robert Joustra, chapter by Marc LiVecche; a few words from you Marc LiVecche.

Marc LiVecche: Oh yeah great book it’s beautifully done. As Melton’s alluded to, we had an opening book launch for it the other day, they did answer the question about interests posed by an eminent scholar of Christian realism. They equate interests with responsibility. We have special obligations to our own. The book is great what he what they’re attempting to do in here is to jump on what they identify as a resurgence of interest in Christian realism that arguably began (I don’t know that they would agree with the Providence of this) but arguably began in some ways, under Obama, with a renewed interest in Niebuhr when he proclaimed Reinhold Niebuhr to be his favorite theologian. But they identified three generations of Christian realism and they divide this edited book into those three generations, the first being what they call the classical realists, and this takes us back to the English school and to you know so folks like Butterfield and Reinhold Niebuhr on the American side. Then they move into the Cold War realists, where Ramsey features quite prominently, and then they take us into the contemporary age of Christian realism, which I should note is heavily influenced it seems by the books table of contents by Providence and the work that we’ve been doing over the last several years. Every single author, except one (and technically two) have appeared in the pages of Providence. And all of them have featured largely in the pages of Providence so I take that as a positive sign that we’re up to something good. They acknowledge, of course, that Christian realism has its origins in scripture to it goes beyond the English school beyond Reinhold Niebuhr, it’s interpreted, you know up through Austine and Thomas Aquinas and Calvin and all those guys. But they decided that it would be salutary to have a collection of some of the key texts that helped form Christian realism over the these three generations and up into the present day. Readers of Providence I think will be familiar with a lot of the content, I hope, if we’ve been doing our jobs well, but I commend the book to everybody it’s quite impressive.

Mark Tooley: Thank you, Marc LiVecche. We will have to squeeze one more Marxism out of Mark Melton before his departure as managing editor next week thereafter Marxism dwindles down to a mere two Marks unless there is a providential intervention and a third Mark succeeds Mark Melton so be in prayer for a successor for Mark Melton, hopefully another Mark.

Marc LiVecche: We have a number of marks that we know that we can periodically bring in as guests Mark. –Well Mark’s gone. And so, Mr. Melton being your penultimate show, are you going to sign us off?

Mark Melton: Sure, alright people thanks for listening and have a great weekend.

Marc LiVecche: No, no, no until next time.

Mark Melton: until next time.

Marc LiVecche: bye bye.

Mark Melton: bye oh yeah that’s it.