“How did you find me?” It seemed an innocent question across the table of a cafe in the Dupont Circle of Washington DC. He had come from Germany, a political philosopher from the Konrad Adenauer Institute in Berlin, an advisor to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and this year is taking part in the German Marshall Fund exchange, where German political leaders come to the U.S., and the U.S. reciprocates, sending some of ours to them.
He told me that a colleague in Berlin had suggested he contact me for the conversation he wanted to have. At the heart of his interest was the relationship of belief to behavior in the public square. More to myself than to him, I smiled inwardly, knowing that there were many people who know more than me about that— even as I also know that that question has mattered to me since I was an undergraduate. When I finished college, I was awarded the prize for the senior student who cared most deeply about political responsibility, especially about what belief means for public life.
And then for years I taught on Capitol Hill at the American Studies Program; it was that work that brought us to Washington DC more than 25 years ago. Semester by semester we engaged our students from all over America and sometimes beyond, in the complex questions of public policy and public responsibility. That thread is woven through my being. Even yesterday, one more time, I gave an end-of-the-semester lecture there; no longer on the faculty, I often lecture at the beginning and end of their term, on the one hand inviting them into learning in the Capitol City, and on the other, asking them to seriously reflect on the responsibility of their knowledge, taking their study into the rest of life.
These are very difficult issues, very complex questions, always and everywhere, and human beings and societies have wrestled with them for our history as people in the world. To say it simply: there are no cheap answers.
But our common vocation is to work at it, hard as it is, perhaps as hard as it is in the political mess of this moment that seems so despairing. In an earlier day, 150 years ago in fact, Lord Bismarck, another German Chancellor, observed about his own time that if one wants to “respect sausage or law, you cannot watch either being made.” More often than we want, all we can say is a great “Ugh!” and groan with all of creation at the sorrows and skewedness of life. But then, after our sighing, what do we do?
I thought about all this last night, as over the last week I have written three endorsements for books that will be published in the next months, two by first-time authors and one by a much-published author. The latter, Abraham Kuyper, wrote extensively about this question, thousands of pages over the years of his life, eventually forming the intellectual backdrop for his becoming the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the early 20th-century. Over the years, I have found books of his that are first editions in English, and I prize them. For good reasons, while my deepest convictions about God and the world are Augustinian— his Confessions and City of God shaping the church in the world for 1500 years —without a blush I am glad to identify as Kuyperian too. His thinking about being human in the modern world was profound, seeing as clearly as anyone where the lines-in-the-sand are for every one of us all over the world.
The longer I read in the 400+ pages of his book, the more sure I was that I was reading a magisterial work. Called Pro Rege, this is its first time to be published in English, and my hope is that people on every continent will become his student, taking to heart and mind the depth and breadth of his vision for life in the now-but-not-yet world that is ours. The challenge is perennial, and his insights are too… because the truest truths of the universe are true for everyone everywhere.
(A piece of the Berlin Wall, a gift from my friend after our conversation last month.)