I read with interest the article by Joshua Katz in the January 2023 edition titled “Grace and Serendipity.” In response I offer the following: I had just been named pastor of a parish (Diocese of Oakland, California) and was assigned a mentor, one of the senior priests. In our first meeting, I mentioned in passing that my mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and that it was “serendipitous” that I had been moved to a parish much closer to where she lived. Without missing a beat, Fr. Mangini, my mentor, responded, “It’s not serendipity; it’s providence!”
I found Katz’s meditation on serendipity helpful, but I agree with my mentor that serendipity does not contain a divine referent, which makes all the difference. Providence is grace, prevenient and actual, after all.
Rev. Jerry Brown
Joshua Katz replies:
The interest in my meditation on grace (Latin gratia) and serendipity has been gratifying (gratia, again), though hardly serendipitous. Some have told me that they especially like the one word and concept; others have said the same about the other. So far, no one has agreed, publicly or privately, with my proposition that the two make for a good pair. It is not surprising that regular readers of First Things would favor grace. Rev. Brown, to whom I am grateful (gratia, yet again) for his letter, is correct that serendipity is not explicitly divine, but perhaps I have been mistaken not to consider the possibility that all examples of what people call serendipity are themselves manifestations of grace.
If I had to choose between serendipity and grace, it would be the latter. And yet, whatever its relationship to grace may be, the cheerfulness of the word serendipity inevitably makes me smile, and I hope never to underestimate the power of the curious phenomenon that Horace Walpole referred to as “accidental sagacity.”
Eric Hendriks-Kim’s essay, “Why China Loves Conservatives,” is of particular interest to me (January 2023). He rightly identifies the emphasis on tradition in Chinese political thinking, and he emphasizes the significance of Leo Strauss’s thought among Chinese political philosophers. I have made two visits to Fudan University in Shanghai. In Fudan’s bookstore one can find translations of most of the well-known Western thinkers—Strauss of course—but also Eric Voegelin, Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and many others. I conducted seminars in their philosophy department on the thought of Michael Oakeshott. There was strong interest in his work among the students and faculty, which has led to translations of Oakeshott’s work (especially from Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays) into Chinese. When I asked the scholar who did the translations how he became interested in Oakeshott, he said that Oakeshott’s traditionalism was “very Confucian.” This led to discussions which suggested disillusionment with Marxism and with John Dewey’s progressivism, characterized as a watered-down version of Marx. Since then, a doctoral student from Peking University, writing on Oakeshott, spent six months at Colorado College working with me on her dissertation. Her grasp of Oakeshott’s thought was excellent. We discussed, among many other topics, his use of the word “agent,” which she found difficult to translate into Chinese. We finally agreed on “choice-maker” as a suitable translation. I was most impressed with the staff at Fudan (founded in 1905 and structured very like an American university), and their knowledge of the various strands in Western political thought. I have also recently served as external advisor on a dissertation on Oakeshott on education in Pakistan. The latter also emphasizes tradition and reverence for “forefathers.”
colorado springs, colorado
Eric Hendriks-Kim replies:
I thank Timothy Fuller for his very kind letter. It is reassuring that my observations of Chinese intellectual life—of the Chinese enthusiasm for conservative thinkers—resonate with his experiences. Overall, my essay, I think, has been well-received, not just among First Things readers, but also among my Chinese acquaintances, with whom I shared the link via the Chinese messaging app WeChat. Thus, it seems my little plan worked out, because I must admit that I had a corny, “pedagogical” motive in writing the essay and sending it to a conservative American publication. I wanted to highlight philosophical affinities between Chinese intellectuals and Western conservatives at a time when geopolitical tension fixates public attention on disagreements and conflict. The second part of my little “feel good” scheme was that I wanted Western conservatives to know they have intellectual friends all around. Young conservatives in particular, who have been increasingly marginalized and isolated in the leading Western institutions of culture and learning, may despair at the dominance of progressive-liberal ideology. But that dominance is local. To these young conservatives, I say: Most of the rest of the world thinks that your liberal-progressive colleagues are the crazy ones.
I’ve watched cancellations from afar but have never seen an up-close look at the bone, sinew, and muscle—the anatomy—of a cancellation. Scott Yenor provides such a look, as he chronicles the hours spent defending himself from absurd and bogus accusations, as well as the heartache brought upon him and his family (“Anatomy of a Cancellation,” January 2023).
A relative of mine showed up at a suburban public school in the Midwest to substitute teach. Upon arrival she was instructed by the school not to require two students to speak in class, since these students believed they were cats; she promptly left because she had no interest in playing make-believe.
Given her experience in the K–12 public school setting and Yenor’s trying experience at Boise State, I wonder: At what point are a person’s efforts crippled by the institution he serves? When does one deem these institutions beyond repair and move on to building and serving new ones grounded in reality? Has Yenor ever considered teaching at the classical Christian school he guides as board chair?
Certainly, Christians should be present in various spheres (“salt” and “light,” as Jesus says), and indeed I am encouraged by Yenor’s work at a secular institution like Boise State. But for the beleaguered and battle-weary, there are a growing number of institutions, like classical Christian schools and many Christian colleges, where one can serve enthusiastic students and enjoy having the cultural winds at his back. I believe these institutions are where it’s at, for they are rooted in the bones, sinew, and muscle of the cosmos: Christ, the Logos of Creation.
oklahoma city, oklahoma
Scott Yenor replies:
Thanks to Casey Shutt for his appreciation. From your fingers to God’s ears! Why don’t believers take their talents to aligned Christian schools in higher education or at lower levels? Why do PhDs serve institutions that hate America, Western civilization, and the faith, spending their time and energy serving a dark master? More and more young-enough professors are asking these questions. Inertia cannot be the only reason many stay. I, for one, announce right here that I am ready to listen to any offers from aligned Christian universities and universities informed by a deep appreciation for the Western tradition. My curriculum vitae will be made available upon request!
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