The King’s College is a lot like Hillsdale or Grove City, only it’s in Manhattan right around the corner from Wall Street. Its prior president, Dinesh D’Souza, resigned (Or should I say was resigned? Too bad there’s no passive/middle voice for the verb to resign. It is much needed) after World Magazine published a story which led to a scandal.
Gregory Alan Thornbury is his replacement. Thornbury is a thinking type, not an administrative type, and probably does not measure up to D’Souza in the self-promotion department. But he likes big ideas and that is a welcome variation from the wave of executive managers who now typically gravitate towards the top college administration posts.
Thornbury is also a committed Christian, which is not surprising since King’s is a Christian college, and a Hayekian, which is less expected. We had a delightful chat which ranged widely: St. John’s Apocalypse, The Road to Serfdom, Occupy Wall Street (or what’s left of it), Carl F.H. Henry, Harry Potter, Dr. Who and a whole lot more.
For busy readers, we’ve transcribed the Hayekian bits below. For deeper divers, you can listen to the whole thing right here.
Jerry: What is The King’s College?
Dr. Thornbury: The King’s College is a traditional undergraduate college situated in the financial district of New York, right here at the birthplace of America. We’re situated on Broadway and Exchange: right around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, one block away from Federal Hall where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president, and right across the street from Trinity Church. So, we’re right here in the financial district. We have a core curriculum that is very distinctive in the field of higher education – certainly not unique, but distinctive in the sense that we have the old-style Oxford University PP&E core, meaning “politics, philosophy, and economics.” That is the core curriculum that each student who enrolls in the college must take. We also have three anchor programs – or three main divisions – of our work. We have PP&E as a major; we also have a business major, a finance major, and then we have a media culture and the arts division. So, the mission of the college is to prepare students for leadership in strategic public and private institutions, and many of those institutions are situated in New York City. That doesn’t mean they’re not elsewhere, but one of the things that I like to say about what we’re trying to do here from our perch on Broadway is, “If not here, where?” We are also a Christian college, and we’re committed to the proposition that it is impossible to out-flank the genius of historic Christian theism as a platform for human flourishing. So, that’s what we want to inculcate to each one of our students who come to this place.
Jerry: Alright, tell us a little bit about you. How long have you been president of The King’s College?
Dr. Thornbury: I took office on August the 1st. My announcement of my presidency was on July the 11th.
Jerry: What did you do before that?
Dr. Thornbury: I was the Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of Philosophy, and also Vice President for Spiritual Life at Union University in Tennessee—which is actually the oldest institution related to Baptist life in the American South, founded in 1823.
Jerry: I watched your convocation address and found it fascinating, and I watched your orientation address to the incoming students as well. You had a great little section under the heading, “I want to go to there,” on Friedrich Hayek and on how you as a Christian philosopher think about a guy like Friedrich Hayek. Can you kind of give us a little bit of that now?
Dr. Thornbury: Sure. The point that I was making to our student body – and this actually ties into what we just came from, about “how do we be relevant to the culture of our time?” – I was describing (again, to talk about a post-world [war] environment), a situation in which you have young men and women who had served in the armed forces and in supporting capacities to that great conflict. Those who looked in the face of totalitarianism and fascism and a century of holocaust and said, “What are the ideas that keep people free?” The point that I was making was that Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was a bestseller. It was pulp nonfiction. They were selling it at supermarkets in the middle of the war; it went through fifteen pressings in the UK. In other words, it answered a fundamental question: what is going to get you through the blitzkrieg? What do you want to have in your hands when you come out of the underground by dawn’s early light? What’s going to steel you in courage to think that, “We’re going to get through this!” It is this notion that after this is over we are going to be able to reboot society on the basis of liberty, and consecrated self-direction, and the kinds of things that lift people out of the bog of collectivist notions that led, certainly, Germany and Italy to the most gruesome and bloody century ever known to man. I see my role as the president of The King’s College as re-enchanting a new generation with those animating ideals that once made Western civilization great in general, and American society distinctive in particular.
Jerry: Should a Christian be a Hayekian? Do you see overlap there?
Dr. Thornbury: I definitely see overlap for this reason: I think that when you study the texts of particularly the New Testament, although it has its origins in the Mosaic Law, I think what you see there is the seedbed of freedom of conscience. You see democratic religion in the pages of the New Testament. So whereas some people in Acts chapter 5 see some kind of nascent socialism, actually what you’re seeing is free people electing to gather together in solidarity around key principles and ideals and goals, and the people who joined in that were people like Lydia. There was a mercantile aspect to the early Christian movement. When I read Hayek and I see his argument for the link between private property and freedom, I see a direct line going all the way back to those pages of the New Testament, because what the Apostle Paul and others were representing was an alternative to totalitarianism. When you look at the Apostle John – and whatever else you think the Book of Revelation says about the future—what it definitely was, was the greatest political protest letter ever penned in the history of the world, because he was saying, “The state has no business telling us how we should govern our own life together.” And when I say “society” or “culture”, here’s how I’m defining that, Jerry: I take a nineteenth century definition by Johann Herder, who many recognize as the founding father of modern sociology. He said, “Culture is the lifeblood of a civilization. It’s the flow of moral energy that keeps a society intact.” So, when I see Hayek talking about making sure that we stay free of tyranny, I see the entailments of that going all the way back to the emperor and Domitian and the Apostle John.
