McKenzie observes–for the Christian–a consequence of historical analysis

“The serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals who did or said or believed things that we now hold to be immoral, even evil. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: towards self-exaltation–“God, I thank you that I am not like other people”–or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace–“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019, p. 99.

Another from St. Hereticus

In the chapter bearing the title Poetic Potpourri of a Priestly Peripatetic, he has this under the heading ‘A Theological Mother Goose’:

The Augustinian Blues

Ba, ba, black sheep,

Have you any will?

Yes, sir, no sir,

I can’t tell.


Won by my Master,

I’m in the church.

While the massa damnata

Is left in the lurch.

Robert McAfee Brown, ed. The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus. Including manuscripts that have not previously appear’d in print to which are annex’d two appendices on theological gamesmanship & one on researchmanship. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 113.

One more from St. Hereticus

In the chapter bearing the title Poetic Potpourri of a Priestly Peripatetic, he has this under the heading ‘A Revised Hymnary’:

Faith of Our Fathers, Wholly Faith


Faith of our fathers, once so great.

We must revise or be out of date,

We must distinguish kerygma from myth,

Or they won’t be worth bothering with.


Faith of our fathers we accept

(Save for the parts that we reject).



Faith of our fathers, keep it intact!

They wrote it down precisely exact.

Change no expression, no phrases delete,

Their propositions cannot be beat.


Faith of our fathers, keep it pure,

Relevance is a sinful lure.



Faith of our founding fathers! We

Now can express with clarity:

“God’s on our side, he’ll hear every plea

If we’ll expand our economy.”


Faith of our founding fathers! There

Is nothing quite like laissez-faire.

Robert McAfee Brown, ed. The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus. Including manuscripts that have not previously appear’d in print to which are annex’d two appendices on theological gamesmanship & one on researchmanship. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 115-116.

Poetic Potpourri of a Priestly Peripatetic, from St. Hereticus

In the chapter bearing the title above, he has this under the heading:

Extra Ecclesiam (Nostram) Nulla Salus

“We worship God in different way,”

A layman says, intent to please;

“It matters not what forms we use,

So long as are on our knees.”

A haughty cleric makes reply

In unctious words which go like this:

“You worship Him in your way,

I’ll worship Him in His.”

Robert McAfee Brown, ed. The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus. Including manuscripts that have not previously appear’d in print to which are annex’d two appendices on theological gamesmanship & one on researchmanship. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 108-109.

Watts’ early rules to circumscribe pride, promote humility, and encourage inquiry

I’m reading Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind. His first chapter is titled ‘General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.’ He grounds improvement of the mind first in sober self-reflection. He urges his readers to first consider how much misery could have been avoided in their lives had they properly exercised their rationality and made sound judgments. The beginning of understanding is to face the chastening reality that some things could have been better for me had I paid closer attention. This indeed is sobering, but sometimes truth stings. He does not propose to solve the philosophical problem of the reality of evil or why some people suffer unjustly. This rule is only a few lines. He simply calls upon his readers to face facts that some bad things could have been avoided with sharper analytical skills, wider awareness, keener perception, and precise reasoning. In popular parlance, life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid. Like I said, sometime truth stings. He’s not wrong, you know. His next rule is to consider the “weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature.” In other words, if life is hard, and if it’s harder when you’re stupid, think about much worse it is when everyone else is also stupid. Seriously, ponder this truth and consider how we have collectively made it much worse for ourselves. Watts does not offer a balm for the stupid, as if taking solace in a community of fools is much solace at all. Rather, he grounds any effort at improvement in a theological and ontological frame. We’d best begin at the reality of the fall. Not just you, it’s me, too. And not just me, but you also. Me, and you, and us. I should say that this book follows his Logick, albeit by many years, and that book is really the beginning point for this one. But I digress. Begin with a sober analysis of the fall.

