Liberalism was, in origin, criticism of the old established order. Today, it is the voice of the establishment. – George Grant
George Grant was Canada’s most significant public philosopher, meaning that his public was Canadian. – Graeme Nicholson
They are foolish and ill-educated men who don’t recognize that, when they get into bed with liberalism, it won’t be they who do the impregnating—but that they will be utterly seduced. – Grant letter to Derek Bedson Sept. 21 1965
The inside flap on the recent book about George Grant, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics (2006), says this: “George Grant (1918-1988) has been called Canada’s greatest political philosopher. To this day, his work continues to stimulate, challenge, and inspire Canadians to think more deeply about matters of social justice and individual responsibility. However, while there has been considerable discussion of Grant’s political theories, relatively little attention has been paid to their theological and philosophical underpinnings”. There is little doubt, in short, that Grant was the most important Christian public intellectual in Canada in the latter half of the 20th century, and for those who take their faith with some intellectual seriousness, much can be learned from George Grant the prophet, theologian, philosopher and engaged thinker.
Athens and Jerusalem walks the extra mile to highlight the deep theological well where Grant turned to slake a thirsty and parched soul. There is more to Grant, though, than the theological and philosophical underpinnings for his public vision. George Grant was an Anglican, and, sadly so, his Anglicanism has often been ignored. In the midst of the culture wars in the Anglican Church of Canada, Grant can offer us a way through and beyond the theological and ethical tribalism of left and right, liberal and conservative that so besets and divides us these days.
The fact that Grant attended Upper Canada College (with Anglican roots and history), and the equally important reality that his father was principal of the school meant that Grant was exposed, when young, to the Anglican heritage from a variety of educational and liturgical levels. Grant did his BA at Queen’s University in Kingston (a strong Anglican and historic Loyalist stronghold) and he was offered a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford. It was at Oxford that Grant met, Sheila, his future wife (who had taken courses with J.R.R. Tolkien). George and Sheila moved to Halifax Nova Scotia after WW II where Grant was offered a position in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University.
George and Sheila Grant became Anglicans in 1956 while Grant was teaching in the philosophy department at Dalhousie. Bishop William Davis brought the Grant family into the Anglican Church, and it is significant that it is Bishop Davis’ son, Arthur Davis, that is editing the 4 Volume Collected Works of George Grant. It was also Arthur Davis that edited George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity: Art, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, and Education (1996).
The turn by George and Sheila Grant to the Anglican tradition was preceded and formed somewhat by Grant’s PHD studies when at Oxford---his thesis was one thing, his interaction with the Socratic Club that C.S. Lewis guided so wisely and informatively was even more important. Sheila Grant once told me that it was the publication of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man,when George/Sheila were at Oxford, that did much to deepen and confirm Grant’s commitment to Christianity and the Anglican way. Grant was also profoundly impacted by another Anglican Divine, Austin Farrer, when at Oxford, and Farrer was one of Grant’s examiners for his PHD thesis. It would be remiss when pondering Grant’s indebtedness to Anglican Divines and poets to ignore George Herbert and Herbert’s classic poem “Love”. Herbert was a poetic mentor and guide to Grant in many ways, and it was Herbert’s compressed theology in poetry that so “enraptured” Grant.
Grant completed his DPhil Thesis at Oxford in 1950 on ‘The Concept of Nature and Supernature in the Theology of John Oman’, and in 1951, his article in the Massey Commission, ‘Philosophy’, stirred a hornet’s nest in the philosophic Sanhedrin in Canada. Grant began the essay with these words: ‘The study of philosophy is the analysis of the traditions of our society and the judgment of those traditions against our varying intuition of the Perfection of God’. He also argued that authentic philosophy was about contemplation of God rather than an analysis and description of God. Grant was decades ahead of his time in this suggestion. Such challenging words about the ‘Perfection of God’ and contemplative philosophy and theology did not please those who were neither interested in perfection, contemplation or God. In fact, Grant’s essay on philosophy so irritated and annoyed the philosophy Sanhedrin in Canada that, in 1952, the annual meeting of the tribe met to debunk Grant’s older notion of the purpose and meaning of philosophy—Philosophy in Canada: A Symposium (1952) sums up the Sanhedrin’s response with Fulton Anderson (Grant’s nemesis) writing the “Introduction”. The battle for the books at the level of public education was heating up and Grant was at the forefront with a more classical notion of the purpose of learning and philosophy that was being lost and forgotten.
