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M. Christian Green Remembers Her Mentor Jean Bethke Elshtain

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By M. Christian Green
09/05/13

The first adjective that I ever heard to describe Jean Bethke Elshtain was “robust.” When I finally met her at an academic conference, before becoming her student, I encountered a scholar whose keen intellect and crisp analysis were set off by brilliant copper-gold hair and a shiny peacock-teal jacket.  We discussed a recent news weekly’s analysis of then-Libyan president Muammar Gadaffi’s mental state.


At a subsequent conference, having entered doctoral studies at the University of Chicago with Professor Elshtain and her late colleague, Professor Don Browning, I observed a group of young men dressed in jeans and tweed jackets.  Some were wearing cowboy boots.  A graduate student friend clued me in--they were students of Stanley Hauerwas. We mused about the oddity of students coming sartorially to resemble their doctoral advisers, but we decided that we would be honored to be mistaken for Professor Elshtain. Some have described her as diminutive, but for many of us, especially her female students, she was a stand-out, larger than life.


With Jean’s support, many of us made it through doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. There, Jean was an intellectual interlocutor of the highest caliber.  At a time in which interdisciplinary studies was seeming more and more to be an empty buzzword, with scholars trapped in silos of ever-increasing specialization, she was a pioneer, a scholar who really did inhabit and achieve recognition in two fields--religion and politics—that one is not even supposed to mention in polite company, much less integrate in an academic career.


In so doing, she experienced the between-ness of interdisciplinary life—the way in which one never precisely fits in one discipline or the other and one always feels called upon to prove one’s bona fides to the other side.  It forces the sharpening of arguments and the patience of engagement, the better to persuade an interlocutor to see things in a different light. It involves taking risks and sometimes alienating others—though perhaps not irretrievably.


Jean boldly occupied, in the contemporary sense, that space in between the fields of religious ethics and political theory.  Her methodology of “thinking thoughts,” as she once put it, in a critique of the excessive emphasis on theory and method to the exclusion of substance and normative value in some parts of the academy, led her to the most profound questions at the heart of each discipline—questions of dignity, vulnerability, justice, and the moral anthropology of the human person.

 Jean’s students didn’t always agree with every substantive position that she took—and she did not expect us to. We might emulate her scholarly and even her sartorial style, but Jean was not into discipleship or “academic cloning” of the next generation.  The term that she gave me early in my studies, when I was an unrepentant and unreconstructed liberal feminist, but beginning to question some of these categories, was “chastened.” I believe that she did so in attribution to the great Christian ethicist in the Methodist tradition and first woman to teach theology in an American seminary, Georgia Harkness, who used the phrase “chastened liberal” in self-description.  It is a term that I have since embraced, along with humility, grace, tolerance, and the hermeneutics of charity as the hallmark of an academic life well and beautifully lived, as in Jean’s fine example.

 

In the short term, many of us who knew and studied and worked with Jean Bethke Elshtain feel as if a robust and sparkling light has gone out. In the days since her passing I find myself remembering the plaintive and poignant words of a eulogy delivered in 1995—the year that I went to Chicago to study with Jean—by Noa Ben Artzi-Pelossof upon the death by assassination of her grandfather, Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.  She said of her grandfather, “you were the pillar of fire before the camp and now we are left as only the camp, alone, in the dark, and it is so cold and sad for us.” We are chastened and saddened by Jean’s death, but we are left with the profound depth of her life and work.  We are cold and sad, but we move forward in the light that she provided to us so brilliantly. 

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