We Are Not Our Own

George Parkin Grant on the Deep & Abiding Tension Between Christianity & Modernity

Students, especially the most serious ones, often arrive at the university with high expectations. They imagine a place filled with professors who are masters in their chosen fields, repositories of a vast store of general knowledge, spellbinding speakers, cultured in works of art and literature, examples of great moral integrity, devoted to their students, and most of all, possessors of deep philosophical or even spiritual wisdom. Sadly, the real university professor is often a disappointment. Most professors are tolerably good specialists, but not particularly learned outside of their specialty, not particularly inspiring teachers, not particularly cultured, not particularly good as moral role models, and not particularly wise.

Why do so few live up to the expectations of the idealistic first-year student? The reasons are many. First, our culture tends to divorce knowledge from virtue. Second, the specialist structure of the modern university works against the intellectual formation of scholars with truly comprehensive minds, and should such scholars emerge by accident from the system, it works against the possibility of their being hired. Third, the publish-or-perish atmosphere of the university encourages the production of copious but shallow writing and thinking. For these and other reasons, the teacher who is deep and broad, humane and cultured, good and wise, is rare. Yet such teachers still exist, and where they exist, they command a following from the more thoughtful students and make an indelible impression upon them. One such teacher was the Canadian Christian philosopher George Parkin Grant (1918–1988).

Grant deserves to be better known to readers outside Canada, for he was a profound Christian philosopher of the public square. His writings, the result of deep philosophical and spiritual reflection, engage critically with the foundational affirmations of the modern secular world. From that engagement emerges a daunting picture of the tensions that exist between technological society and any form of conservatism, political or theological. The 2009 publication, by the University of Toronto Press, of the fourth and final volume of Grant's collected works, to which the page numbers herein refer, provides a natural opportunity to introduce him to those who are wrestling with the question of how, in a dynamic technological society, one can maintain both traditional faith and traditional conceptions of the ethical and political good.

Early Life & Conversion

Grant was the product of a British-Canadian system of education that is now defunct. With its emphasis on British and European history and culture, ancient and modern languages, the classics of English literature, and Christian religion, it sought to initiate the student into the great tradition of discourse which was Western civilization. Grant, as the scion of an educated, upper-class family in Toronto, began to learn this tradition at Upper Canada College, a prestigious private school in Toronto. Later, having acquired a degree in history from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he went off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship to study law, intending, upon his return to Canada, to take his place among Canada's social elite. The Second World War, however, shattered his career plans.

A pacifist at the beginning of the war, Grant volunteered as an Air Raid Precaution Officer on the London docks, and was witness to much death and suffering during the Battle of Britain. Later, having contracted tuberculosis, he went to work on a farm in Buckinghamshire. It was here that the defining event of his life occurred: "I went to work at five o'clock in the morning on a bicycle. I got off the bicycle to open a gate and when I got back on I accepted God" (358).

In order to understand the meaning of this statement, one has to understand Grant's religious background. Raised as a Presbyterian (his paternal grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister), Grant had been accustomed to churchgoing and of thinking of himself as Christian. But his Christianity had been a liberal, modern form of the faith, semi-secularized. As he put it, "I had been brought up in Toronto in a species of what I would call secular liberalism—by fine and well-educated people who found themselves in the destiny of not being able to see the Christianity of their pioneering ancestors as true" (358).

The idea of an actual experience of God was not part of the secularized Christianity in which Grant had been brought up. Thus, the event in Buckinghamshire was earth-shaking for him. In retrospect, he characterized it thus: "I would say that it was the recognition that I am not my own. In more academic terms, if modern liberalism is the affirmation that our essence is our freedom, then this experience was the denial of that definition, before the fact that we are not our own" (358).

