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The Second One Thousand Years

A thousand years is a long time. Hence, Richard John Neuhaus has taken on a difficult task in formulating The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium. His decision to compile a collection of ten essays, each essay focusing on one figure from each of the past ten centuries, certainly creates a broad and illuminating angle on intellectual history, as the volume moves chronologically through Pope Gregory VII, Moses Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Abraham Lincoln, and Pope John Paul II. Any volume giving equable treatment to these ten men is a worthy venture, and this volume is consistently informative and interesting.

Its lingering problem, though, is one of focus. Neuhaus states: “There is no suggestion that these are ‘representative' figures. At least in some instances, they are figures who posited themselves against what might be taken as representative of their time.” But besides this sporadic opposition, it is not always clear what links together these ten essays. Neuhaus further offers the theme of the “Church militant”: “Christians cannot, and should not try to, expunge the irrepressible sense of history as the drama of testing, battle, and contention for the truth that is nothing less than the story of the world.” But to what extent should this spiritual conflict of the ages be manifested in the socio-political world? What should be the place of the church in political life? The volume does not offer a coherent picture, and one senses that the answer is not, and could not be, simple.

What does become clear is that the question is best engaged not from the direction of the church but from the political sphere. The chief irony of the book arises from the fact that, as the place of the church in relation to the socio-political order becomes increasingly convoluted after the Reformation, the engagement with the essential questions of the volume becomes more pronounced and profound. The two figures who best characterize this are the two men most directly involved in political governance in their day: Calvin from the sixteenth century and Lincoln from the nineteenth. Alister McGrath's essay “Calvin and the Christian Calling” sheds new light upon the first half of the volume: “The need for some kind of moral and intellectual shake-up within the church had been obvious for some time.… It is therefore both inevitable and entirely proper to explore the continuing impact of the Reformation, particularly concerning religion and public life.” In his role as the increasingly powerful civic leader of Geneva, Calvin is seen striving for the balance wherein Christianity would be “a faith that engages the realities of both personal and public life.” McGrath points repeatedly at Calvin's attempts to place the spiritual verities of the faith into the everyday workings of his city: “A culture of free enterprise flourished in Geneva, in large part thanks to Calvin's benign attitude towards economics and finance.… Calvin also articulated a work ethic that strongly encouraged the development of Geneva's enterprise culture.”

Calvin's success in Geneva (even granting all the baggage associated with theocratic regimes) points to a subtler and, in many ways, more sublime moment of success. The high point of the entire volume, Jean Bethke Elshtain's “Abraham Lincoln and the Last Best Hope,” is about a man who has less connection with the church and more connection with political life than any other figure in the volume. Indeed, one can trace the morality that moved him only through the vehicle of his political choices. Elshtain's careful reading of Lincoln's ideas allows her to see through his spiritual ambivalence to the fundamental concerns of his mind: “In this way of thinking, the Framers had not resolved but had only postponed the question of slavery, and Lincoln's sense that the time had come to move, however cautiously, toward a resolution had about it a force of obligation that he did not hesitate to call sacred.” In a context where both apologists for slavery and their abolitionist antagonists were quick to quote Scripture and to invoke divine sanction, it seems that Lincoln found a hard but true middle way.

Both the difficulties and the achievements of this volume are epitomized in the way the book is framed. In the very first essay, Robert Louis Wilken's “Gregory VII and the Politics of the Spirit,” the defense of papal authority over secular rulers is expressed in terms unequivocal, and is, thus, slightly disconcerting. Not everyone who is interested in issues of religion and public life will be comfortable, for instance, with this assertion: “Once the king had been directly accountable to God; now he was accountable to the pope.” Wilken does admit the awkward effects of Gregory's approach: “In the centuries that followed, as canon lawyers scoured earlier sources to provide a legal basis for papal authority, the church came to be viewed less as a spiritual fellowship than as a hierarchical and juridical corporation composed of clergy and bishops and pope.” However, Wilken's tone becomes defensive as he argues for the necessity of Gregory's heritage: “Yet Gregory's preoccupation with the constitution of the church cannot be dismissed simply as an unwelcome inheritance from medieval times that needs, in a more enlightened age, to be displaced by a spiritual conception of the church.… Whatever else the church is, it is very much an institution.”

In light of such claims, one might expect me to express disappointment with the choice of Pope John Paul II as the figure of the twentieth century. To begin and end the volume featuring a pope is a definite statement of the enduring force of the church in Western culture, but is this statement made at the price of an oversimplification, a return to parochialism? George Weigel manages a remarkable feat in transcending this danger in “John Paul II and the Crisis of Humanism” by redefining the key question of the volume: “If one believes that politics is not an independent variable in human affairs–if politics is a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is cultus, religion, what we cherish and what we worship–then a serious case can be made for Pope John Paul II as the man who most singularly embodies humanity's trials and triumphs in the twentieth century.“ It is the current pope who ”has demonstrated the resilience, indeed the indispensability, of religious conviction in addressing the crisis of contemporary humanism“ and who has embodied, throughout his papacy, the notion that ”self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing.“ This sort of reflection upon human community, so necessary to the flourishing of both the church and the political regime, epitomizes the valuable lessons to be gleaned from The Second One Thousand Years. If the parts seem stronger than the whole, this perhaps only reinforces the idea that millennia are tougher (and maybe less useful) to analyze than are individual men.