In 1953, Grant delivered a paper, ‘Two Theological Languages’, to the Presbyterian and United Church clergy. The original paper and various additions are basic to Grant’s approach to doing theology in a post-Christian world. There is no doubt, though, that Grant was very much grappling with the relationship between theology and philosophy in this timely and telling essay. Grant sought to discern, in ‘Two Theological Languages’, the differences between the language of revelation and the language of reason. The language of revelation is appropriate within the life of the church, but, within the larger public world, it is the language of reason that dominates.
What is reason, though, and how are Christians in a post-Christian world to address their culture in a way that their culture understands? It is of little use, in short, to use the language of revelation in a culture that does not accept revelation as a form of authority. Grant was, in short, calling Christians to be fully bilingual; they had to know how to speak both the language of revelation and the language of reason if they were ever to communicate meaningfully to the church and the world. But, much hinged, of course, on what is meant by reason. It is this issue that led Grant to Plato and Heidegger. Their views of reason were quite different from the scholastic, empirical and Cartesian notions of reason that had so thinned out the older and deeper classical notions of reason as a contemplative and mystical faculty and organ at the seat of the heart and soul.
Grant’s lectures for CBC, Philosophy in the Mass Age, were published in 1959. It is obvious in these compelling lectures that Grant was grappling with the tensions between Plato and Hegel. Plato had argued there is an eternal order that we attune ourselves to, whereas Hegel argued that history is about the unfolding of our consciousness of liberty. Hegel is the grandmaster of emerging liberalism, and Plato of the ‘moving image of eternity’. Grant saw where the thinking of Hegel led, and he came to side with Plato, and the tensions between Plato and Christianity, Socrates and Christ.
I have mentioned Hegel for an important reason. Grant was raised in a thoughtful educational context in which Hegelian thought permeated and defined his upbringing. The dialectical idealism of Hegel that so defines the modern liberal project was what Grant took in with his upbringing. Hegelian thought, in many ways, has come to define the broader Canadian philosophical and political ethos, also. The Faces of Reason: An Essay on Philosophy and Culture in English Canada, 1850-1950 (Armour & Trott: 1981), Northern Spirits: John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor: Appropriations of Hegelian Political Thought (Sibley: 2008) and The Undiscovered Country: Essays in Canadian Intellectual Culture (Angus: 2013) all make it abundantly clear that Hegelian liberal modernity has played a significant role in shaping and forming Canadian theological, philosophical, educational and political life.
Grant had internalized, when young, such a Hegelian way, but, as he matured, he came to see the cracks and fault lines in the Hegelian liberal agenda. It was this seeing and seeing through Hegel that turned Grant to Plato and Platonic Anglicanism. Much hinges, of course, on whether Hegel or Plato, Plato or Hegel is held high as the north star and polaris on the journey. Grant came to oppose, in the clearest terms, Hegel’s misread of the ancients and Plato. It was, in short, Grant’s rereading of Plato’s insights as the “moving image of eternity” that brought him into conflict with Hegel and Canadian Hegelians.
James Doull was, in many ways, Grant’s philosophic mentor when at Dalhousie University in the 1950s. Doull taught in Classics, Grant in Philosophy. There came a point, though, when Grant came to question Doull’s Hegelian read of Plato and the Classics. It was this break from Doull that created many a problem, but such a break set Grant on a course that took him to an older and more classical Anglican read of Plato---- a form of contemplative theology and philosophy that was both mystical and political, a synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem—there was yet a thoughtful classical Greek vision to be mined that could speak to the hyper rationalist and hyper driven western culture and ethos. Hegel, in short, erred and misread Plato and the implications were momentous for church and society. Plato and Hegel, Grant and Doull were on a collision course. It was just a matter of time before Grant would leave Dalhousie in Halifax for York University in Toronto.