The experience that God was real, and all that it implied, both for Grant personally (that his life was not his own) and for modern civilization (the horrors of which Grant had witnessed firsthand during the Blitz), reshaped Grant's life plan. When he returned to Oxford after the war, in 1945, he departed from the upper-class Toronto script for success, abandoning the study of law for the study of philosophy. For the rest of his life he would attempt to articulate a rational understanding of his Christian faith alongside an unsentimental analysis of modernity. As time went on, he would articulate the relationship between Christianity and modernity in terms of a deep and abiding tension, in which the modern claim that human beings are fitted for freedom, creativity, and autonomy was pitted against the ancient assertion that human beings were fitted for obedience, humility, and the practice of love and justice. Out of this tension sprang a form of philosophical writing which was unusually urgent and vigorous, and not infrequently expressed in a poetic prose of great beauty.

Philosopher & Teacher

Grant taught philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from 1947 to 1960. He then spent a year writing for Mortimer Adler's series, The Great Ideas Today, after which he moved to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he taught for nineteen years in the Department of Religious Studies. In 1980 he returned to Dalhousie to teach political science, Classics, and religion. Over the course of his career, he taught the thought of Plato, Augustine, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and many other thinkers, as well as thematic courses on religion and technology, and other subjects. His understanding of the course of Western civilization, and of its modern plight, influenced the thinking of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students.

Grant became one of Canada's leading political philosophers, and was the country's most acclaimed philosophical analyst of technological change. This was all the more remarkable as he was a conservative thinker at a time in Canada's history when conservative thought was generally scorned in both the academic and the political spheres. Over time, his thought spread beyond Canada's borders, influencing conservative thinkers in the United States. This was appropriate, as the core of his thinking was a philosophical and theological critique of technological society, a society more thoroughly realized in America than anywhere else. Yet his influence in America has not been great, and one of the purposes of this article is to show why it should be.

As a teacher, Grant presented a striking mix of incongruities. He was bearded, and large and bulky in frame, creating an imposing physical impression rather like that of Orson Welles, yet had a thin voice reminiscent of Winston Churchill's. He wore the conventional academic jacket and tie, yet was far from dapper: his clothes seemed thrown on rather casually, and he often sported dishevelled hair. As one of the last stubborn holdouts against his university's no-smoking policy, he would often sit in his graduate seminar with a mountain of ash perched precariously on the end of his cigarette, threatening to fall onto his protruding shirt or tie.

He was at once the most serious of teachers and among the most filled with joie de vivre. At one moment he might be brooding over the grave threat to Christian faith posed by the thought of Heidegger; a few minutes later, he might be skewering a Canadian politician with thunderous laughter.

His teaching method combined the Socratic style of discussion with the traditional lecture, but his lectures were most unusual, sometimes flowing with remarkable lucidity, at other times interrupted by stammering, long pauses, and hesitations. Like Wittgenstein, Grant often seemed to be thinking out deep philosophical problems as he talked.

Despite or because of these incongruities, Grant's seminars were riveting, as is evident from the fact that they were often attended by students not registered in the course, students from other departments, and his departmental colleagues—in one case, even the wife of one of those colleagues. When he taught Plato or Heidegger or Simone Weil, or probed into the roots of modern technological mastery, his graduate seminars were filled with a palpable intellectual and moral intensity that called forth the thought: "Here at last is the real university, the university I have been looking for."

A Public Thinker

Grant was more a philosopher of the public square than of the academy. Many of his books and articles first came into being as radio talks done for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), as pieces published in small Canadian journals and magazines, as addresses presented at conferences on the pressing social affairs of the day, or as chapters in anthologies on political and social problems. These writings ranged over a wide variety of topics, from adult education to abortion, from the school curriculum to the Vietnam War, from the influence of technology upon modern society to the influence of American culture upon Canada, from the crisis of the potential separation of Quebec to the spiritual and moral failings of modern liberal churches. He wrote philosophy with a strong sense of the real political and social world around him; while drawing upon the whole tradition of Western philosophy, he always remained focused on how the philosopher should think about the events of our time.

Further, he was a Christian philosopher, and this attracted to him a large number of Christian students, both undergraduate and graduate, who were striving to integrate Christian faith with the deepest thinking that philosophy had to offer. They saw in Grant someone who, like themselves, was struggling to find a way to live out an intellectually coherent Christianity within a modernity that was undergoing rapid scientific, technological, political, and moral change, change which seemed to be erasing all the traditional moral and religious landmarks by which they and their forebears had been guided.