Jerry: Interesting. Domitian: a price-setter and a currency-debaser.
Dr. Thornbury: Exactly! As a matter of fact – and this is a sidebar – I find it fascinating that the great 20th century German New Testament scholar, Ethelbert Stauffer, said that the “666” was a codex kind of code for Domitian’s name that appeared on the currency that he churned out. When you read the Book of Revelation, it’s about not giving in to tyranny when it comes to economics. I don’t know why we don’t talk about that in church.
Jerry: In essence what you’re doing is properly putting Saint John’s Apocalypse as a precursor to the idea that Hayek later calls “The Fatal Conceit.” The Fatal Conceit is that some men, for whatever reason, are just born better; they’re just more ambitious; they are just a higher grade of humanity. The Fatal Conceit says that some men are born to govern all other men. John’s Apocalypse and much of history is a rebuttal to that notion.
Dr. Thornbury: Absolutely. And then you trace that notion to John Locke, and then from Lockean thought all the way to Hayek, you’re one hundred percent correct.
Jerry: In some ways, free-market economics [I’m interviewing you but I’m going to say a thing and have you respond to it] is the doctrine of the fallen nature of man expressed in economic terms. Do you agree with that?
Dr. Thornbury: Absolutely. What free-market economics is, is a paraphrase; a secular paraphrase of a biblical concept is the way I put it.
Jerry: I see. I suppose, as we’re kind of riffing here together, social economics is a violation of the doctrine of original sin, but it’s also a violation of the doctrine of the unique Sonship of Christ – “filium dei unigenitum,” only begotten son—because it creates other theanthropoi; it creates other god-men. Do you see what I’m driving at?
Dr. Thornbury: I love it. Keep going.
Jerry: Well, I’m going to throw it back to you, but when you read the writings of the advocates of central planning, from Marx or even before Marx, and then in the Keynesians and the 20th Century, it’s clear that if you took it in a different context that we are talking about gods. These people believe that they know enough – anyone that believes that they know enough to run the lives of hundreds of millions of people is in some sense making himself a god-man. He’s giving to himself, to the state and the planning class, divine attributes.
Dr. Thornbury: Absolutely. And again, to go back to Domitian, he was the first emperor to declare himself “God the Lord.” At least with Caesar Augustus, when people gave him divine titles they were given to him; he didn’t declare himself as such.
Jerry: Yes. And after his death.
Dr. Thornbury: That’s correct.
Jerry: What I’m wondering, Dr. Thornbury, is—as I watched you give that orientation speech and you talked about Hayek being a bestseller in the 1940s, but he didn’t win—I’m wondering if the missing part is God. If you believe that it’s all meaningless and that there is no design, that’s a horrifying thought. You’re going to want to find a designer, and if there is no God, you’re going to look for the next biggest thing which will be Nero or his modern incarnation. So, I think it’s emotionally very difficult to embrace the idea that a market order can work if you’ve previously embraced the notion that there is no design if there’s no human designer; there is no plan at all if there’s no human planner.
Dr. Thornbury: You are 150% right. Let me try to explain why: there is nothing more gray and dispiriting than a closed system. Unless you have this notion of something from the outside to which the universe is accountable – and this is a very broad topic in general, that even a minimal theist like Immanuel Kant could sign off on – but unless there is judgment, unless there is a reckoning coming, you cannot truly be creative. This is one of the things, if you read Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday and Orthodoxy, one of the things he brilliantly points out is the reason why the imagination flourishes under a Christian social scene is because we know that ultimately we can experiment, because there’s one to whom we are accountable. In other words, only a Tolkien could imagine something as fantastic as Middle Earth. Chesterton talks about how only a Christian could truly enjoy mythology because we know that there’s actually meaning behind the universe. If the universe has no meaning, you can’t really be creative. If you don’t believe in the creation mandate from the Bible and the cultural mandate from Genesis chapters one and two, then it really is a zero-sum game and it becomes war.
Jerry: You can’t have progress unless there’s a goal, otherwise progress is a meaningless notion. History is just one darn thing after another unless it’s moving toward something. There’s no rational idea of progress without a goal. Take away the goal and you just have endless – back to Cronus eating his children—just one thing after another.
Dr. Thornbury: That’s right. So, that is why Žižek –who’s kind of like the Elvis of cultural theory right now –his manifesto, his twelve hundred page homage to Hegel and to Marx, is entitled Less Than Nothing, because that’s what we have to offer the world. And he’s proud of that (so at least he’s honest). But I think that we are quickly coming to a moment in time in which we all know, as D. Elton Trueblood said, we are living in “a cut-flower civilization.” We still have the bloom of Christian civilization but it’s not going to last long and unless we reconnect it to its roots at some level, then we will quickly find ourselves either literally or metaphorically on the Isle of Patmos writing underground protest letters ourselves.