I should mention the important mentoring and tutoring role Grant played for many when at Dalhousie. One of the men he encouraged and affirmed was Robert Crouse (who became a significant theologian and scholar within the Anglican Church of Canada). Robert often stayed at our place when on the West Coast (he lived in his later years in Crousetown outside Halifax) and we exchanged many a fine letter. Robert often mentioned to me that his interest in the Fathers of the Church was inspired, as a young man, by classes with George Grant at Dalhousie—the Anglican King’s College in Halifax remains, to this day, a bastion and stronghold of a much older Anglican theological heritage—Robert Crouse was very much an elder and father to many when he taught at King’s (and Classics at Dalhousie). Robert, at the height of the theological battles in the Anglican Church of Canada in the last twenty years, was on the Primate’s Theological Commission—in short, Grant lived on through his representative Robert Crouse who, in time, became a mentor to many up and coming Anglican priests and theologians.
The fact that Grant had come to question Hegel’s dominance in Canadian life and the equally important publication of Philosophy in the Mass Age meant that Grant, by the late 1950s, had become, in Canada, a pre-eminent public intellectual---he often spoke on the publically funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on issues of significant import. ‘Christ, What a Planet’ was delivered in 1959 on CBC, and in this provocative reflection, Grant ponders the previous year and the future of the globe. He pulls no punches about the injustices in the world, but Grant’s understanding of the reasons for global injustice and a healing of such tragedies are quite different than the liberal tradition.
Grant was one of the first professors to be hired at York University, and he was the first to resign in 1960 for the simple reason that Plato and Christianity could not be taught in a positive manner (Grant’s battle with Fulton Anderson was at the core of the battle---this time it was Francis Bacon, who Anderson held high, or Plato who Grant gave the nod to---the philosophic wars were indeed intense). Grant was invited by St. John’s Anglican College in Winnipeg to give the Convocation address in November/1960. It is impossible to miss in the Convocation address Grant’s passion for Christianity and the dark clouds he sees on the educational, religious and political horizon. Grant saw in the 1950s-1960s many of the dilemmas Anglicans struggle with today, and he thought through the issues in a way that can still instruct and teach us.
After Grant left York, he was hired at McMaster University. Grant came to be hired at McMaster largely through the work of another prominent Anglican at the time, William Kilbourn (who taught in the History department at McMaster, and then became Dean of Humanities at York University). The Grant family attended the local parish in Dundas near Hamilton, and George/Sheila were active in parish life. George was fondly called the ‘Bishop’ in the area, and his review of a book on the parish, Fountain Come Forth: The Anglican Church and the Valley Town of Dundas, speaks much about Grant’s interest and grounding in the Anglican way.
Grant addressed the McMaster Divinity School in October 1961 on Jesus and Pilate, and by the late 1960s, after publishing his controversial, Lament for a Nation, he pondered the meaning of the Eucharist in ‘Qui Tollit: Reflections on the Eucharist’.
Grant began a most engaging correspondence with Derek Bedson in 1956 (when he became an Anglican), and between 1956-1984, twenty-eight letters were written by Grant to Bedson. Bedson, like Grant, was an Anglican, and in these letters, Grant pondered the meaning of Anglicanism in the Anglican Church of Canada. I have covered, in some depth and detail, the many themes covered in the Bedson-Grant correspondence in my book, George Grant: Spiders and Bees (2008). Grant was fond of the Swiftian distinction in Battle of the Books betweenthe spider and bee. The spider creates and spins out webs of reality from its womb, whereas the bee goes from flower to flower, drawing forth the pollen and taking it to the hive---sweet honey is the result. Grant and Swift saw in the spider the inner reality of liberalism---a convergence of liberty, making and power—no reality other than what we spin out of our minds, imaginations and wills. The bee, on the other hand, merely draws from the finest of what existed (the best that had been thought, said and done within the Great Tradition) and sweet honey is the product.