This is not to say that Grant's only influence was upon Christian students. His works were read with great interest by the secular left, and had a great influence during the 1960s among academic political scientists and politicians in Canada, and among student activists, who thought they saw in his critique of technological society and of unbridled capitalism a call for a new and truly participatory politics of social justice. Indeed, Grant was one of the few Canadian thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s who could write in such a way as to bring Christians and non-Christians, the political left and the political right, academics and non-academics, into a common discourse about the great human affairs of the day.

Further, Grant's ability to generate important conversation transcended national boundaries; his writings drew the attention of a number of American scholars and thinkers, including Carl Mitcham, Frank Flinn, John Kane, Laurence Lampert, and, significantly, Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre, who saw to it that Grant's work English-Speaking Justice was published by Notre Dame University Press in 1985. Later, his Technology and Justice was published by the same press. Both of these works are included in the volume here under discussion.

The Last Volume

Over the space of nearly two decades, Arthur Davis of York University, in conjunction with others, collected and edited all the published works of George Grant. The year 2009 marked the completion of Davis's effort, with the publication of the Collected Works of George Grant, Volume 4: 1970–1988. The University of Toronto Press is to be congratulated for this handsome volume, which, like the others in the series, features meticulous scholarship by the editors and sets Grant's works in their historical contexts, to make them accessible to readers of future generations.

The breadth of his thought in this volume, which runs to nearly 1,100 pages, is impressive. The books and articles contained within it range over a number of significant topics—philosophical, religious, ethical, and political—from Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence to Plato's doctrine of the Good, from Rawls's account of justice to Rousseau's notion of history, from the effects of the computer upon society to the ethics of abortion, from Heidegger's polytheism to the Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, from the novels of Céline to the literary criticism of Northrop Frye, from Quebec nationalism to National Socialism, from the policies of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to the private writings of Gladstone and Disraeli. Yet this variety indicates no dilettantism; throughout all the varying material, one feels the integrating power of a coherent vision.

It is not possible to discuss every piece in a collection so large, but several works deserve special mention. In the first entry, the short but theoretically intense book Time as History, Grant elucidates the Western understanding of time as linearly directed, contrasts that understanding with ancient, non-linear conceptions of time, and indicates important connections between linear time understood as "history" and the modern Western emphasis on "will" and "creativity." He argues that the conception of time as history is a product of Western Christian theology, but ultimately undermined that theology.

The man who showed the corrosive nature of the historical conception of time was Nietzsche. Nietzsche taught that the "truths" that sustained the great cultures of the past, including Christian culture, were human constructs and thus transient products of the historical process. Once the artificial and historical nature of these "truths" is grasped, they no longer appear to us as truths and no longer have the power to guide us. We are left without a cosmic grounding for our action, and a darkness falls upon our wills. This darkness is the condition of modern man. Nietzsche's answer to this darkness is to call for the emergence of a new kind of man, a "superman," who can will resolutely and joyously in the darkness.

Grant accepts Nietzsche's diagnosis—that we moderns are in darkness because of our historicist rejection of eternal truth—but rejects Nietzsche's prescription. The darkness calls not for willing resolutely but for "remembering"—recollecting the ancient conception of an eternal and lovable good which lies beyond all historical change. This recollection is difficult, because almost all education today works against it, but it is our urgent task.

Time as History alone would be enough to establish Grant as a serious modern thinker, but the volume contains much more. English-Speaking Justice, which some consider Grant's masterwork, is an extended critique of the notion of justice that holds sway in the modern English-speaking world. Much of the book is a critique of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, conducted in light of Grant's extensive study of the tradition of political philosophy. Grant uses the (in his view defective) account of justice given by Rawls to move into a discussion of Roe v. Wade, which he sees as a harbinger of how the weak and helpless will be treated under modern notions of justice; against those notions he sets forth one grounded in the thought of Plato and the teaching of the Gospels. Along the way, he offers deep and penetrating remarks about the interconnection between modern views of justice and the rise of technological science, and the role of Protestantism in generating both.

