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Saturday, April 25, 2015

ADAMS: Education of Henry Adams (Boston Religion)

The education of Henry Adams was very ordinary in some respects.  It ended up being the result of many things; partly careful planning, partly pure luck, and partly just the chance of the age in which he lived.  In Henry Adams’ time the religion of repentance and redemption found in the Gospel of Mark (GB Series 3) had given way to a social gospel of human progress based on human effort (expressed in John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, GB Series 4).  The new social gospel needed inspired politicians to guide the progress of society and Henry Adams had little confidence modern politics could do that.  Politicians did not inspire the young Adams.  As it turned out neither did preachers.  “Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most.  The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible…he believed in a mild Deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms but neither to him nor to his brothers and sisters was religion real…church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church.  The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived…”  The whole Adams clan had lost its “religious instinct” and wandered away from the strong Biblical faith of their great-grandfather, John Adams.  In the Adams family “The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing.  So one-sided an education could have been possible in no other country or time.”

But it was possible.  In another country (Denmark) another young man had wrestled with the same problem of education in the modern world.  Soren Kierkegaard (The Knight of Faith, GB Series 2) lived a generation before Henry Adams but he was prophetic about the problems the modern world would encounter in the nineteenth century.  And he was mostly correct in his diagnosis.  Kierkegaard had foreseen the impact brute secular force would have on someone with an intelligent mind and a sensitive human spirit.  Henry Adams had both a keen mind and a sensitive spirit.  He had asked the right question: what kind of education is appropriate for a man living in this age?  Kierkegaard had asked a simpler question: “What then is education?”  And he also tried to give a simple answer: “I believe it is the course the individual goes through in order to catch up with himself and the person who will not go through this course is not much helped by being born in the most enlightened age.”  This is a simple answer but hard to understand.  It’s simple because we can understand the words; it’s hard because we know the words, we just can’t understand them the way Kierkegaard has put them together.  This paradox of simplicity amid complexity was the same paradox facing Henry Adams.  Kierkegaard analyzed Adams’ problem this way: “…he wants to suck worldly wisdom out of the paradox…our generation does not stop with faith, does not stop with the miracle of faith, turning water into wine; it goes further and turns wine into water.”  The “miracle of faith” was what Henry Adams had lost in his own transition to the modern world.  He couldn’t return to the simple faith that had comforted John Adams.  Henry had to live in a more complex world created by men like John Stuart Mill.  Kierkegaard had predicted a fascination with worldly secular affairs would soon undermine the faith of men like Henry Adams.  He wrote, “Most people live completely absorbed in worldly joys and sorrows; they are benchwarmers who do not take part in the dance.”  Boston politics and religion had turned Henry Adams into a benchwarmer in the dance of life and he would never recover.


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