Friday, October 10, 2008

Know Your Betters

When making sense of a 21st century American political options, Arguing the World provides ample ah ha moments. Watching this documentary (SWPL #57) is like discovering who one's grandparents are. In short, there are the two Irvings - the Socialist Irving Howe (no religion, thank you) who founded Dissent in 1953, and the neo-conservative Irving Kristol (religion has a role to play) who founded The Public Interest in 1965. The film's other two figures, the formidable Daniel Bell and amiable Nathan Glazer, fall somewhere in between the two Irvings.

The training of all four of the "New York Intellectuals" was astonishingly rigorous. If, in the 1930s intellectual streetfight forums connected with the City College of New York, one delivered a public oration on a given position for less than two hours, one was considered less than serious. Some speakers - advocating Trotskyism or Marxism - could go on for five or six. Coming of age in this environment made Marxists of all four of these figures, but then the 20th century played its course. History proved, claimed Kristol, that there was an organic connection between Leninism and Stalinism. The only one who held to his radical dreams was Irving Howe. But the fact remains that whatever their position, contesting in such a context resulted in four seriously sharp minds.

Then came the Boomers. As different as Howe and Kristol are, they both perceived a distinct lack of rigor in the "New Left," who seemed interested in mere dissent. For young sixties radicals, even Irving Howe was suspect. He was old. The documentary interviews the now aging leaders of the student movement, leaving the unmistakable impression of inferior minds, inferior for not having submitted to one's elders, whether radical or neo-con.

Irving Kristol, in Memoirs of a Trotskyist, explains:
The radicalism of the 1930s was decidedly an adult movement, in which young people were permitted to participate. We young Trotskyists were as numerous as the adult party, but we unquestioningly accepted the authority of the latter. In contrast, the radicalism of the 1960s was a generational movement, bereft of adult models and adult guidance.
The theological parallels to this intellectual generation gap are unsettling. In his autobiography A Broad Place (ht: RJN), German theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes a 1971 conference including key figures such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Johann Metz, John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, and Joseph Sittler.
The discussions were hard but heartfelt, for our common concern was the one common truth. The conference was one of the last of its kind, before postmodern arbitrariness set in, and everyone was content with his own truth.
Keep in mind, that is not the complaint of a fighting fundy, but of a ranking liberal German theologian. Perhaps this is why contemporary theological ruminations of the "post-Evangelical" sort feel so - to use a fittingly unsophisticated adjective - lame. Like the "New Left," the dimness has much to do with not having learned the tradition, a tradition that many (though certainly not all) of our elders dismissed.

The tradition, however, is still there, and discovering it can be uncanny. Perhaps you will share with me the odd sensation that a careful, one-and-a-half minute reading of Summa Question 12, Article 1 solves most theological problems that best-selling books today are spinning their wheels about.

And where they don't spin, they get reinvented.