Technology and Justice, Grant's last published book, brings together six of his previously published essays, some substantially rewritten, on the subject of "the modern paradigm of 'knowledge'" (588). For Grant, the modern paradigm of knowledge is mathematical science, and that science is directed at the conquest of human and non-human nature. He investigates the origin and character of this paradigm, and tries to ascertain both what we have gained and what we have lost by adopting it. He is particularly concerned about the weakening effect that it has had on our notion of justice. He thus continues the probing questioning of English-Speaking Justice, but expands upon the earlier discussion with reference to the thought of Nietzsche and Simone Weil, and with reference to the practical questions of justice posed by abortion and euthanasia. All the essays here are powerful, but particularly impressive are "Faith and the Multiversity" and "Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship." "Research in the Humanities," a scathing indictment of the "museum culture" promoted by modern publish-or-perish scholarship, is also well worth reading for anyone concerned with the direction of higher education.

In a separate section of the book, all of Grant's writings on Simone Weil are collected and introduced by sub-editor Larry Schmidt, an expert on the thought of both Grant and Weil. Included here are some wonderful graduate seminar lectures from Grant's course on Weil and a penetrating and critical review of Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage by Harvard psychiatry professor Robert Coles. This section is one of the most important in the book, because in Grant's later years he increasingly defined his Christianity in terms of the thought of Weil. He found in her an alternative to the triumphalism that, in his view, had infected all of Western Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, from the time of Augustine onward. Weil's attempt to connect Christianity with the religious thought of ancient Greece, the philosophy of Plato, and the Hindu teachings (especially those of the Bhagavad Gita) resonated with Grant, who more and more was convinced that the aggressive technological dynamism of the West was linked with an Occidental theology of will. In Weil, Grant found a way of reading Plato and the Gospels that allowed him to think outside of the categories of will and mastery, and in terms of a Platonic understanding of reason informed by the Christian notions of love and self-emptying humility.

The book is rounded out with an extensive set of selected undergraduate and graduate lectures from Grant's teaching career. The undergraduate lectures deal with Plato, Augustine, and the Bible, and the graduate ones are on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Leo Strauss, and Aristotle.

In the graduate lectures Grant shows formidable intellectual power, in particular in his comments on Kant and Heidegger. Heidegger is the thinker whom Grant at once regards as the greatest modern philosopher—for his penetrating metaphysical critique of technology and of modern man—and as the most dangerous of philosophers—for his rejection of Christianity and of Plato. Grant comments on Heidegger's frightening political misjudgments (for example, his initial support for the Nazis), but never forgets that Heidegger's errors in politics do not necessarily render all of his philosophy false.

Heidegger remains for Grant the modern philosopher that anyone who wishes to return to Plato and Christianity simply must come to grips with. Grant is certain that Heidegger is wrong, yet confesses his inability to adequately answer Heidegger's root-and-branch critique of the Western tradition. Despite his diffidence, however, he demonstrates a profound grasp of exactly what must be faced in the thought of Heidegger, and guides his students into constructive ways of responding to him.

All in all, this volume is an impressive collection of the thoughts of a formidable conservative thinker at the peak of his intellectual powers.

American Conservatism & Modernity

Grant's philosophical and theological conservatism has no clear American analogue. To be sure, aspects of his thinking can be found in various American writings. His critique of modernity and his praise of antiquity remind one of the thought of Leo Strauss. His views on education are reminiscent of Allan Bloom (whom Grant befriended when Bloom was at Toronto) and, in some ways, of Paul Goodman, the wonderful 1950s–1960s social critic. His analysis of the relationship between biblical thought and secularization is similar to that of Peter Berger, and his account of the history of Western political and ethical thought has something in common with that of Alasdair MacIntyre.

In other ways, Grant is reminiscent of the thought of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus; Neuhaus's quadrilateral—"politically liberal, socially conservative, economically pragmatic, and theologically orthodox"—is not far from Grant's own "non-right-wing" brand of conservative thinking, though Grant was less optimistic than Neuhaus about the power of Christian orthodoxy to right the nearly capsized ship that was modernity.

