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Echoes Blog

Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain

photo: Kevin Weinstein PhotographySometimes we have people who come into our lives surprisingly, become friends easily, teach us much, and then go on their way. 

On August 11 one of those folks in my life died.  Another friend who remembered that I had a connection sent me an online eulogy from the journal First Things, writing: "Jean Bethke Elshtain.  Didn't you know her?"  I was sad that I'd let myself lose touch in the last few years, so I added a blurb to the online wake being shaped by all kinds of voices.

Born in Colorado in '41, Jean finished her life as the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago.  Along the way she taught at the University of Massachusetts and Vanderbilt, where she once told me that ministry students from the Divinity School who were tired from theological arguments would sometimes come to her in the Political Science department for refuge.  At the University of Chicago, her appointment was in the Divinity School—as a kind of ironic twist.  As a child she was stricken with polio, and so she spent most of her life walking with a strong limp and sometimes needing assistance.  She had a spell of post-polio syndrome a few years ago, which took a later toll.  In between, Jean was relentless in insisting that disabilities needn't be disabling.  She and her husband Errol reared a disabled daughter themselves (one among four children), and in that daughter's adult life they reared a grandchild—ever hopeful and fearlessly realistic. 

'Fearlessly realistic' may be a way to describe her work too.  If you look at a shelf in my library you'll find some of her books.  Part political theory, part cultural analysis, part history of ideas, part rhetorical theory, part theology.  Her work was iconoclastic in some ways, refusing to follow faddish pursuits of colleagues if she felt they led to an idealism that left the real behind.  Yet she was also fiercely committed to encouraging people to take responsibility for both themselves and others, in order to shape a beloved and just community.   She could quote her grandmother in the same paragraph she was quoting Augustine and not think anything of it.  In fact, she tended to give her grandmother's wisdom the edge.  She did this because she believed that all ideas, even the most grand and abstract, must meet the test of real lives.  We can imagine how things should be and ring our hands that they aren't that way, and so demand some dramatic change for which we aren't personally responsible.  Or . . . we can take a look as where we are with care, try to avoid ideological blinders, imagine possibilities that both link us to the past as well as chart a course to the future, and then lay steppingstones between here and there.  She spoke, and wrote, and prayed, and befriended for the sake of those steppingstones.  She was a breath of sanity. 

Professor Elshtain was noticed for all of this. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, served on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the National Humanities Center and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.  In 2006, she was appointed to the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The same year she delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining a list that includes William James, Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.  She also served on the President's Council on Bioethics.

Her writing was as vast as her speaking schedule.  The first book I encountered was Public Man, Private Woman, which is unlike discussions of gender most of us have been exposed to.  Her Power Trips and Other Journeys is a clear-minded attempt to retrieve politics for the possible.  Women and War describes the role women have historically played in the waging of war.  She wrote a biography of one her heroes, Jane Addams, who was one of the founders of the settlement house movement in Chicago, which many credit for the beginning of social work.  She also wrote on Augustine, on theories of government and the limits of politics, and more.   And as if to make the point, she collected many of her essays into a terrific read called Real Politics At the Center of Everyday Life.  I twice used one of her books, Who Are We?  Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities, as a textbook for courses in practical theology.  In that little book she makes a profound case for the creative power of tradition in shaping community and offering 'the good' to the us—a goodness worthy of embracing and refining.  I haven't read Sex and iWorld:  Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism (co-written with Dale Keuhne), but the title's intriguing enough that I'm thinking that reading it might be a nice tribute.

Some folks call her thinking conservative, and so dismiss it.  Yet some self-identified conservatives reject her too.  The label might be unfair.  In the '90s she identified with the Communitarian movement championed by Bill Clinton (among others), even as saw flaws in it.  Then later she gave philosophical and theological support for George Bush's early war on terror, which lost her a few friends.  That support even strained our friendship a bit, to be honest.  Yet when in 2004 I was putting together a volume of essays reflecting theologically on President Bush's national security strategy, Jean graciously agreed to offer a contribution--knowing that most (not all) of the essays would disagree with hers.  Her essay raised important questions.  I never fully understood her defending of the war on terror as meeting the Christian tradition of "just war," but that doesn't diminish my enormous respect and affection for her.  I was once asked to Lexington to be a respondent to a talk she gave on the possibility of forgiveness in political life.  I count that occasion as a great honor in my academic career.

So more of my own story with Jean.  Through a predictable academic encounter she became an unpredicted friend.  I describe the encounter below.  Normally those meetings are forgotten a few days after they occur.  But for Jean Bethke Elshtain, work was a way of making community.  If real conversation occurs, there's no need to forget.  And so instead of forgetting, she responded with an unusual grace.  We exchanged Christmas letters for several years and I got to know her husband Errol.  Over the years we kept running into each other in airports, or in convention halls, or at lectures in university centers.  She'd shout my name and I'd shout hers back.  We'd sit and talk as though old fiends (go figure).  She'd encourage and challenge my thinking, urge me to write, scheme with me about how I could, and leave me with ideas I didn't have before we ran into each other.  And she'd ask how I'm doing with cultivating the Elvis glance (see below). 

So let me end with this, the little blurb I wrote in the First Things column of responses to her death:

What a loss.  I met Jean when she accepted my invitation to speak at Bates College, where I was Chaplain. She was to the point, gracious, insightful, and open to friendship--with a delightful and delighted spirit.  She was the same when speaking in a local parish a few years later, and in every way both in between and after.  When commiserating about parenting a child with special needs, she was unsentimental in her advice, generous in her encouragement, and hopeful.  Even when we disagreed about U.S. response to terror, out of friendship she added a remarkable essay to a volume of views mostly differing from her own.

I found Jean challenging to anyone of thin or unthought conviction, respectful of those of thoughtful conviction even if she didn't share their conclusions, and faithful to the integration of rigor and common sense.  She was a rare gift.  A week after our first encounter at Bates a postcard arrived with a photo of a young Elvis Presley, with one comment:  "A look worth cultivating.  Yours, Jean."  Perhaps now, with her face in view, we can say: "A mind worth cultivating."

Cherish the friendships that pass your way unexpectedly.  I'll cherish hers.