The General Board of Religious Education of the Anglican Church of Canada, in the early 1960s, asked Pierre Berton (an up and coming, former Anglican, to write a book on the issues the church had to face in the 1960s and afterwards)---the book was a popular form of trendy Hegelianism. Grant found Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew a shallow and thin book-- it is significant that Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (that was dedicated to Derek Bedson and Judith Robinson) and The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at the Church in the New Age were both published in 1965. Much hinges on whether Grant or Berton is followed down the Anglican path after these two missives were published. Grant points the way in Lament to a deeper and older conservatism, and Berton points the way to a trendy and ideological liberalism—the bee and spider are very much at the forefront in the different worldviews in these two important Canadian and Anglican classis of the 1960s. Much of the Anglican Church of Canada has followed Berton’s lead, and, sadly so, most conservatives who see themselves as Orthodox, have ignored Grant—Anglican High Toryism cannot be easily pressed into the service of either an uncritical liberalism or a reactionary conservatism---High Tories are much more judicious than to be true believers of either tribe.
The Anglican Church of Canada published a reply to Berton’s The Comfortable Pew---Grant was asked to contribute to the reply book, edited by William Kilbourn (The Restless Church: A Response to the Comfortable Pew: 1966), but Grant thought the book so foolish, it was not worth a reply. The fact that the General Board of Religious Education of the Anglican Church of Canada would pander to such trendy and cause de jour liberalism made Grant question whether the Anglican Church of Canada was seriously losing its exegetical, theological and intellectual way at a variety of ecclesial, synodical and seminary levels. Grant, as a classical High Tory, saw clearly what was going on at a deeper level in a way few did. It is significant that Grant ends chapter 1 of Lament for a Nation with these words from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream”. Grant saw much passing away via the dominance of a form of liberalism as progress ideology and he would not be silent. Lament for a Nation is much more, of course, than merely Jeremiah like lament for the defeat of the Progressive Conservative Party by the Liberal led party of Lester Pearson (and his fawning before President J.F. Kennedy)—it’s much more a lament for the passing away of an older vision of faith and society, an ethos of sorts that is quite different from the various forms of liberalism that were coming to dominate church and society.
Michael Creal, William Kilbourn and Ernest Harrison played significant role in both encouraging and supporting Berton’s The Comfortable Pew and The Restless Church. Harrison’s growing skepticism about both Christian theology and the church was worked out in a variety of books, but A Church Without God (1967) convinced Grant that significant leadership in the Anglican Church of Canada was losing any bearings or sense of direction.
This was also a period of time when the Anglican Church of Canada was seriously pondering the decision to create a formal union with the United Church of Canada—this, for Grant, would be disastrous—Grant even thought of leaving the Anglican Church if this occurred---the United Church of Canada embodied, for Grant, the co-opting of the church by liberalism---in short, the United Church had been impregnated by liberalism and most of her children were trendy liberals. Grant feared that the same fate would occur to the Anglican Church of Canada if such a marriage took place. The fact that Berton and Harrison had worked together at the highest levels in the Anglican Church of Canada to pander and capitulate to liberal modernity meant that serious problem were afoot. Michael Creal and William Kilbourn did not go as far down the skeptical pathway as Berton and Harrison, but Grant became, in time, suspicious of their more benign liberalism, also. I received this email from Michael Creal more than a decade ago (March 20 1997) regarding Grant, Berton and liberalism.
It is important to note that Creal, Kilbourn and Harrison worked together to support Berton’s The Comfortable Pew: Creal’s reply: “George Grant’s Anglicanism is not all that easy (for me) to describe. He was certainly not a liberal. He refused to contribute to “The Restless Church” because it was a response to Pierre Berton’s book (even though he—George Grant—was a friend of Bill Kilbourn’s and mine). The underlying liberal position of Berton was not something he felt the Church should waste its time on”.
Indeed, Grant, prophetic like, stood against the drift and direction of liberalism in both society and the church---the sheer fragmentation and relativism that were the children of such principles let loose meant nothing could be held together----divisiveness had come to replace unity, liberal ideology silenced and marginalized opposition---Grant saw this in the clearest and starkest terms and the implications of it for human nature, human identity, relationships, church life, social life and politics.