Yet despite all these similarities, there is still no truly Grantian American political or theological thinker. Grant is unlike most American conservatives, Christian or secular, because, for him, modernity is problematic at its very heart.

Many Christian conservatives, especially Protestant ones, tend to see the problem with modernity simply as one of application: science, technology, mass democracy, capitalism, and so on are good things in themselves, but have been misappropriated by an evil, secular humanism. If they could be put under the control of a revived, theologically and morally conservative Christianity, all would be well again. Secular conservatives have a parallel story: the problem with modernity is that science, technology, mass democracy, and capitalism, good in themselves, have fallen under the control of socialists, left-wing academics, government bureaucrats, liberal courts, and the like. If we could just go back to the way things were done before Obama, or before Carter, or before Kennedy, or before the New Deal, or before this or that court judgment, all would be well again.

Thus, in America, both Christian and secular conservatives share a loyalty to the fundamental features of the modern world; their conservatism is a modern conservatism. Grant, on the other hand, raises the question whether the fundamental assumptions of modernity can ever be compatible with a true conservatism.

For Grant, at the very heart of modernity is a radical affirmation of human freedom, will, and creativity. It thus expresses itself above all in technology, through which human beings exert potentially unlimited control over human and non-human nature. Such an orientation can never be truly conservative, for the essence of conservatism is to insist that some things—a religion, a constitutional tradition, an educational tradition, a judicial tradition, a moral standard—are worthy of preservation, even when they stand against the creative freedom of certain individuals or groups.

For a conservative, while freedom is a good, it is not the overriding good which always and in all circumstances trumps all others. It needs to be affirmed within a framework of other goods—virtue, loyalty, public service, wisdom, cultural traditions, and above all religion—which restrict it. And while some of the early modern thinkers, like Bacon, paid lip service to values other than freedom and the will to mastery, the overall thrust of modern philosophy was to exalt freedom above all other goods. Thus, the other goods are increasingly swept away in the rush of technological progress.

America was born in the age of modern philosophy. The thought of Locke, who was influential upon the Founders, was an attack on the European conservative tradition, the tradition of throne and altar. And the Founders understood themselves from the beginning to be charting a radically new course of human affairs. America was a country that would look not to the past, but to the future. It would be a country of change, not the status quo; of experiment, not of tradition. Its characteristic themes would be "progress," "making history," and so on. Thus, in Grant's analysis, America was never, in the broader historical picture, a conservative country. In his view, American conservatives did not want America to embrace the social and political teachings of Jonathan Swift, Richard Hooker, Thomas More, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, or Aristotle; rather, they wanted America to reaffirm the liberalism of the eighteenth century.

Grant does not deny that there was much good in the liberalism of the eighteenth century. It did affirm a notion of fundamental human rights which could not be bargained away by utilitarian considerations. It did call for the abolition of slavery. But, as he argues in English-Speaking Justice, that earlier liberalism was inherently unstable, containing in itself the seeds of the later liberalism that modern American conservatives deplore. Indeed, it was only successful in maintaining a decent society for so long because it was quietly underwritten by Christianity. The bare contractualism of Hobbes and Locke, even with the aid of the admirable checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, could not have sustained a society of justice and compassion without the underlying power of Christianity. Christian religion provided the social cement without which no constitution could survive. But with the erosion of Christian belief by modern science and modern philosophy, that social cement has vanished, and with it, the last pre-modern restraint. Without religious restraint, competing versions of "freedom" and "rights"—left-wing and right-wing—have pushed aside all other notions of the good.

To this analysis a conservative Christian might reply: all the more reason why we must once again reaffirm the Christian character of America, in order to bring science, technology, and moral philosophy once more under the control of spiritual ends. But for Grant it is not so easy. He sees the characteristic teachings of the modern age—human autonomy, the supremacy of will or passion over reason, an instrumental view of reason, the belief in "history," the denial of final causes in nature, the notion of "values" itself—as antithetical to the heart of Christian teaching. Where modernity speaks of freedom, Christianity speaks of submission to a divine order; where modernity speaks of mastery, Christianity speaks of humility; where modernity speaks of human relations made predictable by social science, Christianity speaks of human relationships governed by trust and love; where modernity speaks of rights, Christianity speaks of justice. Thus, for Grant, any analysis which suggests that we can easily combine the technological, mastering attitude of modernity with the teaching of the Gospels has not come to terms with what modernity is.

