Thursday, August 3, 2017

Tonsor: Introduction: Move to Ann Arbor II


Nothing against Nebraska -- in fact, I really like the state -- but I was eager to get back on the road. After adjusting to the U-Haul's ugly engine roar, I turned my attention to Stephen Tonsor's 1964 review of two books, one by a Marxist, the other by a Jesuit. The review turned on the use and misuse of tradition,[1] and if that sounds boring it was not. The essay put the professor's mordant sense of humor on full display.

With lacerating wit Tonsor laid into one Barrows Dunham, a Marxist philosopher who had gained notoriety in 1953, during the McCarthy era. When called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Dunham refused to name names. As a reward for this act of civil disobedience he was fired by his employer, Temple University, later that year.

What with that kind of experience Dunham presumably had something interesting to say. But trying to read him, according to Tonsor, was "equivalent to taking a transcontinental auto trip with a talkative but senile Marxist." Why? Because "Marxism has had its great scholars and at its best has created a viable intellectual tradition." Alas, "Mr. Barrows Dunham does not belong to this tradition. His work falls into the pressed-flower school of Marxian hagiography." The line made me laugh. And in case the reader had missed how Tonsor really felt, he pressed the case further: Dunham's work is "stupidly presented." His "research is slight and largely at the level of third-rate Marxians and second-rate popularizers. His 'Bibliographical Essay' presents the image of an unscientific, ancient, and fuddled mind."[2] Well.


Problematic as the pressed-flower method was, to Tonsor an even more serious problem was Dunham's willful distortion of what Marx called "the opium of the people": religion. Everything had to fit into the Procrustean bed of dialectical materialism, which warped the historic reality of Christianity:
"The account Dunham gives of Jesus will serve to illustrate the point [that Dunham's social history is only vulgar Marxism]. Jesus is presented to us as a 'social revolutionary,' 'the leader of an armed movement of national liberation.' His message was not eschatological, his mission not redemptive. He was simply anti-imperialist, a sort of proto-Castro. St. Paul is the counter-revolutionary theologian and the real founder of modern Christianity. Pauline theology ... describes, not realistically but imaginatively, the state men must inevitably be in so long as the wealth and power of a few derive from poverty and impotence among many.' Even for one who purports to have read the New Testament, these conclusions are astonishing. More conclusively, they demonstrate an ignorance of biblical scholarship.... No well-read student of Christianity, Marxian or otherwise, would today come to such absurd conclusions."[3]


Tonsor also had a real problem with Dunham's abuse of the past. As he explained, a writer appropriates tradition for one of two purposes. Either he is a political hack, a propagandist who weaponizes the past in order to manipulate the present to his purposes. Or he is a historian who seeks to understand continuity, development, process, and the present configuration of ideas and events. Dunham's propaganda was an object lesson in weaponizing the past -- at least it could teach students what not to do.

Tonsor then contrasted Dunham's propagandistic treatment of social dissent with Vernon Bourke's historical study of free will. Tonsor praised the Jesuit's careful exploration of the idea of free will in Western thought down through the centuries. It was a methodological masterpiece that teased out eight different views of will and traced their development into the modern age, and it clearly gave Tonsor much pleasure to read. 

Significantly, Tonsor's concluding paragraph addressed a question that had long nettled me. Conservatives complained of ideologies, but could Christianity be considered just another ideology? Was the Catholic humanist just fooling himself? Here is what Tonsor said:
"It is interesting to explore the Western intellectual tradition with a Marxist and a Jesuit respectively. For those who argue that dogmas are all alike in their antipathy for rational inquiry, the experience will be an enlightening one. Certainly there is a great and apparent difference between those who conceive of disciplined inquiry as little more than a weapon in the arsenal of the social revolutionary and those who conceive of truth as God's own to be cherished and loved for His sake. Of the two positions it would be difficult to say which is the more revolutionary. It is easier to point out which is the more barbarous."[4]


I wanted to meditate further on Tonsor's work, but my attention was drawn to a terrific thunderhead whose cauliflower top spread over half the state of Iowa east of Des Moines. For more than two hours the open landscape offered a stunning panorama of the storm's development. When I finally caught up with the lightning-laced cumulonimbus, somewhere in the prairie parkland east of the Quad Cities, I gripped the steering wheel tight. Underneath the storm's fury, torrential rain reduced movement on Interstate-80 from a canter to a trot. I was relieved when later that dark afternoon I could check into a motel in Lansing, Illinois, near the Indiana border. I hardly noticed how seedy it was.

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[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Tradition: Use and Misuse," Modern Age (fall 1964): 413-15.

[2] Tonsor, "Tradition," p. 413.

[3] Tonsor, "Tradition," p. 414.

[4] Tonsor, "Tradition," p. 415.