Grant dedicated, as I mentioned above, Lament for a Nation to Derek Bedson (a catholic Anglican) and Judith Robinson. Judith Robinson was a fiery Canadian nationalist who often had John Farthing in her home to discuss the larger issues of toryism and liberalism. Judith Robinson’s nephew, Harry Robinson, sat in on many of those fireside chats when a young man. The combination of Judith Robinson and John Farthing was a heady mix for the young Harry Robinson. Harry, in time, became an Anglican priest, and when Harry was rector of a parish in Toronto (Harry ended his days at St. John’s in Vancouver), Grant gave many a homily in Harry’s parish. Harry was much shaped and influenced by Judith Robinson, John Farthing and George Grant’s form of tory Anglicanism, and when the culture wars in the Anglican Church of Canada heated up in the 1990s, Harry was front and center in the fray. I asked Harry to write a memorial reflection on Grant’s life and impact on him ten years after Grant’s death (1998), and Harry’s article was timely and touching—again, Grant’s impact rippled forth in a variety of directions. It is interesting to note that Harry was much more committed to a more moderate low church Anglican way (evangelical and reformed), but Grant was wise enough to see the good in such a time tried party within the larger Anglican family—an interesting convergence, in some ways, between the catholic Anglicanism of Robert Crouse and the reformed-evangelical Anglicanism of Harry Robinson—both, in some ways, children of George Grant.
It is pertinent to note that in June/1966, Adrienne Clarkson (another Anglican and future Governor General of Canada) interviewed Grant for the First Person series. Grant makes it quite clear in this article that he thinks Western Christianity, for the most part, is near the end. Most forms of schismatic and fragmentary Protestantism have been totally co-opted by modernity, but the ‘Anglican Church has in it some of the ancient truth and therefore I live within it’. Grant saw in the time tried Anglican way ‘strange remnants’ of an older, deeper way that was much closer to the heart of Christianity. It was this “ancient truth” and “strange remnants” that drew and held Grant.
When Ted Scott became the tenth Primate of Canada (1971-1986), Grant saw the writing on the wall. Scott, in many ways, merely fleshed out Berton’s shallow liberalism. There is no doubt that Scott was a compassionate man, but the intellectual underpinnings of his thought were thin and meagre. Scott, in many ways, moved the Anglican Church of Canada further down the liberal path and trail. Grant was quick to see in Scott and tribe an uncritical attitude in the Anglican Church towards liberalism, and he also saw the consequences in the ethical and political realms of this attitude. Grant not only saw it, but he analysed the problem at the core and foundation levels: none were doing this at the time. Grant was, indeed, pro-occupied by what Canadian church and society were “enfolded” within and the “unfolding” of such principles in social and church life. Grant also saw his task as one of “enucleating” of what, at a deeper level, predetermined, how we approached ethical, economic and religious issues—if these deeper premises, presuppositions, prejudices were not examined, our approach would be enframed in uncritical ways and means.
Most conservatives in the reign of Ted Scott were reacting to issues and symptoms but not probing the deeper philosophic roots that produced the worrisome fruit on the tree of the church. Much was masked and hidden, often, by Scott’s seeming compassion and desire for dialogue (which often masked a lack of a foundation, core or center). Grant saw through all this, and called it for what it was. Ideas do have consequences, and Grant perceived, clearer than most, decades ahead of most, the corrosive nature of liberalism.
It is not very liberal of a liberal not to question liberalism, but the ideological liberalism of Grant’s day (and ours) had to be doubted and interrogated. Grant did this both in the Anglican Church of Canada and the much broader Canadian culture. He was often a lone voice, but he was a prophetic voice to the Anglican Church, Christianity and Canadian culture.
One of the finest Canadian painters of the 20th century was Alex Colville. Grant and Colville were close friends. Colville designed the 1967 Centennial coins—one of the coins is a lone wolf howling against the winds of the day. Colville told Grant that the lone wolf coin was dedicated to him---Grant, often, the lone wolf and prophet—many more need to know Grant and know him well.
I will, in the next article, discuss how liberalism further unfolded in the church and the world, and how Grant dared to challenge this reigning intellectual monarch that resisted opposition and dethronement.
Out of the Shadows and Imaginings into the Truth (Grant’s tombstone)