Critique of the Divided Life

One device for not coming to terms with modernity, employed by many religious Americans—indeed, by many religious Canadians, Australians, Britons, and so on—is self-induced schizophrenia. Many will simply let economics, technology, employment, business, and other such activities develop according to their own purely secular laws, and will conform to their secular rhythms, while pursuing religious ends on their own time, in their own voluntary communities. There thus has arisen a private/public split, whereby one can participate in, say, an intensely spiritual religious service on Sunday, while carrying out the secularizing agenda of corporations and bureaucracies and investment bankers on Monday through Friday. By this device something called religion is preserved, but the secularist substance of the public square remains unchallenged.

For Grant, this is inadequate. Religion must be something more than a periodic private escape from the barrenness of global technological civilization. It must be woven into the fabric of civilization. But how does one re-spiritualize a civilization given over to inherently anti-spiritual ends?

Grant has been criticized for offering no clear answer to this question. He has been accused of speaking too often of our entrapment in technology as a destiny, of partaking too much in Greek resignation, and of lacking the spirit of prophetic activism. This is unfair. He and his wife devoted much effort to the attempt to alter the position of the Anglican Church of Canada on abortion and the new reproductive technologies, and he wrote many articles and gave many public talks focused on the practical response of individuals and Christian organizations to the challenges of the age. He never recommended surrender to the modern juggernaut.

He recognized, however, that purely external resistance on individual moral and social questions was not enough. Conservatism cannot be merely a reactive stance, saying no where the modern world says yes. It must articulate an alternative vision of what is real, and, in light of that alternative vision, a different conception of human life.

The alternative vision cannot come from within the technological society. It must come from outside, either from those cultures which have not yet been completely assimilated to it, or from our own society's pre-technological past. For Grant, the greatest hope from outside is to be found in the religious traditions of India, especially the Vedanta (the teaching of which was given a prominent place in the religion department at McMaster, which Grant had co-founded). But for himself personally, the two deepest wells of pre-modern thought are always Plato and the Gospels. He does not discount the value of other parts of the Western tradition—he frequently mentions Luther's theology of the cross with approval—but he fears that much of Western Christian theology, whether Catholic or Protestant, has insufficiently stressed divine love and divine humility, and has overstressed divine will and divine power, thus providing a faulty model of the divine and contributing dangerous elements to the Western psyche. Thus, he will speak most often of those writers in the Christian tradition—such as Simone Weil—who take us back, past the Reformers, past the Scholastics, past even Augustine, to the original forms of Western spirituality.

It is in the critical and engaged reappropriation of the pre-modern traditions of mankind that Grant sees a glimmer of hope for a renewal of a conservative spirituality, philosophy, ethics, and community. In North America, this means a fundamental reorientation: a significant tempering of our worship of the new and the progressive, and a new respect for the thought of past—a past going back far beyond the foundations of both the United States and Canada. Thus, to speak particularly of America, from a Grantian point of view, even a return to the Protestantism of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries or to the political philosophy of the Founders will not be sufficient to provide a stable conservative society, for even those things were already shaped by modern notions.

Thus, before conservatives can overthrow the evils of modernity, they must appropriate a language (and with it, a way of thinking and feeling) that is other than the language of modernity. This appropriation can only be accomplished through the kind of ongoing spiritual and intellectual wrestling with modernity that Grant's life and writings exemplify. And that wrestling must be a kind of self-conquering; for if Grant's analysis is correct, the spirit of modernity is found even within conservatives themselves. Many modern conservatives labor under the illusion that the task is to defeat someone or something else—religious liberals or dastardly socialists—whereas in fact the true enemy of conservatism is a set of modern conceptions about God, man, and nature that conservatives largely share with their liberal opponents. 

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