Now that the ground is tilled, we are ready for the third rule, which is to “acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.” And what is coming here in a few lines is the paragraph that struck me. Watt’s begins with what is a familiar refrain: We don’t know what we don’t know. And this is the upshot of Watts’ book: to help us think through how to improve. No small wonder then that he begins by forcefully calling readers to grapple with ignorances, deficiencies, blind spots, prejudices, and errors. If you’re not willing to do that, stop kidding yourself with any attempt to improve and go back to whatever it is you were doing fifteen minutes ago. Now, he presents these rules in brief fashion, but I do not read him as presenting them casually or expecting you to tick them off like filling up the cart at the grocery store.

So then, under this heading he has some sub-points. The first is to urge readers to rehearse the wide, wide range of human inquiry: behold the breadth of the disciplines! How vast and wide! Next, consider the wide variety of questions and problems and intellectual real estate within the one area in which you are most expert. Watts is inching us along toward greater self-awareness. From the big picture of all the disciplines of learning, he moves us to our speciality, our focus, our majors, our own little area of training and expertise. This, of all branches of learning, ought to be where we are most familiar, and out of that familiarity we are perhaps in the best position to take stock of our limitations. His third sub-point presses this a bit further, taking an example from geometry.

“Spend a thoughts sometimes on the puzzling Enquiries concerning Vacuums and Atoms, the Doctrine of Infinites, Indivisibles and Incommensurables in Geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable Diffi-[p. 9] culties: Do this on Purpose to give you a more sensible Impression of the Poverty of your Understanding, and the Imperfection of your Knowledge. This will teach you what a vain Thing it is to fancy that you know all Things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present Attainments, when every Dust of the Earth, and every Inch of empty Space, surmounts your Understanding, and tramples over your Presumption.”

I. Watts, The Improvement of the Mind… 4th London edition, 1761, pp. 8-9.

Saul Bellow, among other things on the way to something else, says this about his writing

“From a different standpoint, American readers sometimes object to a kind of foreignness in my books. I mention Old World writers, I have highbrow airs, and appear to put on the dog. I readily concede that here and there I am probably hard to read, and I am likely to become harder as the illiteracy of the public increases. It is never an easy task to take the mental measure of your readers. There are things that people should know if they are to read books at all, and out of respect for them, or to save appearances, one is apt to assume more familiarity on their part with the history of the twentieth century than is objectively justified. Besides, a certain psychic unity is always taken for granted by writers. “Others are in essence like me and I am basically like them, give or take a few minor differences.” A piece of writing is an offering. You bring it to the altar and hope it will be accepted. You pray at least that rejection will not throw you into a rage and turn you into a Cain. Perhaps naively, you produce your favorite treasures and pile them in an indiscriminate heap. Those who do not recognize their value now may do so later. And you do not always feel that you are writing for any of your contemporaries. It may well be that your true readers are not here as yet and that your books will cause them to materialize.”

–Saul Bellow, ‘Foreword’ to Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), p. 15.

Skip the bosh and twaddle

Below T. R. advises son Kermit re. his reading strategy. I don’t know three things about Teddy Roosevelt, but this quote is smart and crisp and so it makes the cut for inclusion in my higgledy-piggledy assortment of bookish quotes.

I quite agree with you about Tom Pinch. He is a despicable kind of character; just the kind of character Dickens liked, because he had himself a thick streak of maudlin sentimentality of the kind that, as somebody phrased it, “made him wallow naked in the pathetic.” It always interests me about Dickens to think how much first-class work he did and how almost all of it was mixed up with every kind of cheap, second-rate matter. I am very fond of him. There are innumerable characters that he has created which symbolize vices, virtues, follies, and the like almost as well as the characters in Bunyan; and therefore I think the wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest. Of course one fundamental difference between Thackeray and Dickens is that Thackeray was a gentleman and Dickens was not. But a man might do some mighty good work and not be a gentleman in any sense.

From Letters to His Children, 1919, pages 218-219.

And I recently learned of this fine illustration from Robert William Buss. Sometimes dead Campbellites pass through my mind in a similar fashion:


Stephen King on writing spaces

“[your writing space] can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

–Stephen King, On Writing, p. 155.